Negging your audience is also important, apparently.
John Skylar had an interesting article last week, picked up by Mashables shortly after it went a bit viral. He points out that the beautiful images posted on I Fucking Love Science (hereafter referred to as IFLS) are not all that great of a representation of what science is, and fawning over them does not equate a “love of science,” (though I would argue that stock photography of people pipetting is also “not science”). After I point out that Skylar’s seemingly hostile position on IFLS was actually just an aggressive technique for internet-writers to drive traffic, I want to quickly defend IFLS for what it actually provides. IFLS is what science students, profs and professionals would refer to as their outreach work: it drives interest and awareness among the general populace, many who would never be exposed to it otherwise. For those working in scientific fields, it provides a window into other fields as well. Usually the image is accompanied by a short explanatory text and a link to the original article, or at least the popular press take on it. I would expect that the nominal goal for outreach, not just IFLS, is to increase scientific literacy in the general population. But once again there is a pervasive conflation of terms, and it isn’t confusing data with people and money, it is conflating results with a method. I would claim that in actuality, Mythbusters is potentially better for improving scientific literacy than IFLS, and zombie Richard Feynman would back me up.
I studied science and engineering at the undergraduate and graduate level for about five years, doing a little research along the way to boot. In all of my coursework, I can’t recall taking a single class that actually taught science. The coursework that probably came the closest was in statistics. In lieu of teaching a few courses a year on the intricacies of the scientific method, elegant experiments, etc., courses in a science department almost invariably teach the history and current consensus of a field, by and large treating this information as static facts. In short, they focus on the results and tend to ignore where these results come from. The contents of the science coursework taught at a typical university is not science, it is trivia.
Science is a method for figuring out if an idea we have about the world is false, nothing more. You have heard this before if you ever competed in the science fair as a kid. Science is a comparison of guesses and givens, where guesses are the results we expect if some idea we have about the world might be true. Givens are the data, gathered by observations, measurement, and sometimes assumption. Where the guesses and the givens don’t agree, the original idea is WRONG, simple as that. The best science is based on the ideas that are most readily falsifiable, not necessarily the most complicated. A vague theory is hard to disprove, but it still can be very, very useless.
Ultimately, scientific literacy is not knowing how many flarks jive a phoouon with a 90 rad spin, but the ability to be confronted with a claim and confer upon it a vote of confidence or no confidence in that idea’s reality. The best way to love science is to use it to inform your view of the world, regardless of your profession. Next time another human tries to sell you on an idea, ask to see their p-value, and don’t trust averages without error bars. If you start with an unsparing application of science, the survival rates of nonsense will plummet. Maybe that effect would even trickle up to the higher echelons of U.S. government, and eventually they might enact reasonable policies with an outlook beyond four years at a time, including emphasising a strong and stable investment in academic research.
Hat tip to Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem for influencing my interpretation of “givens.”
Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gregor_Mendel_Monk.jpg originally from the book “Mendel’s Principles of Heredity: A Defence.” Scans of book at http://www.archive.org/details/mendelsprinciple1902bate