Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century

Maths chocolate
Photo by Flick user s-guilana | CC BY 2.0

My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.

Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:

“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”

Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math. This is further compounded by a phenomena known as “Math Anxiety” or “Math Phobia.”  Ashcraft and Kirk discuss this extensively in their 2001 paper, and suggest that much of the anxiety is a result of the fear of getting the wrong answer in their tests. I’m not going to delve into it now as the whole area of math performance, both in terms of math anxiety and performance anxiety as well as cultural and gender differences in math warrant a dedicated post. For now, let’s just talk about what constitutes “mathematical literacy.”

The OECD released a report in 2000, where they defined literacy in three domains, and the way they defined numerical literacy was:

Quantitative literacy – the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, to numbers embedded in printed materials, such as balancing a chequebook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.

The OECD also conducts the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which evaluated the performance of 15-year olds in math, science and reading. It defines mathematical literacy as:

Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen

As you can see, the idea of numerical or mathematical literacy, as defined above, isn’t advanced math like calculus or algebraic manipulations. We’re talking about being to understand the order of operations and activities requiring that level of mathematical understanding. Given that the world is moving towards a knowledge based economy, the lack of mathematical literacy is a big concern. Now more than ever the ability to critically evaluate information presented to us to draw our own conclusions, rather than have someone tell us what they mean, is of the utmost importance.

In Canada, this has particular relevance as we (like most of the Western world) are in the midst of an aging population. This comes with its own set of challenges, but one is that as patients age, they suffer from illnesses, and if they are unable to to interpret medical information or if doctors are unable to explain to patients in a way they’ll understand, then patients are unable to make informed decisions about their health.

Maths
Photo by Flickr user Minibe09 | CC BY-NC 2.0

I’m not implying that everyone needs to be able to advanced math and statistics. Given the advances in technology (see abacus app above), you can now use an app to calculate how to split the bill or calculate a tip (iLounge reviews 30 (!!) apps here). You don’t need to be able to do hierarchical ordinal regression using bootstrapping, or factor analyses, or structural equation modelling. But given how much data we are presented with on a regular basis, be that in the form of interest rates on a bank loan, discount on sale items or even polling numbers for political parties (the latter discussed by Swans on Tea), a basic level of numerical literacy is not only important, it’s necessary.

References
Ashcraft, Mark H.; Kirk, Elizabeth P., “The Relationships Among Working Memory, Math Anxiety, and Performance”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2001 pp. 224-237
Ciampa PJ, Osborn CY, Peterson NB, Rothman RL., “Patient numeracy, perceptions of provider communication, and colorectal cancer screening utilization.” J Health Commun. 2010;15 Suppl 3:157-68. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21154091
OECD. “Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA 2006” 2006. Available online at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2006/37464175.pdf
OECD. “Literacy in the Information Age: Final report of the International Adult Literacy Survey” 2000. Available online at: http://www.oecd.org/education/educationeconomyandsociety/39437980.pdf

Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science?

Update: Lizzie Crouch expands the discussion when addressing fiction.

Jason G. Goldman just posted to Scientific American blogs the twitter discussion that followed this post. Brian Switek encourages us to use #scioceans and keep the conversation going. 

Behind the scenes with To the Arctic 3D. Photo credit: © Florian Schulz/Visionsofthewild.com via Smithsonian blogs.

I first met Chris Palmer when I attended his lecture about ethics in wildlife film. Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker, and his CV includes IMAX productions like Whales and To the Arctic, and the book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Also a conservation advocate, Chris believes that filmmakers “have a responsibility of raising viewer awareness of the serious environmental problems facing the world”. We talked further (he graciously agreed to answer a few interview questions) and we both agree that wildlife films are great opportunity to educate the general public about science and spread a message of conservation. But, like Chris said, “[solely] promoting the beauty of the natural world is not the same as conservation.” How can we use wildlife films to educate?

Pelicans in flight by Etienne-Jules Marey. Photo – US public domain.

Can we learn science from wildlife films?

The use of films to teach science is not new. According to Gregg Mitman in Cinematic Nature, “the motion picture was first developed not for entertainment purposes, but for the analysis of animal motion.” In 1882, French physiologists Etienne-Jules Marey recorded pelicans in flight, with the goal to understand animal movement. Soon after, Eadweard Muybridge proved Marey’s hypothesis that a horse can have all four hooves off the ground, and photographed a galloping horse. Mitman also points out several other occasions in which film was used to benefit science, such as teaching surgery techniques and anatomy lessons (and also serve as inspiration for the pursuit of science).

