Thursday, February 17, 2011

Truth v. Texas

I've talked about truth and proof repeatedly and about how the only real relationship they have to each other is that we maintain the frankly vain hope that they'll frequently coincide.
That's a systemic "we." You know, humankind.  Or maybe just people who believe in our legal system.  Or something.
I haven't talked so much about education because, well, mainly because I'm a criminal defense lawyer, not an educator.  I've taught a fair amount at a few universities, and I have two pretty well-educated kids, but that doesn't even push me in the direction, mostly, of having responsible and valuable things to say. And while I've got lots of opinions, they're not much backed up either by actual knowledge based on research or again on broad experience.  Which isn't quite enough to make me shut up but given that I'm rarely at a loss for things to blog about, it gives me pause from time to time.
Still, I really am committed to a couple of ideas about education.
First, a broad, semi-traditional liberal arts education is valuable for its own sake.  It doesn't make people nicer or reduce prejudice or improve social consciousness, and reading the classics and studying the trivium and the quadrivium won't do much to end world poverty, cleanse the environment, or win the war against ______________ (fill in the blank with terrorism or drugs or poverty or AIDS or socialism or fascism or people who root for the Yankees or whatever).  And, sadly perhaps, and this is probably why it has largely gone out of favor, it's not practical.  Liberal arts education is not trade school or training school.  (Not even in the art of living, as some advocates claim.)
Second, insofar as schools are in the business of imparting information, the information ought to be as correct as possible.  John Adams put it well.
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
Schooling ought not, as I suggested in the first point, be all about passing on information.  There's plenty of room for discussion and elaboration and speculation, for analysis and interpretation.  Indeed, figuring out how to analyze and discuss and speculate and interpret and so on is much of what good education is about.  Moreover, we can be wrong.  We often are, despite our best efforts.  And there's lots we just don't know or about which we just aren't sure.  (Though certainty bears only an occasional relationship with accuracy.)
But when we know, when there's a right answer, when we're passing on information . . . .
  • In Euclidian geometry, parallel lines never cross.
  • 2 + 2 = 4.
  • The sun is a mass of incandescent gas.
  • Shakespeare is credited with writing Hamlet.  He didn't write a single episode of Seinfeld.
  • Sandusky is the county seat of Erie County, Ohio.  Port Clinton is the county seat of Sandusky Ohio.  Upper Sandusky is the county seat of Wyandot County, Ohio.
  • There are nine Justices on the Supreme Court of the United States.  The number is set by statute, not the Constitution.
  • China is the most populous nation on earth.
In our world (forget parallel universes and the like) those things are true.  They're true even if you don't believe them.  Even if you can't prove them to your satisfaction.
Other things are, well, not true.
  • The moon is not made of green cheese.
  • You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
  • Your constitutional right to free speech is not violated if you submit a spam comment and I delete it.
  • There are not two sides to every issue.
Some things are just matters of opinion, not subject to being true or false despite being stated authoritatively.
  • Steak should never be served well done but only rare or medium rare.
  • When the temperature gets above 80, it's just too warm.
  • That tree is beautiful.
Some things are pretty clearly true (or false) but controversial anyway.
  • The earth is 13.7 billion years old.
  • Darwin was right.
  • Cameron Todd Willingham didn't kill those kids even if he was a rotten human being.
  • Gamso does blather on.
Oddly, the point of this exercise is not that it gives me an excuse to reproduce the Rumsfeldian koan on human knowledge.
As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don't know.
That's just a side benefit.  The point of the exercise is to provide a framework for getting at this from the column by Gail Collins in today's NY Times.
She's referring to Susan Tortolero, director of the Prevention Research Center at the University of Texas in Houston.
Tortolero, who lectures around the country on effective ways to prevent teenage pregnancy, once testified before a committee in the Texas House that was considering a bill to require that sex education classes only provide information that was medically accurate.
The bill was controversial. I’ll let you ponder that for a minute.
Tortolero said she got some support from a legislator who was also a pediatrician. “We talked back and forth for a month. But some groups in Texas were threatening him and he was a very junior member,” she recalled. The bill died.
Because facts are stubborn things.  Truth can be damned dangerous. And sometimes, at least if you're in Texas, it's better not to know.
Oh, here's another probably-true (though controversial in Texas) snippet:  Davy Crockett did not go down gloriously in battle at the Alamo, swinging his empty long rifle as the forces of Santa Ana overwhelmed the defenders of the mission.  The best evidence seems to be that he was one of the few taken alive and then put to death by Santa Ana's men.  There's at least a suggestion in the evidence that the death was neither glorious nor brave.
Legends, of course, serve their purposes, too.


  1. This is going to be one of those foundational posts that will serve, by mere reference, to resolve any number of problems that arise in more substantive discussions. It is destined to be a blawgsopheric classic.

  2. And here I just thought I was looking for an excuse to search YouTube for Davy Crockett stuff.

  3. Two things -
    The sun is a ball of incandescent plasma, not gas
    The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The earth is ~4 billion years old.