Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scientific Pseudo-Understanding

As I explained at great (and, I think, interesting) length in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the scientific way of thinking reveals the deep significance and structure of the world around us.

But sometimes us scientists are guilty of pseudo-understanding. I am about to encounter one example in a couple of hours. I am giving the final exam (which includes a lab practical) for my Systematic Botany course. I expect students to know about 150 different kinds of plants, though in reality I emphasize just the most common ones (still about 70). (If you don’t like plant biodiversity, don’t move to Oklahoma. We have more plant species per square kilometer than any other state.) They can pass the exam with a C if they only know the common names, but to get an A they have to know many Latin names as well.

For me, and I bet for many students, if we can say, “that plant is a mustang grape,” we feel as if we know everything there is to know about it. If we can say, “that plant is a Vitis mustangensis,” we really understand everything about it. But of course just giving something a name does not mean we know very much about it. The Latin nomenclature allows us to recognize the relatives and the evolutionary ancestry of the plant, but that is about all there is to it.

The people who really understand each of the plants are those who can recognize it in the wild (hence the lab practical), and who know how it grows and its place in the community of species. The mustang grape, like other grapes, is a vine that takes advantage of the strong stems of bushes and trees in order to get its leaves up in the sun without having to make its own strong stems. Unlike the other common grape species in Oklahoma, the muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), the mustang grape has thick woolly hairs on the underside of the leaf, which might mean that it grows in sunny locations, being able to reflect some of the light and therefore the heat. The two grape species probably bloom at different times, thus preventing cross-breeding that would be beneficial to neither species. Now that’s understanding. Just reciting the name is not.

Sometimes I catch myself reciting the name and then not looking further at the plant. This usually happens when I am on a walk with my wife. She cannot always remember what the plants are, but she probably looks at them more than I do.

Well, time to go give my final practical. I have to be ready for either indoors or outdoors during Oklahoma’s spring-long potential stormy weather. One of the species is poison ivy, and of course I will not tell them which one it is.

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