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Culture War Roundup for the week of September 12, 2022

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Sometimes I wonder if maybe nothing in the culture has really changed at all and it just feels different to me because I'm older now and paying attention to politics more than I used to. Then I'm confronted with strong evidence that no, it's not all in my head, something important really has changed in recent years.

The most recent such thing: Cyberchase. Cyberchase is a children's show that airs on PBS Kids that premiered in 2002. I have fond memories of it and it was probably the only PBS show that I was still willing to watch as a child even after I figured out how TV remotes worked and discovered Nickelodeon.

Cyberchase is focused on exposing children to mathematical concepts in a way that is entertaining enough to hold their attention and presented at a level they can grasp. The way each episode works is that the villain, Hacker, tries to hack the Motherboard (the AI that controls the computers that run "Cyberspace", i.e. the Internet) in some way every episode and three kids, Matt, Jackie, and Inez (ages 9-11) have to thwart him. Along the way, they learn about some mathematical concept that helps them stop Hacker.

My favorite episode is Season 2 episode 10, "Raising the Bar," which is about bar graphs. It has stuck in my memory all this time because it blew my child mind when I saw it the first time, and also because I think its lesson is one of the most important for everyone to know. Hacker impersonates an exterminator and releases bugs in a cyberspace library instead of killing them. The children suspect this when they discover an unusual number of bugs in one section of the library, and they create a bar graph to show the library administrator. But Hacker presents his own bar graph that suggests the bug problem is minimal in every section, which calms the administrator. The kids are stumped until they realize that Hacker had changed the scale on the Y-Axis and deliberately left off the labels in order to make all the bars look small. They point this out to the library administrator, finally convince her, and save the day. To this day, I still think of this Cyberchase episode when I see a misleading data visualization.

One thing I love about Cyberchase is its faith in young children's ability to grasp complex concepts if they're presented well. It airs on PBS Kids, which has a target audience of children ages 2-8 but sometimes addresses concepts that are not taught to average students until high school. The list of topics goes beyond more basic concepts like multiplication and fractions and includes algebra, growth by doubling (i.e. exponential growth), data prediction, probability, symmetry, and 3D geometry. In its most ambitious episodes, the show targeted at 8-year-olds introduces game theory by having the kids find a solution for Nim, and introduces mathematical proofs by having them prove that it's not possible to make a triangle out of any three rods.

In a children's programming landscape dominated by shows that only prioritize entertainment and in a country whose school system often stunts and demoralizes its most curious and motivated students, Cyberchase is a gem. It introduces complex concepts to children at a level they can understand, and it does so while remaining genuinely entertaining and funny. Probably it has sparked a curiosity in many children that their basic arithmetic lessons couldn't, and helped them to grasp complex concepts more quickly when they encountered them years later in school. Probably it has played a role in encouraging more people to enter STEM fields and help us build the future. I know it did for me. In short, it's a great kids show, in my opinion one of the best ever.

...Well, it was, anyway. The focus of Cyberchase has shifted since its inception in 2002. All of the episodes I've listed so far have been from the show's first 5 seasons, which aired from 2002-2007 and were the ones most focused on math lessons. In seasons 6-8 (2007-10), many of the episodes focused on uses of math in real-world contexts like sports and weather, still a very worthy topic IMO but less rigorous than the concept-heavy topics in the earlier seasons. After season 8 ended in 2010, the series when on a three year hiatus and returned with a new director (J. Meeka Stuart replaced Brandon Lloyd) for season 9 in 2013. This is where the focus of the series really shifted. In the first episode, "An Urchin Matter," the kids save a kelp-bed ecosystem by releasing the sea otters that Hacker has captured because the sea otters are a keystone species that keeps the ecosystem balanced by eating sea urchins. In the second episode, they build a bunch of solar panels to light a skate park after Hacker's minions sabotage the power plant. In the third, they need to clear a giant trash heap that threatens to break through a certain cybersite's dome.

I'm sure you've noticed the pattern. The goal of the new Cyberchase, under the direction of Stuart, is no longer primarily to teach kids math. Its goal is to teach kids to be environmentalists. You can look at all the episode titles on the list and see that from season 9 onward every episode is about environmentalism.

