Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tribalism and truth

False tales are, first of all, tales, and tales, like myths, are always persuasive.
Umberto Eco. "The Force of Falsity," Serendipities, Language and Lunacy

Our biggest fears lead to our biggest myths: Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Tribalism, culture, whatever you want to call it, matters. Science has its tribes, but eventually every idea must fit in with the consensus view of what consitutes the natural world. It has a community dedicated to that.

Still, as much as science folk love understanding the world, the day to day world remains remarkably detached from the scientific--and we risk losing our students by forgetting that.

Perhaps the hardest thing to convince a high school sophomore is just how tenuous much of our grasp is.

I ask my students how do they know that the Earth spins. The question startles them as a ridiculous. Why, everyone knows this!

I ask again. Silence.

The answer lies right outside our classroom windows. It's not obvious, and it takes time but it's there. Knowing it is so is not science, it's cultural. Everyone knows the Earth turns. Few know how we know this.

Major election years are always interesting in high school--communities split as our discourse fails. Our discourse fails because tales, even false one, are persuasive, and when walls are crumbling, shared stories of mythical castles tie together voting blocs.

How do we tease out the truth when few folks want to know it? Like our Copernican view of the daily dance of the sun, truth can be discerned from comfortable and seemingly obvious myths.

But even with the sun, even consciously knowing what we know, we still feel the sun move:

Our perception is still Ptolemaic: we not only see the sun rise in the east and travel through the arc of the day, but we behave as if the sun turns and we remain immobile. And we say, "the sun rises," "the sun is high in the sky," "it sinks," "it sets."
Umberto Eco, "The Force of Falsity," Serendipities, Language and Lunacy

Science is different--the process forces true community, the natural world (or at least our perceptions of it) is the final judge.

Few of us truly live "scientifically"--we would go mad.

We live in a culture that truly believes in magic, that resists anything that challenges our comfortable cultural myths that allow us to continue to behave the way we do.

Election years offer students a chance to rediscover how to tease out truth.
Not everybody lies. And while scientists themselves cannot claim to be paragons of virtue, in an odd way the field itself is a paragon of truth. The rascals get outed, because the community puts truth above all else.

Sure, it's a stubborn, limited (and at times grouchy) sort of truth, but it's there.

So how do we know the Earth rotates on its own axis, and revolves around the sun? I can show you. It's right there for you to see.

Even if I wander to the bay most nights to watch the sun sink below the edge of the world.

Should any student ask, I'll say I'm voting for Pat Paulsen or Frank Zappa.


Angela Greene said...


Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

When I taught jr. high/middle school Earth Science we had a "nemesis" in the president of the Flat Earth Society. After a few days spent with a weather balloon (get your eye up close and see how difficult it is to see curvature), and discussing old sailing terms like "tops'ls up," "hull down," and "hull up," and the motions of pendulums, and the position of the sun seen simultaneously from different locations, we would write Mr. Johnson letters. Some were pretty fair. (One piece of trivia: Johnson's wife was Australian, so a simple phone call might have settled it!) I always hoped for a letter back. Sometimes I would portray Johnson in class, and challenge kids to prove the earth was round. Eventually he died, and I suspect his outfit folded. Of course, this was all when I could teach pretty much what I wanted to.

doyle said...

Dear Angela,

Thank you.

Dear Jeffrey,

You just spawned a great idea! I may resuscitate the FES with a faux website, and challenge the kids to challenge the faux FES, giving clues along the way that the website itself is a sham!

At a minimum, I should be able to find some group to argue the point. There's no limit to lunacy on the intrawebs!