Science Popularization: Problem and Solution

Summary

The problem with science popularization is that science isn’t made fun. Educating oneself on science feels like work, no matter how clever the article or video in question is. No one wants to sit in from of their computer doing homework when TV is a click away. Instead, we get insight into how science can go mainstream by understanding how society is structured and by applying an anthropological lens to the problem.

Problem

Anyone who hasn’t directly worked in science has little understanding of the scientific machinery that underpins our society. This creates a puzzling contradiction. One imagines that any science-based society (which is any society today) wants every member to understand the scientific method, the scientific process, and how science has improved their lives. Instead, the situation is the opposite and this retards progress.

Causes

Science popularization is seen as an inability on the part of scientists to lucidly communicate scientific concepts. Should these concepts be lucidly presented, we assume that an eager public will lap them up. However, the public has thus far resolutely disproved that assumption, showing little interest in science and little identification with scientists. Indeed, science is seen as best left to “boffins” and “nerds”, not something that anyone else should pursue or possess an understanding of.

Why? Perhaps because engaging with science simply isn’t fun. Yes, the Internet abounds with clever, well-illustrated blog posts and catchy videos explaining science. But, these blogs and videos are only discussed by the science-affiliated. For everyone else, these blogs and videos are work. Why force yourself to learn scientific concepts when modern life’s distractions are a click away? Since when did sitting in-front of your computer and painstakingly understanding unfamiliar concepts count as fun? Especially when no attempt is made to explain why those concepts are relevant to your life in the first place.

Lessons from Anthropology

What if we were inspired by historically successful human social structures? These social structures can be broadly divided into two groups: the earlier hunter gatherer and the later organized religion. Of course, there is an immense continuum that those words hide but that discussion is outside this essay’s scope. I am no anthropologist so excuse the simplifications.

Essential features of hunter gatherer (HG) societies are their small scale (~25 to ~100 members), their fierce egalitarianism, and their animistic worldview. These HG features provide for fulfill these individual needs:

  • Existential questions: HGs have oral scripture handed down through generations. They posses creation myths and other mythology that answers the crucial questions of “What am I?” and “Why am I here?”. Their egalitarianism answers the question of “How do I treat others?”
  • Need to belong: HGs provide a sense of belonging through rituals, such as the animistic rituals of communing with spirits presenting offerings to spirits, or coming-of-age rituals etc. These rituals build community.
  • Need to transcend: Animism asserts that all elements of the natural world are connected in a web of relationships. Animism holds that otherwise inanimate objects, such as stones and plants, can be part of this web by containing spirits that leave an imprint (or trace) on the natural world. We transcend by communing with our natural world through this meaningful web of relationships.

This serves to show that HGs had practices that 1) provided a worldview via oral scripture 2) satisfied the need to belong through rituals and 3) fulfilled the need to transcend through animism.

When HGs shift into agriculture (or higher productivity at any rate), then hunter gatherer bands join into larger tribes, and at some point permanent settlements form. Now, organized religion with a strict class structure emerges, and the old hunter gatherer structure is completely erased. Organized religion is, by far, the most successful social structure. Organized religion also fulfills the common individual needs:

  • Existential questions: Religion has written scripture that governs the conduct of members, and importantly, interactions between members of the religion and with other religions. Scripture answers the three essential existential questions. What am I? Why am I here? How should I treat others? Thus scripture provides a worldview.
  • Need to belong: The desire to belong to a group is an extremely powerful human desire. Religion fulfills this powerful drive through rituals (such as attending mass, puja, or Friday prayer). Rituals demonstrate that the community exists and enhance the feeling of belonging.
  • Need to transcend: Religion provides transcendence in the form of a connection to the divine. A connection to something greater than us: omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. Further, religion uses pilgrimage to provide life-changing experiences that result in the feelings of transcendence and belonging famously called communitas.

Thus, both HGs and religion fulfill these human needs:

  • Worldview: Who am I? Why am I here? How do I treat others?
  • Community: Where do I belong? How am I protected?
  • Transcendence: How do I commune with something greater than me?

They do so via these mechanisms:

  • Rituals
  • Pilgrimages (religion only)
  • Scripture (oral scripture for HGs)

Applying Lessons to Science

Can these lessons apply to science? Because science teaches that the universe is unfeeling and uncaring. This certainly provides no hint of transcendence. Further, how would one imagine rituals or pilgrimages around science? And what does “scripture” mean for science? Because science has no lessons for treating others, for why we are here, or what our purpose is. Then, can science provide a compelling alternative?

I think the answer is yes, if we apply the lessons we’ve learned.

  • Worldview: Science can learn from the hunter gatherer worldview, which holds that existence in communion with the natural world is happiness enough. Arguably, science only enhances this worldview by revealing the intricacy and the marvels that nature holds. Examples:
  • Community: Rituals centered on science can build a community, just as they do in HGs and religion. The point is that science should not be confined to journals or blogs. Science must be visible and social.
    • Frequently, rituals such as festivals are centered around art, food, and socialization. Why not have similar science-based rituals?
    • Religions have rituals that combine art and scripture. Similarly, one imagines rituals that use science-based art to create interactive social experiences that demonstrate scientific principles in a way that’s fun; unlike traditional art, which confines the participant to viewing.
    • If we mirrored religious pilgrimages to places of religious importance, then we could imagine pilgrimages to places of scientific importance, such as the K-T boundary in New Mexico, or witness how global warming is melting glaciers in the Himalayas. But pilgrimages don’t have to be to natural sites. What if visiting the Large Atacama Array to stargaze was a pilgrimage? In other words, reaching remote science-based art installations are a pilgrimage.
  • Transcendence: Here, science can borrow from both hunter gatherers and religion.
    • Science complements and enhances the hunter gatherer worldview of a greater connection with the natural environment. The Pillars of Creation are transcendent.  Watching superconducting magnets levitate is transcendent. Watching your heart beat during an CT scan is transcendent. These are transcendent experiences intimately connected with science.
    • We can also borrow from religion’s pilgrimages to provide transcendence. Reaching the top of Kilimanjaro is a pilgrimage. Hiking Whitney is a pilgrimage. Gazing at the Salar di Uyuni from Tunupa is a pilgrimage. Experiencing transcendence in this way requires an active dialogue with the natural world. Transcendence cannot be achieved from the comfort of your home. It must be sought.

Counterarguments

  • Religious structure is the antithesis of science: No, science itself shows that religion-like structures are how we organize. Hence, refusing to heed that lesson equals rejecting the science behind those lessons. Further, we’re not taking just from religion but also from hunter gatherers and combining the best of both.
  • These proposals do nothing to teach the scientific method or process: That depends on how these rituals are designed. Of course, teaching the scientific method is important, but you cannot teach it to people who don’t want to learn it. These proposals are concerned with what is the harder problem — getting people to want to engage with science. Further, what’s important is that people identify with and appreciate science. It’s not clear that they need to understand the intricacies of science.
  • This approach won’t work for everyone: Most certainly not. It will require much trial-and-error before we have a social structure that is grounded in science and that offers a compelling alternative to current social structures.

Conclusion

Applying an anthropological lens to science popularization can further science’s integration into society. We can advocate for a fulfilling and compelling worldview that is inspired by past human social structures, yet does not deviate from scientific principles. However, the outlines of this new worldview and structure are currently unclear.

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