I Believe in Belief

Peyton - Bedford, Massachusetts
Entered on December 7, 2011

I believe in believing. Cynicism—to not believe in anything—is intellectually lazy. The fact that I believe in anything means that I am not a cynic. I am a skeptic, someone who tries to analyze before believing. Unfortunately, cynicism is often confused with skepticism.

I believe that it’s important to teach skepticism—to push students to move beyond sound bites and headlines, to scrutinize the over-generalizations and stereotypes that are propagated in society. Everything worth believing, everything worth knowing cannot be condensed to 140 characters on Twitter or uploaded to YouTube.

What Americans choose to believe fascinates me. Of 34 industrialized nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center, Americans were second to last in their belief in evolution, with about 60% of Americans surveyed claiming the theory of evolution is false.

When I discussed this in my popular culture class last spring, a student replied that he thought the U.S. relied so heavily on science and technology that sometimes Americans just want some magic. I think he’s onto something.

Visiting the Lisbon Oceanarium in August 2011, I found signs that said human caused global warming is a proven fact—and there was no refuting graffiti scratched on those signs, as would likely be the case here at home.

While low-lying island nations such as the Maldives feel understandably threatened that climate change could wipe them off the map, and while Inuit populations in the Arctic worry about the loss of their livelihoods and culture because of global warming, many Americans, including presidential candidates, claim that it’s merely a left-wing conspiracy of lies designed to make Americans feel unreasonably guilty about our enormous carbon footprint.

Of course, we also have many Americans who think our nation’s president is a Muslim born in Kenya, that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime, and that illegal aliens don’t pay taxes.

When commentators tell us things that we don’t want to hear, many in society launch into ad hominem attacks on the character of the commentator rather than consider the information being offered.

The common willingness to ignore logic and empirical data and instead embrace what Stephen Colbert has coined “truthiness” indicates that we educators have much work to do.

When I first started teaching 27 years ago, I taught business law. When my students asked what would happen with certain fact patterns, my answer was, “It goes to the jury.” They hated that answer, because it offered only uncertainty.

When society faces complexity or uncertainty today, we respond all too often with blind faith or with hopeless cynicism. Sometimes we want answers before we even understand the question.

I believe that we need to help students recognize that life is complicated, and that we’re not necessarily providing answers, but instead we’re helping students develop curiosity, to learn to ask questions.

I believe that we should help our students develop a sense of healthy skepticism, in which they critically evaluate complex issues before deciding what they believe in.