Tuesday, August 08, 2017


How do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?

I saw another of those this week.  The Atlantic, which usually does better, published this piece asking why men have become rare birds on college campuses.  It argues that males’ distaste for higher education starts young, possibly in middle school, and that by the time they turn 18, it’s too late.  Clearly, young men need to be spared the tyrannical feminism of, uh, American high schools…

Except that the gender gap in college enrollments isn’t among 18 year olds.  It’s among 25 year olds and older.  Among 18 year old college students, there’s relative gender balance.  The real story of gender imbalances among college students isn’t about middle school or high school at all; it’s about adult wages for workers without degrees.  Regular readers know that I’ve hit this note repeatedly over the years.

But mere facts don’t seem to be enough to put the myth out of its misery.  The story seems to satisfy some need beyond mere, you know, accuracy.  It’s more of a parable than a report, but the parable has staying power.  It satisfies some other need.

Most campuses (and, I’m guessing, most organizations of any size) have myths like that.  

Some of them are based on a combination of reverence and forgetting.  A long-departed figure declared 30 years ago that there’s a rule preventing the college from doing x.  Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t, but the person was respected and his successors have adopted the received wisdom as gospel, perhaps even building retrospective tributaries from it over the years.  Someone stepping in from the outside raises the idea of x, and holy hell rains down, even though there’s actually no reason it can’t be done.  (“Liability” and “Financial aid” are the most frequent sources of mystery rules, in my experience.)  

Others are more cynical.  A common rhetorical move on campuses is the invocation of the lost golden age as a form of implied criticism of the present.  I remember the sense of satisfaction at a previous college when I had been there long enough to have direct personal memory of an invoked golden age, and to remember that the person invoking it had been bitter then, too.  As most historians know, golden ages tend to rest on very selective memories.  But they serve purposes in the present, entirely independently of their accuracy.

Arguing with good-faith factual arguments is a relatively straightforward process.  It may involve facts, or it may involve clarifying different definitions, but you can talk about what you’re talking about.  Arguing with myths is another matter entirely.

If you’re convinced that, say, a gender gap in college enrollment is still more evidence of the conspiracy against men in K-12 schools, then something as pedestrian as enrollment data for 18 year olds won’t dissuade you.  You’ll doubt the data (“FAKE NEWS!”), or find a reason to dismiss it.  You may simply ignore it altogether, and just change the anecdotes you cite.  After all, the facts themselves aren’t the point; they’re just there to serve the story.  The story is the point.

When I hit the point in conversation at which it becomes clear that facts aren’t the point, though, it’s hard to know what to say next.  If you keep arguing facts, you don’t get anywhere.  If you diagnose what’s happening as a sort of shadow boxing, you’re arrogant.  If you come back with a story of your own, you’re swapping one myth for another.  If you’re really good at it, that can work, but it has a way of backfiring.  And certain issues -- structural ones, rather than personal ones -- don’t really lend themselves as easily to storytelling.  

Wise and worldly readers, given only so many hours in the day and lacking a small army of research assistants, how do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?