Teaching Philosphy

Force Density

I was recently promoted to full Professor of Physics at Cal Poly.  I joke that, nearly 50, I’ve finally grown up and got a real job.  This was roughly a thirty year project from starting my freshman year as a physics major at San Jose State in 1986, through my masters degree, through my Ph.D. at UC Davis, through three postdocs, through a tenure-track probationary period at Cal Poly, through a tenured Associate Professor position, until finally as a full Professor in the fall of 2016 at Cal Poly.

In my case for promotion, I had to submit a teaching philosophy, which I would like to share here.  The ideas in it are not new; I don’t claim to have invented them.  Moreover, they are not cited because, in some ways, they are rather ordinary, blending into the background mythology of teaching culture.  However, I feel that the particular personal way I have presented the ideas is perhaps worth sharing.  The essence can be summarized as this: “Like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.”

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

In my nine years at Cal Poly, I feel I’ve grown as a teacher and mentor. However, this newfound wisdom also makes me question my own growth; I now know how little I know whereas, when I started, I thought I had it all figured out. As someone not formally educated in Education, here are some of the things I’ve learned.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.  In education, success and purpose can become a tautological exercise where one begins defining accomplishments in terms of what one is accomplishing. This is not unlike adding items you have already completed on a to-do list then immediately checking them off to feel productive. There are many sensible metrics of education effectiveness, but most are of a specialized nature or difficult to identify. Like Heisenberg’s celebrated Uncertainty Principle, it seems that the more specific a metric of one educational success is, the more uncertain is its ability to measure another aspect of success. In my own teaching and mentoring in physics, this abiguity has driven me to reflect on the purpose of our curriculum and focus on what we want to achieve and how to measure it. Nevertheless, I believe that education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

Education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

But setting aside abstract philosophies of education, my conclusion is that a successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.  My particular specialty is physics, but I’m also human. If I facilitate this process by providing some skills and focus though my physics and my humanity, both in and outside the classroom, then I have been a successful teacher and mentor. I have helped guide many students through the struggles of the technical, day-to-day details of coursework, mentored them as they find their career path, and consoled them in their struggle to find out who they are as a person.

A successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.

Helping physics students find their own definition of success and finding the corresponding skill set to accomplish this has been challenging for me. But it is a challenge I have committed my life to and embrace with aplomb. In physics, one of the biggest barriers to promoting student success is also one of its greatest strengths: physics is both very generalized and yet fundamental by nature. Physics involves scientific ideas spanning about 30 orders of magnitude in space and time – from the quantum world to the cosmos and everything in between. It is a daunting task to prioritize these ideas for undergraduates and generate practical skills while also imparting rigor, problem solving, and deep understanding of fundamental concepts about the nature of reality. In my own work, I continue to experiment with different teaching styles and techniques, but have settled into what might be called the “traditional method” of lecturing enthusiastically at a board with chalk, asking them questions in class, giving regular exams and quizzes with quick feedback, and being available to students in and out of class, either online or in person. This path has allowed me to optimize my own ability to convey to students my enthusiasm for physics and to coach them in a positive, constructive way through the learning process. Feedback from students indicate they genuinely appreciate this.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process. An empowered instructor is one who feels they are making a difference. An instructor driven far outside their comfort zone will not facilitate student success. If an instructor’s enthusiasm is suppressed, both instructor and student will suffer. Nevertheless, a teacher should be flexible and encouraged to experiment with different teaching methods while innovating, but they should also settle into a style that is most comfortable for them without becoming complacent or without compromising intellectual integrity. Because I’ve found my comfort zone, this also creates a positive learning environment for the students. They trust me to guide them on the intellectual journey because of the friendly confidence I try to convey.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.  In my option, teaching and learning cannot be completely emulated with computer algorithms, online courses, or simply reading about a topic at home. Yes, all of those things can augment a learning experience but, until the invention of neural implants, which instantly inject knowledge, experience, and mastery directly into the human brain, interaction with a human teacher is necessary for deep learning. While I do add some elements of technology to my courses and mentoring, I try to learn everyone’s name and treat them as a coach would treat a team: we are all in it together and let’s try to win this game together. In this context, it gives me a chance to connect more with students inside and outside the classroom and give them very personalized feedback. Grades are not given as an authoritative effort to control, rather a genuine source of assessment that helps them improve their mastery. I aim to allow students to make mistakes and learn from them without feeling like they are a failure.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process. A subject like physics is overwhelming – to try and learn it from scratch without guidance would be an intimidating undertaking. Without this foothold, developing skills in physics would be quite challenging. But, like with any project, it is best to master it in small, digestible chunks. The teacher is one who has made the journey through the material and can break the material into the right-sized pieces. I try to take the perspective of the student, remembering what is like not to know something, and then convey the concepts that allowed me to make the transition to an expert. I reenforce this by giving many content-rich homework and content-rich take home exams in addition to challenging in-class exams.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.  A topic cannot be mastered in a single course. It takes repeated exposure to a topic over many years to begin to develop a meaningful understanding of something new. Learning a topic is a complicated undertaking. How much one has learned may not be realized for weeks, months, or even years after being exposed to it. Sometimes learning happens actively and voluntarily, but it even happens passively and involuntarily. To ask students right after a course “how much did you learn” is a meaningless question. Most instructors learn new things about material they have been teaching for decades. Given the students are the least qualified to assess their own learning, how could students possibly know how much they learned after a course if they have no baseline to compare it to? The adage “the more you know, the more you know how little you know” applies here. Similarly, akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, “the less you know, the less you know how little you know.” This latter effect tends to breed overconfidence. A good teacher gives students a sense of a bigger world of knowledge, generating some self doubt, but without squelching enthusiasm to explore it further.

