The eternal search for the magic bullet: learning calculus and nutrition

David L. Katz Cooks, Kooks, Culture and Calculus: a Lesson in How We Treat Nutrition — “We don’t sanction a daily dose of hogwash about how to best learn calculus.”

“If we treated calculus the way we treat carbs or calories, no one would ever learn it. We would be too busy arguing over the best magical way to teach it.

Health, weight and nutrition are just as meritorious as, and more intimately relevant to more of us than, all these other subjects. They, too, are products of imperfect methods and knowledge that can be improved. But they are also products of established methods and considerable knowledge that can be applied right now, to stunningly good effect. If any other legitimate field of inquiry does not invite experts, pseudo-experts and non-experts alike to reinvent our knowledge and methods every day, and disparage everyone who came before – why does nutrition? Maybe it just doesn’t matter as much to us. After all, it’s only the construction material for the growing bodies of children we love.

We don’t sanction a daily dose of hogwash about how best to learn calculus with no investment of time, effort or study. But we tune in routinely to just such nonsense about health, weight and food. We squander the opportunity to use what we know. We allow far too many cooks and kooks into the kitchen, with the inevitable outcome: a culture awash in spoiled stew.”

The problem here is that calculus proficiency has better metrics. Errors in a mathematical proof are much more concrete than errors in nutritional know-how. That is why you don’t get so much hogwash about calculus as you do about nutrition and health — or about how to learn. In education there is a fundamental issue of the difference between knowledge and skill that is often clouded. You can “learn” a new language but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can carry on a conversation with a speaker of that language. You may have acquired a skill with the vocabulary and the grammar of the language but are still missing the knowledge needed for effective communication with it. This dilemma is seen in the difficulties involved in getting computers to understand language. Computer programs express skill but not knowledge. In the trades, this distinction is shown in the classification of apprentice, journeyman, and master. 

But if you want hogwash in hard sciences, take a look at quantum mechanics or astrophysics where some who suffer in knowledge try to pretend they don’t. Or look at many of the issues plaguing politics like climate change or energy production.

Some people work to improve ideas and innovate. Others just wish for a genie in a bottle that can produce a magic bullet.

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