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"Seeing Things Invisible: How We Gain Reliable Knowledge About Things We Can't See"
Dr. James A Rabchuk

(The 12th annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 11, 2014)

In this lecture I will speak about the role and mission of a liberal arts education from the perspective of a scientist and science educator. I will address some of the challenges facing liberal arts colleges across the nation. In particular, I will identify both what is wrong with holding on to the traditional view of a liberal arts education, and how a recent rethinking of the nature of scientific inquiry might help us rethink the purpose of the liberal arts. I have characterized this rethinking as an emphasis on knowledge creation rather than the traditional emphasis on knowledge consumption. I will draw from my experiences in teaching an honors course called "Seeing the Invisible" on how scientific knowledge is created, and propose that this is the sort of approach in higher education that can bring about a revitalization of the liberal arts at WIU and beyond.

I. Knowledge Consumption vs. Knowledge Creation

Let's begin by considering a standard definition of what are the liberal arts. The online Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the Liberal Arts as "college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills." In this perspective of the liberal arts, we professors are employed to provide students with relevant knowledge through readings and lectures, and then to help them learn how to use that knowledge by engaging in critical thinking and analysis. I characterize this view of the liberal arts as training students in knowledge consumption. Knowledge is handed down to the students (for a price, of course!) and they are expected to be able to use it well. At its worst, this sort of education is derided as "regurgitation", where students are fed information and then expected to recall it on demand. Even at its best, this model implies directionality to the flow of knowledge from "on high" (in the texts) through the professor and into the students. Greenblatt, Stephen (2011-09-19). The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (p. 1). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The truth is that the humanities as we currently know them have precisely that sort of directionality at the root. One example that illustrates this beautifully is the story of the discovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, as told in Stephen Greenblatt's book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, (Norton, 2011). Lucretius composed his 6 book epic poem on the nature of things in about 55 BCE. It was to introduce his Latin-speaking audience to the ideas developed by Democritus and formulated into a philosophical system by Epicurus. The content of his epic provides an insightful and profound vision of nature as built up from atoms moving about ceaselessly in the void. And yet it was more renowned in its day for the fact that it was written in verse form, so as, in Lucretius' words, to provide his friends with the medicine of serious thought sweetened by the honey of verse. Epicurean thought was considered irreverent because of its low view of the Greek gods, and as the Christian worldview came to hold sway over Western thought, that prejudice against Epicureanism resulted in the gradual disappearance of Lucretius' text. In fact, no mention of it is recorded for more than 1,000 years! It took the disciplining of a Pope and the release from the Pope's service of his secretary, Poggio Florentinus, for the text to be uncovered in a north German monastery in 1417. Poggio was one of the first humanists, a group of educated men who sought to uncover the books of antiquity and restore them to widespread circulation. It was of immense service to the growing culture of scientific inquiry of the time, and though it may not have changed the world, as Greenblatt claims, it certainly helped challenge the Church's philosophical reliance on Aristotelean thought and supported the materialistic thought on which modern classical science is based.

The principle held by the humanists was that knowledge is precious and must be preserved and disseminated. The first Universities grew up under that directive, and were where the lecture format of presenting that knowledge to a wider audience was honed and perfected. The traditional Universities of Europe and Asia are elitist institutions designed to serve only the best and brightest, a kind of fulfillment of Plato's dream to create a class of philosopher kings! American institutions are more democratic and offer the riches of knowledge to a greater segment of the population. And now, the dream of such companies as Coursera is to offer the best lectures from the brightest scholars to tens and hundreds of thousands of people at once, through Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC's. Their mission statement is no different than that of the original humanists: "We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in." ( It seems that the internet has provided mankind of the 21st century the ultimate stage for making the world's knowledge accessible to all.

