On my post about errors about the natural world in kids books, a few people piped up to say that the social biases in kids books bother them more—stupOn my post about errors about the natural world in kids books, a few people piped up to say that the social biases in kids books bother them more—stupid fathers, prissy girls, everyone white, etc. I wish it were as easy to dispatch those with a simple top ten list, but they're far more insidious and numerous.
However, here's one tiny stab at the overlap: A bit of a commentary about the blinders that social biases put on scientists.
The book in question is called Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs. It was recommended to me by a commenter on my previous post, and billed as an introduction to the scientific method, a window into the process of making theories based on the evidence you have, testing them (when that’s possible), and changing them based on new evidence.
And, of course, it’s about dinosaurs, which hold a not entirely explicable fascination for a massive proportion of kids, mine included.
It is in fact, a pretty great book, full of neat stories such as people mistaking Iguanodons’ massive conical thumb bones for horns until they found a complete skeleton, or how some bone cross-sections look more like those of warm-blooded animals than of cold-blooded ones—which is part of what spurred the whole movement toward dinosaurs-as-bird-ancestors and away from dinosaurs-as-big-lizards.
But the book also is a better example of how science works than it really set out to be: It contains two glaring examples of how, for all the real power of the scientific method and (most) scientists’ genuine commitment to objectivity and open-mindedness, science is carried out (and interpreted and written about) by people who are subject, to a greater or lesser extent, to all the biases and assumptions of their day. Those blinders creep into their conclusions far more than they would like to admit.
For example, one of the points that the book makes is that we used to think of dinosaurs as having reptile-like parenting skills—i.e., none; they lay eggs and leave. But then paleontologists found evidence (such as nests with older hatchlings in them) that dinosaurs may have been more active parents.
Except the book doesn’t say parents.
It says mothers. Over and over.
I have no need to project egalitarian parenting onto other species, where it often doesn’t exist. But since it does exist among birds quite often, I would have been pretty slow to make such a massive assumption and present it as a “discovery.”
And in fact, last December a flurry of articles about active dinosaur dads came out—some researchers think in some cases they were the primary parent.
Boy, was the book wrong—not in a scientific way though, in a lazy way.
This kind of assumption can actively bog science down. In the 1990s, cultural anthropologist Emily Martin described how researchers working on new forms of contraception were incredibly slow to recognize key information about how human fertilization works because they were so wedded (unconsciously) to their culturally influenced assumptions of mighty aggressive sperm and passive eggs. (Turns out sperm are weak uncoordinated swimmers and have to be entrapped and engulfed by the egg while they try to get away.)
The other bias in Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs strikes even closer to the heart of scientists and their self image. It starts off with a description of how the ancient Chinese found dinosaur bones and, in trying to figure out what they came from, came up with the creature we now know as the Chinese dragon. It shows a picture, says that they figured they must have been magic to have been so big, and thought they might be still around. “Boy, were they wrong!” Then it says, “Now we think many of our own past guesses about dinosaurs were just as wrong as those of ancient China.”
Toward the end of the book we come back to this theme, but less diplomatically: “Perhaps today’s ideas about dinosaurs will someday seem just as silly as the magic dragons of long-ago China.”
Interestingly, instead of “Boy, were they wrong,” everyone else, starting with European scientists from hundreds of years ago gets “Boy, were we wrong!” (emphasis mine). The message is clear: real scientific inquiry began after those initial discoveries, with the “we” of the rest of the book (all white by the illustrations).
Let’s pause and consider for a second. What did the ancient Chinese think those bones belonged to? A large, long, scaly reptilian creature. What did the first Europeans to try to make a theory about the same sorts of bones—a long time later and with far more technology—come up with? A large, long, scaly reptilian creature. They gave it a different name. They came up with different wrong embellishments. They placed it into a different cosmology. But the ancient Chinese were basically doing the same thing, with fewer tools, and had remarkably similar results. They weren't right, but they were hardly silly.
I understand and support what the book’s authors were trying to do: show how early scientific hypotheses can turn out to be as off-base as something that even a child can recognize as untrue. Only in the process of doing so, they revealed their own ethnocentric biases: They feel that dragons were an obviously silly, superstitious theory, while gray, reptilian brontosauruses dragging their tails through the mud were an educated hypothesis that happened to turn out to be inaccurate.
