From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Providing Value"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 01 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

It's easy to say "science is great!" It's another thing entirely to explain why.

As fans of the scientific method we should immediately recognize the need to provide evidence to back up our statements. Therefore a part of our mission as a community of scientists, educators, and communicators is to share with our audiences that science can be incorporated into their everyday lives.

In other words, our message has to be that science provides value.

Some of the value of science is in the facts, the cool stuff that generations of hard-working scientists have revealed about our world and our universe. It's fun to learn new things and figure things out, and we should definitely share that. And I have nothing against putting that front and center; after all, "gee whiz isn't that neat" forms the backbone of most of my own outreach efforts.

But it can't end with facts and basic knowledge. That's only the entry point to the true value realized by communicating science: how to think critically, how to sharpen one's mind to recognize bias and cut out BS, how to apply inductive reasoning, how to form and evaluate hypotheses, how to navigate noisy and incomplete data, and so on.

We must strive to share how we can all apply the methods of the scientific trade to solve vexing problems. Science can't find a solution to every issue (that's the subject of another piece) but it's a wonderfully handy tool that can be applied to many situations.

In other words, science can be valuable.

That's our message. That's our focus - not audience size or revenue targets or growth projections. Those are the result of providing value, not the cause. And that value isn't necessarily in what we say to our audiences, but what we create within them.

"The Challenge of the Flat Earth"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 26 March 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

It's so easy to dismiss "flat-Earthers". Most of my colleagues do so with a contemptuous smirk and "of course the Earth is round", sometimes following up with "you idiot". I myself usually respond with a contemptuous roll of my eyes and "I refuse to feed the trolls"...sometimes following up with "you idiot".

Or at least that was my response until an interaction during the last COSI After Dark, when a young couple started asking me about flat Earth and various conspiracy theories during my live planetarium show. I answered their questions, but after the show I realized that I probably didn't convince them of anything. Where was I going wrong?

I don't really care what a person believes; what's more important is why a person believes. If we agree on the "why", then we can debate the evidence and discuss the facts. If we disagree on the "why" - if we're approaching the issue from fundamentally different perspectives - then that's what we need to examine first.

After the planetarium show it struck me (and I apologize if I'm late to a common realization) that the question of Earth's roundness isn't a debate about facts, but something deeper. Perhaps a flat-Earther isn't questioning the evidence, or even doubting me personally, but challenging the system that I represent.

That line of thinking leads to some intense questions. How many times has science been used to lie to a group of people? To harm them? How many times have scientists been willing participants in that deception?

To put it crudely, how many times have groups been screwed over because of science, or at the very least the socioeconomic systems that promote and entrench scientists? Can you blame people for rejecting the entire apparatus altogether, and voicing that rejection in the form of flat-Earth theories?

If we want to honestly respond to flat-Earthers, I think we first have to take an introspective look inwards and solve the riddle of rebuilding trust.

"Compassionate Skepticism"

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

Of course we want to promote healthy skeptical attitudes ("healthy" being a key word here, but that's another post) in the general public. Skepticism is a critical part of the scientific mindset, and a properly skeptical outlook allows one to - essentially - not waste time and energy believing statements that aren't likely to be true.

But the application of that skeptical mindset can lead to more problems than it solves, especially when it comes to science communication. When does a debate become an argument? When it gets personal; when it shifts from discussing the relative merits or demerits of a particular position to the rightness or wrongness of what one believes. Once that shift happens, we haven't hit the iceberg yet...but it's hard to turn that ship around. If we're actually trying to educate, persuade, or inform, we're basically done.

Here's the problem: skepticism isn't a measure of the truthfulness of a statement, but its believability. It's perfectly acceptable to say "I don't believe that statement, but that doesn't make you wrong." Go ahead, try it out, it won't hurt. Statements can be 100% absolutely true but not able to be believed because of lack of evidence, and we all have different thresholds.

This shifts the discussion from things that a person might hold near and dear to their heart - and thus will righteously defend - back to the realm of the abstract. In this case, the nature of evidentiary standards.

In short, a skeptical person ought to be known having a high bar for believing statements, but it's nothing personal, and they won't hold it against you.

<<  1 2 3 4 5 [67 8 9 10  >>