I wonder, wonder, wonder
Is it valuable to question our thinking about evidence?
Editor’s note: This was originally available only to paid subscribers. As of 31 May 2020, I made it available to any readers.—JohnL
I wonder a lot. That is to say that I am a wondering guy. Please don’t think I mean that I’m a wonderful guy. I’ve heard from plenty of people who consider me the opposite of a wonderful guy.
What I mean is that I wonder about relationships between and among features of our world. I wonder why the sky appears bluer at some times than others. I wonder why some students seem to zoom through content and others seem to plod. I wonder why some teachers can do a better job of hamming it up when challenging their students to try hard.
Wondering is wonderful to me. Wondering helps me to learn stuff. In a way, wondering is simply a description of a deprivation state for me. That is, I wonder when I’m in the condition of not knowing something.
Wondering seems to satisfy people in different ways. Please let me illustrate.
In our day-to-day life, we might wonder why events occur. Why did our cat, Luci (when she does something wrong, Pat calls her “Lucinda Lou Lloyd”) jump up on the windowsill? Is she doing so because she’s imagining stalking birds? Is she expecting to get warm from the sunlight? I settle on an explanation and go back to reading whatever (the New Yorker, Wired, just-received texts from one of my colleagues, etc.). Or I simply let the wonder go.
I might subsequently observe Luci changing her gaze in correspondence to the movement of a squirrel, and consider that sufficient evidence that the reason she jumped on the sill was so that she could watch other animals on the porch. But, my conclusion could be dead wrong (post hoc ergo propter hoc).
In depending on our own thinking, we get answers to our wonders that are not particularly rigorously resolved...we get an answer that “satisfies us” and we move ahead, drop the question. One problem with this thinking approach is that the more we practice it, the more we are likely to come to accept our conclusions, even it they are faulty. (“Oh, the last time Luci jumped up there, it was because she got to use her wired-in feline thinking about stalking prey.”)
Sheesh, Occam’s razor should slice the ears off that weak argument!
Perhaps it would help if we talked about these observations with others, seeking to move toward consensus. After all, if I have a mistaken idea and share it with a smart, informed pal, she could correct the errors in my observations and interpretations.
I remember a delightful conversation with Alan Repp, my colleague in the mid 1970s at Northern Illinois University. Over the previous week, we had been discussing writing projects on which we were working. One spring afternoon, we were both in the hall outside our offices and asked each other about those projects. Alan said (paraphrasing here), “Shoot, man. Let’s go get an ice cream and talk about it.”
So we walked to the parking lot, got into Alan’s little green sports car (Fiat, as I recall), traveled the mile or two to the downtown area of DeKalb, and got cups or cones of ice cream (I don’t recall the flavors). Along the way and as we strolled around that tiny downtown, we talked about what reinforced conducting research deliberatively and systematically.
Now, dear reader, before you read past this sentence, please stop for a moment and construct your own answer to that question: What consequence builds and sustains careful research behavior?
Alan and I readily rejected some possible reinforcers. We agreed that research behavior wasn’t sustained by accolades (“getting famous”; one could get famous by conducting shoddy research), though recognition probably played a role. And we dismissed some mystical feeling of accomplishment (“Oh, cool, I won because I stuck with it!”) as the most potent reinforcer.
We settled on this: Those other factors may play roles, but careful research behavior is reinforced by a reduction of uncertainty. There is a negative reinforcement contingency operating. “I didn’t know the answer to the research question. I followed defensible research procedures. Now I know the answer to that question. I have a fact in my hand. I’ve escaped the uncertainty box.” The reinforcer, we decided, was that we no longer had to wonder about the specific research question. We could go onto examining other questions.
Now, it’s important to point out that we arrived at saying that that negative reinforcement contingency was important as a matter of shared mutual reflection. We did not investigate the question scientifically. We were just a small step above me assuming that Lucinda jumped onto the window sill because she “wanted” to look at the birds and squirrels outside on the porch.
To get beyond our (a) simple, private explanations about day-to-day phenomena and (b) shared conversations about thought experiments, we have to begin employing careful reasoning and scientific methods. “Wonder” becomes much more powerful.
If we wonder about the relationship between one phenomenon (say, students’ responding to questions about numeral-number correspondences) and another (say, students’ mastery of arithmetic computation), we have to get data. The Goddesses may be allowed to assert their view that kids who have greater mastery of N-N relationships will have greater Comp skills) but the rest of us (we mere mortals), need data.
Those data that will help us to examine questions (whether they’re about Lucinda and jumping on the window sill or kids’ numeral-number knowledge and computation) have to be trustworthy. That, is we need confidence that those data accurately and consistently represent the phenomena that we are claiming they report.
There are two big-idea aspects to the confidence to which I refer. First, the data must be reliable and valid. Second, the conditions which those data are collected (descriptive, correlational, experimental) must be objectively reported. These topics could be features of future posts!
Wondering prompts me to examine how I know things. I wonder what my thinking is. Am I following well-trod paths of reason and logic or am I getting sidetracked by illusory correlations or other faulty arguments?
Do I have access to research data and methods that allow me to examine evidence? Are the bases for assertions about why Lucinda Lou jumped onto the windowsill available?
Wondering helps me reflect on open science. I wonder about ways of gathering evidence, how important it is for researcher to tell their stories transparently, and for consumers to trust results.
Future wonderers may wonder how today’s researchers determined the relationships between computation competence and numeral-number relationships. We need to leave a clear, trustworthy record so that they can advance knowledge on a solid foundation.
Fundamentally, to me, solving any specific “wondering” is more about advancing knowledge than it is about advancing one’s point of view, career, or theory. It’s about not just removing the uncertainty, the escape from not knowing, but about showing your work in solving the wonder.
I want to learn how the “share button” works for the paid-subscriber posts…just testing. Please share (all 12 of you paid subscribers) and let me know what you observe. Tnx—JohnL