Science Communication: What We Can Learn From The Masters

3 11 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Long-time readers of ‘The Theatrical Tanystropheus’ will know that I’m greatly interested in improving the communication of science to the public. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I greatly admire the late Cornell astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan. Lately, I’ve rediscovered the following video, which creates an almost immaculate sensation of awe and humility that never fails to produce a tear:

Recently, however, I’ve also taken to watching the lectures and discussions of AMNH astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who, incidentally, was very nearly a student of Sagan’s): another highly effective science communicator. While Tyson can’t compete with Sagan in terms of eloquence and poetry, he makes up for it with his relatable personality and excellent sense of humor even in the midst of controversial subjects as displayed here:

After watching three or four of Dr. Tyson’s videos, his stage presence and compelling arguments lead me to list nearly all of them in the ‘favorites’ section on my YouTube channel page. Having done so, I began to consider another academic who is also frequently cited as a science popularizer: Richard Dawkins. Yet anyone reasonably familiar with the man’s work will almost instantly realize that Dawkins is far less frequently embraced by the general public than either of these astronomers.

But why? Dawkins is just as articulate as Sagan ever was, but when asked to compare his work to Sagan’s or Tyson’s, nearly every non-scientist I’ve met expresses their preference for the latter two.

In addition to Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins, the list of recent and modern science popularizers contains (among many others) the equally-outspoken PZ Meyers, the University College-London’s Steve Jones, the late and incomparably articulate Stephen Jay Gould, the iconic Stephen Hawking, and the frequently-televised naturalist David Attenborough . Yet whenever I expose my relatively non-scientific friends to their various works, only Sagan, Tyson, Hawking, Gould, and Attenborough are commonly recognized as ‘persuasive’. So what are these men getting right that everyone else is getting wrong?

1. They Don’t Shy Away From The Arts, Culture And The Humanities.

It never ceases to amaze me how many science students, instructors, professors, and teachers utterly loathe the arts and social sciences; a paradox I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve always felt that science and the humanities can learn a great deal from each other and are mutually beneficial to an enormous degree. For instance, would anyone care to guess how many hundreds of paleontologists, geologists, biologists, and naturalists were inspired by the artwork of Charles R. Knight and the novels of Michael Chrichton? Yet the extreme distaste many scientists harbor for these very fields is so well known that it’s been discussed on the popular (and excellent) sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in which Sheldon has made such assertions as ‘the social sciences are largely hokum’ and has been indefensibly dismissive of a former love interest of his room-mate because her PhD was in literature.

There are exceptions to this rule of course, the most notable of which is none other than Sagan himself who, according to many of his friends and relatives, expressed an enthusiasm for mythology and prose from an early age. This passion grows obvious when watching reruns of ‘Cosmos’ as shown in his introduction to the library of Alexandria and utilizes the discussion to reveal just how vast the gaps in our knowledge could really be:

Furthermore, he would often take the time to point out constellations and their surrounding legends when directing his audience towards the heavens.

Why?

Because even though they’re scientifically useless, most people find such things fascinating!!

I used to work at Massawepie Scout Camps near Tupper Lake, New York every summer as an instructor whose speciality lay in teaching ‘Reptile and Amphibian Studies’ merit badge at the ecology lodge. Though the badge was often identified as one of the most challenging offered by the camp, I learned that I could make the material much more understandable by finding something which the students could relate to, which frequently took the form of the arts. A lecture concerning how certain salamanders can regrow limbs (and parts of their heads in some cases) was made easier by first giving a brief review of Hercules’ legendary conflict with the Hydra. I suspect this was due to the fact that since most of the students found Greek mythology interesting, I was able to build a springboard from fantasy to reality and in so doing, maintain their interest by exposing them to several fascinating intricacies of nature grounded literally in our own backyards.

This is hardly a novel approach. Several physics professors nationwide teach an introductory class entitled something along the lines of “The Physics Of Sports”. Even more remarkably, the University of Minnesota’s James Kakalios has acquired astronomical success with his popular course entitled “Everything I Need To Know About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books” and  his book based thereon, “The Physics Of Superheroes”. In the volume’s introduction, Kakalios makes the following observation:

“The real world is a complicated place. In order to provide illustrations in a physics lesson that emphasize only a single concept… over the decades teachers have developed an arsenal of overly stylized scenarios involving projectile motion, weights on pulleys, or oscillating masses on springs. These situations seem so artificial that students inevitably lament ‘When am I ever going to use this stuff in my real life?’

One trick I’ve hit upon in teaching physics involves using examples culled from superhero comic books that correctly illustrate various applications of physics principles. Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in ‘real life.'”

2. They Explain WHY Things Are Fascinating.

Recently, I re-watched one of my favorite films to date: Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’. After the movie, I perused the special features when I came upon a segment which focused on the personal story of historian and author Sarah Vowell’s (the voice of ‘Violet’) involvement. In it, she discussed her frustration with the fact that her longtime interest in Abraham Lincoln has rarely been greeted with enthusiasm by her peers and expressed relief in participating in the movie when she discovered she didn’t have to convince everybody that it was interesting.

