From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Blissful Ignorance"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 02 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

In a perfect world we would just open up the doors, let folks filter in to take their seats, and start talking about science. They would listen, agree that it's pretty awesome, and go home to tell their friends and family what they just learned.

But as luck would have it, we don't live in a perfect world. There are innumerable barriers between scientists and non-scientists, and between science presenters and (potential) audiences. Some of those barriers are due to societal structures that we need to guard against and mitigate. And some of those barriers are due to biases that people carry against science - I wrote about that last week.

But some of those barriers are built with our own hands. Sometimes the walls between science and society are anchored in our own biases, assumptions, and stereotypes about non-scientists.

How many times do we shame people for not knowing basic astronomy facts? Or ridicule climate change skeptics or evolution deniers? Or chuckle about those idiotic flat-earthers? How many times do we harbor suspicions that non-scientists simply don't - or can't - "get it"?

Those expressions may feel good in the moment, and get that old fashioned team spirit going amongst science communicators and their fans. But don't those biases slither into the way we communicate and share science? Don't they turn audiences off and turn people away? Doesn't one negative interaction cause a ripple effect that makes it even harder to fulfill our mission in the future?

Some people don't know basic science facts. Some harbor beliefs that we may find repugnant. But they're also people. We must overcome what we *think* they might be in order to find ways to build genuine bridges. After all, if we allow our biases to cloud our judgement, we can't very well claim to be accurate representatives of the scientific worldview, can we?

"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.

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