Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why Americans Can't Think

I have been teaching high school science for nine years. Each year I have a surprising number of students who resist vigorously any request to think for themselves. Many students (in some classes, the overwhelming majority) expect to have information poured into their heads, without having to struggle with difficult concepts, synthesize information, apply concepts to novel situations, or solve challenging problems. Very few students will ask questions during class, outside of class or even through email. They often come to class with preconceived notions that are not true (e.g., the idea that we come from monkeys), which only makes it harder to understand the truth (e.g., that we share a common ancestor with monkeys). Some students believe that all knowledge is relative; therefore, evidence from controlled scientific experiments is no more valid to them than the information presented in an advertisement. Others believe that science is just another religion and they are free to believe in it or not. And some resist thinking about anything that is difficult to understand or that requires them to focus and concentrate.

Being able to think critically and independently is a skill that most people are not formally taught. It is a skill that is not easy to teach nor is it explicitly included as a discreet standard in the California state standards for high school education.

Some other factors contributing to the inability to think critically:

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Agnotology and Misology

Misology is the fear or hatred of knowledge, rational thought and argumentation. Agnotology is the cultural production of ignorance. Both problems seem to be getting worse. They contribute to creating a society of people who are less and less able to think for themselves, solve problems, and understand reality. Two of the leading forces behind the cultural creation of ignorance today are religious fundamentalists and corporations. The ignorance created by these institutions contribute to and exacerbate the misology that already exists in our society by mystifying facts, sowing doubt and confusion, and drawing into question the validity and authority of those who demonstrate quality rational thought.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the fundamentalist contribution to social ignorance and mistrust of science can be seen in the numerous lawsuits and publications promoting the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools and the attempts to portray evolution as a flawed “theory” (read “opinion”) that has not yet been proven. While it is primarily religious institutions that have filed the lawsuits, done the community organizing and funded these efforts, the media has contributed to the problem in many cases by portraying the conflict as a controversy between opposing, but equally valid world views, rather than an attempt by religious fundamentalists to impose nonscientific, irrational, spiritually-based ideas on public school science classes. One result is that many Americans believe that the theory of evolution is just an opinion and that it is unproven. Thus, the mystification has succeded.

It doesn’t help that evolution is a complex theory that is not easy to understand. In a misologistic society, few people have the patience and perseverance to struggle with it and really try to understand it. As a result, many people try to oversimplify the theory with disastrous effects. One example is the misconception that people “came from monkeys.” If one believes this misconception, it is not much of a stretch to believe that we are the product of some sort of miscegenation or bestiality between proto-humans and monkeys, an idea that is as untrue as it is racist and that creates a visceral revulsion so strong in some that they won’t even listen to the facts or attempt to understand the theory. Thus, the cultural creation of ignorance, in this case, contributes to or causes a fear of scientific thought.

Perhaps the most well documented example of the corporate contribution to creating ignorance is the way in which the tobacco companies have spent billions of dollars to fund research that downplays the dangers of their products, discredits legitimate research that calls into question the safety of their products, and generally sows doubt and confusion about the facts. Oil and coal companies have used similar tactics to call into question the seriousnous of global warming and the role played by the consumption of fossil fuels in exacerbating the problem.

Why Students Fail in School

I have been teaching high school science for nine years in both an inner city school in San Francisco, and in a suburban school just outside of San Francisco. In both settings I have been shocked by the numbers of students who are not academically ready for the rigors of high school and who have not been able to thrive in my classes. Here are just a few of the issues these students bring with them that impair their ability to succeed in school and that are clearly beyond the teachers’ and schools’ abilities to ameliorate.

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