Page 129 - MODES of EXPLANATION

Basic HTML Version

The contrast between what is triggered by a constructivist hearing the words “this is science”
and the realist hearing those same words is best captured by the Gibsonian concept of an
“affordance.” This is “an action possibility available in the environment to an individual,
independent of the individual’s ability to perceive this possibility” (McGrenere & Ho, 2000).
Gibson (1977, 1979) first used the term to refer to actionable properties between world and
actor (a person or an animal). To Gibson, affordances are relationships. They exist naturally;
they do not have to be visible, known, or desirable. “Affordances provided by the
environment are what it offers, what it provides, what it furnishes and what it invites”
(Gibson, 1979). A chair can also afford holding things and therefore affords being used as a
“table,” or it can afford being used as a step stool, or as decoration as an art object (among
many other possibilities). Affordances extend across users and vary with them. Affordances
occur when self and other, perceiver and perceived, objects and persons meet in actionable
combinations. They invite participation, action, and response. When circumstance invites a
reaction, context demands a response, or the situation offers an opportunity, something is
afforded. In affordance, perception, information, and activity are related in a manner that
seems to beg for action. Affordances are about opportunities, dangers, and possibilities that
call organism, consciousness, and environment to activity and sense-making.
To say that we are teaching “science” will afford lessons about methodology to some
and will be about “truth” to others. To teach evolution without mentioning its “holes” (e.g.,
the accidentalism versus creator argument) and its incompleteness may be seen as a
consequence of teaching what we know as “good theory” to some, and the affordance of a
status of “truth” to incompleteness by others. To create an atmosphere where the scientific
method and the virtues of falsifiable experimentation are afforded the status of “good” can be
seen as a valued teaching tool by some and as a threat to a proclaimed virtue of accepting the
declarations of “authority” by others. (And, of course, some of those holding the first point of
view will welcome the second interpretation as well.)
Affordances are not just labels; that is, the product of a subject’s naming something.
Nor are affordances retrospective; that is, a quality of reality identified after the fact.
Affordances are prospective – context invites action, environment points to activity. In
affordances, world, situation, and location point to action, shout for response, and offer
opportunities for attainment. And the affordance question in the creationism/evolution debate
is about what the label of “science” and boundaries of what does and does not get taught
imply for the future cognition and behavior of the students being taught.
Labels and boundaries abound in that debate. They are themselves representative of
another item from our pragmatic constructivist perspective: the part of speech known as
synecdoche. A synecdoche is the use of a part to stand for a whole; for instance, when one
refers to a car as “wheels” or implicitly embodies an organization by the interactions with its
representative. Synecdoche has become a communication tool of which most of us lack any
awareness. We use metaphors as synecdoche (relying on the mapping we make of similarities
and ignoring the more complex arena of dissimilarity and context dependence). Brands are
perhaps our paradigmatic synecdoche, as is the media’s love of the soundbite and the
internet’s love of the keyword or the Twitter handle. To make use of a belief in the “bell
10