Last week I was sitting at Starbucks early in the morning, before my office hours, grading quizzes. Yes, I still use paper pop quizzes fairly often. Partly it’s a game theory thing; I want students to know that they can’t ever skip class, safely. Partly it’s because I want to see the pattern of their free-response answers so that I can build better multiple-choice questions.
Anyway, the tables at Starbucks are really close together. Eavesdropping is kind of inevitable unless you stick something in your ears. So while I’m working, I’m also listening to these two insurance guys dishing about the medical malpractice market. Apparently this was the single biggest expense for a doctor, until they changed the rules by doing what one of these guys called “defensive medicine,” wherein the doc orders every possible test, driving up the cost for the patient’s insurer, while reducing the chance that he’ll be sued. That was pretty interesting in itself, from a game-theory point of view, the moves and countermoves that these different players make within a system of rules, always trying to come out on top. They continued that thread through quite a few different examples, including the competition between companies for customers within each state.
(I don't know about where you live, but here in NC, Blue Cross is sitting on an 81% market share. That's for individual health care insurance, not malpractice insurance, but the principle is the same. Competition reduces costs, and companies try to reduce competition so they can raise costs.)
But then there was a momentary shift. One guy described his failures to get a meeting with a local hospital’s risk manager. He kept doing his normal sales pitch, describing the relative advantages of his products. Finally she said, “I’m a nurse by background and training. I don’t appreciate you talking over my head like that.” And he realized that this person “didn’t understand even the rudiments of insurance.” I really should have broken in at that point, handed them both my cards, and invited them to come talk to our prospective medical students. But I kind of chickened out, and they got up and left.
In any case, it was a great point. It reveals the single biggest tension I’ve seen in college education. Do you want to train specialists, who have detailed knowledge of a single topic? Or do you want to train generalists, people who can learn anything, given some time? Certainly most students want to be specialists, defined as narrowly as possible, because that’s easier. The most common question I heard that week was, “Can you tell me exactly what will be on the final, so I know what to study?” In other words, “What can I safely ignore?” Which makes sense. Every species strategically conserves its energy and resources when it can. But it creates a problem, namely that these specialists can’t understand one another. This is one of the major goals of the BEACON Center. How do we get biologists and computer scientists and engineers to talk to one another in productive ways, instead of talking past one another in defense of their own specialties?
So obviously and abstractly, the answer to the question of what to teach is “just enough to allow the specialists to communicate clearly with one another.” But how much is enough? Clearly, the language is necessary. Basic vocabulary, basic grammar. Currently English is the language of science, as Greek, Latin, French, and German were in the centuries leading up to this one. But each discipline has its own dialect of English; they label the same concepts with different words. And then they abbreviate those words into slang and coded acronyms to save time, and to emphasize the community of their disciplines, to exclude people outside their disciplines.
I think the solution is sort of like a fractal. The basic principles are the same across every field. Things like demand evidence. At each level of detail, there are similarities and differences. So is there a basic conceptual language that would allow a nurse and an insurance salesman to talk to one another? The old answer was logic. At one time every high school student studied premises, or facts, and conclusions, or inferences based on those facts. We don’t do that anymore. I personally never studied logic until I had to start teaching it as part of my Analytical Reasoning class. As a specialist research scientist, it was never required by any program I was in. But I have to say that teaching logic clarified my thinking and speaking about cause and effect in a way that doing experiments never had. On the flip side of that, I find that philosophers are entirely too confident about their ability to say whether a premise is true or not. Logic and experiments are both necessary; neither is sufficient; but as a scientist I have to say that experiments are more necessary. The world is above all a surprising place.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that we can magically convince all the specialists that a common language beyond the one they learned osmotically from their parents is necessary, and we teach everyone traditional logic. Arguments, premises, the rules that connect them. There are a lot of tools out there for that. Is that enough?
I would say no. Traditional philosophical logic is linear. Cause and effect are only one-way relationships. It does not take into account feedback loops, where event 1 causes event 2, but event 2 also causes event 1 in a later time-step. For instance, having babies who grow up to have their own babies.
There is a language that umbrellas a lot of different fields. It's called, among other things, system dynamics. More about that tonight, in an around our playtesting of the game Hive.