Friday, June 22, 2007

Black and White

I’ve been thinking a lot lately. This post may be a little deep, and quite a few of you will probably think I’m so full of shit that my eyes are brown and my breath smells like farts, but hey! What’s new?

I read an ‘outraged’ comment on someone else’s blog about the whole Evolution vs. Creationism debate, which went roughly as follows:

“The theory of evolution has been changed tons of times over the past few years. When will it end? We all know it’ll probably change again in the future, so we know we’re not teaching kids the truth. It’s just a theory and shouldn’t be taught.”

I’m not going to get into the Evolution vs. Creationism debate here, but the sheer stupidity of that comment left me open mouthed.

If you read nothing else in this post, read this. The reason theories change is because we’re learning more about the subject matter all the time. This is not a weakness, it’s a theory’s greatest strength. A ‘theory’ is just a way of saying “Right now, to the best of our knowledge, this is how we think this thing works.”

I don’t want to get philosophical here, but isn’t it said that the first step towards true wisdom is realizing how much you don’t know? Isn’t it better to keep an open mind than to just decide something is right and stick to it?

Suggesting we don’t teach something because it’s just a theory is the same as saying “I choose not to learn.” It’s basically declaring defeat and deciding that we’ll just go on the information we have now and stick with it, and forget what new information comes along.

I personally think this is a serious problem. It’s the same as looking at the ground, seeing that it’s flat and deciding that the Earth is flat, that we’re at the center of the universe and everything else orbits us. That’s what it looks like, and it’s ‘common sense’, you can see the sun move across the sky. Luckily, a few people were courageous enough to risk imprisonment or torture for heresy for suggesting that the universe works in the way we know today.

The problem is too many people see the world as black and white, right and wrong, and leave no room for theories and learning.

Here’s the thing. Most of the things we cling to as ‘true’ and ‘natural’ are just plain illusory. We build up an idea, a mental picture of what the world is like and cling to it, simply because the real world is nothing but barely controlled chaos…and we don’t like that idea.

In many ways, I blame the way we choose to educate our kids. Most school classes don’t teach kids to think, in fact, in many ways active thinking is actually discouraged. The way we educate kids is give them tons of facts to remember. I’ve said this before, but all you need to graduate as a straight A student is a great memory. Listen in class and just parrot back what you’re told in the tests.

I remember being a kid in an English Literature class, and the teacher read a passage from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and then told us what that passage ‘meant’. I put my hand up and said I disagreed, then I told the teacher what I thought it meant. I was told that I was wrong, and the ‘correct’ answer was the one written in the syllabus.

See what I mean? Even in an area that is completely open to interpretation, we still teach kids that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and nothing in between.

Right answer, wrong answer. I can’t stress this point enough. In the real world there can be a ton of ‘correct’ answers. It depends on your point of view…yet in school we just pick one answer as ‘right’ and anything else is incorrect.

I think the most damning evidence of this is the fact that all of the ‘exceptional’ people of the last few centuries, the ones who made a major difference were all mediocre students or flew in the face of conventional thinking.

Einstein’s teacher said he’s never amount to anything and spent too much time ‘daydreaming’ (and he came up with the theory of relativity while daydreaming about riding on a beam of light). Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy for suggesting the world was a sphere and orbited the sun.

Long story short, conventional thinking said people couldn’t ride in trains because the rush of air at 40mph would cause their heads to explode. People said it was impossible for man to fly. It was impossible to break the sound barrier It was impossible to fly in space. The internal combustion engine would never work. The atom was the smallest thing in existence and it would be impossible to split it. No one would ever want a computer in their home, etc, etc.

Long story short we like to learn something and decide that it’s a perfect immutable truth and then resist any and all changes to what we’ve come to believe is true. We’re not interested in theories because they’re not definitely ‘true’, and teaching something that could change as new information is gathered is something to resist.

We’ve hobbled ourselves in this way, because any new idea is drowned out in the ear-splitting roar of orthodoxy. In order to progress we have to have those individuals and small groups who are willing to be ridiculed or ignored while they work to prove their new ideas.

Think I’m exaggerating? When John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television visited the Daily Express newspaper to promote his invention, the news editor was quoted by one of his staff saying: “For God's sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who's down there. He says he's got a machine for seeing by wireless! Watch him — he may have a razor on him.”

Basically, everyone knows seeing pictures over the radio is impossible, so the guy’s nuts…just like what people said to Galileo and countless other inventors.

My question here is, why aren’t we teaching our kids to think? Because it would make tests much harder to grade? Surely it shows more intelligence when a child questions a fact and gives a well thought out explanation of his idea, rather than just parroting back what the teacher wrote on the blackboard.

Instead we cling to our black and white thinking, the right and wrong answers and the total ignorance of any grey areas or room for interpretation…and we’re not supposed to teach evolution is schools because it’s ‘just a theory’, despite the fact that at one point, the earth being a sphere was ‘just a theory’.

To close, I want to give the example I like to give about just how bad our school system is.

I left highschool science knowing that “When a wire is moved through and electromagnetic field and potential difference is set up across its ends.” I wrote that down in my exam and got an A+ on the test.

The problem is I have absolutely no fucking idea what it actually means.


OzzyC said...

It certainly seems that the religious zealots are the main perpetrators of a rigid world view. With that said though, there are also many moderate believers who understand that religion was based on thousand-plus year old doctrine and are willing to change their view of spirituality based on new information.

Paulius said...

It's not just religion. There are plenty of scientists who refuse to explore new theories because they contradict the old ones.

Long story short, we like what's familiar and fear anything new and unknown.