From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Feynman Technique on Learning"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 11 June 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's no doubt that Richard Feynman - Nobel-winning physicist, solver of the Challenger disaster, and above-average bongo player - was a brilliant mind. In addition to many insights into the fundamental workings of the universe, he gifted us mere mortals with a handy guide to learning that is worth repeating:

1) Write the name of the topic on the top of a blank page.

2) Explain the topic using simple language, as if to someone with no prior experience.

3) Examine your work for any assumptions, lack of clarity, or places where you simply paraphrased another source. Go back to the books if necessary.

4) Simplify, shorten, and substitute metaphors at difficult places. Repeat.

The end goal of this process is to achieve a mastery of the subject. And a handy side effect of having an understanding of a topic with this particular technique is that you're perfectly positioned to explain it to audiences who have no prior experience using simple, uncomplicated language with lots of metaphors.

As a bonus, it's iterative. It's a template for continual improvement in understanding, allowing your knowledge to deepen the more times you repeat it.

Of course this is no easy feat. A brief 10 minute presentation on a subject could take hours upon hours to prepare. But when the presentation is over you at least have a decent shot of claiming to sincerely understand the material. And how often do we get to say that?

"Good Enough Isn't"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 04 June 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

If a teacher finds that every student answers a question wrong on the final exam, do they blame the students? Of course not - the most likely assumption is that the instruction didn't communicate or explore that concept well enough. What if only a single student is incorrect? The teacher can probably safely assume that there was no flaw in the presentation of the topic - it was at the appropriate level for the students, it was explained clearly with plenty of out-of-classroom reinforcement, office hours were provided, etc. - and they don't have to change their plans next year.

But science communicators aren't teaching in a formal setting. There are no exams or quizzes to judge our audiences, and the goal of our instruction is different. If a single person walks away from an educational moment not understanding the concept, we have to assume that it's entirely our fault.

That assumption may not always be true - maybe that person was browsing their social media feed or idly mulling over lunch options the whole time. But science communicators have an obligation to our communities, and part of that obligation is ensuring that everyone - everyone! - gets access to scientific facts and concepts. If we blame the audience for misunderstanding, we've failed our responsibilities. By putting the blame on ourselves, deserved or not, we empower ourselves to do something about it.

Why was that person so easily distracted? Did we not present the topic in a sufficiently compelling way? Did we not shape our approach to speak to that one specific mind and one specific heart, with that one specific background and life story? Did we not tune our presentation to the right educational level?

Let's assume that no, we didn't.

50% of the audience walks away understanding the concept? 90%? 99%? Not good enough. 100% is an idealistic and probably unobtainable goal, but by putting the responsibility on ourselves we create within us the opportunity to affect positive change in the world and the chance to share the story of science with audiences that need to hear it the most.

"Go ahead, say the dangerous thing"

on Sunday, 27 May 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

By now I've done enough events that I pretty much assume for a typical audience size and a typical event length that I will say at least one statement that at least one person disagrees with. As I frequently get questions about the Big Bang or flat Earth or aliens or climate change, it's usually more than one statement offending more than one person.

Of course it's never my intention. I try to simply communicate what we know about our world through the lens of the scientific method and how we know that (i.e. the scientific method itself as applied beyond simple classroom examples, which is the subject of another piece). But in the course of any discussion eventually a single sentence or even an entire topic suddenly becomes a contentious issue.

This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Imagine a world where everybody was fully comfortable with the scientific viewpoint and readily accepted the latest research without question. Well for one, anyone who served as a facilitator of science would be out of a job, because the general public could facilitate themselves. And for two, that world would be a very scary place.

The successful application of the scientific method itself requires constant criticism and argumentation to refine and update our knowledge of the world. Without scientists questioning each other, we wouldn't progress at all. So if we're to incubate within the general public a healthy skeptical attitude, we should expect and encourage a similar level of rigorous interrogation.

I'm not saying that people can't take it too far (they do) and that skepticism can't turn unhealthy (it can) but every disbelieving question is an amazing opportunity. What a gift we now have to open dialogues and dig deeper into subjects, to make sure that everything we're saying is backed up by mountains of evidence and years of scientific toil - and that we're capable of explaining it. We may not change minds in that moment but that's not necessarily the goal.

I think that being prepared for disagreement, and even being willing to be provocative to create disagreement, makes us better science communicators and makes science better understood in society.

But feel free to disagree.

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