One of the things that happens when I lay out a problem (say, the difficulties for scientists in communicating with non-scientists about scientific matters) is that my excellent commenters remind me not to stop there. They press me for a solution.
I started, in my earlier post, to gesture toward an answer to the question of how to improve communication between scientists and non-scientists:
… because non-scientists count on scientists as a source of reliable knowledge on a whole range of issues, non-scientists have a stake in improving communication with scientists. This means part of the burden of improving this communication falls on the non-scientists. They have to listen to what the scientists are trying to explain. They have to ask questions when things aren’t clear. Perhaps, they even have to try asking questions of the sort science can answer, rather than the broad questions to which science can hardly ever provide a simple answer.
There’s still a lot of work for the scientists to do here. But the non-scientists have to start being active participants engaged in a dialogue rather than a passive “audience” waiting to have the relevant facts poured into their skulls.
But vague gesturing isn’t enough. So VisualFX presses me:
As an individual non-scientist, what can I do? What would you, as a scientist, like to see someone like me do?
Who am I? I am a non-scientist who has a keen interest in the scientific world. I am a computer graphics artist/3D animator/video editor/DVD author. I can do a lot with moving images using computer graphics technology. I have a keen interest in science and technology ever since I was a kid. I feel I have a decent understanding of science in general as a layperson. But, I am completely out of my league when it comes to actually being able to understand the vast majority of the scientific literature. I do read a lot of stuff in popular publications such as Scientific American and popular books such as by Brian Green and Richard Dawkins but, that is where it ends for me.
I may be pretty easy compared to the large majority of the population here in the US. I feel I do have a basic, albeit, incomplete understanding of how science works, what scientists do, what constitutes a scientific theory, etc (thanks in no small part to Sb btw). However, what about my mother-in-law, the woo-woo queen of all time? What about my sister-in-law, the “There is no objective reality” liberal arts graduate? What about my father, the conservative, Catholic, retired from the business world philanthropist who feels there it not enough God in the classroom? — All of who have almost no concept of what science is or how it works beyond what they see in the movies and on TV. How do you reach them? What would you like to see them do to participate?
These are really good questions. So, I’m going to try to give some answers.
Let me say at the outset that I don’t think we need to hold out for every non-scientist to be able to read the peer reviewed scientific literature It would be cool if that was a standard skill-for-living, but the literature can be a tough slog even for trained scientists. (Exercise for the trained scientists in the audience: find a random peer reviewed article in a scientific field not your own and keep track of all the details that aren’t fully transparent to you. Raise your hand if there was at least one such detail.) Rather, I think what I’d be happy with is a population which:
- has a sense of the kinds of questions science can answer — and the kinds of questions science cannot answer
- has a reasonable understanding of the methods scientists use to try to answer these questions
- has a reasonable understanding of the types of “qualitiy control” to which putative scientific findings are subjected
This kind of basic grasp of science puts the non-scientist in a position to get something more from reports of scientific findings than an updated set of facts to take on someone else’s authority. My hope, anyway, is that a better feel for the way science works will help people be more critical consumers of science reporting — an audience that will read past the headline to the “fine print” that provides the qualifiers about the precise conditions the scientists examined and the strength of their conclusions. An audience that knows something about how scientific knowledge comes into being can ask questions about what kinds of assumptions were made in studying a particular question, how widely applicable the findings are, and what questions remain unanswered.
My best suggestion for how to get this kind of basic grasp of science (at least for those who no longer have easy access to science classes and science teachers) is to try thinking like a scientist in real life. The opportunities for this are numerous.
Let’s say you bake. Take your favorite brownie recipe and try baking it in pans of different size and shape. Hold everything else constant and observe the differences. See if you can explain how the size and shape of the pan affects the characteristics of the brownies baked in it. Then, get ahold of a different pan and use your observations to make a prediction about how a batch of brownies baked in that pan will come out.
That’s the scientific method at work. If you’re still in the mood, choose your favorite pan and start playing around with how much chocolate (or oil, or sugar, or flour) is in the recipe. Tweak the baking time, the position of the pan in the oven, or the baking temperature. Don’t get impatient — just change one parameter at a time.
