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September 19, 2005 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Lisa Randall's Theory of Communication about Science
posted by Gyan (27 comments total)

 
Excellent. But I have real doubts about whether science reporting in the media will ever change - the only hope is for more real scientists to become journalists. Then maybe we can improve the quality of communication, rather than relying on some low-level reporter biding her time while she waits for that job in the movie reviews section.

For me, one of the greatest frustrations is the over-simplification of both scientific theory and statistical significance. As was pointed out in a recent Guardian article - the finance pages are filled with economic terms, the book review pages are filled with obscure literary references, the sports pages are filled with jargon, so why the great fear of reporting science as it is reported in scientific journals? Why the simplification to meaninglessness? And why the reporting of every new piece of scientific research as a "breakthrough" or "discovery", when in reality it's often just a significant p-value amoung a pile of less interesting results?

On top of all this, most science stories that reach the mainstream media are of little interest to actual scientists - I can attend a conference and see dozens of amazing presentations on cutting-edge research, shedding new light on long debated hypotheses, and none of it will be reported in the media - instead we'll get a story about how drinking a cup of black tea a day can allegedly reduce your risk of stomach cancer by 0.3%. Completely fabricated example. But I'm sure if I sent it to a newspaper, they'd print it anyway.
posted by Jimbob at 7:41 PM on September 19, 2005


Much of higher-level mathematics is unreachable to the public, and I'd venture to guess it has a lot to do with the esoteric terminology used. On the other hand, any specialized field has its own patois and blaming scientists for this is not all that helpful. Skilled journalists in any field will convey the complexities of a subject properly. Unskilled ones will gloss over important material, regardless of the subject at hand.
posted by Rothko at 7:50 PM on September 19, 2005


Jimbob: the finance pages are filled with economic terms, the book review pages are filled with obscure literary references, the sports pages are filled with jargon, so why the great fear of reporting science as it is reported in scientific journals? Why the simplification to meaninglessness?
I've never thought of the double standard before. Excellent point.

Perhaps journalists are more tempted to "dumb down" the science because it holds so much more weight in our society. Accuse a person of not following the football standings, and they're likely to laugh you off. Accuse a person of not understanding how their computer, car or body works, and they're likely to exhibit real shame. People feel more insecure about science than any other Trivial Pursuit wedge, and you can't sell papers by making people feel dumb.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:54 PM on September 19, 2005


Much of higher-level mathematics is unreachable to the public

Good point - as an ecologist myself, I forget the kind of mathematics physicists get themselves into. A lot of "popular" science books (of the Carl Sagan variety, for instance) do a good job at explaining these sorts of mathematical concepts in plain language, though.
posted by Jimbob at 7:56 PM on September 19, 2005


the only hope is for more real scientists to become journalists

I have actually looked into this career switch from science to science journalism, for after I finish my PhD, and it doesn't seem a very obtainable goal. At least not for mainstream media. If they have scientists writing for them, it's usually as a columnist, and they want a hard-core researcher with lots of scientific publications under his belt. More often that not, those are the people who write inaccessible dry pieces. Even more often, those people simply don't have time to write. There are VERY few scientists who love to write and are still respected in their field.

I'm still doing my PhD now, and I don't want to run my own lab. Ever. Therefore, I will never be the respected scientist who writes the columns. If I want to write for mainstream media, I need proper journalism training. In other words: go back to 1st year university/college again, even though there ARE writing jobs for science PhD graduates, for specialty journals (Nature, for example) that would be a much better opportunity than going back to school and forgetting all about that hard-earned degree.

To sum it all up, a newspaper would never hire just any scientist to write for them, and no scientist would be willing to give everything up and start again in journalism.

The good science writers/journalists tend to be writers with a penchant for science, rather than scientists with a penchant for writing.
posted by easternblot at 8:12 PM on September 19, 2005


Intrestingly she does lay some blame on scientists, for picking 'general' terms 'like "relitivity", "uncertanty", and "global warming" for confusing the general public.
posted by delmoi at 8:27 PM on September 19, 2005


Yeah, it's pretty much clear that the blame lies on both sides of the common arguments.

Very good read, though.
posted by mystyk at 8:29 PM on September 19, 2005


It makes me feel good inside that she agrees with everything I already thought. Especialy how the debate at harvard on gender diffrences was "empty".
posted by delmoi at 8:31 PM on September 19, 2005


This whole discussion makes me feel good about Metafilter. Good job.
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 8:42 PM on September 19, 2005


Easternblot has it nailed. The problem with science journalism is the people writing about it rarely have the necessary conceptual sophistication (the NY Times Science page often makes me cringe). Even the supposed specialists regularly flub the math and science in their reporting-- why should English majors who think fossils are kewl be any better?

