This is part one of several posts describing the ten-step process of taking a discussion about “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science” from the web to SciBarCamp and back to an online conversation, or why we still don’t know what everyone should know about science, but at least managed to have a conversation with a wide range of people.
In organizing SciBarCamp one of the things we wanted to do was to get the participants to think about some of the topics they might be interested in before the event itself. On the first night we would give everyone a chance to suggest a session, but we thought it might help people to get their thoughts flowing before they came in. We had a page on the SciBarCamp wiki where everyone could leave their suggestions for topics. A few weeks before the event there wasn’t much there yet, and I wanted to encourage people to leave their suggestions, so as an example I added a topic that I am interested in myself:
On a few recent occasions, I found myself explaining things about science in general or about my specific field of Molecular Biology that I thought everyone knew already. I had to explain what a gene is to people who are mere months away from getting a PhD. If they don’t know, how can we expect the general public to understand all these news articles about genetic mutations that make a person more or less susceptible to diseases. And what is a mutation? Mutations are “bad”, right, like the evil mutants in cartoons and video games? Words like “mutation” and “theory” have certain meanings in daily life and other meanings when the same words are used by scientists to talk about their work. Should people be aware of that? What is it that many people may not know about science and really should know?This is a huge question, and definitely not something I, or anyone, can answer by themselves. I don’t even think a group of just scientists can answer
This is a huge question, and definitely not something I, or anyone, can answer by themselves. I don’t even think a group of just scientists can answer this, because they know too much. They’re too involved, and might overlook things that they find obvious, but which are not necessarily obvious to everyone else. You have to have some feedback from people who can take a step back and who are not “burdened” by too much knowledge of one particular field of science in trying to see a bigger picture.
The SciBarCamp audience was pretty much ideal, because there were some experienced scientists, who know what it’s like to do research, there were graduate students, there were people who work in both science and other fields, and there were a lot of people who weren’t practicing science themselves, but were at least very interested in it and think about science and scientific discoveries and research once in a while. Of course, there were only a limited number of people there, so while there was a somewhat large and varied group, you can be even more diverse if you let other people in on the conversation, and that is exactly what happened here.
Step 1: Online Suggestion
In an attempt to get other people thinking about topics they might like to discuss at SciBarCamp, and to get some discussion going, I posted the following on our wiki:
“Since we have some outreach people, writers, artists, bloggers, and other communicators of science I thought we could maybe do some sort of panel discussion about things you think everyone should know about science, or about common misconceptions. (eg. use of the word “theory” in a science context does NOT mean “I don’t know, here’s a wild guess.”, or the discrepancy between science being presented as a list of finished facts/formulas in high school and the dynamics/discovery of actual research)”
Then, to draw people’s attention to the fact that I edited the topics page and that they can do so too if they pleased, I wrote the following on easternblot.net, brainstorming as I typed:
“My idea: find 4 or 5 volunteers from different backgrounds to sit on a 20 minute panel and (with audience feedback) make a list of Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Since we have a wide audience, this hopefully would be a varied list. Actually, maybe we could just put up a large sheet of paper and have people write down what they think should be on the list and get back to it later.”
Step 2: Online Conversation
After I posted my suggestions, Michael Nielsen hooked in on the topic with a blog post about what it means to know something and Larry Moran made his personal list of Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science to which he got several responses in the comments, spreading the conversation further. Chad Orzel, who would not be attending SciBarCamp at all, read Michael’s post and gave his three suggestions for Things Everyone Should Know, generating many more comments on his blog as well.
What happened here is quite interesting: I suggested a topic to discuss at an event that was limited to a certain location, time, and group of participants. Yet here were people starting this very discussion online, and people from all over the world had a chance to participate at their leisure. Of course it happens quite regularly that people are talking online about conferences taking place elsewhere, but what was unique here was that some of the people online were attending the conference, and I was reading everything myself, so the discussion that started online was incorporated into the discussion as a whole, and later referred to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, we’re not even at SciBarCamp yet. That will be step 3, in a new post, which I haven’t written yet. I just thought I’d give you something to start reading.