Wednesday, September 29, 2010

News Flash

To make up to you for the length of my previous post, today I am only going to publish a brief announcement: Something I wrote is actually going to be in print. (And there was great rejoicing.) One of my blog posts, written about this time last year after a longish blogging hiatus, was just accepted for publication in Relief. And yes, I am pretty excited. I do enjoy writing here, but this news makes me think that the existence of this blog is somehow officially justified. Don't worry, though. I don't plan on quitting my day job.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Have Mercy on the Morons: A Plea on Behalf of the Misinformed

How do you know what you know?

That may seem like a pretty basic question, but it's a question that few of us are ever pushed to ask, let alone answer. It is a question, however, that has begun to bother me more than a little in recent years.

Of course, there are certain basic and unprovable assumptions that I must hold by faith as a Christian. Or even as a human being. Not every statement is up for debate. Whether we believe that God, or reason, or science, or Bono, or our own gut feeling is our ultimate standard for truth, we all have a place where the buck stops. All of our reasoning becomes circular when we get down to our most foundational beliefs.

I believe in the God of the Bible, and that necessitates that I reject any statements—however compelling—that directly contradict that belief. If someone asserts that theft is actually a good idea when you can get away with it, I can reject that statement without losing a single night's sleep, because it flatly defies the eighth commandment. Easy. But beyond the clear teachings of the Bible is a myriad of assertions that are anything but easy to assess. They require a degree of knowledge and wisdom that most of us will never attain. These are the kinds of questions that make me wonder how we really know what we "know."

A Matter of Trust
It's not that I lie awake at night worrying about this, and I have no plans for taking up the study of epistemology in my spare time. But honestly, every time one of my well intentioned Facebook friends posts another link to some piece of revisionist history, or alternative medicine, or political conspiracy, or any other article claiming to expose "hidden agendas" and "things the corporations don't want you to know," I feel like tearing my hair out.

It's not that I believe all these articles must be wrong. They may be absolutely right. Or mainly right. Or a little bit right about a few things. But therein lies my frustration; with the seemingly infinite number of "untold stories" out there, it's frequently impossible to know which stories to believe.

"Every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). But what about all the times when the witnesses—even the "expert" witnesses—present conflicting evidence? When both the prosecution and the defense can call upon the testimony of two or three persuasive witnesses, how do I decide who makes a more convincing case? Daily life lacks the formality of a courtroom, and there are times when my decision cannot wait. I, of course, pray for wisdom, but often I must render my verdict while knowing full well that I have only part of the story and a few tidbits of sketchy evidence.

If, for example, somebody tells me that my government has lied to me about a particular event in the Middle East, I have to choose whom to believe if I am going to cast a "responsible vote." If there's been a cover-up, it is, well, covered up. There are many things I simply can't know. Do I trust the embittered soldier who was there? The apparently competent general who was also there? The commander in chief who saw the top-secret intelligence reports? The civilians who were affected on the ground? The talk radio host who interpreted the information? The NPR reporter who was embedded with the unit? The news anchor on Al Jazeera? The political blogger who scours the Web for possible leaks and insider stories? How do you know what you know?

I bring this up not because I want to start a discussion on foreign policy. I most certainly don't. And I don't want to sound like a relativist who thinks that all views are equally valid; I believe there's a vast gulf between truth and falsehood. I bring this up because I have found myself increasingly at a loss in sorting through the wildly differing "facts" littering my way as I try to navigate through life—especially through life as a parent.

The Curse of the Over-Informed Parent
In case you hadn't noticed, nearly everything we do for our kids requires careful thought. We need wisdom to sort through the barrage of opinions and studies and information and advice. Studies can be wrong, statistics can be twisted, and people on both sides of an issue can be less than objective in their approach. But the problem is, nobody I know has the time or resources to exhaustively research every possible option presented to us as parents. And because these decisions involve our kids—our future—emotions surrounding these choices tend to run rather high.

A typical mom might be disinterested in politics, apathetic about eschatology, bored by artistic trends. But bring up the topic of, say, childhood vaccines, and boom!  Watch the fireworks begin.

It's so very easy to assume that other parents who have made decisions different from our own have simply failed to understand the issues, or are too lazy to do their research, or have motives that aren't altogether pure. Maybe they've been brainwashed by propaganda. Maybe they haven't seen the shocking episode of 20/20 that we saw. Maybe they haven't talked to the right people. Maybe they're just stupid.

Or maybe, just maybe, they know something that we don't.

