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?

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