How does it feel to engage with Science?
20 years ago I wrote a book called Talking Science: how we use the language of science to describe, explain, design, investigate, teach, learn, reason, read, and write. Later on, I also wrote about how science integrates language with mathematics and graphs, tables, charts, maps, diagrams, and images.
But all that was about the meanings we make with words, images, and equations. It left out how we feel about them, how we feel about doing science and using its tools. Feelings are important in themselves, but also because they guide our judgments: about what research to do, what solution or design to try, whether an idea seems likely or not, a fact important or not, a procedure comfortable or not, an approach attractive or not.
At a recent conference on the Learning Sciences in Chicago, I tried to deal with just one part of the role of feelings in science: how we feel about images, equations, and a wide range of representations in science. I began by recalling that a lot of us got interested in science early on because of the feelings we had for dinosaurs and galaxies – things we experienced through awe-inspiring reconstructions and computer-enhanced photographs.
Most scientific images today are products of both data and human esthetic choices about to render that data in ways that highlight it meanings, but also in ways that engage our feelings. This is nothing new in science, as the famous drawings of bird species by Audubon easily remind us.
Not all the feelings we have about scientific images are pleasant ones, but they can certainly be very powerful ones:
We have feelings for and about the modes of representation (e.g. visual vs. mathematical), the media (diagrams vs 3D models), the technologies (print vs. video), the genres (topographic maps, star charts, chemical formulas, etc.), and even the individual styles in which these are rendered. Usually in science these come as packages, so it does not make sense to try to separate out our feelings for say a medium or a technology in the abstract. We don’t feel in the abstract; we feel as we experience real, concrete instances.
How we feel about scientific images or scientific tools, how we feeling in using them (comfortable or not? pleasurable or not? appropriate? proud? inspired? mystified? frustrated?) is part of our identity as a scientist or just as a person who encounters these images, tools, and ideas. What do we identify with? What do we distance ourselves from? Learning science, even in school, is not just about learning to reason like a scientist, it is also about learning to feel like one, even if only in some limited ways.
Feelings, which may also be called more elegantly affects or just emotions, are generally ignored, denied, or pushed to the side in the teaching of science (and mathematics) and in school curricula. But they are fundamentally important for motivation, for long-term memory, for developing attitudes, for career choice, for decision-making, and in fact for scientific reasoning itself. All reasoning requires choices, choices depend on values, values are grounded in or appear to us as feelings. Judgment and evaluation are fundamental to science, and both depend critically on feelings.
Feelings are not animal instincts; in human beings, at least, they are also learned and cultured. Feelings of appropriateness and moral rightness, of guilt or pride, are learned, built on top of whatever basic capacity for emotional response our biology gives us. So also with “a feeling for the organism” in biology (in the famous phrase of Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock), or a feeling for the pathways of complex organic chemistry reactions, or for the world of quantum physics.
Feelings, like meanings, usually come to us through our engagement with words, images, sounds, and hands-on experiences. A famous chemist once told me that I couldn’t understand chemistry just by manipulating equations; I had to “smell” it and see it in the laboratory. I needed, in other words, to get a feel for it. No less obviously, we have feelings about meanings (ideas, proposals, explanations). Maybe we ought to say that how we feel when we make sense of something is an inseparable part of the meaning we make, of the activity of making that meaning?
And so feeling is also fundamental to learning, to development, to education. And not just in science. Why do we so often try to pretend that it isn’t? Well, that’s another story.