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It’s probably unfashionable to call it “Chinese Whispers” these days. At the very least, it’s politically incorrect, and as is so often the case in these situations, it turns out that the etymology of the game does include a racist streak. Namely; it was called this because westerners figured that spoken Chinese was unintelligible. So, a game where a message whispered from one ear to the next is eventually rendered nonsensical, was named for the Chinese “language” (which just goes to show how little was understood – were they listening to Cantonese, or Mandarin perhaps?)
So let’s call it “Telephone”, as it is called in the United States, according to Wiki, anyhow.
Really, that’s all by the by. What I’m here to talk about is the big picture.
There is a tendency these days to regard any item of news, or opinion from a talking head, as sitting on a level playing field with every other bit of news or opinion. A sense that one idea is as good as the next. It this world, the notion of “truth” ceases to have meaning, as if being “true” is a value judgment where none should be made. Just as the post-modern art era challenged the idea of “beauty” as a worthwhile goal in art, we now seem to live in the world of “post-truth”.
At some point, collectively we lost the ability to be able to distinguish an idea with merit grounded in observable facts, from an idea based upon another person’s opinion and ideas. This is a pretty big loss to society. If you can’t decide between things that are objectively true, and things that are mere conjecture, then you may find yourself completely lost in the world. Without this ability, airplanes would never have flown, and we’d still be cooking with a camp fire, and certainly would not have the ability to reheat our food in the microwave.
Somehow, we are fearful of value judgment. Some things, nonetheless, are more valuable than others. The effects of gravity are observable, for instance, and if someone were to say, “I have a different idea”, we might listen, but we would dismiss it as untrue at best, crazy more likely. Gravity is a fact. The warping of space-time causes bodies of mass to be “attracted” to one another in proportion to their mass (roughly – it’s easy to get your Newtonian and Einsteinian physics muddled up here, and that’s beside the point anyway).
So it is that even in the murky world of politics and international affairs, there is a version of events that is true, and myriad others that simply are not. The considerable difficulty lies in determining to which you have been subjected.
In to this quagmire steps the conspiracy theory. By definition, a conspiracy is a situation where a number of actors (people, groups, “governments”) get together and decide on a collective course of action, usually to achieve a mutually beneficial goal (perhaps at the cost of external parties), and normally protected by secrecy as to their intentions and as to the existance of the conspiracy itself.
In this sense, nearly all international government actions are conspiracies. They work to further their ends, and they keep the intentions and plans secret.
So what can this tell us? Well, if you’ve ever heard of espionage, spies, and the “intelligence community”, you’ll know that the conspiracies of one government are notoriously leaky and transparent to others. Sometimes through concerted effort, sometimes by mistake, in the end, secrets are hard to keep, even by those whose entire career is bent on keeping them.
Part of the problem is that we’re only human, we’re incorrigible gossips, and we just blab. We also suffer from various psychological tendencies, greed, pride, etc. Ultimately, someone lets the cat out of the bag. The more people who are in on the secret, the more probable the leak. As they say in the classics, The Truth Will Out!
As such, grand actions by a nation state, plans involved large numbers of people, plans shrouded in mystery and secrecy, rarely stay secret for long. It’s just highly difficult to keep the secret.
Also, the more people involved, the greater the work of co-ordination, which by itself requires more people who know of the secrets. It’s nearly an exponential growth of numbers of likely blabbers. The bigger the conspiracy, the larger the likelihood of a leak, therefore the less likely the secret will be contained. Multiply that by the time the conspiracy has been in place, and you get an even slimmer likelihood of success.
In short, big conspiracies are very unlikely indeed.
Let’s return to the co-ordination problem. Remember the game,
Chinese Whispers Telephone? Well, the more people in the circle, the worse the end result. With enough people, it becomes complete gibberish by the end. That’s how the world of conspiracy works too! Sure, computers mean perfect messages can be copied instantaneously, but there are still people either side of the machinery. There’s still heaps of room for human error. Couple that with the secrecy problem and you have a near perfect recipe for failure.
So, the simplest answer to your next conspiracy theory, be it chemtrails, big-pharma/GMOs/Aliens, climate change (I mean look what happened to the emails of a bunch of giggling scientists – even their snarky emails couldn’t be kept secret!), Syrian war… whatever, it is this:
The bigger the conspiracy, the more unlikely it is.
More than that, beyond a threshold (lets say, collusion by a couple of countries, or multi-national companies), it becomes basically impossible. If you add natural commercial market competition to the mix (as there is in say the reporting of the news) then the threshold reduces. Next time someone tells you that the media is feeding you a lie, ask them to think of how that might work. The sensible end to that thought is, “It doesn’t.”
PS. This is not exactly the same argument as Okham’s Razor. Indeed you might think the Razor suggests that a conspiracy is the simplest solution given that perhaps it involves the neatest arrangement with least variables. But no, from the Razor, the most likely solution will never be a conspiracy, because it is quickly seen that to have a conspiracy is always to posit one more variable (namely the conspiracy itself) than is required to explain the phenomenon. Thus conspiracies nearly always fail the test.
This is for the intrepid Melburnians who get out of the city, travelling the open spaces, winding up through the north past the more famous Hanging Rock, feeling the sun on their knees and the wind in their hair, exploring Major Mitchell’s old stomping ground, curious about the landscape therein. The wanderers, the dreamers, the scientists and artists. Here forth a note about the geology of the Coliban valley, in the Redesdale area, Victoria, Australia, that I wrote for the Redesdale and District Association:
A 400 Million Year Old Geological Tale
The landforms around Redesdale:
As far back as the expedition of Major Mitchell, the shape of the hills in this area were remarked upon for their flat table-top features, presiding over incised valleys and crumbling slopes pock-marked with giant granite boulders. The shape of the land here is a result of the slow erosion of rock and soil over the past million or so years. However, some of the rocks here are very much older than that.
