I’ve written before about Randy Olson and one of his ideas that has really entered my life: never rise above. Today I finished Olson’s book: Don’t Be Such a Scientist.
It is written (obviously) for and to scientists in particular, but I think it has so much to say to science educators. There are some hard truths in there, things that I wish weren’t true but I know in my heart really proabably are.
Heart is something Olson writes about a lot. Science as it is practiced by scientists aims squarely at the head. It’s all about intellectualism, facts, evidence, data. But communicating science, Olson says, (like communicating anything) is about reaching people through other means: the heart; the gut; and the sexual organs.
I agree with this, but I would go further than Olson. Sure, science as it is practiced is about the head. But that’s not the prime reason for doing it. If it were, I’d have lost interest long ago.
I reject the separation of these things into neat and tidy packages. For me, the motivation for asking “scientific” questions is not free from emotion (Olson’s heart), excitement (Olson’s gut), or even sex appeal (Olson’s, well, you get it). Who am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? Why do people die? Why was I born me and not someone else? Why does the world feel like the world, and not like a computer program or a movie or something else entirely? Why does it feel so good to kiss? Why are blue whales so big? Why are atoms so tiny? Why do I like hamburgers and not Brussels sprouts?
I can’t imagine going into the world with just your intellect and nothing else. Science fiction fans know the archetypes: Spock, Data, even the Tin Man. But isn’t it interesting that for all three of these characters we’re most interested in the expression of that part that they’re not supposed to have? I remember bawling like a baby when Data’s daughter tells him that she loves him and he says he wishes he could feel it with her. Just the act of Data knowing there is such a thing as love shows us in the audience that Data knows exactly what it is to love, and of course his actions prove that he does love his daughter, whether he “thinks” he does or not. Like the Tin Man, Data had a heart all along.
Scientists try so hard to separate the heart and the gut (and the other) from their science precisely because it’s so hard to do. Is it worthwhile to do so? Of course, as a means to an end. But if in the end that scientific result doesn’t come back and hit you somewhere other than your head, what good is it? It has to stir you. It has to make you look at the blue sky and smile, realizing, now that you know why the sky is blue, that this act of knowing what’s happening on your retina just makes it that much more marvelous that such an everyday thing as the sky can be this impossible, pure, utterly lovely color. It’s not logical, it’s not in the data (little d this time), but it’s true all the same.
As science teachers, we are freer than scientists to touch people in all the ways they can be touched (get your mind out of the gutter!) Science is our subject, but it isn’t our medium, and it doesn’t even have to be our only goal. A former colleague of mine (are you out there, Martin Fisher?) once did a research study showing that in the context of a planetarium show humor actually lessens the retention of facts. Martin and I talked about this result, we both agreed that it was probably true, and we also both agreed that we didn’t care. We’d continue to use humor . . .
(such as it is: my current favorite joke is this:
Demonstrator: The weight below the high wire unicycle is between you and the ground, and it’s between you and the ground. It’s a metaphor.
Rider: What’s a metaphor?
Demonstrator: It’s for cows to eat in.)
we’d continue to use humor because we weren’t mostly after retention. We were mostly after happiness, good feelings, positive experiences, that moment of wow! and aha! Humor doesn’t just help us get there, it’s a big part of the “there” we’re after.
I think I took a lot from Don’t Be Such a Scientist, but maybe it just reinforced what I already believed. Maybe it just made it all more real for me. I’ll keep teaching not just to the head, but to all the other parts, too. I’ll keep looking for those experiences that don’t have just head-appeal, but also heart-appeal, gut-appeal, and, yes, sex-appeal.
And maybe I’ll look for some better jokes.