TLDR Guide to Ch 4 of Communicating Science: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3). Today I’m posting my highlights from Chapter 4.

Chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment

Trends in the communication of science news

Not surprisingly, the report notes that people have shifted from traditional media like newspapers and TV to more online news, and that this is true especially for young and more scientifically literate people.

Many websites encourage and depend on content created by their visitors (Reddit is my favorite example), which can have great benefits: people can debate, comment on, share, and repurpose information. At the same time, newspapers and TV are devoting less time and space to science news, which means that there are fewer science journalists than there have been in the past. As a result, many communicators (including scientists) have turned to new outlets, like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Today’s media landscape is larger than it has been in the past, but it doesn’t offer clear ways for filtering out false or misleading information.

Coverage of science affects public perceptions

Issues that receive more media attention are perceived as more important and pressing. The leaders, organizations, or corporations associated with those issues are seen as more credible.

More research is needed to understand how media attention shapes perception of scientific information in rapidly changing online environments.

A further complication is that online information is often encountered in echo chambers or filter bubbles. Because people can use information-filtering tools to block information they disagree with and tend to create online social networks that are similar in ideology, preexisting beliefs can quickly become a filter for further information that a person encounters. Search algorithms also work by showing people the information they find agreeable and information that’s popular, adding to the concern that we can easily become stuck in feedback loops on the Internet, in which we’re exposed less and less to the contradictory information that may actually be important for us to encounter.

This image (and other poignant ones on the same topic) from Beta Minds: Echo chambers of social networks

Even when we are exposed to varied information, online environments have features that are likely to affect how people receive that information. For example, number of views or likes on an article or video suggest how popular it is, which in turn is likely to affect how seriously a person considers it. Research on the nasty effect shows that reading rude reader comments on objective science reporting (which is completely commonplace on the Internet) increases readers’ perceptions that the story was biased and can push them to agree less with the story.

Opportunities for Communicating Science

  • Social media
  • Social networks

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  • Blogs
    It’s important to note that studies so far suggest that only a small portion of the public reads science blogs. Many science blog readers are actually scientists themselves, which is not necessarily bad, but definitely noteworthy for communicators blogging.

The chapter closes with a discussion of widening knowledge gaps. While it may be easiest to target science communication to people who often go to museums, watch science documentaries, and keep up with science blogs, those people do not reflect the majority of Americans. It’s great that there are high-quality science communications for interested (educated) people to consume, but as they consume more and more, if the rest of the country remains at status quo (consuming little to no scientific information), knowledge gaps will keep widening. This is an important consideration for communicators (pointing at myself here as well).

Tomorrow I’ll post a synopsis of the report’s final chapter: Building the Knowledge Base for Effective Science Communication.

Where is my data when it’s in a cloud?

I recently stumbled upon a cool Atlantic piece from a couple of year’s ago by Rebecca Rosen – Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time? I was looking for metaphors used to talk about the internet, and of course the cloud is a ubiquitous one. I also find it a confusing one. I own that Kindle book, so why isn’t it on my iPad? or I wrote that note on my phone, so how’d it get in my email drafts? How is it that my cloud is “full?” Although I haven’t invested much time in learning about the internet cloud, Rosen’s Atlantic piece suggested that my confusions are more logical than I gave myself credit for. Clouds are used (both graphically and linguistically) for concepts that are vague and fuzzy:

What is it about clouds that has such sticking power? Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

But what does this mean!?

The point of clouds is that they’re vague. And in fact, how much do we really know about them, despite the fact that we see them almost every day? We do often talk about things we don’t understand in terms of other things we don’t understand. For example, to talk about love (a hard-to-understand idea), we often draw on terms from chemistry (an even harder-to-understand one). And even though we don’t really understand the metaphorical domain (chemistry), we feel like we understand the source (love) a little better thanks to our metaphorical use. So it is with clouds. For someone being introduced to the idea of the Internet’s cloud, they might initially get the gist pretty quickly – just as a cloud floats around in the sky, my data is floating around somewhere (or at the least, it’s not solely on my device). But then once you start using your cloud – accumulating books, songs, and documents – your understanding might become foggier. Because how do you get something back when it’s in a cloud? Wait for the rain? Jump on a plane? I’m still trying to figure this one out.

Review of Roger Schank’s “Teaching Minds”

Teaching Minds image

Along the lines of yesterday’s post evaluating the efficacy of higher education, here’s my review of Schank’s book, Teaching Minds:

In Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science can Save our Schools, Roger Schank critically evaluates current methods of education in light of what is known about how we learn. The core of his argument is that in order to be successful in the world post school, students must master cognitive abilities, or processes, instead of subjects and the fact-based knowledge that subjects often entail. Specifically, Schank identifies twelve processes which he claims underlie learning, all of which fall under the categories of conceptual, analytic, or social processes. They include abilities such as experimentation, evaluation, planning, causation, teamwork, and negotiation. Schank’s view is that mastery of the twelve cognitive processes is crucial for success in life after school.