Beginning at the bottom are the sedimentary rocks (mostly made up of clay and silt and sand, formed on an ancient sea floor, cemented into place some 450 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years before the world would see its first dinosaur) that form the foundation stone of much of Victoria. These are sometimes seen in road cuttings in the area and are typically grey to cream in colour, sometimes displaying their characteristic layered pattern. Pushing up through these like a bubble rising in water are the granites, which arrived around 100 million years later. Eventually they reached the end of their bubble like journey and solidified into the grey-coloured crystalline rocks you see poking up through the paddocks. In geological terms, the granites are ‘igneous rocks’ (as opposed to ‘sedimentary rocks’, like the previously mentioned sandstones).
The final arrival on the scene was the basalts (volcanic rock), which are, by comparison, mere infants, spewing out from nearby volcanic vents within the last few million years. They would have filled ancient valleys and streams carved into the granites and sandstones beneath, valleys which would later be known to geologists as ‘paleochannels’, and created a very flat volcanic plain. However, basalt is not very resistant to the weather. Soon after the volcanoes stopped flowing, Mother Nature would have started to carve new valleys and streams into the volcanic landscape, and much of the basalt would be eroded away. Once the water was through the basalt, it would start to erode away the more ancient rocks beneath, and the different way the different rocks erode can be seen in the different slope angles between the basalt hilltops and the granite slopes beneath. Some little sections of basalt remain, however, and these can be seen in their original flat lying glory, capping many of the hills in the region and creating perhaps the most striking geographical sight in the area.
(WARNING: may contain geological terms!)
Around the paddocks you will see large, grey coloured rocks that are generally rounded in shape. These are members of the rock unit known as the ‘Harcourt Granodiorite’ (‘granodiorite’ is a granitoid rock with more plagioclase feldspar than a typical granite, for the lay people, they’re typically just called ‘granite’). These erode in a characteristic ‘onion skin’ pattern, resulting in rounded boulders and curved sheet like portions that have peeled off the boulders. They also tend to form very coarse sand as they erode, typical of the river sand you see in the Coliban and Campaspe Rivers.
Also around some of the paddocks in the area you will find a paler creamy-pink rock that is in flatter and in more square/rectangular shapes. It has been used extensively in rock walls in the region. It looks a little bit like sandstone, but in actual fact, it too is a granitoid, in this case, a true granite. This is the Metcalfe Granite, and it is part of the same group of rocks to which the Harcourt Granodiorite belongs (and they are of similar age, around 350 million years old). This group of rocks is properly termed the “Harcourt Suite” and includes several regional variations of granite and granodiorite. The interesting thing about the Metcalfe Granite is that it contains many ‘leucocratic dykes’ (leucocratic – pale coloured, as opposed to melanocratic – dark coloured). These are internal zones that have more of the feldspar and quartz minerals and were like internal ‘channels’ when the rock was emplaced. They actually ‘flowed’ through the surrounding rock. As a result, they contain features that look like the layering of a sandstone, and this also explains their more blocky fracture pattern.
Granites (and granodiorites) are what are known as plutonic igneous rocks. They formed beneath the ground when their rise up from the inner earth ceased upon reaching a natural buoyancy level in the earth’s crust. They then solidified (‘crystallised’) and stayed there. In the local version’s case, this happened around 350 million years ago (for scale, the dinosaurs came onto the scene around 250 million years ago and were gone by 65 million years ago). Locally this meant that the granites rose up into the surrounding sedimentary rocks. Thus these are like blobs within the regionally-more-significant sedimentary rocks (sandstones, siltstones and the like). What this implies is that these granites you see today are seeing their first ever sunshine, having previously languished beneath the earth’s surface for most of their 350 million years of existence.
Atop many of the flat-topped hills of the area you will find crumbling reddish-brown rock with lots of holes in it (properly termed ‘vesicles’). This is basalt, and this is the rock that caps the hills and causes their shape. Basalt is a volcanic rock (think of lava flows in Hawaii). You are looking at the last remnants of huge volcanic eruptions that occurred over the last 4 or 5 million years. Victoria was a very active volcanic place in its recent geological history, and in some areas of south western Victoria, it is even possible that eruptions were still taking place when the first human inhabitants arrived some 40 thousand years ago.
A final, related point; a side note about the colours of rocks. Basalts are dark-grey to black when they are fresh. Granites are normally very pale grey, as are granodiorites (although they can have a range of colours from pinks to greys to blue-ish colours right up to reds and even some greens in places). Most of the pink to red to brown colours you see in these rocks are a result of erosion – “weathering”. The colour comes from the fact that all these rocks contain some minerals that have iron in them (basalt contains a lot of these minerals, granite hardly any). When those minerals weather they produce iron-rich minerals such as limonite and hematite. These are orange-red in colour and spread out and ‘stain’ the surrounding rocks. The effect can be quite pervasive, resulting in the colouration of entire rock pieces. In the case of basalt, the entire rock has had some degree of weathering, and so it is now a dark brown-red colour, having lost nearly all of its original fresh black. In the case of the local granite, the original rock is nearly white, however, the little bit of iron staining that has occurred has given these rocks their slightly pink hue. Indeed, a little bit of iron staining is exactly what gives some of these rocks their spectrum of colour, resulting in the beautiful pinks and creams that you see today.
“Plurality must never be posited without necessity”
-William of Ockham
People prefer simple solutions to problems. This is pretty obvious – it takes less unnecessary hard work. So, does this idea apply in science? Welcome down the rabbit hole of the history and philosophy of science.
