Message from the NSTF Executive Director


A matter of Truth and Agency

There are some important principles underlying philosophy and learning that we owe to the ancient Greeks of about 2500 years ago. They lie at the roots of our justice system and democracy too. The following expressions would be well known to most academics, but for the non-academics and to remind all of us, these principles of life, learning and politics are briefly reviewed:

Critical thinking

The word critical is derived from the Greek ‘kritikos’ which means critic. The concept includes being “able to discern”. The word and its application are traceable to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates, the Classical Greek philosopher.

Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is a form of ‘cooperative argumentative dialogue’ (Wikipedia). Plato referred to Socrates’s method as ‘midwifery’ because it assists in giving birth to the truth. It is a method that can be used for teaching, with the purpose of guiding the listener to understanding something.

Know thyself

(…wrote the ancient Greeks on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi). This was a key principle for the ancient Greeks, and is today just as difficult to do – and as important – as it was millennia ago.
The wisdom embedded in the above words and phrases is more needed now than ever before, as an American president is able to get away (thus far) with literally thousands of lies, uttered in speeches and on social media, and seeks to mislead, not only the American people, but the world as a whole. At the same time, connected by the internet, as billions of us are, it is impossible to sift through the deluge of information in general.

Public ‘knowledge’

The ‘traditional’ media (print, radio, television) usually curated the information that reached the public in some way. In public political debates, the information was especially sourced from the media. This had major disadvantages in an authoritarian state with propaganda machinery. But it had, and still has, one important advantage – that professional journalists are involved in generating the content. Even in the Apartheid years that was the case, although it took courage to report on information that the government wanted suppressed. Often journalists did a good job of uncovering the truth, only to have their reports pre-censored or blocked, i.e. not published. Post-apartheid, we are extremely privileged in South Africa to be allowed a free press, and for freedom of expression to be honoured. Journalists are still the guardians of our democracy. In particular, they have proved this repeatedly during the challenging past ten years or so. The problem is that many people would not read or listen to our best investigative journalists.

In-between then (Apartheid) and now, the social media emerged. Social media and the internet threaten the sustainability of other media, and there is less work and work security for journalists. Traditional media messages are now also disseminated via social media. However, messages with no basis in investigation or truth are also disseminated, passed on, liked, read and believed by millions of people. Now nothing has to be censored, hesitated over before publishing, considered by an editor or some kind of gatekeeper.

Is this the very opposite experience to that of the Apartheid years? Is it really that different then and now? Then, there was so much intimidation and censorship that the truth had to struggle to be heard. Now, there is so much information at our fingertips, that again – the truth has to struggle to be heard.

Now, as then, the best defence is a critical mind and a questioning attitude. For example, that dire security warning that your best friend sent you on WhatsApp – why does it refer to dollars and not rands, when the dangerous incident supposedly happened in your neighbourhood? Why do the cars in the video drive on the right-hand side of the road instead of the left? That other video of a socially outrageous incident – what is the other side of the story? Who sent the video in the first place and with what possible motives? The reflex actions of passing on, sharing or retweeting hardly require any thought – so we tend to do so unthinkingly.

Scientists know that an evidence-based approach is best, while the public generally does not.

There is a recent publication called Understanding our political nature – How to put knowledge and reason at the heart of political decision-making (EUR – Scientific and Technical Research Reports 2019), which unpacks why people are not always rational, and sheds light on the strange ways of politics (strange, that is, to the scientific mind). People believe what they want to believe, and that is irrational. The first chapter is about Misinformation. (The authors are David Mair, Laura Smillie, Giovanni La Placa, Florian Schwendinger, Milena Raykovska, Zsuzsanna Pasztor and Rene van Bavel.)

The authors assert that critical thinking is the best defence against misinformation. One should develop ‘epistemic vigilance’ which is looking critically at the information, but also look critically at the sources of the information. Ideally, one should also question one’s own thought processes. We should know and understand the ‘mental models and narratives’ that shape our own perceptions and opinions (‘Know thyself’, as the Greeks would have said).

Unfortunately, it is relatively rare that people practice the above kinds of vigilance, and it is not easy to interrogate one’s own mental models and narratives. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, many people will choose to ignore or resist it, in order to maintain their beliefs. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. If such evidence comes from the ‘opposing political side’ it is even less likely that the truth of the evidence will be accepted.

