Talking to Strangers

I’m an oddball, so I do odd things. Just keep that in mind as you read through this post!

I mentioned in my last post that there is often a bit of a disconnect between the scientific community and those who don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the lab. This makes complete sense, of course. With different careers come different training and different levels of exposure to concepts and terminology. I wouldn’t know the first thing about running a business, designing dresses, performing a root canal, selling software, or fixing computers (good golly, I could not fix a computer to save my favorite burrito.) The problem, though, is that our everyday worlds are impacted by science—from medical situations to energy choices to what food we eat. That means communication gaps may not be the best thing ever.

I was curious about the idea of a disconnect in communication, though. Where does the break-down start? Where does confusion first come in to play? So I started at the very beginning, something basic: what is science? Is everyone on the same page there? Most scientists would probably be ok with my broadly defining science as “using the scientific method to understand the processes, interactions, constants, and dynamics of the world and universe around us.” In that sense, an understanding of the scientific method is fairly important as well. Thus, my goal for today was just to determine how folks outside of the scientific community define science and the scientific method.

I spent roughly two hours on Friday afternoon walking around downtown my mid-sized city and asking people on the street what they thought of when they heard the word “science” or the phrase “scientific method.” (Yup, I’m weird. But, hey, I like talking to people.) I explained to my recruits that I was writing a blog post on how science is viewed from outside the scientific community, and most folks seemed interested in the topic.

I will admit my sampling was not completely random. I selected participants who appeared generally friendly (as opposed to angry, cranky, scary, or mean), were not wearing ear buds, and did not appear to be in a hurry. Most of them were on smoke breaks outside of corporate high-rises, and I tried to pick out participants whose ages were approximately twenty-five years or older to make sure I wasn’t creeping out any kids. In the end, I had a sample size of sixteen individuals (ahem, n=16).

What is Science?
I had quite a variety of answers to the question “What is science, or what do you think of when you hear the word ‘science’?” They ranged from philosophical to silly, and they were sometimes a solo statement, or a group effort (when I caught the smoke-breakers). Their responses were:

“I hear ‘science’ and I think experiments and research.”

“Well, there’s all types of science. I guess I don’t know what I think of specifically.”

“Science is the universe, it’s everything. From the smallest thing to the largest thing. Science is what we are.”

“Science is a mysterious thing to me. I’d rather not know.”

“I think mermaids. Mermaids and tornadoes.”
“Don’t listen to him, he does not!”
“Yes I do! It’s Friday afternoon, my brain is mush, and I think science is mermaids and tornadoes.”

“It’s research, tangible things, and experiments.”

“I hear science and I think smart people. I think of smart people looking at the universe—looking at the sun, the stars, the moon, everything!”

“I don’t know. I guess I hear ‘science’ and I think beakers and test tubes. And chemicals. And maybe Frankenstein if you mean movies.”

“Science seems like difficult things. But I like microbiology.”

“Arriving at conclusions mathematically.”

“Science is research and discovering things.”

What is the Scientific Method?
There was less variety when I asked folks to describe the scientific method. Almost uniformly, people had not heard the phrase, though they often had some idea of what I meant. Their responses were:

“The scientific method? I don’t know, you research, dig, compare, mathematically answer questions.”

“I don’t know.”

“No clue.”

“What’s that what?”

“Is this a Scientology question?”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method…I don’t know the exact definition, but I know you have to devote a lot of time and energy to it.” (author’s note: darn right!)

“The scientific method…I don’t know.”

{Laughter accompanied by shrugs all around}

“I have no idea.”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method is when you follow all those steps, you know, starting with a hypothesis.” (outlier, her sister is working on her PhD in biology)

There is at least some element of truth to all of the answers I received (well, minus the mermaids, but I’ll be super excited if you ever find one). A lot of folks mentioned research, experiments, testing things, and “mathematically” determining an answer. Also, most folks touched on the idea that science deals with the natural or physical world.

For me, the biggest surprises were the answers about the scientific method. The concept has been a part of my daily life for the past decade. I’m certainly not a master of it, but I’m very familiar with it. For anyone reading who might still be a bit murky on the subject, the scientific method can be quickly summarized by this flow chart I found floating around ze interwebz.

sci method

What this flow chart is showing is a process—a way of systematically trying to reach an answer by testing ideas, refining hypotheses, trying experiments, ruling out when ideas don’t work, supporting ideas with evidence, and sometimes (it hurts!!) starting all over. This is essentially what science is all about. Seems very simple, but it’s a tremendous tool. The concept is used by folks who work with proteins, DNA, yeast, bacteria, plants, animals, chemicals, forces, quarks, nanoparticles, and all manner of crazy stuff.

I guess the take-home message I’m trying to convey is that science is a process. It’s a quest for knowledge. And if science is a quest, the scientific method is the treasure map. If we want to help bridge the communication gap between the scientific community and all of the other communities we work alongside, we need to help folks read the map!

