How can scientists best communicate science to the public?



How can scientists best communicate science to the public?
How can scientists
best communicate
science to the
Gordon J. Aubrecht, II
Ohio State University at Marion
Communication is hard. Clear communication is harder still. Hardest of all
appears to be clear communication of science to the public. Part of the
problem is the virus of anti-intellectualism, but another part of the problem
is encapsulated in the Pogo maxim: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Solutions include eschewing scientific codewords; including information on
methods of science and limitations of science in teaching at all levels;
insisting that students giving oral explanations speak clearly; and insisting
that physics students write clear essays as problem solutions. This sounds
easy, but in practice is much harder than it sounds, and it may not even be
effective: Demaree [1] has found that the link between writing and learning
content is not obvious, and showed that students may not even be learning to
write through practice in the context of physics.
[1] D. Demaree, Toward understanding writing to learn in Physics: Investigating
student writing, Ph.D. thesis, Ohio State University, 2006.
This talk was originally invited for
a panel by Jean-François Van
Huele for the Session HC:
Scientific Communication and
but I was already giving an invited
paper. I suggested he contact
Dedra Demaree instead, but he
Somehow, it ended up here in this energy
session instead.
Physicists need to be able to
communicate with fellow
citizens, policymakers, other
scientists, and students.
Each of these connections
needs to be different.
Students are usually thought to
be easy to communicate to.
We simply gather a large number
of them in a lecture hall, create a
perfect lecture, and the students
will certainly know the material
as soon as the lecture is done.
So, what do you think?
Is that how it really works?
My good friend (and former
chair of my department) Will
Saam many years ago told me
a story about his undergraduate experience at
Will was lucky to attend
Caltech during the period
when Feynman developed the
lectures (on which the famous
books were based).
He said it was truly a
marvelous experience. They
all had a deep understanding
of basic physics during the
lectures. All the students
understood everything
Feynman said. …
Until they got back to the
dorm after class.
Then they asked one another
something like:
“What was it that he was
saying in class? How do we
study for it?”
So maybe communication with
students isn’t so easy after all.
Well, fellow scientists are
surely easier to communicate
Now, remind me how many
different values of the
Weinberg angle were
canonical before we got it
Okay, lets go after the
policymakers. We can surely
get across our messages
quite well to them.
So, we’ll keep building the
SSC, right?
And all you political folks
understand global warming
and the greenhouse effect …
action v. inaction.
QuickTime™ and a
are needed to see this picture.
Well, we all live with our fellow
citizens. It should be easy to
talk with them about science.
But …. Here’s a relatively recent headline:
2005 November 17 Thursday
America Becoming Dumb And Dumber
Steve Sailer points to a depressing report about the dismal demographic
future of America.
“But now, for the first time ever, America's educational gains are poised
to stall because of growing demographic trends. If these trends continue,
the share of the U.S. workforce with high school and college degrees may
not only fail to keep rising over the next 15 years but could actually
decline slightly, warns a report released on Nov. 9 by the National Center
for Public Policy & Higher Education, a nonprofit group based in San
Jose, Calif. The key reason: As highly educated baby boomers retire,
they'll be replaced by mounting numbers of young Hispanics and African
Americans, who are far less likely to earn degrees.”
“Because workers with fewer years of education earn so much less,
U.S. living standards could take a dive unless something is done, the
report argues. It calculates that lower educational levels could slice
inflation-adjusted per capita incomes in the U.S. by 2% by 2020. They
surged over 40% from 1980 to 2000.”
Here’s a more recent one:
The Chicago Tribune
So how dumb are we?
D’oh! Americans get stumped in knowledge tests in the visually driven
global information age
By Lisa Anderson, Chicago Tribune correspondent
July 6, 2008
NEW YORK—Who hasn’t snickered at “Jaywalking,” a “Tonight Show”
segment in which host Jay Leno flummoxes unsuspecting young people on
the street with such tricky questions as: In what country is Paris located?
