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About Truth, Knowledge and Russell’s Teapot

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine. ” 

(Bertrand Russell)

A lot of chat in the ELT world about truth and evidence these days, and some great and insightful blog posts I’ve read lately made me muse for days about this very interesting and contentious topic.

Let me start with a (very simple and general) definition of truth I found in Encyclopedia Britannica:

Truth is the aim of belief; falsity is a fault. People need the truth about the world in order to thrive. Truth is important. Believing what is not true is apt to spoil a person’s plans and may even cost him his life. Telling what is not true may result in legal and social penalties. Conversely, a dedicated pursuit of truth characterizes the good scientist, the good historian, and the good detective. So what is “truth”, that it should have such gravity and such a central place in people’s lives?

According to Bertrand Russell, one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century, truth is an ideal, towards which we can approximate, but which we cannot hope to reach. For B. Russell, not to be absolutely certain is, one of the essential things in rationality.

The reason Russell believes many ordinarily accepted statements are open to doubt is that they appear to refer to entities that may be known only through inference. Thus, underlying Russell’s various projects was not only his use of logical analysis, but also his long-standing aim of discovering whether, and to what extent, knowledge is possible. “There is one great question,” he writes in 1911. “Can human beings know anything, and if so, what and how? This question is really the most essentially philosophical of all questions” (quoted in Slater 1994, 67).

“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders  will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. 

(Russell, Bertrand. Unpopular Essays, 1950.)


Bertrand’s teapot –

According to Bertrand Russell the burden of proof in respect of unverifiable claims lies on those who make the claims, not on others to disprove them.

B. Russell explained this in his well-known conceptCelestial teapot, Cosmic teapot or Bertrand’s teapot.

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

(Bertrand Russell)

Even nowadays many teachers find it difficult to distinguish between pseudoscience and scientifically valid ideas.  The well-known neuromyths in ELT (“multiple intelligences”, “left- and right brain learners”, “learning styles” etc.) are still so prevalent within teaching and very hard to eradicate. I think that teachers who have a fairly weak understanding of the domain are one of the biggest factors which sustain these myths. This cannot do such a big harm to learners, it’s true, but it is completely useless, let alone a waste of time and money that could be spent in a more useful way.

Teachers should be more interested in their continuous professional development, they should question everything and express their opinions freely. They cannot accept any ideas, approaches or teaching techniques, without asking for actual evidence or other rigorous research to back it up. And they particularly have to question every idea that comes from the “experts” in the field. 

Our schools should do much more to create an evidence-based teaching and learning culture, and they should support a range of forms of research within the schools. The practicability of the insights founded in research needs to be evaluated cautiously and critically.

Really good teachers know very well that the reliance on measurable data very often isn’t enough source of teacher knowledge. Our classroom experience and reflection, our knowledge and common sense, are also very important because there are a lot of things in teaching and learning which take place so deeply within us, and which are very complex and difficult to measure, or quantify.

Teaching profession demands the best people as this is one of the most significant professions: open-minded, intellectually curious, and above all, honest and nonconformist teachers.

About ljiljana havran

English language teacher & librarian, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

One response »

  1. Pingback: Atheism is not a Belief System – RAnt(hony)-ings

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