Talking to Strangers

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

Introduction
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.

Methods
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).

Results
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)

Discussion
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!

2 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers

  1. This is awesome and sad at the same time (though who can be sad with mermaids?).

    I loved your post. I wonder what the results would be like in a rural community like mine where people are mostly farmers and factory workers over the office workers you find in the city.

  2. Pingback: Why Science Outreach? | Linnaeus and the Lamppost

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