Developing a Scientific Worldview: Why It’s Hard and What We Can Do

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This post originally appeared on Culturing Science and is republished here with the author’s permission.

While performing monotonous, brainless tasks at work, I’ve begun the habit of listening to podcasts.  And let my friends tell you: have I been listening to WNYC’s Radiolab or what?  (I feel like I recommend an episode to someone every few days.)  The other morning, I got completely stuck on a 2-minute clip from the episode “Time” (~29 min – 31 min).  The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, had just been speaking with theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene about the theory of relativity and how, well, time is relative.

Jad asks the question: “What do you with this information? … I know this is what science tells me, but my common sense tells me that that is COMPLETELY WRONG.”

The key quote here is from Brian Greene:

This is one of the great conundrums, it seems to me, that what you learn in science is so different than what you feel in your regular life!  How do you live between those two worlds when what you knowand what you feel are so different?

To be honest, this is not something I had thought about too hard before. I grew up immersed in science.  Any facts that exist that I couldn’t reconcile with experience, I just chalked up to the limitations of my senses or even my brain’s ability to conceptualize (the latter usually reserved for when I’m dealing with astrophysics). But if you aren’t well-versed in how science works and perhaps the basics, this stuff sounds completely insane! I mean, reread Brian Greene again:

When I look at the tabletop, I delight in the fact that I can, in my mind, picture the atoms and molecules and the interactions between them and the mostly empty space that’s in there.  And that when my hand touches the tabletop, I see the electrons of the outer surface of my hand pushing against the electrons in the outer surface of the table.  I’m not really touching the table!  My hand never comes into contact with the table!  What’s happening is the electrons are getting really close together and they’re repelling each other.  And I love the fact that I am, in essence, deforming the surface of the table by making my electrons come really close to it.  That enriches my experience.

Because I have a basic understanding of atomic physics, I understand what he’s talking about.  I certainly don’t think about electron repulsion when I touch an object (although maybe now I will…), but I understand from where he’s coming.  But imagine you don’t have that basic knowledge, or you never fully grasped its meaning?  What he’s saying sounds nuts!  ”What do you mean I’m not touching the table?  I AM TOUCHING IT!  I CAN FEEL IT!” etc.

“That enriches my experience,” he says.  And I agree with him.  The ability to exist in two worlds at once – the experiential and the unseen scientific –  provides me with a great deal of satisfaction, as if, by just thinking, I can fill in historical details of the world around me.  But how do you get to that point?  How can you get to a place where you can see the world through a scientific lens in the first place?  And then, how do you integrate this worldview with the one you know?  Where, although you cannot physically sense it, you can still experience science in your every day life?

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to think in equations all the time (as in the Abstruse Goose comic above); some things can be left to the scientists.  But really understanding science – developing a real scientific literacy, if you will – is hard!  It takes a fundamental reorganization of the way one thinks about the world and, in turn, experiences the world.  It places you in a larger context: instead of living as if it’s you, an individual, against the immediate world, science can give you a sense of the whole of life and how you fit in.

So it’s no real wonder that the two most frequently denied scientific subjects (well, at least as the media presents it) are evolution and climate change – two areas that involve slow change that an individual cannot experience.  It’s not that these people are stupid!  (I’m talking about your average, everyday deniers here; not sure what to say about the big-time activists.)  They just don’t have the mindset to reconcile the science with their experience.  This is why I am regularly horrified by the way evolution or climate deniers are approached.  They are not idiots; beating them upon the head with facts is not the way to teach them.  They do not only need facts, but also a way to make the facts relevant in their lives.  And that may be something that they can be guided toward, but need to discover for themselves.

And what they  need to know to form that framework isn’t straight facts, anyway, but more like the scientific method.  The two pillars of a scientific worldview, as I’ve thought it out, are:

  1. The ability to ask questions about the world around you.
  2. The ability to find and evaluate answers to those questions

What can educators and science communicators do to provide guidance to a scientific worldview?  I am a huge proponent of science and environmental education for children and agree with Rachel Carson that childhood is the best time to plant the seeds to encourage a “sense of wonder” about the world.  Unfortunately, the current guidelines for many schools do not encourage students to ask questions, but rather to memorize this list of facts so they can pass their test: nothing more.  (See more thoughts I have on this here.)

How do we engage adults?  This is where science writers and communicators come in: it’s our job to communicate science in such a way that it hits upon larger questions about the world and forces the reader to ask these questions about his/her own world.  This follows very closely with John Pavlus’s recent post about rehabilitating awesome.  The bottom two tiers of writing are news bites that provide cool facts about science, but are memorable “only in the way that an ice cream cone or a fart” is.

Instead, we need to aim for AWESOME, Pavlus writes.  In AWESOME stories,

Something about this material connects you to who you ARE (or want to be), above and beyond what you notice, feel, want, and do. This is inspiration and terror; the stuff that can change lives, or worlds — inner and outer.

I really feel this level of writing and communicating is what we need to develop a scientific worldview for more people.  Even if they didn’t grow up with science and thus feel alienated, by telling engrossing stories that celebrate the science of our daily lives, we can cause a small revolution in the way a person sees the world.  And that small revolution can lead to more questions, more inquiry, and, maybe eventually, someone who can see a tabletop for its atoms.

I’ll leave you now with this quote from Carl Sagan:

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

Hannah Waters is a scientist and aspiring science writer from Philadelphia. She blogs here and tweets here. This post originally appeared on her blog Culturing Science.

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