Boy, were they wrong. But at least they gave the parents reading it a ready phrase to critique their own book with. ...more
**spoiler alert** Since my daughter grabbed this book off the library shelf a few years ago, we have gotten our own copy and gifted it to many others.**spoiler alert** Since my daughter grabbed this book off the library shelf a few years ago, we have gotten our own copy and gifted it to many others. It's just marvelous.
Quick summary: Girl grows up biking (bike seat to tricycle to training wheels...). Then she outgrows her bike and her family can't afford a new one. So she first raises money by fixing other kids' bikes and then takes salvaged parts and builds herself a new one.
What's not to love? Girl with attitude. Parents who both help her learn to fix bikes. Ingenuity, spunk, and recycling. But also, looking a little deeper: urban kid whose parents aren't rich, with some freedom to roam her neighborhood and earn her own money. Trying several things before one works. Sticking to something that takes a long time even though you are daunted and your friends question whether you can do it. But all without being hamhanded about the message. Generosity (she gives her outgrown bike to a young friend). Exuberance.
NB: Though the main character is white, at least not all of her friends are.
Oh, and it's well written, which I can attest to after having read now it many many times. And it can hold the attention of a class of 2nd graders...more
This is one of my surprise favorites on my daughter's bookshelf. It's not one I knew as a kid, and it's an easy reader, which are often misery to readThis is one of my surprise favorites on my daughter's bookshelf. It's not one I knew as a kid, and it's an easy reader, which are often misery to read aloud--repetition, short, simple sentences, no contractions, etc.
But this is a sweet book that holds my daughter's interest, while being funny and subtle enough to be a story that I like even after multiple readings. I also think it's cool to have a successful kids book with no kid characters. Our hero is an old guy, but not only that, he's never portrayed in relation to a family. He's just an old guy with a cat, he's happy, and he wants to bake a cake for his neighbor for Christmas because he's concerned about the fact that she appears to think fruitcake is good food. I don't know if we learn more about him in other books in the series, but we don't need to. ...more
**spoiler alert** This is the book that my mother, a former children's librarian, came up with when I asked her for the most egregious factual error i**spoiler alert** This is the book that my mother, a former children's librarian, came up with when I asked her for the most egregious factual error in a children's book, for an article I was thinking about writing (and still might).
The story is a great idea, and the pictures are beautiful, but that is destroyed by inexcusable carelessness. The title character, Lili, is looking for her grandfather, who plays the french horn, backstage at a ballet production. As she wanders around looking we get to see all sorts of parts of backstage--dancers warming up, the props room, the costume room, etc. All well and good.
But then she finds her grandfather, and HE'S CARRYING A TUBA. Well, it's a little small, maybe a baritone horn. But in no way is it by any stretch of the imagination a french horn. This is the whole conceit of the book, and the author/illustrator and all the editors along the way missed that it was the wrong instrument?! (I've showed it to several non-orchestra people who all knew immediately what the problem was.)
Knowing that, I asked someone who used to work backstage to look over it, and unsurprisingly there are other small problems too: No way the stage manager of such a large house would be changing lightbulbs himself. Set pieces are called props. The offending instrument has a little attachment for holding music on it, like in marching bands, even though the grandfather is standing in a pit surrounded by music stands.
I'm surprised and saddened that this book seems to get such good reviews everywhere. ...more
This is one of the perhaps few books that is a favorite of both me and my approaching-two year old. It's a sweet story of a girl and her day plantingThis is one of the perhaps few books that is a favorite of both me and my approaching-two year old. It's a sweet story of a girl and her day planting a flower box for her mother's birthday. Nadia loves the last page, when the family looks out the window at the skyline together ("cee-tee"!).
That would really be enough on its own, but it's just a refreshing change to have the background be urban (they carry the groceries home on the bus and live in a walk-up apartment), the girl be home with her dad while her mother works (or goes to school?), and the family be African-American without any of that being the point. It's just the backdrop, as a perfectly normal way for a family to be.
And, because I have a bee in my bonnet about accuracy in kids books, I will note that daffodils, tulips, and daisies are highly unlikely to be blooming at the time. But as the range of misrepresentations goes, that's pretty minor. At least the flowers are all themselves drawn pretty accurately, as are the pigeons. ...more