The horse in motion by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. US Public domain.

Since those early recordings for teaching and study, science and nature films have immensely diversified. Films allow for observation of animal behavior in their natural environment (such as hunting behavior recorded from penguins carrying cameras). We can now watch footage from remote locations that show exotic animals in their habitat. A broad spectrum of wildlife films is available to the public, from the high budget, state-of-the-art IMAX productions, to independent short films on habitat conservation. And somewhere in between, let’s not forget the “reality shows” and the presenter-led TV series (including the ones on the search for a hidden beast, real or otherwise). Besides giving us access to inhospitable ecosystems, films can also raise public interest in science and therefore encourage science education. Like Chris Palmer told me,  “[wildlife film’s] job is to raise awareness and promote conservation.”

Filming Meerkat Manor, a nature “reality show” that follows a family of meerkats and their social conflicts. Photo via Wikipedia.

Wildlife film has shaped the general public’s understanding of science. How did it reach the status of scientific authority?

Many people rely on wildlife films (and lately, on nature-related reality TV shows such as Meerkat Manor or Dangerous Encounters) as their source of scientific information. Nature films have the potential to educate and to bridge the knowledge gap between the general public and the scientific community. Such a gap is sometimes referred as the “deficit model,” or the “assumption that differences in understanding between experts and the lay public result from the latter’s ignorance of science,” according to Dingwall and Aldridge in their analysis of TV wildlife programming as science education source. (The debate over the deficit model is extensive and was recently discussed at the 2013 Science Online conference. In the words of science educator and PLOS colleague Jean Flanagan, “[the model is] at the very least incomplete; much misunderstanding of science goes further than just not being aware of the facts.”)

The public has come to trust films and see them as a scientific truth. In her study of scientific authority in wildlife film, Rebecca Wexler reports that “viewers regard film sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of the visual world.” This also happens because movies are labeled as scientifically correct and factual.

When I asked Chris Palmer him what he thought of scientific accuracy in nature films, he responded “you can find many scientists who are appalled at how they have been portrayed in documentaries and how their message has been corrupted and messed with by filmmakers for the sake of ratings.” It turns out this status of scientific authority is given to nature films even in cases of scripted dramas: footage that has been twisted to accommodate a sequence of edited scenes closely following a script.

Behind the scenes at March of the Penguins, a film that unintentionally sparked creationist intelligent design beliefs. Photo credit: Jérôme Maison © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique via The Documentary Blog.

Rebecca Wexler focused her analysis of scientific authority in film on March of the Penguins. The film shows beautiful footage of emperor penguins in their journey across Antarctica to breed and raise a chick (a task that has been deemed “the worst journey in the world” by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, who brought back an emperor’s egg in 1911). March’s constant use of anthropomorphism might have brought unwanted attention to the movie. Creationist groups have deemed this film as “proof” of intelligent design (ID). The fact that emperor penguins form mating pairs is seen as support for “traditional family values” of monogamy and heterosexuality. The hardship that emperors go through to raise chicks was believed to support ID (even though, for scientists, it seems like the opposite). Even the lack of conservation messages in the film has fueled an anti-global warming movement (if the penguins are doing fine, why should we be concerned?). Jean explored this topic in an earlier post on cultural cognition: groups (both creationists and scientists) will align with concepts that match their worldview, regardless of facts or accuracy.

The film is a beautiful drama, and it should be seen as such. Anthropomorphism is used with the goal of creating and emotional connection with the audience. For example, narrator Morgan Freeman explains some of the scenes: “‘[the penguins] are not that different from us, really. They pout, they bellow, they strut, and occasionally they will engage in some contact sports.” The movie director and distributors claimed that “the movie is simply a tale about penguins and that any attempt to divine a deeper meaning is misguided.” Except when films are portrayed as scientific facts and presented to a credulous non-scientific audience, perhaps they have a responsibility to make their intentions clear.

