Things non-scientists can do to improve communication with scientists.

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.

    Dr. Shellie recommends getting more comfortable with the numbers:

    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.

More like this

I agree that it would be a Fine Thing if the general public were more scientifically informed and more scientifically literate. I take this to include having a grasp of basic statistical analysis, and understanding something about important 'practical' analytical tools like epidemiology.

I also think that both (natural) scientists and 'non-scientists' need to have MUCH more in the way of social scientific background so that they can understand how appeals to scientific expertise involve appeals to norms that are extra-scientific. I also think that no one who hopes to engage in policy debates about the application of scientific evidence and research to practical problems can rightly exempt himself or herself from the need to pay attention to work on techniques of persuasion, and other forms of 'non-rational' inference generation.

What this amounts to, then, is a series of constructive suggestions (offered above), and a sharp criticism (as follows): your angle of vision is objectionably narrow, and your perspective is thus parochial. What makes this really, really a matter of concern is your arrogance: the possibility that your angle of vision is narrow seems never to have crossed your mind.

As someone who cares profoundly about both improved scientific literacy AND improved communication, this concerns me.

N.A. Davis
Professor of Human Relations
Pomona College
Claremont CA 91711

By N.A. Davis (not verified) on 17 Jul 2006 #permalink

Professor Davis,

I hope I haven't claimed that my angle of vision is any broader than anyone else's here. And, I would be the last one to deny that scientific arguments appeal to all sorts of things besides empirical facts. But my sense has been that there are more non-scientists out there who can identify the rhetorical features of scientific arguments than there are non-scientists who feel they have a comfortable grasp of the ideal science is striving for. This seems to put people in a situation where the pronouncements of science might as well be the pronouncements of an oracle, or, at the other extreme, where they might as well be the promises of politicians.

Can you give us some suggestions for practical things people might do to understand how appeals to scientific expertise involve appeals to norms that are extra-scientific?

I find your post interesting and stimulating, but like the professor before me I do not agree. Science is not the continuation of common sense. There is nothing that I would call common sense in theories like quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory and so on. There is nothing I would call common sense in the method of science: the simple fact is that no one had succeed in supplying a reasonable model of "how we do science".

Personally, I find many scientists one truck minded and I think they should learn some philosophy and art.

Practically, I don't see why it's important that non-scientists should understand science. We have popular books and public intellectuals and that's enough for the non professional. I do think that both scientists and no-scientists can benefit from using philosophy methods that had developed from the attempts to understand science, like Popper's Critical rationalism or the Comprehensively Critical Rationalism of W. W. Bartley and so on.

By Jonathan E (not verified) on 17 Jul 2006 #permalink

Umm... Janet? The guy you quoted as "VisualFX" is *himself* a media/production expert, and an educated layman. Bluntly, he's a resource offering himself to your cause! Instead of a list of exercises for enhancing his own scientific literacy, perhaps you should be making suggestions for particular graphics resources and/or multimedia productions that you'd like to see created! (That's probably what Professor Davis was grumbling about too.)

As an example, try (re)considering your list of exercises and experiments. That sounds like it could be a decent basis for an educational TV series, or an interactive multimedia/software product. How might that be paced or otherwise structured? What audiences would be targeted? (Age groups, current education, occupations?) How much video of experiments, versus graphical simulations and chart displays? Should the software collect experimental data from the user's efforts? Provide tools for, say, statistical analysis and charting? To actually produce something, you need to decide what you want to produce!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 18 Jul 2006 #permalink

Jonathan, there's probably at least another long post that ought to be made about what scientists can do to improve communication between themselves and non-scientists, but that's not the subject of this post. I'm certainly not against scientists getting into philosophy and literature and art -- and many of them do.

I think it's dangerous, though, to hold up quantum mechanics as representative of science in general -- it seems to me more of a departure from common sense than most. (Also, Darwin spent a good deal of Origin of Species connecting the evolutionary theory he was developing to more commonsense knowledge his readers would have, like animal breeding.)

David, it's probably my prejudice as a parent and teacher of a certain age that I didn't even consider the screen as the medium by which non-scientists might mess around with science. ("Turn off that computer and go outside!") What would be optimal in terms of multimedia exposure to scientific ways of thinking would be interaction -- the same kind of experience of being able to manipulate intial conditions and see how that affects the outcome. I know there's a fair amount of kid-oriented software out there that does this. (I'll have to actually get some recommendations from my kids here. I do know they like the math, measurement, and logic games at this site.)

My one little reservation about virtual empirical exploration versus actual empirical exploration in some corner of our non-virtual world is that some folks have become a bit jaded about what kind of effects can be produced on the screen -- and they have an awareness that "that's special effects, not reality." Does this undermine the goal of getting people more comfortable with scientific patterns of thought? I don't know. As wll, my hunch is that the kinds of "mistakes" one can make trying to control pieces of our real environment may lead to more interesting lessons than a slick video or well-tested piece of software.

I like your answers: Do science. Do the other half of the communication process.

The common and poor answers are that scientists should become better communicators, that we should proselytize for science. In thinking of VisualFX's woo-woo mother, no-objective-reality sister, and faithful father, I'm not sure they are interested in doing the work of real communication. Visual may be fighting an uphill battle, instead of doing communication.

