Outreach 2: How to Say "I Don't Know"

Uploaded by NightSkyNetwork on 19.02.2010

Hi! I'm Joan Graham, your guide to Sharing the Universe,
our series of outreach training videos, produced by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
In this episode, "How to Say 'I Don't Know'", we tell you how to cope
when you get a question that you just don't know the answer to.
As an outreach presenter, you get to introduce the public to the joys of astronomy. You have
a great deal of knowledge and people can benefit from your experience. But one of the big fears
that many amateur astronomers have is this:
"What if some over-achiever asks me a question I can't answer"
Let's hear how some amateur astronomers handle the fear of not knowing the answer.
I always just make something up.
I can run away faster than the audience.
It's not a problem. I'll be ready to talk to the public as soon as I know everything.
Fear not, amateur astronomers! It's true, you may not know
know everything there is to know about the huge expanse of the universe. But
knowing all the answers doesn't have to be the focus of your mission as an outreach astronomer.
The most important thing about outreach is not that you can recite, verbatim, the name of each and
every lunar crater,
the distance to every messier object, or
the physics of a supernova explosion.
Surprising, right? You are there to inspire! A mentor! Not an encyclopedia!
Outreach is a process of discovery and an opportunity for you to learn too!
If you don't know the answer, here's what you can do:
Share what you do know, then,
Offer visitors a way to find out more.
Visitors often ask questions as a way to engage, not because they need (or even want) a specific answer.
This is a chance to discover their real interests.
So, if someone surprises you with a question that you just don't know the answer to:
Don't panic! It's okay that you don't know the exact answer.
Don't make up an answer! You do not want to dig yourself a hole made of misinformation.
If you can, give the audience a related answer. You might be able to enlighten them in a truthful,
more general way that leaves them interested and excited about astronomy.
Often, this is exactly what they want!
You can find out by asking them questions to get them talking.
If you're completely lost, refer the visitor to another astronomer, or direct them to other resources.
Let's see what happens when you make up an answer:
So now, does anyone have any questions?
(Offstage): How big are the telescopes on that mountain in Hawaii?
Um...ah...uh, this big? (holding arms wide).
No. Bigger. Or smaller. You know? Supersize.
Yikes! As you can see, it's not a good idea to try and concoct an answer.
Instead of fumbling with a made-up answer, you can always direct the visitor to other resources.
Let's see how that's done:
Well, I know the diameter of their mirrors is a lot bigger than mine,
which means they gather a lot more light.
But let's go ask Maria. She knows a lot about the big research telescopes.
Great job! He gave an answer which put the question in context,
using information he already knew, and then offered the visitor - and himself - a way to find out more.
Let's look at another example:
We are looking at our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda...
(Offstage): How long would it take for a spaceship to fly there?
I...I... I don't know!
Ouch! There's no need to panic.
Try sharing the general principles that you do know,
using terms that are easy to understand. Then engage the visitor
in a conversation and discover what the visitor's interests are.
Like this:
(Offstage): How long would it take for a spaceship fly there?
That is a cool question! I know we couldn't travel there in our lifetime because
it takes millions of years just for light to travel between here and there.
Tell me about your interest in space travel.
Exactly! He shares the knowledge he has, and keeps the visitor engaged in the
conversation by asking them a question in return.
Now, here's one more question that should sound familiar:
We're looking at a cluster of young stars...
(Offstage): How far away are they?
Huh? I don't have a clue! I couldn't possibly know the distance to everything out there!
Uh oh.
That pretty much closed off the conversation.
Remember, if you dont know the exact distance, it's okay!
Even if you could provide the exact answer,
it might not mean anything to your visitor!
Instead, here's a really cool analogy
you can use to answer that question.
Whether you know the actual distance in light years or not.
We're looking at a cluster of young stars...
How far away are they?
Well, since the cluster is here in our own Milky Way galexy,
it's less than one hundred thousand light years away.
Here. Hold out your hand,
let's shrink the solar system,
the sun, and all the planets, so that it would fit in the palm of your hand.
The star cluster would be at least a few miles away,
on that scale.
(Off screen) Wow, space is big!
It sure is.
What else have you seen tonight?
He really gave the visitors something interesting to think about.
Remember, it's more important to engage,
than to give exact answers.
And with a little practice, you too can learn to deal
with any question thrown at you.
Okay, let's recap the steps.
Unanswerable question. Oh no!
Do not panic. Don't make up an answer.
Instead, give related information that you do know.
Including general knowledge, to give context to their question.
And then invlove them in a conversation
by asking them a question; get them talking.
Or, give the questioner a way to find out the answer.
This might mean giving them a handout, or suggesting how to
find more information at the library or online.
You may want to guide the visitor to another expert.
Remember, no one knows everything.
What you can do, is keep your visitors engaged.
Inspire them, and you, to find out more.
Feel free to send this to all your friends and colleagues.
Or simply tell them to visit...
Be sure to check out the full set of
Sharing the Universe outreach training videos
for more tips on successful public outreach.
Thanks for listening.