Or cringed to see Miss America 2007 humiliated by a brainy bunch of 10year-olds—who just happened to know the sun is the heavenly body with
the greatest mass in our solar system—on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th
Grader?” Or witnessed the consternation of a cashier presented with a $20
bill and two quarters for a $12.50 tab?
Some consider such deficits in knowledge and ability no laughing matter, citing it
as evidence of the “dumbing down” of Americans, particularly young adults. Others
believe any apparent decline in book smarts simply reflects the evolution of new
ways of learning and “knowing,” forged in a fast-paced wireless world where the
data of the ages are downloaded in a nanosecond at the touch of a keyboard.
So, which is it? No one really knows. But the topic clearly is percolating through
the popular culture: Read the less-than-reassuring poll of “What Do Americans
Know” in Newsweek’s July 7-14 Global Literacy 2008 issue. Or the cover story in
The Atlantic magazine’s July/August issue: “Is Google Making Us Stoopid? What
the Internet is doing to our brains.” Or the just-published “DISTRACTED: The
Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” by Maggie Jackson.
Dumbest generation?
The question is hotly debated in academic circles, where Emory University English
professor Mark Bauerlein further turned up the temperature with his recent book,
“The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and
Jeopardizes Our Future.” Its subtitle: “Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”
I guess we’re
zero for four.
Hm …
In the abstract, I suggested
that we could address this by:
(1) eschewing scientific codewords
(2) including information on methods of science and
limitations of science in teaching at all levels
(3) insisting that students giving oral explanations
speak clearly
(4) insisting that physics students write clear essays
as problem solutions
(1) eschewing scientific codewords
Many of us know that study of science requires
us to be able to discuss things. We have all
found the power of words. For example, Einstein
spoke of a “quantum of light.”
Only when Lewis dubbed this
light quantum the photon did
scientists begin really to
examine the consequences of
quantization … of lattice
vibrations (phonons), of
magnetic spin switching
(magnons), etc.
Nevertheless, we use a lot of
technical words rather than
expand in English the meaning
of the thing. Torque is a word
that describes a pseudovector
resulting from application of a
force at some displacement
from an axis of rotation.
If we understand what torque
is, we don’t need all those
words. If we don’t, it is
necessary to use those words.
It’s very tempting to use the
word and assume it’s
understood, but experience has
shown that the “assume makes
an ass of you and me” crowd
had it right.
At least about torque.
And maybe momentum.
And maybe power.
And maybe …
(2) including information on methods of science and
limitations of science in teaching at all levels
Many nonscientists believe that science proves
We know better.
But do the public know we trust our ideas because for
hundreds of years we’ve tried and failed to show that
they’re wrong? Do they know that all knowledge is
tentative? Do they think of science as a process
rather than a result?
•Why do we teach about
motion near Earth’s surface
neglecting air resistance?
•Why are ropes in introductory
physics classes inextensible?
•Why is a body represented by
a point in a free body diagram?
We need to come clean on our
simplifications, and why we
You’ve likely all heard the one
about the chicken farmers who
hired a physicist to address some
problem. When he assembled the
farmers to discuss his work, the
physicist began,
“Consider a spherical chicken …”
(3) insisting that students giving oral explanations
speak clearly
The level of obfuscatory discourse in my
classroom blows me away.
Students seem to have forgotten how (if they ever
knew) to form a sentence without a “like”, a “y’
know”, a “just sayin’”!
Communication assumes an intent to
communicate. I wonder about my students
Maybe yours are better?
In my physics by inquiry
classes, I ask students to
imagine that they’re speaking
to Joe Blow from Kokomo, an
intelligent but ignorant person.
Sometimes I suggest Joe’s a
How does a person explain to
a third-grader about mass?
Very carefully, of course.
One needs to form complete
sentences and construct a
logical sequences of ideas.