If films like March of the Penguins are seen as scientific authority and becoming a resource for creationism or ID beliefs (which may influence school curricula in parts of the US), what other non-scientific ideas are films serving as authority for? Should we expect to see nature “documentaries” about the search for Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster? (Oh wait, those already exist. Finding Bigfoot and Mermaid: the body found are only a few examples. Pseudoscience and cryptozoology in TV is illustrated by skeptic investigator Benjamin Radford.)

Burden’s komodo dragon. Screen capture via Slate.

Wildlife drama vs wildlife documentary: films should either be accurate or provide disclosure as being pure storytelling

In 1926, William Douglas Burden set out to film and capture komodo dragons for the Bronx Zoo. The resulting film was a hit, and it caused the increased number of zoo visitors hoping to see the reptiles up close. However, visitors were disappointed: the lethargic animals looked nothing like the blood-thirsty komodo dragons pictured in the movie. In order to create that behavior, the film was heavily edited and staged (watch a clip), the animals were baited with meat (you can even see strings holding it together), and Burden was not even present during their capture. As Mitman points out, “nature uncut and unedited is never as dramatic and captivating as nature onscreen.” In our interview, Chris Palmer mentioned that “[mass appeal] affects [science portrayal] in a big way. No one wants to watch a dull, pedantic, tedious scientist on TV, however exact, accurate, and nuanced they are being.”

Wildlife “drama” now employs a storyline and a script. It includes characters, that can be scientists or naturalists, but are usually the animals themselves. Animal characters are given a name, a role, and an anthropomorphic personality. They undergo a “hero’s journey,” complete with great adversity and conquest (e.g. a story on a long migration). The journey is put together by editing scenes from footage of different animals obtained in different geographic locations. The animal’s anthropomorphic behavior is accentuated by emotional narration and a celebrity narrator or on-camera host. Character’s “roles” reinforce human gender and societal roles such as good guys (prey), bad guys (predator), nuclear families (the mother takes care of the young while father hunts — apparently no one has heard of ostrich harens and male caretakers).

I don’t see a problem in using an interesting narrative. At the end of Whales, one of Chris’s IMAX productions, mother and calf whales “Misty” and “Echo” were not the same animals who started their migration in the beginning of the film. (Until we have humpback whale GPS, filmmakers have to improvise by recording different animals.) Still, referring to two other whales with those names might strengthen the storyline. I also enjoy the editing and narration, when they serve to educate. I am fine with staging with captive animals, as long as they are humanely treated (after all, I watch sea lions feeding every week and appreciate the educational opportunity the National Zoo is offering to its audience), and it can be especially useful to illustrate behavior otherwise impossible to see. What I am not happy with is the excessive anthropomorphism (Lucy Sullivan illustrates how anthropomorphism defeats science) and the lack of mention of conservation.

Diving with enormous cameras is just one challenge that IMAX filmmakers face. Photo of making of IMAX The Last Reef, via Scripps Institute.

“Environmental films need to do more to encourage conservation because the world’s ecosystems are troubled and in decline,” Chris believes. After I asked how can films adapt to better convey a scientific message of conservation, he stated “by listening more attentively and respectfully to the best scientists we have. Of course, what puts them into that category is that they are humane scientists who respect the rights of animals not to be harassed or harmed.”

Therefore, if a wildlife documentary is not a documentary, and is storytelling or wildlife drama instead, we should treat it as such. Because of its mass appeal, films have an enormous potential to raise awareness and drive change. I’d love to see it increase scientific literacy and to spread a message of conservation. Otherwise, in Chris Palmer’ words, “there would soon be nothing left to film.”

References

  1. Dingwall and Aldridge, Public Understanding of Science 15, 131–152 (2006)
  2. De Cheveigné, Public Understanding of Science 5, (1996) 231-253
  3. Kalof and Amthor, Etudes rurales, (2010) 165-180
  4. Kalof et al, Organization Environment (2011) 1-25
  5. Kilborn, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 48 (2006)
  6. Mitman, Isis, 84, (1993) 637 – 661
  7. Sullivan, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 349, (2006) 215-218
  8. Wexler, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 39, (2008) 273 – 279

The Metric System, the United States of America, and Scientific Literacy

Here’s a quick quiz: I weigh 71 kilograms, and am about 1.82 meters tall.

a.) Do you have an idea of about how much I weigh and how tall I am?

b.) Am I taller or shorter than you, and do I weigh more or less than you?

