Sunday, February 8, 2015

Science popularization has an identity problem

Some influential science popularizers are doing a disservice to public understanding of science and possibly even to science education.

Yes, it's a strong statement. Alas, it's a demonstrable one.

With the caveats that I enjoy the Mythbusters show, especially the recent series with their back-to-origins style, and that this post is not specifically about them, the recent episode about The A-Team presented an almost-perfect example of the problem.


Midway through the episode Adam uses this word. It's an expensive way of saying "mass balancing of chemical equations" (not how it was described in the show). And then, well... and then Jamie proceeded to not use stoichiometry.

To be concrete: they were exploding propane. Jamie tried mixing it with pure oxygen and got a big explosion. Then they mention stoichiometry. At this point, what they should have done was to introduce some basic chemistry.

The propane molecule has 3 carbon and 8 hydrogen atoms, $\mathrm{C}_{3} \mathrm{H}_{8}$. It burns with molecular oxygen, $\mathrm{O}_{2}$, yielding carbon dioxide, $\mathrm{C} \mathrm{O}_{2}$, and water vapor, $\mathrm{H}_{2} \mathrm{O}$.

Chemists represent reactions with equations, like this:

$\mathrm{C}_{3} \mathrm{H}_{8} + \mathrm{O}_{2} \rightarrow \mathrm{C} \mathrm{O}_{2} + \mathrm{H}_{2} \mathrm{O}$

This equation is unbalanced: for example, there are three carbons on the left-hand side, but only one on the right-hand side. By changing the proportions of reagents, we can get both sides to match:

$\mathrm{C}_{3} \mathrm{H}_{8} + \mathbf{5} \, \mathrm{O}_{2} \rightarrow \mathbf{3} \, \mathrm{C} \mathrm{O}_{2} + \mathbf{4} \, \mathrm{H}_{2} \mathrm{O}$

Once we have this balance, we can determine that we need 160 grams of oxygen for each 44 grams of propane. For this we need to look up the atomic masses (to compute molar masses) of carbon (12 g/mol), hydrogen (1 g/mol) and oxygen (16 g/mol). (*)

Back on the Mythbusters, after mentioning stoichiometry, Jamie starts trying out different proportions of propane to oxygen. If he had actually used stoichiometry he'd already have the proportions calculated, as I did above, about four times more oxygen than propane by mass; no need to experiment with different proportions.

(Yes, there'a a lot of experimentation in engineering, but no engineer ignores the basic scientific foundations of her field. Chemical engineers don't figure out mass balances by trial and error; they use trial and error after exhausting the established science.)

This illustrates a major problem in the way science is being popularized: to a segment of the educated and interested audience, science is an identity product. Like a Prada bag or a sports franchise logo on a t-shirt, they see science as something that can signal membership in a desired group and exclusion from undesirable groups.

Hence the word "stoichiometry" inserted in a show that doesn't actually use stoichiometry.

"Stoichiometry" here is, like the sports franchise logo, purely a symbol. The audience learns the word, in the sense that they can repeat it, but not the concept, let alone the principles and the tools of stoichiometry. The audience gains a way to signal that they "like" science, but no actual knowledge. Like a sedentary person who wears "team colors" to watch televised games.

Some successful science popularizers pander to this "like, not learn, science" audience, instead of trying to use that audience's interest in science to educate them.

So what, most people will ask. It's the market working: you give the audience what they want. And there's no question that selling science as identity is good business. Shows like House MD, Bones, The Big Bang Theory, all take advantage of this trend. Gift shops at science museums cater to the identity much more than the education: a look at their sales typically finds much more logo-ed merchandize than chemistry sets or microscopes.

(Personal anecdote: despite having three science museums nearby, I had to use the web to get a real periodic table poster. A printable simple table from Los Alamos National Lab.)

"Liking" science without learning it is bad for society:

1. Crowds out opportunities for education. People have limited time (and money) for their hobbies and activities. If they spend their "science budget" on identity, they won't have any left for actual science learning. Many more people read Feynman's two autobiographies than his Lectures On Physics or his popular physics books.

2. Devalues the work of scientists and engineers, by presenting a view of science that excludes the hard work of learning and the value of the knowledge base (trial-and-error in lieu of mass balance calculations, for example). Some people end up thinking that science is just another type of institution credential (or celebrity worship) instead of being validated by physical reality.

3. Weakens science education. Some people who go into science expect it to be easy and entertaining (in the purely ludic sense), instead of hard but rewarding (deriving satisfaction from really understanding something), as that's what the popularization depicts. They then want schools to match those expectations. While colleges may not want to simplify science and engineering classes, they put pressure on faculty for more "engaging" teaching: less technical, more show. (**)

4. As science becomes more of an identity product to some people, and increasingly perceived as identity-only by others, it becomes more vulnerable to non-scientific identity threats, such as derailing a major scientific and technical achievement in space exploration by talking about sartorial choices and sociological forces in academia.

So, what can we do?

First, we should recognize that an interest in science, even if currently trending towards identity, can be channeled into support for science and science education. As societal trends go, a generalized liking for science is better than most alternatives.

Second, there are plenty of sources of information and education that can be used to learn science. There's a broad variety of online resources for science education at different levels of knowledge, free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection (or indeed a library card; books were the original MOOCs).

Third, current "science as identity" popularizers may be open to educating their audiences. Contacting them, offering feedback, and using social media to otherwise proselytize for science (as in scientific knowledge and thinking like a scientist) might induce them to change their approach.

The most important thing anyone can do, though, is to try to get people who "like" science to understand that they should really learn some.

(Final note on the A-Team episode: Adam should have played Murdock, not Hannibal.)

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(*) I learned to do this on my own as a kid, but the material was covered in ninth grade chemistry. (A long time ago in a country far away, in ninth grade you chose a technical or artistic area in school; mine was 'chemical technology' because my school didn't have electronics.) A side-effect of my early interest in chemistry is that I have quasi-Brezhnevian eyebrows: you burn them off five or six hundred times, they grow back with a vengeance.

(**) Some schools protect their main reputation-building degrees by creating non-technical versions of the technical courses and bundling them into subsidiary degrees. So, for example, they have information technology courses, which sound like computer science courses but are in fact nothing like them.
          Another approach is the encroachment of humanities, arts, and social sciences "breadth" requirements into science and engineering degrees. When I studied EECS in Europe, we had five years of math, physics, chemistry, and engineering courses. A similar degree in the US has four years and usually a minimum of one-year-equivalent of those "breadth" requirements, though some people can have more than two-year-equivalent by choosing "soft engineering" courses like "social impact of computers."