One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.

 One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.  In some ways, I value student satisfaction and the inspiration to continue their intellectual journey more than the content itself. In this respect, I try and provide the student with an educational Experience rather than just another class.

So, like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.  By doing so, I have learned how little I knew. I have defined my own success and pursued the skills to attain it. I have taken initiative in generating and expanding my own learning process. Without compromising rigor, I have also found satisfaction in the experience of teaching, inspiring me to continue learning about it the rest of my life. This experience, I hope, makes a difference to my students and allows them to find their own successful paths.

Observations of Cal Poly SLO Veritas Forum 2016, “Can Science Explain Everything”

The Veritas Forum ullresented a discussion entitled “Can Science Explain Everything” held at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (California) on January 27, 2016.  Although it is an independent entity, is appears to be closely related to Cru Central Coast.  Cru is a national Christian organization that typically operates in and around college campuses.  It was formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.  I’m not sure if there is a formal relationship between Cru and Veritas, but they appear closely connected in our area.  Because the two seemed so entangled, I will probably not be consistent with my language in identifying the components of the event that are associated with each organization.

The following commentary is primarily about this specific event, with some references to recent ones at Cal Poly, and not The Veritas Forum nor Cru in general.

In case you don’t wan to read the whole TL;DR thing, my personal position on the event:

Summary: my observations of the event

The meeting was enjoyable, but bigger than I expected.  Both sides were provocative, entertaining, and articulate. However, the question was loaded and had many unstated major premises.  There was asymmetry between the profile of their speaker compared to ours.  The speakers talked past each other because most terms being used were not well defined.  The question itself should have been “Can Subjective Experiences be Described Objectively.”  But this is an entirely different talk that could be completely secular in nature, diving deep into formal philosophy.

Summary: my answer to the question “Can Science Explain Everything?”

Science can, in principle, and provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, (at least) one twist: you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. The best we can do is, as observations arise, assume something is explainable and move forward with tests and more observations.  If something appears unexplainable then we should still try to figure it out, living with any mystery or uncertainty.  Never declare anything unexplainable, this is a privileged assertion that is unavailable by definition.  My advice?  Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  If you find an explanation, treat that as a provisional placeholder — one that can be ejected when better evidence and information come along.

Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  

Full(er) report

The Veritas Forum is a yearly event on the Cal Poly campus that aims to faciliate dialog between the Christian worldview and other views, typically those traditionally in tension with Christianity like atheism or secularism.  The Veritas Form is a regular event across Cru-active campuses around the United States, Canada, and some European countries.

The speaker for Cru was Ian Hutchinson, an engineering professor at MIT who specializes in plasma physics.  He is an outspoken advocate of the Christian religion and is keenly interested in the interplay between religion and science.  He focuses primarily on deflating scientism.

Representing the atheist view was Paul Rinzler, a Cal Poly professor in the music department. He is on the board of directors of Atheists United San Luis Obispo and is also the co-avisor of the Cal Poly student club AHA (Alliance for Happy Atheists).  I am the primary faculty advisor for AHA and have been for about five years.  I have been contacted in the past about being the atheist representative for Veritas.  I have politely declined.  However, in the past I have recommended Pete Schwartz from the Cal Poly physics department as well as Ken Brown from Cal Poly’s philosophy department.  Both Pete and Ken participated in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  This year, I was invited to participate in a faculty Q&A held on the Thursday afterward (I was not able to attend because of other time commitments).  I should note that AHA is a very small student club with perhaps 15-20 members. 

Science can provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. 

I had the pleasure of having dinner the evening of the event with Paul and Ian, along with student representatives from AHA, Veritas, and Cru (both the local reps and some regional reps) .  Even one of my colleagues from the physics department, who is involved in Veritas (and/or Cru?), was also at dinner.  I didn’t expect to see her, but it was fun.

First, before getting into my concerns and observations about the event, I would like to make it clear that I found found the individuals in Cru (and/or Veritas?) as well as Ian, to be very pleasant and friendly.  We had much in common and had some very nice discussions about side topics peripheral to the main religious theme of the Forum: music, physics, culture, work, “small world” social connections, and so on.  My critique and observations are not judgements of the individuals.  They are a passionate, hardworking group that profoundly believe in what they are doing.  When I was an undergraduate, I regularly participated (as an atheist!) in a Christian Youth Group circa 1989.  I made some great friends who I keep in touch with to this day.  There was real camaraderie, honest discussion, and genuine respect amongst us all.  It was primarily a social group.  The emphasis was on love in the form of philia, brotherly love.  They were very accepting and I really have fond memories of that period of my life.  However, there was a part of the group’s activities that focused on what is referred to as agape.  This is a kind of spiritual love between an individual and god (in this case the Christian god). I couldn’t easily relate to this.  Naturally, for a bunch of high school and undergraduates, there was plenty of eros to go around as well.

Anyway, Cru and the associated student participants and attendees (going beyond the Cru leadership) reminded me very much of this experience I had in Youth Group.  In fact, their attitudes and personalities felt very natural and comfortable to me for this very reason.  I found their friendliness continuous and I actually wanted to spend time with them as individuals.  Again, this is largely due to my very positive experiences in the Youth Group where I never felt judged as an atheist, but rather accepted as a person.

That said, I have concerns about the event and its content I feel compelled to discuss here.

Despite appearing very open and named Veritas (“truth”), there is a fundamental dishonesty to the entire event.  This dishonestly is not necessarily a conscious one on the part of the organizers, although there is certainly a marketing angle that certainly must drive this at higher corporate levels. The Veritas Forum aims to host an honest intellectual discussion between opposing views.  They seem to genuinely want to have a serious conversation about the topics they propose.

