From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Go ahead, say the dangerous thing"

on Sunday, 27 May 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

By now I've done enough events that I pretty much assume for a typical audience size and a typical event length that I will say at least one statement that at least one person disagrees with. As I frequently get questions about the Big Bang or flat Earth or aliens or climate change, it's usually more than one statement offending more than one person.

Of course it's never my intention. I try to simply communicate what we know about our world through the lens of the scientific method and how we know that (i.e. the scientific method itself as applied beyond simple classroom examples, which is the subject of another piece). But in the course of any discussion eventually a single sentence or even an entire topic suddenly becomes a contentious issue.

This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Imagine a world where everybody was fully comfortable with the scientific viewpoint and readily accepted the latest research without question. Well for one, anyone who served as a facilitator of science would be out of a job, because the general public could facilitate themselves. And for two, that world would be a very scary place.

The successful application of the scientific method itself requires constant criticism and argumentation to refine and update our knowledge of the world. Without scientists questioning each other, we wouldn't progress at all. So if we're to incubate within the general public a healthy skeptical attitude, we should expect and encourage a similar level of rigorous interrogation.

I'm not saying that people can't take it too far (they do) and that skepticism can't turn unhealthy (it can) but every disbelieving question is an amazing opportunity. What a gift we now have to open dialogues and dig deeper into subjects, to make sure that everything we're saying is backed up by mountains of evidence and years of scientific toil - and that we're capable of explaining it. We may not change minds in that moment but that's not necessarily the goal.

I think that being prepared for disagreement, and even being willing to be provocative to create disagreement, makes us better science communicators and makes science better understood in society.

But feel free to disagree.

"Don't Go Chasing Audiences"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 20 May 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The most generous word I could use to describe the current state of media is "fractured". It's not that all audiences have turned solely to social media and that traditional media is dead, but it's that everybody has an almost dizzying array of options available to consume entertainment. And while some demographics may prefer certain channels (you won't find a lot of teenagers on Facebook or watching the local evening news, for example), if we want to reach audiences we have to go where they are.

What compounds this is the challenge to create meaningful, impactful educational and inspirational opportunities. It's relatively easy to, say, pour tens of thousands of dollars down the drain of a social media campaign, and that campaign will generate clicks and likes and shares and "engagement" in the narrow sense that advertisers care about.

But it may not be the kind of engagement that we care about.

We can't discount the power of personal interactions. That precious moment when you have someone's full attention, can look them straight in the eye, and get to share something wonderful about the way the world works. Seeing those eyes light up with awareness and true understanding for the first time is the best form of storytelling and education. Social and traditional media are powerful too, yes, and we must use them to push to new and broad audiences - often because there's only a slim chance they'll come to us without encouragement. But in our yearning for clicks and shares, we shouldn't forget the human moments that make our mission possible...and fun.

"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.--

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