Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is It Is or Is It Ain't?

As far back as I can remember, I have always had a baseline in my critical thinking process and it is this: facts win.

I'm not sure I ever really believed in Santa Claus, for example. I may have, but I must have been very, very young at the time because it didn't take me long to figure out that there were closets we weren't allowed to look in after a certain point in the fall. And there was a reason for that. I didn't get any less excited about Christmas. I just understood that Mom and Dad were footing the bill. I was okay with that. I didn't care who gave me presents. I just wanted presents. Santa was an entirely expendable idea.

Through the years since that time (and there have been more than a few of them), I have pretty much stuck to this baseline.

I might believe something that is patently untrue, but I won't typically believe it long. For one thing, being in denial about one thing or another has kicked my ass enough times that I have learned the hard way that this is an ill-advised perspective.

Besides, it is what it is. I've been told this is a Navaho line and I, for one, use it a lot. It is what it is. You can believe in Santa if you want to, but it doesn't make Santa real -- even if you believe really, really hard. And while believing in Santa may not do much damage, believing some fictions can.

Sociologist W.I. Thomas discussed why. He wrote that when we believe something is true (even when it is NOT), it can become true in its consequences. In other words, if I come into the classroom with an automatic weapon, giving my students to understand that I've lost my mind and I'm taking myself out and them with me, all hell is likely to break loose. First, they may not believe me. "Is this some crazy explanatory stunt?" they might ask themselves. But if they decide I'm serious, conseqences will ensue. Some will rush for the door. Some will rush for me. Some will hit the floor or jump behind their classmates. And according to the movies, somebody might wet their pants.

When I show them that the "weapon" is a squirt gun and tell them that I just wanted to illustrate W.I. Thomas' theory, the ones left in the classroom will take their seats, shaking their heads, maybe even disgruntled. But the one who pee'ed his or her pants will still have wet pants -- even though the threat was not real. Capiche?

I'm forever running into students who want to "argue" with my "opinions."

"I don't agree with you (or the book or the research or whatever)," they will say.

And I ask them what they are basing their disagreement on. I have no vested interest in "being right." I have great concern about knowing what's real, what's true, what's really going on instead of what we think is going on. So any student (or friend or colleague or blogger or anyone else) who can demonstrate how my understanding of x is flawed is appreciated. But I tell my students from day one that they better be prepared to bring it. I base what I say in the classroom on forty years of personal study, on centuries of recorded history, on replicated scientific research based in solid theory, on seven uninterrupted years of graduate school, and I'm not interested in "arguing" with somebody's knee-jerk opinion based on...oh...whatever they learned from Uncle Joe at the family picnics (especially when it becomes readily apparent that Uncle Joe was basing his opinions on a tract he picked up at church or a case he once heard about from a guy at his local bar involving this Mexican guy who makes more money than him).

I'm not trying to be rude here, but you'd be surprised how simple things get when you just require that people be accountable for what comes out their mouths. So one of the central ideas my students learn, no matter what the topic of the course, is that they need to know what they're talking about.

Unfortunately, it's often difficult to get this across to the rest of the world.

So we have legislators in Louisiana right now about to decide (again) that creationism (the literal Biblical presentation of how the Earth and the human race came into being) is just as valid an idea as documentable evidence to the contrary. These are, according to virtually the entire State House of Representatives here, just two differing opinions and therefore equally reasonable to study in schools. The problem with this, of course, is that when you do that, you teach children (without them even knowing that you're doing so) that an opinion based on "faith" (I just know that I know that I know) is as reasonable a perspective as one based on "fact" (reality). And once you have established that, then an 18-year-old who's never read a single book all the way through, who's never seen anything but the town she was born in, whose experience of life has been totally prescribed by conservative politics and religious television programming, can believe that her opinions are just as valid as those of someone who has worked hard to find out and document the way things really work.

The result of this kind of "individualistic" "thinking" is that it allows anybody to believe anything without having to prove anything. And endless arguments between fact and fiction can then take the place of critical analysis wherein differing interpretations of the facts are argued.
The Ricardo Levins Morales poster featured above is available from the Northland Poster Collective.


cero said...

Well, freedom of speech / belief doesn't mean every sentence is equally true but your average American seems to think they mean that. Which of course means they utterly misunderstand the point of free speech.

Changeseeker said...

Excellent point, cero! While the concept of free speech does, in fact, imply the concept of "free to be wrong" or "free to be ignorant of reality", it most assuredly does NOT mean that all perspectives are equally valid. And therein lies the rub for many people in our culture, particularly since so many of us are profoundly under-educated. We aren't taught the true history of the U.S. or the world. We aren't taught to critically think. And we aren't taught to respect other cultures. All of which leave many of us spouting ignorance and calling it music.

Professor Zero said...

And slightly O/T, but speaking of music - I have discovered that 106.5 FM of Baton Rouge now streams over the Internet at 8-10 is the live blues show from Club Raggs:

Omar said...

this reminds me of a time i had an argument with a extremely religious Christian girl in criminal justice about freedom of speech and saying Christian prayers out loud at football games and graduation etc much less non Christian payers she argued?. do those exist? either way i said if they had the right to say them then i had the right to go where ever i want and not hear them. She insisted it was her right to say them out loud and i argued it was mine not to hear it and if she didn't say them out loud it wouldn't harm anyone but if she did say them out loud people of other religions or of no religion might become aggravated or upset. So to avoid that how about just not doing it at all? haha i.d.k. but that makes sense to me, but yeah kids these days are highly impressionable and believe any bullshit that comes out of another persons mouth.

Changeseeker said...

That's good information, PZ. I will definitely check it out next Thursday.

Welcome, Omar! It's a pleasure to have you join us. Yeah, the whole prayer thing here in "the Bible belt" is pretty surreal. I pray, but it wouldn't any more occur to me to pray out loud at a public event than it would to burst into song at the post office. I really don't consider shoving your religion down somebody else's throat to be a very Christian act. It's kind of guerilla faith, I guess. Or gorilla faith maybe. Oooo...time for bed.