Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Whiplash in science reporting and the "textbook science" problem

Reporting on hot scientific research has got to be tough. Every conflicting bit of information is worth a journal article (in a high-profile journal like Nature or Science if possible, but the disciplinary journals will do if necessary). The articles are written as if the conclusions are the last word on the subject, and the press releases tend to emphasize the revolutionary (or in current NSF-speak, "transformative") aspects of the work. The common understanding that underlies the research is taken for granted in the articles, so that even if the writing is clear and concise, it's hard for someone to walk in from another expertise (even another scientific expertise) and make sense of what the journal article says.

It's no wonder that reporting on climate change (or, for that matter, anything to do with medicine) gives readers a case of mental whiplash. (Articles from yesterday on the subject: Andy Revkin in the New York Times, Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog, John Fleck in the Albuquerque Journal, Real Climate.) Part of the problem, as John Fleck points out, is a disconnect between the science that people learn as students and the way science is done on the cutting edge:

One of my great frustrations as a science journalist is what I take to be the fundamental public misunderstanding of science.

It arises from textbooks, where were most of us have most of our brief contact with the world of science. Textbooks are about fixed bodies of knowledge - the questions that have been settled. But real science, out where working researchers poke at questions day in and day out, "is this turbulent interface between what we know and what we don't know," as atmospheric physicist Andy Dessler once told me.
That got me thinking. Because textbooks are usually part of classes, and that means that teaching (especially introductory courses) is part of the problem. (And I know one of my commenters last week said that it's probably hubris to expect to change the world through teaching intro classes, but if we're part of the problem, I guess we've also got to be part of the solution.)

The problem is that students don't learn about how scientists really work in an intro class, as Anne Egger pointed out in her talk at the Teaching Intro Geoscience workshop. (Powerpoint file alert!) She argued that we should find ways to teach the real process of doing geoscience - not just the cartoon version of The Scientific Method that kids memorize in high school, but the real way that geoscientists try to make sense of the world. (I would add some examples: Why do we do field work, and what do we see, and how is that science, anyway? How can we test hypotheses about things that have already happened? How do we decide that we were wrong about something - or how does the community decide that an explanation is wrong? What happens when different approaches imply different explanations? And what are models, and are they really just exercises in curve-ftting?)

The workshop generated some suggestions. I'm curious whether the geoblogosphere has had experience with any of these approaches, and whether you've found them useful.

I could divide them into a few categories: 1) having students experience some parts of the scientific process, 2) introducing students to research that you (or grad students, or undergrads, or visiting speakers) are doing, and 3) being explicit about where ideas and data come from (including discussing history). I've used all of these a little, but except for the first one, I haven't given a lot of thought to my goals. I won't talk about the first one, because that's a blog post in itself, and I'm talking about it at GSA, but I can give some rambling thoughts about the other two.

2) Introducing students to researchers. Anne does this explicitly at Stanford. She's got great opportunities - cutting-edge researchers to talk to classes, a lecture series featuring grad student work-in-progress, etc. (Stanford isn't called a research university for nothing.) I've got fewer opportunities - undergrad researchers, a couple of Four Corners Geological Society talks a month, and my own research on topics I've cut out of my intro class. I've encouraged students to go to FCGS talks (and given extra credit for it), but I don't get enough participation to judge whether it helps or not. If I wanted the intro students to think about how the speakers did the science, as opposed to just absorbing the conclusions, I would need to get the students to reflect on the research. I'm not sure exactly how to do that, but it might be worth thinking about.

3) Using history of ideas. Geologists are uniformitarian, after all; the past helps us understand the future. A lot of intro books try to explain plate tectonics by going through the history of the development of the theory. And, well... I don't think they succeed. The theory was developed in a really roundabout kind of way - the key data that changed people's minds in the late 60's, those magnetic stripes on the ocean floor... well, they're weird. It's hard to tell the story without getting bogged down. (And I know that students have left my discussions of flipping magnetic fields more confused than they were than they started.) And I'm not sure that the textbook stories make the most important points, at least when it comes to understanding what's going on in unresolved debates.

I've have more luck talking about history of ideas in my upper level plate tectonics class. I've got more time (and I make them read some of Naomi Oreskes' work). And the tectonics students are advanced enough that I can make them read and discuss recent papers that have generated debate. But with the intro students - making sense of moving plates is difficult enough. (And, well... something controversial in the 60's doesn't seem very immediate. Kids these days...)

The history just doesn't work very neatly as a narrative. It's messy. (There's a reason why AGU meetings and movies are different. And it's not just that women talk to one another at AGU.) And the work that led to plate tectonics was collaborative, as well - there were contributions from many different researchers with different expertises, and some of the best ideas occurred to different groups at the same time. (So there isn't a clear protagonist, a personality whose ideas triumphed in the end.) And that's part of the point that I would want to make, so I wouldn't want to sacrifice it to tell a good story.

Anyone had better luck than I have? (Or any students have examples of things that worked for them?)


Chris R said...

Funnily enough, I've been trying to write a post about the history of plate tectonics, and have been having real trouble because it is so messy. Although, in a way, the messiness is the point - the fact that scientific advances are not handed down complete from the gods in the ivory tower, but involve lots of false turns, missed opportunities - and arguing.

Thinking back, I really benefited as an undergraduate from lecturers who incorporated their own research interests into their lectures - particularly one whose tectonics course was a history of how his own thinking had developed over the years (including, notably, where he'd got it wrong). Of course, one of the problems with such an approach is that getting the balance right probably takes a lot of time, effort, and practice...

Kim said...

That one lecturer who was able to talk about how his own thinking changed, and how he got it wrong at times - I've never worked with anyone who was able to do that. The researchers who were deep in the thick of the arguments weren't able to step back and look at their ideas without wanting to defend them and insist that they had been right. And the people (like me, for instance) who aren't in the thick of things - at a small school, or too young to have watched the ideas change themselves - we don't have the direct personal experience.

I try to make up for it by introducing students to Plate Tectonics: an insider's history of the modern theory of the Earth. The people who figured out plate tectonics aren't going to be with us much longer, and it's great to have their thoughts collected where we will be able to read them when they're gone.

Chris R said...

This article might also be relevent...