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Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach, part 2

October 24, 2011 1 comment

As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:

This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…

Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”

I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)

But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.

Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.

Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.

The rationality of ignorance

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Jonathan Bernstein’s analysis on the rationality of ignorance should be heeded by those who rail on poor science literacy:

Anyway, it’s worth noting that in all of these cases, I don’t mean to draw any negative conclusions about American voters. I don’t think they’re stupid. I just think that people have a lot of other interests besides the minutia of politics and public policy. There’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, it’s in most cases very smart to use shortcuts such as political party and other opinion leaders to substitute for detailed study of public policy…

Think of it this way: when you need to buy a home appliance, you probably wind up spending a bit of time and effort researching it  — although that might come down to “ask a friend who has proved reliable on these things in the past” rather than a careful start-from-scratch approach. But if you get a marketing survey about washer/dryers today and you’ve never thought about them before or haven’t for a decade, you might well give some awfully foolish answers if you do decide to answer their questions. That doesn’t make you stupid, and doesn’t make you ignorant in that pejorative sense. It’s just that you don’t travel around the world with ready-made, carefully-researched, intelligent things to say about home appliances. [Emphasis added–PK]

Hopefully someday we’ll see that people ignore science not because they are anti-science or ignorant, but because they have more interesting things to care about.

Categories: Literacy

People are scary in a way that numbers are not

September 29, 2011 7 comments

Two months ago TNC inveighed against reformers who depend solely on statistics to explain human motivations. They are blind to the possibility that changes leading to higher property values won’t automatically be supported. They can’t see that a neighborhood is often much more than a financial instrument. Most importantly, they often fail to note “the humanity in the actual human beings they would have reformed.”

This passage in particular struck me:

Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it’s really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.

He could have been describing reports on scientific literacy. The Americans are scientific buffoons porn is quite easy to find. The people captured in those reports not so much. Who are some of these people without “basic factual knowledge of science?” What do they do for a living? For fun when they get home? Do they really need more science to live meaningful lives? As I said about women in science, it’s easy to rob people of agency and assume their lives are tragic. It’s a lot harder to try understand their decisions on their own terms.

None of this is meant to undermine either the value of education or basic factual knowledge. It is not a good situation that only 20% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun. We should try to improve the situation.

But if we had some deeply reported science journalism to complement the statistics, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much fatalism. If we recognized that real people leading real lives can get along just fine even with their scientific illiteracy, there would be no reason to judge them so harshly. As with housing policy reform, science outreach is easier if you actually respect the people being reached out to.

Categories: Education, Literacy, Society

Why do we teach science?

March 3, 2011 2 comments

The Lt. makes an important point I’ve been meaning to address in his response to my suggestion that much of biology can be taught without the theory of evolution (emphasis added):

You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

In grad school I took a class on “Science Education for Scientists and Engineers.” Perhaps the most interesting discussions we had centered on the justifications for public science literacy. That is, why do we teach everyone science? Surely society’s need for scientists and engineers can be satisfied by training a small elite. But we clearly care about more than just that. The endless exhortations for more science education reflect, I believe, the belief that science must mean something for everyone.

And here is where it gets a little tricky. From my light reading in the field, there really is no expert consensus on why or how we foster a general public understanding of science. Scholars generally agree that science education should leave people with some content knowledge, some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But specifically what content, and how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation is a mystery.

From my standpoint, if we care even a little about the last goal (and I believe we should care a lot), then we must tread carefully around thorny topics like evolution. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it surely is), or that the theory should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily?

In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness.

How to think about science

September 28, 2010 1 comment

Via Matt Nesbit (in a post I’ll also try to comment on in my 3-day blogging rampage), I’d like to draw your attention to a wonderful series “How to Think About Science” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The host interviews sociologists, historians, philosophers, and even a couple scientists.  Unfortunately, the podcasts don’t seem to be available for download and so you’ll have to listen to them from your computer.  I’ve already listened to the first interview with Steven Shapin, co-author of the allegedly ground-breaking book “Leviathan and the Air-Pump.”

I can’t speak for the rest of the series just yet, but this first installment is excellent.  Shapin stresses the need for a more nuanced image of science to be more widely communicated, something I feel the STS community woefully neglects.  He also points out that the term “public understanding of science” can be taken to have two distinct meaning.  On one hand, it can mean that the public should know or accept scientists’ view of the world.  Alternatively, it can also mean that the public should know how scientists produce knowledge of the world.  A subtle difference that can lead to vastly different outcomes.

A couple other interesting tidbits from the hour-long piece:

  1. During the science wars, Shapin asserts that a few hypersensitive scientists confused the demystification of science with “catastrophic undermining.”  I like that phrasing.
  2. There are two conflicting, yet consistently promoted images of science.  Either scientists are superhumans capable of solving any problem (critiqued by both Ryan and myself), or science is simply organized common sense.  Both images are incorrect.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Natural Reflections.

Categories: Communication, Literacy, STS

Misleading pictures

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This past week I’ve been at the Gordon Research Conference on Science and Technology Policy.  It’s really a great conference with a nice mix of academics and practitioners.  I’d discuss more here, but it’s unfortunately off-the-record.  I could try make the case that given my underwhelming readership, my blog should qualify as off-the-record, but I don’t think it’d fly.  Oh well, such is life.