The diamond in the rough, IMO, is Carl Zimmer.

BTW I'd like to make the gentle suggestion we stop being EdgeFilter
posted by mowglisambo at 8:58 PM on September 19, 2005


mowglisambo : "BTW I'd like to make the gentle suggestion we stop being EdgeFilter"

We'd have to start, first. There have been 12 Edge posts in the last 12 months.
posted by Gyan at 9:08 PM on September 19, 2005


I think the key question here is: is Lisa Randall hot?
posted by snoktruix at 9:09 PM on September 19, 2005


"Yet such communication is fraught with challenges that can easily distort discussions, leading to unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings."

Let's be clear and stick with necessary confusion not "'like "relitivity", and "uncertanty.""
posted by semmi at 9:11 PM on September 19, 2005


I think choosing common language is the least of the problem. There are lots of words that have gone science and engineering into common language with convoluted meaning...

Fact is, 'Scientists' (whatever that actually means) often don't understand concepts well enough to explain them thoroughly and often can't be bothered explaining things even if they could. Just think of how often you get the refrain 'you people just don't understand this field because you don't have a PhD, so stop trying' around metafilter. On top of that, science/math education is terrible, and students are allowed to dump science/math earlier in their education than anything but gym class (and French in Canada).

Learning about anything is an accumulation of small details, science isn't any different - "Hell, rocket science isn't even rocket science".
posted by Chuckles at 9:12 PM on September 19, 2005


I can attend a conference and see dozens of amazing presentations on cutting-edge research, shedding new light on long debated hypotheses, and none of it will be reported in the media -

I have long considered this to be my dream job.

(o/t Jimbob: are you going to the AES meeting in freemantle?)
posted by dhruva at 9:12 PM on September 19, 2005


(no, but I'm going to the ESA meeting in Brisbane!)
posted by Jimbob at 9:18 PM on September 19, 2005


chuckles - Fact is, 'Scientists' (whatever that actually means) often don't understand concepts well enough to explain them thoroughly and often can't be bothered explaining things even if they could.

If you said this to me at a metafilter meetiup; if I wasn't drunk I'd try to educate you, if I was drunk I'd hit you.


/<wait - I'm no>drunk
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:04 PM on September 19, 2005


There have been 12 Edge posts in the last 12 months.

There have been 36 Edge posts on Edge in the past 12 months (not counting their press releases, and counting reprints of articles their scientists published in other venues). That means we have posted fully one third of their content in the past year.

I like edge.org as much as the next science geek/stargazer, but that's an astronomically high number. (pun not intended, but then not deleted)
posted by mowglisambo at 10:10 PM on September 19, 2005


mowglisambo : "There have been 36 Edge posts on Edge in the past 12 months"

Maybe they should post more dull content then.
posted by Gyan at 10:51 PM on September 19, 2005


mowglisambo : "There have been 36 Edge posts on Edge in the past 12 months"

I should clarify: I don't keep up with Edge. So I had no idea about how much content they churn out.

If you want to protest it further, take it to MeTa.
posted by Gyan at 10:58 PM on September 19, 2005


Chuckles, it's not that scientists don't understand the concepts well enough to explain them, it's that they don't understand people who don't understand the concepts well enough to explain them.

The problem with science journalism is the popular myth that every individual is capable of comprehending every concept. She seems to think this too; it's a wonderfully optimistic idea, but it just ain't so. The challenge is that the science that is happening now is so far down the path that it cannot be accurately summarized in a sound bite. It requires too much knowledge to be accessible to laypeople without exceeding the attention budget line item earmarked for 'science'.

Sports and Economics can be covered in depth in the mass media because there is a mass market of people who devote a significant percentage of their attention to sports or business. The real meat of modern science does not have a market of that size, and the market it has sure ain't reading USA Today for their science news.

Thus, the platitudes, glossovers, and the chilling effectiveness of the ID campaign. People want to believe that modern science is something they are capable of understanding with only the slightest glance of their attention, and ID arguments are carefully calculated to exploit that misapprehension. You can't fight ID without its adherents having to face their own ignorance, and we're not too good at introspection 'round these parts.

Great post.
posted by ulotrichous at 10:58 PM on September 19, 2005


Yup, I'd say ulotrichous hits it right on the head. I know more about science than most folks I know (orders of magnitude more than many), and yet all I really know is that I don't know that much.

