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Pat Logan's Web Log

"But any reasonable concept of democratic citizenship requires an individual
who is able to discern knowledge from propaganda,
is competent to choose among conflicting claims and programs,
and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Jan. 27, 2013

Communicating Science

Often, it is more important to focus on what people are not talking about and to ask why.

There were two topics noticeably missing from what was discussed at a recent conference held by URI's Harrington School of Communication and Media, Jan. 16 & 17—"Convergence and Community: Preparing Future Workers for a New Knowledge Network of Libraries, Newsrooms, Studios, and Agencies." They were remarkable in their absence mainly because of the futuristic focus of the conference. Concerned with where Journalism and Library Science—taken as representative of communications and academia in general—should be heading in the future, important facets of both technology and science were notably missing. I've commented on one symbolic aspect of technology that was absent—web development in the curricula of...well, almost all of the academic communications fields—in a separate post. Here, I reflect on science as a component of these same curricula.

Science Credibility and Critical Thinking

My own efforts to expose students to both science and communications in a single course begin with recognition of a common need to develop a personal credibility spectrum, an idea which teacher Greg Craven hopes to popularize as fundamental to understanding science. Credibility is an a priori awareness that sources of information vary in their likelihood of being accurate or truthful. (Some journalists and colleagues in communications studies prefer the word legitimacy, and I've often heard some degree of insistence that there is a difference, but here I take the words as synonyms.)

In the age of the internet and Google, university students share with the public a tendency toward gullibility. This stems from individual bias and selective reading, laziness, indoctrination into ideologies, etc. All universities proclaim that they seek to counter this society-wide weakness by promoting critical thinking. That this is good is broadly taken to be axiomatic, but precisely what is involved is often nebulous: What is meant by "critical thinking?"

Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

"Defining Critical Thinking," The Critical Thinking Community,
criticalthinking.org. Downloaded 1/27/13

Full disclosure, the above is the first of "about 7,450,000" responses to googling "critical thinking defined." It certainly sounds authoritative to me. But practicing what I hope to preach, I think there is more to think about than what my search made too easy. The definition sounds exactly like definitions formed over time by large groups of academicians. That is, as with words like sustainability or globalization, everyone seems to have strong individual biases and myriad definitional nuances. When people come together to formally discuss them, they too often create a stone soup that has so many ingredients that the original substance (even one so non-nutritious as a stone) is forgotten. Delicious, perhaps, but so encompassing as to evanesce into meaninglessness.

Take, for instance, the suggestion that critical thinking "is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking" including seven "modes" listed. Critical thinkers Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, writing in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, would find fault with this suggestion hinting that science is just one of an array of presumably otherwise indistinguishable and equal "modes." A sampling of what Gross and Levitt say about science, an educated citizenry, and mass media:

The Debasement of Science Education

It is self-evident that active and interested citizenship in this country, the frame of mind that follows public affairs and stands ready to participate to some degree in ongoing debates, requires a usable knowledge of science and technology—at the very least, a seat-of-the-pants ability to track disputes concerning science and public policy. In a republic that counts Franklin and Jefferson among its founders, and whose culture heroes prominently include the participants in the Manhattan Project and the entrepreneurs who have endowed every desktop with its own computer, one might hope that such intellectual endowments would be commonplace, if not ubiquitous. All too obviously, this is not the case. Outside the community of professional scientists and engineers, understanding of even the most elementary science is thin and vague. Indeed, most of the population, including its iconic voices—the television entertainers who comment on and not infrequently distort the news—seems to take a perverse pride in the self-abnegation "I'm no rocket scientist." The mass media have acquired a habit, deriving equally from fear and laziness, of presenting scientific matters in the most stripped-down terms; and they bail out in terror when any kind of nuance or subtlety threatens to intrude on the story. If scientists have acquired a quasi-sacertotal status in the popular imagination, it is not because they have pressed strongly for such recognition, but because so much of the population finds it more comfortable to declare itself awestruck than to acquire the knowledge that might dissipate the awe.

Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition, 1994. John Hopkins University Press. p. 244.