If you don’t live in the United States of America, Liberia, or Burma, you most likely can answer both of these questions pretty much without any hesitation. If you do live in one of those three countries, then without the help of a calculator, or a quick search on Google, chances are you would have to think a bit about question “a,” and would struggle with question “b.”

The issue.

There is a huge disconnect between the science that we do (SI units, commonly interchanged with the Metric System) and how we live our daily lives, (U.S. Customary Units, not Imperial Units). Is it possible that people are turned off by science and technology because they don’t understand the metric system? And is it possible that this makes us less scientifically literate as a country?

One of my favorite comic strips, Fox Trot, by Bill Amend, consistently brings up math and science humor.

I think the answer is most definitely. While U.S. scientists are used to converting units, an ideal scientifically literate society includes artists, public servants, business owners, and waitresses — people who don’t have to use the metric system on a regular basis — translating units is one more barrier to understanding the math and science that is used in research.

The only examples that come to my mind where the metric system is in common use in the United States are:

  • Miles-per-hour/Kilometers-per-hour speedometers in our vehicles
  • A 750ml bottle of wine
  • A 1-liter (1,000ml) Nalgene bottle
  • The 100 meter dash
  • 2 liter soda bottles
  • 5k and 10k runs/races
  • Most food nutrition labels (How many people actually read those?)

Yet all science is done in the language of SI units. If the goal is for the non-scientific public to be able to engage regularly and enthusiastically with science, wouldn’t it make sense for scientists and non-scientists to speak the same language?

To really make SI units and the metric system commonplace in the United States requires more than a little effort on our part. Imagine how many local, state, and federal authorities would be required to change millions of road signs, food packaging, gas station signs and sports fields. And on top of that, does the general public want to make the switch?

Some selected history.

The reasons that hold us back from converting range from stubbornness to cost (a 1996 concern in the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering and Education Practice). In 1975, thanks to President Gerald Ford and Congress, the Metric Conversion Act was passed which would have led to the metric system being the preferred system of weights and measures in the United States. This act created the United States Metric Board, which was abolished in 1982, by President Reagan.

From The United States and the Metric System, NIST LC 1136: “The efforts of the Metric Board were largely ignored by the American public, and, in 1981, the Board reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Due to this apparent ineffectiveness, and in an effort [by President Reagan] to reduce Federal spending, the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “We the People” petition that the White House website hosts. As of this moment, over 35,000 people have digitally signed a petition to make the metric system the official system of weights and measures of the United States. Possibly another act from the federal government is needed to really get things moving again.

A more detailed history can be read here.

Solutions.

Thankfully, the metric system has been taught in schools and this should continue. From my experience, however, it was only as a way to solve given problems. Physics was taught in the metric system, as was chemistry. But when I got to my algebra class, and even in shop class, (a prime opportunity to “feel” what 50 centimeters was), we measured 20 inches (not the same, by the way). I would recommend that all rulers in school should all be inches and centimeters, though I must admit I attended a science teacher workshop and we were given 12 foot tape measurers to take back home.

Should we discourage these words? Image from another blog post about the metric system.

 

When I learned Spanish, my most effective learning was not being told that café meant coffee — I was given a cup of café and told “este es café,” or “this is coffee.” We shouldn’t miss these tangible opportunities to become friendly with the system.

The next time you go to your doctor’s office and they take you height and weight, ask your doctor for the numbers in metric, and you will have that personal connection to some part of the metric system. Do you check the weather online or use online mapping? Change the units to Celsius and meters. These are a few simple changes people can make to become more familiar with the system.

You don’t have to look long to find bloggers who are asking why the United States has not yet converted to the metric system. One I found particularly interesting is a blog created in 2012 which focuses on documenting the creation of a documentary about how the United States was going to convert to the metric system, but never did. The blog is appropriately named “More than a mile behind.” Keep your eyes and ears open for this one.

The world and us.

I have always believed that no matter what language you speak, science and math are the same in any language. If we’re not speaking the same scientific language as scientists from other countries (many of whom have made the effort to learn English), we might be isolating ourselves scientifically. So with that, I’ll leave you with a clip from The Simpsons.

P.S. Even rocket scientists mess up.

