How to give myself a remedial science education
March 24, 2015 1:38 AM   Subscribe

So I was recently faced with a serious health care decision, and the people advising me strongly disagreed with each other, which made me realize something: I don't know enough science to make well-reasoned decisions for myself and my family. Help me figure out a DIY way to make up the gaps.

Though I went to college, I took limited biology, physics and general math, and never took any chemistry or statistics. When I've had to make decisions about health, personal environment (i.e. is the BPA in the canned food or the VOCs in our paint a health issue?), or the larger environment (i.e. do I vote as if GMOs/climate change/dams are a problem?), I have done one of two things. One, I look on PubMed and Google Scholar for studies on the topic and try to understand the abstracts, and two, I find someone who appears credible and better-educated than me, and I take their word for it.

However, when it comes to things about which I have to make decisions, whether that be at the grocery store or the ballot box, I wish I could reason through the issues myself -- if only a little bit.

So I want a DIY science education. I figure it will take a few years. What I imagine myself studying is Chemistry 101, Statistics 101, how to read a journal article, and then a biology/ecology spree -- I really want to better understand ecosystems, ranging from the very big to the very small.

Which brings me to my questions for the hive:

1. What fields besides chemistry, statistics, biology and ecology are crucial for an adult to understand? I know that black holes and Higgs Boson particles are fascinating, but generally nobody's asking me to take them to the doctor or vote on them.

2. What could help me structure my educational plan? Maybe a high school homeschooling resource that could help me figure out what to study and in what order? If not, do any of you have a suggestion about how to best go about structuring a project like this?

3. What educational materials should I get? I don't like "Dummies" style books and don't have the self-discipline to read textbooks by myself, but would love to get recommendations for other books, audiobooks, online courses, YouTube video series, podcasts etc that you found educational or inspiring.

Thanks AskMe!
posted by feets to Education (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at Crash Course on YouTube. They have a ton of content that would probably serve as a good start.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:38 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I recommend a nutrition 101 class - not a book on dieting or weird diets, but legit nutrition course for med/nursing majors. It'll get into basic biological/chemical structures, how the body works etc. From there you may be interested in an anatomy/phys course/book to get more info. These can give you basic background to help you interpret medical advice.
posted by Toddles at 2:58 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A nutrition course might be a good idea if I can find one online. I forgot to say that, for reasons of time and money, taking real college courses isn't on the table. Otherwise that would be the easiest and most straightforward way to get stuff done.
posted by feets at 4:15 AM on March 24, 2015

I'd start with AP-level science texts (e.g., AP Chemistry, AP Biology), and then get a college-freshman or sophomore texts (e.g., Cell biology, organic chemistry). These can be purchased used on amazon quite cheaply. There are usually a lot of reviews on amazon, too, which can help you find the ones that are useful and well-written.

You can also check out Schaum's outlines, which are relatively inexpensive paperbacks summarizing focused topics. They are great because they have questions and answers, which can help you learn on your own.

The main thing is to be able to sniff out "bullshit" in scientific papers -- when their conclusions aren't strongly supported by statistics, or make no physical sense, etc.

It takes practice and patience.

Good luck!
posted by amy27 at 4:38 AM on March 24, 2015

posted by pracowity at 5:24 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi, I studied biochemistry in undergrad, and this is super cool. You've got the physical sciences pretty well covered. I'd also add microeconomics, sociology, and cognitive science. Sad to say, many questions of "science" are decided more by human factors than Debating the Facts.

For microeconomics, if you're not up for a straight-up textbook, try "Naked Economics" and "The Undercover Economist". For cognitive science, try "Thinking, Fast and Slow". Sadly, don't have a good sociology book. Feel free to post back with recommendations.

