Sunday, June 1, 2014

Balancing Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

I have a second grader at home- almost a third grader, as the school year draws to a close- and a smart one at that.  Anyone reading this who also happens to have a second grader, or had one in the past, can probably attest to how humbling an experience this is.  The questions are endless, and they're starting to get pretty interesting.  No longer are we hearing the simple "Why is the sky blue?" type questions that can be answered with a fairly vague generalization like "It's because of the way light bounces off of molecules in our air."  Instead, he now wants to know what molecules, how are they "bouncing," what about rainbows, what if the molecules go away, what if there were even more molecules, what would we have to do for the sky to be green, and what about sunrise and sunset when the sky is a color other than blue? 

Then he stops listening about halfway through the answer, comes back with "But what if you're wrong?", and my head explodes.

I appreciate skepticism, and I am thrilled that he's willing to challenge authority, but it also gets old when all that skepticism and challenge are aimed at me incessantly. I'm not going to lie, I don't have the highest self-confidence in the world, but I'm working on it.  Being a woman in science and an adjunct in higher ed does not exactly help, although my experience has not been as bad as some of them described by Deirdre Redmond and commenters in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "A Black Female Professor Struggles with 'Going Mean.'" 

My own issues aside, this seems a recurring theme in our culture right now, unfortunately.  We take the word of a pastor as infallible, but the findings of the vast majority of climatologists can be dismissed without thought.  Discredited and falsified studies get more public attention and "buy-in" than the current data that is contradictory to the falsified findings.  Non-profit organizations with misogynist leanings can persuade people that crucial health and safety studies are "cruel and unusual" and ignore the numbers of people saved by those "cruel and unusual" studies every year, including some people very dear to me.  The idea that skepticism means one person's ignorance is weighted and valued the same as another person or group's research is not what skepticism is supposed to mean, but today we've gotten to point (thank you, Fox News) where this is exactly what people mean when they say "skeptical" or "balanced reporting." It's frustrating, it's anti-science and anti-education, and we need to stop acting like everything is subjective (not that everything is objective, either; the world's too complex for binaries).  Preferably before my head explodes.

So what I've been talking with Kenny on this matter is this- How about simply considering why you're challenging someone before doing so?  Think to yourself "Who am I challenging and why am I challenging them?"  If you wouldn't be challenging them if they looked differently, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your skepticism.  If you have problems believing them because of your history with them (lying, exaggeration, etc.) maybe you need to reconsider your association with them.  If you're challenging them because they're stating something that goes against your prior experience or knowledge, point that out to the person.  If none of these are true, maybe you're not being skeptical, but a contrary a-hole.

It won't save the world, but maybe thinking and talking about these things will get us a step in the right direction.

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