A little while ago, someone came to my daughter’s school and told the assembly that mobile phone signals were killing the world’s bees. It turns out that there is not much evidence to support this view.
I grew up in Apartheid era South Africa, and was told things, by teachers and authority figures, that really defy belief. When I was about 12, we had a class discussion about classified advertising in newspapers. We were talking about what information was relevant to include in an advert; what sort of questions to ask. The teacher listened to our ideas, and then suggested one herself: ‘You would want to know the race of the people selling something,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t want to buy a mattress from a Portuguese family, for example, because they are very dirty people.’
At the time, two of the Portuguese children in the class (My white-only school had people from all over the world) were in my line of sight. They looked as if someone had fired a gun in the air. There were a couple of feeble protests from the rest of the class, which were brushed aside. ‘Its a fact,’ she said, ‘everybody knows it.’
Our textbooks were also full of lies: deliberate, cynical lies, designed to help justify a massive land grab. I remember being told that God had ordained, in his Holy Bible, that white people were rulers, and black people were servants. That the Soviets were plotting to overthrow the democracy of South Africa. That calls for one-person one-vote was just a cover for this sinister aim.
I therefore grew up with little respect for what people in authority were telling me. I didn’t doubt the sincerity of my teachers: most of them were obviously kind, decent people who wouldn’t harm a fly. They just believed what they had been told. The fact that I didn’t gave me a huge (and almost totally unjustified) sense of superiority. I could see what was really going on, and I was just a kid. How could adults be so stupid?
These teachers were just parroting the conventional view to children: that was pretty much their job description. They didn’t know it was all nonsense. The world is a complicated place, and people are just people. Within the limits of their own moral framework, they meant well.
Which brings me to the present. My kids are being told a lot about climate change at school, and I strongly suspect that their teachers know about as much about the science of this as most of my teachers knew about the true history of South Africa.
Does this matter? Isn’t combatting climate change a worthy enough cause, so that we can forgive some over-zealous statements, like how phones kill bees? But then, saving the world from the Soviets was a worthy cause too. And climate change is an issue which can be exploited, by people who then over-sell alternative medicine, and over-state the risks of vaccination. These people also mean well: some are neo-luddites trying to save the world from a technological future, and using climate change as a means to advance this agenda.
I love wikipedia, because it is a reference work which says to you: ‘Do not trust what you read here: its probably wrong. If you can make it less wrong, please do.’
Teachers do not have this disclaimer. My lesson to my kids is that they probably should. But then I might be wrong: it is their job to find out.