This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

20Jun/11

How to argue with a fence post

Here's a recent post that I wrote for the Berkeley Science Review.  Looks like I'm finally going to have time to start writing again!


I don't often go off on rants about the importance of science communication (well, not in blog form anyway), but a recent article in Mother Jones magazine got me thinking about how important it is for the scientific community to know how to speak to the public.

The article by Chris Mooney isn't about communicating science per se; it is about making arguments in general. You might think that convincing someone you're right in an argument is dramatically different from telling someone about the awesomeness of the natural world, but (sadly) many public voices in science are faced with just such an antagonistic situation. People don't just believe facts; they believe a selective group of facts that coincide with their particular worldview or belief system. Mooney describes a number of belief "experiments" that shed some insight into the ways that people incorporate information into their beliefs. Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which vastly different groups are guilty of the same practices.

Take for example the Seekers, a small cult based in Chicago in the 1950s. They were thoroughly convinced of their ability to communicate with ethereal aliens, one of whom was believed to be some sort of cosmological version of Jesus Christ (adding weight to my own theory that old JC was, in fact, a Time Lord). Like so many cults before (and after) them, the Seekers saw their day of reckoning come and go with nary a revelation nor apocalypse. Reason might suggest that these misled folks would end it there, that they'd pack up their bags, return to their lives (what was remaining of them, since many had sold their possessions and quit their jobs in anticipation of the big day), and agree not to speak of their monumental goof ever again.

But you probably know that's not what they did. Instead, they began to rationalize for what had occurred, suggesting that they had actually diverted an apocalypse from happening. An announcement was made to the world, lauding the Seekers for their devotion and suggesting that "the little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." Sounds familiar, no?

These guys believed something that was obviously, painfully false. They were cult members... inherently irrational, right? Unfortunately, Mooney also points to a number of studies addressing how unwilling most people are to change their minds in the face of evidence that runs counter to their beliefs. In one study, liberals and conservatives were presented with an article about the 9/11 commission's findings on the lack of WMDs in Iraq. Many of the conservative participants were more likely to believe that WMDs had been hidden than before they read the article.  (Liberals shouldn't feel too high-and-mighty either. Similar effects have been found on both sides of the political spectrum.)

So why is this important in the world of science? An unfortunate thing about reality is that it often presents itself to us in unintuitive or confusing ways.  As scientists, our job is to wade through all that ambiguity and make sense of the tiny bits of truth that can be found in any set of data. Thus, we are often faced with the difficult challenge of making a case for a concept or theory that runs counter to what most people already believe. Ideally, the facts we have gleaned from our research would be enough to convince the public. In reality, we know that rarely happens.

This (finally) brings me to the topic of science communication. In a world full of individuals and organizations who would spread information designed to further their own interests, scientists have the daunting task of speaking for reality itself, for the world that exists apart from any subjective opinion or personal interest. Obviously, we're not perfect at this task. Selfishness and deceit are not unknown to the scientific community—all the more reason to think very carefully about how we communicate our findings.

Scientists have the ability to mine the universe of its secrets, to discover wonderful things about the world that can both advance and enrich society. For too many years discovery has been our only goal. The most fantastic discoveries in the world mean nothing if those ideas aren't shared within the scientific community and the world at large. Scientific findings have no voice; data makes no impassioned argument.  It is up to us, as scientists and discoverers, to speak for them.

21Mar/11

Ten things you need to know about science

One of the most powerful trends of the last hundred years has been the increasing amount of "science" that exists in our classrooms.  Compared with centuries ago, our students are learning more about the empirical method and the natural world than ever before.

And yet, these fields are still held to a different standard than the old, established disciplines of literature or art or philosophy.  This is perhaps best-personified in the kinds of information that are considered to be "essential" to a well-rounded education.  It's rare to find someone who hasn't been taught the basics of Shakespeare, yet quite common to meet a college student with no idea of how basic physics works.

Perhaps one reason for this is that scientists haven't made clear what are the most important things to know.  When you look at such a diverse field, it can become difficult to figure out what facts are "essential" and which are best left to those with a strong interest.  To that extent, here is an interesting article that tries to detail the "essentials" in an attempt to provide a foundation upon which non-scientists can build their knowledge.

For those who just want a quick glimpse at what they came up with, here's the short list:

  1. Evolution
  2. Genes and DNA
  3. Big bang
  4. Relativity
  5. Quantum mechanics
  6. Radiation
  7. Atoms and nuclear reactions
  8. Molecules and chemical reactions
  9. Digital data
  10. Statistical significance

I don't agree with all of their choices on the list (not that they aren't important, I just wish they had included a basic understanding of the brain in their list, given the large number of misleading and "pop" articles on neuroscience), but it's certainly a good start.

Hopefully, the future will bring with it a culture in which it is just as shameful to be ignorant of Mendeleev as it is to be unversed in Steinbeck, where a knowledge of classics includes a knowledge of classical physics.  A well-read mind is a powerful one indeed, let's make sure we keep such an idea up-to-date.

The Financial Times article

10Dec/10

Now this is how you show statistics

So this isn't technically about science, although it's about a field that is of extreme importance to science: statistics!  I feel like stats is one of those fields that is, upon first glance, incredibly boring...however, if you spend the time to delve in a bit deeper and figure out the many things that stats can tell you, it becomes fascinating.

And thank god that there are people like Hans Rosling around to do just that.  You may have seen a number of his TED talks in which he uses historical data to illustrate the history of the world with beautiful clarity.  Well, he's got another video out, and it's a doozy.  It comes from BBC Fours special program "The Joy of Stats" in which Professor Rosling takes us on a statistical tour that covers all kinds of different topics.

One of the coolest thing about stats (and number crunching in general) is that they allow you to reveal hidden patterns within seemingly random and jumbled data.  The more you look at the world, the more you realize that it tends to be both predictable and noisy at the same time.  Statistics are a way for us to make sense of this ambiguous universe, sketching out the underlying rules behind a seemingly uninterpretable world.

It is rare these days to find a person who is knowledgeable and engaging enough to get people excited about stats, but take a look at the above video and you may find yourself a convert!

via BBC Four