Deserving of special attention

John Fleck, a superstar science journalist whose work on water in the southwest is consistently brilliant, has some sage thoughts on the Problem With Science Journalism:

In the newspaper this week, I took a whack at what I think is one of the fundamental public misunderstandings about the nature of science. I like to call it “the textbook problem”, but one might also characterize it as “the science journalism problem.”

Lay exposure to science comes in two fundamental ways. The first is academic learning, in which non-scientists are exposed to textbook explanation of things scientists have already figured out, knowledge with sufficient stability to make it into textbooks. Much of science journalism involves a similar domain – stories about papers scientists have published as a result of figuring something out.

This creates, I believe, a public impression of science – that it is about Stuff That’s Been Figured Out. But in fact much of the activity of scientists, even in the practice of what Kuhn called “normal science”, involves poking around in Stuff That Hasn’t Been Figured Out.

He goes on to explain why it’s hard to write stories about how science actually works, the nitty-gritty work of repeated failures that result in brilliant successes. The article itself appears to be hidden behind a paywall, but the questions he raises go beyond the specifics of covering the southwestern monsoon.

There’s no particular reason that students in high school and college science classes shouldn’t be presented with unanswered questions and taught that it’s OK to suggest a wrong answer if they can also propose a feasible experiment which allows that wrong answer to be tested. In practice, most scientists don’t experience that part of the scientific enterprise until they are upper-level undergraduates, or perhaps grad students. And that’s a shame, because it means science educators are holding back the most exciting part of science until after most of their audience has decided science is boring and they tune out forever.

This is a triple-failure. First, we lose some fraction of potential science teachers, scientists, and other science fans. Second, we fail to prepare people for new scientific results as they come along, especially those which contradict previous findings, because we haven’t given people a tool for evaluating scientific uncertainty.

Third, we’re failing to instill techniques for scientific testing of ideas in the public consciousness, preferring rote memorization to conceptual understanding. And that’s a problem that only perpetuates itself. At the end of the day, I’d rather have people know how to conduct a proper experiment than know that lasers focus light, rather than sound waves. But in science classes and science journalism, their more likely to have the latter fact emphasized than the former process.

It’s good to see journalists asking what they can do differently. I know educators in colleges and high schools are thinking about this also, but there’s a lot that the academy could do to improve things.

Comments

  1. #1 john fox
    June 21, 2010

    I first got a University job at La Trobe, the year it started up, 1967. I asked three science professors who were talking together how they chose their new appointments, and what focus there was on their being able to teach and communicate, especially about the process of doing science. They all said that they didn’t give a thought to it; the one thing they went on was people’s track record in attracting grants.

    I suspect that has a lot to do with the problem, and that if anything it’s got worse since.

  2. #2 Ponder Stibbons
    June 21, 2010

    Could not agree more. At least in terms of coursework, even upper-level undergrad and beginning grad courses are more about absorbing already established facts or techniques. Students generally get exposed to the actual practice of science only when they engage in research projects outside their coursework.

    However, changing to a system that emphasises conceptual understanding more would require additional training and preparation on the part of university science teachers. It’s always easier to ‘teach’ a course by blindly following a textbook than to figure out ways to make your students think.