In a classic manifestation of the distaff, I was vacuuming my hopelessly entropy-overwhelmed home the other day, venting my lack of control over certain aspects of my life. Somehow, venting through vacuuming also happened to clear my mind sufficiently to allow space for a new idea. Since last weekend's post about the sad state of science over at HuffPo, I'd been pondering the sad state of science around the interwebz in general, wondering why it's so godawful. Like many an American before me, I practically shook my fist at the air and railed, mentally, through the vacuum noise, "What is wrong with education in this country?!?"
And that bewailment led to the idea, based on three observations somewhat derived from my distaff-related occupation of house cleaning while trying to wrangle three unruly boys having a day off from school. First, women are largely the guiding hands behind their children's education level, especially as a "transmission mechanism" to their daughters (PDF of paper here). Second, educational empowerment of women in general can lift a society, a nation. Even Laura Bush agrees. A woman's education can be contagious, and her educational outcomes are linked to those of her children (abstract only; paywall). Finally, women are the healthcare consumers for their families, the primary decision makers about health and the primary caregivers. If they're part of the family, they're usually the family brain trust.
So, what's the big idea, based on these three observations? I hypothesize that one avenue to increasing scientific literacy in our country is the mothers. There is much justified bemoaning about the lack of women in science, specifically the "hard" sciences and more specifically tenured women, but...what about the lack of science available to women who aren't in science but who are into science?
Oh, you might say, dismissively, especially if you're, say, one of the many magazines targeting women: Women don't care about science. They care about women stuff, pink things. I say they can care about both, but are you offering both? I turned to those magazines and examined their websites. Here's what I found. Sex. Love. Beauty. Health. Bride. Family. Career. Money.
No science. So, thinking that perhaps the science might lie hidden within those headings, I searched the sites using only the term "science." Limited, I know, but I'm a work-from-home mother of three children, two of whom I homeschool. Give me a break.
The search at the Redbook site yielded hits like "Surprising sex-planations. The science behind sex. The surprising scientific explanations behind sexy truths," and "Why walking does your body good." A search at Cosmopolitan--because what self-respecting cosmopolitan gal wouldn't have at least a passing interest in the Hadron collider?--got me to "The A-cup revolution" (viva las tetones petites?) and "5 things you do that stress him out." Jesus.
Thinking that perhaps a more sober publication such as Self might have more sober or at least less offensive offerings, I searched science at Self. Lots of health hits, slightly more sober, but all with that "girl" vibe, such as "Superfood diets for glowing skin" and "News flash! Organic foods may have more nutrients." Sigh. Finally, I turned to Women's Health. It has a grown-up name, right? I didn't even do the search. One of the tabs a gal can click on this site, in addition to the standard Sex&Love, Food, Beauty, and Style is, "Look Better Naked." No.
But soft, you may say. What about the men? Are they any better? The answer is, Slightly. I searched Esquire, GQ, and Mens Journal. There's science in there, some real science, even among the most frivolous of masculine froufrou. There's also a whole lot at one of them about men and orgasms. Shocking, I know. But the point of this post isn't what men find out there among the offerings targeting them. It's about what women find...or don't find...because it's the women who bring it to the children when it comes to education.
So, is the message here, "Science, women just aren't that into you?"
I'd give to that in except for one thing: Every time I post something about science on Facebook, women--some women I've not seen for 25 years--will read it. They'll read it, they'll "Like" it, they'll comment about how interesting it is, how glad they are that I write things they can understand, how cool it is. These are non-scientists. They're moms, they're all over the country. I can honestly say that I've not ever had one single man do that on a Facebook post.
My Facebook experience clearly cannot serve as the sole rationale for proposing that scientists--and their vast army of PR folk--start targeting mothers as the conduit for growing a generation of the scientifically oriented. It's simply anecdotal. I'll add to it that every moms' night out I've ever been a part of has involved the women at the table literally asking me, "Tell me something really cool and weird that's science!" Add it to my three observations of a mother's role in a child' education and society, and draw your own conclusions. I point to my Facebook wall, and I see there an interest among female non-scientists and mothers in science. If the Baroness can do it, so can I.
So then, I pointed at BlogHer, the behemoth blog network and blogging gateway targeting women. Once upon a time, a few years ago, I queried the Powers That Be at BlogHer about why they didn't have a Science section. If I'm extracting the appropriate memory from the recesses of my child-addled brain, the response was something along the lines of, "That's covered in health and just not otherwise attractive enough for our demographic."
Here's the BlogHer demographic as of a few years ago. I can only imagine that it's solidified in the intervening years as BlogHer has grown. Almost all of the readers there are female (natch). Almost all have an education level beyond high school. At least half have children living at home. HALF. They receive 27 million visits a month. Yet, there is no science tab on the site.
Their tag line is "Life well said." I think that you can't speak well about life if you lack an understanding about how it works, if you aren't exposed to the wonder that emerges every day through new discoveries in science, whether the study of life or of the processes that yielded it. Python blood grows hearts. Everything causes autism. Barnacles are extraordinarily well hung. Einstein might have been wrong...or not. Robotic Venus flytraps will trap bugs and eat them for fuel. Come on, people!
BlogHer could do the world a favor and add a science portal to their offerings. It's one step in the right direction of presenting science to women in unexpected places, in venues that typically--because of their "women-centric" focus--have not included real, wondrous, fascinating science because, hey--women aren't interested in that, right? Well, they are. I've got the Facebook wall to prove it. Or at least to anecdote it.
Maybe it seems like I'm treating science a little bit the way we treat children who won't eat their peas: offer it enough without making a big deal about it, and suddenly, peas are their favorite foods. But that's not really the case. All it takes is one presentation of "Parasite causes zombie grasshoppers to commit suicide," and the clicks will come. These stories aren't bitter green vegetables to choke down. They're the most delectable of morsels, but many women won't know about these morsels if they aren't included in the menu. Literally. BlogHer, I'm talking to you.
Humans are born scientists. We examine cause and effect, come up with ideas about the links, test them, in a perfect world discard the ideas that fail the test, lather, rinse, repeat, draw conclusions. Children emerge as little scientists, testing and re-testing their worlds when given a bit of a mystery to solve. Children are born scientists. How do we make sure they continue to grow that way?
You don't have to be a scientist like I am to grow little scientists. Einstein's mother was a pianist, not a scientist. You simply have to be engaged. And if you're a mother, your role--as research indicates--is inextricably linked to your child's education. So what can you do while you wait for BlogHer or Glamour or Ladies' Home Journal to sketch in a "Real Cool Science because It Is Science not because It Is about Orgasms or Sex" department?
Research indicates that all it might take is a little bit of mystery to solve. You don't have to be a scientist to encourage critical and scientific thinking. When a child asks a question, instead of (a) blowing it off with an "I don't know" or (b) answering it with what you do know, consider the following:
- Ask instead, "What do you think?" This worked for Socrates until that whole poison cup thing.
- Say, "Let's look it up." Then, look it up...or better, yet, have the child look it up with you.
- Do your own musings out loud: "Hmm, I wonder why?" Show your own intellectual curiosity. It's contagious.
- When you read something interesting from science (BlogHer, I'm talking to you), share it, show enthusiasm for new knowledge.
- The Web has many excellent science videos/series on offer...options are almost endless, and children love them. Be sure to vet it yourself first. PBS is a place to start. My children are also very much enjoying their daily BrainPop videos.
- Look in your community for scientific opportunities in museums, at local universities, at the library. If none exist, look into building your own, such as Science on the Town nights with the help of a local high school, community college, or university.
If you build it, they will come. BlogHer...I'm talking to you. Moms...I'm talking to you, too.