Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do

While performing monotonous, brainless tasks at work, I’ve begun the habit of listening to podcasts.  And let my friends tell you: have I been listening to WNYC’s Radiolab or what?  (I feel like I recommend an episode to someone every few days.)  The other morning, I got completely stuck on a 2-minute clip from the episode “Time” (~29 min – 31 min).  The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, had just been speaking with theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene about the theory of relativity and how, well, time is relative.

Jad asks the question: “What do you with this information? … I know this is what science tells me, but my common sense tells me that that is COMPLETELY WRONG.”

Text cannot do Radiolab justice; listen to the 2-minute clip below:


The key quote here is from Brian Greene:

This is one of the great conundrums, it seems to me, that what you learn in science is so different than what you feel in your regular life!  How do you live between those two worlds when what you know and what you feel are so different?

To be honest, this is not something I had thought about too hard before.  I grew up immersed in science.  Any facts that exist that I couldn’t reconcile with experience, I just chalked up to the limitations of my senses or even my brain’s ability to conceptualize (the latter usually reserved for when I’m dealing with astrophysics).  But if you aren’t well-versed in how science works and perhaps the basics, this stuff sounds completely insane!  I mean, reread Brian Greene again:

When I look at the tabletop, I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the atoms and molecules and the interactions between them and the mostly empty space that’s in there.  And that when my hand touches the tabletop, I see the electrons of the outer surface of my hand pushing against the electrons in the outer surface of the table.  I’m not really touching the table!  My hand never comes into contact with the table!  What’s happening is the electrons are getting really close together and they’re repelling each other.  And I love the fact that I am, in essence, deforming the surface of the table by making my electrons come really close to it.  That enriches my experience.

Because I have a basic understanding of atomic physics, I understand what he’s talking about.  I certainly don’t think about electron repulsion when I touch an object (although maybe now I will…), but I understand from where he’s coming.  But imagine you don’t have that basic knowledge, or you never fully grasped its meaning?  What he’s saying sounds nuts!  “What do you mean I’m not touching the table?  I AM TOUCHING IT!  I CAN FEEL IT!” etc.

“That enriches my experience,” he says.  And I agree with him.  The ability to exist in two worlds at once – the experiential and the unseen scientific –  provides me with a great deal of satisfaction, as if, by just thinking, I can fill in historical details of the world around me.  But how do you get to that point?  How can you get to a place where you can see the world through a scientific lens in the first place?  And then, how do you integrate this worldview with the one you know?  Where, although you cannot physically sense it, you can still experience science in your every day life?

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to think in equations all the time (as in the Abstruse Goose comic above); some things can be left to the scientists.  But really understanding science – developing a real scientific literacy, if you will – is hard!  It takes a fundamental reorganization of the way one thinks about the world and, in turn, experiences the world.  It places you in a larger context: instead of living as if it’s you, an individual, against the immediate world, science can give you a sense of the whole of life and how you fit in.

So it’s no real wonder that the two most frequently denied scientific subjects (well, at least as the media presents it) are evolution and climate change – two areas that involve slow change that an individual cannot experience.  It’s not that these people are stupid!  (I’m talking about your average, everyday deniers here; not sure what to say about the big-time activists.)  They just don’t have the mindset to reconcile the science with their experience.  This is why I am regularly horrified by the way evolution or climate deniers are approached.  They are not idiots; beating them upon the head with facts is not the way to teach them.  They do not only need facts, but also a way to make the facts relevant in their lives.  And that may be something that they can be guided toward, but need to discover for themselves.

And what they  need to know to form that framework isn’t straight facts, anyway, but more like the scientific method.  The two pillars of a scientific worldview, as I’ve thought it out, are:

  1. The ability to ask questions about the world around you.
  2. The ability to find and evaluate answers to those questions

What can educators and science communicators do to provide guidance to a scientific worldview?  I am a huge proponent of science and environmental education for children and agree with Rachel Carson that childhood is the best time to plant the seeds to encourage a “sense of wonder” about the world.  Unfortunately, the current guidelines for many schools do not encourage students to ask questions, but rather to memorize this list of facts so they can pass their test: nothing more.  (See more thoughts I have on this here.)

