The Science is Already Awesome

Loads of stuff going on behind the scenes right now: in addition to 0.5.0 (Got biomes and 3d trees done! Currently working on the interaction between the two) I’m also working hard on two parallel Species-related goals.

One has been mentioned both explicitly and implicitly several times in the last few months (I expect it to grow our audience a little), but I’m going to keep it under wraps for now because of unforseen difficulties and explosions. The other is a super-secret prototype.

So, I promised a post on science communication at the end of that comment on Bill Nye (that whole thing is still going on, btw. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis is really pissy about it. It’s hilarious). It can’t promise the following won’t come out a little bit rambly (okay, a lot bit rambly), but here are my thoughts on the subject…

Science communication is a strange and somewhat tainted field, mostly because many of the people actively engaged in it don’t seem to realise they’re engaged in it. It’s deceptively easy to categorise the world into scientists and non-scientists, but most science communicators aren’t actually scientist communicators: they’re teachers, journalists, authors, TV personalities and (disturbingly) polititians and pundits.

There are some wonderful exceptions: scientist bloggers and writers like… (EDIT: Nevermind. I started writing this list and couldn’t stop, plus then I went researching and holy mother of cheeses there are a lot of them out there and I don’t read nearly enough of them regularly). But their audience is the people who go looking for scientist communicators: the vast majority of people don’t read proudly nerdy stuff like science blogs, and “proudly nerdy” is a good description of most scientist communicators.

In short, the general public get their info from other sources.

And those other sources usually aren’t scientists. In fact, I’d say the vast majority of the time they aren’t scientists. In general, they’re either…

a) people with an moderate understanding of science, tasked to transfer a preset curriculum of facts to a group of uninterested teenagers so they can pass their tests and promptly forget everything but the most trivial framework, or…
b) people with a barely rudimentary understanding of science, tasked to produce something they think other people with a barely rudimentary understanding of science would want to read/watch/play, or…
c) people with no understanding of science, who misheard something with sciencey sounding jargon in it and latched onto their misunderstanding as a certitude.

So that’s why we need dedicated science communicators: not just underpaid and overworked journalists tasked with getting a hyped up article about a discovery they don’t understand out in a few hours, and not just underpaid and overworked teachers tasked with making sure their students do okay on a standardised test at the end of the term. We need to expand the field.

This is especially vital in our modern society. We live in a world with uprecedented knowledge, and unprecedented access to that knowledge, yet science is still seen as an esoteric concept: the domain of nerds and geeks who use multisyllabic words like “esoteric” and “multisyllabic”. In a world where 5 minutes on wikipedia can inform anyone of things you used to need a bachelor degree to know, somehow people in general trust science even less than they used to.

So we need science communicators. I trust the scientists themselves to keep pushing at the boundaries, but if all they’re doing is pushing the boundries further and further away from the public, instead of bringing the public along for the ride, then science will suffer and society as a whole will suffer. On a societal level, education is something with no negative consequences and oh so many benefits.* Inversely, ignorance tears us all down.

*note: Okay, hypothetically, there is a level at which too many people are educated and with the surplus of skilled labour not enough are willing to do unskilled labour, and the country collapses. In reality, no society has yet reached that level: if the US had, for example, this chart would show equal levels of unemployment at all levels of education. It’s an interesting concept for science fiction to explore, though.

The alternative to an education-induced apocalypse: equally interesting.

However, we also have to be wary. Science communication is an easy thing to fail at. It requires two skill sets that, stereotypically at least, are diametrically opposed: a logical, analytic mind to understand the specifics of the science in the first place, and an ability to market yourself and your subject: to communicate enthusiasm and empathise with your audience. It requires you to be a Spock and a McCoy at the same time. (this blogs first Star Trek analogy. Oh… yeeeaaah)

To showcase this, here’s a few examples, of both successes and failures.

First of all, the Mythbusters. Indubitably a success. They might lack basic rigour, but as Zombie Feynman says: they got a whole generation interested in science. They made science cool. Ergo, if we want to communicate science, we should follow their example: sciencey stuff + funny hosts + blowing stuff up. Right?

No. None of these things were what made Mythbusters cool. I only ever saw one of the subsequent copycat shows, a series called Braniac hosted by Richard Hammond (who, for the record, is actually pretty good at communicating this stuff in more scripted shows, like documentaries), and it demonstrated quite thoroughly that “making science cool” is probably one of the worst things you can do to it. The show had it’s moments, but generally it was just a bunch of unconnected science-skits wrapped up in hype and sillyness. If you try to make science cool you fail at both science and coolness.

