Yuqian Li | What they don't teach you in textbooks


Spirit of Adventure | Why it’s always important to carry a healthy dose of skepticism




A couple of years ago, someone showed me a specific map projection — one that was peculiar in relation to ones I was used to seeing. My first reaction was, “I think it’s upside down.” Just as I was about to click the rotate picture button on the computer, he asked, “The Earth is round, so how do you know what’s upside down and what’s right-side up?”

He then went on to point out other major differences between the Hobo-Dyer map projection — the depiction he just showed me —  and the more traditional Mercator projection. With the Mercator projection, the globe is flattened using a linear scale, which distorts areas away from the center. The Hobo-Dyer projection uses a cylindrical equal area technique and seeks to show a more true-to-scale representation of the world. With the latter, I was surprised to learn that South America is actually much larger that what’s normally shown, and Greenland is 14 times smaller than Africa. Though still with flaws, these are typical things you would not gather from a Mercator projection.

If the former is so misleading, it’s quite strange that this projection would be the one most readily used in classrooms and printed in textbooks. Politics and Eurocentrism aside, a simple map projection is able to show that what people typically consider as fact is merely one side of a multifaceted topic. The crucial point is that because books carry an aura of authority, we are more likely to accept their contents as true. This is not to say that they are misleading, but perhaps there are other sides to an issue than what is stated in print.

In schools, teachers don’t have time to teach every intricacy of an event and introduce all stances on an issue, so they typically choose to present the “tip of the iceberg” — the key or most obvious takeaway points from a lesson. While this approach is beneficial for gaining a broad range of knowledge, it also strips away important details that can enhance understanding. Everyone has probably had to memorize three or four main causes of the world wars, but I bet if I looked elsewhere, I could find more than the causes given on a study guide. Simply memorizing the key points gives us the illusion of having a full understanding of something when there could be so much more to the story.

Though it’s human nature to categorize and synthesize, failing to be skeptical can lead to dreadful consequences. To provide a more fatal example, in 1984, Thomas Haynesworth was charged with committing three accounts of rape in Richmond, Va., after four witnesses identified him as the attacker. However, when describing the attacker, these witnesses provided various heights that did not match Haynesworth's build, a small but crucial difference. A 5-foot-8 woman claimed her attacker was taller than her, and Haynesworth was 5-foot-6. Still, officials glossed over this and proceeded as if it was another open-and-shut case. The attacks continued even after Haynesworth's three separate convictions. Only when police arrested Leon Davis, a man from the same neighborhood, did these crimes stop. However, no one bothered to revisit Haynesworth’s case; he served 27 years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2011 through DNA evidence.

Examples like these and others like it prove we are seldom presented with all sides of an issue. In a time in which we can see someone from the other side of the world with a click of a button and get all our desired information with a Google search, it may be tempting to believe that we already know everything that needs to be known, but the older I get, the more truth I find in the saying, “The more you know, the more you don’t know.” Many things are simplified and condensed to make our lives easier, but since the real world is complex and unpredictable, there will always be exceptions to the rule and details that fall through the cracks. Our job is not just to consider all sides of an issue, but to be skeptical and challenge modern practices instead of taking things as given. After all, our “right-side up” may be someone else’s “upside down.”

Discussion

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.