Certainty book cover

Last night, students in one of my pre-service methods courses presented a curricular lesson they designed and a paper exploring a dilemma encountered while student teaching. There was plenty of insecurity in their presentations – voices trailing off into near silence, as well as defensiveness when asked to support an argument or defend a position. Such reactions are predictable.

What struck me as significant was how future educators standing on quicksand were quite certain about their ideas, regardless of how flimsy they happened to be. When confronted with clearly obvious factual errors in the proposed lesson, more than one student teacher responded with a version, “Well, I disagree,” or “Because I said so.”

It would have been nice if these students demonstrated some humility and were eager to change their stance (and modify the lesson). Seymour Sarason often points out that schools “lack a capacity for self-correction.” In this case, it’s probably reasonable to conclude that schools are merely collections of teachers.

Certainty not only afflicts teacher wannabes. A few nights ago, a non-American blogger from a country far far away wrote a blog posting and then announced its existence to the world via Twitter. This blog quoted an online magazine’s account of a presentation by a popular purveyor of clichés and other nonsense about contemporary education. After careful deliberation I decided to ask the Twitterer/blogger about the fallacies and factual errors he/she reported in the blog post.

The blogger responded that he/she did feel a bit queasy about the validity of the information, but passed it on as the basis of policy recommendations nonetheless. Each iteration of the reporting – the article, blog post about the article and then the tweet about the blog post about the article about the presentation – FAILED to question the validity or even “truthiness” of the claims made by the original myth-maker. Each iteration leads to a greater impression that the information has been vetted and is factual.

I fear that Web 2.0 amplifies this false sense of certainty and accelerates the rate at which “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (attributed to Mark Twain, even if I have reason to suspect otherwise given how every clever quip seems attributed to Twain)

Just in time!

Salon features an incredibly timely article*, The Certainty Epidemic, by a medical doctor named Robert Burton. Despite a reliance on neuroscience that may represent an even greater false sense of certainty where none is warranted, the article (and book it touts) raises important issues for all of us, such as:

We must learn to substitute “I believe” for “I know.”

Watch Stephen Colbert’s stunning 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where he lampooned President George W. Bush’s reliance on his gut, rather than on his head. [Warning: There may be a juvenile commercial prior to the actual speech. It’s the best clip I found to embed in this blog. You may also watch the video, sans-commercial, here.

Watch Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

* Note: The “science” used to make Burton’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt and runs the risk of detracting from the important issue of us professing certainty when we are merely stating an opinion.