Why do I think it may be dishonest?

Scale

First, some context.  Cru is not a small organization.  Cru and The Veritas Forum bring considerable resources to the event.  They are very professional and it is a well-oiled machine.  This is no smalltime operation.  They aim to present themselves as a TED-style or Intelligence^2 experience.  They effortlessly filled the 1200-set Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly (PAC), offering free attendance.  They had a full compliment of ushers provided by Cal Poly and had access to all the resources available to the venue.  This use of the PAC is very, very expensive.  And, this was not the first show on the speaker’s agenda.  He had just come from two other Veritas events in the past two days in other states.  Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now, this would not be a bad thing by itself.  In fact, it could easily be viewed as a good thing. They bring fairly high profile speakers from their camp.   They are the Lawrence Krausses, the Sam Harrises, and the Michael Shermers of their world: medium level celebrities who have books published and who do many, many speaking engagements on the topics being discussed.  In other words, they are refined professionals with considerable experience in public discussions on the topics of interest.  They have their talking points and messages keenly refined.  Moreover, they have “heard it all.”  They are performers who know how to work their audience.  They know exactly what to expect.

Again, why is this bad?

However, at least for our events, they do not have high profile atheist speakers.  They select, in coordination with AHA,  someone locally or on campus to speak for the atheists, usually seeking a local scientist.   This might seem very fair, even generous.  In fact, a certain part of me does think it is cool. Perhaps it is.  It gives local personalities, largely unknown, a chance to shine a bit and give some public exposure to AHA.  But, as I mentioned above, AHA is a ragtag student club on campus with perhaps 10-20 undergraduate members.  That said, we were billed as number two amongst the event’s sponsors, after Veritas itself but before ASI (Associated Students Incorporated — the main corporate representation of students on campus independent of, but strongly tied to, the university).  ASI is basically in charge of managing the event via the student clubs and facilities.  They are the formal interface between external entertaiment and the university, which generally disassociates itself from specific events.

But, upon reflection, there is something very odd about these practices.  The local intellectuals are not usually plugged into the main issues being discussed and are not accustomed to speaking about these issues in a public way.  Unless trained in the style of the arguments that are made, it doesn’t help if you are a scientist or not, even for scientific topics.  Basically, the whole affair is, intentionally or not, biased strongly toward Veritas while, superficially, seeming fair.  Also, while it may seem generous to put AHA on the same footing as ASI and Veritas, we essentially did nothing.  We were made to feel welcome, allowed to set up a booth, wined and dined, allowed to select a representative, but never had any input into the logistics of the event or how it would be run.  In short, we were way out of our league.  One is left with the vague sense that the purpose of AHA is really to lend credibility to the event.  By placing an atheist club on campus on the same footing as Veritas itself, it gives the perception that the discussion is totally symmetric.  Unless you are familiar with both Veritas and AHA, the asymmetry would not be apparent at all.  Little would you know that AHA, with an operating budget of about $300, has a hard time filling a small classroom once a quarter for a group meeting.  Depending on the club leadership year-to-year, we may not be organized enough to make T-shirts, never mind organize any events with international forum sponsors.

I vacillate between my thoughts on this.  On one hand it seems very warm, open, and generous to allow the local “opposition,” no matter how modest, to participate and be billed as equals.  But another part of me feels uncomfortable with the idea.  However, if I’m honest, I’d be upset if they didn’t coordinate with us, given the topics being discussed.  I guess I can’t really have it both ways, which is why I’m admitting that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

It is this discomfort that has demotivated me from participating in the past.  The irony is that historically I have been viewing these events in a backwards way.  I was seeing Veritas as a fringe group whose views I didn’t want to dignify.  They were on footing with the rare-earther, the flat-earthers, or other minority extremists.  I imagined that Veritas was a local operation, a student club.  I didn’t want to lend my “gravitas” as a physics professor to such an event and lend credibility to their arguments.  However, this is, in some sense, backwards.  Their view is the status quo.  They are huge.  It is them lending gravitas to us.  WE are the small players here.  If anything, we are the ones who should be advertising our association with THEM.  But, in their world, our names to lend some marketing credibility.  They can say “atheist organization AHA was involved” or “we had distinguished Dr. YYZ, professor of science XYZ discuss ABC with our Dr. ZZY.”

Event Title

The title of this forum was quite curious.  “Can Science Explain Everything?” seems an interesting and promising line of discussion.  It certainly got my attention, getting me thinking about it right away, which seems like a good thing, right?  But it is like a leading poll question that hasn’t been vetted properly.  It (unconsciously) primes an answer.  

“Is There A Blue Gnome Eating a Yeti in Oregon?”  Such a question implies the existence of blue gnomes, the existence of yetis, that said gnomes have the possibility of eating said yetis, and that they both have a chance of being in Oregon.  Not one of those major premises has been established, but the question itself implies that they have been.

Or implies that it is even a good question to ask.  It isn’t a neutral title and places science in a defensive position.  The title has more than a few major unstated premises.  For example, has science actually ever claimed to be able to explain everything? Indeed, can you really refer to science as an entity? Science.  It isn’t itself a worldview rather a procedure (however, see my equivocation discussion below).  Why not frame it as “Can Religion Explain Everything?” or “Can Christianity Explain Everything?”  The very asking of a question in this context implies it is a good question to ask: “How Many Radians Can Actually Dance on the Head of a Pin?”, “Is There A Blue Gnome Eating a Yeti in Oregon?”  Such a question implies the existence of blue gnomes, the existence of yetis, that said gnomes have the possibility of eating said yetis, and that they both have a chance of being in Oregon.  Not one of those major premises has been established, but the question itself implies that they have been.

