Believe What You Want To

This post comes courtesy of a confluence of several items that have come across my network streams. Let me first list those “rivers” that have come together:

To begin our story, the state of Virginia, and other southern states have recently had to deal with at least a couple of nasty winter storms. I write this as my university has closed for the second day in a row courtesy of about 10″ of the white stuff. This most recent storm crippled traffic in the Raleigh, NC area, in the same manner that a couple weeks ago traffic was at a standstill in Atlanta, GA.

Just prior to that storm in Atlanta, we here in Fredericksburg had a storm that dumped enough snow to make “snow cream” (I tweeted about it, as shown above).

When the Atlanta storm hit, not only was it unusual for such a storm to be in that area (though not unprecedented), there also arose a conspiracy. Fake snow was manufactured by the government, so the theory goes. It contained nanobots and involved chemtrails, and even includes a specific warning for people NOT to make snow cream out of it and, well, let me let him explain it . . .

OK, say what you will about this explanation and “theory”, it was brought about by some unexpected behavior of snow in a place where it’s not normal to have it. When a lighter is put to that snow, it doesn’t appear to melt, but instead disappears or even burns, leaving behind some black marks. What is the explanation? Well, let me refer you to this guy . . .

So it’s sublimation. That explains the so called conspiracy. There. done. Further experiments show that the snow does indeed melt just like we expect. Now, sublimation is a term, as this gentleman indicates, from “science” – it is when a solid skips the liquid state and goes straight to a gas. When the snow is heated, as with the lighter, it doesn’t melt. It turns directly into a gas and disappears. Or does it? Here’s the real explanation . . .

This video is a bit longer than the other two videos, so if you’ve got a short attention span, the explanation is that the snow isn’t fake, but it doesn’t sublimate either. What happens is that the snow absorbs the melting water when the flame from the lighter is applied. It is well demonstrated when the snow is put in a heated pan and melts. Water doesn’t appear in the pan right away. What you see is the snowball get more and more slushy (to use a scientific term), until the snowball can no longer hold the water, then water disperses in the pan and eventually we are left with just water.

So be honest with yourself. How many would have been satisfied with the sublimation explanation? Obviously many people were. Imagine my excitement when an explanation was posited that it wasn’t explained by sublimation, but an even more simple explanation of absorption (and also the “soot” is there because of a separate chemical process of burning and hydrocarbons being left on the snow).

The point of this post is to ask “what makes us hold our beliefs?” At what point do we walk away satisfied with our answer? Why do we tend to not go deeper? Is it laziness? Lack of curiosity? The definition of science is, in a word, knowing (or knowledge). But scientists don’t stop. They also know that there is STILL plenty of stuff we DON’T know. They keep going because they know there is MORE knowledge out there.

Thanks to Gardner Campbell’s post about the process of discovery, I was reacquainted with this video . . .

The interviewer asks a question he thinks will garner a simple explanatory answer – What’s going on with two magnets when they either repel, or when turned around the other way, attract each other? Richard Feynman’s answer is far from simple. Gardner goes on to describe the “bad Sunday School technique” where the teacher poses a question that has essentially only one right answer. Why ask the question when it results with a dead end?

He also mentions Jerome Bruner and his approach of not “problem-solving” but “problem-finding”. Now goodness knows that academia is riddled with something known as “problemitizing” or creating a problem out of something that should be straight-forward. It’s the stuff that makes your head hurt after a committee meeting designed to move something forward and someone asks that one additional question, “have you thought about this…?” Thus the ultimate question behind it – “What if we get this wrong?”

One of the money quotes from Gardner’s post:

“For it seems to me that we are tempted to imagine reflection as a process of discovering and affirming lessons learned and problems solved, when anyone who has spent a moment in reflection will realize, I believe, that the depths of that practice awaken conjectures and dilemmas.”

This is the dichotomy. At a certain point we make decisions based on the best information – the information that we believe to be true. But there is perhaps infinitely more depth to the questions we are asked.

I’ll stop here, at least for now, because my head, and probably yours, is beginning to hurt. This all reminds me of this scene from Animal House . . .

I’ll end with two more points. First, go read Gardner’s post. It is one of those posts that I am convinced is leading toward good things. Thinking about thinking.

Second is the question many people asked when Bill Nye debated Ken Ham. Why in 2014 are we still debating Evolution vs. Creationism? Was the question answered in this almost three hour debate? I’d be surprised if there were many people who moved to the evolution side (or to the creation side for that matter). Why is that? Because people believe what they want to. They will live with that satisfaction for as long as they want to. They will either stop seeking, or something will trigger them to continue to go deeper. It shouldn’t be difficult to encourage people to go deeper, but we as teachers sometimes get to the point where we find it impossible not to require it. That’s where a good teacher comes in and is able to encourage it.

Ready? Go.

Epilogue – So the last of the “rivers” that I mentioned above is a project from Kirby Ferguson that is as he calls it “A serialized documentary about the forces that shape us.” I have no idea what will ultimately come out of it, but it has that hook, for me at least, to want to find out more. If Kirby’s “Everything Is a Remix” is any indication (and why I ponied up 12 bucks), it should be terrific!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Andy, that was fun. And yes, my head began to hurt.

  2. Chris, then my goal was accomplished! As always, you get where I’m trying to go. More than anything I wanted a record of the conspiracy and how it fits in with what I call “filling in the gaps of knowledge.” Sometimes people don’t want those gaps filled. Thanks again for you comments.

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