Monday, November 22, 2010

The fear, Fear, and FEAR of Science

(Inspired by my own thoughts and prompted by a post at Culturing Science which has many overlapping themes, I think)

"Science Scares Me"

It's always a surprise when I hear that.

Science can be weird, sometimes, yeah.

But to actually express fear?

Fear of what?

The next time I hear "I'm afraid of science" from a friend, I need to poke them more to clarify.
However, there are a few possibilities, I can guess at right off the bat:

1) Science scares them the way math, history, grammar, or classical literature might scare them: it was a topic that was a problem for them in school and they'd rather not be reminded of it.

2) Science scares them in an almost philosophical way: scientific explanations take everything that they experience in their lives and, because it attempts to explain it all in minute, purely mechanical detail, takes all the humanity - all the mystery - out of life.

3) Science scares them as a source of doom.   As Ben Stein stunningly says, "science leads you to killing people". 

You know I wonder if it's like this...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What it's like to write in a vacuum (with cartoons!!)

I am going to describe a cycle to you.

It's a pretty pathetic one, but it's worth documenting, because it keeps repeating.  Yes, I know that's what cycles DO.

But I don't want this cycle to continue.  It's happened to me four or five times over the past two years and I just don't like it.

I want to see how to stop it.
And one way to stop a cycle is to actually understand the cycle.

So, here's the cycle...

(Hmmm... I think it needs illustrations.  I get working on that.)

Scott's Cycle of Attempting to Develop His Awesome Science Communication Writing Skills and Ultimately Giving Up on the Whole Thing Forever, Until the Next Time:

1) The Excited Phase:
I see some bizarre misunderstanding of something going on in science, medicine, or practically anything else: the endless deceptions of anti-evolutionary and anti-vaccination groups successfully permeating the mind of the public, the genetic engineering ruckuses, or that scientists have stolen Pluto without asking anyone else.

Or maybe it's just something interesting I've been mulling over: "light is both a narrow prison and a super-powered rocket to explore the universe," or, "to our knowledge we, as humans, are undeniably not-special but also incredibly rare".

You know, heady stuff that no one gives a shit about.

And then I says, I says to myself:
"I want to talk about these things!  I can do it!  I can help fix the confusions and broaden understanding - not on a deep technical level , but with an ear for piquing the interest of everyone: family, friends, the public... I have the scientific background AND the communication skills!  I can explain it all - and I know JUST the way!"

The words and concepts begin to swarm and coalesce in my head - and I can almost feel the words laying themselves down.   Genius!

Carl Sagan would be proud!!

(more fabulous illustrations to come. 
As you can see: Skillz!  
...are something I do not have)

2) The Depressed phase:
At some point, a cluster of thoughts interrupt my glee and reverie.  These thoughts differ greatly but all lead to the same end... "don't bother."

I'll give the thoughts names, because they are almost like the voices of types of people.  Ah... but, I should make very plain: THESE ARE NOT "VOICES".  Ok?  Got that?  It's just a structure to make sense of the different trains of doubt.

(It's important to say that because, as I found in my old social blogging days, there's always someone who seems unable to understand metaphor of any sort.  This person would then assume my voices was rather literal and show immense concern.  I find this extremely annoying)

Here's some examples...

The pure scientist who now blogs:
What you're thinking of writing is dumbed-down tripe!  No one will read it because it's all baby talk.  How can you possibly write about science if you don't dive right in to the technical details?  If people are too dumb to know what some of those concepts and words mean, tell them to read a college-level textbook!  And if they can't find one lying around or the text is too advanced to absorb in 10 minutes, then they're stupid and don't need to know this stuff anyway.

The former graduate thesis committee member:
You could have done so much better than this in your life.

The critic:
Your writing sucks. You suck.

The friend:
Er... Science?  Don't want to know about it.  Science is  (a) Scary.  Or (b) Hard!  Or (c) BORING!

The public:
Too long didn't read.  Also, too: Boring!

The crazy person who trolls blogs:
Big Pharma is EVILE!  And then, one time some con-artist made a fake fossil, and that PROVES science is a lie!  Plus, f*cking magnets, how do they work?!?  Also - [a 50 page screed in mix of ALL-CAPS, MIxEd CAps, random punctuations, and possibly multicolored text, that appears to have been formed by a random sentence generator using sources from philosophy, the Bible, and quantum physics books as interpreted by Deepak Chopra.].

The only commenter that would actually comment on a post:
This be quite interesting to blog about.  You writing funny and happy. You maybe right book?  You be interest in my web sight and also see I agree all things well.

