Truth in Education

To help us prepare for the Rebel Wisdom Summit on May 12th , in London, participants have been sent links to a number of videos which feature the keynote speakers, Iain McGilchrist, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and Jordan Greenhall (see my last blog post for links to the videos). I have been particularly interested in the videos in which Heather Heying appears. Heying is an evolutionary biologist who, having been forced, in 2017, to leave her tenured position at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, together with her husband Bret Weinstein, now describes herself as a Professor in Exile.

Although I was not aware of Heather Heying’s story before watching the Rebel Wisdom videos, the idea that free speech is being curtailed in the name of political correctness and social justice, is not new to me. Mariana Funes and I discussed this in relation to the work of Jonathan Haidt in our 2018 paper When Inclusion Excludes: a counter narrative of open online education.  I have some personal experience of the negative consequences of ‘going against the grain’, so I was interested in what Heather Heying had to say in the video in which she and Bret Weinstein discuss ‘Having a Real Conversation” with David Fuller, a founder of Rebel Wisdom. According to some news reports, Bret Weinstein asked students for a ‘dialectic‘, a ‘real conversation’, rather than a ‘debate’ about the issues that led to his leaving Evergreen State College with his wife Heather Heying, but this did not transpire.

A lot of what Heying and Weinstein say in the ‘real conversation’ video is not new to me. My experience is that good teachers know that they have to ‘set the stage’ when starting a new course or a new term with school children, and that it is worth spending some time at the beginning of the course or term mutually agreeing how the class will work. Good teachers also respect their students and know that they must ensure that everyone has a voice and that alternative perspectives are respected. I am not an evolutionary biologist, so I cannot say whether the potential for conflict in evolutionary biology classes and similar subjects is greater than in, say, something like physics or mathematics, but I suspect that it may be, especially in America where there are schools teaching creationism.

At about six minutes into the video, Heather talks about freeing students from the yoke of authority and learning to think for themselves. At this point she also says, If we’re trying to figure out what is true, science is the best tool we have,  and If we find that we can’t do science on what you’ve said, what can we do to what you’ve said to make it falsifiable. The longer we can’t falsify it, the more likely it is that it is true. So she takes a scientific approach to truth.

I specifically noticed this because I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book, A short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. On the back cover of this book is written:

How did we find ourselves in a  “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”? And can we get out of it? A Short History of Truth sets out to answer these questions by looking at the complex history of truth. Renowned and respected philosopher Julian Baggini has identified ten types of supposed truth, and explains how easily each can become the midwife of falsehood’.

Baggini discusses empirical, authoritative and reasoned truths, the idea that truth should be grounded in evidence, that truths can be known and that reason can lead to truth. All these seem to be the kinds of truths that Heather Heying focuses on as the basis for real conversations with her students.

But there are also, according the Baggini, eternal truths, esoteric truths, creative truths, relative truths, powerful truths,  moral truths and holistic truth. These seem to emphasise different aspects to how we recognise truth than the empirical truth focussed on by Heying. This made me wonder whether the idea that there can be many types of truth was discussed by her students and how this idea might influence the outcome of a ‘real conversation’.

According to Iain McGilchrist we cannot go to science for truth. As I wrote in a previous blog post he believes that

Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Given that both Heather Heying and Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Rebel Wisdom Summit, I will be very interested to see whether the question of truth comes up, and if it does the extent to which they agree or differ on the meaning of truth.

And I wonder what they would both think of Baggini’s simple rubric to help us nurture truth. This is how Baggini ends his book in a discussion of future truths. (p.107)

  • Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
  • We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
  • We should be sceptical not cynical.
  • Reason demands modesty not certainty.
  • To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
  • Truths need to be created as well as found.
  • Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
  • Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
  • For a better morality we need better knowledge.
  • Truth needs to be understood holistically.

References

Baggini, J. (2017). A Short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. Quercus.

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, “Having a Real Conversation”: https://youtu.be/ZBkF-xJh6tU