The Truth is Out There by Bob Sprankle
I think the best way to tell this tale, is to rewind to 7 or so years ago.
I am a 3/4 Multi-Age teacher, and Google has yet to be invented. I can’t remember exactly what I was teaching to the students at the time, but I believe it must have been science related, because we were talking about blood. Somehow the conversation turned to the color of blood, and before I knew it, my entire class —100%— was suddenly trying to convince me that:
“Your blood is blue when it’s inside your body and it turns red when it comes out and hits oxygen.”
I had never in my life heard such a thing.
I immediately disputed the fact, but like I said, there was no Google or even a reliable Internet connection in my room, so I was unable to quickly find proof for them. They held strong to their belief, and I to mine, and we left that day with no resolution of who was correct or not.
However —lucky for me— I was scheduled to have my blood drawn (for some yearly checkup thing) several days later. I’m able to do this in the morning before school starts at a facility conveniently located near the school. So, as the blood technician (is that the correct title?) stuck my arm, I asked her to help settle the argument. I told her my students’ claim that it is the oxygen that makes blood red and my own position of “No way.”
In short, she laughed at me and said, “Look at this tube that your blood is going in to. That’s a vacuum! There is no oxygen in there. What color is your blood?!”
Indeed it was red. I couldn’t wait to tell my students when I got to school that morning.
When I did, they still refused to believe me, even after a blood expert told me what’s what.
I’m not a scientist. I teach science at the elementary level, and I’ve still got plenty of science to learn. Did I doubt my own conviction when the entire class argued against me? You bet I did (even if momentarily), and I think all scientists constantly question and doubt their convictions as well until indisputable proof is delivered. Not being a blood expert, it was my duty to find the correct answer to bring back to my students. Finding a blood expert (a blood technician at a doctor’s office) seemed a sufficient resource for me to acquire the correct answer.
Fast forward to present:
I now teach in a computer lab with a curriculum that is mostly made up of ISTE standards, preparing students for the world they live in. One of the main skills taught is:
Students will use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
I do this at each grade level I teach (K-4) in varying degrees and have just recently completed a unit with my 3rd graders on how to evaluate web resources, how to identify if the author(s) is an expert, and whether or not the information can be trusted.
To illustrate just how hard this can be, I asked my students a question at the beginning of the unit:
“How many of you think your blood is blue when it’s inside your body and turns red when it comes out and mixes with oxygen?”
Informally, I would say around 90-95% of the students said they believed this. They were shocked when I told them the story of asking an expert years ago whether or not this is true, and the revelation that this belief is a myth. This lead into the discussion of “what makes an expert?” and from there, we dove into how to find and evaluate information on websites.
So… the other day —St. Patrick’s Day to be specific— I needed to get a blood test again. Per usual, I went to the same facility close to the school. This time, however, out of all the times I’ve been there to have blood taken, I was put into a different room, one I was unaware even existed. It was right next to the room that I usually go in —a closet size space, large enough to accommodate the tools needed to get the job done. I’ll call this “Room A.” “Room B” (the room I was put in the other day), looks just like “Room A,” except everything is “backwards.” In other words, it has the exact same equipment, but its setup is a “mirrored image” of Room A.
So, I’m sitting there, noticing how the room is a mirrored image of the room I’ve always gone in, thinking about the fact that I never knew the existence of the room, daydreaming about parallel universes (hey, what can I say, my brain does these things) and listening to the blood technician as she wishes me a “Happy St. Paddy’s Day” and tells me how the entire office has been celebrating the day. They’ve all worn their green “scrubs,” Irish music is playing in the background, Leprechaun cut-outs have been hung up around the building… they’re really going for the Irish theme “big time” this year. I think of making a “green blood” joke, somehow connecting it to the tradition of “green beer,” but I realize it’s not going to come off right so I decide against it. When she gets ready to stick the needle in, however, I feel it’s my turn to continue some type of banter, if only to assure her that needles don’t bother me, and that I can make small talk while having blood drawn so she’ll have no concerns that I might be someone who faints or grows ill during such a procedure (I try my best to be an “upbeat” patient whenever encountering folks in the health field; I realize how difficult their jobs are).
