The Importance of Observing Nature

In an April 8 blog post which she titled E.O Wilson is (partly) rightUCLA ecologist Jane Shevtsov briefly describes the case for teaching college biology students conceptual math over computational math.

She writes, “You can be a good biologist because of a deep knowledge of natural history, or excellent observational skills, or the ability to think conceptually and analyze arguments. (I would argue that, even in theoretical ecology, the latter skill is more important than pure mathematical knowledge.)”

I certainly agree.  I wonder whether we should take this a step further and suspend teaching math altogether until the student first masters observational skills and a deep knowledge of natural history.  This can start right at birth, by the way.  We don’t need to wait until they’re in college.  We can let babies and children outside where they can observe the sights, smells, and sounds of nature.

It is our “mathematical modeling” of nature (and of complex human phenomena, like the economy), prior to establishing a strong foundation in observation, which can contribute to severe mistakes.  In some important instances we have not been vigilant enough against the all-too-human tendency to adapt our observations to fit our models, rather than the other way around.  Pride enables this.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb calls it Platonicity, our tendency to think we know more than we actually know; because we’ve become infatuated with our mathematical models to such a degree that we eagerly apply them to phenomena that we do not yet understand and/or are too complex for the models.  Rather than taking the wise open-minded path of updating our models, we stubbornly filter and mold our observations to fit our models, believing what our flawed models tell us over what our senses could otherwise show us.  We end up with nonsense (non-sense)…… Allan Savory says is happening with desertification (hence climate change), what our trusted institutions told us about nutrition, and what Taleb and others are saying is happening with our economy.  Very dangerous.  We need to sit back, relax, and observe first.   We must also be prepared to say, “We don’t know” or “We were wrong” when our observations tell us so, and then update our models accordingly.  (However, this requires a rare virtue – humility.)

In the original Wall Street Journal essay on April 5  E.O. Wilson states this concern explicitly, “The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.”  Thus the need for observation first.

Martha Beck says all of  this way better than I can.  In her recent book and TED talk, she proposes a universal natural mending process, which places pure observation (Wordlessness) as the first of four necessary steps.  The other three (in correct sequence) are Oneness, Imagination, and Forming.

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