Confession: I’m an academic skeptic.
There must be a better word for this, but in searching for it I am directed only toward a period of ancient Platonism, toward Cicero, and to academics who are specifically skeptical of academia.edu, a site I have never heard of and am therefore not inclined to think about.
I teach writing and rhetoric to freshmen and sophomores at a small public university in western North Carolina. Last week I assigned my students Patrick Stokes’ 2012 essay from The Conversation website, so excellently titled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.” It was a great day; every section of my classes had a rigorous and lively debate about thorny topics:
the process of validating an opinion,
the difference between having the right to an opinion and deserving respect for that opinion
questioning in which forums certain experts are most credible.
The day we discussed Stokes’ essay I felt confident, for the first time in weeks, in the human ability to set aside political partisanship and actually reason through an issue. In the days that followed, however, the familiar queasiness once again took up residence in my stomach. I want my students to develop their abilities to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. I do not want them to accept claims at face value; I want them to dig, to form their opinions and base their beliefs on the best possible evidence available to them.
But here’s where I get stuck. It seems increasingly as though many of the things we have taken as fact, as credible, are in fact very much not so. And I increasingly notice a tendency in myself beyond skepticism, veering into cynicism.
Who can we trust, if so much of our information is… inherently flawed?
I firmly believe that some “experts” are simply misguided, but other are deliberately deceptive. I do think that the majority of social and cultural institutions are corrupt at their core, built on racist, sexist, classist principles that contaminate our daily lives. As one of these institutions, academia, with its desire to train students to evaluate but eventually have faith in the experts, seems designed to keep the masses in their places.
On the other hand, I also deeply and wholeheartedly believe that there are issues in which the truths we arrive at through dedicated, disciplined, rigorous scientific and academic research are crucial. Climate change, for example, is a very serious, maybe the most serious, problem we face as a global community and some people’s refusal to accept the scientific evidence supporting its existence has the potential to doom us all.
So how do I reconcile my deep and defining skepticism and distrust of authority with teaching people to evaluate, validate, and thereby accept facts, to base their beliefs on evidence rather than hearsay or stubborn opinion? And how do I reconcile that desire with recent revelations that reveal the cracked foundation:
- the Sugar Research Foundation’s payoff of Harvard scientists to point the finger at saturated fat as the major culprit behind heart disease,
- or the history of the birth control pill and the most recent cessation of a scientific study on male birth control because the side effects were deemed too risky to continue?
How do I teach my students to do the best they can with the information available, when the signs are increasingly pointing to the idea that the “best available” may actually be the corrupt results of greed, rather than honest efforts in the pursuit of knowledge?