Equivocation of Vocabulary

I think equivocation was a big problem at this event (and this isn’t by any means unique to Veritas but is common practice in all events of this forum-y kind).  Terms were used inconsistently during the discussion, sometimes sentence-by-sentence by a single speaker: “science,” “explain,” “everything,” “god,” “religion,” “faith,” “Christianity,” “belief,” “know” (e.g. epistemology), “morality,” “meaning,” “love,” “genius,” and so on.  This made things very, very confusing.  I had to constantly fill in my own definition of what those terms meant, as did every other listener.  Yes, I understand you can’t define every word every time you use it;  that clearly would not work. But it seems like you should define some core ones central to the discussion. By allowing everyone to fill in the blank, one couldn’t help but be biased and hear what you wanted to hear.  Paul at least attempted to make this point: we need to define terms so we know what we are both talking about.  His point was that, if you are just having a subjective experience in your head and sharing it as such, it was fine to leave it fuzzy.   But if two people are having an objective discussion, How can this happen if we aren’t using terms the same way? It is the old chess vs. checkers problem: you are about to place your opponent in a knight fork when suddenly they start jumping your pieces and say “king me.”  If you aren’t playing the same game, how can you possibly begin? This line of critique was often dismissed, usually respectfully, as attempting to quantify the unquantifiable or to deconstruct the undeconstructable.  But most of these terms were not used in an arbitrary way, but rather in a very specific way that alluded to a specific definition.  I think one of the most important problems was a tendency to conflate “science” with “scientism,” as if they were the same thing.  Most scientists don’t equate scientism with science.  Most don’t know what scientism is, but I’m guessing many scientists would lean in the direction of scientism.  Scientism is basically the tendency to put “faith in science,” and that it can, in essence, explain everything.  It is science transformed into a blind belief system.  You see some of this creeping into popular culture.  The meme-machine I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) is basically in this category.  Yes, many of the things IFLS promotes are very neat, inspiring, and, sometimes, mind blowing.  But it is a scientism honeypot.  True Believers flock to it en mass.  It goes beyond just popularizing science, which is basically a good think (e.g. Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson).  IFLS takes an attitude that is just a little immature while being unapologetically zealous. Nevertheless, scientism is an cultural entity — an opinion — while science itself is a process or method.  If you know the difference, it is very confusing when the terms are used interchangeably.   If you don’t know the difference, it can really distort the discussion.

What it was really about

Let me conclude with an opinion about the content of the discussion. The most frustrating part of the event, which I can’t really blame Veritas for, is that the discussion danced around its core question.  Although they framed the question in a provocative way, the discussion really had nothing to do with religion nor science.  The real question was: “can you objectively describe a subjective experience.”  Although I’m no expert, this is a well known problem that comes up when discussing the philosophical nature of consciousness (and artificial intelligence), even in a purely secular context.

For example, the term “qualia” is used to describe the internal subjective sensation of being self-aware.  Through the integrated experience of your brain, your senses, and other internal mental process, you feel a “real me,” independent of the body, actively engaged in the world.  It is the Cartesian theater and homunculus: a typical modern person might describe being self aware as a vague sensation of a “little me” watching your experience on a big movie screen in you head directly behind your eyes.  Of course, this isn’t really the way it works.

When you subscribe to the secular worldview (which I do) there is the trope: “the mind is what the brain does.” You will usually concede that it is not clear how to objectively describe qualia — an apparently pure subjective experience.  You can measure brain function, make neural maps, measure neurotransmitter levels, and so on — make all the objective measurements you want — but the subjective experience of being aware seems to be always behind a veil.  If you were to make a machine that had all of the objective elements of what a conscious being had, you would still not be able to establish it had qualia, even if it were to describe the sensation directly to you.  Indeed, this happens every day: you also assume other people have qualia.  People certainly act like they have a similar qualia as you do — and there is perhaps good, intuitive reasons to believe it — but it isn’t something that seems to be able to be quantified based on our current abilities and imaginations.

So, the question remains: can we know something exists even if it can be described objectively?  Ian’s answer is “yes” and it applies to, amongst many things,  “love” and “faith in the existence of god.”  He would call this “a different kind of knowledge.”  For a secular person, the equivalent would be that we “know” from personal experience that qualia exists (“I think therefore I am” sorts of lines).  Nevertheless, such a subjective experience seems to elude objective description.  So, in some sense, topics like this drive home the point that we secular atheists have to be careful.  We can’t, on one hand, say that qualia is a subjective experience that we know exists (i.e. is a form of knowledge) while dismissing other subjective experiences as mere products of the brain.  Perhaps there is a “different kind of knowledge” beyond objective knowledge.

Well, not so fast.

Can science explain everything?  We need to define some terms.

Science: its a tool that can map out the consistent structure and patterns of our reality through systematic hypothesis testing and strict evidence-based refinement of these hypotheses.  Remove the culture and opinion-driven scientism from the argument.  In science as I have defined it, knowledge is always provisional.  It is subject to change if new tests or new evidence develops for new ideas. Scientific knowledge can change based on evidence and systematic testing.   This is in contrast to faith-based knowledge, which is the acceptance of an idea without systematically testable evidence.  It is a Belief.

Explainable: this is when a claim is systematically testable enough that a consistent model can be developed through one or more lines of evidence.  This model should be able predict new testable things and fit well into established knowledge of formerly explainable things.  Under these conditions, the claim can be provisionally “explained” subject to ongoing testing and evidence.  When multiple lines of evidence support a claim under some well defined set of physical conditions, we might call this a Law or a Theory.

