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2004-2005 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
" Science's Audiences "

October 1, 2004

Tamara Davis (Biology)
Presenting Science Within and Outside of the Lab

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Tamara began with a description of the problems of communicating: teaching students how to write for different audiences, beginning with themselves and their instructor in the laboratory, and then moving "outside." She admitted that she had not been very successful in teaching her students how to keep their lab notebooks; she has often been unable to glean from their notebooks what it was they actually did. She has tried explaining to them that a detailed record is needed, if there is any hope of the record being used (date, year, details of conditions of the run all need to be specified). Students often forget to record the details of the repetitive work they do. Perhaps this is a matter of audience: they are so "inside" the work (or it is so "inside" their heads) they don't feel the need to record it for themselves; and/or they assume that their instructor knows what is happening, and therefore also doesn't require a detailed record.

There was considerable discussion of what is "generally not understood outside science": that "tedium" is critical to the practice. The function of scientific literature is NOT to tell a story (which is what readers look for in the introduction and conclusions about "relevance" of the data); the point rather is the "really dull tedious middle stuff" called "results." The "only excuse" for scientific literature is that of making observations, methods and relevant context available to others ("virtual audiences"), who can then attempt to replicate them. It is critical to record this sort of unsynthesized minute observations, which "science is rooted in," in lab notebooks; but Tamara reported that they seem "strikingly absent from our internal conversations" (and that they sometimes appear in abundance later in settings--such as in a poster session--when they are not needed). Perhaps lab meetings should be more formal, in order to emphasize the importance of full reports? Students don't appreciate who the audience is for their lab notebooks; they are writing for a "trusting" audience, when they should assume an "untrusting"--or a "naive"--one, to whom all observations must be reported.

But why do students have to be taught how to attend to observations? It is a mentally interesting issue. Do we "naturally" think in terms of stories rather than observations? Is it really "not normal" to pay attention to the observations which give rise to them? Is it really "unnatural" not to give all your observations, especially if your audience is hostile? Don't children attend closely to the details of the work around them? Do we lose our ability to attend in that way, as we age and learn to focus on the task @ hand, learning to filter out what is not directly relevant to our current concerns? A story was told of the gap between students' assumptions regarding the gender-specificity of sexual fidelity, and their report of their own experiences in this area; reporting from experience (are most of the unfaithful people you know male or female?) changed the statistic.

The amount of detail reported to different audiences differs, but science writers should assume a completely naive audience across the spectrum: from writing for their lab notebooks to presenting their work to the public. And certain practices must be observed. Students arrive @ college without a sense of what is it to be a scientist; they do not know that certain protocols must be followed, and must be taught the social conventions of how to write up a lab report (in order to realize that they are not bound by it?). They find it "such a chore, such an annoyance, to be that specific." Perhaps they seem "lazy" or "sloppy" because that step-by-step process means nothing to them; they see no compelling reason to follow the conventional procedure. Perhaps there is "something regressive" about being in a school laboratory: it stirs up the whole schema of early childhood: the students, who are experiencing "paternal transference," must be taught to be less passive, more active, to "be their own parents."

Or perhaps they simply crave the story.

The hard discipline of "attending to the observations, not the story" is not unique to science, and might be useful for all of us as we (for example) watch a presidential debate: how open are we to actually hearing what is said? How bound is what we notice to the story we already have at hand (i.e. which candidate we prefer)? Might we "structure our students' expereince so that they can be wrong more often"? There is little room in the lab to be creative. The lab planner tries to make the experiments work, and there is no room to repeat experiments, if they fail. Students can't find out why something doesn't work. If we presume the need for coverage of necessary content in our courses, the reality is that there are limited resources (of time and money) to go exploring into what goes wrong; we put ourselves and our students in a box. There are distinctions to be made, in this matter, between classes and research labs, which have more freedom to explore where things go wrong.

The need for students to learn technology and techniques has to be balanced with the intellectual process of problem solving. How might students feel after a year of failed experiments? Don't they need to experience a certain amount of success, in order to maintain their interest in science? But what does it actually mean to say that "an experiment didn't work"? It makes sense if one is replicating a classical experiment, but that is distinct from running a procedure. We need to assure that procedures can be carried out successfully, but once those technical matters are attended to, then "any observations are meaningful"--or rather, any observations are potentially useable in the making of meaning. Students often ask,"What was I supposed to get?" Rather than teaching them to expect a certain result, we need to help them see that what they have is "not a failure, but a result."

There was also lively discussion about whether, in lab notebooks or in writing for the public, one is allowed to "drop data." Some claimed that we do not pick and chose among our data, that we do not throw any of it out. All the data should be reported, and discrepancies taken note of. Others insisted that the era of scientific tomes of raw data has passed, and there has to be a filtration; outliers don't have to be mentioned. But what if it is an outlier due to procedural error? (Kuhn says scientists "call it procedural error when they don't like the outliers.") In the matter, for instance, of antidepressants "causing" suicidal ideation among some adolescents: the fraction of people who are affected are miniscule. We have different allergies to substances in the world; of course we have different reactions to different drugs; it is naive to assume otherwise. But there are ways to report outliers, using numbers, and letting your audience know about the statistical importance of the data. Shouldn't the audience get to determine whether to attend to these "outlying" figures or not? There is a social way of handling this.

But we want stories, not data.

The Brown Bag series on "Science's Audiences" will continue this Friday at 1:15 in the Multicultural Center, when a professional reader of stories (aka member of the English Department) Anne Dalke will talk about "Re-reading the Fairy Tale: Science as Story." Her texts include several interdisciplinary College Seminars, the photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge and Jules Etienne Marey and (perhaps even) what Schrodinger called the "black magic" of non-locality. In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.

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