From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Not Very Mad Scientist"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 25 June 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There are certain pervasive stereotypes that society holds about scientists. These stereotypes are often reinforced in the media: popular TV shows, big-budget movies, off-hand comments in the news, and so on. In this view, scientists are usually old, white dudes with unkempt looks who shun the world in favor of their "experiments" (quotes here because they're usually not well controlled or maintained properly, but I digress) in their disorganized laboratory. Their passion for their work dominates their lives to the point that they are essentially no longer recognizably human.

Occasionally you'll see a younger scientist portrayed. They're at least not old, but still manage to have some crippling personality trait that prevents them from having normal personal interactions. They're ridiculously smart to the point of improbability, and also largely suffer from single-minded devotion to a single task. Overall the message is this: a scientist is not the kind of person you want to be, it's something that happens to some people.

But how many times do scientists not actually mind the stereotype, and even actively work to encourage it? I've met more than one scientist who deliberately puts on an air of aloofness, who has judged society to never be able to understand their work, or who thumbs their nose at social conventions because they're too important.

Sometimes we take on the way that society portrays us and wear it as a badge of honor - a way to distinguish us from them. Which of course isn't exactly healthy.

If there's a nugget of positivity in here, it's that scientists are at least shown to be passionately curious, which I argue is one of our defining - and admirable! - traits. That curiosity drives the late-night programming sessions, the wrestling with tortuous mathematics, and the rigorous attention to laboratory detail. But scientists themselves are a broad cross-section of people and personalities - and almost never like how the media portrays.

To break down stereotypes, we can't just sit around complaining to each other about how we're portrayed in the media; we actually have to go out there and show people what real scientists look and act like.

You know, provide some evidence.

"Know Your Errors"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 18 June 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

If you come across reports of a new advance in science, your first task is to determine if it's based on theory or experiment. If it's theory - say, some interesting computational result or an ingenious extension of known mathematical models - then you can rest easy, knowing that it's probably wrong because that's just the way the game of science is played. If we knew the correct answer ahead of time we wouldn't call it research.

Likewise, if the news story is based purely on observations or measurement, and the same team that did the work is providing an explanation for their own results, then you can rest easy too. A naked observation without any context is just that - a statement about some random thing that nature decided to do today. Each lone observation could have a range of interpretations from mundane to game-changing, and folks naturally lean towards the more interesting possibility, because that's exciting and fun and points to Nobel-prize-land. It also almost always ends up being less than revolutionary.

The most interesting stories are when theory connects to observations, when there's a strong attempt to refute or bolster some piece of (un)known science. And here the name of the game is error bars. In this game, what you know (the raw value you get) is much less important than how well you know it (the estimate of your uncertainty). It's here that you'll see quotes like "4.1 sigma detection" or "0.005% chance this was a coincidence".

Those statements are nice, and also almost always wrong. It takes multiple independent teams replicating the same result, using their own unique blend of methodology, analysis, and error estimation, before a result is generally accepted. This is an achingly slow and fastidious process, but absolutely crucial to ensuring that advances to understanding are actually advances.

In short: if you see a news article about science, especially if it's on the sensationalist side, keep your guard up and your hopes down.

"The Feynman Technique on Learning"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 11 June 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's no doubt that Richard Feynman - Nobel-winning physicist, solver of the Challenger disaster, and above-average bongo player - was a brilliant mind. In addition to many insights into the fundamental workings of the universe, he gifted us mere mortals with a handy guide to learning that is worth repeating:

1) Write the name of the topic on the top of a blank page.

2) Explain the topic using simple language, as if to someone with no prior experience.

3) Examine your work for any assumptions, lack of clarity, or places where you simply paraphrased another source. Go back to the books if necessary.

4) Simplify, shorten, and substitute metaphors at difficult places. Repeat.

The end goal of this process is to achieve a mastery of the subject. And a handy side effect of having an understanding of a topic with this particular technique is that you're perfectly positioned to explain it to audiences who have no prior experience using simple, uncomplicated language with lots of metaphors.

As a bonus, it's iterative. It's a template for continual improvement in understanding, allowing your knowledge to deepen the more times you repeat it.

Of course this is no easy feat. A brief 10 minute presentation on a subject could take hours upon hours to prepare. But when the presentation is over you at least have a decent shot of claiming to sincerely understand the material. And how often do we get to say that?

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