It would be helpful if all
students at all levels could
construct such sentences.
It would be helpful if people
could converse this way.
(4) insisting that physics students write clear essays
as problem solutions
A former OSU grad student, Dedra Demaree, now
on the other OSU (Oregon State) faculty, ended up
studying the effect of writing physics on
understanding physics. She looked for “writing
across the curriculum” evidence and found,
essentially, none that was not anecdotal.
I’d like to have you ponder
these words, the abstract from
Dr. Demaree’s thesis,
Toward Understanding Writing to
Learn in Physics: Investigating
Student Writing
It is received wisdom that writing in a discipline
helps students learn the discipline, and millions
of dollars have been committed at many
universities to supporting such writing. We show
that evidence for effectiveness is anecdotal, and
that little data-based material informs these
prejudices. This thesis begins the process of
scientific study of writing in the discipline, in
specific, in physics, and creates means to judge
whether such writing is effective. The studies
culminating in this thesis are an aggressive start
to addressing these complex questions.
Writing is often promoted as an activity that, when put
into classrooms in specific disciplines, not only helps
students learn to write in the methods of that discipline
but also helps students learn content knowledge.
Students at the Ohio State University are being asked to
write more in introductory courses, and the Engineering
schools want their students to have more writing skills
for the job market. Combined with the desire of many
educators to have students be able to explain the course
content knowledge clearly, it would seem that writing
activities would be important and useful in physics
courses. However, the question of whether writing helps
learning or whether students learn writing within a nonEnglish classroom helps learning in the discipline are
open to debate, and data are needed before such claims
can be made.
This thesis presents several studies aimed at
understanding the correlation of writing and
content, and tracking and characterizing student
writing behaviors to see how they are impacted
by writing in physics courses. It consists of four
parts: summer and autumn 2005 focus on
writing in introductory physics labs with and
without explicit instruction, while winter and
spring 2006 focus on tracking and analyzing
student writing and revising behavior in Physics
by Inquiry (PbI).
In summer quarter, 2005, introductory calculus-based
physics lab students wrote essays, some sections with
and some without explicit writing instruction. When
analyzing student writing, we found that an essay’s
grade based solely on English correlated strongly with
its grade based on physics, and that explicit writing
instruction improved the physics content more than
writing practice alone. In addition, we have studied the
location and type of comments made by both physics
and English instructors on individual student essays. We
find a strong correlation between the location and type of
comments made by both instructors, and find that when
students struggle overall with the content of an essay
they make more mistakes with the writing.
A similar study in autumn quarter, 2006, reduced the
writing to one specific content, and increased the
content knowledge testing to look for changes in content
knowledge with the writing activities, and differences in
content knowledge based on the inclusion of explicit
writing instruction. Limited impact of the writing or
instruction on content knowledge was observed;
students who completed the writing activities in place if
traditional lab activities did better on lab quizzes
immediately following the activities, but not on quizzes
and tests taken later. However, this null result indicates
that time can be devoted to writing within an introductory
physics class without reducing the focus on physics
content. Differences between those who wrote with and
without explicit writing instruction were minimal, which
may be due to the shorter time spent on writing during
this project.
So, how can scientists
best communicate
science to the public?
We need to begin early, before
we destroy students’ curiosity.
Elementary school & middle
school, these are where
science teachers who do
“good science” can make a
It is possible to form
connections to teachers (and
even administrators) in our
local school districts.
I have been fortunate to have
been requested by Marion
City Schools (MCS)
administrators to help form a
STEM middle school. We
hope for funding, but are
proceeding this summer with
inquiry training no matter
All of us can do this sort of
thing. I hope some of us can
rise to the challenge!
As we have seen, there are no
“magic bullets.”
It will take commitment and hard
work by us to change the system.
And we may nonetheless fail, no
matter how good our intentions.
If we won’t try, we will have only
ourselves to blame for the result.
Physics teachers: Let’s do it.