Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey with her father through the world of physics and how she crash landed in a career as a science journalist. Early on in the book she describes how she and her father connected through science, with a quick passage that I think many of us can relate to. “As a dogmatically skeptical teenager, I had my own Zen-like practice of zoning out when adults offered me advice, but when it came to my father I listened—maybe because when he spoke it sounded less like an authoritarian command and more like the confession of a secret. It is all an illusion. Now here he was speaking in the same quietly intense tone, leaning in so as not to let the other diners overhear, asking me how I’d define nothing.”
Gefter’s quote about her dad really resonates with me. We all want to be included in important discussions and we all want to feel that we are on the inside of a secret. A way to connect with people and spark their interest in science and challenging subjects, is to pose challenging and almost paradoxical questions in a way that encourages wild answers and gives the other person a chance to be part of the secret inside team trying to find the best possible answer. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and many of the best engage with their audience in this way. They may not be in the same room washing dishes with me or in the car driving down the freeway with me, but they still manage to pose a question which sounds simple, but requires deep and complex thought. Personally I think the public in general needs to be more engaged with science and scientific thinking, but in particular, this is something we need to instill in our children from a young age. Gefter, as an teenage outsider, was inspired by her father’s questions about science in a way that she was not inspired by her actual classes at school.
The way we speak with kids and teenagers is important. I do not have kids, but I did coach cross country and track and field as I worked through my undergraduate degree, and I hope to find a way to get back to working with high school students in the future. Gefter’s quote shows us the importance of how we craft messages to teenagers. The content alone is not enough to inspire teenagers and if we have a lesson or a message that we think is crucial for them, we must find a way to brand that message so that it is not an authoritarian command driving them to zone out and ignore us. We must take our important messages and lessons and communicate them in a way that is interesting and in a way that allows teenagers to investigate for themselves and begin to build their own abilities to reason with the world. Gefter’s father was a radiologist, and as a medically trained scientist he had the authority to speak on various science topics, but he did not just throw answers at his daughter like knives shooting through her doubt to tear her faulty reasoning apart, he invited her to offer answers and theories, and then invited her to work through her thoughts with him.
Whether we speak with teenagers, toddlers, or grown adults, I think the message holds. Invite curiosity and place your ego in the back seat. Do not challenge your audience with difficult scientific questions just to demonstrate your superior knowledge of a subject, but rather use challenging questions to show the complexity and vast beauty of unknown science. Invite your listener to be part of the secret team trying to think through the challenges of our time.