Monday, October 26, 2009
I recently came across a website that I am now completely obsessed with. The website is called Ask an Astrobiologist and is a NASA page. At first glance the website doesn't seem like anything unusual until you start clicking through the questions that he receives. As questions are submitted via the internet, the questions are often baffling. The Astrobiologist answering them, David Morrison, does not suffer fools gladly, as the expression goes. He takes a very firm hand with the lunacy that pervades the internet and implores people to develop critical thinking and critical researching skills. With all the disaster movies that have been coming out, or will be coming out, he gets a lot of crazy questions asking if those things are true, or demanding to know why NASA is hiding this stuff from them. There are also heart-breaking questions from people clearly confused by the massive amount of misinformation they find online. I wish more people would speak this clearly with the American people on a whole host of issues. The lack of understanding of many of the questioners points to deeper failures in the education system. Some of my favorite excerpts from the site:
Posted by Eagan at 2:00 PM
Monday, October 12, 2009
Michael Moore's newest release, Capitalism: A Love Story, has stirred a lot of emotion and has been overwhelmingly well-received. The biggest criticism I hear is that he doesn't lay out where to go once you leave the theater. I find this very interesting given that the movie is about raising awareness and highlighting the problems and contradictions in the economic system in the U.S. and to a large extent globally.
The desire to have Moore not only lay out the problem, but also the solution, gets at one of the key reasons that this movie was made. Americans have let themselves be led around for too long, by media, by politicians, by their churches, etc. Only when people take a serious look at their lives and the lives of others will they really be able to say what they actually want. It is critical for Americans, and others, to get a better idea of how the norms of society inform both our individual goals and the appropriate means for attaining those goals.
This creates a situation in which many Americans have a difficult time imagining alternatives to the current system or even realizing the problems inherent within it. In our daily lives, the inadequacies of the current system can seem obtuse and distant. By taking a step back, we can begin to understand that there could be a different way, but this also will require action, not continued resignation. Engaging with history and the current realities in other countries can begin to show that what we take for granted is much more malleable than we realize. Systems change over time, often as the result of events that were seemingly minor at the time.
I am beginning to realize one of the biggest weaknesses of the American education system is teaching the ability to differentiate between good and bad sources of information. While not something that can be taught overnight, the key for me is to verify the expertise of the person or persons presenting the information, and whether their accounts are contextual. By contextual, I am referring to that they aren't simply stating a fact or facts as permanent or infinite. For example, you often hear a current belief expressed as timeless. For example, the idea that the U.S. is and always was a Christian nation. A simple historical review would dispel this notion; however, most people lack the skills to carry out such a review.
In many cases, media outlets underestimate their ability to educate as well as inform. An educated populace is complementary to an informed populace, but they can be very different. I see many people that are clearly informed, in that they are aware of current events, and have taken positions on key issues of the day. But often, these people lack sufficient education, to make their positions coherent. By education, I am not simply referring to schooling. I am also referring to a broader education, which requires engaging with history and taking a broader perspective than is found in most newspapers and textbooks. Similarly, I see many well-educated individuals, who clearly have grappled with difficult issues and are well-read in theory and/or history. However, many of them are unable to take the understanding and apply it in a coherent way to reality. In becoming so obsessed with the details of some historical period, or some theoretical perspective, they lose interest in the complexity of the everyday political and social issues.
I think it is critical for people to think about the deficiencies in their perspectives and try to get a better understanding of why they think what they do. It is important to come to terms with the biases and inadequacies of both our scholarly as well as contextual knowledge. This often requires seeking out new and varied sources, so that we are able to have a more coherent internal narrative. Key to this is identifying that just because you agree with an analysis or the conclusions, doesn't make the analysis accurate or coherent. Similarly, just because you disagree, it doesn't mean that you are missing something. Sometimes alternative perspectives or sources are just inaccurate or incomplete. By engaging with how they came to their conclusions is just as important as what conclusions they came to. Also important is to not fall into the trap that there are two sides to every problem or issue. Problems are much more complex than such a duality would allow. And the solution to any given problem doesn't lie between two expressed extremes. In all likelihood any given solution will favor some and infuriate others. Such are the complexities we face.
Posted by Eagan at 9:53 AM