What Does it Mean to “Learn Science”?

One of my New Year’s blogolutions was to clear out my to-blog folder, and bring closure to my unfinished drafts by simply posting them as-is. This is one of those drafts. Disorganized paragraphs, unfinished sentences, and general incoherence enhance the natural character and beauty of a half-written blog post and should not be considered flaws or defects.

Draft date: June 30, 2008

I just checked my watch, and apparently it’s time for another science blogging meta wankfest! This time, Blake Stacey is complaining that we don’t teach science with our blogs:

My thesis is that it’s not yet possible to get a science education from reading science blogs, and a major reason for this is because bloggers don’t have the incentive to write the kinds of posts which are necessary.
Posts in categories 1 through 3 [crackpots, sloppy journalism, and peer-reviewed research, and I love seeing those things lumped together like that -MB] may well explain introductory material (I mean, it’s the basic knowledge which creationists can’t get right), but whatever basics we explain are provoked by and limited to the story to which we’re reacting. There’s no incentive to sit down and write a freshman bio textbook in blog-sized chunks, so nobody tries. Instead of an interactive, distributed process of continuing education, we get stabs in the dark.

Chad Orzel agrees that we don’t really teach science, but argues that teaching science shouldn’t be our job:

‘m not saying that those of us who have blogs should stop trying to teach science through our posts. If anything, I share Blake’s desire to see more basic-level blogging about science (I’d also like to see more popular books about science, enough so that I’m hip-deep in re-writing one…). But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that this will provide a means of really teaching science, as opposed to inspiring people to want to learn science.

Both appear to be using a loose definition of “learning science” that looks something like a college or high-school level introductory course: Something that introduces important foundational concepts and prepares you to apply basic principles to some particular set of problems.

What does “learning science” actually mean here? I smell elitism.

If you know absolutely nothing about evolutionary biology, physics, ecology, or any other discipline you care to name you are not going to find the equivalent of a college course here on the science blogosphere. That doesn’t mean that it is not possible to gain some science education from the continuing efforts of so many writers, however. Writers may deal in specifics, talking about a certain animal, paper, event, etc., but when specific explanations are put in context they can illuminate larger concepts.

The most difficult question educators face: “Why should I care?”

The difficult thing about creating edutainment material is that you have to provide an answer to that question on a timescale similar to the attention span of your audience. For blogs, that’s at least once per post.


  1. Susie wrote:

    This discussion is kind of baffling. Why should it be anyone’s obligation to teach their discipline through their blog? I mean, it’s probably nice and fun for everyone if someone bothers to include some explanation of more abstruse topics in posts that might otherwise not be intelligible to the non-expert, but even there I don’t see it as really being their obligation if they don’t feel like it.

    Really teaching science, as opposed to just blogging about aspects of it that interest someone, would seem to me to need to be the specific raison d’etre of a blog in order for it to do it with any level of thoroughness. Or am I not understanding something about this that’s apparent to scientists but not to me as a non-scientist but lover of reading material that occasionally makes me scratch my head?

  2. arvind wrote:

    We need more Feynmans. Whatever be that man’s faults, he was awesome at simplifying science without dumbing in down, while spreading an infectious enthusiasm for science in his students. We need more such people at high school and middle school level!

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