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?

the Shit rock

As I write this blog post, in my peripheral vision, just below my screen and fairly close to my keyboard, is a rock. My Shit rock. It used to be my mom’s. I believe (but I can’t quite remember whether or not it’s true) that it was on her desk in her studio. When she died, this rock was one of a handful of her objects that I chose to take.

I’m fascinated by this rock. It’s pretty ugly and really ridiculous. But, it makes me curious and it conjures up images/visions/feelings of my mom and who she was how I remember her. Why did my mom have this rock? How did she get it? Did she buy it as a souvenir on one of our rare vacations? Was it a present from a past student? A gag gift? What did she think about when she looked at it? Did she laugh?

My mom was an artist, an identity she didn’t really claim until she went back to school in her mid 50s and earned a BFA in fiber arts. Her studio spaces—she had many different ones because she and my dad moved a lot in the last decade of her life—were always filled with quotes from artists, inspirational words, framed cross-stitchings (like, “of all things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most”), images torn out of magazines and various art supplies. Amidst all of these items was the Shit rock. Was this rock somehow inspiring to my mom? Did it provide her with an outlet for the frustration she experienced as an artist who was constantly doing battle with the Censor, that voice inside her that repeatedly told her she wasn’t good enough? Was it a way for her to represent her feisty and playful spirit? To poke fun at her own penchant for “pretty” knick-knacks?

All of these questions makes me want to craft a digital story about the rock and what it means for me and my memories of/connections to my mom. Much like the digital story that I crafted about my first grade progress report last spring, this story about the rock would enable me to experiment with being curious about an object.

There are all sorts of ways that I could discuss how my mom’s “shit” rock, especially with it’s flowery font, is meaningful to me. And all sorts of images and ideas that it conjures up. Here are two “shit” examples that probably won’t make it into my digital story:

1. RJP’s classic line to me in a public bathroom a few years ago:


2. A few images from a Tumblr focused on “beautiful swearwords”

This is my brain between semesters, part 1

…or some random sources that I am finding as I wrap up my thoughts/discoveries from last semester and ponder what to include in my classes for next semester.

Before I begin all of the “actual” work that I have slated for the next month (betwixt and between the fall and spring semesters–hmm…a liminal space, perhaps?), I am taking some time to explore different ideas. I have always loved the part of research when you just travel from source to source and track the connections that authors make between their ideas and the work of others. I used to spend hours in the library scanning the shelves, picking out books with interesting titles, scrutinizing the footnotes for further sources and then tracking those sources down. Now I do it on my computer through google books or amazon or E-Journals while I am drinking my latte and eating my chocolate zucchini bread at Anodyne. I miss the smells and sounds of the library (so I still do that too), but I think it is so cool that I can do research anywhere (and at anytime–even at 2 AM when I can’t sleep). Anyway, I am sitting here at Andoyne (having just briefly visited Wilson Library), thinking about troublemaking, queer theory, feminist theory, Foucault, children and childishness, and affect/emotion.

I went to Wilson Library to pick up James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. I found him though his essay in Curiouser. This book, particularly his chapter, “Inventing the Child–and Sexuality,” seems important for me to read as I think through the dominant narratives of the Child as innocent (and a/pre-sexual). Before I actually started reading the book, I was struck by one of his epigraphs. Well, maybe not the epigraph, but its source : Adam Phillip’s On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. I tracked it down through google books and previewed it. Here is part of the  book overview:

Psychoanalysis began as a virtuoso improvisation within the science of medicine, but virtuosity has given way to the dream of science that only the examined life is worth living. Phillips shows that the drive to omniscience has been unfortunate both for psychoanalysis and for life. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a set of meditations on underinvestigated themes in psyochoanalysis that shows how much one’s psychic health depends on establishing a realm of life that successfully resists examination.

I love this idea of unknowingness as central to a successful life (reminds of Judith Butler in Undoing Gender). After I check out the book and skim it closely, I will have to reflect on Phillips’ ideas in relation to Socrates and his oft cited mantra: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I was also want to spend some time reading Philips’ chapter, “Worrying and its discontents.” In my last entry I wrote about the link, which seems to be inextricably drawn, between worry, thinking and trouble. I am wondering, when is worrying a valuable enterprise? When is it too much? What exactly is it? Before my google preview ran out (because you can only preview a limited number of pages–perhaps I should look for the exact “rules” somewhere on the google books site), I was able to read this intriguing description: worries are farts that don’t work (47). I am reminded of my queering theory class and our (very) productive, especially for one student, focus on the connection between the abject and shit. If worry is a fart, or the failure to shit, what purpose does it serve? Are farts the in-between the subject and the abject? Wow. I should stop before I go too far here….

Okay, that’s enough writing about books; now I want to read them!