A few months ago, I read and enjoyed Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons. Thanks to that book, I figured out something interesting about how I understand sci-comm.
The principles I believe in when it comes to science and sci-comm, and the threads which run through both my psychological and scientific interests, weren’t created through my science or psychology education.
1) Cross-disciplinary connections – Science doesn’t work in a vacuum but is informed by art, humanities, politics, and religion.
2) Human history – Rather than being detached thinking agents, scientists are as human, flawed and biased as anyone else.
3) Accidents, serendipity and luck – “Failed” inventions, wrong beliefs and faulty discoveries can be as valuable, informative and powerful as “successful” history.
These ideas weren’t part of my psychology degree, nor my science lessons. Instead, they came from GCSE History, a subject I took 10 years ago. So what was special about this course?
Our syllabus covered three areas over the two years, but what I learnt came from the first topic, Medicine Through Time. We studied how various themes such as war, religion, and chance affected medical discoveries from medieval England through to the Second World War. As a result, we had plenty of opportunities to connect what we were hearing about with topics mentioned in other lessons.. Our teacher knew that including gory stories and tales of what went wrong would hold our attention, so he didn’t shy away from it. We learnt about how many people could have discovered penicillin before Fleming eventually worked it out, about the operation with a 300% mortality rate, and many other surprising and counter-intuitive pieces of trivia.
The stories involved may have been sensationalised at times. As it was a GCSE course, many were probably simplified too. But that course provided a far better education than most of my other subjects. In hindsight, that Medicine through Time module was as important as psychology or science for me; it was just as strong of a foundation for my interest in sci-comm.
To me, this experience is a good example of why science communication is not the same thing as science teaching. Science communication goes beyond knowing science facts, inventions, or names and dates. It’s instead about knowing the principles behind exploring the world and finding knowledge, being aware that science is a sprawling, complex field that builds on itself over time, and understanding that the process of science is never finished but always moving towards better answers.
Humanities subjects, especially History, can show this kind of complexity over time very well. But many people paint a picture of sciences and humanities belonging to competing paths, forcing a divide between them. Personally, I don’t agree with that division, but I am interested in how it came about and in what factors caused people to maintain the division.
My next post will be looking at this question: when and why did the science vs humanities polarization begin?