Reading v. understanding…

Those who are accustomed to my blog posts—minimally, an op-ed comment on current events on Tuesdays and something on reading, writing, or the publishing business on Thursdays—might find it strange that I’m placing this post here on a Tuesday. There’s a simple explanation: reading and understanding what we read are building blocks in the democratic foundation of our country.

A dear friend and I were talking over the holiday about reading “popular science” articles. These are supposedly designed so that an “intelligent layperson” can develop some understanding about an esoteric bit of science or technology. I complained about Scientific American’s overly detailed articles in fields I’d like to learn more about for my sci-fi writing. “Don’t worry about it,” said my friend. “They’ve dumbed down the articles now.”

Some translations are in order. First, there’s no such thing as “popular science” anymore. Science isn’t popular, from outright attacks on it by religious fanatics and politicians who are sycophants for Corporate America, unwilling or otherwise, to teachers telling students that they should study something else because science is too hard (especially egregious when a male teacher adds “…for girls”). In all age groups, many consider science and technology to be the root of all the problems society faces, and there are many others who encourage such an opinion.

Second, “intelligent layperson” is all too often another oxymoron nowadays. I’m not speaking to the obvious cases where someone believes dinosaurs and human beings coexisted and the world with all its wonderful diversity of flora and fauna was all created six thousand years ago. I’m talking about the average Joan or Joe who reads something but can’t understand what they’ve just read. Call it what you will, it’s an indictment against popular culture. At the critical lower levels in our educational systems, teachers over-emphasize getting through the words—understanding is secondary. Certain content is emphasized; there’s not much practice analyzing and digesting new content. Too many people read something that’s devoid of facts but don’t have the background or even common sense to know better.

Third, “dumbed down” is a nice way of saying that essay and book writers know all about the problems mentioned above and bend over backwards to compensate in order to get their message across. The latter is a struggle that’s becoming increasingly difficult, even for fiction writers, where “dumbed down” has destroyed serious literature.

Even if we get people to read with all the other distractions they have—streaming video, social media, video games, and so forth—getting them to understand what they are reading is a high hurdle to jump over. I’ve often read a review of a “popular science” book and asked myself, “Did the reviewer read the same book I did?” That would probably happen with fiction too, but I don’t bother to read those reviews unless I’m making excerpts for the PR and marketing of my own books.

Daniel B. Willingham wrote an important op-ed in the 11/26/17 NY Times titled “How to Get Your Mind to Read.” I would have changed the end of the title to “…Read and Understand What You Read.” I’m sure the latter is no longer a ubiquitous skill. I’ll go out on a limb and state that the popularity of cozy mysteries and fluffy romances is evidence to support this opinion. Too many readers just want to be entertained; they don’t want to think. Heaven forbid the author’s book has deep themes like gun control, sex trafficking, environmental atrocities, and so forth (all contained in one or more of my own books, by the way).

Professor Willingham references several studies that support some of my initial points, summarized by saying readers read but don’t understand what they’re reading. And now we come to the crux of the matter: if we read but don’t understand, how can we judge what’s going on in our world? How can we make intelligent decisions when we enter that voting booth?  How can we tell the difference between what someone declares as “fake news” and truth, or “alternate facts” and facts?

On the last ballot we had here in New Jersey, there were two ballot questions. Without going into details, let me just say that the proposals weren’t trivial—some thought had to be given to them. The “explanations” on the sample ballot were even worse than the legalese. My initial interpretation of one of the proposals was incorrect, in fact, but I corrected it with a wee bit of internet research. In this case, the voters made the right choices for both ballot questions. But the whole process got me wondering: What do voters in California do when there are dozens of ballot questions? That’s not a critique of California election policies—popular referendums are a good idea in general. But it’s an indictment against assuming the voting population can understand what they read.

As issues become more complex, we need to become better at understanding what we read. I’m afraid we’re going in the wrong direction, though, and that plays right into the hands of corrupt people who want to take advantage of us and promote their own agendas.


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And so it goes….


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