Everything: Well, its everything.  Vast swaths of everything include many strange things beyond our ability to process.  In our context “everything” can be bundled into “explained,” “unexplained,” “unexplainable,” and a host of categories we don’t even know exist.  In each of the cases, we can break explainability into “known” and “unknown.”  This is going to get very Rumsfeld-ian, so forgive me.  Basically, there are

  1. explainable things we are working on, but don’t know if they are explainable
  2. explainable things we are working, but suspect are explainable
  3. various categories of explainable things we aren’t working on
  4. unexplainable things we are working on, but don’t know they are unexplainable
  5. explainable things we don’t know exist
  6. unexplainable things we don’t know exist

In addition, we can’t know a priori if something is explainable or not.  To twist the dagger even further, we never know if something is unexplainable.  Basically, we observe things, try to test them with science and build lines of evidence and models of consistency.  If this observation turns out to be in the unexplainable category, we will never know it.  We can give up trying to explain it (but that might mean it is explainable but we gave up too early).  Or it can mean that it is genuinely unexplainable.  Both results look the same.  If it can be explained, it will be with science (albeit with provisional knowledge at each phase).

Summary: my observations of the event

The meeting was enjoyable, but bigger than I expected.  Both sides were provocative, entertaining, and articulate. However, the question was loaded and had many unstated major premises.  There was asymmetry between the profile of their speaker compared to ours.  The speakers talked past each other because most terms being used were not well defined.

Summary: my answer to the question “Can Science Explain Everything?”

Science can, in principle, and provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, (at least) one twist: you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. The best we can do is, as observations arise, assume something is explainable and move forward with tests and more observations.  If something appears unexplainable then we should still try to figure it out, living with any mystery or uncertainty.  Never declare anything unexplainable, this is a privileged assertion that is unavailable by definition.  My advice?  Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  If you find an explanation, treat that as a provisional placeholder — one that can be ejected when better evidence and information come along.

 

 

 

Cal Poly Open House, All That Glitters Green and Gold 2014, Faculty Address

I was asked to give the 2014 Cal Poly Open House, All That Glitters Green and Gold 3 minute faculty address to about 600+ prospective students and parents for the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, and the Orfalea College of Business. I somehow managed to get “quantum”, “atheist”, “delocalize”, and “live long and prosper” in there. In hindsight, asking someone from physics to do this for these Colleges is a bit like asking Snape to give the opening address to Hufflepuff. Still, it was great fun and a true honor. Here is a transcript of the speech.

Thank you President Armstrong. Welcome and good morning! I’m Tom Gutierrez, a professor in the Physics Department here at Cal Poly. I’m also currently the advisor for the Society of Physics Students, Sigma Pi Sigma (the physics honor society), and student club AHA (the Alliance of Happy Atheists).

How many of you watch or have seen the TV show The Big Bang Theory? Sadly, in my department it’s basically considered a documentary. I don’t watch it regularly, but to appreciate where I’m coming from: understand that I when I first saw it mistook it for a NOVA special on how physicists can actually improve their social skills. With that awkward introduction…

Why am I, a physics professor, speaking to you today? I’m here to give you a brief faculty perspective of Cal Poly. Cal Poly is a comprehensive polytechnic university that embraces a Learn-By-Doing philosophy. And physics, the most fundamental of all sciences, is at the very core of this mission. For a comprehensive polytechnic university in the 21st century, physics is the technical analog to the “liberal arts.” All technical majors across all Colleges at the University must take physics and almost all majors allow physics as an elective or as a general education course. This frequently puts my department at the nexus of the University and gives me the pleasure of interacting with a large cross section of our students on a regular basis.

I teach a wide spectrum of courses in the physics department. While it’s true most of my students are from engineering and the College of Science and Math, some of the most hard working and thoughtful students I’ve had have come from the Colleges represented in the session this morning, which include business, animal science, architecture, and forestry majors to name a few. To facilitate the Learn-By-Doing philosophy in practical terms, Cal Poly fosters amongst faculty what is known as the Teacher-Scholar Model. Faculty across all Colleges are carefully selected 1) for their passion for teaching and working with students and 2) for being engaged with active work in their fields. In my own experience, most educational institutions choose one or the other focus for faculty: a professor is either a teacher or a scholar. While there are many fine examples of each amongst today’s universities, one vocation typically suffers at the expense of the other. However, Cal Poly celebrates both forms of professional expression for individual faculty — and this generates a powerful and singular learning environment for the students who come here. Faculty engaged in their fields can bring real-world knowledge and research into the classroom. Conversely, teachers can bring their students and pedagogical wisdom into the real world.

My own work in particle physics, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, has allowed me to bring students to work at an underground lab in Italy and experience the joys of doing cutting-edge science. Students then bring this experience to their jobs and graduate programs. The message I’m getting from my colleagues at other institutions and in industry? “Send us more Cal Poly students!” Faculty at Cal Poly are allied with the student. We want you to graduate as lifelong learners who find a productive career and make a difference in the world. At Cal Poly, we want you to grow as a person and to challenge your pre-existing assumptions about how the world works. We want you to discover your Personal Project; think big, make collaborations, and not just dream, but discover how to translate those dreams into actions.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of your stay and come visit the Physics Department and CoSaM open house in the Baker Science building if you get a chance. May your quantum wave function always remain delocalized. Live long and prosper. Thank you!

Fourth letter regarding Chick-Fil-A at Cal Poly, SLO (August 4, 2012)


Dear Director Murphy and President Armstrong,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and discussion.  While I don’t agree with all the details of your public statement, I’m impressed with the clarity and tone;  you have given the issue some thought and are honestly and professionally working with the issue.

