Friday, August 23, 2013

Think it through. Look it up. Test it out.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion of this Op-Ed piece that appeared in the New York Times this week. Although I usually use this blog for sharing research results and funny stories from the field, I thought it might also be a good venue for thinking a little bit more about science in society.

Truth be told, I was kind of whelmed by the article. It mostly rehashed a lot of discussion about scientific literacy in the US (it lacks) and what to do about it (do more outreach!). 

Both those ideas ring true, but they're not enough. 

We all know that the way to achieve literacy is to read a lot. Read books, read magazines, read blogs (if you must)—and your language skills and knowledge will improve.

If that’s true, then maybe the way to achieve science literacy is to think like a scientist a lot. All of my friends who are geologists and biologists and physicists are very comfortable thinking like scientists because we've had years of practice. But I think that many people, when presented with a problem that a scientific approach could answer, tend to shut down part way through (the same way an illiterate person presented with a book might flip through, close it, and be done). It takes practice to be comfortable attacking thorny problems every day. The process has to be learned and practiced: thinking things through, testing ideas out, and (since asking genuinely new questions is really hard) looking things up in reliable references. To my mind, that's all there is to approaching the world scientifically: think it through, test it out, or look it up. A person that can do those things is a person that will not be easily fooled. 

But most science outreach, including this blog, is mostly focused on the “wow factor” of science. I work in a kind of cool spot (Antarctica) and have lots of exciting pictures of geologists jumping out of helicopters and funny stories about frozen poop. But that “wow factor” isn’t going to help improve a person’s science literacy any more than exposing them to the “wow factor” of literature is going to improve their traditional literacy. Seeing how giant a tome Moby Dick is or watching the glitzy new “Great Gatsby” is going to give a person a superficial bump in literacy at best.

To practice what I preach, I’m going to try to use this blog more to explain what the team is thinking about in the field, and why we’re thinking it, and how we use the evidence we collect to test our hypotheses about how the Earth (and Mars sometimes!) is working. That’s the goal for this coming field season (stay tuned).

For now, though, the fact is that you don’t have to be a professional scientist to use scientific thinking to help solve your problems and answer your questions. Most people work through problems like scientists every day. When you lose your keys, most people don’t resort to supernatural explanations or invoke supernatural solutions (I have one friend who does, but I think she’s an exception). When you lose your keys, you start to thinking the problem through: “Where did I see my keys last? On the night stand, of course!” Then you test your hunch, your hypothesis, by looking on the nightstand. And, of course, your keys aren’t there. But that’s okay. That’s not the end of science or the end of your search. You’ve just disproved your first hypothesis.

That’s one thing about science and scientific thinking, you have to get used to being wrong. It happens a lot. The universe is big, and complex, and rather more wonderful than we tend to assume it is at first. So when we brainstorm ideas about how it works (or where our keys are), we tend to be limited by our own experience and the limits of our own imagination. I think this is the point that many people stop looking for answers from science. I've been tempted lots of times to give up an investigation when my prize hunch turns out to be off the mark.

The good news about disproving a hypothesis is that you can rule it out. Even being wrong tells you something that you didn’t know before: “I thought my keys were on the nightstand, but they’re not.” So now, armed with more information, you can make a better informed guess—you can form a new hypothesis.

What is on the nightstand is cat fur. And the cat was jumping around on the nightstand last night, which she loves doing. So maybe she’s part of the puzzle—maybe she bumped into the keys. And here’s where science is great—you already know something about how this process could work. Science builds on well-established knowledge to make more discoveries. You know that if the cat bumped your keys off the nightstand that you should probably check the floor under the nightstand first, rather than the bookshelf above the nightstand. That’s because you know that gravity tends to pull objects down towards the earth’s center, not up away from it. So you put it to the test, and there they are! Problem solved!

This might seem like a silly example, but at its core, this is how scientists work every day. They think things though, they test their ideas out, and they build on tested knowledge that already exists. Where your keys are is a completely different problem from something a biologist might want to know (like wherewhale sharks disappear to every year), but the structure of how the scientists went about solving the problem is fundamentally the same.


So if we want to improve our nation’s science literacy, maybe the first place to start is encouraging everyone to think like a scientist whenever they can. The scientific method is slow, and it’s fully of blind alleys (the keys are not on the table). It’s frustrating to be wrong so often (they keys aren’t on the table, or under the table, or even on the bookshelf above the table—I checked because maybe my wife picked them up off the floor!). But as you work through all the options, you learn more at each step. You learn about things you couldn’t even imagine at first. You’re always learning, even when your hypothesis turns out to be incorrect. And if you stick with it, you can find answers to even your hardest questions. In the end, there’s no better, more systematic way of learning about the universe around us (or, other important things, like where you put your keys).

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