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 tinyurl.com/yc53a9l 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" : tinyurl.com/yzklcpc 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.