Chris Emdin – Hip Hop Archivist and Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University

January 06, 2014

This week on Point of Inquiry we welcome Chris Emdin, a Columbia Professor who’s helped design New York City’s public school policy, a leading science education researcher, and Harvard Hip Hop Archive Fellow.

Chris Emdin is a favored guest of Josh Zepps on Huffpost Live, and for good reason. They chat about the state of American science education, and the ways in which Emdin is trying to shake things up. Josh and Emdin talk about how we can make science education more interesting and culturally available for students across the country, how to introduce children to science as a personal discipline in life – not just a subject in school – and how to bring about a more scientifically literate population.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 6th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast for the Center for Inquiry, the nonprofit that promotes science, secularism and reason. Dr. Christopher Emden is a professor at Columbia University Teachers College, where he taught science in middle school and high school. He was also the chair of science departments in New York City Public Schools. He has a Ph.D. in urban education. And here’s a title I hadn’t heard before. He’s Harvard University’s hip hop archive fellow. We’ll get to that bit of his mission later. But first, to talk about science in America, Dr. Amnesty. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Absolute pleasure to be here with you, John. Now, you’re a professor. We often hear people bemoaning the state of STEM education in America, and we keep hearing these appalling rankings being cited about how bad our students are in the states. What’s your perception of of where American science students are at? 

Well, I certainly believe that there is some cause for concern in science education across the country. At the same time, the this whole notion that, you know, it’s completely horrible and horrific and the worst it’s ever been is it’s somewhat exaggerated. So there is some work to be done. It’s not as bad as everyone thinks. And there are things that we can do. We can’t put in place to improve the quality of science education in the United States. What? One, change the way that we recruit teachers, we have to have folks who have degrees in the sciences procreate to also be educators. That’s one to the population who teaches science in schools has to be more diverse. Three, once teachers get in classrooms, they need to have ongoing professional development that includes best practices in teaching, but also best practices in understanding. The nature of their discipline for science education has to include what’s the cutting edge issues in the sciences are. We can’t just teach what was going on in the 18 or 19 hundreds anymore. Young people are fourth. We have to merge youth culture with science education. Man, I can go on forever, but those are the ones that I had set out. 

You sound like maybe you’ve thought about that before. 

Well, you know, this is what keeps me up at night, Josh. 

I mean, that the fact that, you know, the fact that there are so clearly things that can be done that would improve the status quo and that they’re not being done. Why is that? And does it frustrate you? And do you have a solution to that? 

Well, you know, the nature of teaching and learning in United States is is almost an offshoot of the larger capital structure of the United States. Now, I’m not bemoaning capitalism by any stretch of the imagination, but I am saying that urban public education, public education at large and even private education has been so driven by money. It’s all driven by companies pushing curriculum where people can order materials from that. It’s taken attention away from the focus or the troop focus or what the focus should be, which is young people. And so if you have schools where it is in their best interest to change curriculum every three or four years so they can have a new contract, then the decision is being made on what curriculum is put in place rather than what curriculum is best for young people. Some of the best ideas in science education began and never had a chance to take root and not have some impact on what’s going on in classrooms. Ideas like increase education, which is somewhat a trend now, but it sort of died down a bit in the interests of the next generation science standards. And the Common Core makes perfect sense in teaching and learning. But the nature of education means that, you know, this is kind of going out of vogue. So we have to move away from it and move towards something else. And just to sort of sort of drop. What does it mean? Just explain that to people who aren’t familiar with it. Also, that there’s this approach to teaching and learning more broadly, books specifically, and space education, which is inquiry, science and equity science essentially says the best way to get young people to be able to be scientifically literate and think about science is to give them the materials that they need to come up with the constructs, had them play with the ideas, engage in the sort of Hands-On process and through the inquiry process, the Hands-On process, the art of play, the scientific knowledge gets constructed. It’s an approach that takes more time and just drill and kill records that have to sort of memorize information and then spit it back out. It does require, you know, giving the space for kids to be taught to ask questions of teachers by giving them the answers when they ask those questions. So it’s a more thought laid and really intricate process of teaching and learning that takes time and effort. 

It’s the best practice, in my opinion, but it’s sort of gone out of vogue, unfortunately. It sounds almost like the practice of science itself. 

It absolutely is, and you know what I love about this angry approach to teaching and learning an angry approach to science is that it really it really steals its core from the nature of science. So kids learns science the way that science was constructed or is is continually being constructed. And, you know, in teaching and learning, science education, United States, that this focus on the nature of science completely absent. So kids are asked to memorize information. They’re asked to learn some mathematical formulas and express their knowledgeable mathematical formulas. But there’s no space for, you know, being a skeptic, being antiauthoritarian, you know, questioning the information that you’re. That you’ve been given. I’m trying to focus or expand that knowledge. You know, the space for what it takes to truly be a scientist just does not exist in science education. 

Yeah. That resonates so much with my personal experience as well. Because if ever there was a person who should have been excited by science in middle school and high school, it’s me. I’ve made my very inquisitive. I like. I love science. I love the ideas of science. 

But I was always taught it in a way where it was about memorization of the periodic table of the elements. It was about doing Kemet chemical tests to it, to which the outcome where we where we knew the outcome before we started. It was about learning, rote learning, mathematical equations in physics. And I thought that there’s just no spirit in this. Then, of course, when I started reading Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, I realized just how majestic the whole the whole enterprise of science is. 

I wonder whether you think that maybe in addition to actually teaching the to the rote bits of science that I suppose everyone needs to learn in order form a bedrock from which they can then go further. We should also be classes in the philosophy of science. So just the ideas of science. 

I mean, Josh, you know, when you tell me that story about your experiences, it like I cringe and I cringe because I see young people in classrooms every single day that have that are going through the same thing that you went through. I know. So part of my research is to really go into school. So, I mean, maybe two or three New York City public schools and sometimes schools across the country a week. And I literally see kids falling asleep in class because they are going through the same type of education that you received. And so and the schools that I work with, which are urban youth of color. So you have this, this and this inquisitive nature that’s being killed in addition to the fact that there are inequities in the classroom as far as materials are concerned and an access to materials and access to books is concerned. So the answer is absolutely, yes, that kids need to be able to learn the philosophy of science, the ideas of science, the history of science, the personalities and science, the stories about the backgrounds of the most brilliant scientists, because that is what opens them up to being intrigued by the discipline in the business of focusing on that. I also argue from this more from stem to steam. I wrote a piece in The Times the other day that focused on the fact that if you let students know that being a scientist also means being an artist, that the best scientists create models and and draw and draw sketches of their ideas before they delve into the mathematical components of the discipline. Kids do better. So move from stem to steam, focus on a philosophy of science, of nature, of science, and also focus on giving students models of scientists that look like them, that share a cultural background. I’m talking about this good talking by ethnicity and race, but also when it comes to gender, you know, oftentimes girls in science don’t do well in science because they don’t see girls in science and don’t see women strong. But in science, you know, they might hear about Marie Curie once and that’s about the end of it. Or a young person of color might learn about Benjamin Banneker once and at the end of it. And I think that means that we have to make science more contemporary and have and see icons and heroes in science that look like them and have and may have had similar experiences. The last pieces is culture. And culture is huge because, you know, as a person who has a science background, there’s been this disconnect between this Objectivist nature object, Objectivist narrative of what science is and the inherently subjective nature of science. 

And if we focus on the inherently subjective nature of science, realize that most of the scientific discoveries that we’ve stumbled upon a bit, that being because people have been intrigued by that idea and they are intrigued by that idea because something within their cultural understandings leads them to it. And so we have to move science back into culture. And this is why I do my work with hip hop, because hip hop is youth culture. And so if you can see hip hop as a part of science or hip hop as a way to express scientific knowledge, then they were more likely to be intrigued by science. And they are more intrigued by science. They’re more likely to be resilient to overcome the challenges and the obstacles and the rigors of science. And if you go through understanding how you can be successful, despite the rigors and the mathematical challenges of science, then you have the chance of being a scientist. 

So explain to people what this work is, how you use Hip-Hop, because I alluded to it to the hip hop archive fellow at Harvard University. What is that? I mean, what’s what what do you do? 

Well, you know, my my role at Harvard is a Hip-Hop Archive fellow is really to expand how we use Hip-Hop. So some folks there have talked about the elements of Hip-Hop deejaying, graffiti, the arts. There’s been some Hip-Hop artists that go there to sort of expand this notion of hip hop as not just a musical, our form or a cultural form, but an academic field of study and my work at the archive at Harvard, but more generally is looking at hip hop culture as a tool through which kids can share ideas about about about scientific theories, mathematical ideas that are usually seen as outside of the scope of Hip-Hop. So, you know, my work is hip hop as a as as a as a as a vehicle to expand people who have been locked into hip hop. And so open up new possibilities for them. I’m an example of this is when I go into New York City, public schools and kids are completely disengaged in traditional science. And I say, well, you know what? If we had to write a rap about the science concept, but not a superficial rap because, you know, it has to have some science content. You have to have four science concepts in that rap. You have to express the philosophy of science in this rap. You have to have a mathematical formula in this rap. Got the reference to it, three theories, and it has to be accepted by a body of learners. And what we’re doing in this process is doing what scientists do, which is have back ideas, theories, concepts, examples, and also have to share the ideas by, you know, a body of observers who have to approve this theory, but doing it through the vehicle of Hip-Hop. Another thing we’re doing with hip hop is looking at the science of the inherently scientific nature of constructing Hip-Hop music. Looking at an artist like NAS, for example, and the way that he uses complex metaphor and analogy, the way that he observes phenomenon in his environment is able to translate that and rhyme and connecting that to the work of the traditional research scientist who sits, you know, when he’s conducting his work, you know, deeply in the trenches and makes deep observations about the phenomena that he’s observing and showing people that the skills that you need to be able to be a more prolific Hip-Hop artist are actually the same skills that you may need to be a prolific scientist. And so we connected with Hip-Hop First and then we introduced them to science. They see that science, the part of who they are, that they like roles are inherently scientific. Their experiences are they can see the world through scientific lenses. You know, that that I think walk down a street every day, that they are observing mathematical insights of the phenomena, that it’s a part of who they are. They can live and greet science through hip hop. 

I’m curious to hear how the kids initially respond when when you come in and talk about this stuff, because I suspect that some of them sort of roll their eyes and go, here’s a brother trying to make science seem cool by like talking on our level to hip hop and everything. Is there an evolution where it takes them a little while to then gradually get into it, go, oh, hang on, he’s not full of shit. 

Absolutely, Josh. Every single time I go into a classroom and I say, I want you guys to rap, you know, the perception back from the students, the teacher. And oftentimes when my colleagues, fellow science educators and scientists, are you serious because you’re a black guy and you baps, you expect the kids to rap. And so. So you suspect correctly? There is. But then the students start realizing that I’m not presenting Hip-Hop as a gimmick or rap as a gimmick and is the piece of my work that I think is really important for folks to recognize. And that on the surface there’s a misperception that it’s a gimmick. 

The work is not using rap as a gimmick. The work is using rap as a tool to be able to turn kids on to science. And part of the work is just motivation. And also with the idea that, listen, I use hip hop because hip hop works with youth in urban settings who’ve been marginalized from success in science. However, if I was in the Appalachian Mountains, for example, and the kids were, where were they? Examples were based on, you know, observations in their environment, I would use the phenomenon in their environment. You know, hip hop is not just hip hop because it’s a gimmick. And I just want to use hip hop because it’s cool. It’s really based on a pedagogical approach, which is. Rooted in the work of John Dewey. You know, he’s the first person to talk about experiential learning as a Kita, as a key to discovering the key to education. Hip hop just happens to be the tool for the population who’s been most disinterested. However, if the cultural artifact that you were most engaged in was not hip hop. Trust and believe, I wouldn’t be using it. 

Right. Right. 

You mentioned earlier the importance of diversity in science and science does have a reputation for being white and male. A lot of people, though, will say, look, science is fundamentally about facts. It’s about facts about the world. It’s about facts that we should be able to uncover regardless of the color of our skin and regardless about sex. Why do we why is it terribly important? There are obviously reasons why it’s desirable for a society to have a diversity of people in a bunch of different professions. But there are no scientific reasons why it’s important to have diversity in science. What do you say to that? 

The first thing I say is we have a general misperception that science is about facts. And, you know, as a as a scientist and as a lover, of all things scientific. It pains me when when that is presented because it’s completely conscious of the nature of the discipline. Sure, there are facts and science. Sure. We use our fundamental not I mean, you know, you have to understand kinematics in order to be able to understand how, you know, objects move in space, for example. I mean, you know, you get done if they have basic constructs in science to be able to apply layers to it. But but science is not facts. Science is using the information that we have already. That may be fact to be able to uncover phenomena that we have no ideas about. And so when we when we relegate complex discipline to just existent facts, we only not doing a disservice to the discipline of science. What we’re doing a disservice to the multiple multitudes of young people who think in color and not just in black, on white. So that’s the first thing. 

And the second thing I would say is that science is not only is it not just black and white. Not only is it just a multiple. Of gray, but science, it’s also about a way of thinking rather than a distinct discipline. Some of the young people I work with may not end up being scientists, but they will develop an appreciation for the role of science in a way of thinking that’s inherently scientific, that can help them in any discipline that they. That they chose to engage in. So this idea that science is only for scientists or those who want to do science is fundamentally flawed. A scientific way of existing and being in the world is beneficial for people, whether they want to be scientists or not. Three, Science is inherently subjective. 

People do certain types of research not because they were led to it, because they have you know, it was just a thing that just stumbled upon them in their minds. They do those things based on their experiences. When I was a young person, I was really curious about why there were so many grasshoppers. Whenever I went to visit my family down south. And so my curiosity about grasshoppers is what led me to want to do work and biology. If I had different experiences, that would lead me to biology. 

So when we understand science is inherently science, it’s subjective. And then young people have different experiences. That is important for us to move to understand their subjective experiences so they could turn back onto the discipline. And so and then the last thing I would say is, do I mean, if we’re just anywhere as a as a as a world as it is, as good, kind hearted, loving, just good people. Wouldn’t we be concerned that there are populations in this country that that she’d meet gaps between STEM disciplines and other disciplines? Schiphol and quadruple? I mean, you know, as good people, wouldn’t you just want to say, listen, there’s no reason why I can go into what any university across the United States and I have to, like, wait. Ten hours to see one black brown face. I mean, just simply for the sake of equity. My goodness. I mean, forget Chris’s intellectual arguments about the nature of science and its subjectivity. 

Let’s just talk about our just being good people in the world and realizing that in any discipline, we have to have a multitude of just voices and faces in seats at the table just so we can see ourselves as an equitable and just world. 

Yep. You won’t get any argument from me on that. On the. Before we leave the issues of objectivity, I just want to clarify it. 

The the way that a particular scientist comes to his scientific discipline and the type of discipline that he chooses to go into is subjective. I take your point on that. Are you would you also say, though, that the that the discoveries of science are subjective? Isn’t isn’t fundamentally the thing that makes science different from so many other forms of knowledge? 

Or is it’s supposed knowledge? The fact that it correlates more closely to the real world in a way that is is non subjective. 

I think that the notion of of correlation to the real world is a valid point. But I would push and say its correlation to multiple worlds and perspective. So take, for example, this notion of traditional ecological knowledge. So these are sort of indigenous is about the environment that, you know, you know, how to water irrigation systems, 500 B.C. by indigenous populations, for example. Those are phenomena that developed out of these with these indigenous knowledge. Is that made sense for how they how they could identify what’s going on in their world? In the current era, where where multiple technologies have sort of taken place in our world, views have become more expanded. You know, we may look at this this this discovery of the indigenous as almost, you know, nonsensical, almost inherently subjective, almost inherently not making sense. But it is the nature of science is making sense of the world as we know it now. But the world as we know it is ever evolving. Therefore, science is not a bunch of leading facts, is a bunch of facts about the world as we know it. And if the world as we know it shifts over time and I’ll now be at the shift may be slow or gradual, it means that the knowledge will shift as well. 

Do you think there’s enough respect for science in modern culture? I mean, everyone’s talks about STEM all the time that we understand the importance in a practical sense of being competitive in the 21st century and training up our next generation of engineers and scientists and mathematicians. 

But on a Day-To-Day level, to average, the average person thinks sufficiently, rigorously and sufficiently scientifically. 

Absolutely not. And it’s as much as I’m a champion for, you know, youth voices and a champion for, you know, hip hop voices. 

I’m also of a deep I have a deep passion and love just for the discipline. And and, you know, science is so beautiful. 

I mean, I vividly like it’s almost like my love story. I vividly remember the first time I realized that I was in love with science. As an undergraduate and Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, and a professor, Dr. Liesel Jones, I remember it like it was yesterday, walks into the laboratory. And I’m this guy and I you know, I want to work in her lab just because I need an extra three points. So three or three credits. 

And she starts describing the ideology of schizophrenia. 

And then she introduces me to these brains and like, oh, my God, those are actual human beings brains right there in front of you. And you’re going to slice them and and and and she’s like, well, yes. And we have to find out things. We have no idea of anything that we’re doing here. We just know what we want to study. 

You know, that that moment when you realize that you are you are you have the opportunity to make some sense of the world or make some sense of some little bit of the world that nobody else knows in this little lab, in this place. And all I need is all of me to be able to make sense of this, that. Love, that passion is lost across this country. People just fail to see how beautiful this discipline is. And, you know, part of our work has to be to showcase science and its beauty to a new generation of young people. 

But even adults, you know, the beauty of just reading New York Times on on on Science Tuesday and just seeing the amazing things that people are doing, the world has lost that. And, you know, we have to we have to allow science to bring sexy back. I mean, science has to be sexy again to the public. And I agree with you on that. Yes. You know, that’s something that we’re lacking. And it’s just it’s work that has to be done. And that’s part of what I’m doing this work is that to get young people to see science as cool again, you know. And so part of it and the media probably has a lot to answer for as well. 

Well, listen, if if the media had a preoccupation with everything but the rigors and the love of scientific thinking, then there’s no way that we can expect young people to have that passion as well. I mean, if everything they’re invaded with has everything to do with with culture and the arts and has nothing at all to do with science, then then there’s no way you can have a new generation, especially in a media saturated generation, who has a passion for science. 

And I firmly believe that if the media was more responsible about the images about science present to young people, it would quickly shift their perceptions of the discipline. 

I think a lot of media professionals are scientifically illiterate. I think they’re also artistically illiterate. But they like pop culture. And they they they think that the best way to report on on the truth is to have two different people with different opinions and to give them both a microphone and then to just kind of stand back and assume that the that the truest outcome is the halfway point between any two opinions. 

And they’re just not very rigorous about digging down into the facts and trying to figure out what is true and breaking down complicated ideas in a way that’s accessible and entertaining for people, which I had always thought was kind of the job of the media. 

Well, you know, Josh, this is this is one reason why why I love what you do. And this is why even when I’m not hanging out what you want, Huff Po, I’m checking out what you’re doing with it. That relates to science, because let’s let’s go beyond science, for example. 

Let’s just go into any arena, let’s say, as a reporter or a media person, even you’re talking about Miley Cyrus. There is a way to have a conversation about Miley Cyrus that goes beyond presenting what she did, having some icing on why it’s wrong or somebody saying why it’s right. Like you describe, there is an aspect of this where you want to ask more deep probing questions about the nature of how she got to where she was, the evolution of the personality and the character. You know, her background, her experiences, what she’s presented around, what she’s consuming, what she’s not. And that is something that is seemingly devoid of science or absent of science, because you’re talking about a pop culture phenomena. But there’s a scientific approach to interrogating anything. And this is why I say if we start reselling or rebranding science as not just a discipline, but a way of knowing and thinking and being in the world, we will have people who do more science. Will also have people who can push the envelope more. 

And how we deconstruct art, make sense of media, pop culture, art, music, because they approach it with with a with a methodical yet yet abstract line of questioning that can take any phenomena and make some sense out of it. 

Which discipline and science do you think is going to be the most influential over the night of the 21st century? 

Oh gosh, that’s such a brilliant question. So just based on on my experiences and the work I’ve done, I would I would say I would say biology. I’m a I’m an active biochemist by training my master’s in natural sciences. I would say biology. But I think when I say biology, I mean the expansion of the field of biology. You know, if you look at the life sciences as not just an interrogation of of of living and breathing as you see it, but up of microorganisms, for example, or for the manipulation of of of of of of of organisms that can happen today. 

It’s like, you know, you take this notion of a basic biological construct at the study of living organisms and expand that to include bioengineering and and biotechnology. You know, it just is just I have an affinity for the life sciences because of the way that it’s who we are. I mean, who we are as human beings has had as a connection deeply to our biological makeup. And so our biological makeup helps us to be able to make sense of phenomena, but also us manipulate phenomena. So I think biology and in many iterations and the growth of the discipline of biology is what I’m most fascinated about. But then again, that’s that’s me being inherently subjective. But I like and, you know, and physics will be like, oh, shut the heck up, Chris. 

You could probably make a pretty objective case that given what’s going on in genetics, biology is probably going to be the stage on which a lot of stuff happens over the next century. Do you does any of does any of it worry you? Do you do. Are you worried at all about unintended consequences of tinkering around, tinkering around with things like cloning and creating artificial organisms? And so. 

Of course, I mean, so Mike, Mike, registry’s research was in what’s missing from stem cell work. And every time I left the lab, I was like, oh my gosh, you know what happens if you know the cloning of Dolly Balls to become the cloning of Josh Nimmy 30. Joss’s running around. Of course, the world would be a much better place with this. So, I mean, yeah, of course, they are concerned. 

And, you know, one beautiful thing about science is always that the nature of science is that any any intended activity has unintended consequences. And so even even going through the, you know, the world of injury and asking posing questions and manipulating things always evolves into something that we have to deal with later. So. So they certainly are concerns. But I do feel like the nature of the discipline also helps us to have these are these these these parameters that are set. 

And this is why I love that the notion of a cultural biology and ethical biology is that as we as we construct or delve into these sort of scientific phenomena, we can also at the same time have scientific conversations about the ethics of what we’re doing. 

There is no fine line, you know, that we swim in the depths of the of the Grays. And so we can have conversations about these ethical things as we continually push the scientific agenda forward. 

When when you talk about pushing the scientific agenda forward and intriguing people with it and encouraging young people to get more involved in it, is this a mission that is adequately addressed incrementally or do we need another moonshot? Another big thing that inspires the whole nation and draws everyone together and thinks, oh, my God, this is incredible. Science is amazing. I want to get behind this. Can you have that level of scientific passion without a big a big picture? 

I think that we need and in both, you know, both simultaneously. I think, you know, the thing is that we as a nation, particularly as putting my educator, educator hat back on, is that, you know, the nature of teaching, learning the United States has been to be able to present some huge phenomenon that shows us how awful we are so that we can be more rigorous in doing the same things we’ve been doing before. 

So, you know, take, for example, this recent piece of study that that showed the United States ranked no no about average below average in the sciences, only slightly higher than average in reading as compared to other nations across the country. Right. So so that happens. This announcement is made and all of a sudden you have folks scrambling all over the place and saying, oh, my God, we have to transform education. We have to do things differently. We have to be more rigorous. I then the same thing happens in science where, you know, there has to be this, that people are going to try to present some huge scientific phenomena as a reason why we can push forward and do things differently. But, you know, at the same time, incremental change is important and necessary. I think that you can transform the nature of science education if you transform the way we teach science in schools across the country. And if some big, huge phenomena happen, that gives us a jolt in the arm, so be it. But the work has to happen in the trenches, in classrooms with young people. What’s one thing that if you were the president of the universe and could do whatever you wanted to do that you would? 

What’s a single thing that you would do? 

To bring about to bring that about will change the way that science is taught in schools. Rather than have science as existing in these silos, when you first take Earth science and you pass Earth science, maybe then you take some biology courses and you pass biology and you take chemistry. And you know that the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline, the interconnectedness and the discipline, the presentation of scientific ideas as philosophy and theory and thought from first grade through 12th grade, and then given students the allowances to be able to delve into the pieces of that work that speaks to them the most. If I had the opportunity to change education United States, I would I would begin there. 

I would begin with changing this this this regimented formula of, you know, being a so-called expert in one discipline and then going on to the next, because completely antithetical to the nature of the discipline. And it’s completely antithetical to the nature of the growth under the development of things that we know about young people. 

And do you think that there’s a way that we can encourage scientifically illiterate adults to get their kids involved in science, even if they don’t quite know how? I mean, I’m thinking of. Certainly in underprivileged communities where they’re working a bunch of jobs, they don’t have time to go go out into the fields and loot to get their kids chasing grasshoppers. What is there any simple rules of thumb that people could could abide by to make their children’s lives more scientific? 

Sure. Josh, I wrote a really short, you know, almost pithy piece in the Huffington Post maybe about a year or two ago, and a title, as you know, five reasons why your child is assigned, five reasons why your child probably won’t be a scientist and what you can do about it. 