Nevertheless, I still feel that the notion of free speech and the first amendment in the context of a university environment are being distorted.  The university has many policies and guidelines against behavior and words that are nominally in the category of protected free speech.  That is, some behavior may be legal and protected by the constitution at the state and federal level, but the university does not condone it and, in some cases, has strict policies against it.

For example, hanging a confederate flag and a noose is not by itself illegal. Such acts are protected speech, although one may find it deeply offensive for what it represents.   Flying a confederate flag with a noose is something private citizens can do under the first amendment.  By itself it isn’t a hate crime. However, this exact event on campus four years ago in 2008 sparked one of the most heated campaigns against racism and bigotry at the university in recent history.  Rightly so.  The university recognized that such behavior is not in line with our university mission; it’s message is deeply offensive and creates a hostile, intolerant climate.  The university defended the students responsible citing the first amendment.  As far as I know, we did not take legal action against the students for that reason.  But, the university still took swift action to make sure such a thing would not happen again, making it clear that behavior of that kind (even if protected) was not acceptable. Indeed, that incident motivated Dean Bailey himself to augment the university mission in CoSaM with placards outside of every department office making it clear we promote an environment of tolerance and openness.  The flag and noose were removed on philosophical grounds, not legal ones.  Now, circa 2012, because of this incident, displaying a noose on a campus in California is actually illegal, but Cal Poly’s actions in 2008 were in advance of that law.  So, I argue, even if Chick-fil-A has not violated any discrimination laws on campus and their donations are legal and protected by their first amendment rights we, as a university community, should still make a philosophical stand and terminate our relationship Chick-fil-A since their presence does not create a climate of tolerance.

http://mustangdaily.net/Hundredsprotestcollegeclaimsactsprotected/
http://www.ksby.com/news/displaying-a-noose-is-now-against-the-law/

As another example: The university has both a drinking policy and a charter that attempts to stem alcohol abuse.  These go beyond the law; they extend to students that are over 21 years of age.  Drinking is not allowed on campus except under special, highly controlled circumstances.  This isn’t just a business or legal decision, it is a philosophical one.  We have issued strict statements that try and attenuate binge drinking and other alcohol abuses both on and off campus.  But alcohol itself is not illegal.  Alcoholism isn’t illegal. It isn’t a right either, but assuming they aren’t violating any other laws, adults over 21 are essentially allowed to do whatever they want to their bodies and consume as much alcohol as they wish, even to the brink of death.  Yet the university has rightly taken a stand against such abuses on purely philosophical grouds.  Why?  Because drinking (particularly binge drinking) is not in the spirit of the university mission and is an epidemic problem on colleges across the nation.
http://studentaffairs.calpoly.edu/content/alcohol
http://www.osrr.calpoly.edu/alcoholpolicy/
http://hcs-test.calpoly.edu/sites/hcs-test.calpoly.edu/files/documents/PULSE/Alcohol_Drug_Handbook_2009.pdf

Another example: As you know, faculty and staff at Cal Poly who are in supervisory positions (such as you and I) must regularly take an extended course online in harassment sensitivity training.  This, of course, includes outright illegal discrimination and harassment, but goes well beyond that and extends to a rather large category of otherwise legally protected speech and behaviors.  This includes behaviors that impact race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. It is informed by the law, but is calibrated by people’s sensitivities. Indeed, the university’s policy attempts to stem even *potential situations* from arising.  For example, if someone finds a joke, comment, flyer, poster, email, behavior, and so on, offensive — or even believes one of those things to be *potentially* offensive to anyone in the protected categories — we are obligated to report it and have it investigated by the appropriate qualified human resources personnel.  This does not just apply to classroom behavior or in-office behavior, but also all auxiliary campus affiliations and contracts that might be in contact with university students and personnel.  Why doesn’t Chick-fil-A’s behavior at the national level count in this category?  If bikini calendars or overheard discussions in the copy room are reportable offenses under the campus’s current harassment guidelines, certainly the very controversial and offensive public statements of a company’s leadership and their company’s active donations should be considered in the same harassment category.  Doesn’t Chick-fil-A’s mere presence on campus now create a hostile and uncomfortable environment in the same sense that a bikini calendar or offensive office talk might create an uncomfortable learning/work environment for others?

Is there a place for controversial remarks and open discussion on campus?  Absolutely.  In the halls of academia such things should be welcomed in the form of seminars, speakers, forums, courses, protests etc.  We’ve had Ann Coulter visit our campus espousing her irrational and vitriolic form of right wing entertainment.  Do I personally agree with her on, well, anything at all?  Very unlikely.  Did I think it was a good use of university resources to have her come to campus?  Absolutely.  Veritas Forum, hosted annually by the student club Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) hosts a series of (in my opinion) remarkably silly, anti-scientific talks masked in pseudoscientific blather.  Do I agree with it?  No.  Do I approve of their presence in a university environment?  Yes.  It is a forum.  Anyone can come and discuss and debate.  We’ve had creationists speak on campus.  Skeptics debate them.  Atheists give talks on rather unpopular topics, with lively debate afterwards. Ex-Mormons have come to convey their controversial point of view, and Mormons attend the talk to defend their position.  You may recall Michael Pollan’s talk in 2009, the author and left wing activist who holds somewhat controversial views on diet and food.  There was a kerfuffle with Cal Poly donor Harris Ranch about his presence and we ultimately let a Harris Ranch representative come and defend their position.  Anyone should be able to express their views, even racists, sexists, religious zealots, atheists, pro-binge-drinkers, pro-bikini calendar people, pornographers, Confederates, and completely crazy people no one understands.  Although sometimes discussion topics and comments may be offensive to individuals, this vibrancy does not create a hostile and intolerant environment — quite the opposite.  It is is part of having an open and honest intellectual university community.  But does this mean we have to do business with them or lease them a space in The Avenue under the guise of “free speech” or “the first amendment”?  Absolutely not.  Having Chick-fil-A as a business partner on campus is definitely not in that same free speech category as creating an open intellectual environment.  In light of their anti-gay views, views they are free to *express* (and proudly do) under the first amendment, having a Chick-fil-A on campus is distinctly in the category of the harassment policy I gave above.  It makes many people uncomfortable in the same way vitriolic office talk, Penthouse, or a bikini calendar might make others.  For many campus citizens, it creates a climate of intolerance and hostility on campus as uncomfortable as a noose and confederate flag do.