But as anyone knows who uses the internet frequently, the promise of knowledge for all falls short on several fronts. I love the internet meme with a picture of Abraham Lincoln and a quote next to him saying, "Don't believe everything you read on the internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it – Abraham Lincoln." The motivation for many who provide this sourceless knowledge is not knowledge for others, but attention and "hits" from others. Wolfram Corporation has sought to become the provider of the world's encyclopedia of mathematical knowledge and procedures. They created a search engine to compete with Google, called Wolfram Alpha, and invite us to ask it anything. Someone asked, "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" And Wolfram Alpha responded, "42 – according to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." The answer in the book was Adams' way of mocking the tendency to ask such big questions that prompt big answers without any context to make use of them. Oddly enough, it was Wolfram Alpha's very minimal context for its answer to his question that prompted the commenter to post a screen shot of Wolfram Alpha's response. The message is clear – knowledge without context is just pomposity. And beyond all that the sheer volume of images and text online makes the internet not so much a glorified library as a glorified bathroom stall wall. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that up till now the MOOC's have fared poorly, both economically and in terms of educational impact. It must be acknowledged however, that the internet is a great place to learn how to apply makeup, to skin catfish, and to serve pomegranates, among other things.

The highs and lows of the internet academies only serve to highlight the challenges facing the traditional liberal arts academies. The journal Inside Higher Ed is one of many recently asking whether the Liberal Arts are dying. In their November 19th, 2012 edition they wrote, "Yet it's safe to say that, for the past few years, liberal arts colleges and the idea of liberal education have been losing the message war about the purpose of a college education, what a good education looks like and how education should fit into the fabric of the nation." The idea that Liberal Arts programs are the best forum for training others in knowledge consumption is under attack. I'm not sure that the answer to that is in the affirmative, at least for the cost involved. But I don't think that is the real issue at hand. Rather, let's ask the more fundamental question: "Is knowledge consumption what Liberal Arts colleges need to emphasize?" I suggest that the answer to this is no, and provide an alternative to this traditional mode of education.

What is the problem with knowledge consumption as the overarching model for liberal arts education? The biggest problem is simple to state: ignorance! Donald Rumsfeld was the architect of the Iraq invasion under George W. Bush, and was known for his far-ranging answers to questions during press conferences. Once he was quoted saying the following: "There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know." I am sure this idea predates Rumsfeld and the Iraq war, but his description of the state of intelligence in the US government is just as appropriate when describing any attempt to make sense of what is going on in the world around us. There are things we know. There are things we know we need to know, but don't yet know. And there are things we don't even know we need to know. It is interesting to consider the relative size of each of these three "domains" of knowledge and ignorance. I would bet that most of us are overwhelmed by what we know and instinctively consider what we know to be massive compared to the few things that we don't know. Physics is one of the more mature sciences. There have been several episodes in the history of our science in which a consensus nearly formed that we had reached the "end of knowledge," only to see whole new huge areas of study grow up out of what were perceived to be "minor cracks" in the edifice of the then current knowledge. Henry Bauer, author of Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (1992) stated more broadly, "Thus, human beings, including scientists, do not function under continual awareness of humanity's fundamental ignorance; rather, they live under perpetual illusion of fundamental understanding." The problem with focusing on knowledge consumption is the infinity of ignorance that we must face every day, both on a personal and societal level!

What society and we really need is the ability to create knowledge, the ability to make sense of what has yet to be understood and "see the invisible." Of course, having knowledge is valuable and forms the basis for our modern technological society. But what we have is not enough. To solve one problem with the knowledge that we have is to create many more problems often unsolvable with present knowledge! In an odd twist on communism's warning that capitalism requires ever expanding production and growing markets, we find that our technological society requires an ever increasing knowledge base to sustain itself, as today's solutions produce tomorrow's problems. The educational system the modern world requires is one that prepares knowledge creators, not knowledge consumers. We'll never know it all. What we need to know is what to do next (after we've tried everything else), and for that, we need new understanding and deeper vision.

