Canada is undergoing a fantastic profound change. For more than a decade the government has chosen to underfund science, undermine Universities and science education and focus on a path of applied paths that are somehow guaranteed payoff. This changed with the last election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows a genuine interest in science and technology and the support is beginning to be felt in the trenches. This seems to have captured everyone's attention.
Reflecting on it left me a bit depressed. A government official, asked about a major bit of spending, is expected to provide answers to a press that knows what questions to ask -- except, in the US at least, in science and math. Somehow it is ok to be ignorant. For people in power there is an army of people ready to provide a mini education on the main points. I doubt Trudeau knows anything about Shor's algorithm, but he probably has the time to learn about the science and technology, where things might go and where it makes sense to provide some help.
In the US we have a press and political class that often focuses on pseudoscience as much as it does science. Part of the blame is education. There are a few champions who have been trying to change that. Carl Sagan was undoubtedly one of the most important popularizers. He wrote extensively on the value of science and the harm of pseudoscience - perhaps best in The Demon Haunted World. A few bits (my copy is very dog-eared and marked up)
Superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting [believers in pseudoscience], providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity. Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and writers messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, actually foretell the future. These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature-often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility.
Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because distracting confrontations with reality–where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison–are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for the same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science.
At the heart of some pseudoscience is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our hearts desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise. Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.
That leaves the task of communicating science. Something I have struggled with for a long time. Einstein often said that the mark of knowing your stuff is being able to communicate it to an interested person who doesn't have your background.1 Defending my Ph.D. thesis was, as it is for most people, straightforward and without surprises. The surprise was a requirement to communicate what I did to a high school physics class. I still have nightmares. What a disaster. My advisor stepped in and saved the day getting to the core without jargon. He took a few liberties with physics getting there, but the core idea came through and stood alone.
I still try. Sometimes with this blog and sometimes just walking with someone. Walking is much easier (assuming someone can save you from the traffic - eh Juliette?) as it is a give an take. Trying to communicate an idea with someone where you have feedback can be an exhilarating experience and often you learn something. If you're really lucky you can learn from them about their area of expertise.
Part of the trick is avoiding jargon and finding an accurate nugget. Extra points if it is visual or poetic (Sagan was very poetic). When I get in the muck trying to work out a path I remember a story by Richard Feynman:2
We used to go up to the Catskill Mountains for vacations. In New York, you go the Catskill Mountains for vacations. The poor husbands had to go to work during the week, but they would come rushing out for weekends and stay with their families. On the weekends, my father would take me for walks in the woods. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about nature, and so an, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn't want to, because he said I was more advanced. I'm not trying to tell you how to teach, because what my father was doing was with a class of just one student; if he had a class of more than one, he was incapable of doing it.
So we went alone for our walk in the woods. But mothers were very powerful in those day's as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks in the woods. So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, "See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?"
I said, "I haven't got the slightest idea."
He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science."
I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.
The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody's name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say "the Fitz-Cronin effect," and I ask "What is the effect?" and I can't remember the name.
I would like to say a word or two--may I interrupt my little tale--about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.
It is not science. That doesn't mean, just because it is not science, that we don't have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It's necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn't say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It's a distinct difference. That doesn't mean an art teacher shouldn't teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn't know that.
In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.
It takes me back to my high school biology class.Mostly rote memorization and very little science. Looking back there were many fascinating concepts, but I had no clue they might be interesting as I slogged through mnemonic memory tricks the teacher provided so we could make it through the multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank tests. Other than the thrill of some semi-dangerous experiments, chemistry class wasn't much better. In the end you could sound like you knew something, but it was just a veneer. It would be much better to teach real concepts and forget about the terminology. Fortunately some classes have moved in that direction.
You also need to be able to build a pseudoscience detector. Science is great at bull-sh*t detection, but it can take time and is often not presented well. But here's a nice trick that trips up many of the pseudo-science crowd - the people who try to sound smart but don't really say anything (Deepak Chopra comes to mind). Again from Feynman:
I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, 'Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word 'energy', tell me what you know now about the dog's motion.' You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.
If a specialist can't express something in clear language to a non-specialist they have no business explaining it in the first place. If you hear someone rambling on, stop them and ask them to express it non-technically without the jargon. If you ask them about something they can't find language for, and there are some ideas that fit that category, they should tell you they can't explain it clearly. Feynman was very frank upfront.
I struggle along and beg your patience. Fortunately there are people who are very skilled at the sport often using visual tools and other approaches that are much more effective than my rambling. But I'll try and sometimes I'm not bad in small groups or one on one. It is a most worthy challenge. After all, there are many intersections of clarity and accuracy. Being clever enough to create and present the right one for an audience is the trick.
1 While he did write a clear book on relatively aimed at high school students, it is not terribly accessible unless you have a firm understanding of high school math .. If you are motivated to learn and remember high school trig by all means go for it, but thee are some excellent texts that have appeared over the years that do at better job at high school and college levels. For brief overviews others have provided clearer explanations that aren't rigorous .. you won't understand special relativity reading or watching them, but you'll have a pretty good idea of what it is and why it was revolutionary.
2 From the talk What is Science from the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966. It was reprinted in The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6, 1968
Just a quick trick. I have a good friend with West African heritage and tried to make a few dishes of the area. Completely non-authentic, but many of the soups and stews have peanuts. That turns out to be brilliant. If you're making a vegetable soup with the standards - onions, carrots, celery and tomatoes - try throwing it a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter for each serving and a handful of chopped peanuts. The resulting soup is very rich and has much more protein than the vegetable base.