judging a book by its cover

For most things I demonstrate a pretty good amount of patience. But there are a few things that get me riled. The dog, for instance, for as much as I love him, makes my blood boil when he leaps up on the door to bark, bang, and scratch. I think there’s some evolutionary trait that turns up the rage control when my home is being destroyed from the outside.

[a few students in the past have suggested I “look like that guy in Fight Club.” Brad Pitt? I ask. “No . . . ” they respond with some embarrassment for me, “Ed Norton.” Of course. Now that Norton is playing Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, I’ve wondered if students might begin to fear sending me into a rage. I can only hope for such an image.]

Today in the book aisle I picked up a book that was supposed to be a refresher in all things cultural and important. It promised to give you a briefing that would allow you to be conversational in those things that are relevant to modern society. The idea is that, if you read the book, you’ll get enough bits and pieces of information on history, philosophy, science, and the like that you’ll be a better member of the democracy.

I’m always interested in these kinds of books and their claims, because I simultaneously drawn to them — like a chalice offering clairvoyance — and at the same time feel my bias rising up. I abhor the notion that if we just understand more facts, dates, definitions, and the like, we’ll be smarter and even better thinkers. I think this is short sighted and simple minded. True, I also did worst in classes and other challenges where knowing names, dates, and facts were imperative. A couple of history classes and I never quite got along. I can’t tell you the names and places important to the history of the Vietnam War, but I can tell you that each side was fighting for two different kinds of things, just as if I argued that we eat tofu because I’m hungry and a companion suggested we

I opened this particular book and found immediately a section entitled “Gravity.” It then went on to describe a few things about gravity, that we don’t understand it, that it attracts bodies in proportion to their mass and inversely proportional to the distance between them. (It didn’t say anything about this being an inverse square law, but that didn’t both me.) A few other pieces of information were floated about in the brief paragraphs on the single page, and then it got to the Hulk inducing, patience losing part that went something like this: “astronauts in space aren’t completely weightless, in fact they’re in what is technically known as ‘microgravity.'” That is, this and many other descriptions of astronauts in the space station or space shuttle or other orbiting vehicles about Earth suggest that the astronauts still feel a micro amount of gravity. Sure, they’re in space, but gravity is still there. A little bit. The problem is that this is completely wrong. There is gravity there, and there’s still a lot of it. The astronauts and their surroundings aren’t weightless at all, in fact they’re falling along the orbital path that’s caused by the gravity. The experience an apparent weightlessness because gravity is pulling them, along with everything in which they’re contained, all at the same rate. So the term “micro” is completely misleading. It isn’t that they’ve sacrificed a bunhc of gravity, but instead they’re experiencing it in a different scenario that actually isn’t any different than if you were falling in an elevator whose cable (I always picture a very small thread) had just dropped from the 67th floor of the Empire State Building. While falling, you’d feel weightless, but the falling itself is caused by gravity. You’d only wish you could experience such a thing as “microgravity.”

But this isn’t supposed to be a physics lesson. Rather, the fact of the matter is that upon seeing something like this, I immediately close the book and discredit the usefulness of the rest of it. If they mislead the reader with their own ignorance on the one page that I open to randomly, what kinds of things will they mislead me with on the pages that I don’t already understand so well?

Back at home I’ve been reading, a little at a time, a variety of books. Slowly. The easiest book to understand, er, read quickly, is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. The reviews of the book are bipolar and bimodal, reflecting the two views of either science or two backgrounds in critical thinking. (Both believe they’re critical thinkers and have the corner on truth, which makes a coherent argument not only difficult, but impossible.) It’s a terrible and fascinating book, and by knowing only a little bit about science (frightening to admit, having a PhD in science ed) makes it possible to discredit easily certain pieces, and then question everything else by association. For example, there’s a claim that perhaps a little bit of ionizing radiation from nuclear sources is actually good for you. After all, we get radiation from all kinds of sources all the time, and people who live in Denver (where there’s more natural background) live longer than those in Gulf States. This is, at best, taking some statistics and doing a little speculation. But then the author throws in the fact that radiation must be safe since it’s used all the time, and in fact we used to even x-ray people’s feet to fit them for shoes. He says this like it was no big deal. He doesn’t talk about the high cancer rates of shoe salesmen, though.

I don’t lose patience with ignorance. I lose patience with lazy explanations with a presumption of “this must be right,” as in the case of microgravity; and I lose patience with “I need to be right and I’ll not think about things that might make me wrong.” The problem is that I don’t always know when these are each the case, and I especially have a hard time figuring out how to get others (e.g., students) to realize when either of these are the case. That’s the big challenge. There are people out there writing books and blogs, policies and legislation, and it’s hard to sort out the good stuff from the rest. On the outside, they all look the same.


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