If it is proselytization he's going for, maybe a faith-based approach would be proper -- They believe in something, and they get their world views from somewhere, why can't we ask them to share the faith we do in the world is too complicated for easy answers, but small parts of it can be understood with care and work. The work is doing science, the faith is that others who did science aren't trying to fool you. If visual want to communicate with queen woo-woo, maybe asking her to believe he needs to build some science-type faith about her particular woo-woo kink to understand her.

I guess I mean that to communicate with the uncooperative, you might have to talk about their stuff, and if you use science to try to understand, maybe they'll pick up some science in the exchange.

While you are grappling with this as reasonable people might, but Chris Mooney (intersection) reminds us that there are those who are waging a war on science. From my personal experience trying to work with policy issues surrounding global warming, GMO's, watershed management, etc. I find that science is losing this battle, at least with much of the general public. Those who would, as Senator Imhofe did with the recent Tom Brokaw, Discovery Channel program on Global Warming, give everything a political interpretation find that many readers will agree with that viewpoint because it is easier to understand than the science. According to Imhofe, Brokaw's program was obviously biased because most of the scientists interviewed voted for Kerry.

I am convinced that a portion of the communication problem is that the non-scientist is accustomed to a story. The story does not have to be long. It is better if it can be encapsulated in a single sentence. But, if the story can be easily grasped, people will ask the question to fill in the narrative. If Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" were only about the science, it would have lost most of it's audience in the first ten minutes.

While it may not be so much of an issue, but for those questions of science that have such a big impact on public policy, I think we all have to work harder to find a better narrative.

Mmmm... I smell brownies.
I'd like to add another important point to your 3 basic concepts for educated science news consumers.
We should understand How Science Is Funded and Why. It might even help us think like a scientist...

"My one little reservation about virtual empirical exploration...
that "that's special effects, not reality." Does this undermine the goal of getting people more comfortable with scientific patterns of thought? "

This can be a problem, but it doesn't have to be a showstopper. Basically, if you manage to simulate the relevant (say,) physics well enough (including when the user does "dumb things") then you have a usable teaching environment. But "video games" aren't the only possibility here... how about:

Software to lead the user through some real-world experiments, letting them type in measurements and showing how those get assembled into "lab pages", and how those get turned into results?

How about a DVD micro-bestiary that can be sold in the box with a microscope? (With hints on slide prep, staining, etc?)

A turnkey system to hook up with some build-a-robot set (perhaps Legos' entry) that lets you plug in sensors and monitor them, or use genetic algorithms to design/program your robots?

An "alife" system targeted to the general public, to give a "feel" for how evolution works, and just how generally it applies?

Bluntly: Nobody is going to come over and tell you "just say these twelve words on nationwide TV", or "this new game can replace 4 years of science education", or "vote for me and I'll unjam the entire American school system, all by myself". (OK, they might tell you that last one, but they can't do it. ;-) )

The way it works is that whoever can do something "in our cause" does it. A book, a program, a blog -- each can be an act of communication and education. You can even try to look for something likely to "catch on" and have disproportionate results, but you can't count on that part. But it really makes a difference whether, when someone wants to help, there's someone to recruit them into useful channels, instead of brushing them off with a summary of "what we want you non-scientists to learn". Fine, you have some ideas about how the plebes can get something of a "feel" for science. Well, the ideas sound like they could be a decent children's book, perhaps with an attached "kit". Would you be willing to write that book? Or at least work with a publisher and/or ghostwriter? If not, then just what are you saying, beyond "they all oughta..."?

By David Harmon (not verified) on 18 Jul 2006 #permalink


I like your ideas a lot, and hope that the toymakers/filmmakers/programmers/authors with the mad skillz to pull them off are reading now or can be tracked down and enlisted to further the cause. If I were a media guru (with the funding and connections that go with that role), I'd be on the phone right now. But, I'm an assistant professor with a blog, so my powers are rather more ... modest.

I put forward my sketch of some ways (surely, not the only ways) non-scientists could get a feel for the scientific method because I was asked what non-scientists might do that would help with the scientist/non-scientist communication issue. I'm really not trying to assign homework to the masses, honestly! Rather, I was suggesting a quick-and-dirty place to start.

I've actually thought about taking a crack at a children's book in this general area (although I'd need an illustrator -- the sprogs got all the artistic talent in the family -- and, pragmatically, I ought to put a potentially big project like this off until after I go up for tenure). My teaching, I hope, helps broaden people's understanding. I teach a philosophy of science course taken primarily by non-science majors in order to fulfil an upper division science requirement (so we have a good proportion of people who fear science and are sure they won't "get" the scientific method at all). On the other end of things, I teach an ethics course aimed at science majors in which we talk at length about how scientists might better communicate with non-scientists.

In other words, I'm really trying to make some kind of difference here in bringing about the kind of changes in familiarity with and understanding of science that I think would be good all around. But clearly, it's a big job, so I appreciate all the ideas and efforts others are putting into it.

(Oh yeah: I occasionally blog about the scientific method and other mysteries.)

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My, what a blunt instrument is in evidence when a "scholar" accuses another of parochial arrogance while maintaining blissful ignorance of her own. A Professor of Human Relations sees a human relations problem. When will wonders cease?

(First the Disney Professor of Creative Writing and now a Professor of Human Relations? I think I'll just say no to the Annual Fund next year. Pomona is on its way to being the real-life Walden College. Or has it already lost its accreditation?)

By Unlearned Hand (not verified) on 21 Jul 2006 #permalink