Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Communicating Science Uncertainty


Eli has been listening to young folks talk about science teaching and science listening.  Although this will be a very short post, IEHO it is worthy of more than a few comments.

Allow Eli to start with a college student's observation that scientists have trouble communicating to the public because they are used to the give and take of talking with other scientists where everybunny is free to quibble, make errors and disagree but to be taken seriously one must remain within the well proven boundaries of common knowledge.  Understanding grows through the interchange but if you fail the bullshit tests and remain obdurate, others simply roll their eyes and walk.

According to the student, and Eli agrees, this is confusing to the broad public for reasons that are partially explained below.

The second point, made by a younger student, is that running the K-12 standardized testing gauntlet does not prepare kids for any kind of intellectual give and take, nor do textbooks encourage same.  Multiple choice questions have ABCD (maybe E) answers and the students never learn how to engage in the give and take of scientific discourse.  Textbooks do not usually help much if at all.  To be honest, most university, let alone K-12 science teachers themselves are uncomfortable about teaching through argumentation although there is movement, at least at the college level towards experiential learning through guided discourse.  Note that guided, it is not free form, there are constraints and the lessons have to be carefully planned to work otherwise the students wander off into denial land and worse.

Now, as much fun as it is to engage with the Willards o the Wisp the constraints of reality are what bounds scientific discourse.  Eli's recent ruminations on the greenhouse effect and gravity as well as the comments are good examples of the characteristic give and take, how strong constraints from distance can set the limits for basic processes that apparently have little to do with the bounding forces, and eye rolls when the denial starts.

7 comments:

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I'm currently taking a couple of graduate classes, one in Astrophysics and one in History, and it does seem to me that the students in both are awfully reticent. They aren't dumb, but they don't like to ask or answer questions in class.

EliRabett said...

Yep, they have grown up in a system where there is a right answer written in the text or given to you by the instructor and you get dinged for exploring the implications thereof. If you want to look at some approaches to kill this off look up POGIL (but it is slot expensive, you can't use it for large lectures)

izenmeme said...

@-"According to the student, and Eli agrees, this is confusing to the broad public for reasons that are partially explained below. "

I am struggling to find even partial reasons why the broad public would be confused by understanding growing through the give and take of talking with others where everybunny is free to quibble, make errors and disagree.

Such a pattern of critical interchange, with boundaries that crossing results in exclusion, would seem to be a common feature of human society.
Except when unquestioning acceptance of established authority is coerced.
(possible double post, captcha bouncing us around!)

Fernando Leanme said...

I've se en the same reticence in some cultures. I used to give seminars at a Russian Institute, and had to devote time to loosening their tongues. An easy way to do it up is to ask them "how did we get to have such large brains"? There are so many ideas about it, and nobody knows for sure. So it's easy to get them to talk about it. But you do have to use up time. I thnk it's worth it, because individuals who can't challenge the status quo are practically worthless in a world that's changing at high speed all of the time.

Bryson said...

I've spent a large part of my teaching time over the last 30 years introducing students to (aspects of) the scientific world view, generally from a historical perspective. I suppose the aim might well be described as bringing the students to some understanding of how the scientific boundaries of the current discussions over geology, evolution and physics emerged, that is, why we're so confident we can rely on quantum mechanics, GTR, plate tectonics and evolution as fundamental tools for understanding the world. Getting a handle on the history (even a pretty broad one) seems to help when it comes to avoiding denial land; at first glance, many people find these fundamental ideas weird and implausible-- but knowing where they came from helps. And there's plenty of depth in the literature if someone wants to go deeper (for example, in geology historians like Ospovat and Rudwick have made a lot of primary material accessible in a readable way, and similarly in the massive amount of work on the history of evolutionary biology). One of the best features of this approach is that it reveals that the creationists and design arguments lost the battle way back when, and that their current efforts don't solve the problems that led to their losing the argument long ago...

Mal Adapted said...

The too-smart(or lazy)-to-fail professorial techno-bunny: "Yep, they have grown up in a system where there is a right answer written in the text or given to you by the instructor and you get dinged for exploring the implications thereof."

Does the bunny ever feel like this?

http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/1986/01/19/

Hank Roberts said...

More science from satellites: Santa Clara Valley groundwater recharge detectable:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GL072663/abstract