A recent blog post by Mark McCaffrey on the NCSE website (http://ncse.com/blog/2015/01/hitched-to-everything-0016113), got me thinking about how scientists communicate about their scientific research. Basically, the blog reflected on John Muir and how he was able to effectively convey the awe and wonder resulting from his experience of nature. Muir’s ability to convey his passion was instrumental in the protection of places such as Yosemite. His writings contained a great deal of science, however he was able to express the science in an accessible way, transferring his sense of awe and wonder to the reader.
In general, scientists present the findings of their research in straightforward terms, without the sense of wonder and awe they have as a primary motivator for their work in the first place. Scientists do their science because they have a passion for seeing deeper into the workings of the universe, whether it is a microscopic ecosystem in a drop of water, or large scale structures of the cosmos. It is usually left to the journalists and bloggers to add a human perspective to the research. The culture in science is still skewed away from communicating directly with the public in a way they can understand and appreciate. Even astronomy, with its inherent interest for people, requires intermediaries to bridge the interpretive gap between scientists and the public.
For 126 years, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, where I work, has filled an important niche through bringing together professional and amateur astronomers with the general public to broadcast the discoveries of the day to a wider audience. In recent years, programs such as Sky Rangers and Astronomy Ambassadors have sought to improve the knowledge of astronomy of national and state park rangers to improve their ability to interpret the night sky for park visitors, and to improve the ability of early career astronomers to engage in effective public outreach. In some ways the programs are taking what each group does best, and transfers those attributes to the other, increasing the effectiveness of both groups. Park rangers end up knowing more about astronomy so they can provide a deeper experience of the parks to visitors, and astronomers learn how to interpret their research so as to touch people affectively, conveying the sense of wonder and awe which comes from knowing more about the universe.
When it comes right down to it, it is all about the experiences people have. John Muir inspires people to get out into the mountains to experience their own awe and wonder. And once there, park rangers can help through providing guidance and just enough information to deepen the experience. Scientists are learning how to go beyond the mere conveyance of information and provide experiences to help people understand the research and deepen their appreciation of nature. And in the classroom, teachers are increasingly providing the opportunity for students to engage in inquiry, experiencing science for themselves.
It is perhaps no wonder so many people these days have an apparent misunderstanding and at times mistrust of science. Without the benefit of experience beyond the cold, hard facts, minds will remain certain of their own understanding. To change minds, scientists and educators must provide personal experiences to people, provoking emotional responses. Perhaps what is really needed are changes of heart, something no amount of data can create.