Wednesday, I made a tin foil hat, and I wore it during class changes.
Of course, it didn’t go unnoticed. I got lots of odd stares, lots of “Nice hat!”’s, and lots and lots of smiles. A couple of the teachers mentioned that it reminded them of a scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. In Signs, Mel Gibson plays the father of Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin’s characters, and the brother of Joaquin Phoenix, in the midst of what they believe is an alien invasion. Culkin’s character reads in a book that tin foil hats protect from alien mind reading, and in a bit of comic relief, with nothing else to hold onto, the frightened characters eventually make some hats to wear.
I originally wore it as a conversation piece to start class. Wednesday we were talking about the electromagnetic spectrum, and I wanted to explain to them how some people fear the radio waves, microwaves, and all the other E.M. waves that we are constantly bathing in, as we speak. I think I was originally inspired by Michael McKean’s paranoid (and actually impaired) character on AMC’s Better Call Saul.
The kids immediately were able to see the silliness of the hat. We discussed how using it as a solution is only partially informed by science, because so far, research has failed to draw a connection between the E.M. radiation and any dangers of mind reading or mind control.
Then, on Thursday morning, I heard about the so-called Food Babe for the first time. In case you are as clueless about this phenomenon as I was, Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” is a blogger and self-appointed nutrition expert who has written several books, led campaigns against food companies like Subway, and even been on Dr. Oz (red flag #1!). The problem with her message is that she has a tendency to sprinkle just a dose or two of science into unscientific conclusions. Or, as an analytical chemist says in this inappropriate yet hilarious takedown of her claims, she’s full of %@&#. As you might guess, that article uses some really rough language that you may or may not want to read. For a cleaner discussion of her ideas, here’s an NPR article on her. Point being, she says inflammatory things like “There is just no acceptable level of chemical to ingest, ever,” which sounds scientific, except that it’s not at all. Because everything is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical. I mean, seriously. just Google things, lady. You’ll learn stuff.
So the tin foil hat and the food babe got me thinking: There’s different levels of science understanding. I’m gonna make a list.
THE SEVEN LEVELS OF SCIENCE UNDERSTANDING
Level 1: It’s Magic!
If you don’t understand the science behind something at all, you’ll attribute it to magic. For example, a person who had never experienced a cell phone before, might fear its power, because he doesn’t understand how it could possibly work. He assumes there must be some sort of devil’s work going on.
Level 2: Somebody Explained it to Me a While Back
At this level you understand the science of a thing well enough to know it’s not voodoo. But you really don’t remember. For example, somebody explained how cell phones worked, and the explanation sounded sciency enough at the time, yadda yadda yadda.
Level 3: Enough to Get Into Trouble
You understand just enough of the science of the thing to blow yourself up or to catch something on fire.
Level 4: Water Cooler Literate
You could sound like you understand it if you needed to. You know there’s a beam of something or other, coming out of the phone and going to cell towers somewhere. This is most of the population.
Level 5: Middle School Science Teacher
That’s right! We know more than you, “most of the population!” Can I get a dance party up in this thang?! Yeah, we know all about the microwave emissions and the speed of light, and how microwaves move at the speed of light even though you can’t see them. We got that.
Level 6: High School/University Science Teacher
I’m kind of lumping them together because they’re SO boring, OMG. They know like, serious facts and equations about the waves, and stuff. But they do spend an entire year on one subject, so, here’s some props.
Level 7: Scientist
Like, person practicing the science of the thing, in the field. I’m not going to argue with an astrophysicist about how a cell phone works. Because I’m not an astrophysicist.
The problem is, we’ve got a lot of people running around with the confidence of a true Scientist, who don’t understand science like a true Scientist. That’s where your tin foil hat and your food babe come into the picture. The more scientifically educated our population gets, the more of them think they understand what they do not understand. Nothing infuriates a scientist more than a confident non-scientist invoking science to support non-scientific rhetoric.
And that’s not to say we should just trust whatever we hear from people who understand science better than we do. I don’t seek to indoctrinate my students with a value system of blind respect for science. I try to teach them how to examine evidence for themselves. But that’s getting even harder, because the evidence requires a certain level of expertise to really understand it. I’m a science teacher and I can sometimes get lost when an astrophysicist tries to explain how he’s trying to locate life in another galaxy by examining light wavelengths with a spectrograph. It’s valid research. But I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was lying to my face.
So, to sum up:
- Experts understand things better than we do.
- We can’t just trust the experts. We’ve gotta look at the evidence for ourselves.
- We looked at the evidence. We’re too dumb to figure it out. Just trust the experts.
What’d you expect from me, wisdom? I’m the guy wearing a tin foil hat.