From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Challenge Accepted"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 19 August 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's a strange habit that develops in scientific life. Well, to be fair, there are a lot of strange habits that develop, but I'll focus on just one today. It's a habit of questioning everything, and I mean everything.

It's a part of the training to become a scientist, but it's not one you learn through any class. Instead, over the course of years you begin to recognize that what at first feels like harsh, personal critique is actually a vital part of the scientific process itself.

See an obvious mistake? Call it out. Don't understand something? Ask the question. Spot a hidden assumption? Bring it to the surface. Hear a conclusion asserted without evidence? Challenge it. Find a sacred cow? Turn it into hamburgers.

The practice of questioning everything is necessary, because the game of making science actually work isn't something done personally - you need a community. Sure, you might try your best to limit bias or carefully control your experiment or make the best assumptions in the math or apply the proper statistics, but you absolutely rely on your colleagues to check your work. Science is a process that thrives on that constant ever-vigilant critical examination from your peers, from your advisor to your research group to your journal referee to your presentation audience.

The rules of this game are simple: challenge everything.

"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.

<<  1 2 3 4 [56 7 8 9  >>