Banned Barbies in Boulder
Martin Luther King believed that education should "discipline the mind for sustained and persistent speculation." If only Boulder school officials felt the same way.
Last week, a bright, motivated third grader presented her project at a school science fair. She dressed up black and white Barbie dolls, asked people questions about them, and recorded their answers. She put together a good experiment, with sound controls and proper technique. Her results were thought provoking, controversial and, most importantly, correct. But only the first two seemed to matter, so her project was taken down.
If I could talk with this budding young scientist and her family, I'd tell them that their experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Good scientists are often insulted, vilified, censored and threatened simply because of what they discover. If it's any consolation, little girl, you're in good company.
Why do people react so strongly to science? I've been doing science education for most of my professional life, and I've noticed some common themes.
For many people, science conflicts with deeply held beliefs. It's only human to form strong convictions when faced with a mysterious world. When science shows us something surprising or different, the resulting surprise can be psychologically unnerving. Rather than face that, people sometimes prefer to blame the messenger.
Other times, people confuse what is "natural" or "scientific" with what is right: they confuse factual judgments with moral ones. This is especially true in the study of human behavior. When scientists find a biological contributor to a human trait, many think that such a discovery will be used to deny free will. They're concerned that science denies people's responsibility for their actions: that if it is natural then it must be good.
This mistake cuts across the political spectrum: ignorance has no political preference. Conservatives, for example, may be disturbed at the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexuality, thinking it will give homosexuality moral stature. Liberals don't like research on sex differences because it implies non-traditional men and women are somehow "wrong." For all the yelling they do at each other, both sides have a lot in common: they think that scientific fact equals moral sanction. They are profoundly mistaken.
But in the Boulder case, neither of these factors are at work. Instead, the concern seems to be that science might upset minority parents and children. This is a terrible response, because it's patronizing and insulting.
What other facts, one wonders, does the Boulder school district think minorities can't handle? Did they examine the project closely? Its central conclusion, that people prefer others who look like them, is a well-established fact in the scientific literature. What a terrific opportunity this could have been to talk about race, to explore the feelings of a non-majority skin color. What a chance for parents of all the school's children to explain what this means for the world, and what they can do about it. That chance, sadly, is now gone.
And what message does it send to our budding scientist? This bright, inquisitive child carried out a controlled experiment with a testable hypothesis at the age of eight! With proper training, who knows what that kind of talent could do? But instead of being recognized for her scientific promise, she's been told that her work upsets people. How any educator could say such a thing to a child is simply beyond my comprehension.
Sometimes dealing with the facts is hard. But if human experience tells us anything, it is this: what science tells us about the world (and about ourselves) is true whether we believe it or not. The world doesn't care one whit whether we love or hate what we find, whether it gives us more power or less, whether it chills us to the bone or fills us with joy. The world is simply as we find it -- it is up to us to move on from there.
I'm not smart enough to see where moving on will take us. But I do think we'll get there faster if this little girl's passion for knowledge isn't destroyed at the hands of adults responsible for her education. Prometheus gave man fire, and was chained to a rock for his trouble. Let's hope that ignorance doesn't chain more children in Boulder.
Dr. Barry Fagin is a Professor of Computer Science, and a Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute. He is also a member of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics, and a contributing writer for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
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