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.