I will say that I just had some very fruitful discussions on Rethinking Expertise, which I just gave a glowing review.   Definitely gave me some perspective on how the work is viewed  by people in the field.

My earlier post neglected to mention another reason I liked the book.   On page 51, EC noted that the failure to wrestle properly with expertise gives a “misleading picture of the power of logical thought and experimental genius.”  In light of my views on scientific thinking, this message had special appeal.  Ultimately content knowledge and specific expertise matters much more than an amorphous, poorly defined method of thinking.

Now resolving the problems of expertise won’t necessarily make contentious debates any easier.  Climate change and genetically modified crops are contentious for reasons deeper than a misunderstanding of expertise.  But addressing the misconceptions might be a useful place to start.

Scientific thinking yet again

June 24, 2010 2 comments

My friend I-Chant had a sharp response to my last post:

Geez, Praj, you have never been trained as a psychologist, yet you know about going to PsycInfo, using some relevant search terms to pull up research that you are looking for, and marginally interpret it. Well, you shouldn’t know how to do that, should you? But yet, you did it, and I bet you didn’t think of the irony. ;) [It would have been easier to just call me a hypocrite:)–PK]

There is actually a lot of cognitive psychology that backs up my (and others’) point earlier. The first question here is whether problem solving skills transfer at all. We in the field call it positive transfer. Transfer to a new context is called far transfer, and there is evidence for that as well. The answer from many years of research (Chen and Klahr, 2008, and heck, that is for kids!; Barnett and Ceci, 2002) is yes, these things definitely happen. I will send you the PDFs.

The second question here is whether Chu, or what I think we may agree on is an expert in his field, can do it better than a novice (I think a novice could be a non-scientist, i.e., politicians, Paul Krugman, and Toni Morrison). Again, cognitive psychology research says yes, experts have the advantage. The approach problems completely differently, do not have the learning curve that novices would in building up that skill set (and in this oil crisis, I think we probably agree that not wasting time learning is important), and they also have more space for creativity (a couple of landmark studies are Larkin, McDermott, Simon, Simon, 1980 and Sweller, 1988, lots of more recent ones). There are surprisingly a lot of studies that look specifically at physics problems and physicists as well so I don’t know how you can claim that there is no evidence or data for this! We’ve already agreed that there are probably people who are more expert in this problem than Chu, but Chu can quickly acquire the knowledge that he needs and his job as Secretary of Energy has given him some practice at that. There are probably lots of other qualities that Chu has that may make him more desirable in this situation, including a broader, more creative perspective by not being entrenched in this problem, lots of connections to get him the right expertise, and political backing. Again, I’m not arguing he is the best person in the world for this job, but he is a pretty good one and certainly better than Robinson gives him credit for.

I’ll point out that in my first post I explicitly said “As far as I know, there’s no data either way.”  Now I do know and duly stand corrected.  I am interested, however, in what specifically we mean by “problem-solving skills.”  I’m sure that some things do transfer.  But from my personal experience theorists  often make clumsy experimentalists and vice versa.  So even within a single field there isn’t always strong transfer, and I suspect that when it does occur the problems have a large degree of overlap.

Nevertheless I will grant that Chu is better suited for this role than I gave him credit for, though I’m still not sure if his scientific thinking or management experience helps more.  Perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the articles or having I-Chant lecture me some more!

But there are a couple deeper issues here.  First, as Ryan pointed out, the question isn’t expert versus non-expert.  It is the specific type of expertise needed, and whether we assume someone with a physics Nobel Prize is the right type.  Robinson’s refusal to blindly accept the latter proposition is what I most appreciated about his column.  We need more skepticism along these lines, and Robinson should be applauded for the effort.  We need more pushback against the conventional wisdom that scientists’ analytical powers qualify them to discuss everything.  So while Robinson’s analysis may have gone overboard here, his desire to challenge the mainstream view is commendable.

As I’ve said before, climate skeptics succeed partially because more people do not adopt such a critical stance (see disunity and climate change).  Scientists are viewed as a single authoritative, undifferentiated mass, and there’s no recognition of the immense diversity that exists.  This attitude allows Freeman Dyson to attack global warming on the cover of  the New York Times Magazine even though he has no credibility as a climate scientist.  Of course if you believe that all it takes is arbitrary expertise and exceptional analytical skills, there’s no problem here.  We can just assume that near, far and medium transfer makes Dyson qualified to discuss global warming.

But quantum field theory is not climate change and Freeman Dyson is no Stephen Schneider.  All scientists are not equal on every issue.  Even if cognitive psychologists can prove the existence of scientific thinking, I suspect the extent of transfer depends critically on the particular situation.  So in the end we must decide whether the default is trust or skepticism.  While there is a happy medium, the mere existence of people like Dyson and Frederick Seitz is proof enough that we’ve swung too far in one direction.  You can even read entire books about the damage caused by scientists speaking outside their domain.  If more people thought like Eugene Robinson this might be less of a problem.

Categories: Literacy