Monday, February 14, 2011

Guest post: Why saying "I don't know" is my best Q-and-A tool

(Editor's note: Museum educator Emily Finke writes the blog This View of Life. Her latest post, "Elements of an Effective Public Education Toolkit," is really about handling those questions that come at you from left field or out of the blue--and for which you just don't have an answer. Rather than dismiss the question, give a snarky or flip answer or get defensive, she takes the time in this post to talk through why and how you should make "I don't know" part of your Q-and-A arsenal.  (I put "I don't know" at the top of my list of the 6 strongest speaker statements, so this post resonated with me.) A hat tip to Kathleen O'Neil for pointing me to the post, and to Finke for her gracious permission to reprint it here.)

The world of a museum educator is a fly by the seat of your pants endeavour. No matter how much education and experience you have in one field, the museum visitors to whom you talk aren’t going to stick to that field. You could be innocently talking about calcium formations in caves when Bam! Out of nowhere you’ll be asked about the use of caves for shelter, food storage and black powder production in the civil war. And that’s the most relevant question you’ll get. Most of them will be more along the lines of “So, what do you think about von Däniken’s ideas about aliens?” or “I heard that Jesus was actually born in a cave, not a barn” or “Batman lives in a cave! There are BATS! Are you Batgirl?” (Usually the last is from a five year old who will then go on to ask you a complicated question about adaptations to bat senses which allow them to live in caves.

Sometimes you’ll have an answer. Strangely, I’m probably better equipped to answer most Biblical literalism questions than most creationists. Sometimes there is no good answer and you’ll be left thinking. Von Däniken, really? Did they really just quote Chariots of the Gods at me? Really?

However, there will always be a question that is perfectly valid and pretty interesting. The moment they ask, you’ll wish you knew the answer. Partially for knowledge, but partially to reward the visitor for asking such a good question. But you won’t know the answer. And that’s okay.
The most important tool in a science communicator’s arsenal is the ability to say “I don’t know, but here’s where you can find out” or some variation on that. It’s also one of the most difficult things to learn how to say. My colleagues at the museum are a group of highly educated, fairly young professionals who have ended up here through a wide variety of paths. They know their fields backwards and forwards, and are usually pretty good at speaking with the public about them. However, they are mostly young enough that their primary method of learning and reporting has been as the student part of a student-teacher relationship.

This has a huge impact on the way they present information. They are used to working in a very narrow field with people who are actual experts in said field. They never really heard “I don’t know” coming from their professors, so they don’t immediately consider that a valid answer.

Instead, they will treat a visitor’s question in the same way they treat an essay exam – as if they have to give some answer, no matter how tangential or speculative. The ability to say “I don’t know” has never been an acceptable answer in their life before, so why should it be now?

This is a problem, and one I see repeatedly among young educators and communicators. They know that their position has changed from a theoretical position, but they haven’t made the transition to “expert” from “student”. They don’t quite realize that everything they say while on the museum floor is going to be approached by the visitor as gospel truth. They are “the authority” according to the people who walk through our doors.

To highlight this idea, I have to tell a story that one of my friends told me. When I first started at this museum, my friend Cel was in art school. Now Celia is truly a renaissance woman, who aside from being talented in art, is also an incredibly logical thinker and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Unfortunately for her friends who don’t quite share that ability, she also has deadpan delivery of the most ridiculous statements down pat. While she was at art school she managed to convince several of her roommates that there were “giant, human-sized preying mantises” that lived in the sewers of New York. The evidence that she used to support this was that “her friend who worked in a museum” told her it was true.

This story is interesting from a couple points of view. First of all, the fact that she assumed that they would immediately know it was ridiculous because of course human-sized praying mantises couldn’t exist. Non-aquatic invertebrates just don’t get to that size! Those of us with even the smallest background in sciences generally take it for granted that people outside of the field will know these basic facts, when that is just not true. The second interesting idea is that they accepted that of course the girl who worked in a museum was a valid authority, not knowing anything about me. Heck, I could have been working at a modern art museum for all they knew.

I bring up that story because it’s one that has stuck with me since it was told to me. I have always had a tendency to use sarcasm and humor to get my point across. If I considered something a ridiculous question, then I would answer in kind*. Or if a question was out of my realm of knowledge, I would speculate based on half-remembered facts and concepts. I shudder now to look back at the things that 18 year old me told people because I didn’t know that there was a better answer. Things that those people might still believe and be telling others.

It took me years to be able to honestly say “I don’t know the answer to that question” gracefully and without embarrassment, and it’s the single biggest accomplishment in my ability to explain the intricacies of the world at a basic and intelligible level. It also took me years to be able to not assume that concepts that were basic to me (laws of superposition, natural selection, etc.) were not basic to people who had studied something other than a hard science, or to people who had spent their lives learning how to run a business or do a trade. However, that didn’t mean that they were dumb or not interested. It just meant that those ideas had never come up.

My current ability to explain at an effective level owes much to my ability to switch between a student role and a teacher role. In the student role I am a researcher, learning from other people and from the world itself. I’m always trying to expand my breadth of knowledge in order to be able to answer whatever question is thrown at me. In the teacher role, I am conscious that what I am saying may not be interpreted in the way I was saying it, and that making up something or using a silly answer to bunt a question so that I don’t look ignorant isn’t the most effective way to create a more knowledgeable population. Admitting ignorance and then giving them the tools to find the answer themselves will be much more effective in the long run.

My Public Education Toolkit

1. Explain things from a position of knowledge, but don’t go beyond that knowledge without checking your facts. If you can give someone an idea of where to look for an answer to their question, then you’re not failing them by saying “I don’t know.” In fact, you’re probably engaging them further in their own process of learning than you would if you just spouted out a fact.

2. Explain things at a basic level, but not in a way that is talking down at the visitor, particularly if you’re speaking to a group. One-on-one you have an opportunity to ask specific questions to find out their knowledge level. In a group, you don’t have that ability. My favorite method for this is to engage the children in the group in a Q and A. If you get them to explain things, then the adults feel good that their children are smart, plus they’re probably learning along with the kids.

Both Radiolab and Science Friday on public radio provide great examples of how to explain complicated concepts on a layperson-friendly level. Also, I’ve been repeatedly known to steal wholesale from Carl Zimmer’s explanations (with citation!) when talking to visitors. If you find an explanation that works, don’t be afraid to use it! Chances are, your visitors don’t read science blogs or popular science literature. And if they do, then they’ll recognize and be able to engage with you on that level!

3. Humor/sarcasm can be used, but it has to be used carefully. If you make a visitor feel bad about what they don’t know, then you’ve lost all ability to communicate with them. If you make them feel like they’re in on the joke, then you’ll probably be able to engage them on a more in-depth level, and they’ll probably go away from the discussion remembering the humor and therefore the concept.

*E.G.: to the question “You know how St. Peter said ‘and on this rock you will build my church?’ Well, I was wondering what kind of rock that was.” my instinctive answer was “Pumice. Because it’s holey”. However, the visitor was asking a serious, if misinformed on many levels, question. And by answering in a serious way, I might have helped him at least straighten out the question he was asking in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had given the humorous answer.

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