Citizen Science by Jamie Zvirzdin
Imagine you’re sitting in science class. On the paper before you, there’s a homework problem you don’t understand.
You raise your hand to seek clarity, but the teacher responds, “Oh, that problem is easy! Just use your intuition.” The teacher then rattles off a bunch of specialized words—science jargon—you just learned.
“Thanks,” you say out loud, but your muddied thoughts are joined by the cold chill of shame: You’re more confused than ever, but because of fear, pride or both, you pretend to understand. Slouching deeper into your chair, you mentally check out for the rest of the lecture, maybe even the rest of the semester. If that was an “easy” problem, maybe science is not for you. Your curiosity in science, previously a roaring fire, sizzles and nearly dies.
Scenarios like this happen to many of us, from grade school to graduate school. Subtle science shaming is a teaching tic that causes a storm of self-criticism and intellectual insecurity. Add poor science studies, plagiarism, misinformation, bad actors and new viruses to the mix, and we become mired in a sludge of nationwide confusion, fear, pride, anger and mistrust: In 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of U.S. adults who have “a great deal of confidence in scientists” dropped from 39 percent to 29 percent, and China and Russia now lead international student competitions in math and science, as “Forbes” reported at the end of 2021. Although NPR stated in October 2022 that college enrollment rates are finally falling less rapidly, they’re still falling—and have been since 2012.
Students who remain in college and science sometimes feel the need to cheat, another form of intellectual insecurity. In November 2022, Harvard reported catching and expelling a record number of students for cheating, and 85 percent of these academic dishonesty cases happened in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. Beyond the classroom, adults of all education levels and political affiliations fall prey to pseudoscientific thinking, conspiracy theories, harmful biases, and logical fallacies. Collectively, these science-related issues affect our overall happiness, health, wealth and progress as a nation, especially when we start shaming our young children, too.
I’ve experienced subtle and not-so-subtle education shaming myself, many times. Such academic chest-thumping was sometimes unintentional, accidental, even misinterpreted; other times, it was openly cutthroat, mean-spirited or discriminatory—perhaps a sign that those teachers themselves felt insecure as leaders. For instance, when my AP Computer Science teacher saw I was the only young woman in his class, he said, “I hope you don’t transfer out like all the other girls have.” When my mom started chemotherapy, you can bet AP Computer Science was the first class I dropped to ease school pressure.
As an undergrad, even though I loved physics, I lacked the confidence and cultural support to pursue it. I decided to do what came most easily to me, editing and writing, and I worked my way up the communication ladder. I learned grammar, punctuation rules, linguistics, Latin. With my newborn son asleep in his crib, I edited U.S. science textbooks and learned what types of words keep an audience’s attention and what types of sentence patterns drive them away. I helped European researchers write newspaper articles for their fellow citizens all over the European Union. They called it “citizen science,” and I loved it. I got a master’s degree in writing. I began teaching science writing at Johns Hopkins, and as best I can—no teacher is perfect—I make my material and teaching style rigorous but also inclusive, accessible, and empathetic.
When I decided to go back and earn a master’s degree in physics, you can imagine my renewed frustration when: 1) the professor would skip steps during class instruction, calling the problem easy; 2) the textbook was riddled with words like “clearly” and “obviously,” but the concept, as it was written, was neither clear nor obvious; and, 3) the problem sets and lecture material were sometimes poorly described, riddled with jargon and bloated with long sentence patterns, the very patterns that drive people away. My fellow classmates, many of whom had been doing physics most of their lives, expressed similar feelings of confusion and frustration.
But this time I did not slouch in my chair. I did not drop the class. Instead, I asked follow-up questions. I met with the professor outside of class, I formed a study group, I found better instructional materials and I rewrote the difficult material in my own words. I managed my emotions and took charge of my own learning.
In short, I found a measure of intellectual security. If your own science fire has been stamped out by previous negative experiences, I would be honored to help you relight it. The purpose of this new monthly column is to review and fortify the scientific knowledge of our citizens, which will increase our collective power and confidence to make smart choices for ourselves, our families, and our communities. In this anti-science era, when American citizens are tired of feeling stupid, dismissed and disempowered, we shall help save the science baby from being thrown out with the bathwater.
But good science takes time, humility, courage, honesty and patience. It is susceptible to human bias, error and abuse, especially when the scientific method is skirted or fudged. So we’ll scrub that science baby clean, inspect it for injuries and parasites, and send it toddling on its way, cheering it on and making sure it doesn’t wander too far afield.
And it will take a village, all of us, to raise it.
This is citizen science, and I invite you to read it every month. If you feel so inclined, share the digital version of this article from www.AllOtsego.com with your friends and family. We will cover “knowledge about knowledge,” as well as anything from what stove you should buy to how to interpret the movement of planets and stars. Thanks for reading.
Jamie Zvirzdin researches cosmic rays with the Telescope Array Project, teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of “Subatomic Writing.”