I have long said that my arch-nemesis is Bohr’s Atom; at the same time, I love the teachable moments that it exposes, in regards to Dunning-Kruger and to the Curse of Knowledge, which both relate to privilege. I will be talking about Bohr’s Atom, instruction of novices, feminism, and the Privilege 101 comic.
This is the atomic model that we’re taught in middle school chemistry. (And technically, we are often taught the Rutherford Atom as the Bohr Atom.) We’re shown a drawing of it. We are told how it works. We are tested in how it works and told to make drawings of it. As a reminder, there is a nucleus that contains protons and neutrons, and electrons that orbit the nucleus in an evenly spaced way for which each orbit is equidistant from the nucleus. The problem is: the Bohr Atom is wrong and we’ve known that for decades. We deliberately teach it in science classes knowing that it’s wrong and then we grade people based on whether they recite that wrong thing that we told them to recite. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
Why would we do such a thing?
There are a lot of reasons, actually. The most obvious and intentional reason is that we need to teach the basic workings of an atom to 6th graders. These are people who don’t yet know what a nucleus is or what an electron is. What we give them is something really simple to understand, something easy to draw, something that teaches major concepts at a 6th grade level even though it gets some details wrong. That the details are wrong isn’t what’s important to this chemistry lesson.
As a student increases in expertise, we can graduate to a model that is more accurate, because in 10th grade, we want to teach about valence and shells, so we switch to the model above that shows that while the electrons do rotate in an orbit around the nucleus, electrons vary in distance from the nucleus, resulting in several levels of orbit. Technically, we’re still using a Bohr Atom, but a more complicated and more accurate one. But as the lesson progresses we have to start talking about how elements fit into the periodic table and that means that we have to present a third, more complicated model. Now an element that had electrons in 3 orbit levels actually has 4, well, kind of—but they’re still orbiting.
Then we get to college chemistry and realize that we’ve been presenting models that are 2-dimensional and atoms aren’t 2-dimensional; they’re 3-dimensional. And we realize that in 3 dimensions, with 8 electrons in an equidistant orbit around a nucleus, eventually, electrons will bump into each other. What happens then? We throw away orbit and start talking about clouds and spin. The important thing that I’m pointing out is that as our knowledge about atomic structure increases, we throw away the inaccurate information that was presented because it’s simpler, giving us greater accuracy based on an understanding that we achieved from inaccurate information. Woah. This is an iterative approach to teaching.
Iteration is the next lesson that I think is important. The process by which we have just taught science exposes a mechanism by which science works; we just taught the atomic model in order of the timeline in which the atomic model itself was revised through iteration. There was an atomic model and it was a great idea, but it didn’t work perfectly, so it was revised to work better. But then we thought about it some more and it still had problems, so it was revised to work better. And then oh, still more problems; revise and make it work better. As we knew more and more about the atom based on the understanding that we got from previous atomic models, we upgraded the models even though the upgrade pointed out that the previous model had some details wrong.
This iteration is scientific method in action. The way that science is taught exposes important things about the scientific method. Well, wow. The Bohr Atom seems pretty fucking awesome now, right? So why is it my arch-nemesis?
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Because some people never got to college chemistry, so they don’t realize that what they learned in high school chemistry wasn’t right. In fact, some may have gone to high schools that didn’t do a good job of teaching chemistry or maybe they didn’t care about chemistry and did poorly in it, so they don’t realize that what they were taught in 6th grade wasn’t right. I’ve talked about the Dunning-Kruger Effect before, specifically in the context of fat shaming. But now I’m going to talk about science and arguments on the internet, with a side of mansplaining.
Once upon a time, I got into an argument on the internet with a guy who declared that it was patently ridiculous to think that a chemical that is stable at room temperature would be unstable at body temperature or baking temperature. I thought back to the Bohr Atom and I realized that if he had been a chem major in college like I was, he would find his stance patently ridiculous, so I tried to think of an example that was simple, that he would be familiar with in real life, that could be taught to someone with a 6th grade level instruction of chemistry. I talked about water.
I said that water is pretty stable at room temperature, but it’s less stable at high temperatures, that the reason that water is called the “universal solvent” is that “like dissolves like” and water is simultaneously acidic and basic, allowing it to dissolve both acids and bases. Then I said that the reason that water is simultaneously acidic and basic is more pronounced at high temperature, which is why washing greasy pans in hot water works better than washing greasy pans in cold water and why very few things dissolve in ice.
Polar bears: not fans of being dissolved.
He told me that I was a moron and that if I’d learned anything in 6th grade chemistry, I would know better than that. I replied that I was a chemistry major and tutor in college for several years and in fact had done so well in chem 101 that the teacher had to revise his grading method and I ended the semester with an average of 115%. He said I was probably lying about being a chem major/tutor who got 115% in chem 101, but if I wasn’t, that my chemistry professor—the head of the chemistry department at the school in question—was an idiot and should retake 6th grade chemistry.
What the actual fuck?
