Authenticity in Honesty (AKA, Thank you Professor Ofsowitz)

I’d wager that if Michael Ofsowits knew that I was writing a blog post about him, he would be both amused and bemused by the gesture. The kind of instructor that writes this about asking stupid question might feel just a bit silly about being talked about in a setting like this; I know I do.

And yet ‘Professor Ofsowitz’ was and remains one of the most formative people in both my unyielding fascination with cognitive and social psychology (ask me to talk to about the fallibility of human cognition – I dare you), as well as my appreciation of thoughtful, welcoming, and challenging pedagogy. The classes that I’ve taken with him were not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. Indeed, he made it a point of education to explain that grading is not just a form of honest feedback, but also an honest prognosis. A less than ideal grade, therefore, should be considered a call for action and change, and while he would love nothing more than to send us home with a clean bill of health, he would be defying his ethical duties if he were to do so when the evidence speaks against it. It wasn’t the amount of material that made the class difficult, which was often less than most of my undergraduate classes, nor the material itself. Rather, the challenge came from the depth with which we were expected to engage with it. Writing assignments and answering test questions presented tasks that could not be done well with simple memorization of the content. We were expected to think about it, to synthesize it with previous information, and ultimately produce a novel thought that stems from our own understanding of the material.

The emphasis on depth in understanding, combined with expert delivery of the class’ content, made all difference in the world to me. I did the readings, submitted the work, and diligently prepared for exams, without wondering what exactly to study, or how to best prioritize the material in a way that maximizes my effort-to-grade ratio. I simply engaged with the content, did well in the class, and was allowed the space to fall in fascination with the material.

In the context of science education, the topic of authenticity comes up rather often (at least in my own teaching preparation program). We ask and discuss questions like “how can we teach science to kids in an authentic way?”, and often speak of things like offering content relevancy, and the facilitation of the kids’ own scientific fascination. And while I find these conversations about authenticity both relevant and meaningful, they are not what I first think of when I consider authenticity. To me, the idea of authenticity in teaching is foremost honestly. It is a setting of clear expectations of effort, and the welcoming of that effort. It is saying: “To get to where we need to get, these are the things that we need to accomplish. Some parts of this journey will require significant effort, but meeting that requirement will be rewarded not only in recognized success, but with inevitable, meaningful, and lasting understanding of how we got to where we’re going”. Ofsowitz’s teaching felt authentic to me because the promise was simple (“Engage with the material meaningfully, and you will do well”), and because at the end of it all it was thoroughly honored.


It is not About Us

As students of science, we are taught to appreciate the importance of research and analysis. We are reminded at every turn to credit and cite our ideas, to construct careful and methodical arguments, and then to practice the performance of these arguments in concise and controlled demonstrations – written and spoken. As scientists, we are trained for rigor. We are taught to forego adjectives and personal attachments to the ideas that we express. We are focused into precision. Nothing should be uttered without the support of elucidated evidence, and every argument ought to be contextualized within the appropriate existing body of work. We are judges against these proficiencies, and we are trained to judge ourselves against them.

We practice and hone these. We learn to appreciate and covet their values. In time, we invoke these proficiencies with meaning and mold our views of ourselves and our world around them. Inevitably, we begin to preach them. We develop a prophetic desire to see others develop the same fiery passion for science, with all its burdens and rewards. With a need to meet this desire, we decide to become teachers – prophets of science.

We stand in front of a classroom, with all that prophetic passion, and we perform. We demonstrate and discuss the fascinating curvatures of scientific exploration. We weave stories with rigor, method, and precision – accessing all those skills we have so carefully honed. Yet the classroom looks on silently – not quite as impressed as we had expected them to be. We’ve conducted our best performance, our skillset spent, but we’ve missed the one fundamental point: It is not about us anymore. It’s not about our prophetic passions, our drives, or our motivations. It is about them, our students. It’s about their learning, their discovery, and all the unasked questions that they not yet had the chance to ask.

As scientists, we are trained to perform. As teachers of science, it is the opposite that’s required of us. We are there to facilitate, to help build. We are there to observe, encourage, and critique, but not perform, not do science. It is not our job anymore – it is theirs.

The Rising Waters of Impact, Control, and Call for Responsibility

The water levels in Lake Ontario are rising. Indeed, its levels are highest they have been in last one-hundred years. These are facts – measurable and salient sets of phenomena, bound only to the mechanics of space-time itself. The question of why, however, is little more turbulent.

