MLU: In a recent Machines Like Us interview, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Grand estimated that 20% of the information in his step children's school textbooks is inaccurate. Do you find this to be the case with college texts as well, and, if so, how do you deal with such misinformation as a teacher?
MS: If only 20% is inaccurate, I think we are doing pretty well! I myself don't worry too much about inaccuracies. What worries me more is that we don't teach in a way that encourages people to instinctively pose questions to themselves when learning anything, questions such as "How do we know…? Why do I believe…? What is the evidence for…?
People are always going to encounter wrong information. After all, the history of science is the story of scientists believing wrong things thinking that they were right. And yet science survived and even prospered. We cannot shield people from wrong information. The best we can do is give them the tools to recognize when something seems not quite right, to investigate questions for themselves, and to arrive at judgments based on evidence and reason.
MLU: In 1987 Alan Bloom published a controversial book called The Closing of the American Mind, in which he detailed his experience teaching college students. His main thesis was that American students had become promoters of what he called value relativism, becoming more subjective and egocentric with each new year. Have you noticed any similar trends among your students? As a group, have they changed over time?
MS: I read Bloom's book a long time ago and I did not think much of it. He came across as a bit of a misanthrope. I am not in general a believer in the "good old days" of students and I get annoyed by the generalizing labels we stick on young people, such as Gen X or Gen Y or Millenials. I have taught both in America and Sri Lanka. I think my students have changed over time but mainly in the kinds of knowledge they acquire and their level of technical savvy, and not in any fundamental way. I have always found them to be unchanged in the more important things and wonderful to work with -- curious, fun-loving, friendly, and respectful. They tend to have strong views on certain topics and defend them vigorously, but that is fine.
MLU: Finally, although this website deals with the specifics of evolution, cognition, artificial life, and artificial intelligence, its main point is that the universe's many components and processes are not beyond our reach but ultimately comprehendible. For the most part, religious practitioners are comfortable in their ignorance, leaving cosmic mysteries to "the will of god." We, of course, will have none of that, and work every day to improve our comprehension of the universe, life, and the human mind. As a physicist, how do you rate humanity's current -- and potential -- understanding of the universe?
MS: Of course, we have made huge gains in our understanding of how the world works and will undoubtedly make more. I don't know how we can quantify our present stage along this scale and won't even try. I do believe that the universe is comprehensible in terms of natural laws. I am a supporter of the ideas of strong AI, and think that the brain and all that it does follows from its material basis (which is largely determined by our evolutionary history) coupled with the knowledge that we are able to acquire as a result of our having developed language to pass on information. It is not inconceivable that there may be some kind of fundamental difficulty in our brain grasping its own workings, not because of any metaphysical reasons, but due to a problem of internal consistency in its structure, like a dog that cannot catch its own tail because of the limitations of its physical structure. But this is an area that I really need to study more. I am really quite ignorant of much of the work that has been done in this enormously fascinating field. While I think that physics was the dominant science of the twentieth century, I think that biology and the brain is the next frontier and where most of the excitement will be in the century.
Read more Machines Like Us interviews here.