We can all agree on certain primary issues—that we should feed, clothe, educate and care for the health of our children. But the secondary details involving how we do those things can vary widely among wise and respectable people. We may all be diligently researching our options and still come to opposing conclusions. And that should hardly come as a surprise. We have studies and statistics bombarding us on every side, but rarely do they form any kind of consensus or any sense of certainty. As tidy as the word "data" may sound, the reality is anything but.

Expert Worship
We may have a pantheon of experts just a URL away, but the Cult of the Expert is a demanding and dizzying religion. First, we all slavishly follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of anybody in a white lab coat and a "Doctor of" diploma framed on the wall. But then some fringe heretic has the gall to stand up and point out that butter actually seems to be better for us than margarine after all and that the AMA and the USDA and the AAP have made some disastrous mistakes. We read the 95 Nutritional Theses nailed to the laboratory door, and our allegiances begin to shift.

Disillusioned by white lab coats, we turn with Reformation zeal to the unshaven nonconformist in Birkenstocks and a broomstick skirt who would expose for us the lies told by the priests of the old order. Down with the establishment! Let's pass out tracts! Let's evangelize the nations with the latest findings, baptizing them in the holistic name of the Protein, the Fat, and the Carbohydrates! Do I hear an "Amen?"

But wait a minute. Now the expert in the broomstick skirt is the establishment, and certain preventable diseases are seeing a global resurgence, to boot. The Holy Writ of the Expert must again be revised. But who will be our prophets and our priests now that nine out of ten nutritionists no longer agree? Which expert's Kool-aid are we going to drink next?

We could spend the rest of our lives chasing after the next "shocking revelation" offered up by the expert-du-jour, only to have each "important new study" undermined by the next.

The fact is, we can't run some kind of in-depth investigation into everything we hear. Not even close. And even if we could, we would still have to make faith-based decisions about what evidence to believe and how to interpret it. "Proof" is only as solid as the assumptions that underlie it. Even if I saw something with my own two eyes, I can still only know it happened if my own two eyes are trustworthy. (And that may be a very big "if.")

So the easiest solution is to turn to the Expert (blessed be he). He will tell us just what to do. No wisdom necessary. And when his advice fails us, we can blame, instead of ourselves, the evil pseudo-expert—the informational heretic—who led us astray.

But the real solution is, I believe, to remember where our true authority comes from and to realize that no earthly expert has a monopoly on knowledge. The data, however good and helpful, must be taken with a grain or two of (unrefined, natural Baltic Sea) salt.  The world is a messy place made up of messy people with messy motives, and while true knowledge about the world is attainable, exhaustive knowledge is not.

The older our kids get, the more I am amazed by the number of decisions we are required to make on their behalf. And the more decisions we have to make, the more I realize how much I just don't know. Socrates was on to something. I may not go so far as to say that I know nothing, but what I don't know definitely outweighs what I do. By a lot. Tons, actually.

This is why I have sometimes found myself wishing that an angel from heaven (a different kind of expert) would simply appear and tell me exactly whom to believe about things I'm told to do (or not to do) for the good of my children. But this is not going to happen, so we must proceed as wisely as we can with what information we can find in the time that we can set aside to find it. And in doing so, we must all—experts included—recognize that we have a whole lot left to learn. Additionally, we who are Christians must not lose sight of where the beginning of knowledge lies—with the fear of the Lord. That's our starting point. Whatever other knowledge we pursue must be built on that foundation.

A Toast to Ignorance
Even before they are born, I'm given conflicting information on all kinds of topics. Here's one bit of advice that's been printed everywhere from public bathrooms to health manuals: "Alcohol and pregnancy do not mix." The "experts" have a litany of scary statistics implying that an unintentional sip of grape juice gone bad could leave your unborn baby mentally impaired. So pregnant women nervously chew their nails wondering if they've ruined their child's life by drinking an entire cocktail before knowing they were expecting. But (as always seems to be the case) that's only one side of the story.

There are also scientific studies and statistics (mostly British) that have "proven" just the opposite—that children of women who drank "moderately" during pregnancy actually had brighter, better adapted children than those of women who had completely abstained. And some of these studies allege that it's fear of litigation that has (understandably) led most American obstetricians to advocate the total-abstinence policy, fearing that women will interpret permission to have a drink as permission to go on a month-long vodka binge.

So what to do? Better safe than sorry? Or better lighten up than stress out? Whom to believe? British doctors or American doctors? OBs or midwives? Your mom or that lady from the church potluck? I've tried to read a fair bit about this one, and the more I've read, the more I feel like reciting "eeny-meeny-miney-mo" is probably the best means of deciding the issue.

Sheesh. Please pass the shiraz.

