Students Break My Heart (Part the Second)

A few days after I wrote that last, heart-rending tale of interactions with my students, I happened to run in to the very student who had said such nice things about me. The only difference was that I was presenting as female at the time.

The student said his “hellos” and the quickly excused himself from the interaction. While I was teaching him again today, it took more than an hour before he (usually all-too-willing to ask me questions) was even able to make eye contact. And that, of course, is why I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching as myself.

But it does raise an interesting question: I am constantly telling my students about all kinds of amazing and wonderful things: some of them even seemingly unbelievable. I might mention off-hand, for example, the fact that no region of space is every truly empty, because it is constantly bubbling-over with extremely short-lived subatomic particles; or I might tell them that if you fire an electron at a pair of closely-spaced slits, this electron will go through either one slit or the other (if you happen to be looking at them), or it will go through both slits simultaneously (if you happen to be looking away); or that everything in the entire universe once burst forth out of a point a hundred million trillion trillion times smaller than the head of pin…and they will accept all of these things. They may have questions about them (like they should), they might not even be willing to accept them as true at first, or even ever, but none of them would be rejected out of hand, or immediately dismissed as ridiculous.

But if I were to tell them that I am a woman…somehow I don’t think that most of them would pay that idea–which is no more ridiculous than any of the others that I have named– the same respect.

Ultimately, I think that I know what this boils down to: in fact, I consider it to be the Grand Unifying Principle of Ideological Woodenheadedness:

A person’s likelihood of adopting a particular belief falls-off with both the number and intensity of pre-existing beliefs that they would need to give-up in adopting it.

Now, of course this isn’t the only consideration in adopting new beliefs: I personally would like to think that evidence of truth would be the main criteria. However, this does go quite a long way towards explaining quite a few things.

It explains (as I have just outlined) why people in general are more willing to accept the rather esoteric claims of physics than they are claims of transsexuality, even though there is a similar  scientific consensus surrounding both. In short, when I’m talking about virtual particles, I’m not really treading very hard on people’s conceptions of how the world works (unless they are other physicists); but people think that they get gender; they encounter it every day, and in fact it’s one of the very first things that they learn about as children: they learn that boys definitionally have penises and girls definitionally have vaginae. And of course, such a belief in most people is not going to go down without a fight. Moreover, it also explains why the most transphobic people in the world, ironically, are highly-patriarchal men and radical feminist women: these are the people who have the most intense pre-existing beliefs about gender.

You can extend it easily to fundamentalism: the most intense beliefs, bar none, are religious in nature, so it is hardly surprising that certain devout Christians would feel the need to crush Darwinism at any cost.

It even explains why young people are so much more willing to embrace new ideas that older people: they have fewer pre-existing beliefs to jettison. You can even see this in academics, where often times, distinguished elderly professors are unwilling to embrace a new concept, even when it has strong arguments behind it, just because they have build their carreers around ideas with which it conflicts.

That’s not to say, of course, that all new ideas are terrible. But I think that the world would be much better off if everyone tried, conscientiously, to guard against such ideological calcification.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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One Response to Students Break My Heart (Part the Second)

  1. In other words, there are certain beliefs that we desperately want to be true and when we’re presented with information, ideas and/or situations which challenge or contradict those beliefs, then we will typically react negatively and possibly, irrationally. Of course you don’t want to believe that Dear Old Dad has been having an affair for the last five years, after all he’s Your Dad; the poster boy for morality, stability, integrity and family values. You know (believe) he would never do anything like that, yet now you’re presented with a situation that throws your stable, predictable and comfortable internal world (your mind) into turmoil. It completely messes with your belief system. You’ve just walked in on Dear Old Dad kissing Mrs Granger from over the fence in a non-neighbourly manner. Your non-negotiable belief (that Dad is the high-watermark for moral behaviour) has been smashed in the face with reality. You feel sick, repulsed, hurt and betrayed because something you’ve believed for so long has just been ripped out from under your feet. One of your core beliefs (that Dad is an honest, reliable and moral man) has been shattered. Even though you see it with your own eyes, on some level you can’t believe it. It doesn’t match the reality in your head. You frantically try and reconcile what you’re seeing with your belief about your Father. You desperately try to create a scenario in your head which will keep your core belief in tact and allow you to stay in your delusion. “I’m hallucinating. I’m drunk. I’m imagining things. I must have mis-interpreted the situation.” Yep, that’s right Junior; Mrs. Granger has hijacked your Father’s lips against his will.

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