October 1, 2004
Tamara Davis (Biology)
Presenting Science Within and Outside of the Lab
Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
Tamara began with a description of the problems of communicating:
teaching students how to write for different audiences, beginning
with themselves and their instructor in the laboratory, and then moving "outside." She
admitted that she had not been very successful in teaching her students
how to keep their lab notebooks; she has often been unable to glean
from their notebooks what it was they actually did. She has tried
explaining to them that a detailed record is needed, if there is any
hope of the record being used (date, year, details of conditions of
the run all need to be specified). Students often forget to record
the details of the repetitive work they do. Perhaps this is a matter
of audience: they are so "inside" the work (or it is so "inside" their
heads) they don't feel the need to record it for themselves; and/or
they assume that their instructor knows what is happening, and therefore
also doesn't require a detailed record.
There was considerable discussion of what is "generally not understood
outside science": that "tedium" is critical to the practice. The
function of scientific literature is NOT to tell a story (which
is what readers look for in the introduction and conclusions about "relevance" of
the data); the point rather is the "really dull tedious middle stuff" called "results." The "only
excuse" for scientific literature is that of making observations,
methods and relevant context available to others ("virtual audiences"),
who can then attempt to replicate them. It is critical to record
this sort of unsynthesized minute observations, which "science is
rooted in," in lab notebooks; but Tamara reported that they seem "strikingly
absent from our internal conversations" (and that they sometimes
appear in abundance later in settings--such as in a poster session--when
they are not needed). Perhaps lab meetings should be more formal,
in order to emphasize the importance of full reports? Students don't
appreciate who the audience is for their lab notebooks; they are
writing for a "trusting" audience, when they should assume an "untrusting"--or
a "naive"--one, to whom all observations must be reported.
But why do students have to be taught how to attend to observations?
It is a mentally interesting issue. Do we "naturally" think in
terms of stories rather than observations? Is it really "not normal" to
pay attention to the observations which give rise to them? Is it
really "unnatural" not to give all your observations, especially
if your audience is hostile? Don't children attend closely to the
details of the work around them? Do we lose our ability to attend
in that way, as we age and learn to focus on the task @ hand, learning
to filter out what is not directly relevant to our current concerns?
A story was told of the gap between students' assumptions regarding
the gender-specificity of sexual fidelity, and their report of
their own experiences in this area; reporting from experience (are
most of the unfaithful people you know male or female?) changed
The amount of detail reported to different audiences differs,
but science writers should assume a completely naive audience across
the spectrum: from writing for their lab notebooks to presenting
their work to the public. And certain practices must be observed.
Students arrive @ college without a sense of what is it to be a
scientist; they do not know that certain protocols must be followed,
and must be taught the social conventions of how to write up a
lab report (in order to realize that they are not bound by it?).
They find it "such a chore, such an annoyance, to be that specific." Perhaps
they seem "lazy" or "sloppy" because that step-by-step process
means nothing to them; they see no compelling reason to follow
the conventional procedure. Perhaps there is "something regressive" about
being in a school laboratory: it stirs up the whole schema of early
childhood: the students, who are experiencing "paternal transference," must
be taught to be less passive, more active, to "be their own parents."
Or perhaps they simply crave the story.
The hard discipline of "attending to the observations, not the
story" is not unique to science, and might be useful for all of
us as we (for example) watch a presidential debate: how open are
we to actually hearing what is said? How bound is what we notice
to the story we already have at hand (i.e. which candidate we prefer)?
Might we "structure our students' expereince so that they can be
wrong more often"? There is little room in the lab to be creative.
The lab planner tries to make the experiments work, and there is
no room to repeat experiments, if they fail. Students can't find
out why something doesn't work. If we presume the need for coverage
of necessary content in our courses, the reality is that there
are limited resources (of time and money) to go exploring into
what goes wrong; we put ourselves and our students in a box. There
are distinctions to be made, in this matter, between classes and
research labs, which have more freedom to explore where things
The need for students to learn technology and techniques has
to be balanced with the intellectual process of problem solving.
How might students feel after a year of failed experiments? Don't
they need to experience a certain amount of success, in order to
maintain their interest in science? But what does it actually mean
to say that "an experiment didn't work"? It makes sense if one
is replicating a classical experiment, but that is distinct from
running a procedure. We need to assure that procedures can be carried
out successfully, but once those technical matters are attended
to, then "any observations are meaningful"--or rather, any observations
are potentially useable in the making of meaning. Students often
ask,"What was I supposed to get?" Rather than teaching them to
expect a certain result, we need to help them see that what they
have is "not a failure, but a result."
There was also lively discussion about whether, in lab notebooks
or in writing for the public, one is allowed to "drop data." Some
claimed that we do not pick and chose among our data, that we do
not throw any of it out. All the data should be reported, and discrepancies
taken note of. Others insisted that the era of scientific tomes
of raw data has passed, and there has to be a filtration; outliers
don't have to be mentioned. But what if it is an outlier due to
procedural error? (Kuhn says scientists "call it procedural error
when they don't like the outliers.") In the matter, for instance,
of antidepressants "causing" suicidal ideation among some adolescents:
the fraction of people who are affected are miniscule. We have
different allergies to substances in the world; of course we have
different reactions to different drugs; it is naive to assume otherwise.
But there are ways to report outliers, using numbers, and letting
your audience know about the statistical importance of the data.
Shouldn't the audience get to determine whether to attend to these "outlying" figures
or not? There is a social way of handling this.
But we want stories, not data.
The Brown Bag series on "Science's Audiences" will continue this
Friday at 1:15 in the Multicultural Center, when a professional
reader of stories (aka member of the English Department) Anne Dalke
will talk about "Re-reading the Fairy Tale: Science as Story." Her
texts include several interdisciplinary College Seminars, the photographic
work of Eadweard Muybridge and Jules Etienne Marey and (perhaps
even) what Schrodinger called the "black magic" of non-locality.
In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.