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“Friends don’t let friends take arts” – t-shirt I saw frequently as an undergrad

 

We have set up a dichotomy (or multi-chotomy) that separates science from other academic pursuits – arts, social science, humanities, commerce, fine arts, … – but I think that does a disservice to students, and to scientists.

Long ago, one could obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, and the liberal arts tradition ran deep in the science curriculum.  Liz Coleman gave this great TED Talk on how to revitalize the liberal arts in universities.  But with the push to expertise, narrow the focus and emphasize technical skills, we lose something.

The dominant mechanism for information delivery has become the scientific paper.  A short, contained piece, often boringly written, and devoid of stylistic prose. Attempts to introduce anything aside from emotionless, “objective” technical jargon are weeded out by reviewers and editors.  Gone are the days of speculation where scientists present ideas, without first ensuring that p < 0.05*

Recently, Meg Duffy asked on Twitter for a list of authors ecology & evolution students should know.

What came was, rather, a list of the “classics”. But can one know about Lotka and Volterra without knowing about them? Just as we are more than our papers, shaped by our personalities, experiences, and circumstance, so were they.  The book Modelling Nature by Sharon Kingsland provides a narrative for the history of population ecology.  I posit that the development of ideas, and the people behind them are better understood in this narrative style rather than reading n lengthy scientific papers that do not discuss their context, importance, or authors.

It’s a story. People remember stories.

But because it’s not a “textbook” in the strict scientific sense (one filled with facts, references, and presented as largely black-and-white information), it’s not often considered in science courses.

We do the science we do because of what’s come before. The context in which we “do science” is built on its past.  I think this is particularly evident in conservation biology.  Without A Sand County Almanac, or Silent Spring, we’d be in a very different place.  Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson taught us about land management, toxicology, predator-prey interactions, behaviour, policy, and more. And they did it by telling stories.

We like stories because they follow an arc, a path, that begin somewhere, and end somewhere else. And because we experience it, like a walk in the woods, we can more easily recall it, perhaps because it invokes similar spatial and temporal memory.  A paper, by contrast, would be like stepping into the transporter on the Enterprise, and ending up on a foreign planet. It takes a long time to figure out what came before, and how it has affected the present.  In science, we call this “knowing the literature”, and we often do a pretty poor job of it.

So why not have a book (not a textbook, but a book) in class? Teaching evolution? Stephen Jay Gould has several on offer.  Conservation Biology? I’m firmly in the Aldo Leopold camp.  If you can’t find one, give some serious thought to crafting your own narrative.

Narratives, and stories, are written with emotion, evoke responses, and present interesting ideas that would get whittled out of any scientific paper. But they are no less useful (and I’d argue perhaps more useful) for understanding scientific ideas. This is part of the liberal arts tradition.

So if you’re trying to teach a new concept, think of the stories you can use. We tell stories every day (“What did you do on the weekend?”, “Have you heard about X in the news?”), and we’re darn good at it. It’s an art that we, as a species, collectively mastered, and there should be more of that art in science.

 

*or whatever quantitative test statistic you want

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