Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Posts Tagged ‘science journalism

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

Why evolution is right, and your headline is wrong

On Friday, the Guardian published an article by Oliver Burkeman called “Why everything you ever learned about evolution is wrong.”  Pieces have been written against the article already so I won’t go into too much detail (well, a little maybe) – most notably by Jerry Coyne and the Guardian’s own response by Adam Rutherford.

The gist of the article?  Natural selection is more complicated than Darwin thought.  But put in more belligerent terms.

And it certainly is complicated.  As the article brings up, non-Darwinian forces have played a part in evolution in the past.  Microbiologist Carl Woese suggests that early microbial evolution was driven not by Darwinian evolution, but by horizontal gene transfer, where genes are traded between organisms and not passed down vertically through generations.  Burkeman also describes the phenomenon of linked genes, but does not explain the genetics.  Sometimes when two genes are next to one another on the genome, they will be passed along together as a package, even if only one is selected for.  Thus sometimes genes can be “selected” without being “selected for,” to put it in Burkeman’s terms.  But this effect can still be explained by Darwinian evolution.

The bulk of the article is about epigenetics – or how physical modifications to DNA, usually the binding of proteins, can turn a gene “on” or “off,” or change its expression level.  (See here for a primer.)  The article cites several incidents where changes in the epigenome (the full picture of an organism’s epigenetic character) caused by environmental factors affected the grandchildren of the organisms.  For example, a study where researchers confused the night/day internal clock of chickens by altering their lighting conditions found changes in their epigenetic profiles, and also found that their offspring had trouble locating food.  Thus – environmental changes are heritable?  Was Lamarck right about his giraffe necks?

Beyond the fact that most of these studies see their effects lost after a few generations – couldn’t one just argue that this is an issue of nurture?  That when you mess up a chicken’s internal clock, maybe it might have trouble raising its chicks, so that they have trouble surviving on their own?  Bottom line – I am not convinced.

What is most infuriating is the idea that because maybe there are exceptions to Darwinian evolution, it negates his theory.  I don’t think we know everything about evolution.  I don’t think that Darwin is right 100% of the time.  But I do think he is right 99% of the time.  And that’s what’s important.  As scientists, we’re seeking the patterns to life – patterns that can be applied large-scale to many organisms.  Study after study has shown that Darwinian evolution explains changes in organisms through generations most of the time.

We also should seek the abnormal – the horizontal gene transfers, the other forces at work that differ from our patterns.  But to take a field like epigenetics – which is still developing and which we barely understand, trust me, I study epigenetics for a living – and say that it somehow proves Darwin wrong?  That is absurd.  This isn’t a war.  Darwin is right.  Someone else may be right as well.  There are many forces at work here, people.

Which brings me to my final point: how could you ever publish an article called “Why everything you ever learned about evolution is wrong???”  This drives me insane.  If scientists are going to stand up and say, “we are objective, we are empirical, you can believe whatever we say because we are skeptical of ourselves and only seek truth,” we need to hold our science journalists up to the same standards.  I don’t know the credentials of the Guardian piece’s writer, but he clearly is not a trained biologist. As science becomes increasingly important in the daily lives of ever person on this planet, why is the field of science journalism and science writing shrinking?

Science writing should not be using grabber-headlines to gain readership.  I know, everyone wants their attention, every university press release wants the world to believe that they have discovered the cure to cancer or climate change or whatever else.  But, let’s face it: you haven’t.  Those problems will not be solved unless the scientific universe can form some semblance of a community.

Stop using headlines that are lies just to get attention.  Impatient internet users don’t even read the first paragraph of articles anymore, so even if your first line negates your headline, that is not good enough.  Just don’t do it.  Everything you ever learned about evolution is not wrong.  But as we learn more about how biology makes each of us who we are, our view of evolution may change.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

[Edit: Thanks for the write-up, Genomeweb Daily Scan!)

Written by Hanner

March 21, 2010 at 11:49 am