Explaining, Education, and Outreach

A couple of days ago, Alom Shaha posted on the new Physics Focus blog (by the way, there's a new Physics Focus blog...) about his dissatisfaction with some popular books:

I recently read a popular science book on a topic that I felt I needed to learn more about. The book was well written, ideas were clearly explained, and I finished the book knowing a lot more about the history of the subject than beforehand. However, I don’t feel I understand the key ideas in the book any better. I won’t mention the name of the book or the author because this post isn’t really about that specific book. It’s about how I feel books of this nature often fail to deliver on what they implicitly promise: that you will understand the science contained within their pages.

There’s a notion among many science communicators and, I suspect, science teachers, that if you can simply come up with a clear enough explanation for something in science, then your audience or students will understand it. I don’t think this is always true.

This is a familiar problem in a lot of ways-- first and foremost, it's a rediscovery of the "deficit model" of science communication, which gets a lot of discussion in relation to policy issues. See this blog post for a recent discussion of some of these issues. Beyond that, though, it's something I've spent a lot of time struggling with.

The problem is there are two related but subtly different things going on in most popular science communication projects, which for lack of better terms I'll call "education" and "outreach." Shaha is focusing on the educational aspect of things, but I think it's a mistake to neglect the outreach side.

Of course, defining these terms is no simple matter, but having spent three years as a member of the APS's Committee on Informing the Public, arguing about this exact thing every time we had a meeting, I'll go with the rough operational definition offered at those meetings. Education in this context is the conveying of specific information-- leaving people with a deeper understanding of the science, the sort of thing they might be able to apply elsewhere. Outreach is less concrete, going for more of a "warm fuzzy" feeling that science is cool.

Shaha is absolutely right that most popular treatments of scientific subjects are only partially successful on the education front. There's only so much you're going to be able to do with one book on a topic, in a format that is intrinsically kind of passive. It's only through actively engaging with the subject matter and applying it to new contexts that real education happens. This is well known in the education community, and the reason why lots of people teaching intro physics, myself included, are moving away from the traditional lecture model. The primary driver of real learning is active problem solving-- even in a lecture model, most of the learning happens not while listening to lectures, but when trying to solve problems.

At the same time, though, I don't think you can consider a popular science book a failure because it fails to do real education, because there's also the outreach function. While clear explanations may not be the way to produce real understanding of a subject, they can help inspire readers to get excited about science. In the best of all possible worlds, they'll inspire students to go seek out more information on their own, which will lead to education down the road.

One of the pivotal moments in my physics career came when I was a junior in college, when Claude Cohen-Tannoudji came to give a talk at Williams. He's an exceptionally good speaker, and gave a very clear and thorough explanation of the "Sisyphus cooling" mechanism in laser cooling, which won him a share of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics a few years later. I didn't really come away with a deep understanding of the physics-- that didn't happen until much later, when I worked through the gory details on my own-- but I did walk out of that room thinking that laser cooling was awesome. and when I found out that a couple of the professors in the department were taking thesis students to set up a laser cooling system, I immediately said "I want to be a part of that."

Of course, there's a tension between these two things in writing for a popular audience. The easiest way to get people fired up about science is to do a splashy and superficial treatment, that inspires without really educating. At best this gets you something like the hugely popular I Fucking Love Science Tumblr/ Facebook phenomenon, with cool science factoids printed over the top of eye-catching photos. At worst, it gets you, well, Michio Kaku endorsing incorrect and even crazy stuff because, hey, people love crazy stuff!

I'm not a huge fan of either of those approaches, which is why I spent weeks and months beating my head against a series of metaphorical walls making sure that How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog contain high quality explanations of modern physics, not just inspirational piffle. I hope that I provided clear explanations at a somewhat higher level than typical for pop-physics books. But I also recognize that this is primarily outreach-- thus the talking dog-- and don't harbor any illusions that reading my books will produce deep and practical understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity.

The books are, ultimately, a mix of education and outreach, conveying a bit of concrete knowledge, but mainly trying to leave an impression that modern physics is pretty awesome. And there are some signs that it works-- one of the coolest things that's happened this year was getting a note from our Admissions office, quoting a bit of a student's application essay where she described being inspired to study physics by running across a copy of my book in her school library. (This was an essay on the Common Application, too, sent to a huge number of colleges, so it wasn't just sucking up to Union...) I rank that right up there with the review by a ten-year-old in the Guardian as far as indications that I succeeded in my goals for the book.

So, anyway, that's my slightly self-centered take on the question of explanations, education, and outreach. While I agree that clear explanations are not by themselves going to magically lead to education, it's also important not to overlook the outreach value of explaining things as clearly and correctly as possible.


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Around this time last year I decided to return to school to study physics. The final push came after I managed to reteach myself calculus by watching Bruce Edwards' calculus lectures from the Great Courses. (And doing the practice problems, and finding more exercises online, etc.)

But before all that, there was a slowly building realization that I had to be involved with science, that I was no longer content not knowing how the universe works. And that came, in large part, from reading science blogs like yours, Phil Plait's, Steven Novella's, and others.

I still have a long road ahead of me (I'm basically a sophomore), but I'm not sure that I would have ever even gotten on this road if it weren't for the warm fuzzy feeling you all managed to indcuce in me.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 19 Apr 2013 #permalink

Hi Chad, great post and, to some extent, I agree with you about the "outreach" value of science communication - I have done a lot of such work myself and continue to do so, for example: http://alomshaha.com/science-vs-magic.html. However, in my experience, a lot of science communicators over-exaggerate the impact of such work - I have heard ludicrous claims from some who think that *every* time they do a show, for example, they are "inspiring" people to do science. I would suggest this is highly unlikely to be untrue - the reasons why students choose to continue studying science are many and varied and having once watched some over-excited guy blowing up a hydrogen balloon is unlikely to be a significant factor in such a decision for most people. I think a lot of science communication can be, to use your term, "splashy and superficial" and I suspect that any "inspiration" from such work has a very, very short half-life.

My blog post was not meant to suggest that the popular science book I was reading was a "failure"; it is a very good book in many ways - well written and engaging - it simply failed to help me understand the "science" bits of the topic it was about any more than I already did. But I'm still glad I read it because it gave me a better appreciation for the historical and ethical dimensions of the subject.

I am first and foremost a teacher at a school where I am obliged to ensure that my students *understand* as much as possible and, of course, I make every effort to enthuse them about science along the way - there's an entire blog post I need to write about how teachers could put more of that kind of thing into their lessons and why we shouldn't be leaving that to the TV star scientists or "science communicators" who do live performances.

For years now, I've been trying to pin down what approaches best lead to learning taking place and I hope to be doing more "thinking in public" over at the Physics Focus blog and elsewhere about this matter. Hope we might discuss all these things further at some point.

By Alom Shaha (not verified) on 21 Apr 2013 #permalink

I agree with you that education and outreach are two different goals. The problem is though that there is a gap in the available literature that prevents many people from successful self-education. There is plenty of outreach stuff and some with a little educational aim. Then there's a gap. And then there's textbooks. Susskind's recent book has some promise of closing this gap, but really I'd like to see more of this and in other areas than first semester physics.

I wasn't terribly excited about this book on soft condensed matter, but that was primarily due to writing style and structure. In principle, the educational level of the book was quite good. It did indeed give you the impression that you did get some understanding of the research. Unfortunately, it had no guide to further reading, so the ladder kind of ends there.

Having said that, maybe it would be nice to have some type of technical-level-scale that one could put on a book, so that people would be able to slowly build up their knowledge. It would also make it clearer where there are gaps to be filled in.