The long dark death of the mind

24 01 2012

I want to make a plea for thinking. It is scandalously undervalued and I fear it may be dying out altogether.

I accept that I may be exaggerating but if, like me, you spend large parts of the day with tweetdeck trundling away in the corner of your computer screen you will no doubt agree that any exaggeration is only slight. I can’t speak for the whole of twitter, of course, that would be an exaggeration too far even for me, but my little corner seems to be largely populated by people who post the most vacuous nonsense and, worse still, those that retweet it.

As a child my bedroom walls had posters with sayings like “Love is never having to say your sorry” or “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” printed above pictures of puppies or kittens or deserted beaches or the like. In the ’70’s most girls bedrooms were filled with such nonsense and pictures of David Cassidy, of course. But, on the whole, we all grew out of it. It would seem that some people haven’t and have replaced posters on the bedroom wall with posts on twitter. Am I supposed to impressed by their ability to quote from the Tao Te Ching? Maybe 20 years ago I might have been. Maybe in conversation the ability to drop Shakespearean quotes into the mix might still impress me but on-line I know that theirs isn’t real knowledge, only the ability to use ctrl-c followed by crtl-v.

I heard an interview with Professor Brian Cox on one of the Radio 4 news programmes in which he argued for quantum physics to be taught in primary schools. Initially I thought he was joking but his point was totally valid. The mathematical formulae can be remarkably simple. It is the actual thinking that is hard and it is hard for everyone. For example take E=mc2. It states that one term (E) is equal to a second term (m) multiplied by the square of a third term (c).  Something equals something times something else, just like the times table 10 = 5×2. It isn’t the maths that is hard it is the implications of the theory that require thought.

The fact that a single photon of light can pass through two slits at the same time is counter intuitive. It isn’t a mathematical problem it is a conceptual one. Theorists, thinkers if you will, worked to develop to theories. Predictions were made from these theories, experimenters worked to see whether the predictions were true and mathematics allowed results to be recorded and challenged. But the thinking comes first! This is the point and the reason why Professor Cox wanted it taught in schools. Not to learn the formulae but to learn how to think. And I agree. In the rush to get more and more children to pass more and more examinations at higher and higher grades we are at risk of forgetting to teach them to think.

With soundbite news and celebrity tittle-tattle filling the media the inability to think deeply about issues is further damaged. But the real problem comes when we allow belief to be given the same merit as knowledge. When there are programmes about evolution, for example, they are often framed as a debate. There is no debate. Evolution is a proven, continually provable fact. Being called the Theory of Evolution doesn’t mean that we don’t know. It means that the idea is constantly being challenged for validity, constantly being improved, expanded and built upon. By giving equal space to those who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old creates the impression that there is room for debate. There is not. Those beliefs are wrong – have been proven to be wrong. Giving those views airtime suggests that there may be room for debate, that there may be an alternative to evolution when there is not.

Let me exaggerate for illustration. We can all agree that 2+2=4. What if someone comes along and says that they believe that 2+2 is actually 79. If we allow that belief to be debated alongside what we know to be true then it creates the idea that there may be some possibility that even if 2+2 isn’t 79 there may be some chance that it isn’t 4. By discussing the possibility of some ludicrous notion based on belief we undermine what we know to be true.

So can we have more thinking and less ctrl-c/ctrl-v please.



One response

24 01 2012
Cordelia Ditton (@DillyTalk)

An excellent post Karen. I couldn’t agree more.

At the other end of the age spectrum, only this morning I caught something on the Today Programme about old people staving off dementia by doing crosswords and other puzzles. (My 96 year old mother agrees!)

May I also make the point that, in my view, education is all about helping us think, analyse and innovate. When I hear politicians and others going on about the uselessness of learning arts subjects at university, for example, I know they have missed the real point.


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