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Science exists within philosophy

November 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Freddie rejects the notion that data exists in a vacuum:

Empiricism exists within a framework of theory, and theory cannot be derived empirically. The fact-value distinction is real. (This argument of mine is illustrative of its own point: I take it as an empirical truth, not a normative statement, but its empirical claims are necessarily grounded in theoretical assumptions.) And fact-value problems exist for both the commission of empirical projects and the evaluation of empirical results.

While I sympathize with this stance, Freddie is wrong to think that journalists are going to–or should–reflect on the fact-value distinction. When scientists themselves routinely push a simplistic model of empiricism, it’s not fair to expect Ezra Klein to resolve that disagreement. Here’s the lengthy comment I left:

Great post. But methinks the problem doesn’t start with Klein as much as it does with academics. The delusion that empiricism alone can solve our problems started with us, and we continue to promote it. The Ezra Kleins out there are simply following our lead.

While I sympathize with your efforts…there are sound historical, institutional, and cultural reasons why social scientists are not the standard-bearers for empiricism and its connection to theory.

For better and for worse, it’s usually the natural and physical scientists who speak on these matters. Even more specifically, it’s often physicists. And trust me, they are not going to accept that “science exists within philosophy.” I have tried to raise this very point before, and I can’t begin to describe the ruckus it caused.

If your goal was to pick a fight, you couldn’t have chosen a better title. I can predict my friends’ response: “What? Are you trying to say that the mass of the electron depends on philosophy? That there are norms about the existence of gravity?”

These discussions always get reduced to something like gravity. Again, trust me because I’ve been there.

You’re trying to raise a very complicated idea. One that requires a ~1,000 word example to even get started. It’s a bit much to expect wonks to descend into this territory.

It’s especially harder when much public outreach about science and empiricism by academics stress that data alone can set us free, that empiricism is a way to free ourselves from our pre-conceived philosophies, and that thinking otherwise is the first step to destroying the Enlightenment.

If you want to change Ezra Klein, start with the physics professor down the hall from you.

 

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Categories: Communication, Philosophy

With great trepidation, I criticize Dan Sarewitz

October 1, 2012 3 comments

I feel like the kid on the right when I disagree with Dan Sarewitz on science policy

Dan Sarewitz worries about creeping bias in science (emphasis added):

Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research…Nothing will corrode public trust more than a creeping awareness that scientists are unable to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. Useful steps to deal with this threat may range from reducing the hype from universities and journals about specific projects, to strengthening collaborations between those involved in fundamental research and those who will put the results to use in the real world. There are no easy solutions. The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.

As you all know, Dan Sarewitz is one of my intellectual heroes. And so it doubly pains me to note that I critiqued this sort of writing in my last post. What does it mean to “undermine the very foundations of science”? Does it mean funding will be cut? PhD enrollment will decrease? The public will stop supporting science? And what would that mean? Would decreased public support itself translate to less funding? How?

I think Dan is trying to say something along the lines of: “Bias in science is a big deal, we should be doing more to address it, and there’s a chance it could hurt our credibility.” While the rest of his essay admirably explains the first two points, the conclusion is a bit strained. As I’ve noted before, a robust body of evidence suggests that there is no penalty for hype and exaggerations. Simply because something is a problem does not mean there are consequences for avoiding it.

On clarity in writing

September 30, 2012 2 comments

Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no…Here’s another example: “Fixed-gear bikes are ridden exclusively on these tracks.” This sentence is almost proud of its perfect ambiguity. It means one of two things: “People ride fixed-gear bikes only on these tracks” or “On these tracks people ride only fixed gear bikes.” Both are statements about exclusivity, but one is about bikes, the other about tracks. The sentence as written offers no way to choose between them. — Verlyn Klinkenborg

Klinkenborg’s advice should be heeded by science writers, this one included. Though clarifying the vocabulary of science has been a hobby-horse of mine for some time, I’m starting to wonder what that phrase means as it is written. My intentions, as Klinkenborg helpfully observes, are blind to all of you. Am I speaking about the research vocabulary scientists use among themselves? Or the vocabulary of journalists popularizing science? And which scientists? What parts of science?

