From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Hard Truth About Data"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 14 May 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I've had a pithy saying that I like to toss around. I don't know where I got it, and I can't find a source for it, so I'll go ahead and take credit for it: the first thing that lies to you is the data.*

If we have a question about the world, or about best communication practices, or what audiences prefer, or whatever, it's tempting to just "get some data" and call it a day. We'll do some measurements or make some observations, and that will tell us how to move forward. Easy-peasy!

Except, it usually won't.

People lie in surveys. Bias sneaks through in unexpected ways. Instruments can be miscalibrated or used incorrectly. And perhaps worst of all, uncertainties are miscalculated or left out altogether. The classic book "How to Lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff goes into this last point in depressingly hilarious detail, and should be required reading for...well, let's just go with the whole human race.

Data can easily mislead you, and if you're not careful it's even easier for unscrupulous people to abuse the "results" for their own purposes. While some good questions to ask will come in another piece, it's most important to remember that most data-collection efforts are far more inconclusive and nuanced than they may appear at first blush. Never be afraid to challenge results and arguments - this is exactly what happens in the halls of academia every single day.

It's tempting to put a blind trust in data, but that's a rookie mistake. The extensive training that it takes to be a scientist starts with data collection techniques, but quickly moves to data interpretation, and pretty much occupies the rest of their professional careers.

*The second thing that lies to you is yourself, but that's the subject of another piece. And yes, "data" is usually plural, but it sounds better as a singular here so I'm leaving it.--

"Clickbait Science"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 06 May 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

A person is more than a list of facts, right? If you were asked to describe someone, you would start out with simple stats: height, build, hair color (or lack thereof), etc. Then you would go to more abstract descriptions, like their general attitude or personality. But to really uniquely encapsulate a human being you would have to describe them with intangibles, those hard-to-express but essential attributes that, woven together, paint a picture of what a person is actually like.

It's all too easy to present science as a list of facts. But how do we communicate what science actually is? What the scientific process entails, or what it means to have a scientific mindset and worldview? How skepticism, constant criticism, deference to observation, and boundless creativity mix together to make a potent combination? How do we explain what it's like to be a scientist without becoming one?

Don't get me wrong - cool and fun facts about the universe are, well, cool and fun, and certainly help to draw audiences into the world of science. But in a media landscape dominated by sensationalist clickbait headlines that only deliver surface-level engagement - or no engagement at all - it's troubling to see science presented in the same way and falling into the same traps. Our goals of science communication have to be so much more. We have to show the "how" in addition to the "what". Indeed, the method we use to discover an answer is far more important, and far more meaningful, than the particular number or fact that results from that search.

We can't ever forget in our teaching moments the "how" we do science, otherwise it will always be just a list of empty facts, as easily consumed and discarded as the last headline.

"Scientifically proven."

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 30 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Okay, there's one phrase that absolutely drives me up a wall. I do my best in all public interactions to stay cool and respectful of differing opinions and approaches to understanding, but when I hear these two little words I instantly Hulk out and start (mentally) smashing things:

"Scientifically proven."

I guarantee that if you hear that spoken to you, then you can immediately dismiss the speaker as a charlatan, a fake, a con, and/or an outright liar. They're trying to sell you something, and they're abusing the respectability of the scientific profession to pull you in.

Science doesn't prove anything. Anything. Every single statement we make about the world around us using the scientific method is provisional. They're based on the current accumulated evidence. All of our models, laws, hypotheses, and full-blown theories can be abruptly and unceremoniously overturned in a blink of an eye if new evidence comes to light.

And if a statement can be shown to be wrong tomorrow, then it can't exactly be "proven" today, can it?

Sure, there are some things we're pretty dang sure about the universe, like, I don't know, evolution of species and conservation of momentum, so it's not like we're losing sleep worrying that we can't make any scientific progress, but the principle holds true.

And there can certainly be accumulated evidence and statements of observation or experiment that are bare facts of our natural experience, but those statements are true or untrue, not proven or unproven, and they're usually much less interesting than you would hope (e.g., "under a limited set of controlled conditions, and subject to experimental uncertainty, we observe a 40% increase in an observed property compared to a control population.")

The scientific method is inherently inferential: today we make reaching statements that are conditioned on the available data and evidence. But tomorrow is, as they say, a new day.

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