Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pop Culture Illiterati

Before you start leaving an argument in the comments section below, let me share this video clip of an excellent BBC interview with theoretical physicist Dr. Richard Feynman so you can understand where I'm coming from:

Dr. Feynman: "I might think about it a little bit and if I can't figure it out, then I go on to something else, but I don't have to know an answer, I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me."

It doesn't frighten me either, the not knowing.  Feynman sums up how I feel about most philosophical, scientific, and spiritual questions.  I prefer murk to clarity.  I have many devoutly religious friends and family members who believe that the Universe was created by God as described in the Bible.  I also have many irreligious friends who think that the universe was created by an explosion described in modern scientific literature.  Over the course of my life I've gotten into several arguments with people I love and respect who have tried to convince me to agree with them on either side of the issue with absolute certainty.  I don't.  I don't know how the Universe was created.  And I'm perfectly fine with not knowing.  It doesn't affect my appreciation for spiritual guides such as Jesus who commanded us to love each other.  It doesn't affect my appreciation for scientists who find ways to help humanity progress.  I'm less interested in how we got here than I am in what we can do while we're here.  So I really don't have an opinion on the origin of the Universe.  I'm open to many different interpretations.

Regardless of my personal beliefs, it's my job at the public library to help people find information about whatever makes them curious.  So even if I were a staunch believer in Creationism, it's my job to help people find information about scientific explanations of the origin of the universe, just as if I were a firm proponent of, for example, The Theory of Evolution it's my job to help people find information about biblical explanations of Creationism if that's what sparks their curiosity.  My personal beliefs and thoughts should not influence my ability to answer people's questions.

The problem is, my personal taste and interests often do influence my ability to understand what the heck some people's questions are.  It's a good thing I prefer murk to clarity.  Here's an example from the other day:

A patron called on the phone.  He calls the library all the time with questions.  I've spoken to this man at least once a week for the past few years.  He's usually pleasant and gracious and thankful for my help, even when we don't understand each other.  But this time he laughed at me.

"This is Becky.  How may I help you?"

"Hello, Becky!  Thanks for taking my call!  So, I was having a conversation with an atheist the other day and I said to her, 'Now if what you're telling me is that there is no God, how do you explain how the universe was created?'"  He let out a big jolly laugh.

I thought to myself uh oh, I don't want to get into an argument with this guy.   I remained silent and let him continue.

"So she tells me that there are some theories about how the universe was created without God," he laughs again like it's the silliest thing he's ever heard.

Uh oh.  Where is this going?

"So, I ask her about them," he continued, "And she tells me I can find some books about them at the library."

Whew.  Ok, that's kind of a concrete question I can answer without divulging my personal beliefs.

"So you're looking for some books about The Big Bang Theory?" I asked, cutting to the chase.  I wanted to steer the question as far away from my personal beliefs as possible.  Books?  You want books...sure, I can find you books...

But instead of nipping the conversation in the bud like I wanted to, my question only further befuddled this normally nice man.

"What?" He laughed again.  "What does The Big Bang Theory have to do with it?"

"Well,'re looking for information about how the universe could have been created without God?" I asked to clarify.

"Yes.  She said I could find some books at the library about it."  He laughed again.  A very literal ha-ha-ha, as if to say, isn't that ridiculous?

"OK.  Well, one theory is called The Big Bang Theory--" I didn't want to sound condescending, I mean, come on, how could a grown man not know about The Big Bang Theory, but you never know and it's not my job to assume people know anything.

He interrupted--"The Big Bang Theory?" He laughed and laughed.  "You mean like the TV show?"

The TV show?  Uh oh.

"The TV Show?" I asked.  "I'm not familiar with that--"

"What?" he interrupted.  "You've never heard of The Big Bang Theory?"  He sounded astounded at my vast ignorance.

I felt like an idiot.  I also felt like saying Well, yes, I have heard of The Big Bang Theory, but evidently not the same Big Bang Theory you're talking about.  But, you know, job, customer service, treating others respectfully...that kinda stuff kept my mouth shut.

What can I say?  I'm not a big TV watcher.  I loved TV when I was a kid in the Seventies.  I have fond memories of watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In the Family with my family when I was younger.  It was a luxury to get to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company in the morning when my older siblings were at school and my dad was at work.  When I sift through the elementary school work I've saved over the years, there are copious references to Three's Company and Eight Is Enough.  By my early twenties I was a big fan of Northern Exposure.  When that show started going south its last season, I gave up regular TV viewing for the most part.  Most TV bores me.  I'd rather sit at my laptop and watch YouTube videos and read blogs and online news media, where I have more control over what I pay attention to.

But it's a problem at work when people ask me questions about current TV shows.  I have to hurry and google the name of the show they're talking about so I figure out how to help them.

I went straight to The Big Bang article on Wikipedia so I could figure out how to help this patron, and there it was at the top:

"Big Bang" and "Big Bang theory" redirect here. For the American TV sitcom, see The Big Bang Theory. For other uses, see Big Bang (disambiguation).

OK.  I thought.  So there really is a TV show called The Big Bang Theory.  Huh.

"Uh...uh...yes, I see it here in this Wikipedia article." I stalled long enough to quickly glance at the TV show entry.  

"But you've never seen it on TV?" he asked.

"No, I don't even have a TV that broadcasts shows.  We just use our TV to watch DVDs from the library," I explained.

"Ooooh, I see," his voice got slower and higher, like he was talking to a crazy person.

"Here, let me read to you what this Wikipedia article says about The Big Bang Theory--the scientific theory," I clarified before he started laughing again and talking about the TV show.

"The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that describes the early development of the Universe," I read from the article.

"Oooh," he said, sounding surprised.  "You don't say?"

"So do you want some books about that?" I asked.

"Sure, if you've got 'em.  I'd like to see what they say.  I just can't imagine how the Universe could exist without a creator."  He laughed again, ha-ha-ha.

I can't imagine how a grown man could exist on this planet without at least having heard of The Big Bang Theory, the scientific theory, not the TV show.  And yet I'm the one getting laughed at and treated like some sort of pop culture illiterati.