• Laura Mayne


One of my favourite authors of all time is Terry Pratchett, who is a master of the explanatory footnote and the witty aside. I love the way he peppers his work with rambling observations, anecdotes and interesting thought-exercises that in the hands of a dourer person might be spun into pieces of wordy, convoluted theory.

One of my favourite of these is the ‘lies to children’ analogy, which originally appeared in the 1994 book The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. The idea goes something like this: the world is complicated. The older we get, the more knowledge we acquire (in theory), and the more knowledge we acquire, the more likely we are to scratch beneath the pristine surface of factual simplicity to expose the gooey grey mess underneath.

Depending on how far we advance through the field of education, the epistemological complexities and contradictions we encounter will eventually chip away at these facts, exposing the mess of interpretation underneath the lie. If we venture into the sciences we may learn that the fact ‘the solar system has 9 planets’ is more complicated than it first appears. This is because, over time, scientists have acquired more knowledge about how Pluto behaves as a planetary body, and they have decided that Pluto does not, in fact, meet the required criteria to be a 'planet' in terms of its mass and orbital trajectory.

If we venture into the humanities, we might learn that ‘planet’ is the word for a large orbiting mass that exists, but that ‘planet’ is also a word that humans invented to signify our shared social imagining of an orbiting mass and that the image we call to mind when we think ‘planet’ is actually just a representation of an orbiting mass, and this representation may bear little relation to the actual lump of rock. Which then begs the question: the orbiting mass may exist, but isn’t our understanding of it just a social construct that we have created?

Oh, the humanities.

At any rate, the lie is exposed: the solar system does not have 9 planets. Or perhaps it does, depending on your perspective.

Academics who make their careers by delving deeply into specialised areas of knowledge use this technique because they often have to make their highly complex work intelligible to the general public, to policymakers, to academics in other disciplines and (and this one is especially important, from the academic's perspective) to grant funding bodies. When a physicist explains the expanding universe theory using the analogy of a balloon (an explanation that has been often parodied in science fiction shows), this is a lie. But it gets the general concept across to us usefully.

With science communication this arguably can work well. With humanities subjects that are (seemingly) less empirical in nature, ‘lies to children’ analogies which aim to explain aspects of critical theory can become muddy, badly communicated and misunderstood. The highly politicised nature of these subjects can also mean that simplistic interpretations are created, co-opted and distorted to support biased positions.

Recently, Conservative ministers hit out at ‘Critical Race Theory’ by stripping fragments from this complex body of scholarship and casting them into the sphere of public discourse. There, they took root in the fertile soil of racist prejudice and very quickly sprouted into assumptions that were oversimplified, wilfully-misunderstood and devoid of context. Then the ministers harvested their crop, cut it, dried it, spun it into fibres, wove it into a rope, turned the rope into a noose and then used the noose to choke the education sector.

Okay, so maybe I’m really not that good with metaphors.

Getting to the roots of knowledge is difficult, and ‘lies to children’ can be comforting to us. They are simple, and they are useful, so long as we remember that the ‘lie’ is only one step on the longer journey toward knowledge acquisition and cognitive development. We also need to realise that there are many people with vested interests in co-opting simplistic ‘lies-to-children’ versions of social theories to support their own biased positions. Responding to these people by offering them routes to greater knowledge is unlikely to do any good, not least because they are simply not motivated to probe beneath the lie, even though doing so is a valuable aspect of educational development and personal growth.

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