Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Passing on Wisdom

Biting My Tongue
Today I went to the California Academy of Sciences since I have the week off, and just before I left, after having a nice, overpriced lunch in their killer cafeteria, I went to visit the Foucault pendulum. I had just done a small pendulum lab in my physics class, and felt like just closing the circle, so to speak.

Not to be too technical, but what this pendulum proved, over 150 years ago, was that the earth truly was spinning on its axis in space.  The swinging ball would stay pointed toward some spot in space while the earth turned beneath it.  There's a sign on the side saying essentially just that.

So, there I am, kind of mesmerized, thinking of how I used to watch this same ball as kid, when some dad starts explaining it to a group of kids.  He talks about how some motor swings it back and forth, and how the earth's magnetic field makes the ball move in a circle!

I wanted to tell him he was wrong, that he was misinforming the kids, but I didn't.  I can be a real know-it-all jerk in situations like that, and just sort of suffered silently as he led his little group on to who-knows-what. It's a good thing that parents bring kids to a science museum, right? I'm not really sure what to say here, but I'm sure we've all passed along some sort of misinformation to the younger generation.  I know I have.  Still, I wish those kids could know just how cool this spinning ball was!


Tom Mulhern said...

I feel your pain, and have been in similar situations. The problem is that so many people have placed science education in a weird place: they say it's vital to our country's future, and yet moms and dads are generally poorly rounded when it comes to knowing about science. They either can't help their kids better unravel the world around them or they mislearned (or misremember) science facts. Here's one symptom: Look at how profitable GNC stores and drug stores and cosmetic (anti-wrinkle) products are. If you don't know the science behind something, you're easily swayed by celebrities and infomercials. Thousands of products, all untested for efficacy, and yet ALL are purported to help you.

ja said...

What's going to happen when his kids find out the truth about the pendulum? They'll say "wow, Dad's an idiot."

If Dad said "Gee, sons, I don't know how it works. Let's find out!" and then they take the time to LEARN _on_the_spot_, his sons will learn something about science AND their father.

I give tours of Coit Tower's Murals as part of SF City Guides (sfcityguides.org). I sometimes catch myself saying something that I'm not entirely 100% of, like the name of some historical figure, or a statistic about the Depression.

The folks on the tour (they're free, btw.. I mean the tour and presumably the folks, too) probably don't know any better, so I can get away with just about anything b/c I am the "guide."

Faking 'til you make it works in some situations, but not usually in science or history or any education.

Jeff Johnson said...

I've been in similar situations. Usually nowadays I grumble to myself and say nothing aloud. As a teenager, I was less restrained, e.g., I was in once in a science museum watching a projected computer-controlled presentation, when a man came into the room and started snapping photos with a flash. I told him the flash would wipe out what was on the screen in his photos (not to mention bothering other viewers) but he told me to shut up and leave him alone and kept snapping.

Jeff Johnson said...

Another thought: Years ago computer scientist Alan Kay started a campaign to improve science education. To show how bad science education is, he and his colleagues attended Harvard U's graduation and asked graduating seniors (in their gowns) why it's colder in winter than in summery. Almost all of these HARVARD graduates gave the same "explanation": the earth is farther from the sun in winter. When then asked how it can be summer in the southern hemisphere when it's winter in the northern, those who had given the above explanation shook their heads and said they didn't know.

Jeff Johnson said...

Final comment: Sometime the incorrect explanations are funny and cute. Teenage docents in the Exploratorium once told me that the xylophones in the music section are easy for non-musicians to play "because they have panasonic scales". I didn't correct them (pentatonic scales) because I thought the explanation was so cute. Of course, maybe the docents were just yanking our chain. I've done it myself. Once, in Yosemite, I heard a tourist wonder aloud why Yosemite Falls was dry. I told him the park service shuts it down every few years to allow them to clean all the black mineral deposits off of the face of the cliff. That seemed to satisfy him.

Geoff Gould said...

Here's a link to "A Private Universe," which is the video Jeff's talking about.


I don't have a direct link to the viewing screen, you have to follow directions by clicking on the VoD button at the bottom of the page.

mrree said...

Geoff, I too feel my underwear tighten up when I hear misinformation passed on a fact. Allowing it to go unchecked may be a greater disservice even though it keeps your ego intact. There's risk in speaking truth some times and one does not have to be obnoxious about. Perhaps you could have got his attention, pulled him a side, and talked to him. Better yet if there was a written explanation nearby you could have suggested that he take the group over to read it. As I write this I'm convicted to demonstrate the strength to speak up that I am in fact encouraging you to do. Admittedly it's easier said than done.So I leave you with this final thought:

"Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that peace is more valuable than truth. But peace rooted in avoidance is not peace at all. The absence of conflict does not equal relational health." Gino Grunber

Read more: http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2011/feb/23/gino-grunberg-courage-speak-truth/#ixzz1EpwtyBsm

Anonymous said...

One thought I had after reading your blog was the Education Dept of the Academy. If you passed on your experience to them perhaps they could amend the signage at the exhibit or post a docent there at various times of the day to "educate". Just a thought.