Prajwal Kulkarni’s perspectives on science communication… and more.

In 2008, it was my privilege to meet Prajwal Kulkarni, who was then a graduate student on his way to a Ph.D. in applied physics at Stanford University, where he was studying space plasma physics. He participated in that year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium (a brief infomercial appears in the footnote[1]).

Since then, Mr. Kulkarni has not been idle. He first did a stint as a AAAS Science and Technology Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently he’s applying his software skills at IntApp, a software company based in Palo Alto, CA. He’s just had a very interesting Perspective accepted for publication in the Fall 2013 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, published quarterly by National Academies Press. Entitled “Rethinking Science Communication,”[2] his essay opens calling attention to the diversity of today’s scientific research. He notes that the disparate fields of space physics, soil science, social sciences of staggering variety, and more are all different (some radically so),  in their approach to advancing knowledge. The differences extend to the use of controlled experiments versus observation; purpose; “testing falsifiable hypotheses;” and even “how scientists think.” For example, he notes there’s no one way scientists think; and that science has multiple purposes:

“Scientists have purposes [plural]. They are as complicated and varied as all human purposes. Some scientists want to explore nature, some want to prevent disease, some want to create technology, some want to educate children, some just want to do their job, get paid for it, and go home. None of these goals are more worthy than the others.”

Mr. Kulkarni notes that in many respects these purposes and ways of thinking fail to distinguish between scientists and those who would not label themselves as such. He argues that to render generic statements about science as a whole, or to attempt to distinguish between “scientists” and “others”  may be far less useful than it once was. He suggests:

So when speaking to nonscientists, rather than grandiose proclamations about the scientific enterprise or the process of science, try to make simpler, more specific, and more human ones about your own research. Your research, the particular scientific methods you use, the nooks and crannies of your work, your personal journey to your own small corner of science are wonderful and awe-inspiring by themselves. They are the corner of science that, if you’re fortunate, you love, and that you know well enough to explain in a way that is compelling because it is your own.

(To fully appreciate Mr. Kulkarni’s thought process you need to read the entire piece; this can do no more than whet your appetite.)

Mr. Kulkarni has also been blogging for some time. Most recently, he has started a new blog, one that provides perspective on creationism and evolution (but rather more to the reaction of society and the scientific community to this debate). It’s entitled  Do I Need Evolution?. Here’s an excerpt from “About this Blog”:

I am interested in four broad categories related to how scientists react to this issue:

Authority: By what authority do scientists dictate what the public should know about science? How do we balance individual freedom with expert opinion in a diverse, pluralistic democracy? Why don’t people just have the right to believe what they want to?

Education: Why does the general public need to learn the theory of evolution? More generally, why do non-scientists need to learn science? How do strident, angry protests against creationism affect public engagement with science and public science literacy?

Evidence: Is there any evidence showing that creationists pose harm to themselves or others? Does rejecting evolution affect one’s ability to solve differential equations or write software? How do we know? Note that these questions do not ask whether the theory of evolution is true or false.

Values: What are the underlying values and principles involved? Why do we as scientists get so heated and angry about it? Why aren’t these values discussed openly and what are the consequences for not doing so?

Though important, these dimensions are rarely discussed. I hope this blog serves as a forum where they can be addressed calmly and respectfully.

It’s early days yet. Hard to see just where Mr. Kulkarni’s blog may take us, but it looks to be a fresh and valuable contribution to the global dialog. And recalling Charles Darwin’s quote:  “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” (The Origins of Man, Chapter 6), whatever turn events take, it seems the great scientist himself would have approved.

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[1] The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is a leadership development program funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Each June, the Colloquium brings 25-40 early-career scientists to Washington, DC for ten days to learn more about the science policy process. In thirteen years some 450 scientists have gone through the program. You might consider participating.)

[2] I wish it were possible to give a link to Mr. Kalkarni’s full text; am not sure but don’t believe that ISSUES will make the text available electronically for another six months. But if interested, you might try contacting the author directly, either through his LinkedIn page or his blog.

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4 Responses to Prajwal Kulkarni’s perspectives on science communication… and more.

  1. Katie K. says:

    But by denying a student an education in evolution, you are denying the student an education in significant branches of biology and geology. I don’t think a student “needs” to learn these branches of science, but nor does a student “need” to study music or literature. However, based solely on recent headlines within the NYT, studying music as a kid does help adults process sounds, and reading literary fiction does help a student feel empathy. I do not know of any published studies on the long term benefits of studying biology or geology, but I am willing to bet the benefits exist.

    • William Hooke says:

      Hi, Katie!

      Good to hear from you/thanks for this thoughtful comment. I’m not sure this is where Praj is taking matters on his blog. His posts give me a somewhat different message. Am hoping Praj will weigh in…

    • Hi Katie! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I completely agree that there are many benefits to studying biology and geology. However, there are many fields of science that would bring benefits. So why focus so much attention on evolution, especially when it violates a core moral belief of so many? There are tradeoffs among public education, conscience, and parental authority.

      As an example, consider saluting the flag / the pledge of allegiance. It is widely agreed that cultivating a sense of patriotism and civic unity is a valid goal of public education. There are surely benefits to the nation if we use schools to foster these goals. And yet the Supreme Court recognized in West Virginia v Barnette that parental conscience can override educational goals.

      So I don’t dispute the importance of evolution. Rather, I question whether it can be used as a trump card to end discussion. There are other values involved, and I want to tease them out.

      I would love to hear your thoughts more, and hope you engage at http://doineedevolution.wordpress.com.

  2. Katie K. says:

    Hi Prajwal,

    Here is my concern about avoiding the discussion of evolution in schools. While there will always be exceptions, I think discussing how ecosystems adapt to change is an important first step in becoming an environmentalist. Without a basic understanding of the complexity of adaptation and mutation, the speed at which humans are changing the natural world is not as alarming.

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