A very educational(ist) Christmas

In other news, we also spent a long time empathising with Vincent about how one turns indistinguishable blobs of paint into art

Welcome back to whatever space you call where you work these days: a shed in my case, which has really benefitted from not being heated during the past fortnight.

My break has been enlivened – if that’s the right word – by finding out more about the Theranos saga and by catching some anti-vax videos. Fun, right?

Theranos came via The Dropout, a podcast from ABC, that explained the unfolding of Elizabeth Holmes’s adventures in bio-tech and the court case that’s just concluded. As an exploration of how Silicon Valley can operate and the power of credentials in rolling out a vast enterprise, it’s highly instructive. If, like me, it’s something that largely passed you by at the time, then do take the time to check it out.

Which brings us to the anti-vaxing. A friend has bought ever more deeply into anti-vax messages over the course of the pandemic and this winter has seen them arrive at a place where their views have become more strident, including the sharing of videos that focus on various concerns. To be clear, the friend seems to want to engage in discussion and want these points debunked, so an effort was made to try do that.

Not very successfully, I should add, given that it would require a very much wider return to first principles about the scientific method and the interplay of science and public policy.

These two activities were brought together for me by some reflections on how people learn and make choices.

Whether you’re a investor trying to decide where to put your money or a suburban family being unsure about your health, you take cognitive shortcuts, just like the rest of us.

Those shortcuts are best explained by people like Daniel Kahneman, rather than me, but the relevant point here is that for both Theranos and anti-vax I see the construction of narratives that seek to create a portrayal of the world that isn’t consistent with the evidence available. In the former case, that took some time to come out, while in the latter it’s been apparent from the start.

Educationally, both cases reminded me of one of the key lessons of teaching negotiation, namely the importance of trying to understand the world as your interlocuter sees it.

Crucially, such empathy is not the same as sympathy, but rather a means to put yourself in their position, so that you can better work towards findings an outcome that works for all involved. For the anti-vax friend, that’s about acknowledging the irreconcilability of positions on vaccination, while keeping the rest of the friendship alive. For Theranos, it has been for a court to decide the extent to which Holmes’ statements had a fraudulent intent, legally speaking.

It’s very easy to fall into a trap of thinking that disagreeing with someone on one point means disagreeing with them on all points, especially with those at some personal distance from you. Yet if you look around at your family members or your very close friends, you’d notice that you don’t cleave to them on every single thing, but rather contextualise and compartmentalise your niggles or disagreements. If we’re in the business of trying to improve our understanding of the world, then simply dropping things and people into boxes marked ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t a good strategy.

For Theranos, legal liability is one aspect of this, but if we’re interested in a broader understanding of how this all came to be then it is not the only aspect: the whole affair speaks to questions about wider cultures, signifiers and values.

Likewise, for the anti-vax friend what they think strikes me as less important than why, especially given how they’ve moved over time. Condemning their position – as seems to be rather common – is likely only to make them more entrenched in their views and close down possibilities of building a constructive way forward.

Maybe you can think of your own examples of how we encounter this, from world events or our views of prominent politicians, right down to that student who emails at 4am about the syllabus. Moving to an understanding of why not everyone does things like you is a gateway to making us more reflective, both for ourselves and for our students.

And with that, I’m off to get out of this black turtleneck: it’s not really my look.

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