Hence, "don't bother"

3) The Threshold-crossing Phase:

One in a while, after long periods of being deterred from writing by such internal negativity, I give myself some massive heave, using reserves of fortitude I still can't find when I'm actually looking for them.

I start typing.

This, I have to say, is the most critical moment.  Nothing like a blank page to let those nasty little creep-voices (again, NOT REAL!) fill in the emptiness with their words. 

And then I keep going.  Maybe what I'm writing works, maybe it doesn't and I chuck it.
Once in a while I make it through to an ending.  A first - very rough - draft is made.

And then I edit.  I find I'm totally fine re-working whole sections if I think they need it.

I'm productive.  I like what I'm producing.  I'm feeling good.

Yes. This is kind of what I was thinking of all that time in my head.

I'm happy with it, as a start.

4) The Contentment Phase:

I seem to like this enough to ask people to comment, critique, suggest thoughts, and so on.

I ask some friends if they are willing to look at my writing.  I'm not asking for lots of work.  Not proofreading for spelling and punctuation.  I just want to know: does this make sense, am I going in the right direction, is it engaging, is it persuasive?

I totally make it no pressure - you know, just asking!

A few folks say, sure!

I send them a word file or, more recently, a link to a blog.  (I've attempted this blog approach 3 past times.  This is the fourth.)

5) The Second Depression Fused with Sad Reality Phase:

I wait a week or so.  Who knows if they had time to even read what I've written.

On the other hand, maybe they hated it.

Maybe it was absolutely un-redeemable shite!

I decide to look at the little blog statistics meter, you know, just to see how many of the folks who agreed to help may have taken a look.  Since I had blocked my own computer from the statistics readings, my own editing and viewing would not be recorded.  The numbers would all be people I know, most likely.

Scott's Awesome Creative Persuasive Smart Blog that will Change Everything
Week 1
Sunday: 0
Monday: 1
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: 1
Thursday: 1
Friday: 0
Saturday: 0

Hmmm...  Well, at least one person took a look!  Oh... wait, that's my IP address, before I blocked my computer from the statistics engine.

So I wait another week

Scott's Awesome Creative Persuasive Smart Blog that will Change Everything
Week 2
Sunday: 0
Monday: 0
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: 0
Thursday: 0
Friday: 0
Saturday: 0

The equivalent of a trembly-lipped whimper stirs inside of me.

And then, as a new empty space opens in my head, those Ambassadors of Crap Feelings  - save the crazy troll one who's quite busy screeding all over other peoples blogs - all return to say: "I told you so."  Man, I really hate them.

6) The Frak-It Phase

I head out to the bar, order a double martini, and forget the whole dumb idea of mine even came up in the first place. 

7) The Charlie Brown and Lucy Phase

Months pass.

Then, with the details of the past somehow gone fuzzy, I says to myself, I says:
You know what?!  This time it'll be different!  THIS time I will write more better, more persuasively, more everythingly!  This time, someone will actually SEE what I wrote.  It'll happen.  Because I have something to say, dammit!   I can help make a difference. I want to talk about these things!  I can do it!....

(Go To Phase 1)

So, there it is.  All written out.

It's not all bad, really.

I mean, I get a martini - so there's that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Evolution: You are a Mutant

[Note: a good chunk of this text is from old stuff I'd written on this and at least two other attempts at science-oriented blogging.  It's critical to note this post is an exercise to write for absolute beginners with zero knowledge of science. 

Anyway, with little feedback (no one came, no one saw, no one, um... critiqued), I guess I kept giving up.  However, I keep going back to these old bits and re-working them with new introductions, new frameworks, etc.   So here it is again.    I have a bunch of the other chunks that follow this which - I feel - make a complete story.  Just need to work out the kinks.   Now about that feedback...]

A few years back, there was a debate about evolution, given in front of the general public and broadcast live on TV. It was really an Evolution vs. Christianity debate, which I really find to be horrible messes to watch. Usually they involve fact-based people expressing facts and very literal interpreters of scripture using a huge arsenal of rhetorical tricks to essentially ignore each fact presented and create plausible doubt for the audience.

In such cases, I view the scriptural literalists to be a lost cause. Fact and honest discussion are irrelevant for them – either because they believe their literalism deeply - and that’s that, or they don’t really believe what they’re saying but know how to twist a good word into a bad one.

Regardless of those particular types, the impression these debates leave with the general public - you and I and everyone else that simply wants to know what the deal is with the world and everything - are still important. And that’s why I was particularly dismayed when a chance to clarify one particular point of confusion was so sadly lost.

