A little unlearning

A colleague of mine outlined the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change to a Grade 9 class, and at the end she explained (as she should) that while there was widespread support for the theory, there was a substantial group of scientists, some of them highly prestigious, who didn’t accept a word of it.

Al Gore up a crane.

 One boy, on his way out of the class, said to her in a weary tone – ‘Can’t someone just prove it, one way or the other?’

The feeling we call ‘cognitive dissonance’ arises when we cannot reconcile contradictory information. It is an uncomfortable feeling, a tension, a state of not knowing. In fiction, we enjoy this feeling, and look forward to its resolution – preferably in a surprising way. But in life, the vast majority of us resort to a range of self-deceiving strategies to make it go away.

We reach for ‘probably’. We choose a side. We do whatever is required not to have to think critically about it. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘the scientists who disagree must be getting paid by the oil companies.’ Or, ‘Obviously they don’t care about the environment. Nice, caring people all agree about this.’

I see it a lot. At lunch with colleagues the subject of GMO’s came up… and I mentioned the Seralini study, which found alarming rates of cancer (mainly of the mammary glands) in rats fed a diet of GMO corn. A friend of mine who teaches science said authoritatively:

‘Oh, that wasn’t done by reputable scientists. Rats get cancer at the drop of a hat, anyway.’

Hmm. That might be why they use them in cancer trials, I suppose.

I read up on the study that night, and indeed there is nothing ‘disreputable’ about Gilles-Eric Seralini, Professor of Molecular Biology at Caen University, and nothing obviously wrong with his GMO study, which seven expert witnesses were unable to refute in court, and used the same kind of rats as used in the industry’s own fatally abbreviated studies. And anybody who knows anything about the corporatocracy will suspect that money and influence may have had something to do with the way the Seralini study has been treated in the media, including the scientific journal which retracted his paper without being able to offer a coherent rationale for doing so. The marginalization of voices inconvenient to the powers-that-shouldn’t-be is after all one of the main functions of the professional media.

At least a thirteen-year-old boy has some excuse. He’s only a few years out of childhood: he has not yet had time or reason to relinquish his faith in authority or learn much about the media. To him, science is something that produces answers, not questions. Science is the great infallible authority. How can scientists disagree? Surely science gives a single authoritative answer to any question. And in the question of climate change, all possible questions have already been answered, right? There can never be any more questions. Not ever. 

Many students are already more aware than this. But we have to presume that this is the norm we are dealing with at the beginning of the course. An answer-saturated, curiosity-deadened young authoritarian – in the sense that he sees knowledge as something fixed, something that comes down from on high, dictated by a god-like white-coated pantheon which decides what is and what isn’t.

I’m not attacking this student. His mindset is no different to that of most adults. But we have to take him as our starting point, and try, over the course of one year, to help him unlearn his helplessness and move him to a more open, dynamic, decentralized position – where questions energize him, rather than wear him out, and emerge from him something like they used to do. Only now they will form the basis of his Extended Essay and his TOK assessments. The ability to form questions is at the core (literally) of the IB Diploma. 

This task is what we’re calling, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ‘Destructivism’. But it’s not the opposite of constructivism – in fact it’s a necessary phase in the constructivist process. From time to time some unlearning needs to occur, a purge of assumptions. And that applies to all of us.


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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