Nerdom is Sexy
In my coming of age, I’ve noticed two contradictory things. Adolescence is when a child begins to gain the ability to think for one’s self. It is also when a child stops wanting to think.
What I mean by this is that it is when children enter adolescence that they seem to be able to explore the world more without too much hand-holding from their parents, and yet, peer pressure seems to make it uncool to use one’s brain. The joy of knowledge has been lost.
The reason I bring this topic up is that I believe, as Carl Sagan did (who, by the way, was the sexiest nerd ever) that skepticism and wonder belong together. I suppose that wonder, derived from a scientific understanding of the world, will come easier to humans than skepticism which I why I’m starting off Critical Thinking 101 with it.
A chapter in Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark described the differences he noticed between the younger children, with their inborn curiosity still flourishing, and the older high school seniors.
Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists – although heavy on the wonder side and light on the skepticism side. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a “dumb question.”
But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize “facts.” By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking “dumb” questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.
I’ve observed something quite similar as I deal with both age groups rather regularly.
Every other weekend I volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to share my knowledge of science with elementary to lower middle school kids who were brought along by their parents. I can see the spark of curiosity in all of their eyes, and I’ve even seen the spark re-kindled in the eyes of some adults who can now enjoy science without the homework and tests and awful classroom environment. But an audience which I don’t see very much of are the teenagers. Younger children are taken there by their parents, and adults come along with them, but teenagers… aren’t interested in that stuff, it seems.
I also get to spend a lot of time with teenagers. As Carl Sagan pointed out, there’s the constant need of approval from their peers. Let’s face it, it’s not very popular amongst teens to be interested in school subjects. I notice that since science is a school subject when I say I’m interested in it I become labelled “a smart people.” It would seem that the “smart people” are outsiders to what I suppose are the “normal people” who vastly out-populate the outsiders. The problem that the knowledge which leads a human to wonder seems to face, from Carl Sagan’s observation and from mine, is peer pressure to not have any desire to have knowledge.
I think that the de-valuation of knowledge greatly takes away from the human experience.
Consider the following.
Besides the sun, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.6 light years away meaning this is 4.6 times the distance light travels in one year. Light is fast. Very fast. So fast that it can travel around the Earth 3 times in a single second.
Now that you have an idea of how far away the nearest star is, consider the fact that the nearest galaxy is several million light years away from our galaxy.
Consider the fact that light has a finite speed and takes time to get from place to place. This means that for every light year you look out into space, you look one year back in time. When you look at an object millions of light years away, you’re looking millions of years back in time.
That’s just me getting started on wondrous facts I’ve learned from astronomy. Already it should give us some perspective of what our place is in this vast, humongous, insanely big universe we live in. I could talk about facts learned from evolution, physics, all sorts of things which science has revealed to us that we wouldn’t have otherwise figured out.
And those are just facts. The methods used to find these facts out I think you’d find are clever and exciting. Knowing what we know is amazing, but how we know it is just as fascinating if not more.
But, we need wonder and skepticism both. You could easily take wonder from these “facts”:
- When you write positive words on water bottles the ice crystals look prettier than the ice crystals formed by words written negatively. If you think positively, the water in your body will give you better health.
- Quantum mechanics shows that sending out certain thoughts will attract those things you think about from the universe. Wanting makes it so.
- Your species was specially created by a loving god.
But these are not facts. They have no scientific evidence to support them whatsoever (and as a bit of a side note, they are more egocentric whereas the actual scientific facts I shared earlier make us feel slightly smaller in the immenseness of the universe).
How to think critically and skeptically is something we’ll get into as this blog progresses, but never forget that knowledge can be pretty amazing stuff. Just because your peers tell you learning is uncool doesn’t mean that it is.
Nerdom is sexy.
Happy Fourth of July!