In the process of maintaining the Basic Concepts in Science list I often have to make a judgement call about whether or not something is a basic enough post. For example I have a slew of rather good but to my mind very technical posts by Carl Brannen at Mass which are labelled “Elementary Science” that I cannot understand. I have a PhD in philosophy of science, so I figure if I can’t understand them fully, they are pretty much not at the basic level. But then again, they are basic in that science.
So this raises (not begs!) the question of what is a basic concept…
… and this has no easy answer. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a movement to categorise all topics in a Universal Language, culminating in my namesake Bp John Wilkins’ Essay towards a real character and a philosophical language (1668), the sole impact of which was on Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus. This was a tradition that went back to the time of the Greeks, and in particular Aristotle’s Categories, and it is intutively obvious to many ten year olds that you must be able to do something like this. There has to be an exhaustive list of ideas, either somewhere out there or in theory.
But there isn’t. Platonism, which treats ideas as self-existent things, may suggest there is, but there are literally an infinite number of ideas, and the complexity of an idea depends on what it is “made” out of. Locke among others thought there were simple ideas that combined into complex ideas, but simplicity and complexity are relations, not absolute facts. I can still recall the difficulty I had trying to understand windowing systems on computers before I had seen one (pre-Lisa even), while now I routinely think that knowing how to make a window “go away” is basic. What counts as basic depends very much on what the audience or knower already knows.
So a basic concept in science is not something that we can easily identify. Any teacher knows this and adjusts what they have to say to suit their class’s existing amount of knowledge. In fact, that is what education is for: to raise the existing knowledge bank to the point that new information, new skilss, new items of knowledge are not a large leap.
When we select or write these basics posts, we do so to reach a particular audience. The famous comment by Lord Beaverbrook (or was it Lord Northcliffe?) that is told to all journalists – “they are only ten [years old]” is perhaps an underestimate of the median reading age of the average democratic citizen, but it is a good way to sell ephemeral information like newspapers. Blogs, however, don’t try to make a profit, and so we can aim at a reading age that is higher. I try to keep in mind an intelligent sixteen year old who is curious about the things I discuss. That is, they are already motivated or they would be here, so all I have to do is make it comprehensible to that guy or gal. I have variable success, both here and in the classroom, but at least I try.
So what is a basic concept in science or anything else? It’s really something that anyone versed in the ordinary knowledge of a society or community can understand. Brannen’s discussions of Feynman diagrams is elementary knowledge… for a physics student at university or higher level. For me it’s just technical talk. But I aim the list and my own posts at a less rarefied audience. Let me know if I am not doing it well. I can’t promise I’ll change, but I may try.