Muffins and the end of innocence

| March 15, 2009 | 12 Replies

“Did you know there’s totally science behind muffins? Totally ruined muffins for me.”

Ah, the wisdom of youth. That particularly large & shiny pearl came from a blazered private school girl of perhaps 15 who I was standing next to (almost on top of) on my Connex-brand cattle-truck – I mean, “train” – this morning. Girl Student (henceforth “GS”) was bemoaning the fact that in her cooking class her teacher explained that the release of carbon dioxide during the cooking process was responsible for the rising of muffins and for the tiny little pockets of air that end up being formed in all things baked. So, in response to this new but unwanted & unwelcome knowledge, GS now proclaims her hatred for – or at least new found apathy toward – the little round cakes she used to love.

Muffins via Creative Commons: by Dr. Momentum at Flickr

Muffins via Creative Commons: by Dr. Momentum at Flickr

Naturally, her comment got me thinking. Does GS approach every mundane mystery in her life in such a manner? Would she disavow Myspace if she figured out that barely any of those seventeen thousand and eighty-four “friends” of hers actually qualified for such a title? Would she stop catching the train if she knew a tad more about electricity? What if she found out what keeps planes in the air? Sweet flaming crikey, no more summer trips to the Whitsundays then (probably a good thing, it’d totally suck to find out how that big hot disc in the sky is making you slightly darker). Safer stuck at home I guess, with just the TV/Wii/Blu-Rayer/microwave/mobile phone for company … on the other hand, perhaps not. Perhaps all those modern wonders are just a fresh crop of parades waiting to be stripped of their brilliance by the acid rain of knowledge. You never know what awful, awful knowledge might leach into your brain if you sit on the remote and accidentally switch to the Discovery Channel.

However, I’m willing to give GS the benefit of the doubt. After all, when you’re 15 you’re really just on the on-ramp to true sentience and mental independence. You’re just starting to simultaneously figure out & shape both who you are and who you’re going to be. Too much info all at once at such a critical time can confuse you and make your brain seize up and annoy the crud out of you - even if the forbidden knowledge is just a three-second soundbite revealing the awful truth about your favourite cake. I do, however, wonder what she thought made muffins rise before she had her world shattered by learning of just one function of one of the planet’s most common gases. How about muffin gnomes? Well, that just raises more questions than it answers, such as “where do they go once they’ve carved all those little air-pockets?” and “why do some muffins collapse in the middle? Have we displeased the gnomes?”

It’s not just brand new adults who think this way. People who have been adults for many, many years and who’ve developed a more relaxed & accepting attitude toward baking employ precisely the same “don’t spoil it for me” attitude toward other important mysteries of the universe as GS does toward her once-beloved treat. We’ve all met such people. Perhaps we’ve even been them at some point or we’re likely continuing to be them even as we speak! Perhaps I shouldn’t spell things out though, so as to avoid offending anyone’s cherished personal beliefs with regard to important questions as “how do magicians saw girls in half anyway?” or “why do I always beat that guy who seems to live at the bar at 8-ball the first time, but never the second? What does he do with all my money?”

There is a point here, folks. The point is this: I believe wholeheartedly that in most cases it’s better to learn the truth than live in ignorance. Of course, I concede that it doesn’t actually matter to most people the precise scientific process that’s going on in a rising muffin. Even so, once you find out, why resist it? Why choose to loathe muffins because you learned something new about them? How exactly does learning about carbon dioxide spoil your enjoyment of a muffin? Well, I suppose the simple & short answer to that is that it shouldn’t. But that’s not an answer, because learning the facts behind an everyday something really does spoil a lot of things for a lot of people. My actual answer would be that some beliefs about the world are sacred to a lot of people and that they invest a lot of themselves in those beliefs. Beliefs can be as intertwined with someone’s self-worth as their physical appearance or occupation or the car they drive, so if anything comes along that challenges a particular belief (or simple in-hindsight preference to have remained ignorant of a particular truth, in the case of Girl Student), it can be painful to hear and elicit an almost autonomic fight-or-flight response. In such cases, the believer in whatever-it-is can clap their hands over their ears in denial or arc up and start fighting back, shooting the messenger and perhaps even accusing them of some kind of hate crime for daring to share new knowledge or an opinion contrary to their cherished version of the truth. Taking such personal offense at a disagreement or contradictory evidence is inevitable when you’re dealing with strong personal feelings about how certain things are or, at least, how you think they should be.