Throughout my life, I’ve experienced an identical predicament when attempting to invoke ardor for the subject of paleontology in my friends, family and associates who have found such things as sports, shoes, cars, cheeseburgers, and Japanese animation far more captivating. I’m no gambler, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that most life-long science enthusiasts can relate.

I simply cannot ignore the feeling that were these individuals to fully understand the significance of a 215,000,000-year old phytosaur skull, they’d find it at least as interesting as a happy meal. The biological sciences are just as humbling as their astronomical counterparts, yet when people look at a frog or a tree, they usually aren’t nearly as awestruck as they are when gazing upon the stars. By every right, they should be: the science is there.

To exemplify this, I shall call upon the late, great Stephen Jay Gould who presented this musing back in 1980:

“I think that the fascination so many people feel for evolutionary theory resides in three of its properties. First, it is, in its current state of development, sufficiently firm to provide satisfaction and confidence, yet fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of  mysteries. Second, it stands in the middle in a continuum stretching from sciences that deal in timeless, qualitative generality to those that work directly with the singularities of history. Thus, it provides a home for all styles and propensities, from those who seek the purity of abstraction (the laws of population growth and the structure of DNA) to those who revel in the messiness of irreducible particularity (what, if anything, did Tyrannosaurus do with its puny front legs anyway?). Third, it touches all of our lives; for how can we be indifferent to the great questions of genealogy: where did we come from and what does it all mean? And then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million described species, from bacterium to the blue whale -with one hell of a lot of beetles in between- each with its own beauty, each with its own story to tell.”

3. They Never Fail To Discuss The Philosophical Implications Of Their Disciplines.

Once again, I must turn to an astronomer to exemplify this idea by displaying the following video of Neil Degrasse Tyson discussing the odds of discovering technologically-advanced extraterrestrials:

To quote Daniel Dennett, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

4. They Avoid Acquiring Reputations As Militant Atheists.

Okay, this is doubtlessly going to be my most controversial observation, but I cannot avoid mentioning a very real, very destructive elephant in the room here: individuals who attempt to establish themselves as both vociferous atheists and effective science communicators. As far as I’m concerned, a single person cannot be both.

The obvious example here is Richard Dawkins. Honestly, I feel saddened when observing the plight of the Oxford professor because, truth be told, he really is an exceptional communicator of complex scientific principles. Case in point is “The Selfish Gene”, his first book and, scientifically, his most influential. I’ve just recently completed the thirtieth anniversary edition of this excellent volume and found it to be a truly enjoyable read: a fact which was strongly assisted by its accessible prose and evocative arguments.

Yet most people know Dawkins as the author of another, more controversial book: “The God Delusion”.

It’s no secret that Carl Sagan was arguably just as critical of organized religion, as shown in “The Demon-Haunted World” among other publications. So why do most people familiar with both men cite Dawkins as the militant atheist rather than Sagan?

Because Sagan never launched a nation-wide campaign to encourage atheists to exit their closets. Sagan didn’t accuse everyone espousing  theistic beliefs as being ‘delusional’ in an international best-seller. And I doubt that Sagan would have willingly assisted a movement to replace the word ‘atheists’ with ‘brights’.

As a freethinker, I fully acknowledge that the need to encourage public acceptance of atheism is a valid concern, but I can’t help but worry that such aggressive atheistic scientists ultimately harm the scientific cause more than they assist it. The bottom line is this: regardless of how eloquent and thought provoking Dawkins is, even moderately-religious people will fail to acknowledge any of his scientific points for their minds prevent them from seeing in him anything other than a militant atheist.

Again, this is not to say that secular scientists should wholeheartedly embrace traditional religions, but rather those who hope to educate the public should avoid combating them so aggressively.

“I think that the fascination so many people feel for evolutionary theory resides in three of its properties. First, it is, in its current state of development, sufficiently firm to provide satisfaction and confidence, yet fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of mysteries. Second, it stands in the middle in a continuum stretching from sciences that deal in timeless, quantitative generality to those that work directly with the singularities of history. Thus, it provides a home for all styles and propensities, from those who seek the purity of abstraction (the laws of population growth and the structure of DNA) to those who revel in the messiness of irreducible particularity (what, if anything, did Tyrannosaurus do with its puny front legs anyway?). Third, it touches all our lives; for how can we be indifferent to the great questions of genealogy: where did we come from and what does it all mean? and then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million described species, from bacterium to blue whale, with one hell of a lot of beetles in between—each with its own beauty, and each with a story to tell.”

Also, consider the following discussion between Tyson and Dawkins (WARNING! Dawkins says a very bad, but amusing, word!)

Which school of thought do you think is more effective?

Please feel free to add your comments below!

May the fossil record (and the host of disciplines which seek to unravel the mysteries of our universe and everything in it)continue to enchant us all!

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4 responses

3 11 2009
Zach Miller

Well said on all accounts! Now I have to watch all those videos…

4 11 2009
tanystropheus

Many thanks for the compliment! You’ll doubtlessly also enjoy this exceptional article Dave Hone posted a while back on the subject:

http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2008/08/23/academic-arrogance-and-ivory-towers/

26 01 2010
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[…] my disdain for Dawkins’ incessant injection of Atheism into ‘popular science’ quite clear elsewhere, I must concede that he’s right on the money in this […]

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