Don't trust me to tell you the truth

August 31, 2007

Satchmo's trip to the moon was faked, and his trumpet work so-so at best:Kevin Fong has a modest proposal for gullible students

A friend of mine once invested considerable time and effort in convincing his nephew that there was a number between six and seven called "bleen". He did this the day before said nephew was due to attend an interview for preschool and tells me that it was his way of highlighting the absurdity of having school entrance criteria for three-year-old children. While turning over the dilemma of whether to laugh at his inventiveness, admire his anti establishmentarianism or refer him to social services, I found myself pondering the role of spoof material in university teaching.

In this broadband age of on-tap information, it does well to remind our students that they should check their sources properly. Spoofing your ndergraduates to test if they have minds of their own might be of considerable value. I say this because increasingly I see coursework with whole arguments built on information attributable to dodgy references drawn down from the net. Witness the terrifyingly straight-faced "But did we really land on the Moon?" conversation I had with one of my students a couple of years ago during which he quoted all the evidence he had read on a lunar hoax website as though it were a Nature review paper. One shouldn't have to explain that www.hearditinthepub/honest/ is not the best source of solid fact.

So I set about preparing a parody lecture to plumb the depths of student incredulity and teach them an invaluable lesson in life. I start with a brief synopsis of the life and times of Apollo astronaut Louis Armstrong (Ali G et al., YouTube 2007) and the psychological problems he experienced once people discovered that the lunar landings had been faked and that he wasn't all that good at playing the trumpet either. I then move on to explaining that the Open University campus is actually a front for an alien autopsy facility - which explains why you never see any undergraduates hanging around on site and why its "lecturers" are only ever seen on television. Finally, I round it off by telling them that astronauts wear charcoal underwear so that it smells less bad when they fart in their space suits (that one's actually true).

A lecture like that, if properly executed, will convince most people not to take anything you or anybody else says as gospel ever again. In the world of university teaching, that's your job half-done already.

But what of those poor gullible souls who persist in writing down everything you say and committing it to memory without processing it in between? This is an ethical problem because doubtless it has the potential to do irreparable intellectual damage. There is the further risk that trusting souls might go on to repeat the falsified information to others.

However, I feel that the collateral damage is worth it: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Look on the bright side: in future those guys are going to be a lot more entertaining to sit next to at dinner parties.

I encourage you to go out and create your own fantasy lectures in defence of free thought and as an assault on unquestioning minds. It's a rather extreme way to get your students to pay attention to the fact that they shouldn't believe everything they hear, but you do have to give it bleen out of bleen for effort.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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