Qualitative and Quantitative

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In your average New York City public middle school classroom, you’ll find a fair number of kids who are defiantly opposed to any mention of evolution, especially human evolution. Usually this opposition takes the form of “I don’t know about y’all [pointing to classmates], but I didn’t come out of a monkey.”


There are a number of ways a teacher can address this position. You can emphasize non-human evolution, the safe and less incendiary topics of antibiotic resistance and Galapagos finches, dinosaurs-to-birds and fish-to-salamanders. Hardly any state test will touch human evolution, for fear of scandal, and so you won’t be setting them up for failure there (not that anyone cares about science test results anyways.)


Or you can tackle the resistance head on. Take them to the natural history museum’s Spitzer (yeah, that one) Hall of Human Origins, and let them gawk and fake vomit at the various model Austrolopithecines and skeletal Turkana Boys, revel in the uncanny valley that makes prehuman hominids seems so very gross, shout at each other “Yo, Arthur, check out your mom,” and return happily disgusted and saying with finality, “I still did not come out of that.”


My third year teaching I devised what I thought to be a more sneaky approach. Instead of saying we were learning about evolution, we watched one of the early films about Jane Goodall, spent a few days reading one of her shorter children’s books, and then went to the Bronx Zoo to watch the gibbons and gorillas in the hooting and grooming and poop-playing flesh. After one kid opined “man, they just like us,” or, better yet, “look! the girls are playing with each other’s hair and the boys are playing with sticks,” then you knew it was time to go onto Darwin.

  

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I had another reason for teaching about Jane Goodall, though, beyond remembering her books fondly from when I was myself in middle school, when termite fishing and female estrus behavior both seemed like fascinating things.

The middle school life science curriculum starts with the Scientific Method. There are few topics more frustrating to teach than the Scientific Method.

The They Might Be Giants song “Put It to the Test” says most of what is needed about the importance of experiment, and for the rest you are teaching a structure for telling people about what you have done rather than something that can usefully be followed in anything but the most canned and denatured settings. The kids arive at middle school jazzed to finally learn some science and suddenly you’re talking dumbed-down Popperian falsification.


Jane Goodall may not be the ideal scientist in some respects (in her early years, among other faults, she trained the Gombe chimps to depend on the bananas she supplied rather than their own wild-procured food stuffs), but it is undeniable that she found out new things. The behaviors she observed,not just  toolmaking  in the form of cleaning twigs to gather termites and chewing leaves to soak up water, but also the details of social hierarchy, group hunting and food sharing, and even making war against opposing communities, were far greater in complexity and variety than what had been observed of captive chimps.*


To attempt to measure a behavior is often to eliminate it entirely, an ethological version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that I had experienced when trying to study Mockingbird song. Believe it or not, this rule applies in the science classroom as well. Half the time, your 7th grader’s well-designed “do the Crickets prefer to hide in plastic egg containers or cardboard ones?”experiment will immediately, as if by magic, lead to half the crickets turning up dead. More importantly, starting with a formal lab protocol and measurement procedure, while teaching useful skills for the next time the kid takes a science class, creates a cognitive hurdle that a good portion of the class cannot o’er-leap.

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Science starts with seeing, even before measurement, and long before we can start to test a hypothesis in a formal way.

When I left teaching and started studying social science, I kept coming back to Jane Goodall and the chimps. We are but a few steps away from those hairier, stronger primates, as another They Might Be Giants song, “My Brother the Ape,” makes clear:

What  were the behaviors we didn’t see in ourselves, because we were trying to measure them, or because we were measuring the wrong thing? Qualitative social science is a playground for ideology gone wrong, and reliable, representative measurement is probably our only hope at dragging our dreams of infinite human malleability back to earth. 

But if we are to see the world as it is- and especially, but not only, the half of us for for whom numbers are as slippery and deceitful as a  chimp-mashed banana peel left upon the floor- then the first thing to do is to sit before the thing we wish to give up its secrets, be silent, and watch.

*Yeah, Franz de Waal observed equally complex maneuverings in the captive colony at the Arnhem Zoo, leading ultimately to one of the chimps murdering another for dominance and Franz getting fired. But that was later.

 

 

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