Science on the Web (3)

[May 7, 2011] 

Before I reconfigure the cyclotron, I realize I should have a closer look at how science literacy is being addressed in digital space. Or rather, what existing sites, regardless of their formal intent, are promoting the cause indirectly.

Certainly one stop along this exploratory path must be lazyenvironmentalist.com, the digital wing of Josh Dorfman’s one-man campaign to make environmental issues accessible to a wide audience. That is, a wide audience of people who already realize that our planet’s finite resources need careful management.

Taking as its premise that people will only do the right thing if it’s cheap, convenient and not too labor intensive, the site features how-to information, feature articles on environmental success stories and expert video from internationally recognized members of the scientific community.

That it also contains scraps of hagiographic nonsense about Dorfman himself reveals that, even at this late date, there’s still a club-like atmosphere hovering around some of the most important topics we face as a people. As I can’t help noticing, lazyenvironmentalist.com is also a fan-site pitched to people who “Like” environmentalism.

At the same time, however, maybe it’s simply a matter of human nature. We strengthen our understanding of complex topics by creating community around them. Whether that’s Dorfman’s intuitive conclusion or savvy calculation, it’s impact on the relative accessibility of scientific concepts can’t be taken lightly.

Presenting expert opinion expertly.
In addition to promoting Dorfman’s own patented approach to environmentalism, the site also curates content from leading experts. As of 5-7-11, this includes a particularly effective video from the BBC, featuring Swedish medical doctor Hans Rosling, that offers a promising model of science education. It’s a presentation on the impact of scientific discoveries on global health over the last 200 years.

As I see it, Rosling’s achievement lies in combining education, advocacy, history and, vitally important, a digestible introduction to understanding and evaluating statistical data. That he does so without wearing a lab coat is an un-hoped-for bonus.

Best of all, this big picture view offers hope, particularly by demonstrating the importance of keeping statistics in perspective and of understanding that perspective itself is a flexible, dynamic tool. And in its seamless integration of live action and animated graphics, it speaks fluent digital-ese to an extent the average point-and-click home page can’t match.

That in itself is no small matter. If science literacy is to be promoted successfully in digital space, the approach taken must grow directly out of the multidimensional nature of the medium itself.

Refreshingly down to earth.
What’s more, this particular video contains none of the Watch Mr. Wizard condescension that even infected Carl Sagan’s otherwise exemplary Cosmos series.

At this point in the history of ideas, the last thing we need is another generation brought up to believe their only possible response to scientific concepts is eye-popping wonder. To move forward, we must bring science, as a cultural icon, into the realm of every day, practical experience.

And that is, in fact, a message lazyenvironmentalist.com conveys, by positioning science not as a school subject, but as a thought process we can use to navigate the world more effectively. Of course, no one would assert that, say, particle physics or genome mapping can help you get a better deal on your mortgage. But the outcome of research into these topics affects everything from the iPad you’re drooling over to the medications you or a loved one’s heart valves depend on.

Ignorance is marginality.
Even if your religious beliefs tell you scientific thinking is a godless delusion, it permeates too much of everyday life to be ignored. In 2011, you can’t afford to be ignorant of the background thinking governing so many decisions made by local, regional and national government.

Now, two of the most obvious ways to move from ignorance to a passing familiarity with scientific concepts, are to keep up with science news and to take time out for old-fashioned learning. You know the kind I mean: when you actually push yourself to expand your mental horizons through—gasp—work. Like it or not, there’s no Spuds McKenzie school of scientific literacy. But that doesn’t mean the task need be horribly burdensome.

That is, unless the digital outlets for science news and science education turn out to be poorly organized and badly in need of a marketing strategy that could bring available resources to light. In my next post, I’ll begin an admittedly unscientific survey of what’s out there in both categories.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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