New season, eternal science illiteracy

Well, it’s spring for sure because the frogs and toads have been singing, the daffodils and dandelions and forsythia are blooming, and it’s impossible to keep my nails clean. Earlier today I was able to get this shot of the chief noisemaker from the backyard pondette; it’s the American Toad (cleverly named Bufo americanus, which means American Toad).

Seeing him trilling reminded me of an incident just a few years ago when I was at a gardening function. A group of us were touring some gardens, one of which had a little pond. All of a sudden, one of the Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies* let out an agitated squeal and began dithering around in circles, begging others for assistance.

She was pointing to a couple pairs of toads that were nested amongst the blades of water iris, terribly concerned about someone (else) needing to “rescue the poor froggies” because they were obviously trapped and one of them was “going to drown the other one” as it tried to climb out. (Apparently she hadn’t seen the second pair.) Someone let out a helpful suggestion that maybe the gardener had a net. There was a brief debate about whether or not one could really get warts from touching them. Yet another person said maybe they could put a spare rock in, for the froggies to climb out. This was the scene:

Of course, in reality the toads were engaged in amplexus, releasing eggs and sperm into the water. I came over and looked over someone’s shoulder.

“They’re REPRODUCING,” I asserted, “no one’s drowning, and he’s not hurting her. And I’m pretty sure those are toads, too,” I added, remembering some random factoid about toads being “warty” and frogs being smooth.

Well, once she realised that she had made a scene over nothing, she minced off to go powder her nose or something. Once the crowd of gawpers parted, I took some photographs (mentally cursing at my camera, which was old and on its last gears).

I was surprised by the fact that she and several other people had not realised what was really going on. Doesn’t most everyone know that frogs and toads start off as aquatic eggs, then turn into tadpoles, then grow legs and lose tails, and later on mature into adults? I then remembered that many people of her generation did not have the opportunity to finish secondary education, and that the limited amount of science education would have not included much (if any) detail on animal reproduction.

But even so, that would have been decades ago. Any children’s book or television show on natural history has this information. Surely anyone with an interest in gardening would have picked up more knowledge of basic biology over the years?

Or maybe it was an unconscious bias against anything related to S-E-X. People frequently hear want they want to hear, and see what they expect to see. A lot of these Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies were also in the habit of referring to “boy” and “girl” birds, mentally veering around the fact that sexually dimorphic birds were distinguishable because the adult males were especially showy to better attract the adult females for mating. (They were in fact, not little boy and girl birdies.) Even when I tried to describe why “pollen-free” flowers would not produce seeds for them to save and re-plant the next year, the sexual details had sometimes resulted in nervous asides enquiring about refreshing others’ teacups.

Sometimes I ran into presentation difficulties because the Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies just wanted information about what to do, and were not interested in why we used certain techniques. In contrast, my approach to public education has always been about explaining the processes, and the subsequent rationales for using various horticultural methods. My reasoning is that if people understand what’s going on, then they can use that information to know what to do in new circumstances. You don’t have to memorise a whole series of arcane “rules” about what to do for every kind of flower you grow if you simply understand the basics of their life cycles and how a few basic methods affect those. (I confess, sometimes I do end up sharing Too Many Details, delivering what what the kid calls a “three terrabyte RAR-bomb”.)

But some people either don’t understand science, or they feel intimidated by science because they think they are not smart enough to understand it. Worse, some people avoid science because it interferes with their pretty little mythologies about birdies and froggies and posies. Cartoonist Gary Larson wrote a deliciously satirical story about the dangers of ignorant romanticism about the natural world in his picture book, There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story.

The good news is that nowadays I do my presentations/teaching through a college, so the sort of people who attend are not put off by being exposed to scientific explanations. Indeed, they are usually pleasantly surprised by the fact that the “boring science stuff” has direct applications to ordinary dirt-gardening.

For example, I use both the scientific and common names for plants. I don’t do this to impress or intimidate people. Most people are familiar with, and prefer to use just the common names. But as I point out, the same common name can be used for a number of different (and sometimes even unrelated) species of flowers, and also the same flower can have a number of different common names. If someone asks me about “blue bells” we will have to do a little discussing to figure out whether they’re talking about a perennial, biennial, annual, or bulb-type plant. We use the scientific names to prevent confusion, not to be snobbish.

Near the beginning of class, I will ask the attendees for a show of hands when asking them, “Okay, now how many of you know what a Tyrannasaurus rex is?” Of course, everyone raises their hand, or at least grins. “Sure, everyone knows what a T. rex is. You learned that name when you were a little kid — it was a BIG, SCARY ANIMAL with a BIG, COMPLEX NAME, and you were proud to know it! Don’t let the scientific names of flowers intimidate you. You don’t have to use them all the time, but do get to know them — there’s nothing worse than buying a dozen Brown-Eyed Susans, and then next year discovering that they’re not coming back because you bought the biennial sort, Rudbeckia hirta, instead of the perennial sort, Rudbeckia fulgida.”