The process of knowledge creation falls under the category of epistemology, which concerns questions of how we know what we know. Of all the fundamental disciplines, science is purported to have the most exemplary method for creating knowledge, called the "Scientific Method". That method however, focuses on the process of verification (or rather falsification) of hypotheses, and how one is expected to convince others of the soundness of one's conclusions. It does not give any real guidance as to how one develops the hypotheses to be tested. This is a void in the education of future scientists bemoaned by many. Richard Feynman acknowledged this regrettable state in his commencement address to the 1974 graduating class at Cal Tech. "But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves--of having utter scientific integrity--is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis." It is often the case that various disciplines wish to be considered as scientific by adopting the scientific method. It is a dirty little secret that the scientific method is generally derided as being woefully inadequate for describing how scientists create reliable knowledge.

I mentioned above that the problem with the knowledge consumption model for liberal arts education is ignorance. Following the lead of Stuart Firestein, a leading neuroscientist at Columbia University, I propose that the solution to the problem of how knowledge is created is also ignorance. In his book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science, (Oxford, 2012) Firestein asks, "What if we understood the power of not knowing in a world dominated by information?" And he goes on to clarify what the power of ignorance can be. "You use ... facts to frame a new question— to speculate about a new black cat. In other words, scientists don't concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but also miniscule, but rather on what they don't know." It is important to emphasize that knowing facts is not an end in itself. They are used to frame new questions about things we don't know. One can think of the process of knowledge creation as building scaffolding that extends from where the structure (our knowledge) is presumed solid out into the vast, even infinite space of our ignorance.

One profound example of this process is seen in the discovery of the Higgs boson, more famously known as the "God Particle". It is a story that stretched 50 years from when the idea for the boson was first proposed by Peter Higgs and others to when it was eventually discovered at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, and for which a measly two Nobel prizes in physics were awarded in 2012. The story of how the hypothesis of the Higgs was developed is fascinating in its own right, but I'd like to focus on the process by which it was first "seen" by human beings. The LHC is a grand undertaking that involves 6000 workers from 70 nations. It is a great underground ring 27 km in circumference that passes through two countries and took some 9 billion dollars to build. But of all the remarkable aspects of this project, perhaps most notable is the fact that each experimental run produces 100's of MB of usable data per second, while scientists must throw out 10,000,000 MB's of data per second, just to keep the task of analyzing the data manageable (The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll, Penguin, 2012). These data are thrown away after much anxious, though instantaneous, verification that what is thrown out is well known not to have any connection to what physicists believed the Higgs could produce. They do this by implementing a computer program that filters out the data obtained, removing what is known so that what is not yet known might be noticed. And then the data that are kept are carefully compared to what accepted theories predicted physicists would see if there were no Higgs! At last, after several years of data collection, a small but significant deviation from what was known was observed, at an energy that made sense, and the scientific collaborations seeking the Higgs made their announcement on July 4th, 2012. These scientists used their considerable knowledge of what kinds of particles there are to find a single particle they anticipated should be there but could see only with great difficulty. When they found it, they could then develop a new set of questions based on having seen this new particle and the new physics its presence suggested. They had to screen out very deliberately what they knew to find something suspected but unknown.

II. Seeing the Invisible

Stuart Firestein wrote his book because he felt dissatisfied with how he had been teaching neuroscience to his students as though almost everything were known. Likewise, I felt dissatisfaction for how our majors and particularly our teacher education majors easily fell into the pattern of striving to be know-it-alls. Through teaching the capstone course for our science education majors with Dr. Laura Barden-Gabbei, I spent many hours reading essays from scientists and philosophers of science and began to formulate my own response to the conundrum of how to help budding scientists embrace ignorance. My starting point was to use invisible phenomena to make us aware of how much is unknown to us personally, and yet how important it is. Then I developed a curriculum that allowed me to explore with my students how we can come to see those invisible things. My hope was to make facing ignorance and accepting the challenge to uncover invisible things more attractive than just knowing the facts and formulas of textbook science.

