Monday, August 21, 2006

Talk to the Kids

If you share my interest in making the world better than it would otherwise be -- making the future better than it would otherwise be -- here is one of the most important things you can do:

Speak to the kids.

Many rationalists, materialists, evidentialist, secular, scientist types that I know say that they do not like to express their views in front of (other peoples') children. The consequence of this is that those children grow up undereducated in how to base their conclusions on evidence, and why it is useful to do so. These are the children who will grow up to become victims of whatever con men can take advantage of their untrained will to believe.

In fact, I know many who refuse even to speak to their own children about such things. "I am going to let my children make up their own mind."

Based on what?

However, the act of "making up one's own mind" requires information. You can rest assured that, in this society, every child will get a large dose of information on the irrational and the just-plain-false. Such a child is probably going to embrace the irrational and just-plain-false unless somebody gives that child information on how to distinguish the rational from the irrational, and how to distinguish truth from fiction. Without those tools, it is not rational to expect any child to grow up and make an informed choice as to these options.

Children are going to "make up their own mind" regardless of what we do. The only question we have to answer is whether they will have all of the information they need as they go about the process of making up their minds. We should feel free to give children this information. We certainly have no obligation to help the advocates of the irrational and just plain false create an environment where children see no alternative to their ways of thinking.

Think of some child that you know.

Think of that child's health. Will that child grow into a person who knows how to make healthy choices? Or will that child become the victim of snake-oil salesmen seeking a willing target for remedies that, at best, do not good and, at worse, actually do harm? Will that child grow up to make good sound choices on diet, exercise, drugs, tobacco, alcohol? Will the child grow up to be somebody who can look at a group of studies and decide, "These are based on sound science and draws conclusions that I should pay attention to; those are based on heresay and anecdotal evidence of a type that tends to be highly unreliable?"

The child that grows up unable to think -- unable to base conclusions on the available evidence -- is a child that will grow up lacking a certain capacity to make the best decisions. The child that grows up appreciating the value of peer-reviewed scientific research and knowing that anecdotal evidence cannot be trusted will be better able to avoid things that will do them more harm than good.

Those who care that a given kid grow up to be able to make wise decisions based on the best evidence available needs to take the time to talk to that kid.

In addition to concern over whether the kid will become an adult able to take care of himself, we need to ask whether the kid will grow into an adult that will be a threat or a benefit to others. I am not talking about children growing up to be murderers, thieves, and drunk drivers (though these are certainly relevant). I am talking about children who will grow up to be a threat to others in the form of blowing up airplanes, advocating laws that prohibit women from teaching or learning, prohibiting homosexuals from marrying, or standing between people and the health benefits they would have available from stem-cell research.

The child who grows into an adult incapable of honestly evaluating the pros and cons of any policy is at risk of supporting policies that do more harm than good. Their poor choices will not only adversely affect themselves; they will adversely affect others. They will vote for poor politicians, support poor laws, and make choices not only for themselves but for others in their care -- children and elderly parents -- that thinking people would not choose.

By definition, a "better future" is a future in which more people are able to exercise more wisdom in evaluating the options available. A better future is one in which decision-makers can make honest and accurate comparisons between different options and pick the better option.

If one want to help future generations to make wiser choices, then speak to the kids.

The options that I am talking about do not require pulling children aside and giving them long and boring lessons. It requires doing little more than putting oneself in an option to make comments on what others say (e.g., the characters in a television show or movie), or listening to a child speak with two questions in mind.

"How do you know?"

It's an easy question to ask, and a question that never lacks for opportunities to ask it.

The child may answer, "I just know."

This leads to an easy response. "History is full of examples of people who 'just knew' something that turned out to be completely false. People 'just knew' that the world was flat, but they were wrong. People 'just knew' that the earth was the center of the solar system, and they were wrong. The 9/11 hijackers 'just knew' that they were doing the right thing. Are these things that you 'just know' like them?"

