I remember being in junior high when my skating coach asked me why it was important to pull your arms and legs in when doing a spin. I responded by talking about surface area and resistance. It was a little more technical detail than she was expecting.
If I had a choice for my science students, my goal would be to help them feel comfortable speaking and reading science. I don’t mean that they need to be able to read original research papers; but I want them to be able to know what a news story is saying. I want them to feel comfortable asking a question about something science related. And I want them to be able to talk to their doctor.
This is the reason I decided to write this post today. Yesterday, I saw the surgeon for a check up on the wrist I broke. I cannot complain at all about the care I have received throughout this entire process. But sometimes, the only reason I know what is going on is because I understand what the surgeon is saying to the entourage that follows him. There is almost always at least one resident tagging along, in addition to various other medical personnel. The surgeon is often so busy that he says most of his diagnose is full medical speak to the entourage. I understand some of it and store the rest away to look up at a later time.
Speaking science also helps me when I’m looking things up. I can usually tell when an article is poorly researched and shouldn’t be trusted. As a result, I understand why scaphoid fractures are hard to diagnose, which mine was. I understand why and when surgery is required, which it was. I understand how soft tissue injuries occur at the same time, which they did. And I understand the treatment options and the consequences and benefits.
If you ask my family doctor, all of this adds up to a difficult patient. I don’t blindly accept what the doctor says, and if I think it is necessary I will ask for other options. But I’m definitely not going to be my own doctor. They have specialized knowledge that I don’t have. I also don’t diagnose myself off the internet.
I think that we should put more emphasis in science education on being able to understand the science that surrounds us and that makes us work, or not work as the case may be. Take a news story and analyze the science in it. Just like awful grammar and spelling in an “official” email might clue you in that an email is spam or phishing, the “science” might indicate something about the validity of an argument or article.
Don’t try to be your own doctor, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. I had a student in a bio class who came in a few minutes early one day to tell me about her trip to the doctor’s office. She was so excited that she had actually understood what the doctor had said to her, not just because it boosted her confidence, but because she actually understood why the treatment was important and was more committed to following through.
Without doubt science can be incomprehensible at times, particularly when individuals use ridiculous jargon to explain concepts. But, knowing enough that you can ask questions is something that we should include more of in science education.