#overlyhonestmethods – Reaching out with humour

For a week and a half, I was a minor internet celebrity! Pictures by imgur user owamux

Science has an awkward relationship with the public. There’s a perception that we exist in an ivory tower, and the common media perception (as is evident by shows like The Big Bang Theory) is that we’re somewhat socially inept, with a lack of people skills and an inability to talk about our work in a way that others can understand. So I was thrilled when #overlyhonestmethods became a thing. There have been many little science in-jokes floating around the twittersphere; one of my favourites was the hashtag #middleearthpublichealth which came out right before The Hobbit released in theatres. Tweets like “Craving the ‘Precious’: Gollum, a case study of the public health impact of severe ring addiction, Lancet 2010” abounded, and they illustrated public health rather nicely (for more, check out Brett Keller’s blogpost). However, they only catered to a niche audience: public health professionals, and public health professionals who got the Lord of the Rings references. But #overlyhonestmethods was the first that hit the mainstream. There was an outpouring of support for it – sites such as io9 , the Scientific American blog network and even The Telegraph weighed in. But there were criticisms. Simon Williams posted on the PLOS Blog that:

I cannot help but wonder whether, after the dust (and amusement) settles, the status of, and public trust in, the scientific method will have been challenged.

I disagree with my colleague on this and I believe most of the tweets were exaggerated for comedic effect. But, as with most jokes, there may be an element of truth to them. For example, the picture that leads this piece was my tweet (which has since been retweeted over 200 times, and favourited over 100 times). While I did not know any PhD students who have opened a bakery when I wrote that tweet, I do know PhD’s who have left academia to become photographers and wedding planners, as well as other “unconventional” post-PhD paths, and I’m sure many of my colleagues have similar experiences. Funnily enough, after putting up that tweet, I have since been introduced to Bread Science by Emily Buehler, a PhD in Chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill.

I could go on about how most PhDs no longer want to or are able to pursue academic callings, or how the desire to pursue academic career paths decreases the longer you are in a PhD program as per this study in PLOS ONEto highlight the point. But, to be perfectly honest, I wrote that tweet while I was hungry and craving a donut and it made me laugh. I don’t believe that the tweets were written out as a “scientific confessional.” I do not think that most people would risk their careers and scientific integrity because they were too lazy to get up and pick up a beaker across the lab, or choose a company because they gave away cool USB sticks. And if they did, I really doubt they’d voice those opinions on Twitter of all places. What I think is that scientists have a sense of humour about what we do on a day to day basis, and given an audience, we’d love to share those.

“The samples incubated at ambient temperature in a remote border customs office for 5 months” Pictures by imgur user owamux

As scientists, we need to actively reach out and engage the public, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. And I don’t mean paying lip service to science outreach, but actively pursuing opportunities. We’re fighting an uphill battle – the media portrayal of scientists is not flattering, but with some awesome, high profile, and most importantly, credible, scientists, we’re gradually changing that stereotype. My personal science hero is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but others such as Bill Nye and David Suzuki are also making a case that science isn’t boring. Here at PLOS Blogs, we have our own CitizenSci blog, commenting on this very issue. And at a more grassroots level, organizations such as Let’s Talk Science, This is what a scientist looks like and Science Cheerleaders all challenge the commonly held stereotype that all scientists wear lab coats and goggles. And what better way to challenge that stereotype than showing we have a sense of humour?

Reference Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

Selling memories: the line between museum education and consumerism

Update: Thank you all for sharing your museum experiences via comments and tweeter!

Reader Brian Gratwicke shared another clever ad campaign (this time from Vancouver’s Aquarium) “If frogs go extinct, you’ll notice“. Readers: please continue to submit your museum experiences (good OR bad) via comments or twitter!

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

A few months ago, the science blogosphere was ablaze with an ad campaign from the a science museum in Vancouver. This campaign combines unusual ads with a quirky scientific message. A sign saying “a blue whale’s heart is the size of this car” is fixed, well, atop of a car. Another car drove around with a “woofasaurus” on the back seat; a fluid-filled tank encouraged kids to walk on water; a tiger’s litterbox littered the street; and a moving squid eye followed museum visitors. All ads promise Vancouver inhabitants that they will find answers at the museum.

