Scientific Literacy and Bullshit Detection

Last night, as we were driving to swim lessons, my 6 year old daughter RJP suddenly, with no context, exclaimed, “I’m a scientist!” She likes to dramatically assert her identities in this way. Last year, she loved calling out to anyone within earshot, “I’m an artist!” Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be embracing/performing her artist identity that much this year. What is it about first grade that sucks the joy/imagination/creativity out of kids? After making this bold and somewhat unexpected proclamation and then not receiving much of a response from us, she continued, “My teacher says anyone who likes to ask lots and lots and lots of questions is a scientist. So, I’m a scientist!”

Her statement made me curious and inspired/provoked me to think more about curiosity, wonder, asking questions and how my understandings and practices of these do/don’t fit in with science and the scientific method.  But, because life with kids, especially kids who are trying to overcome the trauma of witnessing a kid puke in the pool at swim lessons a few weeks ago so that they can get back in and take their swim test, can force me out of my curious wonderings, I quickly forgot about RJP’s identity claim and my questions about it.

I forgot about it until this morning. While scrolling through my Tumblr feed, I came across a great quote by the super Awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson on the importance of scientific literacy:

To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of shit.

Yes! I’m a proud bullshit detector (and deflector?). And, since I think that a lot of people, especially people who claim to know a lot (like grad students/academics) frequently spout shit, I was pleased to see someone offering up some tools for seeing through it. Learning to know when someone else is full of shit is an essential tool, one that should be regularly taught throughout formal education. I also liked seeing this quote because, for various reasons (some of which aren’t entirely clear to me), I find “shit” to be a great word; it’s rich with meaning (especially in queer theory) and fun to say.

Good little researcher that I am, I attempted to track down this quote. Before I actually found it (on the Nerdist podcast #277), I stumbled upon a quick video clip with NG Tyson discussing the importance of scientific literacy:

In this brief clip, NG Tyson describes how he is training his kids to be scientifically literate:

I immerse them in their environment at home, when we travel. What surrounds them, what forces them to think about how the world works.

And, he clarifies how scientific literacy is not just about reciting facts, but about asking:

How do you look at the world? What does the world look like through your lens? If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks really different to you. It’s not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There’s a lot we understand out there. And than understanding empowers you to first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second, there are issues that confront us that have science as their foundation. If you’re not scientifically literate, it’s in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process and you don’t even know it.

I really appreciate reading the highly spreadable one-liner from NGT beside his longer description of what’s at stake with teaching scientific literacy. Seeing the world using a scientific lens is important. Attempting to understand how the world works and discovering rational/measurable (he discusses the importance of measuring results in the Nerdist podcast) explanations is essential for challenging/resisting the ways in which science gets wielded/mis-used/ignored by some (NGT devotes time to de-bunking intelligent design in the podcast).

In critically reflecting on his ideas about scientific literacy, I keep thinking about the questions that RJP’s “I’m a scientist!” declaration raised for me last night about curiosity and asking questions. I’m a HUGE proponent of asking questions and being curious. I write about it and teach it all the time. But, my version of curiosity and my methods and motivations for asking questions are sometimes in tension with the scientific approach, and its emphasis on discovering, measuring, classifying, scrutinizing, knowing. Years of feminist and queer theory have made me wary of these approaches and how they are used to regulate, control and colonize entire communities of people. As I write this post, I immediately think of critiques of science/scientific method offered by Sibohan Somerville, Emily Martin, Riki Wilchins, Carolyn Merchant, Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway. When I pose questions and practice curiosity, I’m not motivated by a desire to “know” or a need to discover, but by a passion to engage deeply with ideas, things, experiences and people.

But, even as I am reminded of these important critiques and I think about my own version of curiosity, I see the value in scientific literacy and developing tools for understanding how things work scientifically. We need these tools. Especially girls. RJP needs to be encouraged (by teachers, other students, pop culture, society) that thinking scientifically is important and that she’s not only capable of it, but can do it really well.

So, how do I reconcile my misgivings about “science” with my belief in its importance, especially for girls? By refusing to see it as an either/or choice. And by expanding my vision of curiosity to allow for a wider range of understandings of how we think about how the world works. In this vision, scientific literacy is just one of many literacies that we need to have in order to fight injustice and to be effective bullshit detectors. (And, like all literacies, it should be interrogated/challenged by the other approaches).

I want to inhabit a world in which RJP can claim the identities “I’m an artist!” and “I’m a scientist!” simultaneously and with the same amount of force and value. In listening to NGT’s passionate discussions about scientific literacy, especially on the podcast, I’m not sure he would agree. He seems to privilege scientific literacy as the primary tool for knowing about the world and being empowered within it. Especially when he describes science as the lens (as opposed to a lens or one of many lenses) through which to understand the world. I want to spend more time engaging with his ideas to determine if my assessment is correct.