There's still some math content. The solar panel episode, for example, has several moments where the kids multiply two numbers together to decide how many solar panels they need. Here's the first such moment, and the second. But in the first scene, one of the characters just says the answer, and in the second, one of them literally uses a calculator. There's no explanation of how to multiply numbers together, and no deeper exploration of the topic. One could argue that the focus of this episode is multiplication, but it sure feels like a shoehorned-in afterthought to me. Compare that scene to this one from Season 1 episode 19 that actually explains how to multiply.

I watched other episodes of season 9 while researching this post and everything I saw is like this. They use some kind of math concept somewhere but don't really explain, and they quickly move on to get back to the environmentalism. It feels like the sort of thing you would do if you wanted to make a show about environmentalism but you were hired to make a show about math.

Later episodes seem to have gotten even lighter on the math. I watched all of season 11 episode 5 and there weren't even any moments like that, it was all about the kids building a wind mill.

A lot of the focus of new Cyberchase seems like relatively uncontroversial stuff about how recycling is good or invasive species are bad, and some of it is scientifically educational. Remarkably, I couldn't find any references to climate change or global warming. I don't agree with all of the messages, in particular I think its treatment of solar and wind energy is biased. But setting all that aside, my argument is not that environmentalism is bad or that kids shows about environmentalism are bad. My argument is that environmentalism is not what Cyberchase was supposed to be about. I would feel the same way if it was turned in a show dedicated to pushing a message I 100% agreed with. There's no denying that when the show restarted in 2013, it was a different show what it was in 2010. Probably it will still encourage some kids to enter STEM fields, especially biology and environmental science. But what it won't do is teach them math concepts in a way that will help them actually succeed in those fields, especially the math-heavier ones like physics. It also probably won't be as effective at creating intellectual curiosity in kids like me, who was fascinated with logic puzzles like Nim, but wouldn't have been as interested in a story about building a wind mill.

Some might say that after 8 years of teaching math, Cyberchase was out of math topics and needed to pivot to something else. I completely disagree. It might have exhausted the purest math topics, but there's loads of math-adjacent topics it has never touched on. They could have had age-appropriate episodes about programming, logic gates, electricity, opinion surveys, genetics (despite the show's recent focus on biology, it never touches on genetics), space, optics, magnets, the law of supply and demand, airplanes, and so many more things. The new show is focused almost entirely on environmental science and a little biology and ignores physics, chemistry, computer science, astronomy, economics, and statistics. You might say that doing all of those things would be too much and it had to pick one subject, but the show seems to have exhausted all of the topics in environmental science a while ago and become repetitive. There are three different episodes about building gardens, for example (s10e3, s12e4, s13e10), and three about trash (s9e3, s12e1, s13e7). Also, I don't think repeating math topics would have been that bad. Approaching the same topic from a slightly different angle might help some kids grasp it better than they did the first time. This doesn't really apply to the message "trash is bad," which everyone can pretty much get the first time.

I guess that’s all I have to say. Cyberchase was amazing and now it’s just okay, and I’m sad.

A lot of the focus of new Cyberchase seems like relatively uncontroversial stuff about how recycling is good

Sorry to zoom in on an inconsequential part of an otherwise solid effortpost.

But there's actually quite a bit of controversy about whether recycling is 'good.' On a basic level, there's a question as to whether, for certain types of materials, it is more energy-efficient to recycle vs. manufacture new. And the fact that many times materials put in recycling bins are just sent to the dump. It isn't clear that recycling is any more environmentally friendly than putting stuff in a landfill.

But this arguably gets towards exactly why teaching more neutral concepts about how to properly analyze data and identify flaws in it's presentation or reasoning is important!

If we just say "RECYCLING GOOD" (which I got a LOT OF messaging on growing up) and don't explain how to examine the information used to make that determination, we end up with things that people take for granted as obviously true simply because they have never seen it questioned and haven't thought to question it themselves.

Can you imagine a children's show doing an episode where they ultimately conclude that it isn't sensible to recycle plastics and it is in fact more environmentally friendly to send them to the dump? Even if the conclusion is correct it would just seem so dissonant. Maybe the Tuttle Twins would do it.