The second question to keep in mind to ask a child, which is asked too seldom, "What if you're wrong?"

This is another question that children need to learn to confront. "Who is going to be harmed if you make a mistake?" This question suggests a follow-up, "If people could suffer and die if you make a mistake, then don't you have some type of obligation to make sure that you don't make a mistake?"

This is a moral principle that I have been calling, "Intellectual responsibility." It is a moral principle that says that we have as much of an obligation to make sure that our beliefs are well secured (when unsecured beliefs may be a threat to others) as a truck driver has to make sure that his load is secured.

"Have you lived up to your intellectual responsibility to make sure that your beliefs are well secured? How would you like it if somebody came up with something that hurt you -- that he charged you with a crime and had you hauled off to jail, and when you asked him what proof he had that you were guilty or that you needed to suffer this harm, he only answered, 'I just know'?"

The ideas that a child becomes familiar with early are the ideas that the child can then use to measure other ideas. The sooner the child knows the rules of evidence, the sooner the child knows to elevate the certainty of scientific research and to dismiss the likely error of anecdotal evidence. The sooner the child knows how to question the claims of others, the sooner the child can start questioning those claims.

These are things we can teach the children.

They will not learn a thing from us, however, if we remain shy and afraid to demonstrate our own willingness to question what others say and to challenge children to do the same. If we remain meek and passive so as not to offend, then those children will grow up with the same dangerous ignorance as their parents.

Talk to the kids.


Anonymous said...

Teach a man to fish.

Today's basic education in USA and EU suffers one fatal flaw – misdirected emphasis.

All natural science classes are loaded with facts to be memorized instead of reasoning skills to be mastered.
That would be as absurd as being red a hundred books without being taught how to read. Like memorizing the results of thousands of math problems without knowing basic math operations.
And yes, like hearing of countless examples of tyrants, dictators and con men, and their disastrous effects on gullible people, without being given the skill to recognize the next one.

A mind is not a bowl to be field, but a fire to be ignited.
A skill is worth more than a billion results.

The problem is, I do not know how to explain this to the department of education, or its equivalent in European nations. :-(

Manos said...

So religious people are raising religious people – who cares? I’m an atheist myself but given that I don’t believe in any objective morality, why should I care how other people raise their kids?

Besides, what proof is there that a largely atheistic society would be better than a religious one that is already officially secular? Religious people have a lot more kids than non-religious people. The economy for my children will collapse if religious types stop having children and raising them to have children.

Just my take. I could care less how other people raise their kids as long as everyone can agree to disagree. I have a hard time dealing with evangelists, religious or otherwise.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Evan M. Thomas

I suspect that you wrote your comment without reading the article. It says nothing against religious people raising religious children. It says a lot about teaching children to think so that they can make better decisions -- decisions that are less likely to ruin their own lives or the lives of others.

I addressed the question, "What If Atheists Ruled the World" in an earlier post. There, I said that the world would not necessarily be better off.

However, the question, "What if a nation was made up of people who knew how to think, base their conclusions on the evidence, and tell fact from fiction?"

That would likely yield a different conclusion.

[Note: I would say that there are certainly atheists who are not particularly skilled at rational thought. They have adopted atheism the same way that others adopted religion -- they heard the doctrine as a kid, they latched onto it, they do not really understand it, but they ignore the parts they do not understand and repeat its slogans like some sort of religious chant. Being an atheist does not necessarily imply being rational.]

King Aardvark said...

Good article, in theory at least.

How do you recommend talking to a child from a highly religious family without getting the parents really angry with you? I know you can slip in a lot of talk about science and culture without it setting off alarms, but if you ask "How do you know" etc about their religion specifically, there will be sparks a flyin'.

As far as turning the world secular and the resulting population decrease, it would force the economy to change. Just like switching to green economies/technologies can likely have a negative economic impact, if it's approached creatively, we can come out alright.