It is awesome to consider just how profound our ignorance of the world around us can be. Things can be invisible to us because they happen too fast or too slow, because things are too big or too small, or because things are too close or too far. Our sphere of awareness is profoundly limiting. Now, the argument has often been made and continues to be made that if I can't see something, it doesn't matter. But this argument flies in the face of reality. Microscopic organisms, electromagnetism, atoms, not to mention matters of faith, principle, and ideas all can have a tremendous impact on our lives and on our society. Consider the iPhone, which relies on electromagnetic radiation and an understanding of the flow of electrons in matter. Or consider GPS, which is the first practical use of Einstein's theory of General Relativity in that his equations are used to keep track of time on the GPS satellites in orbit as opposed to the slower flow of time on Earths' surface. These are real, everyday things that use our understanding of the invisible world to function.

But I didn't want this course to be a "gee whiz" tour of modern technology. So, to keep the focus on knowledge creation, I start with an example from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) in his first chapter. Gladwell begins his story with a hockey game – the 2007 Memorial Cup championship match between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants in the Canadian Hockey League, the world's premier youth hockey league. As Gladwell invites his readers, so I invite you to consider the roster of the Medicine Hat Tiger from that year.

Can you identify anything unusual about this roster? The first thing many people notice is the number of left-handed players on the team. It appears that nearly 50% of the players shoot left-handed, while the general population has only 10% left-handers. But as I have been told by experienced hockey players, shooting left-handed is no more difficult that shooting right-handed for right-handers. And the competitive advantage offered by having an even mix of left and right-handed shooters provides the incentive for right-handed players to develop that skill.

Eventually, it should become apparent that there is a strange skewing of birth months of the hockey players on the Tigers' roster. Allow me to show a histogram grouping the players according to their birth month.

Fully 2/3's of the players on the team were born in the first quarter of the year, and 1/3 of the players were born in the month of January. Could it be that there is something about January that selects for professional-level hockey players? This anomaly was first observed by a statistician's wife in the 1980's and then verified by the statistician as a pervasive and real effect throughout the Canadian youth hockey leagues (Barnsley et al., 1985). It has since been shown to be present among Canadian hockey players in the National Hockey League as well, though not among players that make it to the Hall of Fame. How could a system that was so dedicated to developing great hockey players no matter where they were from end up resulting in such a distorted distribution of players? The answer turned out to be that the system of grouping hockey players from a very young age was biased to favor players born in January, because January 1st was the cut off date for each age group.

We can imagine that the Canadians had no reason to think that their system of preparing professional hockey players is not functioning optimally. We know that they take great pride in the thoroughness of the process by which players from all reaches of Canada are selected and then prepared for success. The bias which skewed the distribution of top-level players according to their birth month is an example of an unseen process which has a real impact on the world we live in. That process was driven, as it usually is, by a rule (or law). The fact that this rule was not natural but introduced by society (apparently in an attempt by the Canadian hockey leagues to meet the challenge to their international dominance by the sudden rise of Soviet hockey in the 1950's (Addona and Yates, 2010)) does not make this example less informative in understanding invisible phenomena. Since it was an unintended consequence of those policy decisions, its effect was hidden until much later.

The crucial element in this example is the fact that an observation was made by someone who recognized the significance of what they were seeing. The observation was repeated and the effect verified as significant (that is, that it varied improbably from the expected random distribution of players by birth month). And then upon investigation, an organizing set of rules (the cutoff date, streaming of better players, differentiation in the quality of opportunity, etc.) was found that resulted in the skewed distribution of players according to birth month. This is called the "Matthew effect" in Gladwell's book, and the "Relative Age Effect" (RAE) in psychology and sociology journals. This effect has been identified as being at work in a number of other areas of our society, including the American Educational system. The model or explanation of the observed effect is what allows us to identify areas where the effect might be taking place, and therefore is a crucial aspect of what it means to see this invisible phenomenon. The ability to see this effect has the potential to affect society in profound ways, not just in terms of change in policy, but also in terms of how we see ourselves and interpret the success of others.