In summary, we routinely decide as a campus that otherwise protected legal speech and behavior will not be tolerated at our university based on philosophical reasons rooted in our university mission.  Why Chick-fil-A is apparently being given a special status in this regard is unclear to me.  We are perfectly allowed to terminate our business relationship with Chick-fil-A on philosophical grounds while still celebrating their first amendment rights to express those very beliefs we disagree with.  Indeed, I would love for a representative of Chick-fil-A to come to campus to exercise their free speech and openly defend and discuss their position on gay rights.  Let them exercise their free speech in that capacity.  But this in no way obligates us to do business with them or lease them a space on campus to sell their product.

Regards,

Thomas D. Gutierrez
Associate Professor
Physics Department
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407


Third letter and response regarding Chick-Fil-A at Cal Poly, SLO (August 2, 2012)

Dear Director Murphy and President Armstrong,
I believe you have mistakenly framed this problem in the category of free speech, politics, and religion.   Our situation at Cal Poly is not in those categories.  People frequently mask their bigotry behind their religion and politics, but this does not make bigotry itself a form of behavior we should accept.  Our problem here is in the category of civil rights.  And it is about making the right business choices in that context.

Cal Poly is under no obligation to do business with any particular organization; if we disagree with the business practices of a campus partner, we should stand by our mission statement and sever ties with it.  Chick-fil-A’s campus contract was renewed in 2010 and ends in 2015 (and is the only Chick-fil-A franchise on the Central Coast).  That it is locally operated is irrelevant to this bigger issue.  However, one worry on your part is certainly pragmatic: that we will be cited for breach of contract.  While understandable, this consideration merely puts an actual dollar price on our university mission:  for the price of a breach of contract settlement, the university is willing to compromise its principles.  This gives the impression the university’s core ideals can be bought, which is unfortunate.

Cal Poly has an amplified responsibility to make the right business choices in light of its strong mission statement and its recent WASC accreditation report.  Cal Poly already has serious diversity problems, and associations with organizations like Chick-fil-A compounds the issue.  Other universities, cities, and organizations around the country have had the courage to take a prompt stand against the policies of Chick-fil-A by severing their business relationship. Cal Poly should follow suit.

As you must know, Chick-fil-A’s business practices are becoming a national issue; many recent news articles have covered the evolving situation.  I strongly encourage you to further investigate the problem and see the bigger civil rights issues at stake.  I hope the Armstrong administration has the courage and conviction to act promptly and be on the right side of history in this matter.

Regards,

______________________________
Thomas D. Gutierrez
Associate Professor
Physics Department, 25-223
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407


Cal Poly Corporation Director Bonnie Murphy’s response to the third letter:

Dear Professor Gutierrez:

I fully agree with you that many people mask their bigotry behind their
politics or their religion. Of course, many people don’t bother masking
their bigotry at all.

We’ll have to agree to disagree, however, that the Chick-fil-A situation
is a civil rights issue, or that this issue involves the company’s
business practices. We have seen no evidence that the company has violated
anybody’s civil rights. If any evidence surfaces, I assure you we will
re-examine our contract. The only thing we know is that Dan Cathy has
strong feelings about what constitutes marriage.

I must reject your assertion that the university is willing to compromise
its principles for the sake of a dollar. In fact, if we are to remain
committed to our scholarly mission, we are required to assess the
situation for what it is, and to me that means we should be very careful
before jumping to a decision to abrogate a contract because a business
owner has expressed an opinion we might not like. I respect that you see
this situation differently.

On a matter that we can agree on: We are carefully monitoring
Chick-fil-A’s business practices, and we are reviewing how we approach
entering into contracts. For more on that, let me direct you to a fuller
statement I have made on this situation, which we posted online earlier
this week and can be read here
http://www.calpolycorporation.org/media/release073112.asp

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me. I appreciate your
candor and interest in this issue.

Sincerely,

Bonnie D. Murphy
Associate Vice President of Commercial Services
Executive Director of Cal Poly Corporation
California Polytechnic State University

Second letter and response regarding Chick-Fil-A at Cal Poly, SLO (July 11, 2012)

Dear Director Murphy and President Armstrong,
As I said in an earlier email, thank you very much for your prompt reply on this issue, and thank you for looking deeper into the problem.  However, in reading your response more carefully, there may have been a misunderstanding about the nature of my complaint.  I was not claiming that Chick-fil-A had formally discriminated against anyone, nor that there was a documented history of such discrimination.  Nor had I asserted that our particular campus franchise, or anyone who works here, was acting inappropriately.  I was addressing a different concern about the nature of Chick-fil-A’s larger corporate philosophy, reflected in their recently released financial statements, which indicate they’ve made contributions to organizations that run contrary to our University’s mission statement.