Ockham’s Razor is a hugely influential heuristic (rule of thumb) in science. The Razor provides a way to decide between competing explanations that are equally supported by the evidence at hand. It suggests that the favoured explanation is that which posits fewer variables.
However, we all know that science is not often ‘simple’. How do we translate this position to science? This is where ‘falsifiability’ comes in, a concept made famous by Karl Popper in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”. If you cannot falsify a hypothesis, then it is not scientific. The famous example is “all swans are white”. By inductive logic, no amount of white swans can prove this statement; instead it is supported until a single black swan is found.
Falsifiability alone does not, however, reduce possible explanations to one. Competing theories may all be falsifiable, thus scientific. Having established that swans can be black or white, we propose three competing ideas: 1. All swans are either black or white. 2. All swans are either black or white, but location determines which. 3. All swans are either black or white, but location and the season it is in December determine which. Having taken samples from Australia and England to test these hypotheses, you would see that all statements are supported, however number 2 has an extra variable, and 3 has two.
Strict application of the Razor would suggest you accept hypothesis 1. However, the extremely strong correlation between location and swan colour suggests that 2 is also acceptable. In this case, you decide that the ‘simplest’ hypothesis is the weaker, because it has less explanatory power. That is, even though clearly swans are either black or white (hypothesis 1), the black swans are all in Australia, and so hypothesis 2 suggests an explanation determined by geography. What about hypothesis 3? Well, seasons are dependent on location, and so the seasons variable is superfluous, regardless of how well supported it is by the results. We take hypothesis 2 and move on, because that result has thrown up new hypotheses (e.g. around species and evolution) – the very fodder of science.
Thus science aims to explain, rather than simplify. Ockham’s Razor is really about how to prefer an explanation, rather than about the most simplistic explanation. Sometimes the best explanation is very complicated, the point is that it is no more complicated than it needs to be to do the explaining. Many ‘conspiracy theories’ fall foul of the Razor for this reason–they introduce extra variables without improving the explanatory power – that is, the non-conspiracy hypothesis can explain all the evidence.
Things get interesting when a contradictory result is found by a new experiment. Does it really falsify the hypothesis, or should we modify the hypothesis? Should hypotheses be ‘backward modified’ like this to explain new data? Doesn’t this contradict everything I’ve just said? How the hell does science really work? This will be a tale for another day, where we meet people like Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, and encounter the anarchist, Paul Feyeraband.
This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, No. 8, Vol 65, 23 July 2013.
Simply because everyone else is raving on about the recent AAS survey, I thought I would too. How depressing it is to find that not the entire population of Australia knows that a year is measured by the time it takes for the Earth to do a lap of the Sun! And fresh water makes up what percent again of total water resources? How much of that is potable? Wait, that wasn’t one of the questions (probably would have require knowing what ‘potable’ means anyway).
Like many science commentators out there (and I won’t even try to list them all, but this is an excellent one, and this is an excellent one from the last time they did this survey), I breathed a sigh of “so what!” After which I sort of just found the whole thing depressing.
I tweeted earlier today that all I think it says is that 30-40% of Australians are not ‘natural naturalists’. That is, people who take a broad interest in scientific topics and fields and who tend to remember lots of the gory details. At the top level, these people are known as ‘polymaths’ – that is, they operate at near genius level in more than one scientific field. At the other end, they could be your average Joe who loves a good documentary (and is probably a fan of David Attenborough). In other words, they quite possibly are not scientists. And THAT is the point. Knowing certain facts about the world does not make you a scientist.
Others mentioned above have pointed out that science is about such things as approach to problems and method and application of analytical techniques. Generally, it is about concepts and thinking, not about facts. The facts fall out of the conceptual tree when you shake it hard enough.
So why does it depress me? Well I guess I am a bit of a ‘naturalist’ – I love to know about the world and how it works. Knowing why a year is as long as it is is part of that, to me. Finding out about natural phenomena is exciting! And even though my specialist field is geology, I am very interested in a range of things, some scientific, some not quite (like philosophy) and some not at all (art). So I consume all manner of things, and along the way I happen to remember a few things (although I will be the first to admit I have a terrible memory). I suppose I find it hard to understand why anyone else would not be the same.
So perhaps I am weird? Or perhaps not! Lurking in the 60% odd of people who knew stuff for the survey will be people like me! And some of them will be in or go on to scientific careers. I think Australia is pretty safe for now.
[But come on, people should know how long it takes for the Earth to go round the Sun, I mean, really?]
“What do we want? Scientific Certainty! When do we want it? Within a certain timeframe!”
The public, the media and especially politicians like to make a big thing about scientific uncertainty. For scientists, it’s just a fact of life. So what is this ‘uncertainty’ and how does this affect our lives?
We scientists perform research just so that we can understand the world around us. To do so, we use various scientific and statistical techniques, and especially where the latter is concerned, these result in ‘measures of confidence’ in the data (and thus conclusions drawn there from). It means that we present data with ‘error bars’, which are designed to show a range of values within which the ‘reality’ may lie. These error bars represent upper and lower limits that are determined on the basis of our confidence in the results. This is largely a statistical calculation, and it results in mind-bending statements such as “plus-minus 6% with 95% confidence”. What does this all mean?
Three concepts: Confidence, Error and Likelihood.
Imagine this scenario: you decide to determine whether the morning light is a result of the rising of the Sun in the morning (hear me out, this is going to be scientific!).
