Sunday, March 14, 2010

Skeptic 101: The history of current events

Skepticality is the official podcast of Skeptic Magazine, or so they say .......

No, seriously, they really are the official podcast of Skeptic Magazine and one of a just a couple of true podcasts (not a recording of an over-the-air radio show) that I listen to regularly. Recently I've been listened to some episodes I missed last summer and came across an interview of David Cullen author of Columbine, a book that looks at what we know, or think we know, about the 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colorado.

Co-host Swoopy opened the interview with this:

.... what we were told was a group of students possibly involved with a gang called the Trenchcoat Mafia, in retaliation for bullying and gay-bashing, had started shooting their classmates as punishment for the ridicule they had long endured. The two outsiders, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were cast as the perfect villains who were part of the goth subculture, worshiped Hitler and listened to Marilyn Manson. They were dark, brooding kids typical of the kind who would snap and start killing those they thought deserved their wrath - jocks, African-Americans and Jews. They would reportedly ask their victims if they believed in God and shot those who professed to believe. The problem is almost none of that is true

In the interview Cullen identifies many of the myths that exist to this day, the most notable being that Columbine was a school shooting when the evidence shows their intentions were to blowup the building and kill everyone in it. Cullen also discusses the role of the media in creating the popular myth and their failure to correct it. I haven't read the book yet, but the interview was certainly a good use of an hour.

Leaving aside the specifics of this particular incident for the moment, the theme that the media needs to do a better job of covering these big incidents and correcting errors is a consistent one in the era of media self-flagellation. Granted that needs to happen, but at some point don't we need to acknowledge that this type of news coverage is error prone in the best of situations and we, the media and general public alike, must adapt our understanding or beliefs to match the evolving truth.

The answer to that last question is, of course, yes so I propose a class called Skeptic 101: The History of Current Events. Instead of analyzing the event, the class would analyze the general understanding of the event at different time perspectives. It would be like a history MRI, analyzing little slices of understanding over a sustained time period. This would give the student the opportunity to see how truth emerges (or fades) over time and its effect, if any, on popular understanding of the situation and our reaction to it.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with IT education? You may remember that in earlier post like The Great Debate and The Data Model of Dorian Gray I discussed teaching foundation skills as a preparation for later teaching career-specific skills. In the Great Debate post I said:

As more work becomes analytical in nature we need to have programs that help students develop those capabilities in general even when we aren't training them for a specific job.

A class like the History of Current Events can surface the analytical strengths needed in most IT and business jobs while not necessarily preparing students directly for any one career. For instance, a Business or Systems Analyst is required to think critically, to question what is known in an area of the business and to re-evaluate what is held to be true over and over again. While high school might be a bit early for a requirements gathering class, it isn't too early to learn foundation skills they will need when they do take a requirements gathering class.

So what do you think?