Love and Let Live
I have more to learn than is humanly possible if I am going to make what might be called an "informed decision" about almost anything you can name. And so, I am guessing, do most of us. That is why I am writing this—not as a rant but as a plea for mercy. Share what you've learned for the good of your neighbor, and wisdom can be the result. Beat your neighbor over the head with the cold, hard facts, and somebody is going to get hurt. And it just might be the "facts" themselves that suffer.

In this messy world, charity is the necessary antidote to the idolatrous worship of expertise. Let us hear with gratitude—let us even seek out—what the knowledgeable have to say, but let us not bow down and kiss their feet.

If you see me nibbling on a Chicken McNugget; if you see me, with my pregnant belly, sipping on a mojito; if you see me taking my children for a vaccination; if you see me voting for the wrong candidate (shame on you for peeking); if you see me buying goods from the wrong store; if you see me doing anything else you would never, never do, I beg you to withhold your scorn and instead show a little mercy. I promise to do the same for you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

School Breeze

July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight.
August, die she must,
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I´ll remember...

Simon & Garfunkel

August nearly managed to live up to its venerable name this year, filled as it was with bold heat waves and solemn convocations. But August has also, in typical fashion, come and gone with undignified speed, bringing with it the abrupt transition from lighthearted leisure to respectable routine. The school year always arrives sooner than I expect.

Every summer, those July days seem to stretch themselves out in lazy rows across the calendar, a succession of blank squares, open to whatever we choose to fit inside them. And then the page flips to August, and I discover with a start that we are left with a brief two weeks into which we must cram every "sometime this summer" activity that has yet to be realized before the khaki-trousered school schedule begins: one last trip to the pool, one last picnic in the park, one last bicycle ride around the neighborhood, one last hurrah. As July gives way to August, I am reluctant to see the empty grid fill up with hastily scribbled registration deadlines and carpool commitments, uniform fittings and snack duties. I look at all those full days ahead and wonder, once again, how summer could be coming to such an untimely demise.

But sometime during that first week of August, a breeze will rise, winding through the dry lawns and harvested fields and overgrown vacant lots, carrying with it a scent that tells me that the time has indeed come for the slow and easy days of summer to end.

The roses may still be in full bloom, the sun may still be blazing, and the brown-shouldered high school girls may continue to parade down my sidewalk in their halter tops and flip-flops, but that distinct scent in the wind announces, even before the school supply list arrives in the mail, that it's time to begin stocking up on crayons and non-marking tennis shoes.

I can smell back-to-school.

Some researchers have noted that smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers known to man. And I believe them. A quick browse of the Web reveals that medical and psychiatric journals are constantly publishing new data on this topic, mapping out "hippocampal brain activity" and the way neurons connect to the olfactory bulb. Neuroscientists can minutely describe the neural pathways where smell and memory collide.

But no PhD is required to experience that sensation that has struck us all at one time or another—when a place long forgotten or a person long dead is momentarily restored to life through an agency no more miraculous than the human nose. 

I know next to nothing of the neurological events taking place inside my brain when this happens. What I do know is that I have been casually walking along behind my orange stroller, thinking of meal plans or shopping lists, when an unexpected change of wind will lift me entirely out of the present and blow me to some distinct moment in the past. A rare perfume of wet leaves, cheap cigarettes, and car exhaust will send me sailing back in time to a Warsaw tram platform beside a chilly November marketplace where thick-ankled Russian women sell sauerkraut and pickles from plastic-lined barrels. A momentary whiff of shoe polish and gravied pot roast and Old Spice drifting from an open window will float me into my grandmother's Sunday afternoon kitchen, where I sit at the table shelling freshly picked peas into a white glass bowl. I step through the doors of a nursing home, and as the overpowering, antiseptic odors of Lysol and Pine Sol and menthol (and other substances ending in "ol") reach my nose, I am six years old again and terrified—terrified of meeting, just around the corner, the hollow-eyed, toothless man in the plaid shirt and overalls who once followed me down the fluorescent-lit hallway with loud, low grunting noises and drool pooling on his protruding chin. I do not need to see him. I smell him, and that is enough.

And it is enough, too, for me to catch that unmistakable, peppery-rhubarby smell in the August wind. By that alone, I know that school is coming just when it should. I smell that yellow-flowered weed whose name I do not know, and I am transported back into my navy nubuck Mary Janes and white cableknit tights, back to my first day of school in the basement of the Paradise Hills Church of God, perched on a hill above a freshly harvested wheat field where the wind would blow the spicy fragrance through the open windows and across the playground. It's the unmistakable smell of school.

That smell is in the air at this moment. July may have flown without warning, and August may be about to die what had seemed a premature death, but through some strange working of scent and memory, I know that school ought to be underway. I am about to turn that page to September once again, and all I have to do is inhale to know that this is just as it should be.

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