Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On spreading myths

"The lenses o' his eyes, wi' so much divin' intae the water, get hardened, an' he loses his sight" said John Turner MacCrindle.
from The Gannet (Bryan Nelson), via Bookworm on the Net

I spent yesterday's gray afternoon with an old and a new friend, both Real Life Scientists®, wandering around Sandy Hook, climbing bunkers, skipping stones, and sharing stories. A couple of ospreys eyed us from their new nest. Once you get past the debris that floats over from the Staten Island landfills, the Hook is stunningly beautiful.

Offshore dozens of gannets were diving, their white wings reflecting light, seemingly fluorescent against the gray skies. Gannets crash into water headfirst when feeding, sending up plumes of spray.

I shared some local shore lore--gannets eventually go blind from diving, which, of course, kills them.

It makes for a great story. Turns out it's plain wrong.

Myths define us, more than most realize. Not so long ago, we survived by our senses, and by our wits. Oral language swirls as our perception of truth swirls. Stories got passed down through our clans, back when stars still mattered, when rivers were still filled with fish, forests with trees. We needed each other, but we needed the Earth's grace more.

Just a few thousand years ago, long after we became human, we developed the written word. Language, already powerful,  now had  the power of permanence. Oral language reflects truth, and waivers, imperceptibly, through generations.

We worship the written word, granting it powers far beyond the first vague firing of neurons that generated the thought that preceded (and transcends) the word.

I saw it in a book...I read it's published can look it up.....

The strength of our belief in the written word has fueled beliefs in the the inerrancy of the Bible or of the Qur'an or, no doubt, of other religious texts. These beliefs are not universal, of course, even among followers, and at least one major religion (Judaism) cherishes oral tradition.

I am not a religious scholar, nor do I care to engage in a discussion of inerrancy or infallibility except to mention that huge swaths of modern culture will bend perceptions of the natural world to fit a fixed ideology, with often disastrous results.

Less extreme examples of word fixation may be harming us as much as the obvious religious ones. I let my gannet myth blind me to the more likely truth. I probably do this several times a day, without awareness.


Much, maybe most, of what I do is pierce through the misconceptions of our students--only after I kill this worship of "I know it as a fact" can I hope to teach children to think. If you cannot accept the possibility  of error, you cannot make rational choices. 

Public education is in the dogfight of its life, getting peppered with myth after myth, most blatantly (and certifiably) false stories accepted as truth.

So here are some words to ponder:

  • NCLB does not work--we have a decade of evidence showing such.
  • Poverty matters, above and beyond whatever happens in the classroom--we have decades of evidence showing such.
  • "Zip code is not destiny" makes for a catchy slogan, aimed at the mantra that poverty matters, but solves nothing--it's a contrived (and ugly) attempt to deflect the fact that poverty matters.
  • Our current republic faces a huge threat within our borders, and it's not some caricature of a bomb-wielding Bedouin, or Mother Earth LiberAL, or Willie Horton, or Che Guevara, or the Latin Kings, or yet another child snatcher hiding in your bushes--it's the deliberate shifting of monies and power from public spaces to the private, from the "bottom" 90% to the political (and, sadly, cultural) elite.
It hardly matters if anyone says it aloud, so few folks bother to wrestle with the incongruities between reality and words.

Matters to me--it's why I teach. I want to teach kids how to think. Who knows where that might lead?


Bryan Nelson himself, despite the myth, knows his gannets. In a letter to the The Observer he gently corrects Richard Dawkins: "I have concrete evidence from marked individuals that gannets can survive more than 30 years with perfect eyesight. The blindness myth probably arose because gannets and boobies have an opaque 'third eyelid' which they can draw across the eye to protect it from the impact of diving."

Where does our blindness come from? Who controls your opaque 'third eyelid'?

Hah! Four scientists mentioned in one post about myths.

I am not anti-religion, not by any stretch. I am anti-anti-thinking.

The 3rd picture is of one of yesterday's scientists, Joseph Mastroianni, 
taken by the other, Kristan Hutchinson,while in Antarctica--it's NSF, so I figure it's PD.

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