Square One was also quite good. It was kind of a math variety show with lots of parodies and homages. The main feature was mathnet a 5 part episode of a police procedural involving math crimes.

I wonder if math shows for kids are memorable because they're made by people who are good at verbal and math or because the topic is unexplored so the shows are bits of water in a desert for their fans.

Square One TV was my first exposure to Weird Al, police procedurals, and many, many math concepts. Whenever I remember that fractions are just division problems stacked vertically, I visualize the street scene from the skit I learned it from.

It was the dorkiest possible show in every respect, but I still love it. I need to data-hoard the rips before PBS takes them all down via copystrike.

I still think of that country song about 9s when I do multiplication and division using 9s, even though I already had my 9s memorized before I heard the song.

We go to the library a lot for children's books and come home with a good pile. One of those books looked innocent enough on the cover, but turned out to be about a boy who wanted to dress up as a princess. So he goes dress shopping with his mother until he finds the perfect dress, and ends by giving a lesson to his friends on how it's ok for a boy to dress as a princess. Obviously I stopped reading it aloud on the second page when I could see where this was going. But after reflection, it was the first book in the house that was actually about the princess archetype.

They are subverting these archetypes before kids even learn them. The author was some gender identity activist. The culture has definitely changed.

It was definitely a "if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone" moment. Yes, they are going after the children. You have to take active measures if you don't want them exposed to it, and even then, it's pretty hopeless once the school system gets them in the classroom.

What is objectionable about that book? A boy dressing up as a princess doesn't seem any worse than other make-believe that children engage in.

One one level, it’s objectionable because the protagonist of the book, the viewpoint character for the audience, is explicitly trying to normalize cross-dressing play. The implicit heroism of the character’s role in the story implies what he’s saying is truth and any who question or mock him are antagonists. In other words, it’s textbook propaganda designed to make the audience believe that any other viewpoint would be shamed by a hero.

On another level, it’s not even androgynous clothing the hero’s promoting, it’s princess-trope clothing, the girliest possible costume. Princess tropes not only include flowing dresses, there’s also “waiting for my prince to come,” and “prettier than the rest,” which, being the girl’s/passive side of relationship tropes, are textbook entryways to being groomed for a pedophilic relationship. A little boy who’s trained to equate his princess-play with wanting smooches can be talked into being molested.

Whether you agree with these or not, or find more objectionable forms of make-believe play as counter-examples, I’ve listed two categories of objection to the book-as-activism.

One strategy I am increasingly considering for myself is "avoid any media made after some cut-off date." The upside is that you don't end up dropped into a roiling cauldron of active culture-war fighting, and you can generally get the best of the past, since you know what's passed the sieve of time, but the downside is you're not up-to-date with what others are talking about.

The latter probably matters even (much) more to people who are not so much of hermits as I am, though.

I also remember Cyberchase incredibly fondly from my childhood, though I definitely liked several PBS Kids shows. My favorite was still probably Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

Still, I worry about extrapolating too much from the story of a single show. I'd love to know more about the behind-the-scenes wrangling at PBS, but my sense is this perhaps has more to do with the changeover from a showrunner interested in mathematics to a showrunner interested in environmentalism than with a dramatic shift in the culture.

At the same time, I agree that something has really shifted in terms of the way society tries to get children interested in ideas. I think there's still an attempt to get kids into math and science, but often it feels like politicians and industry leaders think just saying the word "STEM" or obnoxiously expanding the acronym ("We're trying to get kids into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics...") will conjure young nerds out of thin air. Not so.

A part of me thinks that social justice ideology has something to do with the decline in interest in STEM, but not for the reasons you might think. I attended what could be accurately, if not precisely, described as a magnet school in one of the most conservative areas of the country. My magnet-class peers, with few exceptions, were some of the first to hop on board the socjus train before it even left the station -- these are people who were talking about systemic oppression and queer theorizing in 2013. In fact, the smarter they were, the more likely it seemed they were interested in the nascent social justice movement. But of course the biggest correlate of socjus ideology was whether or not they used Tumblr.

