Friday, June 7, 2013

Science's Spock Problem

XKCD captured perfectly where scientists start from in terms of relating to others about their subject:
What we do, the part of the universe we study, is wonderful, fascinating, and we want to run around sharing our wonderful discoveries with everybody.  Including when it's dog vomit slime molds.  See also my niece's write up from jr. high about knight anoles.

And that's what makes the Spock problem such a problem.  What I mean by this is that there is heavy cultural (in the US at least) expectation that scientists _are_, or at least _should_ be, like Mr. Spock -- emotionless, heartless, 'rational', and fundamentally not human.  Humans, and scientists are human, do generally respond to society's expectations.  One common response being to present a public appearance of conforming to those societal expectations.  In private, it can be a different matter.  But, per yesterday's comment, scientists do tend to play in to this expectation in public and it doesn't, I think, work well in the larger society.  So public gets the wildly wrong idea in that case that scientists don't criticize each other, among other wildly wrong ideas.
One leg of the problem is that few of us humans like being around, learning from, having discussions with, aliens.  If scientists in public act like Spock, then, they render themselves largely useless as communicators, teachers, citizens.  Another, though, is that some other large number people are sufficiently taken by the Spock expectation that if the scientist is _not_ Spock-like, emotional, flat, etc., they must not be trustworthy.

The Spock problem really strikes earlier, though, as children are growing up.  Starting with the kids themselves, _they_ see that the world is fascinating and from birth are aggressively setting about learning how it works, i.e., being scientists.  Not necessarily (yet) professional grade, but scientists.  Time passes, though, and then they encounter the expectation that scientists are supposed to be Spock-like.  Whatever the kids have in mind to become, Spock is seldom it.  Science gets dropped from their prospects.  When I visited a jr. high science class some years ago, the students were astonished when I mentioned that a scientist their textbook gave a short biography of had a sense of humor and had told a couple of jokes in a presentation.

It also strikes through teachers.  They may have succumbed to the image themselves, or never really been much interested in science themselves, etc., and wind up using the Spock image in class.  The notion that the learning of and about science is emotionless, neat, orderly, and so on.  Science is much more like Mythbusters -- passionate, creative, and messy -- than Spock.  Even when teachers would avoid this themselves (as the jr. high teacher whose class I visited did), school boards and state curriculum designs can make it largely impossible to avoid the Spock approach, demanding memorization of long lists of things, demanding blind adherence to a schedule (science does not live on schedules!), and the like.

One venue that's been helping to break down the false image is science blogs.  Not all of them, as the Spock image is still very strong, but a goodly number.  You can hear from scientists directly about the things they're up to, interested in, and see the videos of their dog vomit slime mold.  Or a group of anole fans at Anole Annals.

1 comment:

Robert Grumbine said...

Practically on cue, a friend of mine said on facebook:

Butch Norden
Friday at 11:46pm ·

Three inches of rain last night and yesterday in Lake Placid and the frogs are going bonkers. Tonight I have seven species calling in the ditches near my house. There is also a nice chorus of barking treefrogs in a vernal pool nearby. They really do sound like a pack of hounds on the hunt!