‘Cause Knowledge is Power

Posted By Pamela on Jan 23, 2007 | 3 comments

It is a slow science news week, and sitting here at home I’m realizing I haven’t the foggiest idea how to get my e-journal fix via SIUE without being at an SIUE IP address. I’d like to riffle through Science or Nature from my sofa. I’d like to think there is a way to do it. I’m not certain however, and after reading through the SIUE website, I’m mostly just confused. Luckily, I know that I do have access to information somehow, it just may not involve being on my sofa while I read. No matter what, I am lucky. Not everyone has access to Science.

Limited access to information (and the decision to actually access that information) acts in many ways to divide our society. It takes money to get the cable and satellite news feeds. Prolonged access to online content – the type of access needed to hunt down links and read background material – takes money or the right job. Knowing how to access information takes education, which is another way of separating the haves from the have-nots. And sorting through digital, video, and audio content takes that most precious resource of all: time. It takes effort to be informed, and one must choose to know what is going on.

With time and access often limited, many people rely on the main stream media to tell them what they need to know in 30 minutes a night (30 minutes minus commercials, minus special interest topics, that is). It scares me sometimes how much a person can miss by not having the time or desire to spend a few minutes checking the headlines on the sidelines: Bird Flu is back, China shot down a satellite, cows are starving in heartland snows, and citrus is suffering in the Sonoma ice. Sure, a lot of it doesn’t affect me. To make informed stock decisions, I don’t need to know the Oscar picks, but in understanding today’s transportation sector, it helps to know new laws now govern travel to neighboring countries and Virgin America Air was a US no fly.

So knowledge is power. We all learned that from School House Rock, right? So how do we get people to seek knowledge? And more importantly, how do we get people to be informed critical and skeptical thinkers? I have ~ 70 channels on my cable TV. I can tune my content to almost any whim. I can self-select to have people carefully “prove” the paranormal, demonstrate the power of prayer 24 hours a day, and show me ways to solve all the worlds problems with little magnetic bracelets. I can also decide to have the MythBusters demonstrate the scientific method as they take on the urban legends and old wives tales of US society. To get people thinking critically, we scientists need to somehow make people want to spend their time watching us. We need to make what we do cool and trendy. We need to make people want to be skeptical and think. We must somehow make people want to invest the time and resources necessary to be informed.

And I see this happening. The Skep Chicks and Skep Dudes calendars are showing that critical thinkers can be sexy too. Sex sells. The media is also letting scientists be more than thick-glassed geeks. The scientists in Numbers and Bones aren’t always the most socially adroit individuals, but they are sexy.

Its a start. Laura McCullough, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stout, told me that part of getting women into science is showing them an environment in which they can (and want to) see themselves. I think this is true for anyone. By making the faces that portray scientists and who inform about different science fields a little more hip, a little more fun, and a lot more charismatic, perhaps we can inspire more people to follow us into the trenches of science. Perhaps we can inspire them to get informed and get skeptical and get online and get hip to what’s hot in Nature (or at least on their free podcast).


  1. What you want for journal access is an on campus proxy server. Probably via the library or the like.

    One problem with being out in the “real world” is that I no longer have access to such a proxy. Maybe I can talk someone back in the USA to give me access to one.

    I have a question for you. I have a 14 year old girl who has gotten interested in astronomy (with some help from her step-dad). I got her to do some sketching the other day (M42 and the Alpha Can Maj area) via binoculars. Can you give me any pointers to variable stars that would be good sketching prospects for a 14 year old with binoculars? We are at 31N and have Celestron 15×70 binoculars.

  2. One of the things we have to fight is the nearly overwhelming feelings of today’s youth that science isn’t really cool. I’ve seen a dropoff in kids participating in astronomy clubs for a variety of reasons, including not enough “free time”, lack of interest in attending “boring” functions observing, etc), and the big one – peer pressure.

    Many of today’s kids can get all their information on the interweb and it’s tubes , so they don’t need to actively participate in astronomy or other sciences. In the case of astronomy, they can see all these cool images online, and they don’t match what they see with their Mark 1 Eyeball through a telescope.

    As someone who grew up without the ‘net, I am blessed that after all these years, looking through a telescope still gives me a thrill, and I never stop trying to enrich my mind.

  3. Let’s be honest. Every scientific field, every field period, quickly becomes a clique by the language they use. We see the language of our field of interest as something that raises our position within the field. For absolute clarity, a doctor needs to know what aphthous stomatitis is. The average person simply needs to know that they have canker sores. The technical term adds greater accuracy, but also makes outsiders feel excluded. In astronomy it might be Antipodal Point, which is a point that is on the direct opposite side of a planet. Here the term is functionally a shorthand, a way of saying in two words what is explained in 14 words.

    So, why is this pertinent to the discussion? Scientific fields of study have become more and more specific. In the process of becoming more and more specific, the shorthand becomes more and more prevalent. And when there’s more and more shorthand, the field becomes more and more exclusive. That means the average person is as unlikely to understand the field as they would be to understand someone speaking German when they’ve never taken German. They quickly feel excluded from the conversation, and become uninterested.

    If we want people to be more interested in the various fields of science, we need to expose them to the language of the fields, expose them to the shorthand, and do it early and do it often. The steps to being comfortable with the words of a scientific field seem to be:
    1. Exposed to word–>clueless
    2. Exposed again with definition–>temporary understanding then a return to clueless
    3. Exposed again with definition and context–>the beginning of comprehension
    4. Exposed over and over with definition and context–>ownership and understanding

    Making each exposure fun is important right up to the point that ownership and understanding makes the individual feel like a member of the clique. Exposure with friends creates the opportunity for interest and then ongoing pursuit of knowledge.

    Of course, there is exposure, ownership, and understanding that simply is not interesting, or simply isn’t intellectually stimulating, and it becomes background knowledge for Jeopardy.

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