If you take a closer look at most episodes of Mythbusters you see fairly quickly that they’re not trying to be cool, and the moments when they are are painfully scripted. Adam, Jamie and the Build Team are by far at their best when they’re improvising, debating, making mistakes and being silly: in other words, acting like human beings. That human face, in addition to the usually excellent pacing of each episode (the show follows a pacing structure which should be familiar to anyone who has done a rudimentary literature course or remembers their high-school english), is what really made the Mythbusters popular. It was more than just a bunch of guys faffing about with science trivia and ‘splosions: it was a story, built around the scientific method.

Stand there and look cool for the camera. No, that’s constipated, try again.

Let’s take a look at another example, this time not of a success but of a failure, and not a particular work, but an entire genre. Edutainment.

For those of you who didn’t just hiss and cringe away from your computer, and thus we can assume were spared the horror of actually playing one of these games, edutainment was (and to an extent still is) the product of a bunch of people (likely older people) who saw that kids liked video games and hated being taught stuff, and thought “We can combine the two to make kids like being taught stuff!”

Unfortionately, the people put in charge of designing and making the resultant wave of educational video games didn’t understand video games. Based on the examples I’ve seen, it’s possible they didn’t understand teaching either. In some of the worst cases, I am forced to wonder if they had ever actually met a human child. For the most part, the games were what you’d get if you took a generically poor ‘memorise this’ classroom lecture and made the teacher stand behind a cardboard cutout of a cartoon character.

But it’s unconstructive (fun, but unconstructive) for me to keep insulting edutainment games without exploring why they failed. And to explore that, I need some successes to compare to. Now I’m sure that there are some edutainment games which are entertaining, but I’m not familiar with enough of them to know which ones those are. The only edutainment game I remember genuinely enjoying was an aquarium one, where you could gather fish by solving math puzzles, which appealed to my latent OCD in the same way that Pokemon did for cooler kids than I (yes, I was the kid who wasn’t cool enough to give a crap about Pokemon).

But I’m not really looking for a successful edutainment game: I’m looking for a successful game which educates. And those are surprisingly common, once you realise that games don’t have to try to educate in order to do so. This is due to a thing called Tangential Learning (yes, another link to Extra Credits. If you’re at all interested in games and you’re not watching the series, you should be).

My very first proper game, when I was in primary school, was The Incredible Machine. Anyone else remember T.I.M? It was basically a 2d Rube Goldberg Machine-maker, where you could place balls, platforms, trampolines, switches, lasers… a whole variety of things. And as a result of that game, long before I would have been capable of understanding a word with as many syllables as “algorithm”, I was making them. “The bowling ball falls to this light switch, which activates the fan, which blows the tennis ball off it’s platform…” The same logical, sequential thought patterns that game worked by would later come in handy when I was learning how to code.

When I was a little older, I picked up Sim City. Sim City taught me about complex, interacting systems in society: how doing one thing in one area could have dire consequences in another, and how the easy route (borrowing money) can get you into hot water later down the track. (although mostly what I remember learning from it is giant spider robots are bad news and that you can get money for nothing if you type F-U-N-D-S).

And just to prove that games like these aren’t a product of the past, I highly encourage everyone to check out Kerbal Space Program. For all that I thought I understood orbital physics, I never really grasped them intuitively until playing this game, which is also a whole load of fun (especially if you like explosions, and let’s face it, who doesn’t?).

At this point, you might be noticing the common thread: they’re all simulations. This means that what the game teaches you isn’t something tacked on afterwards, like a quiz or a cutscene: it’s a fundamental part of the game mechanics. By building a game around a simulation, they’ve improved both: the simulation provides depth to the game, and the game makes the simulation entertaining. And because the game mechanics revolve around the simulation, simply playing games like these tests your understanding of the simulation in a way conventional educational curriculi are simply incapable of.

This is actually a similar message to the one we took from Mythbusters earlier: you don’t have to make the science/learning fun/cool, like awesomeness is something you have to tack on to science in order to sell it, or worse: like science is mutually exclusive with awesomeness and you need to sacrifice one for the other in order to be accessable (they know know who they are). The science is already awesome: what makes a Science Communicator good is their ability to show us how awesome it truly is.

That’s what we need to get across. We shouldn’t be teaching people with games as if you can just pour information into their brain: we should be showing them how awesome the information is, letting them drink it up of their own volition, and then telling them where they can find more awesomeness of the same nature. That’s what the best communicators: the Neil DeGrasse Tysons, the David Attenboroughs, the Carl Sagans, keep telling us.

Already awesome.

And, ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do with Species: not create a game that’s awesome and scientific, but create a game that’s awesome because it’s scientific.

Cheers,
Qu

“The optimism, IT BURNS!”

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  1. #1 by stam on September 20, 2012 - 10:52 pm

    Great post.

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