How Can Scientists Effectively Communicate Complex Concepts to Non-Experts?

  • Thread starter houlahound
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In summary: What do you think the chances are of them being disappointed if you don't engage with them? The chances of them being disappointed are pretty high, but it's ultimately up to you. You could either try to engage with them and hope that they're open to learning more, or you could politely decline and avoid any potential disappointment.
  • #1
houlahound
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has under achieved as I am in physics I have had more formal physics education than most in the area where I live. as a result I have been asked to talk about QM to some very eager adults that have a new age bent and have stumbled across QM as some magical thing where you can change the world by thinking about it and collapsing the wave function to a potentiality...blah, blah, yadyada.

I have learned enough on this forum to know the mindset behind this line of question and where any attempt at an answer leads.

I am not getting paid and these people are enthusiastic so thinking a response is just the decent thing to do.

my plan would be to start a study of calculus and basic physics and get to something on the lines of Griffith.

this is nothing they want to hear about, do I tell the truth and disappoint, play around a bit and hope something good sticks or decline?

what would you do?

ETA, I could just send them here but all that would achieve is a bunch of threads being locked.
 
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  • #2
I would politely decline. If pressed I would tell them politely that physics has nothing to do with mysticism or whatever.
 
  • #3
Very interesting and challenging dilemma. Thanks for posting about it.

Do you know what the typical background of these folks is? What exactly do you mean by "new age" with this group? Do they get together to discuss mental teleportation and reincarnation, or are they just interested in new science discoveries?

Would the group be open for it being a series of 3 talks? You could design the talks to be something like this:

  1. Basic introduction to why QM was developed to explain inconsistencies in measurements found in science
  2. Basic math and science concepts needed to learn beginning concepts in QM
  3. Basic QM concepts and why they seem so strange, plus Hot QM Research Topics going forward
At least with that series, you would be putting them on notice that it takes a little effort to learn what they want to find out about, and it could weed out folks who want a "quick fix" with some quantum teleportation woo for FTL or whatever.

EDIT/ADD -- How big is this group? What are their age and education demographics? What A/V resources would you have available?
 
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  • #4
houlahound said:
this is nothing they want to hear about, do I tell the truth and disappoint, play around a bit and hope something good sticks or decline?

what would you do?
There is no right or wrong answer here, so I don't think anyone can really offer you advice on whether to do it or not. Take whatever course of action you expect will bring you the most happiness.

However:
my plan would be to start a study of calculus and basic physics and get to something on the lines of Griffith.
"Study of calculus"? How much time are you planning to spend with them?
 
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  • #5
responding as a whole, thanks for responses.

these are rural folks in their 30's that generally did no more than high school but are financially secure as they have enough education to get by in the small town they were born in, went to school in and never left.

we are at the stage that the rest of the world went thru in the 90's with the "what the bleep" movie on QM's.

they are nice people but are into chakra's, alt medicine, crystals and belief in guardian angels watching over them. no doubt just a fad for financially secure 30 somethings.

I don't know how to talk about QM without invoking calculus, what do you talk about, Hilbert Space - I don't think so.

I have all the AV gear needed.

will think on it and post an outline, prolly just discuss experimental foundations and some interesting things re LED's. can easy calculate "h" with LED's.
 
  • #6
houlahound said:
I have been asked to talk about QM to some very eager adults that have a new age bent and have stumbled across QM as some magical thing where you can change the world by thinking about it and collapsing the wave function to a potentiality...blah, blah, yadyada.
OMG. o0)

I think @berkeman is being way too optimistic.

I have a lot of experience with such people (having been raised in a cult of the kind you describe). It took me about 40 years to free my mind from that kind of other-worldly thinking, and from the conviction that there is some kind of meta spiritual plane of existence beyond the physical. Religion, spirituality, afterlife, etc, would be a huge laugh if it were not such a planet-engulfing pandemic from which most people will never escape.

these people are enthusiastic
That's only because they think what you're going to tell them is somehow a deeper journey into their preconceived spiritual nonsense. Therefore they will be very disappointed, possibly even angry, with what you'd actually tell them.

so thinking a response is just the decent thing to do.
I'd advise you resist that kind of thinking. No good deed will go unpunished -- possibly in the form of socially isolating you once they know what you "really" think.

what would you do?
I'd get on with my own life, and let them get on with theirs. You cannot live another person's life for them.

So just send them some links to introductory textbooks. I bet they'll never actually study them, so don't go to too much trouble.
 
