Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Making science more apprehendable

marian.bechtel's picture

Because life has been crazy (thank you tech week!), I realize I didn't get a chance to post when I missed class last Thursday, and since it's probably not much help to go back and post about my reactions to the rest of "The Unspoken Hunger" at this point, instead I thought I'd say a little bit about the talk I missed class for, since some of the things I observed/experienced tied really directly into our discussion the other day about writing and speaking behing apprehendable vs. not being challenging. I was thinking on this further a few days later in relation to the event I spoke at, and I had some more thoughts. The event I spoke at was a banquet for a bunch of middle school and high school science fair winners in Lancaster, PA. Before the dinner and speaking segment started, I spent about an hour and a half going around talking to as many of the kids as I could about their projects. One of the things I noticed was that a LOT of these projects actually, had to do with something environmental, something that could have a really big impact on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere or looking at the "health" of various bodies of water or saving energy, etc. Lots of really cool things. The problem was, these kids, to be very honest, were pretty bad at conveying that. It always took a lot of questioning on my part to get them to explain that this could be good for the environment and for trying to slow down global warming. This was pretty upsetting to me, as a science communicator, to see so many young, bright kids with awesome ideas, who have no idea how to communicate the significance of their research to a broader audience. After talking about the importance of making things apprehendable in class, I tied these two experiences together and am feeling less wishy-washy about the matter than I did before. I think when it comes to literature and more creative writing, that kind of writing shouldn't have to be apprehendable because some people want to be pushed by it and it's not vital that every person is able to understand that kind of personal writing. With scientific writing however, particularly when it comes to research about the environment/related to climate change, I think it is absolutely vital that that science be made apprehendable to a wider audience. Even me, as a scientist who has done my fair share of research and knows a lot of the big fancy words, when I went up to students and asked them about their project, if they began talking to me using big fancy words and statistics that I really didn't care about, my mind kind of shut down. I was bored. So that turned away me, a environmentalist and scientist, from their rather significant research. We've been talking about making change for the environment as being something that can't be done unless everyone makes big changes, so if everyone has to be involved in that change-making, why shouldn't everyone be involved, or at least have an open invitation into the science? Climate change science is not an exclusive country club that only the smartest, most accomplished can be welcomed into - it's something that is affecting everyone and will require something of everyone, so everyone should at least feel like they can be welcomed into the climate science community if they so choose, regardless of their background. It does not feel ecological to make something that is such an interconnected problem exclusive and closed off. So I think now I'm taking a stronger stance than I was on making, at least climate change and environmental science, more accessible/apprehendable to a wider audience. Frankly, I think the science is kind of useless unless it is made more approachable and welcoming and inclusive.


Anne Dalke's picture

could you imagine a form of writing-and-speaking that is both "apprehendable" and "evocative"? i'm a little bothered by your re-ifying the two cultures divide, by calling for clarity in scientific language, while allowing for obsfucation in the creative writing....could a scientist be both clear about what she knows, while still gesturing towards all she doesn't....?

marian.bechtel's picture

That is true, that the two are not mutually exclusive fields. I guess maybe taking a second stab at articulating my thoughts, I meant that when it comes to presenting the core science of climate change/environmental research, because it is something that affects everyone it really should be made as apprehensible as possible to a large audience. But that process in itself, of making it approachable and meaningful requires a great deal of creativity both in writing and presenting. And of course, I think with any sort of scientific writing or presentation it's important to note uncertainties and other questions that it raises. My choice of words above wasn't the greatest I suppose...because science and creativity is so so intertwined. I'm trying to think of better terms to define what I meant, but what I'm realizing as I'm trying to articulate my thoughts is just how impossible it is to draw lines between matters...this makes me think of our conversations near the beginning of the course talking about fluidity, contacts, infinities, and yet the need to make things finite sometimes and draw those lines because we are still functioning in an already structured world, much as we don't like the structure. So in conclusion, I am once again muddled and questioning on the matter...which I guess doesn't mean I've reverted, as I mentioned in class, we don't need to have "consensus" or a "conclusion" for thoughts/conversation to be productive!