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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

Donors Choose Initiative: if helping school children wasn’t incentive enough, I’ll draw you a picture!

My earliest memory of engaging with nature and science took place in my grandparents’ backyard in Roslyn, NY.  It must have been the summer, and I walked up to a tree and found a weird brown thing stuck to it: a cicada exoskeleton.  I still remember the feel of the little shell, the papery abdomen and the way the little hairs clung to my skin.  What is it?  How did it get there?  Where is the insect now?  How many are there?  … ad infinitum in the way of a curious child.

Screw this pink dress! Baby Hannah wants to play with bugs under these rock steps

Many of us interested in nature and science have an early memory like this.  It’s the child’s “sense of wonder” that Rachel Carson describes in her book by that title.  I have returned to this quote over and over again throughout the years and, although it’s long, I encourage you to read it right now:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

While adults certainly can appreciate nature, it does feel that childhood is the time to craft the experiences that will lead to an appreciation of nature and science throughout life.

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.  Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

I was lucky: I grew up in a family that was familiar with the natural world, and in an area full of outdoor space to explore and experience.  Not everyone is so lucky.  But if Rachel Carson is right, as I believe she is, about the importance of having nature/science experiences as a child, we need to do our best to provide support teachers as they try to provide fodder for wonder while their students still have time to ask, “why?”

Here at the Southern Fried Science Network, we’re trying to help teachers instill a sense of wonder for ocean science through the Science Bloggers for Students challenge through the Donors Choose Initiative.  If you even have $5 or $10 lying around, donate it to a classroom of your choice to pay for supplies so teachers can do their jobs and teach awesome lessons about ocean science!  Check out the Gam’s page here.  (We are in competition, technically, so it would be great if you donated through our page.  But really we’re competing FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN so any donations are acceptable.)

If helping kids wasn’t enough, I will provide another incentive: Hannah Waters original drawings of a sea creature of your choice!  Forward your receipt or some proof of donation to hannah.waters [at] gmail [dot] com and I will mail you a “beautiful” original drawing.  Hell, even if you don’t donate through the Gam I’ll do it for ya.  That’s how much I care about the children.

So Donate, Email me proof, I will mail you picture that you could have asked your 10-year old to draw for you.

Edit: If you donated before I posted this, I will grandfather you in and draw for you in thanks!

I am no artist: I just like drawing animals when I’m watching TV.  Here’s some examples of my work that I did on Saturday while watching BSG:

Hope to hear from you!

–Hannah

(cross posted from Sleeping with the Fishes)

Written by Hanner

October 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Education

Tagged with

How to convince students that “there is nothing in science that isn’t worth being excited about.”

From Bill Bryson’s interview in the New Scientist about his new book:

Science classes are almost always taught, in my experience, as if they are trying to produce the next generation of scientists. Of course, that is a vital function. But there is no recognition that a very large proportion of people are not going to become scientists.

What always disappointed me about science lessons was how the teacher would, almost as soon as they got through the door, turn around and start writing equations on the blackboard. This meant I was quickly out of my depth; I don’t have a brain that is comfortable dealing with mathematics and algebra.

In fact, there is nothing in science that isn’t worth being excited about. Unfortunately, the place you are least likely to find excitement, in my view, is in schools, when that is the precise place you should be handing it out to people.

Bryson’s treatment of science teachers is a little harsh, as oftentimes their material is prescribed and not up to them.  However — he is right about the fact that science is cool and exciting, and that oftentimes classes let those who aren’t already interested in science slip through.

I believe that the main obstacle in gaining student interest is the skill set required to study science.  All fields require a skill set — for English, you have to learn how to think critically, compare, and write; for art, it’s painting or drawing, photography, or even a certain eye for viewing the world aesthetically.  These skill sets perhaps seem more organic: a natural development that is part interest or inbred talent, that becomes more complex as you study more.

Science also requires reading comprehension and writing.  But, to study modern science, a great deal of fact-learning is also necessary, which is a deterrent in itself.  It makes science seem less artistic or creative; the required effort can seem like a drag or a waste of time.  As if science is for people who can’t think for themselves, just memorize facts.  P’shaw!

My roommate and I love to stare at the ceiling and ramble on about all the things that amaze us about the world.  And in a way, we speak slightly different languages: she studies philosophy and writing, while I study biology.  But we are actually asking the same questions.  We are simply trying to make sense of our worlds; we just go about it in a slightly different way.

And this is what I think is key.  We can’t get students interested in science by just telling them that it’s important to know, that being a geek is cool, that science teachers are more fun to be around (Filming them in simulated space to get their students’ attention?  Please, no.), or encouraging them to be on the “cutting edge.”

Science needs to be presented as another language used to put order to our world — just like literature or art.  It’s not a field that is better than any other, or worse.  It is a creative force that is constantly being reinvented, despite the common misconception that it is set in stone.  Scientists aren’t some sort of unsociable, labcoat-clad army, but just normal people trying learn as much as they can about the world in order to help each of us understand why we are the way we are.

Written by Hanner

December 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

Posted in Education

Tagged with

Epigenetics: A Primer in Sketches [Link]

Epigenetics.  So hot right now.

I study epigenetics in my lab.  (That’s right, I’m hot.)  When someone asks me what that means, I give the brief definition: “It’s the study of changes in gene expression without a change in the actual DNA sequence.” “Like, molecules or proteins can bind to the physical DNA and affect whether the DNA is transcribed.”  “Y’know?”

If you’re looking for a more technical, yet understandable, explanation, head over to the Sketch Overview of Epigenetics at Genes to Brains to Mind to Me.  The author is a great artist, as you can see above, and the primer gives a good overview of epigenetics basics to keep you hip to the scene.

[Thanks to Genomeweb Daily Scan for the tip]

Written by Hanner

December 17, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Posted in Education

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Trailblazing with the Royal Society

To commemorate its 350th anniversary next year, the Royal Society, the world’s oldest science academy based in London, has released an interactive website about scientific history.  Trailblazing features a timeline starting in 1650, tracing scientific breakthroughs throughout the centuries alongside major historical events to help put it the discoveries in context.  It’s a well-designed site, with detail on the experiments and beautiful images, especially for the older works.

Working in a lab full of protocols and precedents makes me long for the olden science days, when scientists were true artists.  So little study had been done that methods were endless tinkering, collecting and labor, and nothing was handed to you.  True determination was necessary, a real lust for knowledge.  Now science is a common job, and the need to publish something “legitimate” to retain funding feels restraining.  The work is done mainly in fields that politicians or large companies have deemed worthwhile.  The true crackpots are few and far between.

We should be readily mocked by our equals when presenting our findings, like Harry Whittington when he presented a reconstruction of a 500 million year old creature from the Burgess Shale, only to be right in the end.  We should write down long-winded accounts of interesting people or weird diseases we encounter, just so they aren’t forgotten.  We should hook-up our pets to our house appliances for the sake of science, like Robert Hooke did when he invented the air pump.  (Well, maybe we shouldn’t torture our pets.)  Y’get what I’m sayin’ here?

I’m nostalgic for a time and a feeling I’ve never experienced.

Written by Hanner

December 10, 2009 at 12:20 am

Posted in Education, Link