Then there is a concept called ‘emotional innumeracy’, which is the tendency to exaggerate certain types of news. If the news is particularly worrying to an individual or group, they will believe that the problem is more widespread than it actually is. People also have a ‘negativity bias’ so that they focus more on negative news. False news is often negative, and it spreads ‘significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth’.

In any case, people generally find probability and simple percentages too challenging to deal with, so these tools of critical thinking are lacking. Positive changes that happen slowly and gradually are also likely to be missed.

Hannah Arendt, German-American philosopher and political theorist, (quoted in the above publication) said:

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. […] And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

She was talking about authoritarianism in Europe’s history, but the quote is also applicable to modern democracy. People need critical minds, but also discernment. As South Africans we have a habit of being critical of everything done in South Africa or by South Africans. But if you criticise everything across the board, you are not choosing for what is worthy, positive and hopeful. When you have discernment, you can make thoughtful, intelligent choices – which Democracy relies upon to work.

Where are we as South Africa in relation to critical and scientific thinking? The positive indications are: as mentioned above, we have a free press; science remains firmly on the ANC government’s agenda; STEM education remains a priority on the education authorities’ agenda; the science community produces excellent outcomes (c.f. the NSTF Awards); and the urgent need to take advantage of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is recognised by the Presidency.

South Africa cannot take advantage of 4IR technologies for development without science (or more broadly, without science, engineering and technology). The unintended effects of 4IR technologies cannot be anticipated, prevented or remedied without science. At the same time, it is important for South Africa, and its citizens, to have a sense of agency, a sense that one can make a difference, in order to take advantage of or mitigate the effects of the 4IR.

However, there is also much to be concerned about in South Africa. Chunks of our school system are largely dysfunctional, the digital divide is growing and some politicians exploit the people’s despair and anger by reinforcing negative stereotypes and calling for forceful action. Most concerning of all is that public funding for research has not kept pace with inflation. Although South Africa’s researchers are resourceful, and punch above their weight, South Africa cannot expect to maintain competitiveness in research and innovation, in the context of the 4IR, without increased support.

The teaching of STEM subjects is still lacking at school level. As other immediately pressing matters take centre stage (like the lack of safe sanitation, proper shelter, safety, and crime-riddled neighbourhoods), issues of pedagogy are regarded as secondary. Yet, like research, sound teaching in STEM subjects is an essential long-term investment with great and much-needed returns.

NSTF held a STEM Education and Maths Reform discussion forum in August last year (2018). The Maths Reform part of it, which ran over two days, gave insight into the education system as a whole. Teachers were recognised as the single most important factor in the successful learning of the learners. Not classroom materials, nor tablets, nor attractive classrooms – although these all have their uses. There was a strong consensus throughout the two days that positive maths reform would happen only if teachers changed their teaching to align with what is thought of as the best pedagogy – a variation of the Socratic Method. This is (in short) a learner centred way of teaching, where the learner is coached to think and talk about the mathematical problem he/she is solving. It involves the teacher asking questions of the learner, e.g. what steps can be taken to solve such a problem, why a specific approach didn’t work out, or why the same answer is arrived at through different methods. The emphasis is on exploring and being reflective. This should build a sense of agency, or intellectual independence. Children should be allowed and assisted to make their own choices of methods. “This free choice of transformation and computation methods affords the child autonomy,” said renowned maths educationist, Alwyn Olivier, at our discussion forum.

When discussing teacher support, the (very qualified and experienced) participants agreed that one-on-one teacher advice and support over a sustained period of time were best. Incremental changes can be made over time and are more likely to be successful than trying to effect major changes overnight. The method of assisting teachers should be similar to that desired for learners. So it is patient and persistent work, as all good teaching for lasting results should be.

All of the above evidence-based conclusions apply to maths education, but similar principles apply to other subjects, most certainly to all the STEM subjects, where logic is the medium in which understanding grows. The teaching of all school subjects should involve leading the learners to gradually take charge of their own learning, developing curiosity and finding intrinsic rewards in their studies. These are, after all, similar to the characteristics of good research – finding one’s own direction, taking initiative, questioning, being curious and searching for the truth.
In the end – whether we are considering the news, the deluge of information, or the pronouncements of politicians, the best defence against both tyranny and anarchy is a critical, investigative and independent mind. To engage meaningfully with mathematics and science, the same kind of mind is required.

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.