The actual fuck is that he was mansplaining chemistry to a former chemistry major on the assumption that she couldn’t know better than he did, and when she politely explained the science in terms that he could understand, he doubled down and called her a liar and an idiot, and then doubled down again and went full Dunning-Kruger Debate Team mode by claiming that the head of a chemistry department at a university was wrong about basic chemistry, based on the speaker’s 6th grade level instruction.
I’m of the opinion that behavior like this is based partly on privilege. The guy was comfortable assuming that he knew better than a woman because men do science. Then he denied that someone with my qualifications would know better than him. Then he claimed that a professor and department head in the relevant field was wrong for disagreeing with him. This was a man who had never learned that he is capable of being incorrect, in my opinion, the most important white male entitlement problem: the entitlement to being correct when you are making shit up.
Then something amazing happened. Other white men came to his defense. One white man came to my defense, saying that while I was technically correct, that my example wasn’t applicable and besides, I should stop being a bitch to men if I ever want a date. I was dating someone at the time. My boyfriend liked me for how well I take down morons on the internet. This would have been an ideal time for a white male ally to step in and go wtf.
Another way that this effects feminism— and when I initially came up with the idea of the Bohr Atom's relevance to feminism, this is the context in which I did so— is that white men in legislatures all over the country are trying to interfere with women's health care by denying the ability of doctors to decide which care is appropriate and giving that level of care (see abortion and birth control pills). It takes a lot of privilege to state to a legislative body that you know more about women's reproductive care than gynecologists who have studied not just the female reproductive system but the women that they wish to give care to, because of a sermon that your priest gave— but it happens all the time.
The Curse of Knowledge
But let’s imagine for a moment that I were a chemistry PhD who does research on the atomic model and my child came home with a 6th grade chemistry book. I’m trying to teach my child chemistry but I get to the Bohr Atom and I don’t know what to do. That model is wrong. The electrons aren’t all equidistant! The idea of orbits was disproved like 100 years ago! This science is all wrong! “Honey, I know that this is what you’re being taught but here’s how this really works: [insert graduate thesis].” Followed by my daughter failing science.
Yes, Curse of Knowledge Man, that model is inaccurate. It’s also really fucking useful because it’s inaccurate and in the scheme of what’s important to 6th grade understanding of the atom, there is no harm in using this model—except the risk of the Dunning-Kruger Effect that I just discussed. You may want to have your Empathy Gap checked. In my opinion, this is an education-based privilege. Had I been suffering from it when I came up with the water example, instead of talking about greasy pans, I would have written this and been derisive about it, pissing him off even more than I did.
Curse of Knowledge’s quintessential example at this point is Wikipedia science. In fact, in some of the more detailed articles, the revision history is someone with Curse of Knowledge correcting a dumbed down version, which then got corrected by a greater expert, which then got corrected by an even greater expert, who then got into an edit war with three equivalent experts who disagree. (My favorite Bulgarian refers to this as "whacking off into the internet.") Meanwhile, some high school kid is trying to write a 2 page paper on water and gets an 18 page lecture that can only be understood with a PhD in chemistry or physics.
So Why Am I Bringing All of This Up Today?
Because NinjaCate. (Seriously, this should be one of the Groupthink taglines.)
Seriously though, NinjaCate wanted to write about the recent Privilege 101 comic, went to find the person who made it, and discovered that she’s been bullied off the internet through death threats. About a comic. That points out how privilege works.
I’m not surprised at all, but one thing that did surprise me was the people in the comments talking about the comic being “wrong” by not being detailed enough, by not explaining the statistics that it talked about enough to separate out different factors. I’ve seen this argument made now by people who wish to discredit the comic because white men don’t have privilege if they can still suffer hardship, and by people who claim that the comic does a disservice to the people who study these things for a living, by inaccurately expressing their views.
Both of those are bullshit. The first is Dunning-Kruger bullshit. The second is Curse of Knowledge bullshit.
Yes, we talk about privilege and theory and how these things affect us in our lived experiences. That is awesome. I’m so glad to have found a place where I can do that without having to deal with the enormous amount of derailing and silencing behavior that I would get most other places. However, this makes us not the target audience of this comic. This comic is designed to explain privilege in extremely basic, 6th grade chemistry atomic model terms. It’s Privilege 101.
This comic is for people who have privilege but due to the nature of privilege don’t realize that they do, in the hopes that putting it into 6th grade chemistry atomic model terms they can explain the basics to the people who need to learn the basics, even if the way that it’s presented isn’t as accurate as possible.
Now let’s talk about these death threats. Do you think that the death threats are coming from people who understand privilege and think that the comic wasn’t accurate enough? They aren’t. They are coming from the privileged who have realized that her lesson is effective and their privilege is being exposed, which can cause them to lose privilege in the long run. The death threats are proof that the comic did its job.
So let’s stop attacking the creator and the accuracy of the comic, and celebrate it for the explanation that was so successful, that it has resulted in death threats. The creator needs our support and we can support her by calling her comic what it is: an effective short piece that acts as Privilege 101 in an entertaining way.
Warning: anyone getting all Dunning-Kruger or Curse of Knowledge about my presentation of the atomic model and/or it's role in education will receive eyeroll gifs for having missed the fucking point.
If this fare was too heavy, try this.