I’ve been thinking a lot about knowledge and belief lately, two topics that every teacher should be mulling over on a regular basis. I thought I would share with you five really silly things I believed when I was a kid, and then try to draw a conclusion about knowledge and belief. Here they are in no particular order:
1. There’s this chemical in some swimming pools that will cause the water to change color if you pee in it.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that such a chemical actually existed. (It doesn’t, of course, but just pretend). What would be the market for it? I mean, who would actually want to put this chemical in their swimming pool? Let’s say you have this chemical in your pool, and there’s a bunch of people swimming at your pool party, and then suddenly the water changes color. Everyone freaks out and jumps out of the pool. Now what? Are you going to drain the pool? Imagine putting this chemical into a public pool. The water would be pretty much continuously changing color, especially in the vicinity of just about every little kid in the water. You see, it’s just a fact of life that people pee in pools. A chemical that would change the water color in response to this wouldn’t prevent them peeing (and it might actually make some of the eight-year-old boys want to pee, just to change the water color ) but it would sure make for a headache for the owner of the pool.
2. If you leave tea bag in the tea too long, the tea will turn poisonous.
Can you even begin to imagine the lawsuits that tea companies like Tetley and Lipton would face if this one were true? Never mind the fact that if this were true tea would pretty much be deadlier than heroin, crack cocaine, moonshine, crystal meth, or just about any other substance short of plutonium. It would also make tea the perfect murder weapon. While the pee-in-the-pool-detector thing had a certain strange logic to it, this belief was just plain idiotic.
3. Bubble Yum is made with spiders’ eggs.
I’m going to forgive myself for believing this one, because it was actually a pretty widespread urban myth back in the late 70’s. But what I really can’t understand is why, in spite of our belief that Bubble Yum was made with spiders’ eggs, we continued to chew it anyway!
4. Cows and bulls are different animals. There are boy cows and girl cows, and boy bulls and girl bulls.
Needless to say, I didn’t grow up on a farm. I also remember believing that all dogs are boys and all cats are girls, but Disney movies actually taught me the truth about that one at a much earlier age. You know, Lady and the Tramp and all that sort of thing.
5. Greenland is bigger than South America.
You know those Mercator projection maps that change scale as they get closer to the poles and, as a result, distort the size of large land masses, such as Greenland? Yeah. I never realized that that was a scale distortion thing, and I thought that Greenland was this massive, frozen, barren wasteland that completely dwarfed even South America.The actual size of Greenland is a bit different; it’s still pretty big, but hardly the gigantic landmass I thought it was. I guess it never occurred to me throughout all my years of childhood to look at an actual globe.
So what’s my point, other than amused nostalgia? It’s intriguing to me, looking back on it all, how much silly stuff I believed without thinking about questioning or researching it on my own. I tended to accept the view of reality that was placed before me, either through what I saw (the Mercator map), what others told me (the pee chemical, poison tea, and Bubble Yum) or my own completely subjective intuitions (cows and bulls). Why do we do this? Why are we so reluctant to find out the truth about things for ourselves?
I suppose the answer is fairly simple: it’s hard work. And unfortunately, the truth isn’t always something you can discover on your own. Consider my examples above. Let’s assume that I wanted to find out the truth about those things; what could I have done?
1. A little research would have easily disproven the first four beliefs. But the research would have to be based on a reliable source (such as an encyclopedia or respected national newspaper; today one could, presumably, consult their online equivalents). But when I was a kid, did I even know what constitutes a “reliable source”? Do kids today? Every teacher should teach his or her students how to judge the quality of a source of information, either on or off-line.
2. The fifth belief, about the Mercator map, would be even easier to disprove. Just look at a globe and compare it to the map. But this raises an interesting problem of its own; why should I trust either the globe or the map? After all, they aren’t the result of my own inquiry, but they were created by geographers whose expertise I have to trust. Does it make sense to do this, or should I be skeptical? And frankly, the same problem really exists with the first four points. Even if a trusted authority revealed that cows are indeed girls and Bubble Yum is not made of spiders’ eggs and tea is not a deadly weapon and there is no chemical that changes the color of pool water if you pee in it, I would still be forced, in all cases, to simply believe what the authority says. Arriving at the truth first hand, rather than through an intermediary, is much easier said than done.
The fact is that sometimes we do have to trust authority. Most of us lack the knowledge and expertise required to form our own expert opinions on a whole range of subjects, including, among many others, the physical sciences, medicine, and history. I have to take the word of physicists that atoms exist. I have to take the word of biologists that genes exist. And I have to take the word of historians that ancient Sumer existed. Our goal as teachers is not to teach students to ignore all authority and discover the truth of everything on their own, but to learn to distinguish reliable from unreliable authorities, to separate fact and truth from propaganda and opinion. All genuine education is born of skepticism. But skepticism is not cynicism. A cynic simply dismisses everything the authority says (“Ah, what do scientists know anyway?”), whereas a skeptic weighs and measures the words of as many authorities as possible before arriving at a conclusion. Knowing when to trust authority and when to be suspicious is extremely difficult, as most issues are not cut and dried and have multiple viewpoints, each of which needs to be examined. But we must teach our students how to do this. The future depends on it.