Unfortunately, if you've ruled out textbooks and college classes, I can't help you with the chemistry and biology. But if you're interested in health risks and ecological impact, I would recommend you focus on organic chemistry and biological chemistry.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:38 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Were the people advising you doctors? I find the best course is to have a doctor you trust to inform you, since no amount of Khan Academy will give you an MD. A good one will be able to discuss and explain anything you find on PubMed.
posted by yarly at 5:41 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, in medicine, a key thing that you do have to understand is risk v benefit. Your doctor should be able to inform you about risks and benefits, but you have to think for yourself about how to interpret them. For example a lot of lay people think a 1/1000 risk is low, when it is actually quite high if the risk is for something really bad lijw death.
posted by yarly at 5:44 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd highly recommend Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" as an easy jumping-off point. You won't get the depth that you're ultimately after, but it will absolutely give you a firm foundation from which to start in a very wide variety of disciplines.
posted by richmondparker at 6:02 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

A great all-in-one resource we started with in college was Science and Its Ways of Knowing.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:16 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding A Short History of Nearly Everything. When I first read it, I was fascinated but retained only about 2% of the information. Now I read it every year and am constantly (re)discovering fascinating insights into how the world works.

I took an intro to Anatomy and Physiology course for my massage therapy license about 2 years ago, and I highly recommend EVERYONE take an A&P class as an adult. It's an extremely relatable way to rediscover science (we all have bodies!). Do whatever works best for you: an online class, videos, a textbook. I, for one, require social pressure (probably a holdover from my Catholic upbringing), so an in-person class is the only thing that would've worked for me. See if your local community college has something.
posted by duffell at 7:22 AM on March 24, 2015

Best answer: Here are some of my favourite online courses for this stuff:

Nutrition for Health Promotion (this really helped me to just sort out what is known and what is not - a lot more is settled science than I realised; great lens for consuming popular articles on health and nutrition)

Introductory Human Physiology (I didn't finish this but loved the first two weeks and will definitely (try to) do it all soon - it's a self-paced course now)

Intro to Genetics and Evolution (this is an amazing course for a good scientific grounding in general but on genetics and evolution in particular - I've taken it twice, it's fantastic)

Epidemiology (this sounds like it might be up your alley)

And seeing as you're doing all of this learning, Learning How to Learn is a fun, short course on, you know, learning.

nthing anything that Crash Course does, short, to the point, excellent videos.

I also like this book: The Canon, but I wish it was written in a slightly less tongue-in-cheek fashion, it makes it hard to digest the material. It could also do with less lengthy chapters or, at least, sub-headings and stuff. That said, for a whirlwind of the state of science, it's fantastic.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:48 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is probably way too much, but if you're interested in a solid grounding in the basics of physics, you could do worse (much, much worse) than tackling Leonard Susskind's Theoretical Minimum. ("Specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.")

Physics will not impact your healthcare decisions, but it will expose you to the most rigorous way of understanding the universe we live in. It's not as abstract as pure mathematics but not messy and approximate like chemistry or especially biology - our inclined planes are frictionless, our laws are universal, and our predictions come with precisions in the parts per million or billion. And it works!
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:51 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all these helpful answers! And damn, online courses have really exploded since I last looked at them. I'd seen Khan Academy and Coursera and Crash Course before but they're all just so HUGE now.

I am still a little puzzled on the way to order things. Like say I want to study nutrition, epidemiology, chemistry, biology, microbiology, anatomy/physiology, statistics and ecology. Do I start with the more comprehensible stuff and work my way backwards into the basics (i.e. first nutrition, then anatomy/physiology, then biology...)? Or do I start with chemistry because it's the building block that biology sits on, then study biology, THEN things like nutrition and epidemiology? I guess I can see the argument for both ways.

I sort of wish I COULD go back to school.
posted by feets at 12:54 AM on March 25, 2015

One of the things I don't feel guilty about anymore (and which demonstrates how the majority of commentary on MOOC's misses the point) is that it's okay to start a course and not finish it (this is why Coursera now offers self-paced courses and Edx allows you to sign up and go through courses even when they're finished).

So, personally, if I was as ambitious as you are, I would start all of them and see what sticks and finish that and then come back to the others. I would try to plan one or, at most, two weeks in advance but happily rearrange and reschedule as new courses came online etc.

For instance, I'm doing a math course right now (Introduction to Mathematical Thinking) that I absolutely love. And I had time during the first two weeks of the course and if it was possible, I would have binge-watched all of the lectures and done all of the problem sets and assignments. I was just in the zone then (for a number of reasons).

Now I don't have the time and I'm otherwise just out of sync with the course but that's the approach that I think could work for you and that's the kind of thing that is now possible with these courses - an amazing mix of guidance and structure with the ability to design and schedule things according to your own needs and levels.

Best of luck!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 6:24 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

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