Sunday, August 16, 2009

When stories are the story

An interesting article in the June 1, 2009 edition of the New Yorker, It's Spreading; Outbreaks, media scares, and the parrot panic of 1930 by Jill Lepore.

While we reflexively think of reading with children in terms of books, it does of course encompass newspapers, magazines, etc. While there is much in common, between the formats, there is a difference. Newspapers are the first rumor of history, magazine articles the rough draft, and books eventually reflect the collected (somewhat) settled record. Newspapers, magazines and books are the conveyor belt of history.

While one should always read with some degree of respectful skepticism, there is much more of a need to do so with papers and magazines where bias, trendiness, incompleteness, and ignorance are perhaps much more prevalent than in books and where passion and fervor are more predominant than clarity and inspiration. That is not to say that these issues are absent from books, just less prevalent.

Lepore uses a case study from 1930 in the US as newspapers first wildly propagated a story of the dangers of parrot fever before just as enthusiastically debunking it. In fact there was never much of a story in the first place. Her whole article, though, provides an example of the power of storytelling for good or ill and provides a catalyst for our helping our children to understand how to read newspapers and magazines differently and with a heightened attunement to the standard empirical rationalist questions - What's the problem?, how big is it?, how do we measure it?, how will we know when it is resolved?, what's the proposition?, who is pushing the proposition?, how do they benefit? what are the consequences? who will be affected?

Whether discussing mad-cow disease, global warming (2000's), new ice age (1970's), healthcare, or any of a huge portfolio of controversial issues, these are perfectly good questions to always have in mind. The more our children put together the picture that words are powerful but not sacrosanct, the better and clearer thinkers and questioners they become.

From Lepore's article:
Epidemics follow patterns because diseases follow patterns. Viruses spread; they reproduce; they die. Epidemiologists study patterns in order to combat infection. Stories about epidemics follow patterns, too. Stories aren't often deadly but they can be virulent: spreading fast, weakening resistance, wreaking havoc.

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