Tuesday, January 04, 2005


At this web site we are leaning pretty heavily on the concept of teaching facts. Right now, we mean the facts about sexual behavior and sexual orientation, but we expect there to be other situations, for instance, we can anticipate an attack on the teaching of evolution, where religious beliefs come into conflict with another set of scientific facts. In these various cases, we advocate teaching facts in the public schools.

So it makes sense to consider the concept of the "fact" for a moment.

A fact is a unit of knoweldge. It's really a hypothetical word, there is no such thing in the world as a single, isolated fact. There are two good reasons for this. First, no fact is independent; at the very least a fact depends on the meanings of the concepts contained in it, as "diamond is harder than glass" is a fact that requires definitions of two substances and a method for measuring hardness. The definitions of diamond and glass depend on other concepts, for instance concepts like carbon and silicon, and so on; facts are interwoven.

Second, facts change as new knowledge is discovered. This is hard for us to appreciate, as it seems that part of being human is believing that the facts as you know them are ultimately correct. You remember the hilarity that ensued in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, for instance when Bing Crosby magically caused an eclipse, baffling the quaint locals with his omnipotence? The whole story revolves around the clash between states of knowledge. People in the Middle Ages didn't walk around wondering about stuff, they felt, just as we do today, that they knew things. And someday our knowledge will be quaint and silly to people who "know" better than us.

We can be pretty sure that our knowledge is better than the knowledge of the Middle Ages, and not just because of chauvinism or conceit. Our beliefs about the world today really are more comprehensive, more accurate, and more interconsistent than the beliefs of the Middle Ages. We do not yet hold perfect knowledge about the world, there are amazing and profound new insights into physics, for instance, but there are many frontiers yet to explore.

And why is our knowledge today better than that of the Middle Ages? The answer to that is simple: science.

People sometimes think that science is a collection of undisputed facts, but really science is a way to discover knowledge. The knowledge itself is always evolving, always moving forward, and science can be thought of as a worldwide sociological system of individuals asking questions, proposing answers, finding the evidence for and against them, trying to prove one another wrong, modifying one another's answers, criticizing one another, looking for the flaws and proposing better solutions to problems. And this crazy system works. The process of science results in the slow accumulation of better and better knowledge about the world, including ourselves.

And bits of knowledge as they are understood in the present are called facts.

We know, as mankind emerges from the caves into civilization and beyond to some unseeable future, that the facts we cherish today may not survive, our beliefs may be replaced with better ones. But, temporal beings that we are, we hope to learn of the best beliefs of our own time, and understand them.

And we want out children, attending the public schools, to learn the best beliefs of our time. We want them to be taught facts, that is, beliefs that are supported by evidence, and that have withstood the battering of the scientific process.

We agree with the "recall the school board" group that public schools should not be the place to for kids to learn moral values. School should be for facts. But we differ from them in our interpretation of what constitutes a value and what constitutes a fact. The focal subject at this moment has to do with sexual orientation. Scientists are in agreement that some people are "just gay." There is still a lot to learn about how it happens, but there is no question that it does. And to us, it is perfectly appropriate to teach this fact to eighth-graders.

(There are a couple of religious shrinks who specialize in getting gay people to act more straight. They may sometimes have success at this. Sometimes they call these people "ex-gays," but real gay people know better.)

Now, the "other side" believes that homosexuality is an ugly thing, and they don't think it is right to tell kids about it without pointing out how ugly it is. In fact, their complaint is that teaching about sexual orientation without telling kids that some variations are evil amounts to "teaching values." To them, tolerance of homosexuality is a value, and one that they don't agree with -- and talking about it objectively is just a little too tolerant.

People, we can't have it both ways. We here at teachthefacts.org want our kids to be exposed to the truth as it is best understood today. We think that if you abhor some variations, you can teach your children that part of it at home. Haven't we sat with our kids and helped them memorize stuff about communism, socialism, fascism? Of course, and that's our opportunity to pass on to them our views of what is desirable -- they didn't become fascists just because the history book had a section about fascism.

Let's let the school teach them the facts, and we'll teach them values at home.


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