While you’re at it, you can use an oven thermomenter — or two different ones — to see if the oven temperature you set with the knobs is the oven temperature you actually get. You can borrow a neighbors measuring cups and spoons to see if they agree with yours about what a cup of sugar is. You can see if measuring the flour by weight gives you more control over the results than measuring the flour by volume.
Just for fun, invite some friends to be your tasting panel. See how they describe the different batches of brownies. Do your tasters agree in their assessments? Does it make a difference if you tell them ahead of time how different batches differ in their preparation?
There are a bunch of nice lessons you get from this kind of experiment. Controlling different parameters takes time, as well as careful measurement. Some of the characteristics we might observe are more objective, others are more subjective. Predictions generally get easier the longer we work with a system.
And, there are many other types of situation where we can apply similar kinds of methodology. What makes your garden grow? (Vary watering, sun, soil amendments, etc.) What gives you heartburn? (Vary your chilli toppings and the amount of beer with which you wash it down.) What gets your clothes clean? (Vary how full you pack the washing machine and how much detergent you use.) What drives your housemate nuts? (Vary the rate at which you pause on a channel before clicking to the next.)
What you’re looking for is a set-up where you can control various aspects of the set-up and look at reasonably objective features of the outcome. It’s important to find a process with a reasonable time-scale (where the effect doesn’t come so quickly that you miss it but doesn’t take so long to happen that you lose interest). Writing down your observations in a notebook is helpful.
The point here is that science engages in a certain problem-solving strategy that works really well for understanding certain kinds of systems. And that problem-solving strategy is continuous with common sense rather than completely alien to it. Cultivating habits of observing carefully, identifying different controllable variables, and attending to what happens when those variables are controlled in various ways is thinking like a scientist.
This is just a start, though. Trillwing notes that non-scientist can participate in collecting (and interpreting) data in their communities:
What do you think of citizen science efforts, such as in the urban environmental justice movement, that aim to put the tools of science into local residents’ hands so that they may gather (and sometimes interpret) their own data?
For example, what are nonscientists to do when faced with corporate polluters who can conjure up some “scientific” data and prepare glossy reports to cover up their wrongdoing? What if citizens think an EIR is flawed? Is there some way they can ratchet up their level of participation in science (perhaps guided or advised by trained scientists)?
I’m inclined to think such activities would be positive — provided, of course, that the non-scientists guard against just seeing what they want to see in the data. It’s good to know ahead of time what you want the data to show — and then to be a complete hardass with yourself to ensure that you don’t interpret the data that way unless there is no plausible alternative. (Trained scientists could provide helpful guidance here.) At the same time, having an experience or two where you see how your biases can get the better of your observations and interpretations can make you a much more careful consumer of scientific information. It gets you in the habit of asking how the scientists controlled for their biases, for example.
Also, I should mention that the GLOBE program is already luring school kids worldwide into making and reporting measurements on atmosphere, hydrology, soils, and land cover. Adults could certainly play along at home.
Scientists have a valuable skill to bring to discussion of public issues: they are used to framing questions about “how big?” and “how important is this mechanism?” in a meaningful, quantitative way. For example: global warming is obviously bad. But what should we do? Scientists need to translate the scientific literature into answers to questions like these: What combination of strategies could we use to reduce CO2 emission by roughly half? Roughly what change in temperature would that reduce? Numbers are powerful, if they are translated into digestible knowledge.
Dr. Shellie frames this as a recommendation to scientists, but numeracy is another thing the non-scientist can cultivate. How many snails do I count on my plants in an average day if I don’t do anything at all about them? How does the number of snails on my plants in an average day change after a week of picking off and discarding them? How does this number change after a week with a tuna-can-and-beer trap? After a week of snail bait? Getting a feel for the magnitudes of different effects is another way to think like a scientist, and this puts the non-scientist in a position to ask better questions about how big a difference the different parameters in a system have.
When scientific patterns of thought are not a complete mystery, it’s easier to find a sensible place to begin asking questions. That’s where productive communication will start.