So as a regular guy from Kalamazoo, imagine my confusion trying to understand the collection of conventional podimg1wisdom I have acquired with age, especially when these axioms are so often contradictory. I can’t keep up! How am I supposed to teach my kids all the pearls of wisdom I think I’ve learned, when I’m so confused? I mean, let me get this right:

  • You can’t communicate too much; but we waste far too much time talking and in meetings.
  • The pen is mightier than sword; but sticks and stones are the only things that can break my bones.
  • Size doesn’t matter; but critical mass is everything.
  • He who smelt it dealt it; but you can’t smell your own.
  • I can’t read, mom is on crack, I was never socialized as kid, I have medical problems and no bootstraps; but I should pull myself up by my bootstraps.
  • Coffee is dangerous; but coffee is good for you (substitute any food or substance: fat, carbs, alcohol, etc.)
  • All that matters is that you are physically fit and “in shape”; but no matter how far you can run, your weight and shape are unacceptable if your BMI is too high.
  • If I don’t use it I will lose it; but if I run too much and overuse my parts, they will wear out.
  • I should never quit; but I should evolve–try a variety of things then narrow it to the one I love.
  • God is omniscient, omnipotent, all loving and could end all human suffering today; but he chooses not to so we can have “free will” and die in tsunamis.
  • Disposable diapers are bad; but cloth diapers consume too much energy in washing.
  • Good is the enemy of great, and any job worth doing is worth doing well; but in the real world “good enough” sometimes has to be good enough.
  • The world is worse off and more dangerous today; but this is the wealthiest, healthiest, and most exciting time in human history.
  • The globe is warming; perhaps so much so that it will cool.
  • All drugs are bad so don’t do drugs; but most legal drugs are good, and caffeine and alcohol are downright awesome.
  • Do it right the first time; but don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Wait, perhaps there is a better way! Perhaps my charge should not be to teach my kids the conclusions, but rather to teach the questions. Perhaps my job is to teach methods–reason, critical thinking, statistics, scientific method, how to argue both sides of an issue, the origin of ethics, and various means of objective learning about how the world really works–rather than the simple answers.

Yes, many of the above are “either/or fallacies,” but I think I now see why I’ve been confused. I’ve been an emotion-driven thinker–a connoisseur of various “isms” and inspirational books touting ever simpler propositions and the power of “just think positively.” But the problem with conventional wisdom is that it oversimplifies complex reality. I was obsessed with what I believed were answers, because as a human being I was afraid to embrace the uncertainty and liberation that comes with asking the tough questions. It may be scary, but won’t the world be better off if we seek complex truth through reason–rather than simple solutions that ultimately give us a little myopic perspective, perhaps, but also a whole bunch of false hope and unproductive ideas?

(Stephen L. Gibson, freely circulate with citations, CC 2009, Attribution-No Derivatives; and

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