This presents perhaps a more nuanced problem for the University and CPC than outright discrimination because it is one step removed from our local professional relationship with the franchise.  But, for example, if we discovered a campus partner regularly and legally made contributions to white supremacists groups, but otherwise behaved as an ordinary company following all employment and customer service laws, I still feel we would need to examine our desire to have a financial relationship with such a partner.  Arguments like “their local franchise is run by the campus, so they are ok” and “they don’t have a history of discrimination in the courts, so must be ok” would not be addressing the relevant core concern.

Based on the kinds of financial contributions their larger corporate organization has made to groups that actively opposes the rights of gays and lesbians, I would strongly encourage the University and CPC to look again into the matter and reflect on whether Chick-fil-A is an company we wish our campus to partner with.

Thank you for your time and best regards,

______________________________
Thomas D. Gutierrez
Associate Professor
Physics Department, 25-223
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407


Cal Poly Corporation Director Bonnie Murphy’s response to the second letter:

Hi Professor Gutierrez,

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. We agree wholeheartedly with
you that discrimination of any type is wrong and that we, at Cal Poly,
should never be directly or indirectly involved in discrimination.

As we act, we recognize that the very fabric of a university requires that
openness and objectivity be applied to counter conditions that might lead
to discrimination.  Data must drive our conclusions, and evidence as well
as experience must be included in those decisions.

I also believe that Cal Poly, in all of its operations and functions,
needs to instill in students, faculty and staff the tools to fairly and
intelligently assess situations, data and opinions, and make sure we check
our assessments against the backdrop of our values in arriving at rational
conclusions.  Just as we act to mitigate discrimination, we also must act
to mitigate any air of aggressive intolerance.

As shared, we did a review of Chick-fil-A and found no evidence that the
company has discriminated against gays and lesbians in employment or
customer service.

While its owners have, through their family foundation, given money to
various causes that espouse political and social views, we, as a campus,
embrace the First Amendment and free expression, and that means tolerating
views with which we might disagree.  As we also know, corporations are
free to engage in political activity. By the same standard, of course, no
one has to buy food at Chick-fil-A as we offer a variety of choices.

I think we all would agree that as a public institution, Cal Poly cannot
be in the business of deciding who its vendors should be on the basis of
the corporate owners’ political views. We can, of course, remove from
campus any organization that engages in discrimination.

It’s worth noting that while we have an agreement with the franchise,
Chick-fil-A on campus is operated by the Cal Poly Corporation, so all
employees and services are for us and provided by us.  As such, we have
not received any concerns from the Cal Poly community indicating that the
Corporation staff has acted in any way but respectfully to employees and
customers.

Based on all the research and experience that we have, Chick-fil-A
provides quality product and service in an environment free of
discrimination.  With that in mind, it is our intention to honor our
agreement.

Please let me know if you would like to discuss this further.  Best wishes
for a good summer.

Respectfully,

Bonnie D. Murphy
Associate Vice President of Commercial Services
Executive Director of Cal Poly Corporation
California Polytechnic State University

First letter and response regarding Chick-Fil-A at Cal Poly, SLO (July 3, 2012)

Dear President Armstrong,
I’m writing to express a concern that has recently come to my attention. Press reports indicate that Chick-fil-A has a history of donating to and supporting anti-gay groups:
http://equalitymatters.org/factcheck/201207020001

As you know, we have a Chick-fil-A in The Avenue here on campus, an organization we “proudly feature”: http://www.calpolydining.com/theavenue/

A number of students have indicated discomfort with this association. While I do respect the rights of businesses to support causes they value, Cal Poly also has a responsibility to choose the types of businesses we partner with. It is my view we should partner with organizations whose values are in line with our own mission as a university. In particular:
“As an academic community, Cal Poly values free inquiry, cultural and intellectual diversity, mutual respect, civic engagement, and social and environmental responsibility.”
Chick-fil-A’s actions neither foster mutual respect nor social responsibility. Their ongoing denial of their actions in the face of direct evidence indicates their unwillingness to engage society in an intellectually honest manner. Naturally, as a campus, we should not hesitate to discuss these issues openly in the spirit of free inquiry and civil engagement. However, this does not require us to tacitly support their anti-gay position by providing this company with a platform for financial gain; these gains will likely be directed in part towards said causes in direct conflict with our university mission. Especially given such a wide spectrum of other partners to select from who are not in conflict with our mission who could fulfill the same function on campus as Chick-fil-A.

I urge you to take issues like these into consideration when renewing campus partnerships and while developing any new partnerships in the future.
Thank you for your time and best regards,
Tom
______________________________
Thomas D. Gutierrez
Associate Professor
Physics Department, 25-223
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407


Cal Poly Corporation Director Bonnie Murphy’s response to the first letter:

Dear Mr. Gutierrez:

Thank you for your message related to Chick-fil-A. President Armstrong shared it with me and asked that I look into the question and respond. I have read similar articles and understand the concern you expressed. I am sure that others also have been concerned in reading that any organization might be discriminating against anyone in our community or elsewhere.

It was that concern that caused me to join others in looking deeper into this question and learn more about Chick-fil-A’s practices. In doing so, we have not found any evidence that Chick-fil-A has discriminated against gays and lesbians in its employment or its customer service—nor did we find that anyone had accused them of any such discrimination.

Similarly, we have not received any concerns from the Cal Poly community indicating that Chick-fil-A has acted in any way but respectfully to employees and customers. It might help to note that the Cal Poly Corporation operates the Chick-fil-A on campus so all employees and service are for us and provided by us.

With this additional information, I have confidence that Cal Poly is well served and that our relationship with Chick-fil-A provides quality product and service in an environment free of discrimination.

Please let me know if you would like to discuss this further. Best wishes for a good summer,

Bonnie D. Murphy

Associate Vice President of Commercial Services & Executive Director Cal Poly Corporation

Customer Response