Monday, July 9, 2012

Of Course, Scientists Share Blame for Public's Ignorance of Science!

The article in the recent (July) issue of Physics Today stated it very clearly in the header: 'Scientists Share Blame for Public's Ignorance of Science'. Well, duh! Of course! And perhaps the most pathetic case of all is one highlighted at a conference back in 2009, that of the research scientist with his nose buried in multiple journal papers, or equations who forgoes opportunities to explain his craft, and then sees funding pulled owing to lack of public support!

It happens all the time!

I still recall a seminar entitled 'Chasms and Bridges' conducted at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, AK in January 1986, and discussing the difficulties of scientists communicating their work to the public. The trouble lay not just in conveying complex and nuanced concepts (like the 'Standard Model' or quantum nonlocality), but also being released from the expectation to "know everything" and "knowing it to a certitude".  

The latter is especially confounding, because it entails an appreciation of probability and at least some rudimentary statistics by the public. The trouble is that most have had little or no exposure other than maybe to Las Vegas gaming tables!

This isn't of merely passing import! Consider if now the "discovery" of the Higgs boson is found to be premature, based on statistics. As has been pointed out ('Discovery or Fluke: Statistics in Particle Physics' in Physics Today, July, 2012, p. 45):

"Because the Higgs search involves a signal -to background ratio of order 10^-10 (1 part signal to 10 billion parts noise) sophisticated multivariate techniques such as artificial neural networks are needed for finding 'needle' candidates in the haystack of impostors. And when a signal does appear, assessing its statistical significance requires great care."

This is precisely why I advocated caution in the case of the Higgs finding, as opposed to immediately jumping on the Higgs bandwagon. Having worked with statistics before, including classical (Gaussian) distributions as well as Poisson statistics, I am aware of the traps that lie in wait for the unwary ...or the impatient and over zealous.

Then there is the method chosen for estimating results, or significance. What if, for example, the discovery of the Higgs is rejected by the frequency definition of probability (advanced by Richard von Mises, for instance) but passes under the principles of Bayes' theorem (This was named after the 18th century English theologian and mathematician Thomas Bayes, whereby probability isn't so much a function of frequency but depends on a measure of presupposition, which can vary from trial to trial).

The above example, illustrates a point made by Arthur Lupia, in the originally cited Physics Today piece on scientists sharing in public ignorance. That is, we succeed "not by dumbing things down but by smartening up how we convey what we know." Of course, therein lies the bear with his buckwheat, because what might emerge as a decent explanation by some might be viewed as turgid or dense by another. Where is the happy medium?

As the author of the same piece observes: "Most often, a communicator is needed to translate the scientific views to the public".

Which in a way is sad, because the communicator or interpreter often leaves out critical details, or gets others wrong.

In my blogs, when attempting to convey scientific information, whether about global warming,  the Higgs, or neutrinos or whatever, I always start with the premise that only a fraction of the universe of potential readers will read them in toto. These will also be the ones who most likely: a) have some background or exposure to the science, and b) are most likely to google unfamiliar terms to assist their reading.

The PT piece agrees that scientists with training in public communications usually perform the best, but even so, training only goes so far. Fortunately, scientists are among the professions most trusted by the public. Jon Kronick of Stanford University has surveyed public impressions-feedback on surveys since 1997 and found that despite miscues (such as the 2009 hacking of emails out of the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia - trying to show climate scientists there were less than forthright about their climate research) the public still believes global warming is under way. (However, more work must be done because only 46% in the U.S. according to recent polls, accepts the warming as human driven).

Encouraging then is the fact that Americans "continue to send a pretty strong signal to lawmakers that they want something done on climate change" (ibid.)  but unfortunately we who try to advance knowledge via communications must always face off against the barrage of deniers, and skeptics as well as outright agnotologists - who sow doubt merely for economic gain.

A perfect example of the latter is Michelle Malkin ('Global Warming Extremists Sounding the Fire Alarm Again', today) who cites The Washington Times (Sun Myung Moon's conservo rag) that claims "Colorado has actually seen its average temperature drop slightly from 1998 to 2011". Really! That's news to me, as the temperature records show the mean mercury levels rising - even in the mountain areas - year after year! (With this being the hottest).  Hey, maybe they used 'Moonie' probabilities-surveys to work that out! (Though Michelle insists the data is from the National Climate Data Center. I doubt it! The NCDC has consistently found for higher temperatures across the nation, even outside urban areas.)

Michelle also declares in her agnotology piece that,  have no fear...."the vigor and resiliency"  of the remaining pine trees and others in the West have been "enhanced" there's obviously no need to be worried about them being converted to ultra-high efficiency tinder when the next monster wild fire arrives. I wish she would  convey that to the mountain pine beetle and bud spruce worm that have now converted 6 billion trees to such tinder.

The point is simple: If scientists, though busy with grant -based research, sit on their asses in the public communications domain, they will concede the 'floor' to the agnotologists and hacks like Malkin and her ilk. A lot of the public getting incorrect information, or outright disinformation from the hacks, may then come to side with them.

If that happens, it won't be long before nearly all our critical funding is pulled. Especially if the Austerity- Flat Earth party gains control in November.

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