You’ve noticed that it seems to get quite light at around about the same time as when the Sun rises, but you’re not sure that it’s actually related to the Sun rising (stay with me!). So you hypothesise that the morning light is due to the Sun rising. To test this, you take a series of measurements over numerous days – the amount of light, the time of day, and the position of the Sun with respect to the horizon.
Your data looks a bit like a curve when you plot it – that is to say, there is no definite point at which dark becomes light (anyone who’s been up before it’s light will know this, but for the benefit of an undergraduate audience…).
So you do the statistics on it (yes, there is a point to paying attention to those stats classes!). This shows that there is a correlation between the position of the Sun and the amount of light (durrr, I know…), but wait! There is variation in the data. Not every day is the same! How could this be? Well, it could be that your instrument is near some artificial light sources, it could be that the very light of God is shining upon your scientific research (hey, appealing to all audiences here). How do you decide?
To the rescue – the null hypothesis!
For this you decide to generate a completely random version of the sunlight data (even your phone could do that these days). And then you compare, statistically, the random set to the experimental set. Sure enough, it tells you that only a percentage of the data could be explained by the random data. The rest could be considered to be explainable by the hypothesis (that the amount of light is a result of the position of the Sun).
Now, just say you decide you want to know what 95% of the data is saying. It is telling you that the light patterns match to the Sun position patterns to within, say, plus or minus 2 minutes every day. That is to say, the middle 95% of the light data matches within the same times plus or minus 2 minutes every day. What have you learnt? Well, you’ve probably confirmed that the position of the Sun is the dominant factor in the amount of light in a given place at a particular time of day (yes, yes, assuming you are outside, etc). That is, your 95% Confidence Interval.
But why all the scary stats and numbers? Why should we be only 95% confident of this match, plus or minus 2 minutes? Well, because we have measured things in the real world, with human-made devices and their associated problems; nothing is infallible. But also because there might actually be other factors at work – street lights, machine error, etc. But if we take that null hypothesis test we did before, we’ll see a pattern. In the above example, had we taken the middle 99% of data, we may have had a result that was plus or minus 30 minutes in the time data. That’s starting to sound a bit dodgy. Had we taken the middle 66% percent of the data, we may have been within plus or minus a few seconds, but that would have left a third of the data unexplained. What’s going on here?
Well, fortunately, these numbers I’ve been picking relate to ‘standard deviations’ (SDs), a highly statistical term that essentially means the amount to which the data show ‘weirdness’. A small SD means the data is pretty tight – it’s all showing the one thing. One full SD is around 66%, which we’ve agreed is a pretty poor test of the data. 2 SDs however, is 95% of the data, “almost all” in most people’s parlance. 3 SDs puts you in the 99% category, which is ridiculously definite!
Imagine a diagram of confidence versus error; the Y-axis shows Error, measured as a percentage deviation (that is, how much it differs from the average), while the X-axis shows the confidence level, measured in those Standard Deviations. Remember, we choose our confidence level, then see what the error level is. Choose your confidence interval, and then see where your error margins plot. This will give you an idea of how strong your result is. This is, the likelihood that you have made an observation of reality; your science has revealed a ‘truth’ about the world around us.
So, those studies that have low error margins at high levels of confidence, those are the ones we can be pretty darn certain are likely to represent the real world. The ‘Nobel Committee’ area of certainty represents experiments that start to demonstrate ‘theory’ – that summit of science where things are considered to be the closest thing that science has to ‘fact’.
Examples of things that fall in to that ‘Nobel’ area: gravity being responsible for the apple falling from the tree; the Sun rising in the east and causing ‘daytime’; human influence on climate causing global warming. Yes, I said it. Ask the climate scientists – this is where the data lies.
We’re never certain, we’re just certain within certain error bounds, at a confidence level of X.
This article published at Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University: http://www.woroni.com.au/features/scientific-uncertainty-a-certain-certainty/
What follows is my first guest post; and it touches on a topic in science communication that is close to my heart. Too often I find myself being irritated at a galah being described as a “Pink and Grey”. I cringe at people not being able to distinguish a monitor from a gecko. I particularly don’t like people worrying about crocodiles in places where they simply don’t live. Now; while I enjoyed a good education, I can assure you that these sorts of “real-world” lessons were not taught at school. I know what a galah is and I can even spot a wedge-tailed eagle from several hundred meters. I am who I am through an interest in the natural world that I have worked on through the years by asking questions and looking things up (in strange places like libraries, though the internet has replaced this largely in recent years.). I am not saying I am better than anyone in this, I am saying quite the opposite. IT IS HOW PEOPLE SHOULD BE. We were like this a couple of hundred years ago when people hung off every word from explorers. Somehow, in this age of information, we have lost the desire to have knowledge. It remains an important goal for science communicators, in my opinion, to inspire people to seek out information for themselves on the natural world. In some ways, it is not enough to simply teach.
Anyway, I owe my love of the natural world around me to my parents and grandparents. Thank you! Thus it is appropriate that my Mother be the first to guest post. A retired psychiatrist, she is also a naturalist. Her acuity of observation is second to none, and this is important if you are going to be mindful of your surroundings; another important lesson in life. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Kathy Hall, you have now:
Watch out for the crocs!
The visitor asked, “Do you ever see any of those white birds with yellow feathers on the top of their heads?”
Firstly, the visitor was Australian and had stayed at our place for several days on many occasions. He has also camped beside the Murray on a yearly basis for most of his adult life. Let’s give the visitor the benefit of the doubt and assume he was having trouble remembering the name Sulphur Crested Cockatoo or “Cocky” to most of us. Remembering the name is really not the issue, it’s asking whether we had any that is the problem! Cockies surround our house. They nest in the River Red Gums close by. They screech morning and night. They wake us even before the rooster crows. They fly in huge noisy flocks above us. They are omnipresent.