As we mentioned in earlier blog posts, many adults visit museums after they are persuaded by their children. This phenomenon, called “the nag effect”, is widely recognized and taken advantage of in the world of advertising. One example of the nag effect in action is described in the article “how do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy food.”  The Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications used the nag effect in their advertising strategy. Their ad campaign, in place since 2004, combined print ads, billboards, bus stop ads, TV and radio spots, and a collection of “unconventional” ad media. Convincing a parent to visit a museum sounds like a better idea than pushing them to buy unhealthy food, but still: we are talking about using the power of advertising and consumerism in favor of a museum.

This ad counts on the voluntary participation of Vancouver seagulls. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

When is it honorable to use advertising as subterfuge for the cause of science and education?
The question of museum funding is delicate. Museums may receive public funds but must also balance a complicated mix of donations and private funding. Stephen T. Asma, in his instigating book “Stuffed animals and pickled heads: the culture and evolution of natural history museums” emphasizes how the origin of funds can end up dictating the content of the museum: “generally speaking, tracking the flow of money (public of private) provides many explanations of why curators curate the way they do, and even why one particular curator gets the job in the first place.” Unfortunately, this can be illustrated by the recent budget cuts to the Field Museum, which will also seriously affect the museum’s research program.

Besides trying to attract donors and sponsors, museums also try to raise funds by selling tickets. We now delve in the mystical (and very uncomfortable) territory where education must, to some degree, meet consumerism. How can a museum increase its consumer base and gain more repeat customers? In other words, how can a museum sell more tickets? Reconciling the educational with the commercial vision is a challenge. In order to thrive, museums might have to adopt commercial or consumerism concepts. Using the nag effect is just one way to accomplish that.

Quirky way to put sauroposeidon into scale. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

Is “edutainment” the solution to thriving museums?

The museum’s commercial role as a provider of entertainment (or edutainment) was already recognised in 1928 by a Field Museum curator, N. W. Harris. As told to Stephen T. Asma, N. W. Harris realized that “impressions obtained in childhood are the most vivid and lasting… [and] knowledge is most welcome when its acquisition is sweetened with a flavor of entertainment”.

Fast forward to 2012, when self-proclaimed Bad Astronomer Phil Plait agreed, specifically when discussing the Vancouver ads. As Plait points out, “[the Vancouver Science World have] set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which
keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase ‘We can explain’, which brings the message home. Awesomeness.” Awesomeness is an adequate technical term to describe it.

Interactive exhibits are one form of offering edutainment. Interacting with a museum exhibit falls under the “participatory museum” concept, advocated by Nina Simon. The recently-opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas has “interactive” written all over it. The New York Times reported on its opening, describing many of those edutainment exhibits, which includes “1.5 ton geode whose halves you can manipulate with a wheel…; sensors that allow you to launch table-tennis balls with brain signals; simple robots that can be programmed to maneuver through a maze.” But the one exhibit that makes me want to hop on the next plane to Dallas is “a 55-foot-long ‘running wall’ [where] you can race alongside moving images of a full-size cheetah, a Tyrannosaurus rex or contemporary athletes.”

Unfortunately, edutainment gone bad is also easy to find. Roaring animatronic dinosaurs might sell some extra tickets, but they lack the scientific groundwork expected from a museum. The animal’s voices, stance, behaviors, and colors are speculations, and might even perpetuate scientific misconceptions, thus being a disservice to visitors. Most of those exhibits still depict the T. rex and other dinos as scaly lizards, when it is now known that many were at least partially covered by down-like proto-feathers. Those kind of experiences make renowned scientists fear museums will become theme parks. As reported to Asma, naturalist Stephen Jay Gould believes that “theme parks represent the realm of commerce, museums the educational world — and the first, by its the power and immensity, must trump the second in any direct encounter. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.”

Paint by numbers T. Rex is another ad by the Vancouver Science World. Like this ad, I had to explain to Smithsonian visitors that the colors on the dinosaur dioramas were an artistic liberty — there is no way of knowing the color of pre-historic creatures. Color pigments are not preserved in million-year old fossils.

In another recent New York Times article, Edward Rothstein reported on some commercially-swallowed museums. Rothstein, after interacting with some museum exhibits, did not enjoy the experience: “I eagerly submit to their probes… The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.” A similar effect also happened at the Perot museum — praised above — that, according to the same author, might walk the line between the commercial and the educational: “It is difficult to absorb fully the history of cosmological exploration in a series of panels. Brief videos about particular scientists are meant to inspire aspirants, but few personalities are that intriguing, and most of them will probably remain unwatched.”