Because subjects, such as math and history, are the core of our current education system, Schank argues that we are doing a disservice to 98% of our students. At the university level, he claims that all institutions attempt to emulate Yale, whose curriculum is ideal for future scholars. However, most students receiving a college education aren’t going to be scholars, so they shouldn’t go to colleges that only teach useful skills for a career in academia. Because colleges are focused on training scholars, and high schools are focused on getting their students ready for college, high schools are also teaching useless knowledge and subjects to students. Again, what is necessary is a shift in focus from subjects to cognitive processes.

Another tenet that Schank relies on is that students need to want to learn what they’re learning; they need motivation. Young children have great motivation to learn to walk and talk, and not surprisingly, he argues, they master these skills relatively quickly and are generally successful. By learning through real-life projects, students will be more engaged and will consequently gain more from their studies. In order to provide the real-scenarios from which students would optimally learn, Schank advocates for a shift to more online learning. Online curricula would allow dissemination to a greater number of students and would also allow students to make more choices in what they learn, thus ensuring they are motivated to learn what they are studying. The book concludes with examples of lessons aimed at imparting the cognitive processes that would be effective online.

Schank’s argument that our education system over-emphasizes subject knowledge and under-emphasizes the cognitive skills underlying all professions is compelling. Instead of being able to recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, shouldn’t students be able to use logic to diagnose problems in the real-world, understand their causes, and make hypotheses about potential solutions? However, the program outlined in Teaching Minds is radically different from the current education system, and would therefore be met with resistance if it were proposed as an alternative.

Schank’s twelve cognitive processes are one source of skepticism: why did he choose those particular skills and not others? Why are there no physical skills, such as bodily awareness or deep breathing, included in his list? If the processes on which his proposed program is based seem arbitrary, how can we avoid being skeptical of his entire program?

It is also surprising to read an education advocate who would like to overhaul the current system in favor of online curricula. Schank does not address the educational costs of online learning. For example, schools are dynamic environments that foster spontaneous learning which will disappear if students learn entirely from pre-planned online curricula. In a similar vain, the time students spend at school outside of the classroom, such as in the cafeteria or even the halls between classes, is also valuable time. Students encounter peer pressure, bullying, and have the opportunity to engage in relationships that would be fundamentally altered if they communicated with each other solely through their computers. Might this type of learning hinder students’ social skills, which are already coming under attack in today’s video game-filled society?

A final concern of mine that Schank does not address is the danger of allowing students to learn only that which they choose. Although Schank does not believe there is a compelling reason that students must be “well-rounded” in their knowledge, intuitively it seems to me that having exposure to many different fields and ideas is beneficial. Further, it seems likely that students, in choosing only subjects that initially interest them, they may miss out on interests they didn’t realize they had, interests that could have become evident had the students been exposed to them.

Overall, Teaching Minds is a thought-provoking read, especially for those of us who feel the current state of education leaves something to be desired. While his main point is one that few people would argue with, his radical proposal for fixing it is likely to render it an impossibility.

Can MOOCs improve higher ed?

General consensus seems to be that American higher education needs improvement. This article reports that on average, US college students spend only 12-14 hours studying per week, which is 50% less than they spent a few decades ago, and that 45% of undergrads exhibited no improvements on the standardized test used for their assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, after two years of college. [Note: this test does not account for potential gains in subject-specific skills, but instead focuses on reading and writing skills]. Meanwhile, the cost of a traditional 4-year university continues to climb rapidly.

Enter MOOCs: Massive open online courses through which many leading universities are making courses available to the 1,000,000+ people who have  signed up to date.

MOOC creators are quick to sing its praises, Nicholas Carr points out in his article, “The Crisis in Higher Education.” For one, the courses make education more accessible, most notably to people who are geographically isolated and to others who want to study while holding careers. They also allow students to go at their own pace, and often include periodic checkpoints so students don’t fall behind. MOOCs adapt to students’ responses, repeating and elaborating on topics when necessary, and moving ahead when students are ready. The future will likely include programs that monitor how students interact with the teaching system and provide materials tailored to students’ individual learning styles.

However, MOOCs aren’t necessarily the educational saviors that their creators suggest. For one, they have very high dropout rates: Carr reports that of the more than 155,000 people who signed up for a MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 even finished the first problem set, and only 7,000 (~5%) finished the course. The rate reflects the difficulty that MOOCs face in keeping their students engaged, a problem that could actually decrease the number of Americans completing college if the online courses were integrated into their curricula.

Another difficulty is the range of topics that MOOCs can adequately teach. Currently, most are math and computer science based (probably because they are created by computer science professors…), but how might they transfer liberal arts, more exploratory topics, into an online medium? How could they compensate for the value of social learning, learning that results from the unique combination of students and professors in a real-time physical classroom?

Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to MOOCs, but which outweighs the other? Are they a solution to America’s troubled higher education system, or might they further derail it?