So, in the middle of this debate, the moderator asked what is really a critical question, in terms of the misunderstanding of biology and evolution. He may not have intended it that way, but when he asked it, I was shocked because, while I knew evolution is badly - tragically - misunderstood, I hadn’t realized people thought this particular point of way-off-baseness.

This question asked by the moderator to a defender of evolution was this:
When you were born, you weren’t transitioning from monkey for the first 5 years, to human being for the next 10… The argument you just made was that everybody in this room is a transitional creature… and what I’m asking you is: explain to the audience what they were - when they were born - which is different from what they are now.
(Debate play list is here. The part with this question is here, at around minute 3:05)

The defender attempted to clarify his point to the moderator by mentioning (under stress of the moment, I imagine) that “people evolve over time, all animals evolve over time” and then recounting the various growing number of key pre-human species found in the fossil record, mentioning the names of one of them, Australopithecus afarensis.

OK, as I sidebar, I have to ask: did you black out with those last two words?

That's ok, because I think it's a common reaction most people have when asking a basic question that  gets an answer already dripping in scientific wording.  People aren't expecting it and aren't prepared for it... and they start to shut down.   Usually it's better to get into the details - the special names and deeper subtleties of a subject - after you've already cleared up the basics of the subject at hand.

But that isn't the big problem with his response. (and here I end my sidebar comment)

The problem with the defender's response was that "Australopithecus afarensis"  wasn’t the answer to the question being asked.

Also the statement "people evolve over time" was actually adding fuel to the source of the question in a very bad way.

What I mean is this... The question I personally heard in that exchange - not said, by any means, but what I felt to be the essence of the question - was:
“I was lead to believe that evolution claims we’re all changing - evolving - from our birth to our death. This is counter to the observation that, other than aging, I am the same human I always was. Therefore I find the whole concept of evolution to be suspicious and hard to believe. Can you help me understand otherwise?”
To this question,  "Australopithecus afarensis"  is meaningless and "people evolve over time" only reinforces the misunderstanding.

In fact, while listening to the exchange collapse after this, I was almost screaming a response:
Nothing is different about YOU. Everyone, me and you, all of us - (pause for hyperventilating intake of breath) -  Nothing about us, our personal body, has changed - other than the alterations of growth and ravages of time. Nothing.
And I can’t help but feel the audience lost the thread when that actual question wasn’t really answered. (Yes, I know watching a video and saying that is different that being on a stage in the heat of the moment.)

The problem was there was a point that could have been made - perhaps a clarifying moment for some in the audience - to wipe away one of the very many misunderstandings surrounding evolution.

Neither you, nor I, have ever (in the biological sense) evolved.

You were born, you live, you die.

And, genetically speaking, the essence of the physical “you”, your body, is a result of that one one event, when you were first conceived. What your body became was locked in at that moment. Yes, environment and other factors have their roles - some quite dramatic, but the genetic component is the core of it all.

From birth to death, YOU do not evolve.

But... when you were conceived and then born, there was something different about you. Something that does have to do with evolution.

I'll tell you what it is...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Annoying Words: Theory

Part of a series (I hope) called
The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
 (or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Please read the premise for all these "annoying word" posts 
at this link right here.


Ah, an innocent word.

A scientific "theory".

Well, we all know what "theory" means, right?
A theory is just a gussied-up guess. You could be just sitting there, and then come up with a great idea, and shout, "Eureka! I have great theory!" Maybe it's a wild guess. Or it could be one with a few facts to prop it up. But it's still just a guess.
And I think I've heard that a theory stops being a guess when it's somehow proven and then becomes a "fact" - or, if it's really important, it's called a "law", as in Newton's Laws of Motion, the Laws of Thermodynamics. Or or maybe it's the other way around?
"Theory" is commonly used by people in a sentence like this: "It's only a theory - it's never been a proven fact. It's not like it's a law or anything."
OK OK, wait a sec! Right now, any scientist reading the last few paragraphs will likely be frothing at the mouth - and rightly so! Everything in the past three paragraphs, while fine for normal English speaking - English being an exceptionally flexible language - is completely wrong in the dialect of scientists.

Actually, there was a time when that description may have had some kind of truth to it, but that was a pretty long time ago - no more.

In the community of the sciences, the use of all these words ("fact", "theory", "law") has become more cautious and restrained and precise than it once was. This change was meant to be a good thing but, unfortunately, this change of meaning in the sciences hasn't fully reached the ears of the general public.
So what are the differences between the understanding of everyday English speakers and scientists speaking about science when they use the word "theory"?