Probably even more bizarre was the comment of a 27year old Australian visitor who, when visiting the banks of the Coliban on a very hot day was concerned for my safety as I paddled on the shore-line in case there were crocodiles. She was serious.
Lack of wildlife observation skills is not unusual amongst our Australian guests, whereas, in general terms, our European visitors reach for binoculars, ask for individual names of species, and compare them with home wildlife. I often ponder the reason for this disparity. I suspect that the cause lies in less emphasis in this country on how we teach our children to speak and name things. If you point out a bird to a 2 year old and say, “Look, a bird!” in a minimalist way, that’s as far as the learning gets. If you say, “Look, honeyeater!” or “Look, Rosella!” or “There’s a corella!” the learning is already enriched. The trouble is, if the parent doesn’t know the difference, how can this enrichment occur? The knowledge, and interest, must be handed down through generations. Somehow we seem to have lost that interest and skill.
How often have you heard people refer to a pink and grey galah? They are all pink and grey, so ‘galah’ will do! It’s like referring to a black crow or a black and white magpie.
Although not true “twitchers”, R. and I have gained enormous pleasure from observing the different bird species that visit our property. Before we built the house and garden, while we camped in the paddocks, we observed 16 different birds. Since developing the garden, 5 years later, we have now observed 55 different species.
Some of you may remember [a previous piece of mine] about the pair of Australasian grebes who dominate our dam. They have produced two sets of chicks this season, four in each clutch. We are amazed to see them building a new nest so we may have a third brood soon.
Perhaps some may feel that being able to recognise different animal species is not important enough to worry about. I would counter that awareness of our surroundings and interest in the variety, characteristics and behaviour of living things around us is not only essential for the health of the planet, but also enhances our own pleasure and well-being. Not to mention our confidence while paddling in the Coliban!
-Kathy Hall, Coliban Springs.
Its been a while, but then science can’t be rushed, and much pondering over certain products made with water must be had first. For around 3 months now we’ve been doing this water exploration program and it’s coming to an end. I wrote about my experiences talking with local farmers and watching them wander around the paddocks with bent pieces of wire here. As I said, there is a certain comfort that this gives the farmers in siting a drill rig to drill a hole for their windmills. It’s not a cheap exercise, so when they commit, they like to feel confident that they’ve given themselves the best possible shot. When you can’t afford a hydrogeologist, and when it’s all you’ve known growing up; it is understandable that you’d see water divining as the way to go.
Scientists, such as myself, do not believe in water divining. Not because we simply reject that which we weren’t taught at school (which is a tempting retort from many who believe in pseudoscience). Rather because there is no evidence for its efficacy. Water divining has been subjected to a number of scientific trials and has failed to produce a significant result. It is, therefore, bunkum in scientific circles. No serious scientist or scientific consultant could use it professionally.
As I said in my previous post, however, there can be some client-liaison and political reasons for not rejecting it out of hand when in the field. It ‘smooths the water’ to let landholders do their thing and feel that they are influencing your scientific process. In fact, through this process, I have learned a lot about the land I’m exploring in and it has revealed numerous insights into otherwise obscured geological features. All this has aided my scientific exploration effort and I think bettered my hit rate. Of the holes planned and sited, the success rate through the program has gone from a predictable 20-30-odd percent to better than 50%. This may not sound too good, but sub-50% success rates in the terrain we’re in are not uncommon. In other terms, you could say that science and keen observation on the ground coupled with a relatively open minded approach to the landholders has enabled me to go from rank amateur in that terrain, to better than a water diviner in less than 3 months. The best water diviners have taken a lifetime to learn the craft and a require a lifetime’s experience.
So, let this be a little message to scientists who find themselves working with real people on real projects out on the ground where pseudoscience is rife. Don’t dismiss the pseudoscience out of hand and thereby fail to gather all the nuanced data that’s available to you. By all means disbelieve, as I do, but remember these are people you’re dealing with. If you get the opportunity to do it, take them through your scientific exploration process. You might be surprised how well they understand what you’re talking about (you shouldn’t be though, unless you’re one of a particular breed of condescending city-scientist), and you may just convert the odd one to the joy of good science well applied!
Some time ago I mentioned that I was interviewing Gary Cass about his work, especially his work teaching school students science and creativity. He uses an artistic approach to educate in some fairly complex scientific areas. I wrote more about him here.
Well, having interviewed him, filmed him and edited the film, here it is. He is a remarkable man, and it just goes to show that there are people out there who not only value the intersection of art and science, but teach it as well. Creativity + science = win!
Much as it took some work, I really enjoyed every aspect of making this film, from talking to Gary, filming and even the editing. I hope to do more of this some day (that is if anyone will let me after seeing this!). I hope you enjoy it and I’d like to send out a big thanks to Gary, the University of Western Australia, and the girls from Shenton College who appear in the film.
Naomi Oreskes is here in Australia promoting her new book, co-authored with Erik Conway, called “Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming“. I will be reading it, definitely. Tonight I went to her public talk at the University of Western Australia. She is a very good speaker, clear and concise, conveying precisely what it is she means to say and not confusing any of the issues. Impressive. Oreskes is a Professor of Science and History at the University of California, San Diego.
Her thesis surrounds scientific uncertainty and how that has been used by a group of scientists to create doubt in the minds of people about big issues like the dangers of tobacco smoke, and the realities of climate change (or global warming, if you prefer the older, arguably more-correct terminology). It is an eye-opening study of recent history.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’d know that I have an interest in the role of uncertainty in science. I see it as especially critical to the communication of science, and so this talk was particularly interesting. Good scientists embrace uncertainty. So much so that they use sophisticated statistical techniques to quantify it. A good scientific study knows its limits.