How do we engage adults?  This is where science writers and communicators come in: it’s our job to communicate science in such a way that it hits upon larger questions about the world and forces the reader to ask these questions about his/her own world.  This follows very closely with John Pavlus’s recent post about rehabilitating awesome.  The bottom two tiers of writing are news bites that provide cool facts about science, but are memorable “only in the way that an ice cream cone or a fart” is.

Instead, we need to aim for AWESOME, Pavlus writes.  In AWESOME stories,

Something about this material connects you to who you ARE (or want to be), above and beyond what you notice, feel, want, and do. This is inspiration and terror; the stuff that can change lives, or worlds — inner and outer.

I really feel this level of writing and communicating is what we need to develop a scientific worldview for more people.  Even if they didn’t grow up with science and thus feel alienated, by telling engrossing stories that celebrate the science of our daily lives, we can cause a small revolution in the way a person sees the world.  And that small revolution can lead to more questions, more inquiry, and, maybe eventually, someone who can see a tabletop for its atoms.

I’ll leave you now with this quote from Carl Sagan:

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

Written by Hanner

November 18, 2010 at 10:01 am

38 Responses

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  1. Awesome post. Can’t say more other than to say I quite often think of that electron repulsion thingy. And I can relate to that cartoon. Wow, does that make me some sort of uber-nerd. I thought this was normal stuff too! No, I didn’t really, I know that I’m a little strange!

    Such a good post!

    mikekpr

    November 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say that you’re “strange;” if you’re strange than so many of us are! But it is important to recognize that not everyone experiences world in the same way, and that the things that science-types take for granted are not going to be gut instinct for everyone. Thanks for the link as well!

      Hannah Waters

      November 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm

  2. Let me add that another major reason for denialism of evolution and climate change is that there are powerful and influential, ideologically driven forces that are actively stoking rejection of these well established scientific theories. The processes are indeed slow and not easy to see, but there are many other even harder to conceptualize processes that aren’t denied anywhere near as much.

    In regards to Brian Greene, allow me to make a soft philosophical criticism. In just about every sense that we understand the word “touch”, we are in fact touching the table. It all boils down to how we define touch. True, our hand do not touch the table in the same sense that the protons and neutrons in a Carbon atom nucleus are touching each other, but is it even correct to call that interaction “touching”? I would argue that the error comes from trying to apply phenomena that are well understood to a realm where they don’t apply. In other words, nothing in the atomic and subatomic scales “touch” in the sense that things touch in the macroscopic. So Greene is absolutely correct in that what is going on in that scale is almost incomprehensively different from what we experience; I just object to saying that “you don’t touch”. It’s like saying that “the Sun doesn’t rise.” (It does rise. It’s just that what’s happening is not what at first appears to be happening.)
    While I’m on my fun little rant, I also think that it’s a little misleading to say that an atom is mostly empty space. That space is filled with very powerful electric fields whose behavior makes the atoms very much of what they are. Also, saying (like I’ve heard some people say) that solid objects are “not solid but mostly empty space” is completely wrong. Yes, solids aren’t actually “solid” in a naive, Aristotle-esque understanding of what it means to be solid, but they most certainly are by the definition we all learn in Chemistry class (which brings us full circle back to your point about how scientists and lay people view the world differently).
    [/rant]
    ;-)

    The Science Pundit

    November 18, 2010 at 10:54 am

  3. “They just don’t have the mindset to reconcile the science with their experience.” Well said.

    I love Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s example of using a dog as a tool, an extension of our own meager sense of smell. That’s what any technology is, from microscopes to the LHC. And what we’ve learned is just how weak our senses are, having evolved to live the lives of omnivorous social bipeds. It’s a profound realization, isn’t it? And it really does lead to that sense of wonder, which shows how insipid the worldviews described by myths are. Wonderful post.

    David

    November 18, 2010 at 10:58 am

    • EXACTLY! Our senses are limited and science allows us to extend our senses. Bingo. Well-put. It is hard to reach that point: we are raised in a world in which we perceive ourselves to at the top, the pinnacle of existence. And, of course, we can only experience our own consciousness. So being told that there is more than what we can sense, period, is difficult to grasp. Great addition, David!

