I attended a meeting of principals recently where it was suggested that schools should focus on climate change, now that covid appears to be on the wane. The argument was put that climate change constitutes the greatest challenge this generation of students will face, and they need to be prepared to face this. Later in the week, the media ran coverage on the gender pay gap, bemoaning allegedly persistent pay differentials. The way that ideas are frequently presented as incontrovertible facts concerns me.
How rigorous is the climate change data? Is the data on pay differentials nuanced to allow "like for like" comparisons, or is this ideologically motivated? Both of these issues are presented as though the evidence is unequivocal, both have preoccupied the left for some time, both are accompanied by bold and often unsubstantiated claims, and both have given rise to questionable and costly social policy initiatives, globally. While many of these mitigating initiatives are proving to be monumental failures, proponents of both of these issues (often the same people) persist with a near cultic fervour to advance the cause at any cost. Proponents are very fast to attack those who question some of their core assumptions, even when their questions are very good, reasonable, and necessary. And the media adds to the collateral damage by engaging in deliberately superficial analyses.
There is no doubt that schools will be encouraged, if not required, to focus on these sorts of initiatives in the coming years. Phase one decolonization is in full swing in our schools now, this itself is a massive effort at misinformation and thought shaping. My prediction is that phase two will focus on climate change and a plethora of social justice issues. These will be accompanied by carefully engineered public statements, credentialed people will be selected to front the messages, sympathetic experts will be engaged to convey a picture of the dire consequences of the status quo, and to reinforce the narratives. Facilitation workshops will be used to ensure everyone is on board, costly support materials will be sent to schools, and contrary voices will be silenced. How much of this will be misinformation? What is being left out? Decolonization, social justice, and climate change, look set to be the curriculum biggies, and at a time when our educational standards in reading, writing and mathematics are declining (significantly) by international comparisons. It seems that the more they decline, the more we turn our backs and focus elsewhere. If data shows a decline in educational standards then the solution is often to collect different data, and if that doesn't work, to collect no data at all.
Misinformation is a word we have become well used to, our prime Minister uses this word with abandon, and in response to any argument which challenges the primary (and state-approved) narrative. To many observers, the state has become one of the primary sources of misinformation. Misinformation permeates the middle level of most of our agencies of state, and it is here that they are most difficult to detect, and dislodge. Common sense, and empirical evidence, are displaced by deliberately incomprehensible arguments, inane theories, ambiguous words, appeals to things mystical, the disenfranchisement of alternative worldviews, and the power of group-think. There is one narrative and this narrative must be defended at any cost. Civil servants know that their careers depend on this. Misinformation thrives when contrary views are banished from the public square, and when supporting (empirical) evidence seems to be lacking. Inevitably policy design and outcomes are compromised.
But there is a simple antidote to misinformation. We know most about the merits of an idea when ... 1. This idea is challenged by other ideas, and ... 2. When we insist on evidence i.e. we ask to see the underlying data. Contrary opinions allow ideas to be sifted, refined, taken to the next stage, or dispensed with. Contrary ideas make the proponents of these ideas accountable because they poke away at their underlying assumptions, they also act as a natural counter to ideas being taken too far. We should always be suspicious of ideas that have gestated in the private (not public) domain, there is always a reason for this. The absence of counter ideas allows ideas to ferment at the extremes, this is where they can become incoherent, nonsensical, or even dangerous. When ideas exist in the public domain, they are inevitably forced, through the presence of alternative ideas, into the "middle ground", where reasonable compromises can be made.
Thus we need to be turning out students who are able to look critically at truth claims, to dig beneath the slogans and the groupthink, and to insist on supporting evidence. Young people are especially vulnerable to manipulation and they need to be protected from this. If the evidence is univariate (based on singular causality) we need to teach our students to dispense with these truth claims immediately, or send the proponents of these ideas off to do their homework. Our students need to turn their backs on any simple X causes Y argument, because life simply does not work that way, things are much more complicated than that. Anyone promulgating a simplistic X causes Y argument is simply up to mischief. The social justice movement has made an industry of this, and they need to be called out. Neither low educational achievement, the gender pay gap, differential health statistics, crime, poor parenting, generational welfare dependency, low self-esteem, loss of identity etc, are ever caused by a single variable, or a small handful of variables. And by the way, almost nothing is caused by racism alone. Institutional racism, if it exists, is a much less significant cause of educational disparity, for example, than absent fathers, generational welfare, substance abuse, poor school attendance, mental illness, poverty etc etc etc Multiple factors play out in complex ways. Proper multivariate analyses always prove this.
With respect to the gender pay gap, I would want my students to ask where the data came from, and how this data had been used. If a percentage of women take 8-10 critical years out of the workforce for child-rearing, are their pay rates on return to work, or subsequently, compared only with men who also exited the workforce for 8-10 years at a similar time in their working life? Was their education on entry broadly equivalent? Were their responsibilities and commitment broadly similar? Are the total years in the workforce, and in this specific role broadly similar? etc. With respect to the climate change issues, the promulgated view needs to be measured against contrary argument and evidence. Competent social scientists have the analytical tools at their fingertips to weigh causality across multiple domains, the problem is that these analyses sometimes show what they do not want them to show, and so they don't do them.
I am strongly of the opinion that there are four areas that need to be the primary focus for all schools moving forward. Reading, writing and mathematics have a permanent place on this list of priorities, and I have hinted at the fourth area. I believe that it is equally important that schools teach their students how to think critically. The next generation will have no shortage of information at their fingertips. The challenge will be how to discern good information from bad, how to think their way past superficial slogans, and how to dig a bit to see if an argument is based on good evidence, or whether someone is pursuing an agenda.
I think we have forgotten what it is to be empirical, and a lot of what passes for research is ideology. I believe that critical thinking needs to be at the fore. Those who argue that empiricism is a western construct, that should be replaced by more sophisticated ways of "knowing", and that facts should always be subordinate to feelings, are ignorant of the dangers of their argument.
We need to train young people to ask two simple questions "Where is the evidence?" "How multivariate was the research design?'
I think that our democracy depends on this, and our ultimate well-being depends on this.
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.