From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"What are you waiting for?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 26 November 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

If you had the power to speak directly to all the billions of people on the planet, but you could only tell them only one thing, what would it be? What if that one thing could only be an opportunity to share something about science, what would you want to teach?

Would it be something cosmic, or more terrestrial? Would it be about climate change? Evolution? Cosmology? Would it be about past cultures, or the nature of relationships, or how chemical bonds form? Would it be macroscopic or microscopic?

Would it be something about how science works, or how it’s useful in everyday lives? Would it be about evidence and inference?

One fact, one opportunity. Make it count.

There must be something in you that you wish everybody could know. Some way that you see the world that enriches your vision - it adds color to an otherwise greyscale view - that you would love to share. You know that if everybody shared that same precious knowledge, it would make the world just a little bit better.

We don’t usually get the opportunity to speak to 7-billion-plus people at once. But we can speak to one person. A friend, a neighbor, a fellow passenger. We can speak to a hundred people in a day. We can reach a few thousand on social media. Kids, their parents, their grandparents. You can tell one person and they can tell another.

The only barriers to science communication are the ones we put there ourselves, and you have something you wish everyone could know.

Well, what are you waiting for?

"Who's fault is it anyway?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 20 November 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

When we see an obvious case of bad science reporting (sensationalistic headlines, meaningless statements, lack of context, etc.) it's easy to blame the journalists and the news media in general. And for sure, there are enough unscrupulous journalists out there to fill more than one editorial office. And for sure, fake news is all the rage now, with some stories spun from pure imagination with malicious intent. But when it comes to science, most bad journalism comes from bad science itself...and bad scientists.

Lame statistics, poor methodology, unsound claims. Some scientists are good and well-intentioned but are under unreasonable pressure to publish. Some scientists just aren't very good at the whole science thing. Either way, bad science makes it through, and it's the job of the community to self-police and sort out the wheat from the chaff.

But what about when scientists present their work to the public? There are no barriers to entry for that, and indeed, the incentives are exactly backwards: the wilder, the more speculative, the bigger, the sexier the result, the more likely journalists will lap it up, regardless of its genuine scientific merit. How do we prevent bad science from poisoning our relationships with the public?

The answer has to come from our internal culture. We already have systems and expectations in place for filtering out bad research from becoming science. We need systems and expectations in place that filter out bad science from becoming public knowledge. It has to happen within departments and within university press offices. We have to recognize that the source of poor science reporting isn't the news, but us.

"Won't you be my neighbor?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 12 November 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Sometimes you encounter people who believe differently than you do. I know, crazy, but let's explore the hypothetical scenario just in case it were to happen.

People may disagree with you about any number of mundane and/or sensitive topics. But what do you do when the topic is something that you believe via science? What do you do when you know a statement to be accurate or disproven given the weight of the empirical evidence and the soundness of the theories?

This is a tricky thing, because science provide a powerful but impartial lens to view the world. In other words, we have very good reasons to believe in particular statements and not in others, and it's easy to forget that not everyone looks through the same lens. How can we best turn a potential argument into an opportunity to share? Here are two tips I've found useful:

- Unless someone asks for your opinion, don't give it. You don't want to be that person that goes around like a wet science blanket, explaining to people why they're wrong.

- If someone asks for your opinion, give it. Be polite and respectful but don't mince words. Trying to shield people from what you think they don't want to hear can itself be a form of disrespect and condescension. But when you respond, don't use "I" - don't make this personal. "The evidence suggests". "Experiments show." "Researchers found." Provide the impartial view as simply as you can. Tell a fun story about the scientists or the work. Connect it to a larger view.

I've found with this strategy that people either start asking a lot more questions, or they file away the info-nugget for processing later. Either way, the conversation rolls smoothly along, no hard feelings.

[12 3 4 5  >>