However, if done right, a combination of enticing ads, entertainment, and interactive exhibits can help. Museums will profit and the public will learn through enjoyable (informal) educational experiences.

Can we sell an educational museum experience?

I mentioned before some of the reasons that drive visitors to museums. According to one study, “It’s the artifacts, artworks, and objects… that [are] most likely to hit [visitor’s] emotional core and create meaning.” An entertaining object, exhibit, or even ad, can create an emotional experience for a visitor, making him come back.

Whale’s heart model. Photo credit: rickardberg flikr.

In a quasi “life imitates art” case, a blue whale’s heart has truly become an entertaining museum object. Special effects company Human Dynamo built a whale’s heart model commissioned by New Zealand museum Te Papa. The model is large enough so that visitors – especially little ones – can climb and crawl through arteries and ventricles. This museum object was a huge hit. Just by browsing flickr for “whale heart model” I could find dozens of photos of children entranced in crawling, and adults posing for scale. The model was so successful in bringing in visitors, that it was borrowed to tour the world and extra models have been requested to stay at Te Papa.

Museum objects — or even everyday objects like a car or racing track — can transcend into an entertaining experience. It can be a moa on the mall, a passing whale’s heart car, or a cheetah-T. rex racing track that will bring more visitors in. However, not only museums profit; simply walking in the street might cause someone to learn that a whale’s heart is a Volkswagen Bug-sized (instead of having to memorize a “two tons” fact). This is “learning by accident” on its core. Similarly, you might leave the museum and not remember the that the cheetah can reach speeds up to 75 mph. But you might remember that it beat you on that race, and crossed the finish line three times faster than you.

Update: do you know a museum exhibit that has crossed the line? Please share in the comments section below!

Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

One of the major goals of science education is for all citizens to have some basic level of science literacy. The rationale is that a basic understanding of science is necessary in order to participate in a modern democratic society, where we must often grapple with policy decisions that deal with socioscientific issues, and where scientific evidence can be a major deciding factor in policy.

paper published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year challenged a long-standing assumption in both science education and science communication: that increasing science literacy will increase public “acceptance” of the scientific consensus on the risks posed by climate change. The authors surveyed a representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. adults and found that people with an egalitarian-communitarian worldview (roughly liberal) were more likely to perceive climate change to be higher risk with higher levels of science literacy, while for people with a hierarchical-individualist worldview (roughly conservative), higher science literacy scores meant they were more likely to underestimate the risks associated with climate change. If the assumption that science literacy is the solution had held, both groups would have moved toward rating climate change as higher risk as they increased in science knowledge, to line up with current scientific consensus. Instead, increasing science knowledge correlated with increasingly polarized views.

The paper comes out of Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition project at Yale. Cultural cognition posits that individuals tend to form opinions that cohere with the values and ways of life of the cultural groups they identify with. In other words, people process information in ways that reinforce a sense of belonging to certain cultural groups and identifiers. The central idea is related to confirmation bias, but goes further to define the root causes of the beliefs people seek to confirm: cultural worldviews. Unlike confirmation bias, cultural cognition can predict how people will react to totally new issues, for which they had no prior opinions, based on their worldviews. (For more on distinguishing cultural cognition and confirmation bias, see Kahan’s blog.) In some ways the findings are not all that surprising. Knowing that humans are always striving to confirm their own hunches, opinions, and beliefs, it follows that the addition of more knowledge and argumentation skills just builds the arsenal for developing a stronger defense of one’s preferred view. Janet Raloff at ScienceNews paraphrases Kahan:

“In fact, some of the most science-literate critics [of climate science] will listen to experts only to generate compelling counter-arguments.”

This isn’t just about conservatives denying science. Both liberals and conservatives have been found to diverge from scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to either reinforce or threaten their identities, values, and worldviews (for example, on the issue of the right to carry concealed handguns – see Kahan et al. 2010). Furthermore, it isn’t about denying or mistrusting science as an institution; instead, people are developing different perceptions about what the science actually says. Both sides try to “claim” science for their side.