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  • #7
strangerep said:
possibly even angry
You can repeat that a thousand times and you would rarely stop being correct.
strangerep said:
possibly in the form of socially isolating you once they know what you "really" think.
You hit the nail again.
strangerep said:
So just send them some links to introductory textbooks. I bet they'll never actually study them, so don't go to too much trouble.
Don't you ever get tired of being correct or most certainly correct?
houlahound said:
this is nothing they want to hear about, do I tell the truth and disappoint, play around a bit and hope something good sticks or decline?

what would you do?
I always disappoint. I'm not being negative, I just explain the stuff like it is. Then I tell them: "I'm sorry I am not one of them scientist/astronomers of the Discovery Channel. But if you which, I can give you some YouTube links so you can more or less watch similar videos. People that may give a more appealing explanation to you. :) Just be aware that appealing explanations will tend to lack a lot of important information and I do not condone inaccurate information. It would be many times better if you use academic books. Which I recommend the best. But if you want appealing videos, YouTube has them."

What would I do? First make it clear that I know nothing of "chakra" or whatever and have never heard of it in academic science books. Only in spiritual books. I would then proceed to explain the role of mathematics to them, but without giving complex equations or terms. Just explaining them on the surface where QM stuff they hear about came from. Just give 1 single theory for contrast. That experiments have been done and a set of observations over those experiments have been documented. Why mathematics concepts are used to explain those QM observations and so on. Like explaining the role of mathematics without even touching numbers or variables. Very basic. Then explain them that to properly understand those observations from experiments and theories, that knowledge in mathematics is required. Knowledge that if they don't currently have, they would need to acquire. But to acquire it, it will require time and effort spent on their parts and that books and probably online problem solving videos would be the best to help understanding such math.

If they decide to study the math required then I would tell them that in PF they could find help. And if I have the time, I can also help them in person. But make it clear to them that the place is heavily moderated to keep it sane. That the moderations are not necessarily bad, but necessary to not go nuts about discussions. To not have a freaking chaos of people talking about stuff that has yet to be proven and having them trying to pass it as true/proven. Also because the discussions of stuff that has yet to be proven could grow very large and ridiculous over time, with lots of fallacies in between and speculations that only give rise to more speculations and so on. Finally, making emphasis that if they come here with a spiritual mentality (the whole chakra and alt medicine thinking) or paranormal mentality, not only will they get warned with very small and short tempered messages, they will probably get banned too very quickly. It is just not the place to talk about those things. That if they want that stuff, there are other websites. Making strong emphasis on the fact to not come here with chakra, spiritual and alternative medicine stuff. Only academic stuff found in science academic books.

I think that if they are really enthusiastic, they will not have a problem with you telling them to study with academic books.

P.S I would probably be a terrible professor when trying to get someone interested in science. I suppose it's a good thing I don't work as a professor.

How was my reply?
a) Good.
b) Meh, more or less.
c) What the heck are you talking about Psinter?
d) That was terrible.
 
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  • #8
^ reply was excellent.

I am losing confidence rapidly in this project. we can't not bump into each other in this town which is great until you don't want to bump into someone. I was hoping some good would accidently come out of it in terms of exposing them to the brutality of the scientific method where ideas get beaten into submission by reality.

glad I dropped by, real glad actually. this task is better done by a stranger that can leave town.

only regret I have is I missed an opportunity for public education of science.
 
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  • #9
houlahound said:
I am losing confidence rapidly in this project.
Don't.

I think first you have to get it out of them what do they expect about this. You can be right and they might just want to feed their beliefs on your account - in this case you can just decline later any time. But there is always some possibility that there is some real interest in there, for something they cannot grab through the folktale 'quantum' stuff. (I think you are already hooked don this anyway...)

Even if there is some real interest, it's impractical to give them any serious QM stuff at their level (for them it would be just the same as the usual folktale 'quantum'), but you can try to sell them slowly the scientific methodology through light(er) stories about the beginning of QM. By my experience it's more effective to hook people through the history of science than by directly through science.
 
  • #10
strangerep said:
Religion, spirituality, afterlife, etc, would be a huge laugh if it were not such a planet-engulfing pandemic from which most people will never escape.

If I said the same thing about atheism, the mentors would infract me.
 
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  • #11
Vanadium 50 said:
If I said the same thing about atheism, the mentors would infract me.
Atheists can believe all those things and many do, not sure an atheist means what you think it means.

Buddhists are atheists and they believe in reincarnation.
 
  • #12
I read Feynman's book QED a couple of years ago and I found it very interesting, maybe you could use some of his ideas and analogies (the little spinning clock arrows). Or even make it like a book club; everyone reads the book and we go through it chapter by chapter meeting once a week...

