I am a child of Rome, a child of Cairo (which is also titled “Always check the footnotes!”)

Because I seem to have become perceived as (ahem) slightly less than popularist in my views, and less than popular for them, I want to explain why I’m unlikely to stop posting stuff that may provoke argument.

As I have said before, I’m rather hilariously and ENTIRELY uselessly overeducated in a ridiculously wide range of topics. But, beyond that, I have had the enormous privilege, though nothing more than what family I was born in, of being trained in how to think critically. This has done me exactly zero good in terms of making money or having a career, but it’s a good party trick and, I hope, in the end will prove to have been useful, if only because I can actually answer my kids when they ask why the sky is blue. Otherwise my level of worldly success is pretty much bupkis.

My parents, both brilliant educators, designed the majority of my education through college, which means I was trained in the Roman trivium (where learning revolves around the three poles of grammar, rhetoric, and logic). I was expected to construct and defend arguments from the time I was about twelve, and at fifteen came under the tutelage of a wonderful, terrible, extremely dedicated teacher who (though I did not realize it at the time) took her own time, on her own nickel, to teach me how to think.

I still remember one particular essay question I had to answer for her, which was “Considering Brughel’s The Fair, comment on whether there can be said to be a discrete period of history known as the Middle Ages.” I went on for about four pages on how Brughel portrayed a different relationship between parent and child than we expect today, on the agricultural focus, on painting as a reflection of norms as opposed to ideals, and a bunch of other–probably terribly sentimental–stuff. She took it and immediately said “This is all useless. You didn’t answer the question. Is there a discrete period of history known as the Middle Ages? Rewrite.”

She began an unbroken string of wonderful teachers and profs who never let a logical fallacy get by. If I said that there were more cells on a slide than I had expected, I would be barked at: “WHY would you use that word, expected? Do you have any basis upon which to use that word? How many of these preparations have you looked at? What exactly did you expect, if not what you are looking at? And why would you think you had any right to expect that, as opposed to this?” Upon one of us saying that a classmate’s poem was “awesome,” our Lit prof roared “Banf is awesome! Lake Louise is awesome! This poem is NOT awesome. Learn what words mean, or do not use them in my class!”

We also learned the scientific method (moving my foundation from Rome and the trivium to Cairo and Al-Hasan), not just the steps but a reverence for it. “Is it real? Is it true? Is it repeatable?” Never hold to a conclusion that is personal, always be willing to abandon a bias even if it’s something you’ve held your whole life. If you’ve been proven wrong, and the experiment that proved you wrong is repeatable, suck it up and shake that person’s hand and admit you were wrong. We learned to use the word “theory” correctly–as a framework that is built by innumerable small discoveries, as a model that describes the truth as best as we can possibly know it, but is always willing to change when new discoveries are made.

In grad school, my church history prof taught us how to apply these demands to research. And Patrick Ormos summed it all up and brought it to rest in the field of dog breeding when I had the incredible good fortune to correspond with him on a certain topic.

Al-Hasan said “Make yourself the enemy of all you read.” Dr. Rosell said “ALWAYS check the footnotes.” Rev. Ormos said “Never let yourself say ‘I’ve made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts.'”

They mean the same things. Never take anything you read at face value. Tear it down, attack it from all sides, force it to tell you the truth. If a book purports to describe a new discovery or new research but doesn’t have footnotes, throw it across the room and ignore it. If it has footnotes, know what they refer to,  because they reveal the author’s biases. Take the time, make the effort to know your subject so deeply that you can quickly discern where the author is displaying independent thinking and where he’s just trying to steal some glory by repeating what somebody else said.

In the end, when I stopped going to school and decided to have babies instead of doing research in Basel (which is just as well; I think I would have gotten so fed up with Overbeck’s anti-apologia that I would have choked someone out and been sent home in disgrace), what was left was a enduring love of the truth, and the process of finding it. Above all, the root of the whole thing is a search for truth. As a Christian, as a scientist, as a fangirl of Socrates, as a Platonist, I believe that there is real truth. Finding it is, as al-Hasan said, a rough road. Finding it, as Socrates said, needs to be as important to you as air. Finding it, as Plato said, forces you into very painful situations. Finding it, as Paul said, makes you very unpopular. Finding it, as Rev. Ormos said, means that some people will turn their backs on you at the Nationals and refuse to admit that you exist.

But that doesn’t mean the duty goes away. And in the same way that you become the enemy of everything you read, you become the enemy of everything that you think. You have to apply the same tough methods to your own thoughts, trying to strip away biases and affections, until what you put forth as a conclusion is as close to the real truth, the sunlight (Plato again; love that guy), the Source, as you can possibly make it.

So what does this have to do with dog breeding? READ THE FOOTNOTES. Read the studies. Question EVERYTHING. Make sure you understand EVERYTHING. If someone uses a word, and the words of the moment are things like “ethical” and “responsible” and “careful,” say “Why did you use that word? Do you know what that word means? What are the implications of that word? What biases does her use of that word indicate?” Read every study you can get your hands on. Never trust experts if you aren’t confident of their sources. Even then, keep reading the research in their field so you know when they’ve been proven wrong or proven right.

And please QUESTION ME. Call me on stuff. If I’m going to make what I believe are factual statements, you need to attack them on every side. Make me prove what I’m saying. Make me recant it publicly when you prove me wrong. I have promised over and over to do so.  Own your decisions. Be prepared to defend them scientifically, ethically, ecologically, morally, and personally. And if I am not prepared, on any of those axes, rather than ignore me at the Nationals please be willing to engage me and change my mind.

Advertisements

One thought on “I am a child of Rome, a child of Cairo (which is also titled “Always check the footnotes!”)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s