Editorial: Stupid or smart?

As any parent knows, children can be the best teachers. Adults will learn a lot if they’ll only listen. So it was that my 13-year-old son, an eighth-grader at Rappahannock County High School, brought understanding to what had been a publishing puzzle: Why don’t the many eloquent letters to the editor this newspaper publishes, not to mention the occasional editorial in this space, ever change anybody’s mind?

The subject doesn’t matter — whether the recent cell tower debate or the ongoing back-and-forth about cow poop in Rappahannock tributaries. What matters is that people’s perceptions, regardless of what it is they’re perceiving, never seem to alter. Indeed, we all seem to see selectively, picking and choosing those bits of information and shreds of evidence that support our own long-held beliefs: “confirmation bias” is what psychologists term this phenomenon.

Whatever happened to the Jeffersonian notion that in the marketplace of competing ideas, objective truth will eventually and inevitably win?

But today’s marketplace is fragmented into niche and special-interest audiences, and reason has been replaced by neuroscience. Our opinions and actions are no longer justified as being rationally grounded; rather, emotions and unconscious wishful thinking are what guide us. (How else to explain the mob behavior that brought us the recent housing bubble, and all the subsequent economic woes?)

So it was that my 13-year-old son Tom, normally a good student, brought home an exceptionally bad grade on a recent science test. “How did that happen?” I asked.

“I didn’t do the second page of the test,” he said.

I shouldn’t have had to ask: “And why was that?”

“Because it looked just like the first page!” he said in a voice that communicated annoyance (at me, at himself). “I thought the teacher had made a mistake and given me two copies of the same test.”

“I know, I was stupid,” he begrudgingly announced. But maybe the better characterization was that he had been just too smart for his own good — assuming he already knew the answers, seeing patterns where there were none, forming instant judgments, inferring instead of actually reading.

“Slow down,” I said, “and pay attention. You might learn something.”

Walter Nicklin