In 2007, Canadian writer Yann Martel became puzzled about what made then relatively new Canadian PM Stephen Harper tick. This as a result of a visit to Ottawa on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Council for the Arts, where Harper didn’t show. Yann Martel then decided to send Stephen Harper a novel of his own choice, at his own expense, every two weeks. You can read more about this interesting initiative here and here. “I don’t know how you can be a thinking person and never read literature” was one of Martel’s explanations for his initiative. After nearly four years, Martel stopped building the PM’s library.
We are nearly seven years further. Stephen Harper is still Prime Minister of Canada and not only has there been a slash-and-burn of cultural infrastructure under his reign, his government has launched nothing but a killer attack on Canadian science. In the minds of Stephen Harper and his cabinet, scientists are spoiled ivory tower star gazers without an ounce of practicality or realism. They need to be brought down to earth and produce research that is applicable (in the short term) and helps “business”.
Intelligent and articulate protests have erupted as a reaction to this dumbing down of the Canadian knowledge infrastructure. Two initiatives stand out: the efforts to try to save the Experimental Lakes Area from being rolled up and the “Evidence for Democracy” initiative. I applaud, cheer and support these initiatives wholeheartedly.
What can the individual do faced with so much blatant ignorance and contempt for knowledge? What makes this PM and his ministers tick? Do they have any clue at all about how knowledge evolves?
Then it struck me: Yann Martel provided us with a model. So I’m going to be a bit of a copycat and I hope he won’t mind. Here is my plan:
On this blog, I will discuss a geoscientific article from peer-reviewed literature once a month starting this month (Dec. 2013) and continuing at least until the next Federal election in 2015. My discussion will be aimed at the general public. My goal is to discuss the article in the context of fundamental scientific as well as societal relevance. The article’s first author will be a Canadian scientist based in Canada. Preferably, the journal will be Canadian as well, but not necessarily. The article will be less than 5 years old.
I will attempt to cover the earth sciences in the broadest sense: my academic training is in geology, physical geography and marine sciences, so I am supposed to have the intellectual tools. I am not judging these papers. What I think of them is completely irrelevant – the eventual collection will – hopefully – be an decent cross section of Canadian earth science research, no more, no less.
As I thought about the model for this series, I realized I had developed one myself earlier. When I taught (sedimentology, stratigraphy, oceanography), one of the assignments I gave my students was called the “Chinese grandmother” assignment, a.k.a “Harvey’s hitch hike home”. The students were given the task to select a scientific paper less than 15 years old and less than 15 pages long from one of 5 different journals that I picked. They were to summarize the paper in their own words in less than 2 pages (12 point, double spacing).
The exercise was designed as a method to help them understand research papers: if you can explain the paper to your roommate who majors in political science, you probably understand it.
I called it the “Chinese grandmother assignment” because in the days before live streaming and skype, I had a brilliant Chinese PhD student in my program who taught me an important lesson: at the university in question, the defending candidate was required to present his/her work to the general audience (the family and friends) before the committee arrived. This student had a friend with a video camera ready – he looked at the audience, explained that his biggest fan had been his grandmother and that he was going to present his work to his grandmother (in China) because she sadly couldn’t be at his defense. He then looked into the video camera and managed to explain a complex topic in computer science in crystal clear manner (in English, thank goodness).
What an example! I named my assignment after him. Years later, I met a geologist (first name Harvey) who told me that, during the years that he was working on his PhD, he would hitch hike home on weekends and that the friendly drivers who gave him a lift always asked him about his research. Thus, he got to talk about his research to complete strangers in the relative quiet of a car for about an hour and he was sure that these exchanges helped him greatly during his research.
And so, I have a model: this is my own Chinese grandmother / Harvey’s hitch hike exercise. I hope I will do as well as my students did over the years – I hope I can live up to their expectations.
I found the first paper – I better start reading.