Questions to Ponder

  1. Is Neil deGrasse Tyson privileging scientific literary over all other forms of literacy?
  2. NGT discusses the importance of questions, uncertainty and not knowing. How is this similar/different to my understanding of feminist curiosity and the value of unknowingness?
  3. What are all of the tools that a bullshit detector needs?
  4. How can I get RJP to stop freaking out every time she sees the kid who puked in the pool?

Curiosity, Anxiety, Paranoia: Inspired by the North Shore

In my continued efforts to experiment with my images and text on TUMBLR, I posted the following image; it’s from my recent trip with the family to the North Shore of Minnesota:

One of the goals of these images/text experiments is to inspire or provoke me and/or the viewer to think, question, wonder, reflect, or imagine. This particular set of texts, passages from Cynthia Enloe and Avital Ronell, has certainly inspired and provoked me. I’m:

thinking about anxiety and its role within ethics,
questioning its limits for self-care and moral selfhood,
wondering who should be encouraged to be anxious (Ronell suggests that George W. Bush could stand to be kept up at night a little more, thinking about the implications of his policies–her quote is a few years old) and who is already always too anxious (people prone to panic attacks or others, like me, who seem to worry too much about their impact on others),
reflecting on the relationship between curiosity and anxiety and what happens when your curiosity isn’t rooted in a concern–or anxiousness–about the impact of that curiosity
and imagining new possibilities for practicing a feminist curiosity that involves a willingness to trouble (feel some anxiety about?) one’s own questions and wonderings.

The passage from Avital Ronell comes from the documentary, An Examined Life. Here’s how I wrote about it an post from April 2010 (which, incidentally, is the link for the image on Tumblr):

She continues her discussion of anxiety, suggesting that the truly ethical person (which she contrasts with GW Bush) is one who is always anxious and always concerned with whether or not they are doing the right thing; the ethical person is the one who can’t sleep because they are uncertain about what they are doing or failing to do. The responsible being is not the one who does one good deed and then thinks that that makes them an ethical person. The responsible being is the one who thinks they have never done enough, that “they have never taken enough care of the other.” Wow–an ethics of anxiety seems similar to my idea of staying in trouble. I was particularly struck by how she connects this (only fleetingly) to the idea of care. Anxiety and trouble (being troubled, staying troubled) are central to being ethical responsibly and effectively caring for others. Cool. I like her discussion here. I am not sure I like how she describes it as anxiety (in the interview she indicates that she is not suggesting that we should all get anxiety disorders), however. Is anxiety the best (as in most productive, most rewarding, most hopeful, most sustainable) way in which to discuss this mood?

Originally my image was only going to include Ronell’s quote, but as I thought about the questions that I posted on my original blog entry about an ethics of anxiety, I decided to contrast the promotion of anxiety, as the ethical (troubled) state par excellence, with my preferred troubled state of curiosity. So, I put Ronell’s passage beside a passage from Cynthia Enloe on feminist curiosity, on the two trees.

I really liked how it turned out; in some ways, it visually represents the relationship I imagine between curiosity and anxiety for myself. As the more important state, curiosity is on the bigger tree. But, because my curiosity always need to be troubled (questioned for its limits and effects), anxiety, in the form of concern, care and caution, is also always beside that curiosity, on the smaller tree.

There are so many ways that I want to talk about the tension between curiosity (as wonder, joy, the creative) and anxiety (as worry, concern, the critical). And there are so many ways that I’ve already discussed it on this blog. Pondering states and moods (and feelings), makes me want to put curiosity and anxiety into conversation (BESIDE/S) with a few other sources:

1. Eve Sedgwick’s discussion of paranoid and reparative reading (and maybe E Spelman’s ethics of care/repair too)
2. Megan Boler’s pedagogy of discomfort
3. Michael Snediker’s Queer Optimism

By the way, in the process of thinking through the image + texts and this post, I’ve come up with a name for my image/text posters: Problematizers. It’s inspired by Michel Foucault and his politics of problematization.

An undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling

Almost 10 years ago, STA and I did two digital videos about the Puotinen family farm. While the films that we made in 2002/2003 weren’t technically sophisticated (we used iMovie, a built-in microphone and some low quality/old photos), I am very proud of them. Through these films, I was able to document two extremely important parts of me (both of which are now gone): our family farm, sold in 2004, and my mom, who died in 2009.