Ostensibly, the call for blame can be divided into two camps: On the one hand, we have the proposition that the rising waters are due to the extreme weather the region has seen during the month April. In a statement, the International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board issued a statement last week that “rainfall has been well above normal across the entire basin, with some areas having received at least twice their average amounts since the start of the month…”, and added that “though it has been nearly 20 years since water levels have been this high (since 1998), higher levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have occurred several times in the past and will occur again in the future”.

On the other hand, we have the argument that the cause is due entirely to a Plan 2014, A piece of legislation that was “designed to provide for more natural variations of water levels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that are needed to restore ecosystem health”. Rejections and accusation of the plan have been expressed both by Republican Chris Collins, who stated that he “will do everything in my power to protect the taxpayers, homeowners and small businesses along the Lake Ontario shoreline that are set to be devastated by this bureaucratic disaster, and by Republican John Katko who stated that “Plan 2014 would… cause the loss of shoreline, erosion damage to property, and flooding in the lakefront areas of Wayne County.”

While popular and critical consensus on this issue seems to lean against the notion that Plan 2014 is to blame for the rising water, the conversation brings up what I’ll call the underlying, underexposed issue of anthropogenic impact, control, and elusive responsibility.

The conversation about blame and cause would not have become the hot topic that it has if members of Lake Ontario’s regional community have not decided many decades ago to construct the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, and thus began regulating the flow of water along the Saint Lawrence River. The decision to control a part of the natural environment meant the we now had control to exert over it, one that we often take great (not unfounded) pride in. The problem, as I see it, is that we often see scientific and engineering achievements, like the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, as conquests. They are not. Rather, they are binding relationships. Having impacted and taken control, we now hold inevitable responsibility over everything that results from this impact and control.

Neither argument for the causes of the rising waters appears to acknowledge this inherent responsibility. One argument is quick to refute human cause as a factor, while the other focuses wholly (and perhaps mistakenly) on a very tangential, anthropocentric, and maybe irrelevant component of human cause. The option to say that “things just happen” has been lost to our civilization several millennia ago, and the impacts to viewing the world through an entirely anthropocentric lens are quickly coming to a head all around us. It is high time we understand that science, engineering, and everything is between is more than a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, but rather the fostering of a relationship, with the responsibilities that it entails.

Science – Doing the Supernatural

Science is pretty darn cool. It is a unique set of tools that allows us to ask answerable questions about how, why, and to what end, things in the world are the way that they are, while providing a humbling set of expectations: If what we believe is borne by the evidence, then we are in good stance to maintain that belief. If it is not, then we have the obligation to forego that belief and replace it with one that is not at odds with the evidence. Through this method we have been able tap deeper and deeper into every facet of discovery.

Science, however, is expensive; and I do not mean its cost in dollars and cents (though it is not a trivial one), but rather the cognitive burden that it puts on those who engage with it. Science isn’t easy. Firstly, it requires that we learn to use its tools: ‘hypothesis’, ‘model’, ‘data’, etc. Then it requires that we forego, or at least subdue, our own intuition and desires about what ought to be true, and subject ourselves to the rule of theory and evidence. Anecdotes, stories, feeling, wants, and personal experiences, must all be subjected to skepticism under this process. For that reason, science is also very unnatural. Millions of years of adaption have taught us to revere the experiences of others and our own, and treat them as the best estimate of what is true. For this reason, the most barebone testimonial from an acquaintance stills bears more immediate emotional weight than the most balanced statistical review.

The issue of the ‘unnatural nature’ of science is not coined by me. Indeed, it has been explored in a few scholarly publications (e.g Wolpert, L, 1998). Rather than exploring this broad issue, I’d simply like to consider the particular difficulty that it could potentially pose in the classroom. That is, with these attributes of science in mind, how might we nonetheless inspire our students that science is not in fact “out there”, at odds and in competition with the rest our experiential paradigm?

One way, I would suggest, is to re-frame the ‘bug’ as a ‘feature’. Yes, we can admit, science is indeed cognitively expensive. And yes, we can concede, at times it feels entirely at odds with all the ways in which we experience the world. But critically, we may then suggest, these aspects of science are precisely how it allows to do all the things that it does. It is a codified means by which we can transcend millions of years of learned behavior. And for that, it is unique means by which may discover new, unexpected, and exciting ways to think about the world and ourselves. Rather than unnatural, we might instead offer science as a path to the supernatural. A set of tools that doesn’t replace everything that we are, but rather augments and enriches it. Accessing such specials powers,  we could then say, is no mean feat; it requires attention, effort, and rigor, but its rewards are special indeed.


Wolpert, L. (1998). The unnatural nature of science. Harvard University Press.