Some thoughts on learning new science

I’m now half-way through my Higher Certificate in Genetics.  The course is run by the redoubtable Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge, and every Tuesday evening for the last two terms, I’ve been knuckling down with about 15 other mature students to learn about DNA and modern evidence for evolution.

It’s been interesting.  I was a straight-arts student at school, fairly steeped in language, literature and history, who went on to do experimental psychology at university.    To my friends in Art History or German, I was Nearly A Scientist (Although Weird).   Of course, to those studying Biochemistry or Physics, I was merely doing one of those Mickey Mouse social ‘sciences’.    Still, by the time I studied speech perception, I was imperceptibly moving slightly further along the path of greater purity summed up by the classic XKCD cartoon.

I have been working on the edges of the science communication world for about the last 10 years.  I came in through a fascination with media panics about health issues such as vaccination, and a job with DuPont which involved, among other things, talking to molecular biologists, industrial marketers and the occasional NGO about public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology.     I’m not a science communicator, but what constantly interests me is working out how to narrow the communications gap between scientists and non-scientists.

Has learning about genetics helped me to do my job better? Yes and no.   My understanding of the scientists has gone up several gears.   As a non-specialist, I can also spot the kinds of developments that are exciting or alarming for the general public.   At the same time, I’m aware of how basic and narrow some of my new knowledge is.  It doesn’t help me understand physics or astronomy or engineering any better;  it’s simply one specific field.

While I’ve never been a fan of the ‘deficit’ model of communication, I think it’s also fair to say that greater understanding of the science does indeed lead to a different perception of some of the associated ethical debates.  I’ve seen this in deliberative conferences, too, where the audience assimilates the technical information.  Understanding some of the technicalities changes the debate, to some extent.   Yet at the same time, I’m anxious at sacrificing Outsider status.  Being an outsider allows you to ask basic (stupid) questions, to represent the untutored external view.

Learning also involves being taught.  My tutors play card games, show simulations, engage in Socratic dialogue, and mark dreadful essays.  I’m seeing first-hand what works, and what styles of teaching seem to create real breakthroughs.   In our study of Darwin for example, we zigzagged between study of genetic processes at work in evolution, to discussions of the man, his life and times that would not have seemed out of place in a history lesson.   Every partial view helps build a more complete picture.

Finally, I realised I have a tendency to downplay all that psychology as not especially worthy of the ‘science’  tag.  Yet it was all those clever experiments – in vision, hearing, cognition, you name it – that really drew me into psychology.  I still get a visceral thrill when I learn about a really nifty experiment, except now it’s Lenski’s E Coli flasks rather than the brilliant one about Gorillas in Our Midst. And it’s the amazing teaching I received on statistics and experimental design that turned me into the evidence-sifting uber-sceptic that I’ve now become.

Do geneticists glaze over when chemists start to talk? Is there an invisible bond between all these disciplines, a feeling of belonging to the same clan? Or are sciences a disparate collection of silos with major barriers between them? I’m interested.