      Hannah Waters

      November 18, 2010 at 12:56 pm

  4. I’ll echo what others have said- this really is a wonderful post. Richard Dawkins once said that “science does violence to common sense” because our senses evolved in what he called “middle world” (not too big, not too small), and are therefore inherently finite. Still, it is empowering, and uplifting, to think that we really can apply science to actually figure out the way the universe works, and not be fated to making random guesses at things. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most well-known advocates of science are those who can sell the ‘AWESOME’ (Greene, Tyson, Sagan, Dawkins, Feynman, etc.). Darwin himself did so when he wrote that “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

    Dawkins: “Queerer than we can suppose” http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6308228560462155344#

    Patrick Clarkin

    November 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

  5. Wish I had something insightful to say, but mostly just wanted to let you know that this post was great to wake up to.

    Kristin

    November 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

  6. Wonderful post Hannah, you raise a lot of valid points (many of which crossed my mind during many morning shower sessions!).

    While I agree that knowing the ‘pillars of science’ as you call them is of vital importance to understand science as an enterprise, I think it is not enough. Let me try to explain with an analogy to cooking. The ‘pillar of cooking’ might be phrased as such: ‘Cooking is the ability to combine different flavours and textures in such a way that stimulates the senses of taste, eliciting intense enjoyment’.

    If all I ever ate was dry bread,the abstract perception of cooking will not help me appreciate the importance or awesomeness of cooking. The principle sounds noble, but holds little relevance for my daily life. Now, when I go to a restaurant and eat a wonderful meal, I might realize that cooking can be great! Still, when I go home I have little understanding of how cooking works. My experience was pleasant, but I cannot incorporate it into my daily life.

    To really respect and admire the difficulty and awesemoness of cooking, I will have to try it myself. When I learn how to prepare a simple meal, I will come to know the efforts that go into cooking and the joy of eating something that I cooked myself. It would be great if I someday I could talk to a cook, ask him some questions about techniques and the philosophy

    What I’m getting at, is that science should open up. The best way to get something enthusiastic about what you do, is to invite them in! Not just so to show them what we’re doing, but really allow them to come along and play, with us.

    Suck them in, show them how awesome science is, make them aware of what they can do, and make them proud of their achievements. I think the internet can play a big role as the emancipator. I adore efforts like FoldIt and GalaxyZoo, that allow anyone to join in and make a contribution to science. What’s more awesome than the realization that YOU can help cure HIV, find the biggest black hole, prove evolution, write history?

    Lucas

    November 18, 2010 at 11:52 am

    • Hey Lucas,

      You’re totally right – getting involved is the best way to do it. But if you’re not already interested in science, why would you get involved in FoldIt or GalaxyZoo? While they are technically public projects, they are a bit self-selecting.

      Really great science media – writing, film, radio, etc. – should make you want to play. I was a bit disorganized at the end of the post, but all I was trying to say is that the long-term goal is to use media and communication to get people to think scientifically and to ask questions themselves. Turn their world itself into a playground.

      And once they get that spark… then they’ll want to do GalaxyZoo all on their own! :)

      I think we get each other?

      –Hannah

      Hannah Waters

      November 18, 2010 at 4:23 pm

  7. [...] Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  8. As a cognitive psychologist, my science hits me in the face every day. When it is about interactions with other people, it’s dangerous to view that in a scientific light. That will seriously harm your social skills (not that mine are great to begin with). However, these things can directly speak to people. Social clues from parents can explain why a placebo effect is a good explanation for infants’ response to homoeopathic ‘drugs’. Maybe I should do something with this.

    marius

    November 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

  9. LSD can give one a greater appreciation of the scientific world. That cartoon can become literal, boy howdy.

    Seriously, great post. Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” is an offbeat example of really good mainstream science, albeit as applied to cooking.

    Karen

    November 18, 2010 at 2:02 pm

  10. Great post Hannah. The bit about touching the table and science vs common sense reminds me of Bill Bryson’s discussion of this in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”.

