For the most part I don’t write that much about science communication here, because my posts on this blog are one demonstration of what I feel science communication can be! But I spent the end of last year thinking a lot about outreach, and seeing how my outreach philosophy is different from other communicators who are doing great work, and I wanted to explain that a little more.
I’ve always found science fascinating as a lens for understanding the world and appreciating its beauty. But I think that in science and engineering, and especially my field of physics, there’s an inherent tension. On the one hand, you have the beauty and awe that science help illuminate, and the excitement of increasing your own realm of knowledge, or even pushing the boundaries of the knowledge of mankind. That is all exciting and lofty and many people who aren’t into science still see the appeal, because curiosity about the world around us is something every child starts out with. But on the other hand, there’s often an elitism in science, a sense of scientists as gatekeepers of truth high up in a hierarchy, which is encouraged by the media at times and even some scientists.
When I tell people I’m a scientist, or a physicist, a lot of times they tell me a story about the one bad physics teacher they had, who ruined all of science for them. This apparently happens a lot, and I do get that teachers can make or break a subject at times. (My first physics teacher was not stellar.) But it’s not like bad English teachers ruin reading and writing for anyone. “If it weren’t for that middle school teacher harping on verb tenses all the time, I would probably be a Proust scholar by now, but as it is I don’t even remember how to read.” But I think culturally, communication and language and the arts derived from those things are considered fundamental, in a way that science and math used to be but no longer are. It should be as much a mark of education to know some basic science as it is to have read some of the classic novels or to know the Beethoven symphonies! I’m never going to be one of those people who makes the argument that science literacy is more important than other forms of cultural literacy, but why isn’t it at least equivalent? I think that’s a direct result of our having tried to set science apart as a better, higher thing. When you put something up on a pedestal, it gains status but loses accessibility. Science is now considered less relevant for everyone to know, even though it’s just as foundational as it ever was.
But I don’t fundamentally believe that scientific ideas are out of reach for a layperson. There’s no insurmountable math barrier or smartness barrier, science is a topic like many other topics. And I mean that a layperson can understand basically any scientific idea, not just the vague and descriptive ones. Math is a great language for explaining science, if you know how to speak it. But actual language also does the trick! You just have to be willing to think about the best way to use it.
Only being willing to explain physics using math is a failure of imagination. And sure, maybe an explanation that doesn’t use math is going to be missing some things, but so is a math explanation that gives no qualitative interpretations. If you have no science background, and I’m telling you about electrons, you may not come to understand electrons in exactly the way that I do. But that’s as much because we are different people with different experiences and conceptual ways of thinking as it is because I have spent time studying physics.
There is a saying that you can’t teach someone physics, you can only help them to learn it for themselves. And while I agree that it’s the student who has to mentally grapple with and eventually accept the tricky topics in science (and life), that doesn’t mean there’s no point trying to teach! Each person comes to understand concepts, whether it’s particle-wave duality or mind-body duality, on their own terms. If someone is asking me to help them find those terms for a concept I know a little about, I can’t make the leaps for them, but I can try different approaches to facilitate that understanding. And I love doing that; it usually expands and reforms my own understanding as well.