But whether it’s regarding muffins, microwaves or mammoths, I believe it’s generally better for you, me & us to know the truth about anything & everything than to not know. If you’re labouring under the false assumption that gnomes carve air-pockets in muffins, that your husband is faithful and loves you (even when he goes out every other night without explanation and returns smelling of perfume and sweat and perhaps other fluids), that the dinosaurs were all peaceful vegetarians and were ridden as mighty steeds by early humans (and that every single branch of science which studies them – and that every single other branch which intersects with and confirms the discoveries of, um, dinosaurology - is completely & utterly wrong) then there are probably several other areas in your life where you’re totally kidding yourself. But look: maybe that pain in your chest isn’t indigestion. Maybe the cheque isn’t the mail. Maybe that ex-government minister from Nigeria doesn’t really want you to help him embezzle millions from his government (but he sounds so earnest, and his tenuous grasp of English is really quite endearing! That should be enough to draw anybody into massive intercontinental fraud!). Maybe you and I and GS (and everyone else – I don’t believe for a second that there isn’t one person in the world who isn’t kidding themselves about something) should just accept that all our beliefs about everything – even those we think are based on the most solid & objective evidence – are transitory, only waiting for that one piece of contradictory evidence to send them to the scrapheap.

Because, after all, I’m typing this post as our planet spins through the ether on the back of a magic tortoise, and don’t you dare poop my party.

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Category: Culture, ignorance, Language, Meaning of Life, Science

About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (12)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Now I can't get "Sweet flaming crikey" out of my head. Much more flavorful than dubya tee eff.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Sorry, Hank, it's on the back of a dragon!

  3. Hank says:

    Careful Tim, that's a hate crime!

    Dan, Sweet Flaming Crikey is freeware. Feel free to use and distribute freely!

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Of course if the world is supported by a magic turtle, then it must also be flat, 'cause if it is round the all the Kiwis and Aussies would have to put vegemite on the soles of their shoes so they can stick to the ground and not fall off.

    (Just kidding, Hank)

    Sometimes a hypothesis becomes popularized in the media the general public believes the theory out of faith but without knowledge or understanding of the topic. Often a lot of dis information is disseminated by those that find a way to profit from it.

    Is Autism caused by vaccines? The vaccine producers say it is not, and the US court syste recently ruled that there is no evidence that it does. However, research in Europe and Japan indicate that it might. The pharmaceutical companies, which fund most medical and biochemical research in the world, has worked hard to squelch and discredit any research that may remotely implicate the immune system as a possible cause. They know where their paycheck comes from.

    Are copyrights, patents and intellectual property right good for innovation? Not according to some Washington University economists, who have studied the effects of the IP laws and the effect on innovation. They can cite many examples of the use of IP laws to build monopolies

    Is carbon dioxide the major cause of global warming? Those that push this the most are making a lot of money from trading "carbon credits". Seasoned climatologists who have studied this for years and say the CO2 is an insignificant greenhouse gas are being drowned out by the chorus of pop scientists, who don't even understand how the "green house" effect works.

    Remember the "Y2K problem" of the late 1990's? It began when expiration dates on reissued credit cards rolled into the year 2000, and the processing service programs rejected the cards as being expired. The actual problem was fixed within a few months, but several alarmists published books on the subject which showed a great lack of knowledge of the way computers work, and it became a national obsession. The pundits were talking doom and gloom, planes falling from the sky, nuclear missiles launching themselves, power systems shutting off, microwave ovens, coffee makers and VCRs attacking their owners and so on. As someone who has a background in computer science and engineering, I found it amazing what people believed and who they believed. People that knew me thought I was crazy for not being worried about it. They would echo the mantras ( e.g. "What about the embedded processors?" ) over and over. I admit it was a bit funny at first, but it rapidly became annoying.

  5. Hank says:

    Blasphemy, Niklaus.

    There's no Vegemite in New Zealand.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Hank: Your post reminds me of a friend of mine named Dea, a kind-hearted, thoughtful though conflicted religious Republican.

    About 10 years ago we were having lunch and I was telling Dea how excited I was to be attending graduate-level cognitive science classes at Washington University. I told her of some of the many advances in understanding emotion, attention, perception, memory, language and our kinship with other animals. Dea interrupted, exasperated. She told me that all of this was disturbing for her, and that she would rather not know some of these things. "Doesn't all of this ruin it for you?" she asked. Doesn't this turn people into bizarre sorts of robots?

    I was really surprised, because this information had no such effect on me. My studies were making me appreciate the complexities of human life all-the-more. Cognitive science enhanced my appreciation of life, and didn't diminish it at all. Or, perhaps, I should say that it usually didn't.

