John Wilson

Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibit, Part 4

Equal opportunity mythbusting?

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It's an unsettling fact that most of us go about our daily routines with all sorts of wrong ideas rattling around in our heads. Some of these have to do with the functioning of the physical world, the sort of thing studied in departments of physics and chemistry and biology. We know where to plug in the microwave, but we may have a grossly mistaken idea of how this appliance works. Some of our mistaken notions fall into other provinces: how and why World War I began, for instance (not to mention WHEN it began), or what economic arrangements are most conducive to the common good. The further we get from microwaves, and the deeper we enter into messy human realities, the greater the likelihood that consensus will be elusive. Which doesn't mean, of course, that all points of view are equal.

Still, to set against the stubborn persistence of error, confusion, ignorance, and seemingly intractable disagreement, there is a liberating and cheering fact: we are capable of learning. In part 1 of this round of Science in Focus, Heather Whitney recounted a decisive moment in her "personal journey to becoming a scientist," on the last day of physics class in her senior year of high school:

My teacher, Mr. Nichols, a retired chemical engineer, asked each student to come to the front of the class and answer a question on a specific physical process which, up to that point, they had not learned about but which was related to elements of the course. My question was something along the lines of figuring out the role of step-up/step-down transformers in the transport of electrical energy. I remember the initial fear and confusion of not knowing how to begin to figure out the answer. But in a matter of moments that fear transformed into a quick succession of connecting thoughts through which I deduced the answer—and I felt a jolt of joy, something Richard Feynman called "the kick in the discovery." It was that moment that changed my plans to be a business or political science major in college.

That particular thrill is strongly associated with science, but it is also an instance of a universal experience: all human beings, as Aristotle observed, desire to learn. (If you run a small business, you have to be strong believer in what gets called "lifelong learning.") MythBusters is popular in part because it satisfies that desire. But the claim to be busting "myths" often plays to other human desires as well.

Earlier this week, John Cassidy of the New Yorker posted a piece called "Is America Crazy? Ten Reasons It Might Be." What's striking about Cassidy's list—a litany of "irrationality, flakiness, nonsense, nuttiness, absurdity, craziness," as he sees it—is that all of the fiercely held myths he wants to bust are drawn from one slice of the American spectrum, over on the right. Hmm. Why would that be?

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

See also:

Part 1, by Heather M. Whitney

Part 2, by Andrew Morrison

Part 3, by Venkatesh Gopal

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