Cass Sunstein argues in this morning’s New York Times that balanced reporting will lead to more, not less, polarization. When people read both sides of an argument, Sunstein points out, they tend to dismiss the other side and only accept the facts that bolster their previously held opinions.
This does not seem like a ground-breaking insight into human nature. Anyone who has had an argument in a bar–or in school, or at church, or at a Thanksgiving dinner–knows that facts don’t make much impact on people’s thinking. Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard, a university in Massachusetts, vaguely cites unnamed “studies” that confirm this tendency to “biased assimilation.” When we hear information that confirms our beliefs, we absorb it. When we hear information that challenges our beliefs, we dismiss it.
The implications of these notions for our entrenched culture wars in education are obvious. To cite just one example, mainstream science educators tend to take a public-health approach to evolution education. If we can just expose enough creationist students to the overwhelming evidence for evolution, such scientists usually assume, the students surely will be convinced.
Yet generations of effort have yielded very little result in this direction. These days, according to Gallup polls at least, Americans are just as fervently creationist as ever, despite nearly a century of crusading evolution education.
The answer can’t be simply more of the same. Perhaps science educators such as Lee Meadows have a better solution. Instead of assuming that the profoundly impressive scientific evidence for evolution will do the job on its own, what if we consider packaging that information in a way that will be sensitive to the cultural background of creationist students?
As Meadows argues, educators have long tried to make other kinds of education culturally sensitive. Why not do the same with evolution? As Sunstein concludes in this morning’s op-ed, “What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.”