Uncertainty, in the scientific sense, does not equate to doubt as to the ability of a study to illuminate our understanding of the world. However, it does appear to be very useful in making scientific findings hard to understand for the general public. In the public’s eye, it very well may be that scientific uncertainty is interpreted as ‘doubt’. This is a shame, because truly doubtful scientists will say that they are doubtful (doubtful here implying that the results are dubious as to their implications). Doubt is not what is meant by the error bars of science. Those error bars simply demonstrate just how precise the findings are. If there are ‘overlaps of error bars’, it is very likely that the result will not be ‘significant’ and so the scientist might not have anything definitive to say as to the results.
This, however, has not been the case in climate science, as Oreskes makes plain. Climate science, unlike most fields of science, has been very definite indeed as to global warming. It is happening, and it is almost certainly contributed to (if not entirely caused by) humans. The level of agreement amongst scientists is extraordinary. Unfortunately, along the margins, the error bars and minor disagreements have been interpreted as doubt as to the general findings and implications. Oreskes’ contribution is to say that this might have its roots in the political ideology and personal motivations of some influential individuals, rather than actual doubt in scientific circles.
Oreskes has conducted an historical study, using the mainstay of historical techniques. What she speaks of is the actual historical record of the individuals concerned. In that sense, what she says should be uncontroversial. Her interpretations may remain controversial, but some of the things said by the scientists she writes about have to be seen to be believed.
Which ever side of the mythical climate fence you sit on, the historical record remains. It does not paint a pretty picture of the deep motivations of the anti-global warming movement. It also carries some important warnings. We need to be careful with science and how it is used in the public domain. This is a lesson that applies to both ‘sides’. Equally.
Interestingly, unlike how these things usually go, there were no ‘skeptic’ questions asked. Is this because her work has revealed a particularly inconvenient truth? Is the history of science a domain where skeptics fear to tread?
I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.
Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).
Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.
Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.
I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.
If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.
So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And from Carl Sagan:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Amen to that!
Edit: I had to remove the link which started this post (it was a reply to another post on another blog with which I have some association, but I wish to state that I have no association with that post which has now been taken down). However, the general points remain true to my thoughts on the matter. I cannot comment further.
Blogging will not replace other forms of media. This is not its goal anyway. Certainly for me, it was a way of practicing and practising writing. Doing this in a public way was designed for me to ‘commit’ to the task. Feedback would be an additional benefit. Blogs, do, on the other hand, provide a good analysis of various issues, and in many cases in the scientific blogosphere anyway, they are highly accurate and treat the subject in greater depth than any of the traditional media. So we can agree that they are valuable. Perhaps more valuable than they appear to most people, as Scott Rosenberg discusses in this fascinating piece on blogging, empowerment and the ‘adjacent possible’. I am certain I will return to that post again and the intriguing ideas therein.
So, to pick apart a few points sometimes made about blogging:
Easy to start, hard to maintain.
Yes, and no. Writing a blog is not simply about writing. One must have subject material and that means “research”. However, if you are a regular across news sites, research journals, current affairs and other blogs (that is to say if you are a fully paid-up geek) then finding stories is not too hard. And if you do blog, you’re probably already the kind of person who feels compelled to write about the stories and information you find! Still, it requires effort and this may not fit in with your lifestyle and interests.
“Maintain” is an interesting choice of word. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once set up well. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make this possible. But you still need to write for your blog. Your blog becomes like a little corporation that employs (dictates?) you to write for it. Yes, it gets a life of its own as you contribute the pieces and the ‘general public’ delivers some feedback. You may even end up engaged in a public discussion on a particular issue. Rather like this post really. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Need to keep it constant updated otherwise you lose potential followers
Frequent/regular posting is important, but arguably quality is more so. On this blog, I still get hits on the better posts (in my opinion anyway) weeks after I posted them. Yes, the hit rate drifts if I don’t post for a while, but it quickly recovers when I do. This is because I promote new posts via twitter and Facebook etc., so my followers (I don’t have all that many unfortunately) know if I’ve posted. New followers come from being active in the online community. It is very rare to have someone simply stumble onto your site and then choose to follow it. These people are not likely to be harsh on you for infrequent posting anyway.
Engaging with the online community through twitter, Facebook and especially through hosting and contributing to things like blog carnivals is what gets people interested in your blog. It establishes ‘capital’ in your blog and that lingers for some time after each post, sustaining the blog between posts.
Thoughts into words
Writing is not that hard with practise. If you can speak coherently, you’ve got the basics of writing coherently. In fact, you can practice writing when you speak – next time someone asks you an ‘important’ question, think about how you will craft your next sentence a bit more than usual. Sure, spoken and written language are different, but clarity cuts across both domains. Practise is what is needed. Writing will help you clarify your thoughts too. Add to that some constructive feedback and you have a brilliant combination of original thought, considered opinion and flowing writing.
Credibility and the ol’ anonymity chestnut
This has been done to death. Anonymity no more suggests inaccuracy than having a name implies factual correctness. Seriously consider it. There are idiots writing for newspapers who put their name to their work. Having the name there obviously does nothing to improve the tripe they concoct. And I do find it irritating when anonymous writers make critical observations on anonymity online. There may be many reasons for concealing your identity, e.g. so your employer doesn’t know, so people can’t find you (especially if you’re providing a whistleblowing function), the list goes on. The desire to spread rubbish is not the only reason (though I can’t deny some do, I still return to my point that people do the same under their own name, so who’s kidding who here?)
