Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for Facts

Fact (n): any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted

Scientists love their facts. Or should I say: as a scientist I love my facts. Facts make up the skeleton of science, the bone structure that we flesh out with hypotheses and ultimately theories. Facts mark the measured progression of science - from experiments to publication, to replication of experiments and new publications, until everyone is (mostly) satisfied that the result can be reproduced and can now become a fact.

But, depending on how we view and use them, facts can have some negative aspects. Over reliance on facts can make it harder to learn. How many of you have had that kid in one of your classes - you know the one, who sits at the front and responds to every question you ask - usually with a litany of facts? (S)he has memorized the textbook, surfed the web, and read a few extra journal articles on the subject so they can ace all the tests. Yet all they can respond to is clearly defined questions with clearcut answers. Ask them anything ambiguous - that requires them to interpret those facts in relation to a parallel problem, or requires that they apply the facts at a different scale - and suddenly they're not quite sure what to do.

Facts can also serve as a shield. Colleague getting dangerously close to discerning the truth about your dismal student evaluations? Spout some study results about student attention spans in the classroom, particularly for the notoriously difficult subject that you teach. Then add in a few facts about the declining math & science ability of high school grads (the very students showing up in your first year course). Conversation closed. Worried that colleagues will mistake your obvious exhaustion and short fuse following the birth of your new child as a weakness? Mention some interesting study results about the ability of the sleep-deprived to develop new and innovative experimental ideas, or how focusing on non-science related topics (diaper changes, feedings, that ever-elusive sleep) can actually result in more efficiency once you get back to those science topics.

I've been reading over my blog posts and finding that, while they're heavy on facts, they're light on interest and entertainment value. Which may explain the low number of blog hits - and even lower number of comments. Despite having a background in freelance science writing, it's easy for me to revert to the tried and true scientific method of reporting facts - and supporting those facts with evidence - without adding a little something to spice them up. Usually that 'little something' is more personal - and personable. An anecdote from my everyday life, or a story from someone else's.

Real science communication has a much lighter touch than writing a journal article. It's the ability to effortlessly weave together fact, life, and imagination to make the extraordinary sound almost ordinary - and the ordinary become something special.

So next time you pull out your fact arsenal, consider what you're doing. Do you really need all those facts? Can you tell a story with fewer facts? Or are you using them to avoid something? No need to go completely fact-free, but try not to take yourself - or the topic - so seriously. Use the facts as the skeleton, with some humour and story to flesh out the bones.


  1. It is so hard to help students who are fact-oriented see the ambiguity in some historical areas I teach!

    1. Sometimes I think it's because they just want an A, and ambiguity messes with their ability to achieve one...

    2. So true. It's easier to regurgitate info than it is to actually synthesize ideas and put together original thoughts.