I sometimes wonder if it is possible for a specialist to ever truly empathize what it feels like to walk in the shoes of the unindoctrinated – especially when it comes to the language. If you’re an adult practitioner of a particular trade, you will have had decades of training and education under your belt, and the required vocabulary will constitute your own daily vernacular.
For example, an old-school photographer, like my father, tends to throw around terminology such as F-stop, aperture, or depth of field. Now as a layperson, I know vaguely what my Dad means when he talks about F-stop. I can even deal with this parameter when handling my ancient Pentax 35mm camera. But if he asked me to define F-stop, or pick a definition out of multiple choices, I’d probably be stumped. I don’t know what the ‘F’ means and I don’t know what changes inside the camera’s innards when I swivel the appropriate ring from 16 to 22. All I know is that 22 is better than 16 in bright light. I could easily speculate why, but without looking it up, I wouldn’t be sure. And although Dad might disagree, it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of taking nice photos.
I was reminded of all this during a brief Twitter exchange with Carl Zimmer this afternoon, which began when he tweeted: “Ack! Only 18% of Americans can say what a molecule is. See p. 48 of new report, “Science and Media” Free pdf here: http://bit.ly/cmkGKg”.
My first reaction was, is that really such a surprise? If someone held a gun to my head and asked me to give the precise chemical definition, I’m not sure I’d state it absolutely correctly myself. According to my Mac, a molecule is “a group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound that can take part in a chemical reaction.” It comes from modern Latin molecula, diminutive of Latin moles, which means ‘mass‘. Some time back in the Eighties, I have no doubt that I could have regurgitated that definition for some high school exam or another. Today, I’m sure I could easily have picked it from the multiple-choice line-up used by the researchers in the study cited in the above link. But then, I’m a scientist, and I’ve been talking about molecules for more than twenty years. (It’s a separate point that we biologists often abuse the word ‘molecule’ and use it to refer to slightly larger entities – which is probably why I had to check the actual chemical definition. But that’s a point for another day.)
I had a look at the paper that Zimmer was citing: the key reference seems to be:
Nearly one in five American adults can describe a molecule as a combination of two or more atoms. Many adults know that atoms, molecules, and electrons are very small objects, but are confused about their relationship to each other. Four out of five adults know that light travels faster than sound, but only half know that a laser is not composed of focused sound waves.
But here’s the rub:
All these basic physical science constructs are part of middle school and high school science instruction and should have been acquired during formal schooling. If these constructs were understood during the school years, many adults appear not to have retained these basic ideas as adults and are unable to use them in reading a newspaper story or seeking to understand a television show.
Again, am I really surprised? Entire swathes of junior high and high-school lessons have long since been over-written in my memory. There was a time when I could ace tests in trigonometry, algebra and calculus, but if you asked me now to deal with a problem containing sines, cosines and tangents, or solve differential equations, I wouldn’t know where to start. I am sure that many parents who struggle to help their kids with their homework have faced a similar wall of amnesia.
The problem, I think, is in the word ‘acquire’. Initial mastery in childhood is not the same thing as day-to-day use over a lifetime. If my life had been different, and I’d gone into another field, would I still be so conversant with words such as molecules? Somehow, I’m not so sure.
Zimmer’s response to my tweet suggesting that ‘molecule’ actually was a rather tricky word, was the following: ” ‘Molecule’ in this study was defined as a combination of two or more atoms. Doesn’t seem tricky to me.”
Now, I love Zimmer’s writing, and have the utmost respect for his endeavors, but is it really surprising that he doesn’t think it’s “tricky”? He has been writing about science for a very long time. On the other hand, my father is a highly intelligent man, and his platinum prints are heart-breakingly lovely, but he hasn’t had a science class since about the late 1940s. I am not convinced that he would have been among those 18%. The real question is, does it matter? My Dad, who is interested in many other things besides art, including music and science, devours the New York Times‘ science section every week: if he couldn’t define one of science’s specialist terms, is it really the end of the world? When he sees the word ‘molecule’ in the paper, I suspect he gets the gist from context. And this, like my concept of F-stop, is probably all that matters.