August is a busy time of year for many science writers, performers and communicators in Australia, especially in the capital. While rest of the nation prepares for National Science Week, Canberra hosted its 18th Australian Science Festival; a small but relatively popular annual event that presents talks and activities to the local community. On Saturday I was invited to present a talk on art and neurology titled ‘Cartoons on the Brain’, which used the concept of illustration to discuss how the brain makes sense of its surroundings.
Mine was only one of a handful of events scheduled for the day, sandwiched between one on aerodynamics that included folding paper planes, and a panel on science fiction. The audience was a good size, made up mostly of kids and their families, as I’d expected, and the questions I received after the talk were encouraging. However, on arrival at the venue I walked past the following things – a ‘Delorean’ car, Darth Vader and three daleks.
I would feel perfectly comfortable seeing such spectacles at only two events. One is at a comic convention. The other is a birthday party themed on the letter ‘D’. This was neither; it was an event that aimed to ‘make science accessible to all’. As I left the talk I was nearly bowled over by a chap in a super hero costume, and later learned a local comic shop was offering free comics to those who showed up in an appropriate state of dress.
So, why didn’t this sit well with me? After all, the Delorean obviously pulled a crowd and the kids loved the monotonous threats of the death-happy daleks.
Part of the issue relates to a question of how to address what is commonly referred to as ‘science literacy’. Lecturer in science communications at London’s Imperial College, Dr. Alice Bell, unwraps this topic perfectly in her blog. It demonstrates that simplistic terms can effectively hide vague concepts. Likewise, claiming to ‘make science accessible’ can be bleached of all meaning without a sound understanding of precisely what it is people are given access to.
Science literacy is, at its core, a vague concept. This is primarily because the term ‘science’ itself is burdened with a melange of distinct definitions. For example, it can refer to innovative technology, such as wireless communication or face transplants. Discoveries of new observations, whether its a genetic code or a new exo-planet, are referred to as the latest science. Science can refer to a process, a single method or a methodology. It can be the facts or the hypotheses that link them. It can be the wild speculation of remote possibilities or hard certainties born only on consensus.
I’m not claiming it is definitively all of these things from an absolute viewpoint – I am claiming that the word can be understood as all of these things depending on the context and the audience. Hence ‘science literacy’, in absence of constraining language, is so broad it borders on being meaningless. How, then, are we to achieve our aims in science communication when we encounter a veritable forest of goalposts?
Of course, few people give it as much thought. Science is whatever feels sciencey. Space, timetravel, swords of light, dilithium crystals…it’s all science. What about magic wands? No. That’s fantasy. But if you call it a sonic screwdriver…yeah, it’s science again. Fairies are also fantasy unless they’re aliens with the ability to use quantum waves to distort space and time, at which point they’re science fiction.
Of course, Arthur C Clarke’s famous third law comes to mind here. Technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. The key differences between sorcery and science become trivial as the scope of knowledge expands beyond the horizon.
So is the difference significant? Should we care if science and magic are virtually identical to the average citizen? After all, do you need to know how a plasma screen works to watch the football?
No, of course not. You also don’t need to know much about biology to give yourself an insulin injection or have a degree in chemistry to know which toothpaste to buy. However science defined as innovation and discovery is an easy sale. Blowing something up in front of a five year old in the name of science is like feeding them toffee in the name of cooking. Sure, there’s a connection, but you shouldn’t automatically assume they’ll now want to know how to cook a roast. Nonetheless we continue to promote this empty view of science to the public in want of feeling like we’re doing something beneficial.
The deficit model of communication is conceptually simple and can be evaluated in moments. But the real challenge is forfeited for want of an educational facade.
Encouraging people to overcome the hard-wired neurological impediments that make science so useful in the first place is as difficult as it is important. For example, knowing how to distinguish emotional dilemmas (what clothes to wear on a date) from rational dilemmas (whether to vaccinate your child) is an essential skill. So too is knowing the strengths and limitations of logic and understanding that absolute ‘proof’ is a logical term while science only provides contextual answers (or theories) that sit on a spectrum of confidence. These skills will benefit tomorrow’s citizens as they comb through torrents of facts and figures that are as close as their iPad far more than a willingness to watch Discovery channel.
Our future is going to be full of science magic. As technology becomes more complicated, fewer people will have a complete grasp of the theories and complex mathematics that underpin it. Arguably, they don’t need to. What they will need are skills of evaluation, knowing how to identify the clues that distinguishes good information from useless nonsense. Darth Vader and daleks won’t be of much help there, unfortunately, and care has to be taken not to confuse the ‘feeling’ of science with the core values that make it so incredibly useful as a pragmatic philosophy.