Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can a Mechanism be Known?

In a comment on an earlier post the commentary by Allen Buskirk and Hediyeh Baradaran and reviewer response commentaries in this month's issue of the Journal of Chemical Education was brought up.  The commentary raises the issue of if a mechanism can be known, and if we should teach mechanisms as known in the traditional one-year organic course.  The commentary is provocative and worth reading and thinking about.

One issue raised was the idea that, by teaching students that a mechanism can only be proven to be in error and not be proven to be correct, we discourage them.

We fear, however, that the idea that mechanisms can never be proven or even supported by evidence will discourage students from using all the tools at their disposal. 

My experience has been the opposite.  The idea that not all is known and that what we think we know may be in error ignites the imagination of many students.  When we suggest that they might add to our understanding or invent the new tool that will help us get a clearer picture of what is happening is just the tonic needed to inspire more students to enter careers in the sciences.

Personally, I believe that it is a good thing in general to teach people that there are no absolutes.  All "knowledge" is biased by the perspective of the observer.  Remaining open to the possibility that we are wrong, questioning why we believe, and seeking a more universal truth is at the core of science, and would serve us well outside the lab.  It is the belief that we know absolute truth already that keeps us from using all the tools at our disposal to make a better world.

T.S. Hall

1 comment:

  1. Uncertainty here doesn't bother me. It's fun to debate it and try to come up with crazier mechanisms sometimes, but the current ones are reasonable enough. They get me through exams.

    I tried to support a far less reasonable mechanism in a publication recently, just to increase that uncertainty. It's fun to keep problems open ended.