Thursday, July 14, 2011

Science is Real (and sometimes wrong)

My sister is four years older than me, and we attended the same university for our bachelor's degrees, although our diplomas say different things. She graduated from Hollins College in spring of 1998. I entered the first freshman class of Hollins University that fall.

As the youngest of three, you can imagine I spent a good portion of my life being compared to my older siblings, but especially my sister. The thing is, as much as we are alike, she and I are also very different. That's why I brought up college. My sister majored in chemistry and studied physics. She's gone on to become a science teacher and at a conference this week she made nanoparticles. I, on the other hand, majored in film and studied art history. Now I'm a filmmaker and writer, and this week I went to professional video gaming event as part of documentary I'm making.

So you would think that she and I probably wouldn't have that much to talk about. Instead, the two of us are constantly finding common ground between our enthusiasms. We love finding the ways that science and art intersect.

All of that is my way of illustrating that I love science, but I'm not always as scientifically knowledgeable as I would like to be. But one thing that I do know, and one of the things I love, is that contrary to popular belief, science is constantly changing. Sometimes, what we thought to be true turns out to be completely incorrect. Because the whole point is that every day, minds more brilliant than mine are spending their time looking at the things we can observe and the things we know, and trying to figure out what they MEAN.

They take their theories and hypotheses, and they test them. Over and over, and they see how they hold up. And sometimes they don't. Sometimes new information comes along and changes everything.

The problem is that we've lost sight of that in our modern society, partially because of shifts in the state of journalism, and partially because we're in a society that seems determined to get black and white answers to everything. Scientists find themselves having to vastly oversimplify their findings in order to satisfy people who don't seem to be interested in the amazing nature of scientific discovery and just want to know "truth" and "fact" in a media soundbite.

The reason I'm thinking about this today is that I just read a story about new evidence regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Like most kids, I went through a dinosaur phase. But when I was into it, nobody really had a good consensus on what actually killed the dinosaurs. There were also a considerable number of different dinosaurs. Comments on the article say Triceratops is back! They were always my favorite.

Anyway, the reason I find this so fascinating is that a couple years ago I noticed that everybody was referring to "the meteor that killed the dinosaurs." I was long out of my dinosaur phase, so I was curious when that became the "truth." The thing is, it didn't. It's just still the theory that's been held up by the most evidence. I won't get into the details because well, I'll end up sounding dumb, but the article I linked shows that there's still some parts to it that remain unexplained.

Which is what I just love. How brilliant is it that we learn so many new things every day? That our understanding of everything can change because of new information? My sister illustrates this point to her students using They Might Be Giants. When my husband first heard me listening to "Why Does The Sun Shine" he got grumpy because it was full of misinformation. But in reality, it wasn't. It was just a very old song written with the information we had at the time.

TMBG realized that our understanding had changed when they were making their album "Here Comes Science." They had to create an "answer song" to correct the previous work called "Why Does The Sun (Really) Shine." I first heard of it when they played it at a concert before the album came out, and came home to immediately report to my husband that they'd fixed his problem and he could stop complaining. When I told my sister about it, she pre-ordered the album to start using it in her classes because like me, she believes that part of what we should learn in science classes is simply scientific literacy.

I wrote in my last post about beauty pageant contestants responses to a question about evolution. I didn't say my own opinion or how I would have answered the question, because it was unimportant to my point. But I know that if I was asked the question, I wouldn't bother to answer it because it's really not a good question. It's unimportant, in the grand scheme.

What is important is teaching scientific literacy. That is the most important thing we can give our next generation. Giving them the tools to think, to reason, and to understand science will make our country better than it has ever been. The problem with the whole evolution question was that it showed a lack of scientific literacy on the part of the people asking it, many of the people answering, and almost all of the people writing/complaining about the whole kerfluffle. I saw one article that complained that the contestants were confusing scientific theories, talking about the origin of man instead of just the evolution of organisms. I know there's a distinct difference between the two, but I also know that the pageant organizers probably don't and that they intended the question to reference the origin of the species, and that's how most of the contestants chose to answer.

The whole situation never would have happened if we valued scientific literacy more. I am not a science-minded person, really. My sister and I fall into some of the classic stereotypes when it comes to scientific and artistic personalities. My husband watches The Science Channel every other day, and I don't really understand half of what they're talking about when you get right down to it. But I'm proud that I am scientifically literate, and that has made a huge positive difference in my life.

I'll leave you with two clips from one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson: