Improving Scientific Literacy… or Charlie Chaplin Movies as Science Fiction? Really?

By Kevin Grazier | November 17, 2010 3:33 pm

I’m a science educator. I often think, nay obsess, on how I can do my part to help bring more scientific literacy into everybody’s daily life. In a recent blog post entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy, worthy of a read, Dr. Alice Bell opines that if we (scientists, educators, politicians) are going to plead the case for increased science literacy, then we should do a better job of defining just what we mean by “science literacy.”  She says:

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:

  • Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
  • Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
  • Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured

On the first point, I do think that there are some basic science facts which should be required fodder in K-12 education. From my field alone, people should not only know that Earth orbits the sun, they should know that our year is based upon the time takes Earth to complete the journey.  Don’t laugh. On my last birthday, when I told folks that I’d completed another orbit of the Sun, a distressing number of them did not understand the implication and, upon further questioning, didn’t know that Earth’s orbital period was the basis of one year. K-12 students should know that the Moon orbits Earth, why it goes through phases, and given it’s significance (in particular for several religious holidays), that our month is based upon that orbital period. Finally, everybody should know why we have seasons.

Knowing how to find Polaris, the North Star, and why your satellite TV installer pointed the dish south-facing, are both practical, but I’d place those in the category of “nice to have” not “need to have.” At the same time, I also think there’s a fourth bullet item that Dr. Bell could have included, one to which she alludes in the body of her text:

Science isn’t necessarily a transferable skill. This is easily demonstrated by examining carefully the lives of scientists outside of the laboratory (or, to put it another way: “yeah, cos scientists are all sooo well organised outside of work, living super-rational evidence-based lives, all the time”). It would be lovely if we could provide a formula for well-lived lives, but people just aren’t that consistent.

In addition to teaching factoids—even useful ones—about science, and in addition to educating non-scientists about the process of science, educators need in instill  a willingness in people use the lessons learned and knowledge imparted. Why do we learn this stuff? Why is it practical?

At the same time, there is a human tendency, to which Dr. Bell alludes in her quote above, to compartmentalize our knowledge. Dr. Bell implies, rightfully so, that many, arguably most, scientists check scientific thought at the door as they leave work–when it would be equally useful in organizing their (our) personal lives. Related, talk to any science educator who’s given a writing assignment. I can guarantee that, at some point(s), the assignment was met with the student question, “Are you going to grade off for English?” as if proper grammar is the purview of English class alone and slacking is allowed in biology (or pick your favorite science). Author Jennifer Oullette uses this notion—that life runs more smoothly and interestingly when met with a dose of science and math–in her Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

What got me jazzed on this topic, enough to write at length about it, was the confluence of two events — one fun, quirky, and topical, one somewhat more on the horizon — both of which benefit when approached with a due application of scientific skepticism. The first was a recent web buzz, where a Charlie Chaplin movie (and not a particularly good one at that) was, in essence, promoted from the genre of comedy to science fiction. A woman in the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus appears to be talking on a cell phone, which wasn’t invented until decades later.


A short Google search turns up countless, and often very amusing, analyses on this video like this one from the Washington Post. Apparently George Clark of Yellow Fever Productions noticed the quirk  of the “woman on a cell phone” in the background when he was watching the DVD extras for the film, and after a year of studying this clip, he concluded:

This short film is about a piece of footage I (George Clarke) found behind the scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘The Circus’. Attending the premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA – the scene shows a large woman dressed in black with a hat hiding most of her face, with what can only be described as a mobile phone device – talking as she walks alone.

I have studied this film for over a year now – showing it to over 100 people and at a film festival, yet no-one can give any explanation as to what she is doing.

My only theory – as well as many others – is simple… a time traveler on a mobile phone. See for yourself and feel free to leave a comment on your own explanation or thoughts about it.

Seriously? NOBODY could give an explanation better than that of a time-traveling cell phone user? Well web sites and surfers alike certainly offered up their speculation.

What was surprising, nay a wee bit appalling, was the ratio of conspiracy theories—and just plain “out there” speculation—to critical and/or scientific thought (Though if you read one article, the second post in the talkback, there’s a hilarious example of somebody who tried too hard to apply too much science to the problem, and winds up writing a lengthy discourse, nay manifesto, about Einstein and time and relativity and GPS satellites and the speed of light and… what were we talking about again?).

One simple “Where’s the cell tower?” comment (and thankfully there were some of these) in the articles’ talkbacks  should have been “End of subject”, at least as far as the object being any kind of communications device, and in too many cases it wasn’t. Do the search yourself, even when there were posts of this nature they were often ignored, and outlandish hypotheses floated instead. While I’m not beyond my own tongue-in-cheek blog posts (muzzle flashes from alien warfare anybody?), it’s astounding to me how many Twilight Zone-caliber theories were floated on the 1928 cell phone user that weren’t intended as glib. (Trust me, I’m from the future, and we have way better communication devices than cell phones.)

