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Thread: Dealing with the public / Truth in science

  1. #1 Dealing with the public / Truth in science 
    Forum Junior JoshuaL's Avatar
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    This post inspired by something I saw in another thread. Not sure where to put it, so I'll start here.

    Scientists and mathematicians of all kinds will be very specific about their meaning in order avoid ambiguity or to imply things which may not be strictly true. This is necessary, required for the advancement of science, BUT this is working against us in terms of enlightening the masses.

    On a micro scale, I find that when having a discussion with an individual who does not know the difference between an atom and a molecule (please do not scuff, this includes a lot of otherwise very bright people--they are lawyers or mechanics or historians or what-have-you), it is not useful to hedge about the degree to which we understand the "inner workings" of an atom. It is far more HELPFUL and INFORMATIVE to this individual if I am direct, giving the currently understood and generally accepted explanations of how an atom works, without pointing out those parts of the model which have yet to be fully explained or accounted for, without discussing credible alternate theories, etc.

    I think most scientists twitch a little at this idea because it feels dishonest. But that's like feeling dishonest for telling a 5th grader about algebra, and leaving out groups, rings, and fields. Those topics will only confuse the situation, and they will likely not understand them (they will THINK they understand them, which is worse). Better to let them get a grasp on the basic concepts first, then they can explore the nuances later, if they are capable or interested. This especially applies to politicians and lawyers, who are trained to tear apart an argument, and will see hedging as a sign of dishonesty, rather than the actual sign of truthfulness it represents. When matters are complex, and you are addressing an audience who doesn't understand the basics, let alone the complexities, it is not only in your best interest to use an "executive level summary" approach, it is in their best interest as well. Otherwise they have nothing to grab onto, no starting place of understanding, and left feeling around in the dark, having not got much help from the so-called expert. I imagine this also contributes to all manner of crackpottery.


    "The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is... doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting sh*t dead wrong."

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    That's what school textbooks are good at. Even a lot of those dictionary/encyclopedia type things that are written for general reading for youngsters. (Not enough of them being produced lately in my view, but that's another grump for another thread.)

    I think this sort of communication is a very specialised, very challenging skill. Just look at documentaries. David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and the like. The like? There really aren't that many of them. Its pretty much a do or die field. I suppose Mythbusters is pretty good even though they get stuff wrong from time to time. There are the excellent ones just mentioned - I'm trying to think of anything of this sort that would be 'fair average quality' and I'm coming up short - the rest are either breathless "believe it or not" rubbish or uncoordinated assemblages of poorly related concepts. Then, of course, there's all the dreck on Discovery and the like which are more misleading than informative.

    In writing, there's a real problem. Most people just see headlines. If they read at all, it's generally the first one or two paragraphs and no further. Even if they do read further, those first few headline+couple of sentences is all that's retained. Just look at how much fuss there is from time to time about press releases from universities or agencies about recent research results. Sometimes they've made a mistake. More often the release is 'misleading' or 'misses the point' of the research.

    My personal preference is for programs like Catalyst on Oz TV. Catalyst - ABC TV Half an hour with a few segments presented by people with doctorates - knowledgeable, confident and extremely professional in the way it's put together. But that's a big ask for commercial TV.

    Of course, what we really need is for science information to be a routine part of ordinary news services. Time for Finance - lots of technical jargon, occasional incomprehensible graphs, blah, blah. And now to Science - pictures of ugly/cute/amazing/scary plants or animals a couple of times a week, satellite imagery of some region of the planet, volcanoes, a press release or so about anything, space stuff once or twice a week, health stuff a couple of times a week. And just like finance, really big stories will feature in the main bulletin.


    "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Winston Churchill
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    Forum Junior JoshuaL's Avatar
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    Wow, I hadn't even considered media. I was just thinking conversation or public discourse but in terms of experts trying to describe a situation to say, a courtroom, or a president, etc. Yeah, since people watch so much TV, I guess it would be good to put some science in there, but I don't think anyone cares enough to watch it. However, when someone asks YOU a question, you have an opportunity to help them understand (or you could tell them GO LOOK IT UP, in which case they will not, and you have not advanced the cause of science, in my opinion). And that is best done by presenting a straightforward example without all the bells and whistles you might discuss on, say, this forum.
    "The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is... doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting sh*t dead wrong."

    Take two of these and call me in the morning
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    Oh lordy. I suppose I don't think of that sort of thing now I'm no longer in an office with hundreds of people.

    First and foremost, if you want to be convincing you really have to know your stuff. The other thing is to 'know' your audience. There's quite a bit of work being done at the moment on how one can use "narrative" so that people will engage emotionally with the 'story' you present even if they're lagging behind on the factual or intellectual level. That whole 'narrative' approach gives me the creeps - I'm not sure why, because I've always been careful in public speaking to try to pick the right tone and starting point for the audience that's there.

    The reason why you have to know your stuff is that you need to be able to use your own words to do the speaking. Not only that, you have to be able to modify the way you speak on your scientific topic in exactly the same way we all modify our speech depending on whether we're talking to our granny, or a co-worker, or in the pub, or at the parents meeting at our kids' school or whatever. No point in having a collection of stock answers for questions, they have to come naturally. And, seeing as you're talking about science here, you have to be entirely comfortable with saying you don't know or you're not sure about some detail or tangent - because speculation or unjustified extrapolation is not the right way to go with science, unless you're discussing something that is already speculation like time travel or other such stuff.

    Being confident enough to say you don't want to make a definite statement without checking scientific reference material is an essential skill in my view.
    JoshuaL likes this.
    "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Winston Churchill
    "nature is like a game of Jenga; you never know which brick you pull out will cause the whole stack to collapse" Lucy Cooke
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