I recently read a popular science book on a topic that I felt I needed to learn more about. The book was well written, ideas were clearly explained, and I finished the book knowing a lot more about the history of the subject than beforehand. However, I don’t feel I understand the key ideas in the book any better. I won’t mention the name of the book or the author because this post isn’t really about that specific book. It’s about how I feel books of this nature often fail to deliver on what they implicitly promise: that you will understand the science contained within their pages.
There’s a notion among many science communicators and, I suspect, science teachers, that if you can simply come up with a clear enough explanation for something in science, then your audience or students will understand it. I don’t think this is always true.
This is a familiar problem in a lot of ways– first and foremost, it’s a rediscovery of the “deficit model” of science communication, which gets a lot of discussion in relation to policy issues. See this blog post for a recent discussion of some of these issues. Beyond that, though, it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with.
The problem is there are two related but subtly different things going on in most popular science communication projects, which for lack of better terms I’ll call “education” and “outreach.” Shaha is focusing on the educational aspect of things, but I think it’s a mistake to neglect the outreach side.
Of course, defining these terms is no simple matter, but having spent three years as a member of the APS’s Committee on Informing the Public, arguing about this exact thing every time we had a meeting, I’ll go with the rough operational definition offered at those meetings. Education in this context is the conveying of specific information– leaving people with a deeper understanding of the science, the sort of thing they might be able to apply elsewhere. Outreach is less concrete, going for more of a “warm fuzzy” feeling that science is cool.
Shaha is absolutely right that most popular treatments of scientific subjects are only partially successful on the education front. There’s only so much you’re going to be able to do with one book on a topic, in a format that is intrinsically kind of passive. It’s only through actively engaging with the subject matter and applying it to new contexts that real education happens. This is well known in the education community, and the reason why lots of people teaching intro physics, myself included, are moving away from the traditional lecture model. The primary driver of real learning is active problem solving– even in a lecture model, most of the learning happens not while listening to lectures, but when trying to solve problems.
At the same time, though, I don’t think you can consider a popular science book a failure because it fails to do real education, because there’s also the outreach function. While clear explanations may not be the way to produce real understanding of a subject, they can help inspire readers to get excited about science. In the best of all possible worlds, they’ll inspire students to go seek out more information on their own, which will lead to education down the road.
One of the pivotal moments in my physics career came when I was a junior in college, when Claude Cohen-Tannoudji came to give a talk at Williams. He’s an exceptionally good speaker, and gave a very clear and thorough explanation of the “Sisyphus cooling” mechanism in laser cooling, which won him a share of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics a few years later. I didn’t really come away with a deep understanding of the physics– that didn’t happen until much later, when I worked through the gory details on my own– but I did walk out of that room thinking that laser cooling was awesome. and when I found out that a couple of the professors in the department were taking thesis students to set up a laser cooling system, I immediately said “I want to be a part of that.”
Of course, there’s a tension between these two things in writing for a popular audience. The easiest way to get people fired up about science is to do a splashy and superficial treatment, that inspires without really educating. At best this gets you something like the hugely popular I Fucking Love Science Tumblr/ Facebook phenomenon, with cool science factoids printed over the top of eye-catching photos. At worst, it gets you, well, Michio Kaku endorsing incorrect and even crazy stuff because, hey, people love crazy stuff!
I’m not a huge fan of either of those approaches, which is why I spent weeks and months beating my head against a series of metaphorical walls making sure that How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog contain high quality explanations of modern physics, not just inspirational piffle. I hope that I provided clear explanations at a somewhat higher level than typical for pop-physics books. But I also recognize that this is primarily outreach– thus the talking dog– and don’t harbor any illusions that reading my books will produce deep and practical understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity.
The books are, ultimately, a mix of education and outreach, conveying a bit of concrete knowledge, but mainly trying to leave an impression that modern physics is pretty awesome. And there are some signs that it works– one of the coolest things that’s happened this year was getting a note from our Admissions office, quoting a bit of a student’s application essay where she described being inspired to study physics by running across a copy of my book in her school library. (This was an essay on the Common Application, too, sent to a huge number of colleges, so it wasn’t just sucking up to Union…) I rank that right up there with the review by a ten-year-old in the Guardian as far as indications that I succeeded in my goals for the book.
So, anyway, that’s my slightly self-centered take on the question of explanations, education, and outreach. While I agree that clear explanations are not by themselves going to magically lead to education, it’s also important not to overlook the outreach value of explaining things as clearly and correctly as possible.