Saturday, March 24, 2007

Simon Rich on science literacy and on savvy in general

Funster Simon Rich palpably hit me with his (seeming debut) "Shouts & Murmurs" in the New Yorker. Chiefly this part:

I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids’ Table

MOM: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.


GRANDMOTHER: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.

DAD: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.

UNCLE: I’m having sex right now.

DAD: We all are.

MOM: Let’s talk about which kid I like the best.

DAD: (laughing) You know, but you won’t tell.

MOM: If they ask me again, I might tell.

FRIEND FROM WORK: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!

DAD: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren’t.

MOM: I’m angry! I’m angry all of a sudden!

DAD: I’m angry, too! We’re angry at each other!

MOM: Now everything is fine.

DAD: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.

MOM: There was a big sex.

FRIEND FROM WORK: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!

(Everybody laughs.)

MOM: I had a lot of wine, and now I’m crazy!

GRANDFATHER: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?

ALL: Yes.

GRANDFATHER: Don’t tell the kids.

Strangely, as my smile muscles started to relax, it occurred to me "you know, there's a useful science literacy lesson in this...maybe." The lesson or heuristic device would be something like:

Think of that imaginary skit or joke whenever you hear about new science: The universe and its workings are at the adult table. The scientists, the news reporters, you and me are at the kids table. So when a finding seems to explain or cure, realize that of course it seems to explain or cure. All we know about the adult side is that our explanations and cures are over there. (And incidentally, that's why scientists park their table precisely where they do, and why "child-like curiosity" is something we associate with science).

Rich's joke made me laugh, I guess, because it reveals something embarrassing, intimate and true, and which--Surprise!--has been standing there forever in plain sight. It may be the same formula as Gary Larson's "What we say to dogs/What they hear" cartoon, and a little like "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Not to mention the joke that's on the cuckold, and Plato's yarn about the shadows on the cave wall. It's not a lesson so much as a prod:

"Our senses deceive us. You know that. Show a little savvy."

Rich is more high-concept than Plato on this one.

1 comment:

Ian said...

I am the loudest! I am the loudest!

Blogs by informed experts seem to be a good way of breaking down the perception of science as the big kids table. Pharyngula's a good example; new results in developmental biology made interesting and accessible.