25 February 2011

I Want to Believe

The Elusive Jackalope by Jerry W. Lewis CC-BY-NC-SA
A friend of mine, who is a biology teacher, manages to convince his students each and every year that jackalopes exist in the wild. There are always a few skeptics at the beginning, but his mounted proof, like the one shown on the left, starts to wear down their resistance. Heavily embellished stories of the habits and habitats of these beasts heighten the sense of reality, as does peer pressure. Hey, 29 other teenagers in the room are buying it, why shouldn't I? The coup de grace is delivered by the Internet. A simple Google search returns hundreds of images and stories about the jackalope.Therefore, it must be true.

I was thinking about this whole madcap adventure recently when a few of us were talking about the need for everyone to develop a good "bullshit detector." (Or, if you prefer, to develop "information literacy" skills.) I can remember lots of examples over the years of my career where I was a bit stunned by what students (and adults) of all ages believed---and how many of them refused to adjust these inaccuracies. Do you have any idea how many people out there think the blood in your veins is actually blue? Because that's how every anatomy drawing depicts things. Or, hey, the veins you can see through your skin are blue, so what's inside must be blue, too. Or my personal favourite, "My third grade teacher said it was."

I Want to Believe by mat- CC-BY-NC-ND
I used to do an activity called Checking Your Facts at the beginning of the year. I gave students ten urban legends to examine. They could pick any four that they wanted---and the goal was not so much to accept or reject the truths presented, but rather to consider sources. I was surprised each year by how many kids would find sources that fit the pre-conceived notions in their heads (e.g. that George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made from wood).

It is simple enough to point to a lack of critical thinking...the lack of the bs detector...that enables such beliefs to persist. But I'm not so sure it's due to ignorance or utter gullibility. I think that if you like the idea of a jackalope, then you're going to want to find one. Beyond that, however, is that most kids trust adults. They expect us to tell the truth. If we say jackalopes exist...or that the blood in your veins is blue...then believing that is a lot more comfortable than thinking that grown-ups have been lying all along.

In science circles, there is lots of talk about identifying and addressing student misconceptions. I don't know how many success stories there are...how many kids actually change how they think the world works because we give them new experiences. And although my view is a bit more broad now---looking at developing a bullshit detector that applies in all areas---the challenge is the same. It has to be safe to ask certain questions of yourself and challenge those of others. How do we create learning environments that move students from wanting to believe...to wanting to believe the evidence?


Hugh O'Donnell said...

It's always a big day when you have your first epiphany that the printed word is not reliable. My Dad, my first teacher (and my Latin II teacher), helped cushion the blow by explaining why this could happen.

Logic and critical thinking is another shield for rationality, and my book of choice for reference is "Nonsense" by Robert Gula.

doyle said...

You realize, of course, that if we manage to teach children how to discern, this house of cards economy falls back into the rabbit hole from which it rose.

Dr Pezz said...

Indeed, it is a strange-dispos├Ęd time.
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

Snippety Gibbet said...

In college Speech class, I remember a fellow student recommending that I look up my topic in the National Enquirer. Back in 1977, I had never heard of the publication and was fascinated at the information I found within. I probably even used it as a source. The topic was "the funeral industry" so Lord only knows what I found in the Enquirer! Wish I still had that paper.