To try start the process of clarification…

All of us use generalizations. We generalize about sports, about states both red and blue, about men, about women. Thankfully, we mostly recognize these generalizations as generalizations. We know they have limited value and we expect deviations. We get that Orange County can be conservative even though California is liberal.

We also know that complicated systems can be analyzed on different levels. Sports reporters focus on details of the game as well as the backroom negotiations. We routinely hear that sports about greed and corruption as much as it is about teamwork and grit.

So the question is…do we know that sentences like “science is about testing hypotheses” are also generalizations? That not all scientists test hypotheses in the same way? That some fields are not amenable to hypothesis-testing? And do we know that science, like sports, can also be analyzed on different levels? That science is “about” writing grants as much as hypothesis-testing?

Helping us think about “science” in this way–the way we already think about many large categories–is a central goal of this blog. I hope that’s now clear.

What is “science” communication?

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

According to Thompson-Reuters, eight-thousand and seventy-three science and engineering journals published just over one million peer-reviewed articles in 2010. Another two-thousand one hundred and seventy-six social science journals published over 200,000 papers. This works out to two peer-reviewed journal articles being published every minute of every hour of every day for the entire year.

At the start of the millennium, there were “only” seven-thousand three-hundred and eighty-three journals. So in a mere ten years, almost three-thousand new journals were formed. This trend will surely intensify as more nations invest in science. Brazil, China, Korea and Turkey are all publishing at least 10% more scientific papers every year. Even tiny countries like Tunisia and Qatar are getting in the game, more than tripling the share of GDP spent on research since 1996 (see here).

So what does it mean to be a scientist anymore? Is it fair to group theoretical physicists with observational ecologists? Should these groups have the same label when scientists in the same discipline don’t always overlap? I have attended several annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union. It always struck me that the soil scientists are separated—physically and intellectually—from the space physicists. The near-Earth space physicists are separated from those studying Mars, who are in turn separated from those studying Venus.

Looking at this motley array, it’s hard not to conclude that there is no “science.” There are only sciences.  It’s also hard not to conclude that “science” communication is a problematic concept. Given how vast, diverse, and balkanized research has become, what exactly are individual scientists communicating? How does any single person have the authority to speak for a $1 trillion dollar, seven million person global enterprise?
Categories: Communication, Disunity

Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach, part 2

October 24, 2011 1 comment

As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:

This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…

Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”

I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)

But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.

Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.

Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.

There is more to science than climate change

September 1, 2011 3 comments

I understand the Zack Beauchamps out there apply a national politics filter to almost everything they write. I get why they spend time on climate change and stem cells rather than space physics. I accept my thesis really wasn’t very interesting. But can we please stop pretending that science begins and ends with climate change? Can we stop equating a position on two or three hot-button issues with “science?” The U.S. spends some $400 billion on R&D every year. In 2006 over 1 million papers were published in 23,000-odd peer-reviewed journals. Are we going to reduce all of this to nothing more than the latest IPCC report?

I assure you I too want to stop global warming. But come on. Most research has absolutely nothing to do with politics at any scale. It cheapens the whole experience to brand me as pro or anti-science based on a single issue. It is possible to engage with and care about science without giving a damn about cap-and-trade.

You may not know this from reading the political blogosphere, but there is in fact more to science than climate change.

Complicated, deeply reported, long-form science journalism

May 1, 2011 2 comments

About one month ago DC reporter Shani Hilton caught some flack for ignoring the poor in a piece on black middle-class gentrification. Rather than add to the criticism, TNC suggests a better response:

From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting–and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle–would have made Shani’s story better. I hope she’ll take up that challenge in the future.

But I also hope that the people challenging her now will follow suit, and do some writing and reporting, themselves. The biggest problem with this story is that it bears too much weight–there simply aren’t enough stories like it. The same can’t be said of the always booming industry of black poverty porn.

I’m not trying to be dismissive, on the contrary I’m aiming  for a call to arms. We desperately need complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism about black people.  Don’t like Shani’s story? Make another one. Make a better one. Start now.

Creation is the ultimate critique. [Emphasis in original–PK]
Science as well as race relations can benefit from more complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism. Instead of attacking the always booming science is god industry, I hope the STS crowd takes up TNCs call to arms. We desperately need much more along the lines of Jonah Lehrer and David Freedman, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with the present narrative.
Categories: Communication