I say to the technician —just to make small talk, mind you— “Do you know how many people think their blood is blue when it’s in their body and only turns red once it hits oxygen?”
I was approaching this topic not as someone who’s “in the know” (wink, wink) and is having a laugh at those who don’t know, but more as an educator, sharing common knowledge in order to next ask how many times she has encountered people who believe in blue blood, and how she goes about educating these patients.
Instead of the response I expected, she turned to me and said:
“Well… isn’t it?”
Okay… suddenly I was dizzy. It could have been the blood being drawn, the effect that the “mirrored room” was having on me (the parallel-universe-Matrix-movie effect), the Irish music whirling around on the sound system, or all of these combined. But suddenly, my entire reality took a hit and I felt the bottom drop out from below me.
“But… but… but…” I stammered, “I was here… a couple of years… ago… and the other technician… told me… that that’s a myth… vacuum… this tube… is a vacuum… proof…” I tried my best to tell about my previous encounter with one of her colleagues (an expert in blood), trying very hard not to offend her in any way.
It was clear the scene became slightly awkward for both of us because we were simultaneously doubting our realities. We both murmured on, mostly to ourselves:
Blood Technician: “I… heard this, but I can’t remember who told me…”
Me: “But… who’s seen the blue blood? How could one eliminate oxygen in order to actually… see it?”
Blood Technician: “Well… now I’m not sure… maybe I should ask the lab technician…”
Me: “Well, now I’m not sure… maybe the other person had it wrong…”
Meanwhile the red stuff flowed out of my arm into the little capsule and I realized I had accidentally, severely messed with this poor woman’s reality… or maybe my own. Or maybe I was trying to block out the voice in the back of my head that was screaming, “This woman is taking your blood! Shouldn’t she be an expert?! Shouldn’t her answer be as emphatic and indisputable as the last technician’s was? And shouldn’t both answers agree?!”
I made light of it by saying something like, “Heh, heh, heh! I can see what you’ll be talking about at dinner tonight. This jerk came in and started this whole crazy conversation with me about the color of blood! Heh, heh, heh!”
This didn’t help. She was clearly unnerved, and the moment she put the band-aid on my arm (“Please apply pressure”), she went to ask the “Lab Technician” the answer.
This was “off stage” so I never got to see the “Lab Technician.” I thought that my “Blood Technician” was the “Lab Technician,” but clearly there are different levels of technicians.
My “Blood Technician” came back a moment later and told me the “Lab Technician’s” answer:
“He said he wasn’t sure and to Google it.”
Okay… I have to admit, at this point I just wanted to get out of there. I had done enough damage.
The “Blood Technician” did go on to say that the “Lab Technician” also said that some blood is red and some is darker because of the lack of oxygen, and that some people would say that it resembled a purplish color, maybe not actually blue.
I finally leave, feeling really badly that I ever brought this up, but now am filled from head to toe with an intense desire: I must find the truth.
Okay. It is at this point in the post, that I’m sure some of you are voting for “RED” and some of you are voting for “BLUE.” Please, don’t hesitate to take a pause from reading here to go do your own Google search (I’ll wait here). Before I reveal my own findings, I again want to admit that I was unsure of the final answer. I decided to put a typical search into Google in a syntax that I see many students use: in other words, ask it a question directly. Feel free to use the one I used:
“Is blood blue in your body?”
This is a great activity for students, by the way: “Prove whether blood is blue or red when it’s inside your body.” Using the Google search I gave as an example above, you’re going to see that there will be plenty of results (I got “About 17,100,000 results” on the day I ran the query). The next job for your students is to be able to separate the answers found from those that are made up of anecdotal evidence, and perhaps supplied by amateurs (such as you might find on a “Yahoo Answers” page) from those which are indisputable and come from experts in the field. This is where you get to teach students how to harness advance search options (such as limiting results to sites with the domain “.edu”) or any of the other great lessons that you would find in Alan November’s book: “Web Literacy for Educators”.
