Yesterday, Neil came home from school, eager to create an informative flyer for the school’s annual No-Trash Lunch Week. I allowed him on my computer and being an analytical sort of a guy, he quickly came up with a flyer with three statistics about waste, and an admonishment to stop the process and lower the amount of waste generated. The first two facts came from the EPA, though it was uncredited. But the third “fact” raised Peter’s eyebrows: it said “About 62.5% of the wasted food scraps were from children just like us (and including us!)” He asked Neil where he’d found that particular statistic. Neil confessed he’d just made it up. Peter chided him for him, but afterwards, we also acknowledged to ourselves that Neil could have taken that flyer to school, and no one else would have questioned him about that statistic, including the teachers and principals. After all, that statistic, even though completely fictitious, could have served the “greater good” of shaming the school’s children into creating less trash.
In fact, his own classroom door is currently decorated with a dubitable, uncredited statistic for the same purpose. It says “The U.S. produces 50% of the world’s garbage.” I googled the term in various configurations, but couldn’t find its source; Peter did find it as part of a Cornell “Trash Trivia Game” for 4th-6th graders. But in the meantime, I’d also found out that while the U.S. produced 245 million tons of municipal waste, little ol’ Ireland generated over 300 million tons of the same kind of waste. So not only did the statistic seem to be incorrect, it was furthermore making my son believe we lived in the filthiest nation on earth. I wrote the organization an email, which I fully expect will be ignored. After all, who am I to question the authority of an Ivy League institution, especially when it’s so important to indoctrinate American children into proper environmental hygiene?
We already live in a society where demagogues authoritatively trot out false information, which is then repeated ad nauseum by unquestioning followers. When Al Gore declares global warming will raise ocean levels by 20 feet, the San Francisco Chronicle runs a front page article showing how the Bay Area will look when this happens; never mind that the real scientists, the very same ones who created the global warming papers, predict a 23-inch rise at most. Who cares, as long as it serves the greater good of banning regular light bulbs and increasing taxes on gasoline, with public acquiescence? When a coalition of feminist groups asserts that Superbowl Sunday is the most dangerous year of the day for women, even a discrediting by Snopes won’t keep radio talk show hosts from repeating the story every January. What does it matter that it’s false, when it creates awareness of domestic violence and brings more government funding to battered women’s shelters?
So it’s more important than ever that we learn to think critically, and to question assertions, not simply take them at face value, just cause someone important said they were true. School is the place to learn this; unfortunately, I think our schoolchildren are being taught exactly the opposite.