I worry that the social justice movement is distracting many young nerdy types from engaging productively with scientific and mathematical fields and instead directing the capacity of their intellects towards political activism and critical theory, which I personally view as an intellectual black hole. I certainly know a lot of atheists like to complain about Christian theology distracting the greatest minds of centuries from the possibilities of scientific discovery and instead prompting them to debate how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. I happen to overall disagree with this assessment, though I can certainly understand how the world might be better if Issac Newton had given up on Biblical numerology and instead focused even more on math and physics. And I guess from my non-socjus perspective it kind of feels like my peers in school were suffering from some kind of mind-virus that took over their faculties without them realizing it. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..."

My girlfriend said something recently that stuck with me: "It seems like Americans have given up on improving things, especially for our children. We used to be concerned about how our test scores stacked up against China and Sweden, but we aren't any more." I think part of this effect is just the fact that COVID has sucked all the oxygen out of the room (not a pneumonia joke, I swear) when it comes to education, which annoys both her and me. But I think another part is... I don't know, I just feel there has emerged a sort of generalized apathy about things getting better.

There's been discussion on here recently about the Russian culture of stalwart pessimism, and I almost feel like that sort of pessimism is becoming more common in the US, which of course is famously optimistic. Part of it is probably just my personal mood -- I think I'm falling into a depression -- but another part is I think American society in general has just given up. Even politically, I think much of the vitriol and energy is about how evil the opposing tribe is rather than any sense that one's own tribe has a chance of making things good. I remember a certain amount of rhetoric from the left about how the re-election of Donald Trump would lead to the murder of trans kids. My conservative cousin for his part posted on Facebook during the 2020 election that if Biden won the election Christmas would be banned. Note that I think both of these takes are batshit insane. But American politics nowadays feels inherently reactive, in the sense that it's all about reacting to the excesses of the opposing tribe, real or imagined.

I think trying to offer an antidote to this sort of pessimism is key to Donald Trump's political success ("Make America Great Again"). This really only works among his older base of support, though -- people who remember when things were good and getting better. My understanding is that younger Trump supporters like him mostly because he offends and angers progressives (the "own the libs" perspective) which certainly supports my thesis of politics becoming more reactive.

Well, I guess that was more of a rant about my time in high school than a response to the Cyberchase situation. It's been a weird day.

I happen to overall disagree with this assessment, though I can certainly understand how the world might be better if Issac Newton had given up on Biblical numerology and instead focused even more on math and physics.

This seems contradictory. On what grounds do you disagree with the assessment of your atheist acquaintances?

Even politically, I think much of the vitriol and energy is about how evil the opposing tribe is rather than any sense that one's own tribe has a chance of making things good.

...defeating evil is not considered good?

There's a big difference between "here are our solutions to the world's problems" and "$OTHER_TRIBE's solutions won't work and we oppose them!"

I don't follow. Both tribes will say both of those things.

Yeah, that's why I said $OTHER_TRIBE and not red tribe. OP was talking about how pessimistic the US seems to be getting and I'm backing him/her up. Being against the opposing tribe is much more pessimistic than being for your own proposals.

It seems like Americans have given up on improving things, especially for our children. We used to be concerned about how our test scores stacked up against China and Sweden, but we aren't any more.

Test scores are too easy to associate with racism.

tired: standardized testing is on the chopping block because it has disparate impact against blacks and hispanics

wired: standardized testing is unpopular because the white upper class is losing out to Asians, but they can't say this so they use discrimination against blacks as an excuse.

inspired: standardized testing is unpopular because the head girl types who now control our politics are still mad about the class male nerd who blew off all his homework but still beat her on the tests.

expired: the majority being jealous of smart people is just the world historical normal that we are reverting back to, the era of promoting people based on objective academic achievement is the anomaly

wired: standardized testing is unpopular because the white upper class is losing out to Asians, but they can't say this so they use discrimination against blacks as an excuse.

i think it's this one. good insight

Very good post. I remembered watching Cyberchase as a kid but didn't remember it being so good... until you said that it was only the first 5 seasons or so. I had probably watched the later seasons (I remember an episode with the crux being reading the nutrition labels so the kids avoid drinking some harmful drink devised by Hacker, or something like that). How do I nominate a post for AAQC on this new site?

Report and say actually a quality contribution.