My purpose in drawing attention to this phenomenon is epistemological. Here we have an example of new knowledge being obtained, developed, and used to gain even more new knowledge. The process is akin to peeling back the veil of ignorance brought on by our assumptions of how things are working, to see what is really happening and why. It requires acuity of perception and awareness of present understanding to ignore the things that aren't important and focus on the things that are. It requires a methodology for demonstrating significance that everyone can agree upon. And it usually requires a model, a theory, for explaining why the observed reality deviates from expected behavior.

The second example illustrating how seeing the invisible can be used to teach knowledge construction comes from the long history of the atomic theory. Previously I had introduced the example of Lucretius' classic poem on the nature of things, De Rerum Natura, to illustrate the humanistic mission of preserving and analyzing knowledge. But the real value of Lucretius' work is the stunning way in which Lucretius, from a few principles about nature, weaves together an exhaustive narrative about how the world works the way that it does. You can't read Lucretius as a textbook. He gets too many things wrong. But what he gets right makes up for all the mistakes. He uses sensory input as data to help him in constructing an explanatory mechanism. He tests his explanatory mechanism (the atomic theory) by using it to explain other data he senses. In particular, he sees atoms and the void through his observations of the behavior of matter. Then he uses atoms and void like a painter's colors to tell the story of the natural world. There is an astounding boldness in his approach. "...And now perhaps you are about to mistrust my words, since these atoms cannot be seen with the naked eye; but you will at least admit that there are many things which you know exist, although you cannot see them." Book 1, lines 268-270. "I can describe this with a familiar analogy...when sunlight...pours into a darkened room. Many minute motes you will see, and they will mingle in many ways through the air, dancing in the sunbeam, struggling and fighting as if in an eternal combat...and from this you may imagine how the atoms are always buffeted about through unending space." Book 2, lines 113-123. (Translated by James Mantinband, Ungar Publishing, NY, 1965.) One might find writing a "textbook" about science in poetic form to be excessive. But to Lucretius, using the theoretical framework of atomic theory to explain nature was precisely art. He wanted to convey, as his contemporary Virgil wrote, "the causes of things," and by doing so, "trample beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the roar of devouring hell." (As cited at

When Lucretius' work was reintroduced in 1417 into European renaissance society, many responded to his work because of his compelling vision. But no one was in a position to either verify or reject the atomic theory. Finally, in 1827, Robert Brown published the account of his observations through a microscope of the persistent, zig-zaggy motion undergone by literally anything that could be made small enough and suspended in liquid water (or as later shown, in any gas or fluid). Brown at first proposed that this motion was the evidence of life in the pieces of pollen he had first studied. But as he broadened his search, he found that dead things moved just as persistently. He was at a loss to explain what he was seeing. He therefore finally published his results as a report of what he had seen but couldn't understand. With the aid of a microscope, Brown was seeing something going on that seemed to defy our common sense notion that all things in motion eventually come to rest. His experience emphasizes the reality that observation by itself is not seeing. The psychologist David Faust, in his book The Limits of Scientific Reasoning, states, "...human thinking must be actively applied in constructing a scientific picture of the world, ... obtaining direct reflections of the external world is not only impossible but would likely render nothing but a buzzing mass of confusion." Brown was observing what is now called the most direct evidence of the atomic nature of matter. But he couldn't see it.

Albert Einstein published his "Investigations on the Theory of Brownian Movement" 80 years later, in 1905. He used the atomic theory and the kinetic theory of gases to show that Brown's motion could be explained by treating the suspended particles as though they were simply very large gas molecules in equilibrium with the much smaller moving particles of the surrounding gas/liquid. The persistent motion of the observed particles could be explained by the random and persistent motion of the atoms moving "behind" the scenes that were colliding with the particles that could be seen. Einstein had taken the "colors" of atomic theory and Boltzmann's kinetic theory of gases and used them to allow scientists to "see" the atomic world in a way that left no doubt that the natural world really does consist of atoms and void. The vision given to us by Einstein has enabled us to understand and manipulate that atomic world to an unprecedented degree, to the point that we are considering constructing the next generation of quantum computers atom by atom. Jacob Bronowski in his book, The Common Sense of Science, (1951) writes, "Science is fact and thought giving strength to one another."

