All Stories

Ever Wonder About Unicorns and Scientific Literacy?

Unicorns are not usually the subject of scientific discussion, but David Ng is not a usual discusser of science. As Director of the AMBL at UBC, he celebrates geekiness and studies PUS (public understanding of science), particularly as it involves art and science. 

He led a scientific literacy workshop at the Literasian festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian writing, which I attended. He recounted how a tween-aged girl once asked him three questions, which he later realized summarize the main facets of scientific literacy.

The first question was, "ARE unicorns real?"

If someone asks something like this, they might be cheeky or they might be sincere. A sincere response would be "probably not." An explanation of this would include discussions of how scientists evaluate evidence with an understanding of statistics and probability. According to philosopher Karl Popper, a scientific idea needs to be testable, although restricting science to this can be limiting. Surveys of the general public in the US indicate only about 30% understand science as a process. Canada and the rest of the world could do better also.

Scientists like Daniel Kahneman work on how people think, and the research shows that we are unconsciously susceptible to many biases. The rigor of scientific evaluation of evidence is an attempt to counter such biases. However, these days, the unprecedented access to nonsense on the internet can make evaluation of evidence challenging. Sometimes information is misrepresented through ignorance, at other times through political, commercial or ideological motives. Still, given the evidence we have accumulated so far, there is little to no chance that unicorns are real.

The second question was, "COULD unicorns be real?"

Answering this requires an application of scientific knowledge. How to apply scientific knowledge in this case depends on the specifics. Are we talking some kind of horse-like creature with a horn in its head? Evolution is contingent and not every thing that could be, is. So, perhaps horses might find some evolutionary reason to grow horns in a few thousand years. A unicorn that can jump over rainbows and spontaneously generate glitter, however, would violate the law of conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics, which significantly reduces the likelihood of such a unicorn in our world. Ng has played with the evolutionary biology of the unicorn here and here.

The third question was, "WHAT IF unicorns were real?"

This answer could go in many directions. Attempting to answer this can lead to ways that science can be seen as a part of modern culture, which is something Ng seems particularly interested in, but which is not so commonly addressed. Fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, often explores what if questions. This reminded me of how unexpected or discrepant events in science demonstrations get people thinking about what is actually going on.

Increasing the public understanding of science can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, science-flavoured shows like Big Bang Theory or science fiction movies may be popular without really increasing the understanding of science. On the other hand, I have recently enjoyed some science-related storytelling events, like Anecdotal Evidence and Nerd Nite, but maybe they attract people who are already into science.

I am in this game mostly for my own amusement, but what do you think are some good ways to improve the public understanding of science?

Use a discrepant event to spark an inquiry. In these balloon demonstrations ordinary balloons suddenly become fireproof or impossible to inflate. Engage learners with these unexpected results then let them explore and figure out that air has mass, takes up space, and is easier to heat than water.