And and in that piece, it’s just really simple things like, listen, you don’t have to be a scientist, but if you present your kids as science heroes, they start looking up to the science heroes, you know, go up Neil deGrasse Tyson Polster, you know, right along with Barack Obama, Martin Luther King and Urban Community. And and the kids are wondering who this guy is and start start asking questions about who he is. The second thing. As you know, you don’t have to be an expert in science to go to a scientific lecture or talk, particularly in urban settings across the United States, where you have dozens of institutions of higher education. And it’s fascinating that the top institutions of higher education, the United States, are oftentimes three or four blocks away from the lowest socioeconomic socioeconomically deprived, the most political and social economically deprived population, the United States. And so I always saw parents in those communities. Listen, there’s always a lecture, a speech by some scientists at a university. You’ll even not know what the heck the guy is talking about. Just go there and watch and listen and bring a child to listen. And, you know, learning occurs in context. If you immerse somebody in a concepts often enough, they start understanding the linguistic traditions and that discipline. And then you start asking questions about the ideas and the discipline. And if you can’t answer those questions, you can leave this to the person who do. The people will do. So science heroes understand that science is not about grades. And so if your kid comes home and says, hey, dad, I got a ninety five in science, you don’t say yay, you’re an expert scientist. You start saying, well, what what is the stuff that you’ve got a ninety five on. And let’s ask you, some people question see if you really understand that concept. So kids are seeing the grades is not the be all and end all, but rather an opener, an opener for them to be able to know more about the content. Think they know. So, you know, those are three of the five things that the other two without popping in my head right away. 

OK. We can we can always look it up. Yeah. Think we should. Do you think. Do you think that religion is is you religious. 

I you know what? It’s really a question I ask right now. I grew up in a I grew up in a Pentecostal church. I fell in love with science. And the minute I fell in love with science for the first time. The first thing I did was cut was was pushed back against anything religious that I then I grew up in. And then as I got older, I started to realize that I could resolve those tensions and that having faith doesn’t mean not believing in the power and beauty of science. But it took me a while to get there. It was quite a journey. Having faith in what? Having faith in or having a belief in the fact that there is some being there’s some there’s some energy. There is there’s something out there that allows the universe to exist the way it does. And I’ll be completely honest, the tensions that exist between the discipline I love and my faith oftentimes does occur. But every time I’m struck with the wonder of the universe, I am sort of led to believe that there’s got to be something that makes it start somewhere. And it’s an and it’s an ever it’s it’s an ever evolving piece of who I am as a person and as a scientist. 

I wonder if you ever find that that a more intense religiosity among black Americans is a stumbling block towards their full embrace of science? It certainly is, I think, among white evangelicals. I wonder if it is in the black community, too. 

Oh, absolutely. I think I think religiosity is not only a stumbling block to be able to discover science, it’s a stumbling block to be able to. So to discover sort of economic well-being is a stumbling block to be able to engage in the political arena. It’s a stumbling block to be able to critically engage with media, you know. And what’s so fascinating about this construct with how religiosity plays a role within urban America and urban black and brown America is the way that religion played a role in the history and in the history of science. And how do you know that this notion of a master deity inhibited folks from engaging in scientific questions? Initially, this notion of this celestial nature of the universe, how it countered, how we made sense of how the world works. So I think those tensions between religion and science have existed, always exist, still exist within me, sometimes with with urban people of color in particular. You know that the marriage to religion is birthed out of these really unfortunate circumstances, historical and contemporary circumstances, where they just have not been able to have access to the source. 

So socioeconomic status and when that when that happens, when you when you don’t have the opportunity to be able to create a good life for your family, it’s very, very easy to begin to be manipulated into believing that there is this place your goal at after life is over. That gives you access to all the things that you couldn’t have in everyday life. 

And you know, that master narrative guides just about everything. And it and it’s been used by preachers, media and politics to be able to to control the ways of knowing and thinking of a population that, well, let’s hope the future is brighter and we can minimize those beliefs and expand people’s understanding of science. 

You’re doing you a bit. Thanks, Dr. Christopher Emden. Being on point of inquiry. 

An absolute pleasure. Josh, and keep up the hard work. Thanks, buddy. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.