    I must admit that there are some moments when my hard-earned deeper understanding of human animals (compared to my earlier understanding) leaves me with a cold chill. It happens every few weeks, and it's haunting, bordering on terrifying. It's an image of people as gooey machines, of things simply happening, not with any sacred purpose. I'm not referring to "sacred" as a traditional religious glow, but as an inherent importance, not something soothing that has been conveniently concocted by our heuristic-laden brains. The haunting vision is of humans as mere animals, in the sense that we see ants as animals, impressive yet soul-less mechanical things, not in any sense glorified.

    I've recently written about the sacred places of non-believers. http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/02/14/the-s… I think that today I better understand what Dea was resisting, because, in my own way, I sometimes resist it too. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by knowing more rather than less. Sometimes, I want to play with my children and take walks in an innocent way, seeing leaves and sticks and rocks the way I saw them when I was a child.

    I quickly recover from my escapes from innocence, however, much like David Hume quickly got his fill of backgammon. http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/10/01/free-… Because the desire to know rather than not-know is unrelenting in me. It is that part of me that I've been cultivating for a lifetime. It is there that I put my chips because it is this way of knowing that has, time after time, revealed mysteries far more intricate and inspiring than the child's way of seeing the world.

  7. Hank says:

    Hey Erich

    I honestly can't say that that is something I can relate to (hence the post I guess) except on a surface level. I've always relished knowing how stuff works, from rainbows to black holes to my own body. Dea's attitude, while understandable on one level is incomprehensible on another. How could understanding anything ruin its beauty? Or even its mystery? And what's so damned good about mystery anyway? Mysteries, secrets, hidden truths – I quite often just find these frustrating, especially when people actively promote them over knowledge of the truth. Of course some truths are painful and sometimes devastating to learn, but (this sounds trite but it's nonetheless true) truth is literally all there is. Why fight it? There will always be mysteries no matter what we discover and protecting mystery from the light can sometimes result in more pain than discovery, so why resist truth?

    My bottom line is best explained with a rock metaphor:

    Jimi Hendrix was a genius. His guitar playing is considered peerless even today, regardless of whether his fans know how to play a guitar themselves. However, once I started playing the guitar myself, my appreciation of Jimi only increased and continues to do so the more I learn. Same goes for the entire universe.

    By the way, Ebonmuse has been kind enough to feature this post here: http://www.daylightatheism.org/2009/03/carnival-o

    Thanks E!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I do like your Hendrix comparison. I had the same experience when I starting learning how to play jazz guitar. It made me appreciate the work of Wes Montgomery all the more.

      Learning more has always enriched my appreciation for incredible things. Learning more can also expose cheap tricks and frauds. In either case, I'd like to know more rather than less.

  8. Azkyroth says:

    Having been a fifteen year old at one point in my life, I'm not sure your characterization of the general age group is entirely accurate. That said, I agree with the rest.

  9. Hank says:

    Azkyroth, my generalisation about adolescent thought processes was made partially from memories of my personal experience and partly from observation. It may not be absolutely 100% True but as far as I'm concerned, for the purposes of supporting the piece (which is purely an opinion piece and not a scientific paper requiring objective fact and mountains of evidence), it's sufficiently accurate.

    Erich, that's another important point. Gullible or ignorant people are easy prey for con-men & TV preachers (excuse the tautology) so if nothing else, a desire for truth (and the ability to spot bullshit) is a valuable defence mechanism.

  10. antimattr says:

    Nice post. I just finished reading Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins, and your post reminds me of the point of his book. Science and knowledge can actually enhance your enjoyment and create its own poetry. Knowing what makes muffins rise doesn't make them any less tasty, and knowing more about the process can only add to the enjoyment of making muffins, at least for me.

    Does this point to the anti-intellectual bias we see developing in our country? It's hard to say, coming from a 15 year old, but I do see that around me all the time.

  11. Hank says:

    It does point to anti-intellectual bias, more in the US that anywhere else I suppose. I've noticed it here in Australia as well though it's not nearly as rampant – for example, we've never had a Scopes or Dover trial here and although we've had some right idiot Prime Ministers they all could at least speak in full sentences. We did have our own version of Sarah Palin running for PM several years ago though – however, she wasn't attractive, was more or less a flat-out racist and her policies were either vague or ridiculous. Hard to tell which of those attributes did her the most damage actually.

    The muffin thing, to me, was just so unnecessary. This girl wasn't just trying to be funny to her mates, it was like her world had had one of it cornerstones knocked away. It blew my mind. I simply can't stand to think that people would rather remain ignorant about anything. Wilfull ignorance means, to some extent, abrogating your responsibilities and allowing other people to make decisions for you. It certainly makes you easy prey for conmen but it also makes it easy for other people (politicians, school boards etc) to just go ahead and decide what's good for you without consultation.

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