28 January 2016

Distorted reporting of scientific results



Isaac Asimov said: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” That is true today, just look at the news.
As someone who has more than 30 peer-reviewed scientific publications,  I know that today cutting edge science is complex and hard to explain, especially if a person explaining it does not really understand the concept themselves. As Richard Feynman said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” And journalist/blogger usually does not truly understand the concept. See, even when a scientist explains the concept to her/his grandmother, that grandmother does not actually know the described concept.
It was not like this before. I do not recall such terrible distortion and falsehoods in science reporting, or even in science fiction.
As a kid, I fell in love with science fiction. Honestly, I read all science fiction books I could find in a University Library of a city where I grew up. Especially, I loved authors like Isaac Asimov and of course, Carl Sagan. Their works were part of the reasons I became astrophysicists in the first place. The final kick in a but to the scientific career I got from an article written by a son of Joan Feynman, where he described his mother struggles through the scientific career.
There are talented kids today who read articles about science, science fiction books, blogs about science. So writing about science is important, it might motivate next Einstein to become a scientist. The question is, can a kid truly be motivated reading distorted scientific facts?
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Me at a Renaissance Faire
When I arrived in the US, I’ve seen an actual scope of the consequences of presenting science in the wrong way. I’m a nerd, so I like to visit Renaissance Faire. During one of those visits, I talked with an “Intelligent Design” supporter, and what started as a friendly conversation, turned into a physical attack because I kept saying Universe is around 14 billion years old.
Imagine two females, dressed in gypsy outfits chasing one another through the dusty SoCal Faire grounds, because one of them never received any education in critical thinking. Comical, I know. (BTW. I was the one who was running away chased by an enraged creationist. I preferred running a bit over dealing with US police.)
Trouble is if your audience has no critical thinking skills then you can fake it. And that’s what most of the faux-scientific bloggers or journalist do today. So, unless you’re reading stuff that is published by some official scientific institution, take it with a grain of salt. The author, probably, has some other agenda.
There is a very simple rule of thumb to recognize if someone is faking it or actually giving you real information. If they talk about brand new research result and do not mention reasons why the conclusion might be wrong, they are trying to sell you something, usually some product down the line. Which one, you could figure out by researching who are their principal donors.
I’m not saying that all bloggers are bad. There are excellent ones. For instance, Ross Pomeroy nicely points the logical fallacies of the whole activist movement in his post. The way he presented the hypocrisy of the movement is just excellent.
Yvette d’Entremont in another example of a neat blogger. I really like her argumentation against misinformed Mommy Bloggers,  with a particular case of Sarah Ballantyne. See, Ms. Ballantyne has what on the first glance sounds like an impressive scientific career, and if you do not know science you can be easily fooled into believing that she knows nutrition and child care. Despite her impressive curriculum vitae, she is not an expert on nutrition and child care.
As an example, what Ms. Ballantyne is doing is a worse fallacy then if I would start claiming that I’m an expert in zoology just because I’m a coauthor on one of the interdisciplinary papers. I’m not. I’m an astrophysicist. I’m not even an expert in the whole astrophysics, just one narrow part of it. I do not know anything about the fine details of zoology. What I did for that particular paper is a handy code that helped to process data from Cougar’s GPS collars. At least, I am a coauthor on scientific paper from that specific area of science, she did not even coauthor a single research paper in nutrition or child care. In short, if a person has Ph.D. and even scientific career behind them, they truly understand only the area they were researching, for the rest of the human knowledge, they cannot, in clear conscience, claim expertise. So I agree with Yvette, what Ms. Ballantyne is writing on her blog is as valid as any other mommy blogger with a high school or less education. It is just an opinion of a poorly informed mother.
My Creationist attacker from above was determined that Creationism was real because a ‘scientist’ with Ph.D. said so. Her scientist has a Ph.D. in English literature. Not even close to biology, cosmology, or even theology, and definitely not an expert in either of those disciplines. But for someone without critical thinking skills, he was a jackpot. She found someone with Ph.D., who agrees with her beliefs, who cares does he actually know more than her about Universe and Evolution.
It is a depressing situation because what Asimov noticed during his life is, even more, true today: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

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