Allegory of The Cave (Reflections on Science Education)

25 10 2010

Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Glaucon: That is certain.

There is a wonderful tale written by Plato called “The Allegory of the Cave”. To summarize the story, a man makes a discovery and wishes to tell everyone he knows. But his description goes against the beliefs of those around him and he feels his knowledge separates him from them. Eventually, he realizes that the only way for them to understand him is for them to find the truth themselves.

The crux of the story is that our characters in need of truth have always been prisoners in a cave where they have had very little light.  In order to find the truth, they must exit the cave.  Shady descriptions of the outside world will not do.  But with a bright sun, this will be quite painful …so they wait until night.  The dimmest of light, the stars, then becomes the first thing they gain knowledge to.  As their eyes acclimate to their new environment, many things — things whose existence had been mere suggestion — become very real to them.  After a time their eyes can handle brighter lights and they can see many more things.  And finally, after much patience and some discomfort, they can view their world in full sunlight.

The rest of the story is rather convoluted and a bit of a strain to swallow, but what Plato was trying to do was set up an allegory for how discovery works.

It’s been 20 years since I first read The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s The Republic.  I read it while in Governor’s School, where we then had a lively discussion about whether it was possible to fully explain a new discovery to someone without any direct proof.  Could they be persuaded that you weren’t misleading them?  Could they believe in something that went against their everyday perception if you drew out your argument logically and without flaw, though you had not a shred of tangible evidence to support you?  In the end, the man who left the cave and made a discovery viewed the others as being ignorant, but conversely (and here’s the real kicker!) the ones left behind who did not see the truth viewed the one with knowledge as being ridiculous.

I spoke with a preacher friend of mine this past week, who also happens to be a science teacher.  While debating the efficacy of hands-on versus verbal strategies, he said something quite profound.  He said, “Our perceptions become our reality.”

That’s really deep.  I’ve been thinking about all the topics it could be applied to — science, politics, religion, those crazy Tea Party-ers, and of course our self-perceptions.  It’s something so universally true.  Wish I had thought it up.  (I realize he surely didn’t think it up first; but like when Einstein published E = mc² and said that it’s simplicity revealed it’s truth, it’s one of those things that just sounds profoundly awesome because of it’s simplicity.)

[Tons more after the jump]

But what I’ve really been thinking about (about time I got to it, huh?) is the ongoing accommodation/confrontation debate between science bloggers and educational professionals. Not sure what that is?  Then you don’t read much PZ Myers (boo!) or Chris Mooney (yay!).  heh.  Some folks have a fear of science brought about from their personal histories or from anecdotes from persons within their sphere of influence.  Myers would like to justify that fear for them!  Mooney, on the other hand, is someone I can relate to.  It seems to me he understands the principals of Plato’s Allegory.

Science educators and communicators in general have two obligations:  1) teach current knowledge and 2) remove misconceptions.  Those should be in reverse order, but most of the time I find people think it’s good in this order.  [They’re wrong, of course.]  Anyway, the people who have knowledge wish to share that with the people who don’t.  So what happens many times is they forget how much effort went into finding that knowledge in the first place.  The well-intentioned communicator presents the end result of decades (or centuries) of research as though it should be completely logical and understandable by the the whole of society, ignoring the plethora of scientists who disagreed with the discoverer in the first place.  And even though now a majority of the scientists may accept the discovery as ‘common knowledge’, most non-scientists haven’t had the opportunity to investigate the issue as thoroughly.

I think the real problem begins with the education many science communicators receive in college.  If you’re seeking a science degree, it is the professor’s obligation to strictly teach his topic.  This is as it should be, but somehow it was never established how to best present this material in a complete fashion — where the student sees the development of ideas and the controversies that arose.  In other words, the students aren’t allowed to wander out of the cave in darkness; they are shoved out in the blinding sun.  Now, for a student seeking a science degree, there isn’t much of a problem here.  They should be well-prepared to analyze the currents theories for themselves.  But for most others this isn’t true.

When a science communicator teaches a theory that has undergone numerous revisions by many gifted scientists and blatantly hand-waves any dissenting opinions as ‘uneducated’, then he’s being an elitist and will gain few followers.  If the theory was really that obvious, then we wouldn’t have had to develop it.  Likewise, someone who doesn’t believe the theory isn’t necessarily being obtuse, they’re following in the steps of many a scientist who came before — comparing their reality to the one being presented.  If the two are incompatible, then it will take some extraordinary evidence to change their perceptions.  First, you will have to challenge their misconceptions …in an open-handed and dialogue-driven path.

This is where the college training is missing the boat.  At some point there should be an effort by the highest educators to teach the secondary educators how to present the material in a palatable manner.  And if those highest professors don’t know how to do this themselves, then there should be a program for them, too.  There is a polite manner that needs to be placed on those who are taking up the reins of science communication in our modern world.  A crass-and-blast attitude will make people fearful that scientists are simply trying to push some agenda like any political figure or religious zealot.  This is NOT the result we want.

What a good science communicator should do is be aware of the diverse backgrounds of their audience.  If I tell a joke and you don’t laugh, then it’s my fault!  I should have made the joke relate to you.  In the same spirit if I tell you a scientific fact and you don’t understand it, then I’m the one who failed.  I must adjust my explanation to a manner that makes sense to you.  We cannot expect every individual to see things the same way.  Nor would we want them to!

I always go back to Carl Sagan.  He had a manner of reaching people to relate fairly advanced topics in a way that didn’t make them feel inferior or him seem superior.  He not only took the attitude of listening to a person’s doubts about what he was presenting, but he honestly made the effort to visit with people who firmly held non-scientific positions.  He wrote a book about his experiences called Demon-Haunted World which is utterly brilliant and my all-time favorite book.  Page after page I just kept thinking that I would so love to be able to reach people like he could.  I’m sure this new generation of science communicators have also read Sagan.  Some even knew him.  Why is it they can’t strive to be like him?  It seems to me that treating people as equals with the ability to think for themselves is an obligation for all of us.

There are many good programs in the Ivy League schools that teach science writing.  And most any college can teach you oral communication skills.  But there should be more programs that focus on science communication, such as the University of Washington-Seattle’s Course:   Communicating Science to the Public Effectively.  And yes, I know that even the most well-intentioned scientist has at some time or another been totally railroaded by an incompetent reporter who isn’t as interested in getting the facts right as they are pushing paper.  (See “Life On Mars!”, New York Times, 1997)  Obviously, we science educators need to master the delicate art of the ‘sound byte’.  But barring fast, cheap, fly-by science education, we still have a responsibility of educating for the long-term.  Adding a component to the curriculum for a science PhD  to teach future researchers how to deliver their discoveries to non-scientists is important to lift the science literacy in this country as a whole.

And while a person is willing to listen, while a student is bound to our classrooms, while we have a captive ear from someone truly curious, we need to ensure that our words are chosen carefully and our arguments follow the logical steps taken by the discoverers when we pass on their new-found knowledge to people who aren’t experts in science.  If they can perceive the world that we see, then maybe it will become their reality.

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