Category Archives: social science

What First Sparked Your Fascination with Science?

Sea anemone and clownfish.

Sea anemone, you were an awkward 12 year old’s biggest crush. Credit: Ashley Braun/All rights reserved.

When I was twelve years old, I had science class in the cinder-block basement of my middle school. But perched along the perimeter of that schoolroom filled with basic black lab tables and little natural light was a bubbling saltwater aquarium and a couple plastic containers with secure, vented lids.

We students, trustworthy sixth graders that we were, could volunteer to feed their inhabitants: sea anemones, a furry and secretive tarantula, and three-inch long Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

I savored the opportunity to stick my gangly arm deep into the saltwater tank, tickling the sea anemones’ sticky tentacles as I dropped bits of chicken onto the marine invertebrates’ smooth oral disks. For a young girl hundreds to thousands of miles from the ocean or tropical forests, these science class pets quickened my pulse and my fascination with the natural world. I didn’t care if it was the weird bugs in my classroom or the rhinos, three-toed horses, and camels buried by volcanic ash in northeastern Nebraska, which we ventured out to see while visiting my mom’s family. I find these experiences and my reactions to them (delight rather than horror or boredom) reassuring. Then again, I’m a professional science writer.

But these sparks of interest in science aren’t (and shouldn’t be) limited to those of us with a professional connection to science. Carpenters and professional football players and accountants and waitresses are welcome too.

One point made over and over again at the recent Evolving Culture of Science Engagement workshop was that we as science communicators need to figure out how to reach beyond the usual audiences of those already interested and light that spark of curiosity and critical thinking in everyone else. The aim? A scientifically literate public.

The world depends on informed citizens making informed decisions. Science and technology have become entwined in everyday life in unprecedented ways, and the average person should be able to understand enough about the world around them — or at least respect the scientific pursuit of understanding — to act appropriately when life and society require it.

Psychology professor Caleb Lack explores on his blog Great Plains Skeptic the question of what a scientifically literate population looks like in the 21st century. What resonated the most with me was his definition of scientific literacy not as a memorized collection of facts but more as a way of thinking:

Science is, instead, an empirical, rational way of thinking and seeking answers to questions and evaluating claims. It is the application of a specific series of steps to arrive at empirical support for or against an idea. As such, scientific literacy should not be seen as the ability to parrot answers to questions such as “What is the speed of light?” or knowing the steps used to balance a chemical equation. Scientific literacy should instead be seen as the ability to access and use the methods of science when confronted with a question to which one does not know the answer. It should be seen as the ability to minimize the myriad of thinking errors to which we humans are so prone while using those same methods. A scientifically literate society should be able to, in short, think like a scientist about its dilemmas by evaluating the world skeptically.

Yet people today can still believe that Earth is only 6,000 years and that the measles vaccine causes autism and other disorders despite repeated, rigorous scientific study discrediting these claims. Part of this discrepancy originates in humans’ tendency to rationalize preexisting but strongly held beliefs (often coming from their religion, community, or cultural leaders), even at high levels of education. But another factor is scientific illiteracy, the inability to think critically, be open to examining credible evidence, or distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Approaching this challenge by trying to force-feed people ever-more facts discrediting their beliefs doesn’t work and can even backfire, instead reinforcing incorrect notions. Even in the face of spectacular refutation of their belief systems, people can still manage to believe aliens are coming to save them from the apocalypse.

So. How do we go from apocalyptic aliens to a societal respect, and perhaps hunger, for science?

A vital step is tailoring the communication of scientific information to the cultural values of the audience. But I also think we can find clues about what works in the conversation started on Twitter by Ben Lillie, physicist-turned-storyteller and founder of The Story Collider. He asked people about their early science-related inspirations — those books, people, moments, etc., that touched them in a very real way.

Right. Switching hashtags. What science thing first made you really *feel* something? #sciencespark

— Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) November 13, 2013

An overwhelming deluge of nostalgia and excitement followed (which you should read): people sharing memories of gaping wide-eyed at Saturn’s rings through a telescope, of being inspired by beloved or bizarre family members and teachers, and of amazing things like this:

.@BenLillie In daycare they told us about the Earth’s crust, so I took a shovel under a tree to find it. #sciencespark

— Elizabeth Preston (@InkfishEP) November 14, 2013

As children, these experiences of discovery, when everything is new and wondrous, are nearly effortless. But how do we as busy, cynical adults recapture that instinctive, unabashed curiosity about the universe and how things work, whether it’s wondering how the rain hits the windshield or what makes up the microscopic particles what make up everything? When do you remember having that spark of understanding mixed with an openness to exploring the infinite possibilities of the universe? When did you lose it (if you feel you did)?

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Daylight Saving Time, Saving Energy, Saving Lives?

I don’t think I ever fully realized how fraught the concept of Daylight Saving Time was and what controversy surrounds “falling back” or “springing ahead” an hour.

Disorienting? Sure.

Annoying? Occasionally.

But life-threatening? Seems a touch dramatic.

Yet NPR highlighted a study finding an increase in violent street crime and robbery that occurs when we “lose” an hour of daylight in fall evenings. Apparently robbers like to sleep in as much as I do.

(But I doubt they’re aware of the price of that extra hour of shadowy mischief-making: they and everyone else also have an increased risk of heart attacks, traffic accidents, and injuries in the workplace on the Monday immediately following the end of Daylight Saving Time. Researchers tend to blame disruptions to sleep patterns for some of these effects.)

Economists Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and and Nicholas Sanders of William and Mary took advantage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 extending Daylight Saving Time (DST) by an extra three weeks in the spring and one week in the fall. They compared neighborhood crime rates during the switch to DST in spring and fall of 2005 and 2006, before the law took effect, and with the same time periods in 2007 and 2008. Their study [PDF] uncovered a 7% drop overall in robberies after DST takes effect, stealing an extra hour of darkness from the evenings when ne’er-do-wells would prefer to not do well and take your wallet under the cover of darkness.

So, Daylight Saving Time may save you from getting hit by a car and hit up by a robber, but does it live up to its perennial justification of saving energy?

Well, various reports conclude that … it depends.

If you live in Indiana, then it may slightly increase residential energy use [PDF]. (This state actually used to be split, with some counties observing DST and others never paying attention to a time change. Having lived there during that time, I can attest that was truly annoying.)

If you live in California, it may actually sorta save some energy (perhaps 0.93% of your daily energy bill [PDF]).

And if you live in all of the United States at the same time (I think that’s how national averages work), extending Daylight Saving Time cuts about 0.03% of annual U.S. electricity consumption [PDF], which is at least better than a coal-fired punch in the face.

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