Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Are You Sure?

What Is True?: A Dangerous Split In Our Country

Two articles that recently came out point to a serious divide in our nation — and one that speaks directly to those of us involved with non-fiction and young people. The New York Times wrote yesterday that those who oppose teaching evolution (or want to present it as just one view, as likely or unlikely as Intelligent Design) have cleverly added doubt about global warming to their agenda They have hijacked the term "critical thinking" to imply that all they are doing is asking serious and intellectually valid questions about any theories that pretend to be facts. What they miss, of course, is that all knowledge is — at some level — approximate. Our human ability to know is limited and always subject to further debate and question. The only kind of knowledge not subject constant inquiry — and thus refinement, objection, reversal — is faith. Faith is absolute because it is not subject to proof, or test. It exists outside, beyond, objective inquiry. That doesn’t make it wrong — faith can be the most profound rock upon which you build your ethics, your character, your behavior, your hope for the future — but faith is personal, it is not subject to proof. All other knowledge is — so the people who claim they are promoting Critical Thinking are doing just the opposite, they are treating the kind of knowledge that comes from belief, from faith, as the level of certainty all knowledge must offer if we are to present it to young people.
     By contrast, Samuel Arbesman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, has created a new website to draw our attention to what he calls the "mesofact" : The mesofact is a slowly changing fact — not one that stays the same for eons, nor one that flickers moment by moment like stock prices, but one that seemed solid recently but has already changed significantly — like the population of the world, or the number of planets in the solar system, or the likely skin colors of dinosaurs. While the apostles of faith insist that we either teach kids absolute certainties, or pretend that well established theories are highly questionable because they are theories, Arbesman is training our eyes on knowledge that must, of necessity, keep changing around us — he is capturing a world in flux, in time, not a place of eternal verity. 
    It is no news that people speak out against evolution or, for that matter, global warming. But there is real danger for our kids, and for our society, in this split between those in this country who use faith as the standard for knowledge, and those who are every more comfortuable in a world of the mesofact — knowledge in flux. And as we write our books, or review them, or edit them, or design them, or share them with kids we have to be aware of which skill we are teaching — rigidity masquarading as inquiry, or the firm trust in open questioning and receptivity to new ideas.


  1. MajorRay says:

    I am also a former Harvard post-doc. However, I can tell you that creationism is not just about faith. Atheists, Darwinians, and turn-coat ministers know that science is bias. There is a concerted effort on the part of the academic elite to maintain the status quo and to disregard the metaphysical forces that affect the natural world. The failure of science to give credence to the supernatural forces involved in the self-assembly of living creatures is absurd. I left MIT as an affiliate without provocation because of the “Divine” nature of my research. I had reached the end of science as we know it regarding my personal interest. I believe the large 30-membered lab groups of more elite research institutions are far too great a force to push creative ideas through the bias peer review process. We as creationists will develop new strategies to off-set the science people with their ludicrous and asinine views on life and the life forces, which sustain living creatures. I may have several degrees in chemistry, but they are not worth the paper they are written on if God is not the Creator.

  2. Cheryl Bardoe says:

    Three observations: 1) The continuous process of gathering, assessing and acting on information is critical in a world that is changing so quickly. This relates to Stanford prof. Carol Dweck’s discussion of a “growth mindset” that is a key for success. 2) As nonfiction writers, we can encourage this among young readers by making the process of knowledge-building transparent and encouraging readers to keep asking questions. 3) I’m particularly saddened to see global warming added to the target list. Those who are coming of age in the next 5, 10, 15 years are uniquely positioned to effect change. They can bring fresh creativity and passion to the search for solutions at a time when solutions could have great impact. They also seem more able to change different aspects of their lifestyle. This could only happen, however, if they are educated on the issue.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Don’t get me going on this. I have researched many topics, but none have as much information out there as climate change. There is a sinkhole of research papers from scientists from all over the world. How can they all be wrong? It amazes me that people can jump all over a couple of errors that are tiny stones from a mountain of information. In 2005, I discovered an error in Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. The editor there recently told me they are making changes to correct it. Does that error make the whole volume of information in those encyclopedias faulty. I don’t think so.

  4. I like that idea of a “growth mindset.” I gave a talk Saturday to NYC elementary school teachers on the Age of Exploration, but, in a sense it was as much about how we today can explore all of themes about that period — a really dynamic and exciting meeting. Then I went to an exhibit at the marvelous Rubin Museum in New York that explored different cosmologies — how different civilizations — East/West/Pre-Copernicus, Post — have picture the relationship between humanity and the cosmos — just, just brilliant, a must see.

  5. Ed Sullivan says:

    Thanks for pointing out the “mesofact” link. It’s great way of showing not all knowledge is static. It evolves and grows as new discoveries are made.

    I’m always amused when I hear people say they “do not believe” in evolution. What they do not understand is that evolution is not a matter of faith. I can choose to not believe in gravity, but my faith in that belief will certainly be put to the test when I leap from a tall building.

  6. i happen to be in Vienna just now, and at their Natural History museum they have a very large show in Darwin’s (R) evolution — enough of the singeage was in English, and the exhibits were strong enough, so I could follow. It would make a very good touring show for the US — engages many of the controversies and at a level that would reach both teenagers and adults.