Brainspace: Literacy in the humanities and in the sciences vs Britney Spears et al.

Last night, we rolled in the new course (ASIC 200) and it was a lot of fun (a little odd for me doing what was essentially a history speel, but there you have it). Anyway, one of the first things I got to do was play a little game with the class. It’s actually something I do quite often when working with the general public and trying to hone in on the disparity of brain “airtime” devoted to what are essentially trivial things, versus things that really you’d hope everyone was comfortable or literate in.

(Click on the movie to move through slides)

– – –

Breakdown of the talk kind of went like this:

[1] Which one of these is false, bearing in mind that they all sound a little ludicrous? It was around here that we asked the students to introduce themselves to one or more of their neighbours and discuss what they feel was the false option (I also learnt what a “think paired-share” activity was – ooh more jargon). Then a call for a show of hands, and going through the answers.

[2] First up though, I queried if they knew the identity of this bird (it’s a European Starling). Curiously, we got only a handful of students who felt they knew the identity of the bird (and three of these I noticed were members of our teaching team who had not seen the slide before – this out of a class of 70 or so students present that evening). The point here I guess is that it provides a glimpse at our familiarity with our local ecology. The starling is one of the most common urban birds in Vancouver (right up there with the iconic crows and pigeons), and yet we had a less than 10% recognition value.

[3] This, of course, is in stark contrast to other things – Pokemon as an example. I’ve spoken about this before (and indeed, the Terry project is actually working with this a little bit – any of you graphic design types want to help?).
Anyway the Pokemon query was prompted by a letter published in Science in 2002, entitled “Why Conservationists Should Heed Pokemon.” One of its conclusions from the study reported that:

Our findings carry two messages for conservationists. First, young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures (whether natural or man-made), being able to at age 8 to identify nearly 80% of a sample drawn from 150 synthetic “species.” Second, it appears that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokemon at inspiring interest in their subjects: During their primary school years, children apparently learn far more about Pokemon than about their native wildlife and enter secondary school being able to name less than 50% of common wildlife types.

[4] But Pokemon is only the start. A couple years back we had David Orr come out to UBC to give a talk (he was awesome and the talk is available on this site). He said:

“We can recognize a thousand, two thousand corporate logos, it is said, but typically fewer than 10 plants and animals native to our region…”

[5/6/7] Doing a little morphing… Why can’t there be the same level of recognition of things like the “hockey stick” graph, that correlates CO2 emissions vs global temperature measurements?

[8] Next up, and the other option that was true, was the bit about Americans considering themselves literate in “avian development and phylogeny” (I switched avian to the latin name for the Starling).

[9] This strange statement is essentially good to go because it plays into the whole “Evolution vs Intelligent Design/Creationism” thing. As a scientist, the stats from these types of polls (and these are major national gallup polls) is just crazy to me. I actually just found out that the NCSE redid their poll last year – the number has jumped to 48%)

[10] Anyway, this suggests that the avian statement is true, because if folks truly believe in statement 3, then chances are, they are following the breakdown of “evolutionary” events as defined by Genesis. Basically, avian stuff just sort of happened on day 5. Oh yeah, and before us Canadians can get smug on the shocking results generated by our neighbours down south, we didn’t fair too impressively ourselves last year.

[11…end] So…. (drum roll please). The false one was the one about “Paris Hilton” having more hits than “Climate.” (Thank goodness). It’ll be interesting to see whether “Britney Spears” can beat it – she seems to be in the news a lot these days. Of course, the one thing she needs more of is publicity – right?

– – –

Starling Image – Christopher Gunn [link]
Pokemon image [link]

Related Topics


David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at