Communication & Rhetoric of Science

Seeing v. Hearing Science: Communicating and Constructing Science with American Sign Language

In today’s schools there are often competing accounts of natural phenomena, especially when schools are located in multicultural communities.

-William Cobern & Cathleen Loving from Defining ”Science’ in a Multicultural World: Implications for Science Education (2000)

Discussions about science communication commonly focus on the problems of written and spoken language. And, in many current

debates about the problem of scientific communication, that language is English. It begs the question: When scientific universals are established in aparticular language, how are these facts reshaped and metabolized by another tongue? What if there is no tongue, but rather fingers and hands?

Saussure's schema of the sign from:

Saussure’s schema of the sign from:

I came across a blog post today on that briefly examined the problems surrounding science education in classrooms to deaf students. Because all spoken (and written) communication revolves around the–seemingly–simple relationship between words and their signified ideas or concepts, it is taken for granted that there are a jumble of letters within each word making up the phonetic sound, which is ultimately how we derive meaning. But when you do not have the ability to hear those spoken, value-laden sounds, how do you learn, especially in a classroom setting? (outside the written communication of language).

In ASL, the article says, concepts like “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” must be spelled out one letter at a time.

A cadre of scholars at the University of Washington, along with a group of ASL students, are working on fashioning an efficient language for educating science, and specifically how to communicate and teach science that deaf students need to know in order to succeed in national standardized tests and in initiatives like STEM.

As I read the article a “problem” surfaced to my mind: I wondered about what is lost in the “representation” of phenomena by way of verbatim ASL? A better way to ask, I think, is: What scientific knowledge is constructed by this unique form of communication? What new ways of–literally–seeing science does ASL offer that common spoken and written English misses or lacks? Additionally, how does lacking the sensation of hearing affect the way science is not only learned, but experienced and practiced? This, of course, considering you agree that science is ultimately relevant and rooted in a sensual experience of the world…

It is too simplistic to think that scientific concepts and facts are communicated universally and understood unilaterally. Language represents the world through the lens of the speaker’s unique subjective perception and culture. A universal truth may be assimilated (i.e. gravity and truth of the phenomenon of falling from 30,000 feet) into any language as an idea, but how does the cognitive-, cultural-, and linguistic anatomy of that language frame and refract the concept onto the plane of the listener’s mind?

I’ll close with an excerpt from an article written by William Cobern and Cathleen Loving: 

Is science universal? Only recently has this question been given any serious consider- ation at all. In the tradition of science as practiced in the West for the past 300 years, and in the tradition of school science, the answer has been, “Of course science is universal.”…No one disputes that without an airplane of fairly conventional description, a person at 30,000 feet is in serious trouble. The question of universality does not arise over the phenomena of falling. The question of universality arises over the fashion of the propositions given to account for the phenomena of falling, the fashion of the discourse through which we communicate our thoughts about the phenomena, and the values we attach to the phenomena itself and the various ways we have of understanding and accounting for the phenomena — including the account offered by a standard scientific description.

The question is whether or not we are willing to see and acknowledge ASL as a sort of culture, a unique way of engaging not only science, but the phenomenal world of daily sensual experiences.

-Jason Abdilla

7 thoughts on “Seeing v. Hearing Science: Communicating and Constructing Science with American Sign Language

  1. Accepting ASL and its “sub-culture” may not necessarily be the question at hand (IMHO), I believe that those who are “truly” successful at science will be just that. If I am not mistaken, some of the latest research seems to show that the fetus (as long as it is healthy ?) will understand its mother during the third trimester onwards.

    So by my reasoning–if the parents are the first to influence the child–then deafness might only a stumbling block imposed upon the “child” by virture of the society that requires him/her to hear to be able to succeed in science.

    I have been under the impression that science is universal–so it is up to the parent to help the child to acclimate to the best of his/her ability. Isn’t education about learning to understand and function under many adverse conditions? Having a disability should not preclude success–if we were true to our values.

    I hope I have not strayed to far afield?

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’m actually struggling to understand your argument. When you say that being successful in science is “just that” do you mean that successful scientists have arrived at that place because they were able to overcome all odds and get there on their own?

    Also, could you clarify what you mean by the parents and culture imposing deafness on the “child”? Is that kind of saying that “deafness” is only a construct and not a limitation to success?

    I feel like there’s a lot packed in what you said, I’m just wrestling with the way you worded it.

    Looking forward to your response!

  3. I am sorry for my lack of clarity. I truly believe that parents are a child’s first teachers–and as I stated, deafness is a disability which (IMO) is a major stumbling block to success in the sciences.

    Children (at least from my memory)–are naturally curious—might be viewed as “small scientists” –they possess all of the innocence and drive that is wondrous and “exceptional.” Adults lay expectations that are forged by what (at times) may be unrealistic–everyone does not “fall” naturally under the gaussian curve. The unfortunate term “outlier” is used to designate those few who might otherwise be gifted–but have a disability (i.e deafness, blindness, dumb). We as a functioning “normal” do not have the patience to “quickly” and intelligently act (or react) to those which we may not understand as having a disability.

    By virtue of how society views “normal”–it is (and would be) tortuous to attempt to raise a child with a disability (i.e. deaf, blind, or dumb) and expect them to become a “successful” scientist. However, who are we as a compassionate society to want to tell a child that they cannot aspire to whatever they dream they can aspire to?

    In short, I am attempting to state (rather clumsily) that in an even playing field, disbilities are only an obstacle in a race to the finish –the disablity does not have to preclude success.

    It certainly does take a village . . .


  4. Hi John,

    Well stated! It’s a question of equity of content and training in science education, then.

    Because science is such a specialized field, it takes a certain level of creative genius and intelectual stamina to stake your place and make your mark. In order to empower those with disabilities, the current paradigm around science education needs to broaden to include those who don’t have the facility of fully operating senses on their side. And for this to happen, what you suggest is needed: a cultural shift in perception and values on what limitations to success in science are.

    It currently isn’t recognized–at least to my limited knowledge–that disabilities are an issue of equity/equality in science (though I imagine it is written about extensively, I just don’t see institutions working diligently to change). I think this results from a lingering Darwinian idea that you simply have to be strong to succeed; and a disability is–“unfortunately”–a weakness that science cannot help with.

    So yes, it takes a village of people willing to change the culture around science to see these issues adequately handled.


  5. Pingback: Weekly Round-up (Dec 15-21, 2012) | scicommnetwork

  6. Fascinating discussion gentlemen, and good article. I am curious, if you don’t mind, about your comment that raising a disabled child would be torturous? Not offended by it, just curious as to what your perceptions surrounding that concept are. As a mother to a deaf son, I have to say he has been undeniably the greatest experience of my life, precisely because he has taught me to experience things (including science) in new ways.

  7. Great point/question Lisa. After spending time in education research the question of disabilities and equity/equality in science is lacking, or if there is a discourse, it is shadowed by STEM and the race to the top of global science/tech education. Thanks again for churning up thought!

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