Since the time of making those films, the technology has improved a lot and it’s even easier to create your own digital stories, using photos, voice-over, and video. iMovie is easy to use and there are lots of different apps for creating stories on your smarthphone or iPad. Additionally, communities of scholars, artists, activists and educators have cultivated and are promoting the value of creating and sharing stories digitally. There are classes on digital storytelling (like the awesome class at the University of Minnesota, taught by Rachel Raimist and Walt Jacobs) and a Center for Digital Storytelling (started in the mid-1900s).

While I’ve been aware of digital storytelling for several years now, I haven’t read that much about it or tried it out myself. Until now.

A few weeks ago, I started writing and thinking a lot about discipline and my own lack of it. The general topic of discipline and being a disciplinary problem aren’t really new for me; they are a focus of this blog. But, something about my current in-between state (in-between teaching gigs, in-between academic and non-academic spaces, in-between a love of learning and being burned out from the academy and formal education), has made the topic of my own un/discipline particularly personal and compelling. After writing a few blog posts about it, I remembered the one and only report card that I still have from my elementary school years: my first grade report card. Since this report card has a lot to stay about my lack of self-discipline, it seemed a perfect object/subject for an undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling.

I loved experimenting with images of the report card, old photos, and voice-over in order to be curious about and reflect on who I was in first grade and why I struggled so much with self-discipline (whatever that means). I also liked trying out iMovie (I chose it over final cut pro), pixelmator (instead of photoshop) and a Yeti microphone. Pretty cool. I’m looking forward to experimenting even more with it in future projects; I’m already hoping to do a different version about my report card in which I put my struggle with self-discipline in the larger context of race, class and gender in 1980s North Carolina. For now, here’s my first experiment: School Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account

Student Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account from Undisciplined on Vimeo.

In praise of Puotinen Women in this month of many Birthdays

Today, March 5th, 2012, would have been my Mom’s 70th birthday. She died on September 30th, 2009. I suppose that every year since her death, it gets a little easier to bear her birthday. That first year, I just wanted to forget it so I could deny the devastating loss. But this year, I want to remember and honor her life and the joy she brought to me and so many others. I also want to revisit some of my past memories of her, like my past reflection on her the day of her death, In memory of Judith (1942-2009), or my memories of Living (and not just grieving) beside her. I also want to watch the film about her (and some other Puotinen women) that STA and I made a few years back; I dedicated it to her:

The Farm Part II: The Puotinen Women from room34 on Vimeo.

And adding to the memories that I’ve already posted online, I want to offer up some other materials for the Judith Puotinen archive: A poem about dragonflies, written in April, 1987, shortly after her 45th birthday, and some images from her dragonfly pin collection.

Must you spoil my hours on the beach?

Just as I get my blanket straight
Wiggle my body into the accommodating sand
Comes movement like a spit-fire bomber
Zooming toward my head with the sound of a buzz saw
Swooping directly like a kamikaze pilot
And then instantly changing its course
Turning at a 90 degree angle toward the water.

Making me wonder about you dragonfly.

Sapphire blue wings of gossamer
Sprinkled with bits of glittering silver
Catching the sun like crystal mirrors
Ringing your wings like horned rimmed glasses
Around the delicate eyes of a sunbather.
Black, wormlike body directing your movements
Deliberately investigating creatures in your territory.

Pondering why your image sticks in my mind so long.

Crystalizing years after our close encounters
The intricacies of your insect nature
Finding that you are incredibly pleasing.
Recalling out of all of images of childhood
That of my beach time and your constant interruptions
Into my safe and secure world of dreams
Allowing me now the fun of investigation into your domain.

Realizing that it is indeed wonderful to be my age…

Now I actually thrill at learning about your unique jaw
And the playful nature of your buzzing and stunt pilot
Tricks which are really means of survival and territorial claims.
Not feeling ashamed but amazed by your water life
And stages of development and not least of all your
Incredible desire and instinct to eat the bane of
Minnesotan’s north wood’s life–the Mosquito!

Feeling gratitude for dragonfly antics on the beach.
Judy Puotinen
April, 1987

Wow, I love this poem and how it illustrates some of the qualities that I loved and valued most about my mom: wonder, curiosity, playfulness! How I deeply and desperately miss sitting beside her, maybe on the beach in the Keweenaw Peninsula, sharing in those qualities! This poem is especially valuable to me because it also speaks to my mom’s love of dragonflies. When my sisters and I were dividing up her stuff, I decided to take her dragonfly pin collection. I wasn’t quite sure why I picked it, but after discovering her poem in a random notebook, I know why. This poem and these pins enable me to bear witness (at least in memories) to my mom and her vibrant, joyful, creative/imaginative, always-questioning-and-wondering life. It’s nice to feel joy on her birthday, not just grief.

