In his article, "Experimental Error: Forging A Head," Adam Ruben describes his experience judging a middle school science fair, at which one of the students presented a project on landfills.
In particular, she addressed the ongoing problem of the release of DHMO into the atmosphere.
In case you're unfamiliar with DHMO (or haven't yet clicked on the link to the article), it's an acronym for dihydrogen monoxide.
You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O.
As Ruben notes, "Propaganda opposing DHMO cites the substance's presence in acid rain, use in naval warfare, and the fact that professional athletes can become dependent on its performance-enhancing abilities."
In short, it's a hoax.
What is perhaps more disturbing is that, when Ruben and his fellow-judges agreed to alert the girl to her mistake in order to spare her further embarrassment,
'the student looked at me and said, defiantly, "Well, that's what my research found, so ..."This is what bothers me about the fact that so many people are branding each other "stupid" or "idiotic."
She said "so" in a way that meant, "The Internet said one thing, and if you disagree, then I guess it's just a difference of scientific opinion, so how can I be expected to know what to believe?"'
More times than I can count, I have witnessed someone on Facebook or YouTube or an Internet website or a blog who derides, denounces and lambastes an opponent for "stupidity" and "idiocy," and then posts a link to a website that is either 1) a scam, 2) a hoax, 3) in complete contradiction to the viewpoints that they've just espoused or, 4) highly misleading, if not generally inaccurate.
At times, I'm not sure people are even reading--much less reading critically and carefully--the information that they present and the links that they post.
That's a problem.
A case in point: I stumbled upon a blog post written by someone who attended the Tax Day Rally in Providence. He was upset by the (inevitable) presence of various infiltrators. One of them, he characterizes as a "pseudo intellectual earthy crunchy student from Brown University" and the others as "'we are as smart as Obama' Ivy League youngsters."
[On a side note, I would simply like to point out that, in my experience, the Brown University Republicans could show up at a pig roast at the Narragansett Gun Club, carrying Bibles and wearing mink coats, and someone would still refer to them as "those earthy crunchy Brown University students."
Not that the Brown University Republicans have ever or would ever do such a thing--I mean them no disrespect. It's just that everyone always seems to use words like "earthy crunchy" and "liberal" and "granola" to describe Brown University students, regardless of their individual differences.]
Anyway, the blogger comments on the fact that they confronted a girl who was carrying a sign saying, "I want to close all the libraries." Apparently, the sign was her (admittedly quite lame) attempt to ridicule the Tea Party's position on the issue of federal spending.
According to the blogger, the girl was openly challenged with "the fact that the library system in America was invented by none other than Ben Franklin before there was an American government, and a hundred years before there was an income tax."
As the blogger notes, "When confronted with the logic that we didn't need taxes for libraries before, why do we need higher taxes now to keep them open, she just held her sign up in front of her face, turned around and walked the other way."
Here's the thing. Ben Franklin totally started the first library in America. Absolutely. It was called The Library Company and it was established in 1731 by Franklin and several other members of a philosophical society called the Junto.
They did this because they recognized the fact that books were expensive and therefore not generally available to people who weren't wealthy or members of the clergy. By pooling their resources, they could amass a larger collection than they could ever obtain individually.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress relied on the use of the Library Company's resources. So too did the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Members of the Library Company were among the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were allowed to use the Library as well.
So while the library system was invented by Benjamin Franklin before the existence of the American government, it also played an integral part in the founding of the American government.
It was the belief of men like Benjamin Franklin and William Penn that books should be made widely available to anyone, regardless of wealth or social status, that the way to do this was by pooling collective resources, and that the library system had a fundamental role to play in American democracy.
As the Library Company's website notes, "50 subscribers invested 40 shillings each to start a library. Members also promised to invest 10 shillings more every year to buy additional books and to help maintain the library."
And the motto of the Library Company was, loosely translated, "To support the common good is divine."
For his part, after his experience at the middle school science fair, Ruben wonders, "When did skepticism become a bad thing?"
I would echo that. For me, that's the question.
Not who's the biggest idiot (or group of idiots) in America.
I think that, when we brand others "idiots," we aren't being skeptical or thoughtful at all, even though that's what we may be telling ourselves. We're being arrogant and thoughtless.
If it's to function effectively, skepticism has to involve both questioning and humility--otherwise, it hits an epistemological wall ("how do you know for certain that anything is ever true, really?").
In short, if we're healthy, thoughtful skeptics, we try to resist the temptation to immediately succumb to our innate confirmation biases (see my post "Cynic's Cure" for a discussion of confirmation bias), and we don't automatically endorse the pressures of arrogantly assertive "authorities."
We investigate the details and the nuances behind and around the broad brushstrokes we so regularly see painted.
In short, we think. And not just before, but also during and after, we speak.
In the end, that's what Benjamin Franklin would have wanted. (Maybe.)