Lone polar bear on sea ice. Photo by fruchtwerg’s world.

But what does this mean for science education? The findings pose more questions than answers. It would be a mistake to think that science literacy is useless — or even dangerous — because it might act as a polarizing force. Without it, citizens would have little basis or inclination to engage with socioscientific issues at all — hardly the recipe for a functioning democracy. So it is necessary, but not sufficient. However, the findings strongly suggest that a simplistic “deficit” model, in which students/citizens are blank slates that just need to be filled up with science facts and information, clearly won’t work.

It’s worth noting how the authors were measuring science literacy. They employed a combined science literacy/numeracy scale. Eight science literacy items, which were taken from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, probed relatively simple factual knowledge about biology and physics with true/false statements (for example, “electrons are smaller than atoms”). No items testing understanding of the scientific method were used, though previous research using the items has shown decent correlation between the facts and methods dimensions. Mathematical word problems were used to measure numeracy; these were included because more numerate people tend to be disposed to more accurate, methodical modes of thinking, especially with regard to decision making and risk assessment (system 2, according to Daniel Kahneman). However, the measure is limited by not being able to discern a high level of competence in science. It can distinguish those who know little science from those who know a bit more, but even a person who was able to correctly answer all eight items could not necessarily be said to be “science literate.” We can say the items measured some science knowledge plus tendency to think more slowly and analytically, but not “science literacy.” An unanswered question is how to accurately measure the multi-dimensional concept of science literacy — but the initial indications from this study are certainly noteworthy and concerning.

The results of this paper should prompt us to reexamine what is most important in science literacy, and therefore in science education. While most of the discussions of these results have been couched in science communication issues (how scientists and the media reach out to adult non-scientist citizens), K-12 science educators potentially have a huge opportunity to educate a new generation of citizens in a way that could reduce the risks of polarization. What strategies might accomplish this goal? My ponderings that follow below are just conjecture, but can hopefully generate some conversation from the science education perspective.

One possibility is that by emphasizing the nature and process of science more than the “consensus” textbook facts, students will understand what to look for in good science and develop structured, rational habits of mind. A crucial aspect of science is that it’s OK to be wrong. A hypothesis doesn’t have to be right in order to learn something important from the evidence collected. Scientists throw out their old theories if new ones are a better fit for the data. It’s about having an open mind and even challenging the established consensus when the evidence is strong. When people use their knowledge exclusively for the purposes of proving their opinion is right, and see data that contradicts their opinions as simply the next challenge to rebut, they aren’t thinking like scientists. Perhaps examples and experiences of surprising or negative results might serve to get students thinking like scientists, even in the face of cultural predispositions or prior beliefs.

A strong emphasis on critical response skills might also limit the polarizing effects of knowledge. Part of the reason climate change deniers are able to use their knowledge to entrench themselves further in their chosen viewpoint is that they are focussing on — and finding — less scientifically credible data sources. Through biased search, they are discovering the few dissenting scientists, or pundits who mix facts with opinion. Sharper critical response skills would make the flaws and weaknesses in their favored data sources stand out. If all students are exposed to in science class is their textbooks and lab manuals (which are always “right”), how will they learn to evaluate sources of scientific data?

Just as we can’t assume adult citizens are blank slates, neither can we assume young students are blank slates. Even when dealing with non-polarized naive ideas about science, prior knowledge and conceptions must be taken into account in helping students move to a more scientific understanding. Science educators should be aware of the cultural allegiances their students may have, and should attempt to frame discussions of polarizing concepts in ways that are not immediately and totally opposed to those allegiances. Students could be exposed to cases in which many different socio-political groups have been known to twist or misrepresent science to serve their purposes (see GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left) and learn to recognize these ulterior motives.

Young students are dealing with issues of identity, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. There is an opportunity for scientific thinking (as a useful, impartial, non-partisan intellectual tool) to become part of students’ cultural identities. By fostering a collegial environment where controversial issues can be discussed openly and civilly, science educators could help reduce the fear and antagonism individuals can face when supporting an idea that is perceived as discordant with the prevailing worldview. Of course, science educators often face their own sources of conflict from parents, students, and even themselves when it comes to controversial topics like climate change and evolution.

The problem of polarization is a puzzling one, but the stakes are high, and science educators will play a pivotal role in preparing future policymakers.