Science, Journalism, and Library Science

At the conference, a sincere, dominant concern was the relation between Journalism and Libraries and the public, i.e., the familiar outreach function of the Land Grant universities. At a time where there is worry about the decline of both news media and traditional libraries, much of the fundamental fear has to do with the critical role of the Fourth Estate as a basis for modern democracy. In particular, how can American society rule itself if too great a portion of the population is ignorant of the scientific basis for the great challenges of our times (as polls repeatedly demonstrate)?

Although they were not made explicit topics for conference discussion, I am certain that matters of science weigh heavily on the minds of most participants. In an informal gathering in the evening of the first day, I shared in an extended conversation about the difficulty for journalists (and, by extension, librarians responding to community needs for public programming) as they fulfilled their self-perceived obligation to engage the public on the pressing challenges of climate change. The science that gives the matter legitimacy and scientific knowledge that gives reporting credibility are complex, stochastic (filled with statistical matters of uncertainty or probability), and multidisciplinary (climate, ecology, economy, etc.). How should modern journalists be prepared such that they are qualified, competent, broad, and scholarly enough to tackle what is needed to inform the public? This was clearly a matter of grave interest to these media professionals.

Still, when presented with an opportunity to choose "Communicating Science" as one of several breakout topics for an afternoon discussion, there were not enough participants interested to convene a group. I am not surprised. Offering a similar talk or seminar or major colloquium university-wide would likely produce a similar low turnout.

Why? If there is a current, initial lack of interest in science communication, what does this mean? Is it the science itself that is the cause of disinterest? Do communications studies, writing and rhetoric, journalism, film and digital media, or library specialists share a common disinterest, or perhaps disdain, for science itself. I'm pretty sure the answer is clearly not. But as I argued in my attempt to explain why there seemed to be little interest in web development as part of the curricular needs for the future of journalism and library science (previous post), I believe the discipline-centered organization (isolated and competing silos) of modern universities and the understandable, self-serving narrow spectrum of in-house courses as essential components of the 180 credits of an undergraduate degree all act to effectively subdue any strong commitments outside of departmental offerings. Perhaps?


The conference was intended in large part to stimulate thinking for the Harrington School. As may be the case for incorporation of web development into the courses considered essential for Harrington School graduates, the lesson of the conference may be that competence and recognition of a vital roll for specialized (because of interdisciplinary subject matter) pedagogy in scientific communication (or more broadly, the communications of things scientific) may mean that the path forward requires cross-departmental commitment to courses and faculty (scientists, journalists, communications experts), with particular emphasis on bringing together rare individuals competent in both science and communications.

Understanding that I am at an advanced stage in my career and thus less likely than most to be self-promoting for some future personal gain, I do offer my own coursework as one model of cross-disciplinary hybrid learning. The online lecture and assignment materials for my course, COM455: Science and Communication in a Century of Limits, were designed to explore the intersection of science and communication. I would be delighted to see them considered as starting points for further discussion.

There has been a group at URI working on a hybrid proposal that would link journalism with sustainability, perhaps a starting point for the broader link of science and communication. Although I have expressed an interest, I am not apprised of where this group is in its deliberations.

In consideration of any new directions, it is always wise to benchmark the competition, in search of both opportunity and best practice. Should it be inclined to pursue growth in the area of science communications, the Harrington School would behoove itself to conduct such a study.

Particularly within Communication Studies and Writing and Rhetoric, there are many areas of advanced pedagogy and research to be explored. The literature in the rhetoric of science, for example, is relatively recent and sparce, suggesting that advanced undergraduate or graduate scholarship has potential for growth into new territory. I cannot think of a more critical national need for advanced scholarship than in the communications and rhetoric of contemporary science.

Science and communication together are both vital to further advancement of human knowledge on the relation between the intellect and emotions (even 15-year-olds can banter about logos and ethos). There is a great opportunity within the Harrington School for work on the balance between human emotions (largely the target of contemporary politics) and intellect as championed by science (largely the target of no one in the public sphere). This is perhaps the most critical area of early 21st century higher education, holding the key to whether and how humans resolve critical global challenges like climate change, the end of the fossil fuel era, and human population size.

But these are matters for another day.

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