From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Fighting Bias"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 16 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

When it comes to science, perhaps the most dangerous form of bias is simple wishful thinking. Oftentimes the data are extremely hard to come by in the first place, requiring huge investments of time, money, and hardware. After all that effort you probably really, really hope that your hypothesis works out. If it does, you get to publish, speak at conferences, and have a shot of getting your grant renewed. If it doesn't, well, maybe you can come up with a new idea?

So I'm sympathetic to scientists who unconsciously try to make their results look as good as possible. They're working in a broken system, with the number of their papers and the size of their grants determining their fate. But that subtle incentive introduces an ugly bias into the body of scientific research: apparent results that simply aren't there.

It's the job of the rest of the scientific community to a) be aware of that bias, and b) fight against it. You may have heard that some fields of science are facing a "replication crisis", where the majority of results are not holding up to further scrutiny. This is good! It's a sign that the field is self-policing and actively working against the implicit biases that lead to junk research. Imagine a world where we didn't even know these fields were facing a crisis, and the results were simply taken at face value. Is that world better or worse than our current situation?

For example, the CalTech astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues argue that there is evidence for an additional massive planet in the outermost solar system, but many other astronomers argue against that hypothesis and present their own lines of evidence to counter. And he doesn't blame them - he even admitted during a recent talk that had he seen a competitor publish those same results, he would've scoffed and worked to disprove them.

Fighting bias in science isn't some lofty high-minded virtue. It's a result of natural human grubbiness and our desire to prove our opponents wrong and to demonstrate our own correctness. Progress in science relies on a community of healthy skepticism and open debate - those are the core principles that drive advances in understanding.

"The Dangers of Scientism"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 08 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

It's our mission as science communicators to, well, communicate science. And not just its processes and methods, but also the value and importance of science in modern society. But there's a dangerous line that's very easy to cross when promoting all things science: that science is all the things.

Let's look first at the difference between patriotism and jingoism. It's perfectly fine and acceptable to be patriotic: to love one's nation, its people, its ideals, and to strive to make it better. It's another to turn that love for one's own country into a hatred for others, to believe in its superiority over all the other nations of the Earth, and to use that belief to back aggressive aims.

Scientism is the position that science isn't just a cool way to learn things about the universe, but The One True Way, superior to all other paths of knowledge and understanding. Something along the lines of "If it ain't science, it ain't nothing." That science is capable of answering any possible question (or at the very least, arguing that the only questions worth considering are those that are amenable to the scientific method), and that humanity can safely discard religion, philosophy, and even the arts as relics of the past.

I'm not saying that it's our job to promote anything but science - we are to be clear, strong-voiced advocates for its value. But the people we are speaking to are real humans with real lives with real beliefs. The moment we switch from promoting to attacking, we stop communicating, and we've failed our mission.

"Providing Value"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 01 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

It's easy to say "science is great!" It's another thing entirely to explain why.

As fans of the scientific method we should immediately recognize the need to provide evidence to back up our statements. Therefore a part of our mission as a community of scientists, educators, and communicators is to share with our audiences that science can be incorporated into their everyday lives.

In other words, our message has to be that science provides value.

Some of the value of science is in the facts, the cool stuff that generations of hard-working scientists have revealed about our world and our universe. It's fun to learn new things and figure things out, and we should definitely share that. And I have nothing against putting that front and center; after all, "gee whiz isn't that neat" forms the backbone of most of my own outreach efforts.

But it can't end with facts and basic knowledge. That's only the entry point to the true value realized by communicating science: how to think critically, how to sharpen one's mind to recognize bias and cut out BS, how to apply inductive reasoning, how to form and evaluate hypotheses, how to navigate noisy and incomplete data, and so on.

We must strive to share how we can all apply the methods of the scientific trade to solve vexing problems. Science can't find a solution to every issue (that's the subject of another piece) but it's a wonderfully handy tool that can be applied to many situations.

In other words, science can be valuable.

That's our message. That's our focus - not audience size or revenue targets or growth projections. Those are the result of providing value, not the cause. And that value isn't necessarily in what we say to our audiences, but what we create within them.
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