To be honest, not all of those Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies were biased against understanding science. In fact, some of them were well-educated, crack horticulturalists who knew what was meant by phrases like “tetraploid lily”. And certainly one doesn’t have to been either female or elderly to be scientifically illiterate or science-phobic. But it’s a simple fact of life that if you don’t understand what’s going on, then you are much more likely to create mis-interpretations of the world around you, or get suckered into believing things that just aren’t so.

And I think that’s a shame.

* With my prosopagnosia, I tend to classify “types” of humans, as I have great difficulty distinguishing between individuals whom I do not know well. Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies are remarkably homogeneous, with white hair, glasses, pastel pant-suits or floral dresses, have high-pitched voices, and in semi-formal situations (even in the 21st century) refer to each other as Mrs. Husband’s Name. Having done presentations at a number of garden club meetings in people’s homes, I also found that they frequently have environmental preferences for matched engravings of peonies, lamps with plastic dust-covers on the shades, and large quantities of china, including hand-painted plates hung upon the wall. Because I’m clumsy, all that expensive brick-a-brack made me nervous, and I was prone to rooting self-defensively in a hard-backed chair. Fortunately, as the guest speaker, I was often accosted with horticultural questions, which I found much easier to deal with than trying to engage in chit-chat.


  1. 2 August 2008 at 16:45

    […] and their new pets. “Mom?” “Yes dear?” “Are they?” “Are who?” “Er……are they “worms?” “Are who worms?” “Are worms be turn to “cocoons?” “No dear. Butterflies and moths […]

  2. 24 April 2008 at 19:02

    […] I did not find much better results in scientific understanding of some of Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies and their understanding of Anuran life cycles. Well, it’s not very useful to just stand […]

  3. Patrick said,

    22 April 2008 at 17:22


    Oh looky their giving each other piggy back rides! :P

  4. The Goldfish said,

    22 April 2008 at 15:57

    Did you see what was going on in Seahorse’s bucket last week?

    I love the boy-bird, girl bird thing. Apparently, during the desexualisation of the language attempted by the Victorians, when the started talking about haystacks instead of haycocks and all sorts of anatomical words became very rude swear words for the first time, there was a phase where the word “bull’ was thought too racey and was replaced by “gentleman cow”

    I frequently get hits from google from folks wishing to know how to tell the difference between a boy goldfish and a girl goldfish, as I’ve written about before.

  5. Annette said,

    22 April 2008 at 3:13

    I am a science phobe and yet even I can see those toads are having a good time…

    Great story!

  6. 21 April 2008 at 20:11

    Froggy went a courtin he did ride Crambo

  7. 21 April 2008 at 16:43

    If the TOGCL had seen the rampant activity in our pond the other night, they would have hit the floor in a faint!
    I’m off now to squeeze toads, gently

  8. Bad mommy said,

    21 April 2008 at 12:59

    I must respectfully disagree, dearie — more than likely those teetery garden club ladies were grossly biased against amphibians and reptiles. Well, probably science and engineering too, but primarily against bugs, snakes, toads, and most anything “icky.” Remember, they are in the garden club because they like pretty flowers, not because they like nature or because they understand why they shouldn’t blanket their garden in Round*p.

    I adore amphibians and reptiles, and I used to actively teach small children about them. And because one of the big questions I get from small kids is “is it a girl toad, or a boy toad?” I learned to tell the difference.

    You see, not even they can tell the difference. So what they do is get together in big groups in suitable bodies of water and try out different pairings. A male will hop onto the back of a (larger) female, and giver her hips a little squeeze. If she’s interested, she will stay where she is and they will mate. If she’s not, she will push him off.

    If, on the other hand, it’s not a female but a larger male, he will give a little (appalled) squeak when he’s squeezed in the hips. It’s the toad version of “Back off buddy, I’m a male!!” If you lift a toad in your hand, and give his hips a little squeeze with two fingers, a male will squeak. A female may be still or squirm, but she will make no noise at all.

    How’s that for funny? It works every time.

  9. Lenora said,

    21 April 2008 at 12:06

    I’m glad to hear the toads are going to be laying eggs anytime now. Last year I managed to collect 15 toadpoles (out of a spawn of hundreds) and kept them in a quarter full aquarium for the kids to watch them develop. We had to do some research about feeding them but we had a 100% success rate. I’m not sure how well they did after we released them in our backyard, but we did see a full grown one this spring.

  10. 21 April 2008 at 2:15

    […] Griffin McElroy wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  11. Fledchen said,

    21 April 2008 at 1:49

    I think I might be a bit weird, as I have a tendency to jump up and down and squeal “froggie!” (at least mentally if not literally/physically), *and* perseverate over natural history minutiae.

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