01 June 2010

How I poisoned four people (and other musings on the epistemology of science)

I borrowed my grandmother's wildflower book for the Skyline to the Sea hike yesterday, and we managed to identify some pretty cool plants.  We found Red Clintonia, Globe Lilies (see photo on right), Giant Wake Robin, and Hairy Star Tulips, among dozens of others.   I think I may have been more excited about the names than the flowers.  My favorite name was Rattlesnake Plantain, which the book explained was "named for it's discoverer, John Goodyear."  What?  Was his real name John Rattlesnake Plantain Goodyear?  And what do desert reptiles and jungle fruits have to do with the redwood forest?  I have yet to figure this one out.

It was fun to put names to flowers, but the futility of it was always in the back of my mind.  Humans love to assign vocabulary words to things, to taxonimize, categorize, classify. But does a Fetid Adder's Tongue by any other name not smell as fetid? 

 A few weeks ago, when I was docenting at Rancho Del Oso, a woman came in and asked me if the beautiful purple flowers she had seen on the hillsides of West Trail were Jacarandas.  At the time I suppressed a smile and told her they were more likely California Lilac, while the little Zoe in my brain mocked her supposed naiveté.  But in the end, how much did that woman gain from my insight?  Apart from being able to identify them, I know very little about these two trees, except that one lines streets in my native Los Angeles, and the other adorns hillsides throughout Central California.  How dare the little Zoe in my brain be so judgmental about vocabulary!

The train of thought reminded me of a famous speech given by physicist Richard Feynman on the nature of science to the National Science Teacher's Association in 1966.  In the speech, Feynman explains how, as a child, his father instilled a love for science in him during long walks in the woods.  One day, a little boy in the schoolyard asked the young Feynman the name of a bird on a stump, to which he replied that he didn't know.  Then the other boy said:

"It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science."
I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that the name doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on...

In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently.  Tamara and I have been watching videos of families at a museum, and we have been talking about how interactions at science museums model what "science" is all about to the families that come there.  So the family comes away not only with new facts and words, but also with a sense of what it means to "know science."  (Speaking of vocabulary, we call this an "epistemology of science.")  If a museum employee stands in front of an exhibit and provides vocabulary names for all the creatures in the pictures, the family leaves with a sense that science is knowing vocabulary words.

This is not to say that learning vocabulary is pointless.  As Feynman puts it:

It is necessary to learn the words.  It is not science. That doesn't mean, just because it is not science, that we don't have to teach the words. 

Without the words, we can't communicate our ideas.  Without the words, we have trouble organizing our knowledge, and passing it on.  Doctors spend years of their lives memorizing arbitrary names for bones and muscles, but without these names, they could not look up specific problems in books or confer with other doctors.  Not to mention the fact that it sounds sketchy when your physician tells you "your thingamabob is broken."  

So here comes the part where I poisoned people.

An anecdote from the hike yesterday: at some point we found some lovely red berries, which I identified as Toyon.  Toyon berries, I read from the book, were perfectly edible, if not a little tart.  So with my encouragement, David, his sister Lucia, and several of Lucia's friends ate some.  A few minutes later, I turned the page to find that the berries we had just eaten were actually red elderberries (see the picture above).  "Most or all of red elderberries are," according to my grandmother's wildflower book, "poisonous."  So I actually poisoned about four people.  Well done me.  That's what you get when you mis-classify.  It wasn't a scientific mistake, but it was still a dangerous one.

So what is science then?  That is a question for another blog post.

Epilogue: For those of you holding your breath with anticipation, elderberry poison, which is cyanide I believe, is not a big deal in the amounts we imbibed it.  


Karina Buck said...

It's hard to find a decent docent these days.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

What are relatives for if not poisoning?

Bob said...

This is a great post. I was telling the girls about Feynman the other day - about the question his dad asked him about Martians visiting and how we would explain sleep to them. Or my version - does a fish know it's in water? I let them stew on that for a bit then I asked them how it feels to live on the bottom of an ocean of air. And if we don't know we are at the bottom of the air ocean - why would we expect the fish to know its in a water ocean?

I'll tell them you are also a Feynman fan :)

jahanzaib said...
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Emily McClendon said...

I think you would enjoy reading a book about Typography, particularly as you used it to emphasize different points about the irrelevance of vocabulary. The word is extraneous to describing an object but the size, placement and shape of it are not. I like "Elements of Typographic Style" (I promise it's not as boring as it sounds.

P.S. I love your blog

zbuck said...

Haha, thanks Emily. It's so good to hear from you! And I will definitely start thinking deeply about typography. I will go to the library this summer and pick up the Elements of Typographic Style. Because, as you probably know, I am a super-nerd, and no book sounds boring to me.