“I can’t think, therefore I probably am not”

This morning while doing my daily trawl of Twitter and Google Reader to see what’s been going on I came across a couple of interesting posts from everyones favourite particle physicist and pop keyboardist – Prof. Brian Cox. These started with:

Having read the reviews, I absolutely agree with him.  While the publishers certainly included some quotes on the sleeve that suggest the book is easy reading, as a scientist it does not surprise me at all that a book dealing with quantum physics (and the universe more generally) is going to include some maths.

However, it occurs to me that this is not the public perception.  In fact, (as I’ve mentioned before) just looking at undergraduates arriving at university for an earth science degree you’d be astonished at the number who are genuinely surprised at the idea they need some maths, physics and chemistry to get by.  In the case of Professor Cox the problem is even more acute; he is dealing with the wider general public, and popular television programmes which present a comfortable simple and visual description of some behaviors, alongside beautiful camerawork.  What they rarely present, however, is numerical science.

People watching an episode of Wonders of the Universe without any formal scientific training might be forgiven for thinking you can do science without ever looking at an equation.  The problem which Cox highlighted this morning is one derived from people placing the expectations of an hour of voiced-over pretty graphics and aurora footage or whatever, on to a 270 page book which states its aim it to “understand the deepest questions of science”.

As Cox summarised this morning – it appears that the negative comments were made largely because the book was not simple and straightforward, and that it included some maths.  There is an expectation from some people that scientists should be able to explain anything in a simple way that a lay person can understand.  I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, but only to a point and only in some cases. I would also agree that some scientists are better communicators than others.  That does not mean a book on quantum physics which aims to have any kind of meaningful content can be written for a reading age of 7 and avoid any of that scary maths stuff.

Simulated decay of Higgs boson in the CMS experiment at CERN. While it might be possible to describe in a minute or two, that does not mean you understand how the data is gathered, what it means, what is assumed, and what it implies.

Ultimately the problem with science communication is that science is incremental; everything we do is based on the work that came before.  In order to understand the work at time 2, you have to have an understanding of the work that went on first at time 1.  As new ideas come about, the science branches.  And – like an enormous tree – you get to a point where in order to study one of the twigs, you need to have an understanding of the rest of that branch, but you can’t possibly understand the whole tree. Over time the tree gets bigger and bigger.  At school people are taught about the trunk of this tree, and even some of the first huge branches.  At university you specialise on a particular branch, and as a graduate student you move on to look at a particular twig, while a Ph.D. will look at an individual leaf.

The problem comes when a scientist tries to communicate the information about the leaf.  The problem is that there are many complexities in this leaf that you need to understand the rest of the branch to really grasp them all.  So when people communciate science to the public they have to oversimplify it.  There are whole strings of conditions, and special cases, and implications which are left out of this simplified description.

Even more significantly than this – scientists will often simplify the jargon to use everyday words.  The problem is that scientists use specific words for good reason – they contain specific meaning.  As an example I might differentiate between basanites, basalts and trachybasalts in day to day work, while referring to them all as basalts when doing a public outreach talk.  In doing so, the communication is clearer to the layperson but it has lost a great deal of its meaning.  It is the equivalent of telling someone that ‘mushrooms are edible’ without differentiating between the thousands of different species and which ones might be safe.

This difference in resolution – for want of a better word – when communicating scientific ideas between peers and the public is rarely discussed with the public themselves, leading to a situation where the public are not necessarily aware that the explanations they are exposed to are almost always grossly simplified. The net result is the perpetuation of this expectation of simplified explanations, and a false belief of understanding in many people.

One of the most interesting examples of this I have found is on the AskScience section of Reddit – a forum where people can come and ask questions and science panelists will  answer their questions.  There is a very noticeable trend for scientists to be willing to say ‘we don’t know’, or ‘probably this, based on the evidence, but maybe that instead’, whereas answers are often provided by non-specialists which are presented with a ballsy confidence while being absolutely wrong.  Take for example this answer for why people might do their best thinking in the shower:

“The running water cleans the air around you, and make it more oxygen-rich. So your brain sort of gets more fuel, and works better.”

Scientists are trained to recognise that which they don’t understand.  If asked what the cause of volcanism in Iceland is a non-specialist may well be happy to wade in with an answer, while I – as a physical volcanologist – know enough about the subject to know that I don’t understand the system well enough to answer, and so would defer the answer to one of my colleagues who studies that particular system.

What this all comes down to, essentially, is a level of scientific illiteracy backed up by an exposure to pop-science which does not communicate how simplified it is.  Many people do not have a good grasp of how well they know a subject, and those who ‘like’ a subject are often reluctant to work to find something out – they expect a simple answer and they expect it now.  Perhaps even more scary is the increasingly common belief that “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it”. The inaccessibility of many journal articles to the public is certainly a concern, but in reality very few people would actually go and read them anyway; few people are willing to go and become an expert in a field to understand a particular problem.

Is there a solution?  I don’t know.  There is certainly an issue with people wanting to be handed factoids and then believing this is the same as understanding.  Schools are hamstrung by both a curriculum which moves too slowly and is poorly focussed, and an examination style that rewards factual recall rather than understanding.  The presentation of science in the popular media all too often falls back on the ‘boffin’ caricature, showing science as a black-box beyond the grasp of anyone ‘normal’, which does a disservice to the fact that anyone with an interest in a subject can work their way to understanding it with relatively little effort.

I’ll leave you with a tongue-in-cheek comment from Cox himself, as I think it quite neatly summarises some peoples frustrations with this problem:


About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Education, Geology, Media & Perception, Physics, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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