Themes from Mann’s Visit

We’ve had a very exciting week here at the PoPUS project. We had the good fortune to enjoy a full day and a half with Professor Michael Mann—prominent climate scientist, bigtime advocate for public understanding of climate change, and perennial target of the slings and arrows of outrageous denialism. Our indefatigable guest not only delivered an excellent public lecture to a capacity crowd—where he received an impassioned introduction from our own President John Bravman—he visited Matthew’s course on climate change (which Matthew co-teaches with Professor Duane Griffin), led a faculty-staff breakfast seminar, participated in a roundtable with STEM faculty, facilitated a breakfast conversation with students, and spent several hours with me, Matthew, and members of the PoPUS team discussing our project, including opportunities for future collaboration. All told, it was a tremendously inspiring and encouraging 36 hours. We’re grateful to Professor Mann for taking the time to visit, and we look forward to opportunities to work together in coming years.

Stay tuned for further posts from our research team with details from the events mentioned above. In the meantime, here are a few of the themes that emerged in our conversations with Professor Mann:

  • The idea that there’s a need for social scientific work that takes a more nuanced view of the cognitive goals science communicators have in trying to educate their audiences. While it’s widely acknowledged that we can’t achieve science communication goals simply by giving the public information about science, and while it’s also true that recognizing this has led to important reflection on how values and ideological commitments determine receptivity to messaging, the fact remains: there’s been very little work (empirical or otherwise) on the idea that the cognitive goal of science outreach should be to provoke understanding rather than to transmit information or knowledge.
  • The idea that understanding is more resilient than testimonially-based knowledge in the face of denialist challenges.
  • The importance of understanding not just the science, but how science works—in particular, the role (and compatibility) of uncertainty and consensus in science.
Professor Mann in the student breakfast discussion.

Professor Mann in the student breakfast discussion.

> More photos from the visit here.

Recap of Catherine Elgin’s Visit

[Our Research Assistants will be writing up profiles of visiting speakers’ visits. First up: Julia profiles Catherine Elgin’s visit. — M&J]

Elgin lecture

Catherine Elgin’s lecture; for more photos from her visit, click here.

On October 2nd and 3rd, philosopher and Harvard professor of education, Catherine Elgin came to speak about understanding and knowledge, explaining their relation to science and art. On her first afternoon, she held a public talk entitled “Making an Example of it” on the idea of exemplification in art and science, demonstrating how our understanding can benefit from fictional representations. Exemplification in this sense highlights certain defining features of a system or object in order to describe, in a more targeted manner, an essential component or process that is taking place. Would making use of exemplifications generate the right degree of understanding when communicating our science to the public? Should we be aiming to produce understanding via examples and representations rather than taking a more straightforward route?

According to Elgin, using examples is extremely beneficial and widely practiced as a method of producing understanding. She began by describing that art exemplifies by exaggerating certain values or characteristics of the subject of its representation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as a well-known work of literary art, gives us an understanding of the corruption of power and violence by exemplifying those traits in characters throughout the play. Arguing against the notion that science is strictly factual, Elgin advocated that like art, science often advances our understanding through examples and models. Oftentimes, we use representations of systems in science that appropriately exaggerate our area of focus, such as frictionless surfaces. These frictionless systems, as Elgin pointed out, are models that are not true and do not claim to be true. However, by highlighting the basic properties of Newtonian mechanics, students in introductory physics courses are able to develop an understanding of its fundamental properties.

Another example Elgin provided was the fictional aspects of the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. Used commonly throughout science, this idealization of gasses assumes that particles are dimensionless spheres that are not subject to friction or mutual attraction. Similarly, pictorial diagrams and thought experiments in science do not offer us knowledge in that they do not aim to provide us with truths about the science. Elgin believed that instead, the understanding that is gained from these fictions is reminiscent of the aesthetic understanding of art. If we are able to suspend disbelief and accept scientific models as idealizations, as Elgin pointed out, we will advance our understanding of these concepts.

On Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of driving Elgin back to the Williamsport airport, allowing for a stimulating follow-up conversations regarding her visit. Most notably, was our conversation about different types of understanding. Elgin told me about her recent inquiry about the different derivations of the Pythagorean theorem, bringing into question what method is best. Does the means by which we acquire the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of mathematical and scientific processes contribute to our overall degree of understanding? Or do multiple pathways all leading up to the same end result contribute equally to our interpretations of these processes? These questions, along with many others asked throughout Elgin’s time at Bucknell, remained up in the air after her much appreciated visit to Lewisburg.