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.

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5 Responses

  1. Alison – I’m a rock-critic friend of Tom Ewing’s who RSS’d this blog on Tom’s recommendation many moons ago, and have been reading it ever since. (A lurker speaks!) Anyhow, I’d like to draw you into some of our conversations, if you’re willing to be drawn – the convos not only being about music, but about what I’ll loosely call philosophy and sociology, including what I’ll just as loosely call the philosophy and sociology of science.

    You seem all about communicating across barriers and boundaries. This is something that the people in my intellectual-Internet world are really bad at. We simply don’t know how to sustain an intellectual conversation. Not that I expect you to come in and teach us how, just that you seem like someone who would want good conversations to happen; and you also seem by temperament to approach the world with kindness and curiosity.

    To sort of give a sort of response to your post: what people in disciplines and subdisciplines of the hard sciences seem able to do that their counterparts in the social sciences can’t is to make progress on the questions that they pose (which includes agreeing as to what the questions are) but also, paradoxically, to periodically overthrow the fundamental ideas within a discipline and replace them with a new consensus, which becomes the basis for somewhat different questions, but also the basis for further progress.

    One explanation for how they do this is that they employ scientific method. The reason this explanation doesn’t work is that psychologists et al. are just as capable of practicing scientific method themselves – of framing hypotheses, making predictions, conducting experiments and/or making observations, noticing contradictions and discrepancies, adding up numbers when necessary, and so forth. What they have trouble doing is agreeing on what the numbers and the results mean, and underneath this disagreement is conceptual confusion, no clear and shared sense of what they’re talking about. So what disciplines in the hard sciences do is manage to get their practitioners on the same page.

    But getting on the same page isn’t simply a matter of agreeing to a set of conventions, since the social scientists have good reasons for their disputes and their confusions, and can’t simply decide to end them.

    None of the ideas I’ve written in the last three paragraphs are mine, by the way. I lifted them from Thomas Kuhn, who had way more knowledge of the sciences than I’ll ever have. And if he’s wrong I’m wrong, though I’ve never seen him credibly challenged. (Then again, there’s my lack of knowledge.)

    Kuhn’s answer to what the hard sciences have that the rest of us don’t is “paradigms,” though what he means by that word is drastically different from what you meant by it in your paradigms/world view/methodology post a year ago. I won’t go into a long explanation as to what he meant by the word, since I can link you to a kind of Cliff’s Notes intro I did on the subject last year. But to summarize: when Kuhn said “paradigms” he didn’t mean zeitgeisty philosophical attitudes, but rather (1) concrete problem-solutions that scientists use as examples or models for how to solve further problems in their field, and (2) a constellation of shared theories, models, techniques, beliefs, and vocabulary used within the particular discipline or subdiscipline (so paradigms in his broad sense contain paradigms within his narrow sense).

    • Thanks for your replies – I will reply more thoughtfully later when I’ve had time to think, drowning in stuff at present.

    • I’m just re-reading this, having finally escaped the cloud of work that enveloped me. Ha! Thomas Kuhn indeed. The structure of scientific revolutions, falsifiability and all that.

      It’s confusing to have the word ‘paradigm’ used in slightly different ways. The major dimensions that i discussed in that old post are fundamental beliefs about the nature of knowledge and existence, and they more or less influence the kinds of questions that can be meaningfully asked within that paradigm. Yet each tradition does go through revolutions in the Kuhnian sense, or fundamental changes in discourse; these are sometimes evidence-driven, sometimes not.

      They’re often quite method-driven, actually. So, rapid genome sequencing changes the game so that we can understand differences between groups (racial groups, disease groups); meta-analysis changes epidemiology and evidence-based medicine, brain-scanning changes cognitive neuroscience.

      In market research, buzz-mining changes qual – whether that’s a net benefit, I’m not sure. Social science seems to be more about trends in thought or discourse. Not accumulative knowledge, in the same way as most sciences.

      Experimental psychology proceeds in pretty much the same way as other science, because it depends on experiments. Social scientists also talk to their peers – the problem is that the conversation is deeply abstract and doesn’t bleed down to action in the same way that scientific findings do.

  2. I thought the key sentence in your paradigm/world view/methodology post was “I believe that qualitative researchers are inescapably subjective and research findings are co-created between the researcher and the respondents,” the second half of that sentence being the crucial part. My thoughts here are (1) it takes sensitivity on both sides to pull that off, unless you and the respondents are already on the same page, (2) what do you do when it doesn’t work, when the respondent doesn’t want to play?, and (3) the question “‘Why should I believe your version of events over anyone else’s?” is something that a scientific discipline or subdiscipline answers successfully whenever it goes through a paradigm shift and settles on a new paradigm (“paradigm” here in the broad sense of “constellation of theories” etc.); but that doesn’t mean that “Science” has a procedure for answering the question; otherwise the soft sciences and the nonsciences would simply be able to adopt the scientific procedure and voila! question’s answered! But my thought here is that giving reasons for why one version of events is better than another doesn’t work differently in the sciences from how it works in the nonsciences – in both you give the most convincing reasons you can – just that the results are different. And again, I don’t think that nonscientists want to find common ground less than scientists do, or that scientists are less disputatious than the rest of us. Rather the common ground is more attainable for the scientists, footing being easier to find.

    But I think that for what you’re trying to do, Kuhn is a much better guide than Guba and Lincoln (at least as you presented them; never heard of them myself) – not because he can tell you how to find common ground, but because he successfully, in all sorts of instances, came to understand modes of thought from the past that were not his own. So he can be a model for how to do so. E.g., what was at issue between Copernicans and non-Copernicans in 1600 wasn’t whether they thought planets and motions were real or whether they thought planets and motions were social constructs, but rather a difference in what they thought planets and motions are. Kuhn realized that to understand the non-Copernicans, and go back and understand pre-Copernicans like Aristotle, he had to understand that what Aristotle meant by “motion” isn’t what Descartes, Galileo, and Newton meant by it. I think that planets, chairs, and motion are real and that they’re social constructs, but neither attitude tells me how to go about understanding Aristotle’s different conception of what motion is.

    Or, for instance, if you were to ask me, “Do you think that sexism is real in the entertainment industry?” I won’t have answered your question by saying, “No, sexism is not real; it’s a social construct.” I’ll simply have changed the subject. But to genuinely try to answer your question, I’ll want to know what you mean by sexism and how you think it manifests itself, I’ll have to decide if I go along with your view of it, and then, if I don’t, be clear with you what our differences are.

    • I’m going to reply to this as well. I’m very fond of Guba and Lincoln in all their stodgy postmodern unpopular longwinded glory, but I’m fascinated about ‘revolutions’ within a discipline.

      My tutors used to talk about epistemological paradigms as lenses, and I think the same is true for dominant pradigms within a discipline. They have a huge influence on what you do and don’t discuss. We give our attention to some areas far more than others.

      As a silly example, I’ve been trying to find general statistics about blogging in 2010, and while there is certainly data out there, the fascinating thing is that there isn’t very much data, because the people who buy data are not very interested in blogs. Trying to find data turns into trying to talk to a magician about rabbits. He keeps changing the subject.

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