Friday, September 28, 2007

Wrongheadedness: Nature or nurture?

Here's something to think about between two posts about people victimized by loutish government officials who were brought into the picture by panicky, foolish citizens: are people innately stupid or are they taught things that stifle critical thought?

It would seem as though the answer is "yes" to both: man has rather nasty instincts left over from our days spent in tribal societies with nearly zero-sum economies, and children are taught strange things about the history of the world around them which happen to be easier to process than the truth, due to better compatability with those caveman urges.

Here's one example from a popular children's book, If You Lived 100 Years Ago:
Not all rich people were selfish. Many cared about the poor. A newspaper reporter, Jacob Riis, wrote a book called How the Other Half Lives. Riis's photographs showed people living and working in miserable conditions. Men and women who cared about the way the poor lived began to work for changes.

They started settlement houses where poor people had classes in health and education. The poor could even take baths in bathtubs! They could listen to music and see paintings.

In the 1900s, laws were finally passed to protect children. New laws said all children under the age of fourteen had to go to school. They were laws that called for better housing, safer foods and medicines, shorter working hours, and improved public schools. Things began to look up for many people.

Today on EconLog, Bryan Caplan asks a salient question: can reality, which is much more interesting but more complicated than salvation-by-strongman, also be explained in a such a way that an intelligent five-year-old can understand. Co-blogger Arnold Kling takes the next logical step: can journalists learn a thing or two about the market, to keep from perpetuating myths through poor framing and subtle editorializing.

I'd like to think the answer to both questions is "yes". We can teach the caveman bigotry, vindictiveness, and bloodlust out of five-year-olds, and we teach more and more in each successive generation, by the time they're 18, that magical thinking is foolhardy, because nature can be understood--quantitatively!--through application of the principles of biology, chemistry, and physics. There's room for economics and sociology in there. How does one teach a substantial number of children something most adults don't understand, and even actively contradict? We can't teach all the voters, but steps can be taken to ensure that tomorrow's leaders are less brutish than their predecessors.

Journalists may be a hopeless case. I suspect that the Logan Airport worker who got antsy at the sight of a breadboard still thinks it was a (real or fake) bomb, and I suspect that, even when presented with evidence, most adults will prefer their own prejudices to economic science.

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