Ronald Giere in his book Understanding Scientific Reasoning (Giere, Bickle, and Mauldin, 5th ed., Thomson Wadsworth, Canada, 2006) describes this process using a model for a scientific episode, as shown in the figure to the left. The model nicely illustrates the existence of two worlds, united by the scientific process of creating knowledge. First, there is the real world and the data that are obtained through careful observation of that world. Second, there is the model created by the scientist, from which can be obtained predictions about what should be observed under such and such conditions. By carefully matching the conditions of the experiments to those assumed for the predictions, one tests the validity of the model by checking the accuracy of the prediction relative to the data. The model and real world never overlap. They are brought close to one another through the deliberate actions of the scientist. By creating a model that is able to match real world data with its predictions, the scientist constructs usable knowledge about the world, and enables us to see what is invisible.

Albert Einstein described his efforts to bring these two worlds together as "seeking to know the mind of God." Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables marveled at the existence of two infinites, the infinite without and the infinite within. "At the same time that there is an infinite without us, is there not an infinite within us? Are not these two infinites (what an alarming plural!) superposed, the one upon the other?" We stand before an infinite unknown. By constructing knowledge that draws upon our ability to create predictive models, we build a bridge out into that unknown, and feel for the things our model tells us should be there. If not, we step back and try again. If so, we consider the new addition to our knowledge potentially trustworthy for bearing up under additional construction that extends even farther into that unknown. There is neither an end to the unknown nor an end to our striving to perceive it.

Understanding the process of scientific reasoning about invisible phenomena helps us understand how we see anything. Learning about how to see new things, or things newly, is what makes life exciting. It teaches us how to appreciate knowledge that we have, and to appreciate both the limitations and the value of that knowledge. Knowledge is useful because it helps us gain more knowledge, and helps us prepare for the unknown future, a future that by physical law is always going to be more complex than our past. Therefore the goal of a liberal arts education is not to gain (and flaunt) knowledge, but to learn the process by which knowledge breeds knowledge, the crucial process that uniquely enables human beings to deal with the inevitably increasing uncertainty of our world.

Knowledge breeding knowledge means constructing piece by piece a framework (map) that allows us to reach out into the unknown: the unknown past, the unknown present, and the unknown future, all for the sake of enabling us to grow, prosper, be happy! It's not a perfect map. It's not the reality itself. And the crucial thing is that the map is developed through a process of trial and error, building on the knowledge assumed to be reliable or correct. Can new knowledge be obtained by assuming that something is true? That is, if (the knowledge being tested for reliability) is true, then some other potentially reliable knowledge might entail. Hypotheses are about testing what we think we know, by starting from what we think we know and following the logic from there. But that reliable knowledge also depends on many previously "established" concepts, and there are misconceptions and errors built in all throughout the edifice of our understanding. Like the "errors" built into and hidden in our genetic code, hidden conceptual errors are usually manageable or benign. But just because we've lived with those errors so far doesn't mean they aren't errors, or they won't bedevil our thinking, eventually. When knowledge thought to be reliable turns out not to be, that is the opportunity we need to reexamine and rethink what we know, to develop more reliable concepts that can be used in an even greater variety of circumstances.

Knowledge is precious. It enables to live and to act with confidence, like a GPS on a foggy day. But knowledge is never enough, for we stand before an infinite unknown. A liberal arts education should bring students to the brink of the unknown. It should make them aware of the knowledge they are standing on as they reach out to make sense of what is yet unseen. It should make them ready to draw a conceptual map of what they see to guide others in taking the next step out into the unknown. The task of knowledge construction is one that draws on all the liberal arts. It is the human endeavor that cannot be undertaken without the liberal arts. Let's go beyond the tradition of knowledge preservation and knowledge consumption. Let's embrace our calling as practitioners of the liberal arts to engage in knowledge construction for the sake of meeting our uncertain world head on! And let's train the next generation of students in the art of knowledge construction by bravely facing with them the infinite unknown.

Thank you for your attention.