Originally posted on the Ides of March 2009
Muffins and the end of innocence
“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.
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.