Threshold Concepts and Science Communication

By Michael Edmonds 12/11/2010

In my previous post I talked about the idea of threshold concepts — concepts within a discipline that it is vital to understand if one is understand the discipline. With experts in any field these concepts have often become so integrated into their worldview that it is almost impossible for them to remember what it was like not to understand the concept. This to me represents one of the major challenges in science communication — understanding that when we communicate scientific ideas to the public we not only need to present facts, but also the underlying scientific concepts. Of course this may be difficult in a world which often expects science to be communicated in a 15 second sound bite.

As an example of how an understanding of scientific concepts can influence one’s opinion on important issues, let me try and demonstrate that my own concern for our environment and climate change is based on my understanding of various scientific concepts. First, the Law of Conservation of Matter reminds me that our planets resources are limited, so economic policies that rely on continued growth based on physical resources are flawed. The S shaped growth curve from biology reminds me of the dangers of overpopulation. An understanding of entropy tells me that as we use petroleum products as an energy source we create and disperse increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a very ‘energy poor’ molecule. It also tells me that as we mine minerals and disperse them across the world, we will at some stage need to expend energy to collect them for reuse. An understanding of entropy’s relationship with energy tells me that we will require more and more energy in order to maintain our increasingly complex and ordered society. An understanding of the conservation of energy tells me that the most efficient source of energy we currently have is the sun, which suggests to me that we should be strongly investing in research to utilise the sun’s energy rather than depleting non-renewable resources.

In a world where scientific ‘debates’ such as those over climate change are often reduced to arguments over whose ‘facts’ are correct, perhaps the continued focus needs to be on communicating the underlying concepts. This is not an easy option, but perhaps with time explanations of concepts such as the carbon cycle, scientific uncertainty, the scientific method and entropy will allow sensible decisions will be made regarding the environment.

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  • […] of hard analysis of your viewpoint (the ‘troublesome knowledge’ that Michael Edmonds wrote about on Sciblogs NZ). And the evidence is there that learning to link concepts in this way does have a positive outcome […]