Part of my mom's collection

Two other important Puotinen women, both of whom share my mom’s wonderful qualities of joy, imagination and curiosity, celebrate birthdays this month. One turns the same age my mom was when she wrote her dragonfly poem, the other 6. In thinking about my mom this March, I want to also think about and celebrate these other Puotinen women (and even other Puotinen women who weren’t born in March) who carry on her legacy and embody so many of the qualities that I valued most in her.

Whose Curiosity? A very uncurious manifesto for curiosity

In my last post I mentioned that I have been following Brain Pickings a lot lately. I’m especially drawn to all the great visuals in her posts. I also like her focus on curation and her book lists.  In that same post, I also mentioned that while I enjoy reading and engaging with the site, something is just a little off about it. I’ve been thinking about it more, and I’ve realized one reason why: She really really likes TED. I don’t. Thinking about how much I don’t like TED gave me an inspiration for a new social/online media project (details TBA). Her love of TED, with its business self-helpy tone and its pedagogical model that idolizes Experts-who-enlighten, influences the overall tone of the blog. For a number of reasons, which I’ll leave for another post or a series of posts, I don’t like business self-helpy shtuff and my vision of pedagogy comes into conflict with the Expert-as-awesome model.

Recognizing what is off about this site doesn’t make me want to stop reading it or to reject it altogether; I still find lots of value in her curation and am very impressed with what she has developed and maintains (and without ads! that’s pretty sweet!). Instead, it simply helps me to understand my own troubling sense of unease when I read certain posts and learn about others’ projects via her site–like the one I want to write about today: Skillshare and their video, The Future Belongs to the Curious: A Manifesto for Curiosity.

The Future Belongs to the Curious from Skillshare on Vimeo.

Taken at face value, this video manifesto seems awesome. Valuing curiosity as the future. Encouraging the asking of lots of questions. Promoting life long learning. Yes! However, the video bothers me…and the more I watch and thinking critically about it, the more bothered I get. From the hyper-masculine voiceover to the heteronormative male POV throughout the video (we literally view the film through the eyes of a growing boy), I don’t see any space for my own vision of feminist curiosity–or even my own practicing of curiosity as a girl/woman. I also don’t any space for a whole lot of folks, that is, anyone not fitting the mythical norm of white, male, middle-class, etc!

The representation of women and the imagining of them in the past/present/future of who “we” are (of course the “we” = the universal white Male subject) as curious beings is as follows:

1. loving/caring Mom (twice: when boy is born and when boy breaks his leg) who doesn’t ask questions, just encourages others

2. teenage girl sitting in corner, passively listening to music while “we” play/experiment with guitar in a band

3. teenage girl in closet, looking shy/coy and puckering up as “we” move in to kiss her (hello male gaze!). I should mention that it was this image that first made me stop, question and rethink this whole manifesto. I find this to be a really problematic image–is it possible to read a counter-narrative into it? While it seems to imply that she is being kissed by a boy, could we imagine it otherwise?

4. the back of a girl’s head in Driver’s Ed as “we” playfully throw a paper airplane at her

5. smiling woman who seems to be dancing (but not questioning or being curious herself) just for us and for our camera

6. pregnant woman who is fixing up the nursery, presumably for our child

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any girls/women asking questions and being curious. I didn’t see any girls/women having any agency in this heteronormative narrative at all. The only purpose that any of these women seem to serve is to further the narrative of the male thinking, acting, playing, kissing, filming, experimenting, networking, questioning, working self. Speaking of heteronormativity, the vision of the curious future is not that innovative, interesting or curious. Instead, it’s the standard normative model of future = grow up + marry + have kids. For some (myself included) that’s a nice future/present, but it’s not the only one that we should imagine and represent. If we’re truly being curious, why not be imaginative about how we represent the future. Why not include a wider range of folks in our visions of what it could be?

For Cynthia Enloe, in The Curious Feminist, curiosity is about taking the lives of women (I want to expand it to state: not just women, but a wider range of folks) seriously: being open to other stories, listening deeply to the experiences of those beyond ourselves, using our imagination to create spaces where they are agents who have curiosity and can imagine their own better futures.

Wow, this video really got me going. One final bothering thought: In light of all of the attention being given recently to the lack of girls/women in science and math (where successful, “productive” curiosity usually happens) and the need to value and encourage girls in these fields, why would Skillshare develop a manifesto that reinforces the idea that only boys/men are curious and that girls/women are only object and props to men’s practices of curiosity?

OH BOTHER! I might just need to create my own manifesto for feminist curiosity!