Evolving Thoughts

What is a basic concept?

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.


  1. #1 Peter Ellis
    July 27, 2008

    Actually, my immediate interpretation of “basic concept” would be something closer to “axiom”. That is, it’s not necessarily something that is accessible to someone not versed in the field, and possibly not even known (or at least not known explicitly) by everyone within the field – but it’s something from which a substantial proportion of the field can be derived.

  2. #2 yogi-one
    July 27, 2008

    It’s a tough question.

    One aspect is communicating scientific concepts without using too much scientific jargon.

    Similarly, science often uses the language of mathematics, a language which most people are either not familiar with beyond basic math and geometry, or maybe they took calculus in college but don’t use it in their real-world professions, so the skill has lapsed. Expressing mathematical equations that describe basic concepts in physics, for example, in non-math, non-jargon terminology, and keeping it accurate at the same time is a real challenge. It is very easy for science to start sounding like philosophy when you start talking about it metaphorically.

    I think this is part of the reason that a lot of folks have come to the erroneous conclusion that science is a belief system. They aren’t scientists, and when you try to explain concepts of science to them using metaphors and analogies, it comes out sounding like statements of what scientists believe. Which is, of course, inaccurate, because science is not a belief system.

    It sounds like a great idea: “Hey let’s do a series of articles for the general public explaining the basic concepts in science to them.”

    And it is a great idea.

    But much easier said than done. Much, much easier.

  3. #3 Frederick Ross
    July 27, 2008

    Perhaps I can toss in a point that comes up in martial arts circles sometimes, that of “basics” versus “fundamentals.” The fundamentals are issues of body mechanics and approach which make the art doable and — in the best of all possible worlds — derivable as something “obvious.” The basics are the materials used to teach fundamentals.

    There are certain mindsets which very powerfully inform decisions about our world. They are so powerful we believe they should be part of everyone’s common heritage, the way Shakespeare’s vocabulary of idioms and Lewis Carroll’s of nonsense words informs the English language.

    So a basic idea is one by which the fundamentals can be transferred with the least chance of corruption in transfer. So first we list the fundamentals, and rank them by how broad a scope they inform (the atomic theory of matter, evolution, microbiology, a really nuanced view of the second law of thermodynamics would be my first approximation), then ask how best to transfer this mindset and the bits and pieces required to reason with it.

    As to actually doing it, well, I don’t think I understood Newtonian mechanics until I spent three months staring into space about half the time trying to follow planetary orbits. I have no idea how to impart the result to another person.

  4. #4 RBH
    July 27, 2008

    So this raises (not begs!) the question of what is a basic concept…

    Thank you for that! The misuse of “begs the question” is one of my deepest-seated pet peeves.

  5. #5 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    July 27, 2008

    Thanks PZ, for being on the side of Dawkins , Paul Daper and me that the weight of evidence shows no predetermined designs but rather causal pattterns. Scott should not object to our being so blunt about theistic evolution!
    I find no teleology as being a basic scientific concept in accordance with Weisz. Now Ernest Nagel, naturalist, defines teleology differently. That would confuse matters, I think. I propose that we use teleology as Weisz does, in contradiction to natural processes, which ,contrary to Leibniz, are the sufficient reason.
    Essentials to science are the same as far other matters – avoidance of logical fallacies [ common theistic failure] and use of reason.

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    July 28, 2008

    Peter, axioms are rather more like elemental than elementary concepts. For example, in a non-Euclidean space, the idea that parallel lines do not always not meet is an axiom, but it’s hardly a basic concept of modern relativity theory (instead, it’s a basic concept of geometry). A basic concept of relativity theory, for example, would be the notion of a worldline, or a geodesic in spacetime.

    And it is not often that we actually do axiomatise a science, or even that it can be axiomatised. For example, Mary B. Williams tried to axiomatise evolutionary theory back in the 1970s, but it went nowhere because evolutionary biologists knew a whole lot more than the axiomatisable system contained. And any formalisation requires an interpretation anyway, which is not part of the axiomatic schema.

    So I would say that axioms are nice when axioms suffice, but that ideas can be alien when sesquipedalian.

  7. #7 jeff
    July 28, 2008

    Interesting post. Asking “what is a basic concept” is roughly equivalent to asking “what is fundamental”. There are two implicit assumptions in that question: 1) that there are fundamentally irreducible things that are “absolute truths”, and 2) that other things follow or emerge from those truths. To a starving child in africa, hunger is a basic axiom from which other consequences emerge. To a biologist, evolution is a deeper truth with more abstract consequences. To a physicist, quantum physics is an even deeper and more profound truth. A specialist of any kind (and we are all one of those) has a mind like a straight arrow that seldom pauses to investigate the scenery that passes by. And for the specialist, that is probably a good thing. Too much breadth (vs depth) search can seriously interfere with the pragmatics of one’s model of reality.

    To me, one of the most amusing oft-repeated maxims is, “it is amazing that the universe is comprehensible at all”. I’m sure that an octopus, a dog, and an ape all feel that they have an excellent understanding of the universe.

  8. #8 Matt
    July 29, 2008

    I think you’re totally right about “basic” depending on the field, and even the particular sense of the word “basic”. On one hand you could say the basic concepts are those concepts which Introduction to [field] textbooks all talk about, or you could define it as those concepts which are fundamental to a deep theoretical understanding of a field.

    A functional definition might be best: a basic concept is one you need to solve problems in that field. That way you can define basic concepts in (say) introductory physics which are different from the basic concepts in some more difficult subfield like quantum optics. Quick, dirty, and pragmatic but it might work pretty well.