    He mentions in there that most people think of gravity as a powerful force. He points out that if he picks up a book from his desk, that he has overcome the gravitational power of an entire planet. However, if he tries to stick his finger through the book, he cannot even overcome the weak nucleaic force of the atoms of that book.

    RobertL

    November 18, 2010 at 6:39 pm

  11. [...] Another day with lots of amazing stuff: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  12. Hey, very good post. Pointed here by Ed Yong, will be back.

    Jeremy Hughes

    November 19, 2010 at 9:10 am

  13. [...] original here: Developing a scientific worldview: why it's hard and what we can … [...]

  14. [...] I only see about half of that stuff. But seriously, Hannah Waters (Culturing Science) has a great post on the scientific worldview and why more than just scientists need it: I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to think in [...]

  15. I really like your perspective, Hannah, however speaking as a non-scientist writer who works with scientists to try to understand – and communicate in terms of how other people view the world, I think you may limit your audience to “people like you” when you insist that if everyone thought like a scientist, i.e., curious, seeking answers and able to evaluate those answers, we’d all be much better off. Since sharing meaning means meeting other people where they are, it is much more incumbent on scientists (a population relatively small in number) to translate their findings and the way they understand life in a way that others can hear it. That rule includes using relatable metaphors (when touching my kitchen table, I do not try to envision crashing or repellent atoms to describe touch or the lack thereof – quantum mechanics are NOT relatable, even to most non-physicist scientists) not relying on technical language, and being nonjudgmental, for instance. It also means that some people will resist the constraint of being told to open their minds, that some other way of thinking is better than the way they already see the world. To see how it feels, try this persona on for a change: I don’t have a job, have lost my home, drive a 15 year old gas guzzler car on its last legs, and there’s not enough food for my family. I do not have time to think about buying locally grown produce, do not care how or whether the climate is going to change in 50 or 100 years, but I do care about knowing that the world is not going to end tomorrow and there may be hope that I can find a new job. Can we call that a practical worldview where scientific understanding might help contribute to the betterment of humankind through increased knowledge and awareness?

    Robin Stevens Payes

    November 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    • Hi Robin,

      I get the sense that you think I’m being judgmental – and I don’t really blame you. The whole time I wrote up this post I was cringing a little, making it an “us vs. them” kind of thing, as if “we” are the enlightened ones trying to teach the rest of the world about the glory of science. But the whole point of this post is to point out that the assumption that we are smarter or better than anyone is is simply wrong. I hope you got that out of it. (And you also must recognize that my audience is composed of science-types to start.)

      The reason I summed up my points into being able to ask questions and evaluate the answers is that I truly believe the world would be a better place for everyone if this is the way things worked. I’m not trying to say the world would be better if everyone believed in evolution or climate change (despite my personal beliefs) specifically – those were examples that are particularly pertinent in the current discussion of science and the public.

      I don’t think I really understand your question at the end. Are you asking if a scientific worldview would be relevant to the person you described? I think yes. The ability to constantly question the various constructions around you and find answers that are accurate allow a person to not be duped, to find the best solution to their immediate problems, and maybe to avoid complete desperation. So, yes, I think the basics I outlined of a worldview are applicable to anyone. And once you have those abilities, other science-related revelations should follow, if a person has time to ask the questions and find the answers.

      Thanks for reading,
      Hannah

      Hannah Waters

      November 19, 2010 at 3:34 pm

  16. I’m saying that unless scientists open their minds to understand the way most people see the world, and listen to how many people are trying to tell them they could make the world a better place IF ONLY _______ [fill in the blank: they would eat healthier; nurture their kids using the latest evidence-based research on families; stop smoking...], we would be able to ________ [reduce obesity, poverty, cancer]…. The very fact of “what the evidence says”, much less implementing evidence-based findings in the real world, looks different to most people than it does to scientists, whose research setting with an experimental and a control group minimizes outside influences [like driving past the McDonalds on the corner, family dysfunction, generational influences, genetic variations. I don’t think it’s that no one is listening to the science; it’s that the scientists are not listening to what other people are trying to say in response. For almost everyone, change is hard, and seeing the point of change can be even harder.