And, more importantly, how have these innocent differences allowed some folks to poison the conversation about what we've learned about the world?


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Annoying Words: Introduction.

The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
(or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Most of us who speak the same language -say English - think we really are speaking the same language to each other.

This is simply not true.

OK, yes, two people may be speaking Bostonian English or Quebec French to each other but, in my own opinion, everyone - every single person - has their own personal dialect.  (It’s actually called an idiolect*.)  Every person expresses ideas slightly differently, using a unique variety of words and turns of phrase to convey subtle nuances.

This often causes problems.

Pick two friends, spouses, co-workers, or strangers that use the same mother tongue. Now, tell them to converse about a deep issue, something where sharing complicated and imprecise ideas is critical, such as science, religion, personal politics, or who agreed to wash the dishes. Then, listen to them closely as they discuss—listen to what they’re saying and, to the best of your perception, what they are meaning.

Now, mostly they will agree or disagree about things for reasons that are clear and obvious.

However, I guarantee that soon they will sharply disagree over some point or another but, in this case, an outside observer will notice they are actually trying to say the same thing to each other, each using their own slightly different, vocabulary. What is causing the problem is that one person is interpreted the other person’s choice of words in a different way.

You can see this everywhere. Try it the next time you’re arguing with someone—especially if the argument popped up in the middle of what had been a perfectly nice conversation. It’s likely each of you may find you’ve been speaking your own idiolect and not quite understanding the other’s use of what seem to be basic words and phrases.

This is more easily seen in dialogs between groups of people: those that share a similar culture— be it social (London, New York, East Texas, South Africa) or professional (engineering, biology, construction, plumbing).

Within any of these groups, a common set of specialized words and phrases exists that is part of their local worlds. Sometimes this involves slang, whether it’s slang for "being drunk" or the word that describes atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen arranged in a particular way.

Other times, they might use common English words in a way that is somewhat different than the standard English-wide meaning of the word.

This special talk within a group is what makes it easier for the people in these groups to work together. If everyone knows the exact meaning of these special words or phrases, it provides a shorthand, a common way of expressing ideas within the group. On the whole, it works well for that purpose.

But... when someone talks outside of the group to others, difficulties arise.

Sometimes there are simple difficulties, such as being utterly clueless as to what the person is saying. Think about the meaning of, for instance, "the polypeptide is hydrolyzed to its constituent amino acids," or, "the exhaust flange is connected to the manifold". Do you know what either of those mean? If so, you are part of at least one or two professional cultures.

Now, if you say those phrases to people outside your special groups, they probably will not understand you in the slightest. And that’s fine, because it’s obvious that one is speaking gibberish to the other. No one can misunderstand the meaning. They just can’t understand it at all.

The bigger problem—the one that causes serious issues—is actually the one that looks less important: when common English words are used but don’t mean quite the same thing outside the group as they do within the group.

Therein lay disasters of communication, waiting to erupt.

And frankly, it kinda annoys me that these problems are left there to fester and cause problem after problem.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean by using just a small handful of examples showing the source and consequences of the different meanings of common words to different groups of people. In this case, the speaking or writing of these words will be (mostly) coming from the world of the sciences while the people hearing the words are all of us in the general public.

And to avoid any absolute PANIC that the word "science" may cause, I’ll add that these examples are all just one word apiece and they are all familiar English words. There is no "deoxyribonucleic acid" or "quantum chromodynamics" here.

These examples are just words we all think we know. But the way in which the meaning of these words can differ - just a bit - can cause many problems of communication. Some problems are merely slightly humorous, while others have have results so pervasive as to affect law-making and our public discourse.

So... among other attempts at writing here, I think I'd like to do this as a continuing series of posts just based on this issue alone. In the post title, I'll just call the series Annoying Words**.

Here's a quick list of words I'd like to tackle. I'd probably do them in whatever actual order I want.

"Theory": Hey, waddaya know! I already wrote something about this one!
"Planet" - THIS WORD NEEDS TO BE GONE!  - Here is where I set the stage for the "Planet" problem.  The link for my solution will come when I actually write it.

* Personally, I came to this conclusion simply by many experiences – some quite personal - of listening to people talk around and over each other, practically seeing the moment that communications collapse.  Turns out, as I was informed by a friend who also works in the wordsmithing trade, this "private dialect" concept actually has a name!  Who knew I could be so good at "discovering" things about which everyone else has long ago written reams of papers.  This may be why I felt the research life was no longer for me.

** To be clear, these words do not annoy me in themselves.  They annoy me because of their repeated role in the breakdown - and abuse - of communication.