One More Blog Out There

Hi there, family and friends! I have started a blog.*

What Will my Blog be About?

I’m still conceptualizing it, but I have some ideas. First of all, I love science (as my friends roll their eyes and say they had no idea.) Short of filling my Facebook newsfeed with geeky stories every two minutes, I thought perhaps I could channel some of the science headlines that I want to share in a more organized fashion. With a nerdy blog, I can make a list of really cool animals or volcanoes if I want to! I can describe a single species ad nauseam if I want—if I want no readers. Or I can share some of the awesome headlines of the day. The sky’s the limit! Well, my obsession with “Once Upon a Time” on NetFlix might be the limit; but, you know, same thing.

Second, I’m most definitely a faith-based person, and I like exploring different ideas within my faith and how they relate to science. The Great Debates that seem to occur in the comments sections of 10,001 different news pages, YouTube, Facebook, and all other cyber spots out there seem to indicate that you can either be scientific or you can be someone who believes in a higher power. I say pish-posh to the narrows! Don’t believe me? Well I guess you’ll have to stay tuned.

What Are My Bloggy Goals?

First, I would love to spark excitement about science! Stats show the US is lagging in scientific literacy compared to the rest of the developed world, but I think that when folks can see that science isn’t just a textbook—it’s an exciting way to learn about the amazing world around us—maybe that literacy level might change. So much of our world today requires some basic background knowledge, we owe it to ourselves to be informed citizens before heading to the polls or making various choices in our daily lives. Just look in the news—vaccines, global climate change, cancer, energy development, rises in autism diagnoses, seafood, organic vs. non-organic foods, the World Cup (wait…)—all of these topics and others require more knowledge than what you get in a newspaper article if you want to have a meaningful discussion. Part of the problem, though, is that there is a gap between the general public and the scientific community. We can speculate all we want about what’s causing the gap, but the only thing I know to do is inspire you to learn more. Plus, our world is darn cool. No, our planet is awesome! I’m blanking on really strong adjectives, but when you come up with one, that’s our universe! As I get going with this blog, I’ll admit that I’m definitely going to be biased towards biology since that’s where my training comes from, but I can admire and appreciate other disciplines from afar. Quantum mechanics…very afar.

Second, I’ll admit this is kind of a left-field reason, I want to help homeschooling families with science at home. I was homeschooled K-12 and I had a great experience with it. English was my mom’s second language and she only had a GED, but she was tremendously dedicated to my education. My sister and I never fell below the 90th academic percentile, and good heavens’ knows it wasn’t because we’re unusually smart (well, my sister is.) We simply had a mom who made our education and life experiences her first priorities. I believe that any motivated parent can do that as well, and I want to help! Science at home isn’t easy, though. Ask my mom. By high school, I needed tutoring for chemistry and physics, and we were always looking for creative explanations and experiments for me to bridge some gaps. Now, to be perfectly honest, I never really bonded with chemistry and I certainly never fell for physics, but I made some decent progress in my own little corner of the scientific community. Now I want to go back and help the folks who are where I was ten-fifteen years ago. Hopefully I can serve up some suggestions on how to supplement your selected curriculum and go deeper than the dusty pages.

Third, I want to foster a better relationship between the church and members of the scientific community. Since I have roots in both faith and science, I’m at a better point than most to understand the deeper significance behind all the confusion, dislike, rejection, and miscommunication on some very important and yet incredibly sensitive subjects in science. As someone who was raised conservatively and still believes in my Lord and Savior, I understand exactly how frustrating it can be to talk to an evolutionary biologist who doesn’t know or care why you believe what you do, but rather is only concerned with telling you how wrong you are and insulting your intelligence because of it. On the flip side, evolution was the subject of one of my doctoral qualifying exams, and I could probably tell you more about a molecular clock than I can the digital clock on my cell phone. The thing is, though, I’ll be upfront and say I’m not in it to instantly change minds. I just want to clear up some confusion, share some information, put the discussion on a better playing field, and hopefully diffuse some of the tension. I don’t like deriding comments coming from members of either the church or academic community, but I get both and I’m sure there are plenty of others who do as well. I just want to be a peacemaker J It doesn’t have to be science or faith. Unite the kingdoms! (But only if there’s a really hot prince in it for me…otherwise, we can just be friendly neighbors.)

Fourth: woman in science (drops the mic.)

Wrap up the Rambling**

I think this will do it for today. For future reference, I can’t picture myself coming up with more than one or two posts per week, but I guarantee you will get your full dose of Maria in each one (take that as either good or bad). I’m also going to guess that for a while, I’m going to be posting more gee-whiz kinds of things rather than diving into the deep, but we’ll get there. Hopefully this all made sense and sounds like something worth reading!

Peace, love, and science!



*Does that count as a complete introduction? Ok, cool. I can check that part off my list. I stared at my computer screen for about three minutes, unintentionally making an angry duckface, until I decided a pleasant greeting and statement of the obvious would suffice.


**Does that still count as alliteration?