    To your suggestion of “having the time” to ask questions and find answers is at the heart of the problem: our brains function in the most efficient way possible to conserve a finite reserve of neural energy for whatever matters most to them, so almost everyone (scientists included) falls back on an automatic response – operating in autopilot. See Steven Hayes’s excellent blog post on cognitive loops: http://huff.to/cXPzcR

    It is my observation (based on research findings where n=1) that scientists tend to live in an echo chamber; as long as you talk only among yourselves, your assumptions and understandings are affirmed, admitting no serious evidence to the contrary. So, to those who use the science to base their behavior, worldview, resources, I ask you to examine this: What are your cognitive loops? Then how do you think those loops might interfere with you hearing what people who are not as curious and solution-driven – i.e., not as scientific, to use your definition – as you have to say?

    Robin Stevens Payes

    November 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    • I think we’re actually saying the same thing but from different places. The whole point of this post is to say that scientists and science communicators need to try and consider that most people aren’t coming from the same viewpoint – that they have different priorities and look at the world differently, and that communication should try to adjust accordingly.

      Hannah Waters

      November 19, 2010 at 4:52 pm

  17. AMAZING, Hannah. Simply Amazing!

    DNLee

    November 19, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  18. it is not hard to develop a “scientific worldview”, at all. it is just that it is too limiting to stop there.

    gregorylent

    November 20, 2010 at 6:06 pm

  19. [...] Great post by @culturingsci on the difficulties of developing an (often counter-intuitive) scientific worldview http://culturingscience.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/developing-a-scientific-worldview-why-its-hard-and-… [...]

  20. You know I wonder if it’s like this.
    People fear science for various reasons, this being one of them: the equivalent of “you have unweaved the rainbow,” meaning now I look at a rainbow and am no longer allowed to see something pretty, I must now only think in terms of optics, EM waves, etc. That sucks.

    But, I guess my simple response is: “just because you know how a rainbow is made – or you just know that someone knows – does that make the rainbow no longer beautiful?”

    My answer is, of course, No. And I mean you can both know the complexities of an object and still enjoy it’s simple beauty – with or without thinking about formulas. I think even scientists are perfectly capable of enjoying the simple human pleasures of the senses without analyzing at all moments. We’re humans, we can do both.

    Just because we may one day know the inner workings of the brain, the ultimate source of human uniqueness, has our humanity changed? No. We just know how it works.

    Do you love a mother or partner less if you understand that love is a series of neurological responses? I’ll go out on a limb and say, No. You still love them and that love is just as irrational and unpredictable (on an everyday level) as it was before.

    The difference is that now we can both enjoy the good things (and not-enjoy the bad) and ALSO know how they work.

    Knowing how things works gives us the ability, if we so choose, to fix or change them if their hurtful. Or -if one is of an evil mindset – to do the opposite. It gives us the ability to choose these things – which, of course, means we have a great responsibility.

    Scott

    November 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

  21. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  22. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  23. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  24. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  25. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  26. [...] Culturing Science: Octopuses doing tricks on the internet and our search for non-human ‘intelligence’ Culturing Science: Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction Culturing Science: Microbe biogeography: the distribution, dispersal and evolution of the littlest organisms Culturing Science: Marine Snow: dead organisms and poop as manna in the ocean Culturing Science: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology Culturing Science: Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do [...]

  27. Hanna:

    Looks like you might be interested in my book, “The Scientific Worldview.” Please let me know what you think of it.

    Glenn Borchardt

    Glenn Borchardt

    December 1, 2010 at 11:08 pm

  28. [...] from the award winning blog Culturing Science. She writes great posts on ecology, evolution and science (communication) itself, so go and check out some of her [...]

  29. [...] day’s news at Discover, Hannah Waters who won an award of Best New Blog last year and it’s not hard to see why, and new blogs by seasoned journos like Claire Ainsworth, writing on the ecology of [...]

  30. [...] between those two worlds when what you know and what you feel are so different?” Brian Green(via) “When I look at the tabletop, I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the [...]

  31. Wonderful read, love the point around asking questions. We had that innate curiosity as a child but loose it somewhere early in our teens. Quite sad really

    James Kearney

    January 8, 2014 at 4:21 am


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