Which brings me to the second topic that got me to write this, my own manifesto, which is one that is still ahead of us but one on which I’ll posted increasingly often. It’s late 2010, and in the runup to 2012 a quick Google search reveals that the whole Mayan Calendar mythos is still generating a vast amount of fear and fear-mongering.  We will all soon be subject to an onslaught of sketchy scientific claims, references to “lost” ancient wisdom, and predictions of gloom and doom on this front from now until January 2013. Not only is is useful to have Mad Science Skillz to combat outlandish claims, we have to be both willing to use the tools at our disposal and to pay attention when the scientifically perspicacious make what should be topic-concluding “Where’s the cell tower?”-like observations.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Movies, Physics, Time Travel, Utter Nerd

Comments (16)

  1. Chris

    Did you ever watch Doctor Who? He used his sonic screwdriver to make the cell phone able to call from anywhere in the universe. A little later in the movie you can see a blue box.

  2. Bigby

    I think part of the issue is that people LIKE conspiracies. They make the world more interesting to them. The Mayan Calendar is in the same realm as the Easter Bunny and Santa — if really pressed most folks would admit there’s no such thing. But they’ll go along with the joke anyway.
    I put Santa out at Christmas, too. And I’ll watch pseudo-docs on the coming Armageddon with equal suspension of disbelief. The separation for most unscientific types is the pseudo-science surrounding some of these stories that lend an artificial credence. They can’t possibly really believe in Santa — but they can believe in fashon-challenged time-traveling cell phone users if they try hard enough.

  3. There is a good discussion (links in the post as well as in the comments section) of the Chaplin video solution here.

  4. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    “I think she’s a delusional schoizophrenic, talking into a gerbil, thinking that she has a direct link to the Messiah. It’s a much more reasonable hypothesis than cell phone use.”


    [Comment from the link in Coturnix’s comment.]

  5. Touché. A little healthy skepticism seems in short supply on this whole bizarre “theory”. And don’t get me started on Daniel Pinchbeck. Anyway, maybe she’s just touching her face!!! That weird zebra thing looks like it’s from another planet, though…

  6. MarkD

    This was before “talkies”.

    There was no sigma involved in holding a completely off-topic conversation while being filmed.

    She was likely just speaking to someone off set and covered her mouth (poorly) so as not to distract from the cross-dimensional mutant zebra.

  7. whoschad

    You obviously have not seen the movie ‘The Circus’ if you call if ‘not a particularly good one’. It’s hilarious. There’s almost nothing funnier than the scene with Chaplin trying to walk a tightrope with monkeys crawling all over him.

  8. Chris Winter

    I’ve rearranged this a bit:

    “Seriously? NOBODY could give an explanation better than that of a time-traveling cell phone user? Well web sites and surfers alike certainly offered up their speculation.

    One simple “Where’s the cell tower?” comment (and thankfully there were some of these) in the articles’ talkbacks should have been “End of subject”, at least as far as the object being any kind of communications device, and in too many cases it wasn’t. ”

    Once the premise of a time traveller is accepted, it seems illogical to doubt a trans-temporal communication device.

    What was surprising, nay a wee bit appalling, was the ratio of conspiracy theories–and just plain “out there” speculation–to critical and/or scientific thought (Though if you read one article, the second post in the talkback, there’s a hilarious example of somebody who tried too hard to apply too much science to the problem, and winds up writing a lengthy discourse, nay manifesto, about Einstein and time and relativity and GPS satellites and the speed of light and… what were we talking about again?).

    I take comfort in the thought that blog commenters are not typical of the general population in this respect — that the medium gives them leave to go wacky, perhaps wackier than they are in person.

  9. Chris Winter

    The above triggered this memory, which might make a list called Great Moments in Fictional Time Travel:

    In Star Trek: Enterprise, there’s a scene where a Zindi is using an unfamiliar communication device to talk to what he thinks is a member of the race who are encouraging the Zindi to attack Earth. The signal is breaking up, and he steps closer to ask for clarification — whereupon Jonathan Archer, until that moment trapped in the 31st century, materializes in the cylinder of light and punches his lights out.

    “A pay phone was ringing, and it just about blew my mind.
    When I picked it up and said hello, this foot came through the line.”
    – Bob Dylan

    You see I’m capable of some wackiness myself.

  10. nomuse

    And here I thought you were going to talk about “Modern Times.”

    Be that as it may. Brutally, I think people are attracted to conspiracy theories because they lack the background to be enthralled by the strange stuff that is real. When you don’t even understand what causes the phases of the Moon, it takes something as crude and obvious as “The Moon is a Spaceship!” to excite you.

    Odd, the comment about scientists leaving science at the door. Would that engineers would do that more often! (I grew up around engineers.) Perhaps the problem is that the tool they are most used to using is too precise. To get around in the day-to-day the blunter and more generalized tools of logic, mechanics, first-order effects, and simple math get you further.


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