Sunday, 8 December 2013

Science and Sensibility

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

One of the challenges of fostering a public understanding of science is to demystify science and help the wider public to view science neither as a miracle nor as a purveyor of doom but as a process of how and why things happen. The long-held deficit model of science is based on a gap in the knowledge about science between scientists and lay persons. Yet, it is not so much about knowledge but how it is communicated that leads to ‘understanding’ science. This communication has, at best, been uneven as scientific research is not always presented in ways that lay persons can comprehend in relation to their everyday experiences of life.

This is a challenge that young online educators have taken on with great gusto. For example, the Khan Academy’s famous You Tube tutorials on science have a huge following already. As a recent article in The Guardian says, the Academy’s mission is simple: “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” Marshall McLuhan had pointed out way back in 1964 that the medium is as much the message as the content. Clearly, new media tools allow people to “experience” things in more ways than ever before. It is the experience that aids the understanding of phenomena that might otherwise seem abstract. Yet, perceptions of human experience and scientific concepts are often seen to be counter to each other and significant effort is made to dispel these entrenched perceptions.

There is, in fact, a dearth of research that explores how the general public comes to understand principles of science that often run counter to common-sensical understandings of how the natural world works. And on how unscientific views on natural phenomena sustain themselves long after they have been proven wrong. Exploring this “learning paradox”, Wolff-Michael Roth and Norm Friesen in an article forthcoming in the Public Understanding of Science, explain the process by which a YouTube science video on the heart and the circulatory system offer learning opportunities for viewers. The video, which presents the heart as a pump, is able to tap into viewers’ knowledge of the world around where “pumps, plumbing and other machine systems are part of the everyday world that constitutes common sense and, therefore, the background against which we constitute the sense of every new experience”.

It is this which allows the transition from “common sense to scientific sense”. With this in mind, Roth and Friesen ask, what if we “design science education in a way that allows people of all walks of life to hang on to their familiar discourses” instead of eradicating “prior (mis) conceptions”? As they point out, “First, all science is grounded in our everyday experiences; and these have not essentially changed in the course of history: We continue to see the sun rise in the morning and to see it set in the evening; and we continue to feel the cold come into the door rather than heat being lost to the outside”. And this “initial worldview” does not change despite scientific explanations about the earth’s orbit around the sun or the laws of heat exchange. Quite simply, it is not so much about taking people to science but making science understood by people on their own terms.