Oh, and this issue with making it possible for “just about anybody to write anything”. Is anyone seriously suggesting this is a bad thing? Now, of course, how one reads all these random ramblings in cyberspace is important. Note that carefully because it warrants repeating: it matters how you read blogs – you have to take care in what you accept as true or correct. This applies to newspapers too; and TV; and magazines. Hell, even refereed academic journals are not immune.
Sorry, post has nowhere near the impact following revision. The link that remains at the top remains an interest of mine though, worthy of follow up.
You may detect an antipodean flavour in this issue, with some excellent work included from Australia! My hope is that Scientia is a springboard for people to read about research and to read scientific writing by real scientists who (generally) are not paid by anyone to write what they write. Consider this as science “from the horse’s mouth”.
As always, science bloggers are keen for commentary and review of their work, especially if they are writing about original research. This kind of peer-review gives science blogging its power and maintains its integrity. You really can get your fill of juicy science here.
Scientia Pro Publica relies on YOU, so be sure to submit your blog posts, or the best of others’ here. Future editions need hosts, and we need them EVERY WEEK now. The schedule is here. Also, Scientia has a Twitter account, and there is even one for all science, environment and medical blog carnivals here! Read the rest of this entry »
Soon I will have the honour to present to you, dear readers, the 43rd Edition of Scientia Pro Publica! This was a recent revelation for me, and I was fortunate enough to be included in edition 42 hosted at Cosmodynamics. Thanks Vanessa!
Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-weekly carnival of the best science writing (well communication generally) from across the blogosphere. It has grown in stature to the point where the convener is now seriously contemplating making this a weekly thing. In other words, Scientia Pro Publica is becoming something akin to the Nature of science blogging. Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch, however, it is like a magazine – it relies on public blog submissions and the host to compile and editorialize a selection of submitted blog posts. Currently, it receives more than 50 submissions each time, and this grows with each new host as the network expands. It is a privilege that I am able to bring it to you.
So, watch this space.
More importantly, if you are interested in science and writing, and would like to submit, just use the online form.
I would be interested in hearing from bloggers in earth science disciplines, as geology is my “home discipline”. That said, I have very broad scientific interests, so anything is welcome. You will notice that Traversing the Razor has very little geology in it!
The more the merrier! You may even want to host it yourself sometime!
Can’t wait to see your submissions!!
A great poem over at Science and the Media by CWeightman:
Ode to the Science Magazine
Newspapers and internet, these things just aren’t my scene.
But what I love instead is the science magazine!
Some whisper “obsolete”, it’s the age of kilobytes
I disagree: no better way to start days, fill nights.
Cosmos, New Scientist, take them as you find,
Built on ads and feedback columns, patiently aligned.
When needing of the latest scientific fable,
Look no further than the toilet, or coffee table.
Marvel at the graphics which fill the glossy pages.
A filler piece says “Einstein’s wrong”: will it last the ages?
So long as never broken remains the golden rule –
Always write on global warming, or else be the fool.
Here’s a checklist: archaeology, astronomy,
Conservation and health, the research economy,
Physics: particle and astro, sometimes even chem,
Geology, geography, must not forget them!
Articles on chaos theory, no one understands,
Thankfully there are diagrams giving us a hand.
And update me on L H C, save me a google
Tell me what I need to know, let me be time frugal!
So take away my dollars, as long as every week
I get fed a pulpy dish of science at its peak.
Now tell me, fellow readers, what in your heart you feel,
When I say “science magazines”, do they have appeal?
Thanks to those who looked at and commented on my variants post. Quite popular it seems!
I have two more to add, one that I had clearly left out, and one suggested to me by a reader.
Here goes, although I worry that this is going to become book length soon…
C. Scientificus Var. Attenboroughensii – The Naturalist
Named in honour of the greatest television naturalist and narrator of all time, David Attenborough, The Naturalist is a person who began their scientific career simply wanting to explore the world. Having found that there really are some very interesting things out there, he or she decided that other people ought to know about them too. And thus began a fruitful career of showing people just how amazing the world and life on it is. The Naturalist tends to avoid controversy, rallying to causes only when provoked. Attenboroughensii prefers to let this amazing world speak for itself.
C. Scientificus Var. Enterprisiensis – The Coal-face Worker [thanks to Andyextance’s comment]
Enterprisiensis is the ex-industrial scientist who remains focussed on their home industry. Be it through choice or chance, they have found a niche in communicating their industry’s research. Enterprisiensis inhabits the murky niches of trade and professional society press – not as desperate to editorialise as other C. Scientificus. Instead, they are happy to act as a conduit of information to help bench-bound researchers achieve optimal results for their businesses, or at least reliably let them know what’s going on in their field. They are reluctant to stray from their home industry as they find that their niche is both productive and rewarding. A true specialist, the Coal-face Worker may not be well adapted to other ecosystems.
Ok, enough for now, I have to crawl back into my shell…
It occurs to me (as a novice in this field) that there are a few main variants of “science communicator”:
Communicatus Scientificus Var. Unopinionatii* – Cool-Hand Luke
Also know as the “Non-committal One”, Cool-Hand will never put his name to an opinion. He is probably a journalist, maybe a science journalist, almost certainly not a scientist. He writes for news papers, and loves phrases like, “scientists have claimed” (and a lovely critique of Luke can be found at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s great blog). Cool-Hand prefers balance to the truth, and so will likely present most of science as a perpetual slanging match between sides balanced at 50/50. Science isn’t like that (in case you didn’t know).
*there is some debate as to the taxonomy here – Var. Unopinionatii may in fact belong to C. Journalensii under the subspecies of Scientalis.
