02 March 2012

TEDx San Juan: Daniel Colón-Ramos

Daniel is a scientist, which means he is a lover of knowledge which means he is a devotée of learning. Currently a researcher at Yale, studying neurological development in nematodes, his research may have enormous implications for genetic-based treatment of Alzheimer's or cancer. Or it may not; it might actually lead to improved nanocomputers or to properly identifying life on Mars.

We don't know. And that's where the joy, glory, challenge and fun of Science begins.

Daniel's point that the enormous increase in Our life spans--and the unprecedented explosion in scientific advancement of the 20th century--are due to the public support of science. This has to be underlined as of extreme importance, because when major corporations, organizations and governments started financing scientific research, the benefits of that research became the public's patrimony, a widespread wave of progress that We could see come to an end in the next few decades.

The problem has two evil roots. One is an increased level of attacks against science, resulting in a less-favorable funding environment, not to mention an outright rejection of scientific inquiry (stem cells, NASA, etc.) But more insidious, more dangerous to the future of science is the appalling (My word) deficiencies in the educational system.

As Daniel outlined, part of the problem is the image science has, a combination of the educational system and the media making it seem that scientific discovery occurs in isolated fashion. The focus is on the end result (polio vaccine, the Sun as the center of the Universe) rather than on the process. Science, Daniel reminds Us, is an accumulation of knowledge, an accretion, not an explosion. To oversimplify discoveries to merely a result is to lose the power and value of the process.

It also creates two more negatives: the sense that sciences are isolated from each and the notion that "everything is known". Focusing solely on a discovery, without context, makes all science (for people see so little they think they see it all) seem disconnected, when in fact, as Daniel emphasizes, everything is connected. Furthermore, the "big news of discovery" coverage, when merged with how little science We actually know about, gives the impression that "everything is known," that "there is nothing left to discover or learn."

Daniel Colón Ramos
As a scientist, Daniel knows that there are far more questions now than ever before.

That's where Our educational system is a failing badly, for the process and environment is directly opposed to asking questions and using curiosity to explore learning. It focuses on memory over questioning, on isolated facts rather than context and on subdividing topics rather than integrating them. In addition, the educational system doesn't teach critical thinking skills, creating an environment of "rushing ahead to meet standards" that don't allow Our students time to think more deeply about what they are learning.

The educational system, then, focuses on storing "knowledge" in arbitrary chunks, never teaching how to learn and generate new knowledge. Science is about asking questions, taking time to observe methodically, follow data, sift the significant from the insignificant and come to conclusions that must bear up to further experimentation. It calls for imagination and reasoning, not memorization.

A problem Science raises, part and parcel of its very existence, is that scientific advances force Us to redefine Ourselves. We once thought We were the center of the Universe; then it was the Sun, now it's any point in the Universe. We once thought We were above animals; now We know We are an animal less than 1% different from a chimp at the genetic level. The challenges that Science tosses at Us come from every direction and in huge numbers, forcing Us to re-evaluate and face often-uncomfortable truths.

A corollary issue from this complexity is that most teachers are ill-prepared for sciences, so curricula have become "dumbed down." "Dumbed down science," is an oxymoron, but then again, so is Our educational system. (My comment, not Daniel's.)

Another aspect that hurts appreciating science, at least in Puerto Rico, is that like with any body of learning, a sociocultural context is very important. As Daniel recounted, when he was a kid his textbook featured an interesting bit about maple trees. There are no maple trees in Puerto Rico, but there are plenty of other trees here that are equally or more interesting.

For those who pooh-pooh this as "rationalization" or "excuses," note this: curiosity and discovery are natural parts of a child's life. They have to be for the child to learn about the world. But even the most recalcitrant amongst you would acknowledge that not receiving the right incentives is the most common way to discourage a child from pursuing an interest or path of action, intentionally or unintentionally. You know that's true, so being unable to "connect" to sciences because the material used means little or nothing to the person is evidently far more discouraging than encouraging.

To address this issue, Daniel and many other local scientists have developed a textbook titled Ciencia Boricua. Every chapter and essay was written by a Puerto Rican scientist and the examples used, from biology to geology, are based directly on and in Puerto Rico. Already in use local schools, Ciencia Boricua is going into a second printing and it is being evaluated for island-wide use.

[Unpaid advocate here: Buy this book. Not just for your kids, but for yourself, My Brethren. You have no idea how much you'll learn and how much will astonish you. Two words, people: Sierra Bermeja. Buy the book to find out how astonishing those two words are.]

Daniel's effort for Ciencia Boricua is part of his seminal work in CienciaPR, the largest organization of Puerto Rican and Puerto Rico-based scientists in the world. With over 5,400 members, CienciaPR is seeking to develop, support and expand interest in sciences as career choices and as part of the public patrimony Daniel addresses so well. (Full disclosure: I will be joining CienciaPR in a support capacity in the coming weeks. This interview was in no way part of that process.)

Daniel points the finger in his own profession's direction when he indicates that scientists need to be more communicative about their work to and for the general public. Unfortunately, the characteristics that make a good scientist are pretty much what makes a poor communicator, so only a handful (Sagan, De Grasse, Feynmann) become iconic science proselytizers. But Daniel says that all scientists can become better communicators, not to "pander to the less capable," but to create a community that values and supports science in a more consistent way.

Daniel told Me he'd just gotten back from an event organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), that focused on this issue of "getting the public involved" in sciences. The goal is to bridge the gap between scientific research and "pop science," the "dumbing down for headlines" trend. In that process, the Internet is a key channel, allowing for the development of "translators," people who understand the science and use their communication skills to make the science known. An example of this "translator" role can be seen here, at Download the Universe, a science writing review site.

The AAAS focus is recognition of what Daniel said, that "We are all part of the scientific dialogue." It is up to Us to define how We are going to participate. And for those of Us with school-age or pre-school age children (Daniel is the proud father of triplets, all girls), the dialogue is not theoretical: it is as practical as deciding what groceries We'll buy for them to eat.

Sadly, what We have with sciences is more theory and talk than practice. We don't do science anymore, the classroom-level exploration that led Us to look at the microscopic, mix the chemicals, watch the physics or dissect the once-living. And yet, We "do" Science every day, to deal with and understand the world. As Daniel said in closing: "We are all born scientists. We observe, experiment, ask, learn--We never lose that and it crosses all barriers, for it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you will do these things."

Daniel is right, for not only are We scientists-at-large, public support--Our support--of sciences, from research to education to reporting to commercialization, are at the very foundation of Our modern level of progress. We shouldn't forget that, despite the rising tide of what can only be called ignorance. If We really want the world to solve its pressing problems--some of which were created through sciences--then Our only hope, Our only proven tool for large-scale solutions, remains scientific research.

And the better the tool, the better the craftsman needs to be. Daniel is seeking ways to improve both.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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