Or is that too optimistic for your target audience? I think he wrote the book to explain the physics to laymen. Maybe the cachet of saying "Feynman's little book" would be enough to engage a few disciples long enough to get into it?

Otherwise you're stuck with the double-slit woo-woo hand waving "how can the particles be in two places at once when they're really nowhere at all..."

Good luck
 
  • #13
houlahound said:
only regret I have is I missed an opportunity for public education of science.

I'll be the contrarian here- I think if you can engage them without anger/shunning/etc, that's a good thing. I'm assuming that you already know your audience, you have some sort of personal relationship with some or all.

How about this as an approach- can you meet them halfway? You don't have to lend credence to indefensible nonsense, but maybe you can send the message that some of their beliefs are amenable to scientific analysis- and teach them that the scientific method means we look for ideas that fit the data, not look for data that fits the idea. I agree with @Rive, maybe just start with some history, explaining the data that led to QM - the stability of atoms is a good one.
 
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  • #14
houlahound said:
I don't know how to talk about QM without invoking calculus, what do you talk about, Hilbert Space - I don't think so.
It depends on how much time you have, but I'd suggest no math at all. "A Brief History of Time" contains one equation despite Hawkings' publisher's objections that each equation would halve the sales.

You can talk instead about the weird aspects of QM that often get messed up in popular media/understanding. Things like:
1. Is light a wave or particle?
2. Is radioactive decay "random?"
3. Is schroedinger's cat really dead?
4. Does the HUP mean "anything is possible?"

These are all regular questions seen on PF. I'm sure there are more similar ones, but I don't spend much time in the QM forum. My fear is if you talk waaay over their heads, they will learn nothing at all.

If you start with calculus, you are basically suggesting to spend thousands of hours teaching an entire college physics curriculum.

...and I often get the impression on PF that really smart people have trouble talking down near the level of the audience, or think learning is all or nothing: that unless you learn everything, you have learned nothing. That really isn't the case. Learning the facts about reality, even if you don't learn the math describing/explaining those facts is still a plus.
 
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  • #15
russ_watters said:
Learning the facts about reality, even if you don't learn the math describing/explaining those facts is still a plus.

If you were to google scientific literacy you would find that it is usually assessed by determining what scientific facts people know and maybe if they can properly apply that information.in a useful way.

russ_watters said:
...and I often get the impression on PF that really smart people have trouble talking down near the level of the audience, or think learning is all or nothing: that unless you learn everything, you have learned nothing

I too think some would like to take it further like being able to do science at least in an elementary way but I am doubtful that is attainable in all but a small segment of the population.

Certainly we are better off if more people know more scientific facts but these "new age" people are probably looking for scientific validation of their beliefs rather than an understanding of QM.
 
  • #16
IMO something that happens FAR too much these days (on both sides of the political aisle) is agenda-driven "science". Rather than basing conclusion on facts, people enter a scientific discussion, debate, fact-finding exploration, etc. with their mind already made up and try to twist the facts to fit what they want to believe. What I know about quantum mechanics can be inscribed on the head of a pin with a dull butter knife, but I suspect this situation will become a prime example of my above-stated premise.
 
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  • #17
have been busy dodging the issue but I was impressed, one lady found a free PDF version of Ballantine and is actually reading it and asked for suggestions on what math text would help decode it.
 
  • #18
I'd second looking at Feynman's popularisations - he gave a series of QED lectures for laymen (no equations, IIRC), which may give some clues on how to talk about it.
Lectures are here:
http://vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8
There's also another series of his public lectures (1st is here:)

These are more about QM in general. Maybe more in the vein of what you'd talk about.

All give nice insights, in simple language. But the most valuable thing about them, IMO, is to see his approach to talking to people without formal education in the subject. He's never dismissive, and he's always clear about where he 'cheats' to make the message understandable.

At worst you can just tell your group to watch these.

houlahound said:
have been busy dodging the issue but I was impressed, one lady found a free PDF version of Ballantine and is actually reading it and asked for suggestions on what math text would help decode it.
Cue five years later, and there's a sudden spike in physics graduates in your town. ;)
 
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  • #19
houlahound said:
have been busy dodging the issue but I was impressed, one lady found a free PDF version of Ballantine and is actually reading it and asked for suggestions on what math text would help decode it.

Have you asked about her math background?
 
  • #20
You have lay people in your town that actually want to hear you tell them what you think? If I were you, I would go there and tell them actual real ideas from physics. Teach them real physics. Find the most fascinating idea you can, and bring it to them as an alternatively interesting topic that isn't a lie.
 

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