From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Dumb Science"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 13 August 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I hate the term "dumbing down". It implies that only smart people can understand science to the max, and in order to communicate with "dumb" people we have to grossly simplify our explanations and leave out key details. In the process, we might feel there's a risk of communicating the wrong thing, and the audience will end up misinformed about the topic at hand.

First off, the very act of using natural language to describe scientific concepts can be considered "dumbing down". Most sciences, and especially the physical sciences, are rooted in math. Whether for theory, simulation, or observational analysis, it's all math. And when results are summarized for communication with other scientists, the paragraphs are loaded with so much jargon and technical terms that it might as well be a foreign language. So if you're not using the math and jargon, you're already several steps removed from the original concept.

Even the word "simplify" gives me heartburn. People usually don't understand the intricate details of science not because they're dumb or because they can't handle complexity, but because they're not fluent in the language of the discipline. It's a matter of training and experience, not raw intelligence.

The game of science communication is translation. It's about taking concepts naturally expressed in a particular (mathematical and jargon-heavy) language, and translating it to the language of the audience. When scientists communicate with the public, it's not as their teachers or professors, but as their interpreters.

"An Intrinsic Good"

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

Right out of the gate let me say that I'm a huge advocate for STEM literacy. Developing an appreciation and understanding (and, if we want to go all in, an adoption) of logical, rational, mathematical worldviews in kids and the general public is an important personal goal for me and an essential part of the mission of formal and informal educational institutions.

I'm also a huge advocate for general academic literacy, including the arts and humanities. STEM in isolation is not an ideal goal, but that's another piece.

But we often hear the narrative that STEM literacy is declining, and that our mission is to fight that decline lest the general public becomes ignorant and afraid of the world around them. But here are three questions in response to that claim: 1) Can you actually reliably measure STEM "literacy"?, 2) Is it really declining?, and 3) Is that the true motivation of our mission?

I'm always wary of disaster narratives. You know the spiel: there's a huge problem in the world, and we're the only ones who can solve it! If that's the case, what happens when we accomplish our goals? If everyone in the world were STEM literate, would we close our doors and turn out the lights? If STEM literacy began to climb, would we scale back our initiatives? By arguing that we only exist to fight a problem, we set up a perverse incentive: we can only survive as long as the problem does, which means the problem must always exist too.

Instead, we can motivate ourselves with a much more simple approach. We can claim that STEM literacy is an intrinsic good, something that is worthwhile and valuable (and being the good scientists that we are, we can even provide evidence to support this statement!). It doesn't matter if that literacy is declining or growing - our mission stays the same.

"Lose it"

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

The anti-vaxxer. The climate change denier. The moon hoaxer. We all know that one person in our family or circle of friends that just won't give it up. And what's worse, it seems like every time you're together that's all they want to talk about. And you, being the strong-willed advocate for science that you thankfully are, marshal your evidence and lines of convincing arguments and attempt to disabuse them of their egregiously incorrect thinking. And then the yelling starts, somehow.

I get it, I really do. I've been there myself...many times.

But if someone didn't arrive at a conclusion via evidence and rationality, then evidence and rationality isn't going to change their minds. They believe in these things for some reason, but it's probably not a reason that we can a) uncover easily and b) navigate comfortably over dinner.

So what to do? Well in the words of famed English novelist and critic George Orwell, "the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it."

It seems paradoxical, but look at the evidence: if you have never won these arguments in the past then you probably never will in the future, especially when your opponent is bringing up these issues specifically to spark one.

So drop it. Don't fight that battle because it's a losing proposition. Don't try to change beliefs, because beliefs are hard to change. Most beliefs are harmless, anyway. Someone who believes that we never went to the moon may be (extremely) irritating, but it doesn't change what we do as scientists and science communicators. Life goes on, doesn't it?

And where beliefs do cause harm (sending kids to school unvaccinated, voting against important policies, and so on), fight them there. The actions and results of a belief are fair game and should be resisted - on their consequences for everybody else. It's the difference between telling someone their *beliefs* are wrong and arguing that a *result* is harmful. People hold strongly to their beliefs...but are perfectly willing to compromise those beliefs when the situation is right.

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