C. Scientificus Var. Bulldogensis – The Watchdog
These are the people who, coming from a scientific background (particularly medical science) review the science behind grand claims and debunk them if dodgy. These guys write books about it that really should be essential reading for everyone over the age of about two. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is a prime example. The watchdogs are the heros of sanity in a crazy, commercially-driven world where a pill is better than a good nights sleep. Some Watchdogs are graduated Skeptics (see below). Michael Shermer comes to mind.
C. Scientificus Var. Sceptiensis – The Skeptic
Closely related to the Watchdog (but perhaps more distant from their original scientific training, or perhaps not even scientifically trained), the Skeptic will go after anything even remotely unscientific, and has a penchant for examining people who believe in crazy things. Some Skeptics become very good (and very popular) whilst others skirt the boundaries of sanity and start to believe in conspiracies themselves. This skeptic has to be constantly vigilant against “The Forces of Darkness”. Sooner or later it is revealed that the Skeptic works for the Templeton Foundation (no I’m not going to link to them, they might find out where I live).
C. Scientificus Var. Theatricalus – The Performer
Yep, you’ve seen them at shows, and seen them on TV. They make science “cool”, and mostly teach kids (and a few ‘kids’ masquerading as adults). These guys are probably our main line of defense against the dark arts of Woo and religion. Without the Performer, your child really might continue to believe in the Easter Bunny. Scientific thinking gets its first opportunity to thrive in the Performer’s hands. The world is a little safer from silliness thanks to them (God bless ’em). Explosions and volcanoes and dry ice and the like are tricks of the trade here.
C. Scientificus Var. Obsesionatii – The Passionate One
The Passionate One is convinced that the world is in peril if we don’t all understand their field of science. So important is it that they sometimes lose the message of their science in an attempt to “get it out there”. Obsessionatii can be found engaged in long well-worded arguments across the blogosphere, or may be found appearing on late-night current affairs programs. Sometimes they accidentally fall victim to Unopinionatii in a cruel act known as “sensationalism”. Occasionally, Obsessionatii gets mixed in with roaming hoards of Bulldogensis and Sceptiensis. In these instances, they can be most effective, sometimes writing books about how, for instance, geology has an answer against anthropogenic climate change. However, it is important here to distinguish them from our next variant:
C. Scientificus Var. Professorisis – The Prominent Professor
The Prominent Professor is a genuine leader in his or her scientific field. However, usually after having written a surprisingly popular book, they have moved into a position of leadership in science communication, typically with the phrase “public understanding of science” associated with them. They typically have huge masses of seething fans, as well as a notable number of “antis”. Their opponents (who often have Sceptiensis in their mix) can be quite vocal, often labeling them as “strident” or at least labelling them as patsies to the media. They try to avoid Unopinionatii for reasons of professional integrity.
C. Scientificus Var. Polymathicus – The Profligate Writer
Sometimes a scientist, sometimes a journalist; Polymathicus writes features and blogs and books like they have six hands and an army of assistants. Sometimes they actually do have an army of assistants (probably only two hands). Who knows? Their products are easy to read and they really do reach a broad church. Most of the other variants are simply jealous of these types because Polymathicus have always done what the others always wanted to do – speak and write about interesting stuff. Whilst they sometimes sensationalize the science, they always offer a guiding argument, which distinguishes them from Unopinionatii.
There are probably others. Any thoughts?
I don’t know which I am or which I want to be. I suspect that I have grandiose visions of Polymathicus or Professorisis. I may have to settle for the debated taxonomic classification of Var. Studentiasis – who writes blogs about blogs and blogs about science and continually studies at uni and generally would kill to join one of the other variants.
There are a few dramatic climate-change related videos going round at the moment, frequently going after the shock factor. Whilst the shock factor is not always effective, this one below I think is very good, because it has a cognitive component – linking polar bears with your behaviour. No longer are they stuck on a melting iceberg, and this delivers a nice little way of thinking about your carbon footprint:
A rough version of a talk I’m doing at uni. Thought I’d try out recording it. Thoughts?
With a bizarre feeling of witnessing the future, I have just read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece in the New Yorker (dated 4/10/10!) on the problems that social networking will face in causing any social change. Over at Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has published an excellent reply challenging some of the claims Gladwell makes. This is a fascinating debate and a wonderful source of interesting distractions when you are meant to be working.
Any how, I want to take a different line and ask a related question about this. What do the differences between strong ties and weak ties imply for science communication? Read the rest of this entry »
When I was a child, I had what some might describe as an unhealthy obsession with TV documentaries about the world and wildlife. My tastes were not particularly discriminating, I would watch shows with a conservation theme, then enjoy a fishing show (I used to fish a lot with my Dad). But I loved watching shows that presented animals in their natural environment, and that gave us that little bit more knowledge about the world around us (one such series is actually called “The world around us”). I lapped up shows by the likes of David Attenborough and Ben Cropp.
Having exhausted what was on TV, I convinced my parents to take me to the video shop to get more. There I first discovered Malcolm Douglas; although he was already one of the highest rating documentary makers in Australian history. This khaki-clad adventurer would leap around the top half of our continent, handling snakes, chasing lizards, helping to catch and relocate troublesome crocodiles. He’d get bogged in his 4WD, then get out again competently (if a little muddy). The end of the day would be celebrated with a lesson on how to survive and flourish in the bush. Through Douglas’ lens I got to see parts of my country that I’d not seen before, and saw the behaviour of strange and dangerous creatures in their natural habitat. I was particularly impressed with his gentle skill with the animals he showed. As with his peers (though those like Douglas have few) he instilled in me a deep curiosity in the natural world, and more than that, a desire to learn more and pass it on to others. Read the rest of this entry »