For instance, as your students start to understand how to limit searches to just academic sites (by using “.edu” I came up with a smaller search result: “About 774,000”), they might come up with one of results I found:
Once they use this academic source to “prove/disprove” their assumption, you can then “mess with their minds” by teaching them that the “tilde” (this symbol: ~) used before the professor’s name (~kalinkat) means that while this site is related to an academic site (from Michigan State University, to be exact), the “tilde” shows that the “site is not an official academic page… but actually a personal posting” (p.32, November). What does this mean? Personal postings could show “bias,” and more research is required.
Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere! We’ve just opened up a lovely “can of worms!” Isn’t the search for truth fun?
You see, I must come clean: I’m sure you can tell that this whole “blue blood” thing has gotten me a bit fired up. The thing is, though, I’m not bothered by the fact that I doubted myself several times throughout this long research journey. I’m not even bothered by the fact that every adult (except one) I’ve asked since my “St. Paddy’s Day” blood test has answered “Blue” when I asked them what color blood is inside your body. (By the way, that one person who said “Red” is our school’s nurse, and she came and actually talked to one of my classes with charts in hand. Incidentally, she went home that day and asked her own husband what color he thought it was, and he refuses to believe in any answer other than “Blue”).
What bothers me is that the idea that blood is blue in our bodies until it comes into contact with oxygen is truly a “magical idea.” It is on the level of something that would be possible in the movie Avatar, or as magical as actual Leprechauns coming to visit on St. Patrick’s Day. In other words, because this seems so over the top, how could such a misconception (or myth) exist so long and so large in our culture and why did it take so much effort to prove to myself and to others I’ve been arguing with for weeks what the correct answer is?
When served green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone knows it’s not magic and can follow the logical trail back to how such a thing as the beer turning green occurred (eventually landing at food coloring or some other scientific answer). We’ve all had experience with blood. Red blood. No one has ever seen blue blood come out of a human, and yet so many of us are walking around satisfied with the notion that someone somewhere once told us it is actually blue.
When I asked people to prove to me their answer when they said “Blue,” no one could, of course, but most were content to hang on to their belief rather than be motivated to find cold, hard evidence.
So, I end this post with two questions:
- The first one (probably expected) is: Are we teaching enough science in our curriculum?
- But the second question seems more urgent to me: Are we teaching enough research and critical thinking skills in our curriculum?
Here are some of my favorite findings that might help you with your own “Blue/Red” debates:
- courses.washington.edu/edtep586/nelly%20practicum.pdf (check out p.2 of the practicum and how the teacher “was able to address alternative conceptions students had.”)
- http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcbst.ucdavis.edu%2Feducation%2Fcourses%2Fwinter-2010-ist8a%2Fist8a_2010_03_08oxymetry.pdf&ei=v8mYTb6VCuWa0QH9j5n8Cw&usg=AFQjCNHlJCmHFrj2cN9BlRfx3KNetFdxGQ&sig2=xZee1kItyE5jRalugx6zhg (see slide 12)
“Binghamton University – News and Events: The Newsroom: Ask a Scientist: Scientist: Archive.” Binghamton University – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <http://www.binghamton.edu/news/the-newsroom/ask-a-scientist/index.html?date=2011-03-07>.
“Blood – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood#Color>.
Molinaro, M. . “Biophotonics Tools – Oxymetry IST 8A Lecture.” Biophotonics Tools – Oxymetry IST 8A Lecture. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcbst.ucdavis.edu%2Feducation%2Fcourses%2Fwinter-2010-ist8a%2Fist8a_2010_03_08oxymetry.pdf&ei=v8mYTb6VCuWa0QH9j5n8Cw&usg=AFQjCNHlJCmHFrj2cN9BlRfx3KNetFdxGQ&sig2=xZee1kItyE5jRalugx6zhg>.
November, Alan C.. Web Literacy for Educators . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Print.
Tsai, Nelly. “Circulatory System.” nelly practicum.pdf. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <courses.washington.edu/edtep586/nelly%20practicum.pdf>.