The Essential Skill of Crap Detecting

By Alan Shapiro

 

"Warning: Several shipments of bananas from Costa Rica have been infected with necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria. Recently this disease has decimated the monkey population in Costa Rica...and has been able to graft itself to the skin of fruits in the region, most notably the banana....It is advised not to purchase bananas for the next three weeks....

"The skin infection from necrotizing fasciitis is very painful and eats two to three centimeters of flesh per hour. Amputation is likely, death is possible....The FDA has been reluctant to issue a countrywide warning because of fear of nationwide panic. They have secretly admitted that they feel upwards of 15,000 this will affect Americans but that these are acceptable numbers. Please forward this to as many people as you care about as possible as we do not feel 15,000 is an acceptable number. -Manheim Research Institute, Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia."

My grandson Eli forwarded this email to my wife Sue a couple of years ago with a preface that read, "Received this from a good source." Sue immediately phoned a number of our friends and the local supermarket, where workers rushed to remove bananas from their produce department and even the baskets of outgoing customers. Only a frantic call by the supermarket manager to the offices of Chiquita Bananas made it clear that the "Warning" was a hoax.

Where were the crap detectors of Eli, Sue, the supermarket workers? For the "Warning" should have instantly raised a number of warnings in the form of crap detecting questions: How come I haven't heard about what's happened to Costa Rica's monkey population? Who's advising not to buy bananas? Who "secretly admitted"? To whom? What kind of a secret is one that goes out over the internet? How can it be possible for the FDA to regard 15,000 deaths as "an acceptable number"?

Asked what was essential for a great writer, Ernest Hemingway responded memorably, "A built-in, shock-proof crap detector." Most of us teachers will not become great writers. But if we are not good crap detectors and don't help our students to develop crap detecting skills, especially in the subjects we teach, we fail our students. A few samples:
 

Mathematics:

In his 2003 State of the Union message President Bush emphasized the importance of "tax relief" to "help our economy immediately" and said his plan, once in effect, would mean that "ninety-two million Americans will keep this year an average of almost $1,100 more of their own money." Teachers may want to help students examine the meaning of "average." According to Citizens for Tax Justice, a middle-income taxpayer can expect a tax break of $289 under the Bush plan, while a taxpayer in the top one percent would get $30,127. The average of these two figures is $15,208. Does this mean that the average taxpayer would get a $15,000 tax break? (For more information, visit www.ctj.org).

Questions to students: What do you understand the word "average" to mean in this context? What do you think the president means by it? How does the President respond to critics of his tax plan who charge that nearly three-quarters of the tax reductions would go to the wealthiest five percent of Americans? The President's use of "average" is, to be kind, misleading; it is, to be more pungent, crap, and any average high school student should be able to detect it.
 

English:

Why teach grammar? The answer from many English teachers is that there is a significant relationship between the amount of grammatical information possessed by students and their ability to write and speak effectively. What makes them think so? Well, it stands to reason. Why? Ingrid Strom in "Research in Grammar and Usage and Its Implications for Teaching Writing" reported decades ago that many research studies "reveal that a knowledge of classificatory grammar has little measurable effect on the ability to express ideas accurately or precisely in writing or speaking....Children and adolescents improve their sentences by having many opportunities...for structuring their own thoughts into their own sentences." For many English teachers this information has gone undetected.

A question to be addressed at an English Department meeting and then in English classrooms: Why classificatory grammar?
 

History:

The Washington Post once quoted former history teacher and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich as dismissing an argument that African Americans were subjected to any unusual discrimination. "This is true of virtually every American. The Irish were discriminated against, for example."

Discuss the Gingrich statement with students. One needn't be third in line to the presidency to know that Irish as well as Italians, Jews, Catholics and others have suffered discrimination in America. But what do students know about "any unusual discrimination" experienced by African Americans? Were Irish, Italians, Jews and Catholics enslaved? For reading and discussion: How similar was the post-slavery African American experience to that of Irish, Italian and other immigrants? Consider lynching, for example. As Voltaire remarked: "Those who believe in absurdities will not find it difficult to commit atrocities."
 

Chemistry:

The American Chemistry Council has members representing 90% of the world's production of basic industrial chemicals—among them 3M, DuPont, Dow, Eastman Kodak, and Exxon. The ACC declares: "We are determined to continuously improve our health, safety and environmental performance. We don't want bad stuff to happen out there." Assignment for chemistry students on a subject that affects directly the health and safety of every individual on the planet: Go to www.pbs.org, search for a Bill Moyers' report, "Trade Secrets," televised in late March 2003, and read the transcript in preparation for a crap-detecting discussion of the ACC statement.
 

Physical Education:

For a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the baseball movie "Bull Durham," to be held at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, stars in the movie and critics of President Bush's Iraq policies, were to appear. But the Hall's president, Dale Petroskey, upset by the pairs' views, cancelled the event and wrote Robbins: " In a free country such as ours, every American has the right to his or her own opinions, and to express them. Public figures, such as you, have platforms much larger than the average American's, which provides you an extraordinary opportunity to have your views heard—and an equally large obligation to act and speak responsibly. We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important—and sensitive—time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger." (New York Times, 4/11/03).

Here is an opportunity for physical education teachers to develop crap- detecting skills with their students and to discuss the Bill of Rights.

We live in a blizzard of words and images that foster misconceptions and superstitions, that deceive with faulty assumptions and lies. The "coalition" that the U.S. formed for the Iraq war consisted mainly of countries that contributed no soldiers—such as El Salvador, Eritrea, the Marshall Islands, Albania, Iceland, and Uzbekistan. The "coalition forces" that military officers, reporters, and news readers referred to so frequently were almost entirely U.S. and British units.

Many newspapers run popular astrology columns. While in the White House, the Reagans frequently consulted an astrologist. Astrology and astrologists cry out for crap detectors and for discussions of the differences between astrology and science, astrologists, and scientists.

And now we know how prone we are to become victims of the funny numbers of the Enrons, the World Coms, the Global Crossings, the deliberately bad advice of the Merrill Lynches, the straight-faced lies of tobacco company CEOs before Congressional committees.

The question above under "Mathematics" about how the President responds
to the criticism of his tax proposal is unfair. The fact is that he doesn't respond. Instead, he charges critics with "class warfare." This presidential use of language also cries out for questioning. Perhaps linguistics professor Edgar H. Sturtevant was on to something when he theorized decades ago that "language must have been invented for the purpose of lying" (Introduction to Linguistic Science). Though we'll probably never know if the professor was right, we need only be reasonably self-aware to realize that all of us—not just presidents, politicians, and CEOs—use language to misrepresent, to mislead, to shave the truth—in short to lie.

This awareness is essential to building a shock-proof crap detector as is an informed skepticism about officialdoms of all varieties. Another requirement is the habit of asking questions insistently, even obnoxiously: Why? Why not? What makes you/him/her think so? What is the evidence? How convincing is it? What reasons may there be for bias? Also essential: Lifelong learning about how to examine questions, one's own and others', how to hone and order them, and how to pursue answers.

P.S. I asked Eli what the "good source" was for his bananas e-mail. His answer: "A chef I know in New York." My response: "No crap."

 

This essay was written by lifelong educator Alan Shapiro. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org