One of the many things I like about Neil is how he parses a high level idea into separate parts. For Neil, education is more than just presenting the truth.
Being an educator means that you have to teach the truth, but you can’t just shove information on to people and say, “Here you go and if you don’t get it, too bad because it’s the truth.”
There is an art of persuasion involved which includes being sensitive to the students state of mind. You can’t just dump data on them, you have to combine the truth with how the student is receiving the information and adjust your delivery mechanism to create a lasting impact.
Likewise, you can’t be solely sensitive to the students state of mind. If they become upset when you talk to them about dinosaurs, that doesn’t mean you don’t teach them about dinosaurs. It doesn’t mean that you stop talking about dinosaurs. It doesn’t even mean that you stop acknowledging the existence of dinosaurs. It means that you find a way to teach them about dinosaurs while also acknowledging the reason they become upset to begin with1.
And to do that, you have to understand what’s already in their head and how those ideas got there. Teaching is about bringing facts and external sensitivity together to have impact. This is powerful stuff and a great lesson for everyone.
Richard Dawkins “gratefully accept[ed] the rebuke” of Neil and then goes on to provide this hilarious quote from an editor at New Scientist that I think goes to show why sensitivity is important.
The editor, when asked, “What is your philosophy at New Scientist?” replied, “Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”0
Feel free to replace “dinosaurs” with any other topic, such as evolution ↩