Science reporting can't even begin to explain many of the topics in a truly effective fashion to most people. Hell, go spend 2-4 years at a university studying physics, and you still will have major areas of almost complete ignorance. I'm sure it's similar in other fields. Folks like Sagan et. al can make very hard stuff simple because they truly understand the material, and they are rare geniuses in their field and writing and educating.

The reality is that almost no journalists are going to meet that level. And even if they did, most people aren't going to be willing and/or able to hear what they have to say.

It is a distressing state of affairs, but one for which I see no easy remedy. Indeed, the only meaningful (and partial) remedy that comes to mind at all is mandatory, 16-year sequences in real science and math coursework from grade school through college.

It's a great article, though. I've even had a similar debate with folks on this very site about how words in math and science, which are used in a very particular way, are easily confused with their more general and vague meaning. It kills many an argument.
posted by teece at 11:33 PM on September 19, 2005


how words in math and science, which are used in a very particular way, are easily confused with their more general and vague meaning

And if scientists coin/use words designed to suit their own particular subject, it will lead to more cries of "jargon". Maybe the only option is to define every such term clearly in the article.
posted by dhruva at 11:42 PM on September 19, 2005


purpleporpoise: If you said this to me at a metafilter meetiup; if I wasn't drunk I'd try to educate you, if I was drunk I'd hit you.

In what field? Because, as generally interested as I am, it is possible that I might find your lesson totally boring.

ulotrichous: Chuckles, it's not that scientists don't understand the concepts well enough to explain them, it's that they don't understand people who don't understand the concepts well enough to explain them.

A little of both I think - more what you said than what I said. Considering that most scientists are also supposed to be educators though...

The problem with science journalism is the popular myth that every individual is capable of comprehending every concept. She seems to think this too; it's a wonderfully optimistic idea, but it just ain't so.

Well, I don't want to split hairs about the definition of every, or the definition of myth, but... The issue really isn't about ability, it is about interest. You say as much later, although you seem to be an adherent of the myth of ability anyway (heh, now I'm using the myth word).

Sports and Economics can be covered in depth in the mass media because there is a mass market of people who devote a significant percentage of their attention to sports or business. The real meat of modern science does not have a market of that size, and the market it has sure ain't reading USA Today for their science news.

This is an interesting point, but I don't think it is fundamentally related to the size of the market. Science has it's own communication mechanisms that exist outside of the mainstream media. Sports and economics have dedicated specialized media, but the discourse in those fields is embedded in the mainstream. The science publishing market is actually pretty big I think, I recall reading something that compared it to hollywood in total sales (may have been educational publishing, which would be something a little different...).

I was going to add politics, history and literature/entertainment to the list, but on reflection... I think politics and economics are actually completely different - manufacturing consent, market bubbles, etc. etc.

You can't fight ID without its adherents having to face their own ignorance, and we're not too good at introspection 'round these parts.

The politics surrounding the debate about intelligent design make it a tough one, but in general I think science is far too adversarial. I mean "face their own ignorance"... Well, the problem is that people get too invested in what they think they know... We all have lots to learn, scientists as much as anybody else, if people weren't so quick to threaten physical confrontation we would get a lot further.
posted by Chuckles at 11:47 PM on September 19, 2005


I'd like to punch every editor that lets the word 'boffin' through.

Science really does seem to have generated a situation where its damned if its explained in full or damned if its in cliffnotes format. My sense is that there's a historic tradition going back to the ancients where the discoveries of the tall poppies have been ultra-earth shattering but very complex and the usual reaction from 'the public' has been to laugh politely, accepting that many concepts are only capable of being understood by great minds. "That's nice for you dear"

I'm not so sure that other areas like economics have as wide a requisite knowledge base for any reasonable level of understanding. If you want to explain some nuance associated with rRNA then the audience needs to have fundamental understanding of biochemistry and molecular biology. And that's huge. It can't be imparted in a 2 column MSM article. But some esoteric economic theory won't usually require anything beyond some general knowledge, with perhaps a little background explanation (am I dismissing economics? perhaps so)

It won't happen of course but it would be nice if MSM science articles went through a peer review themselves to eliminate some of the misleading wording. Otherwise easternblot and others have to I suppose go freelance and somehow get noticed and published - a big ask I'm sure.

And thanks for this Gyan. I'd accept the anti-Edge argument if their pieces weren't worthy. But they are so they deserve posting.
posted by peacay at 12:32 AM on September 20, 2005


I think one reason for the dichotomy between natural + deductive sciences & social sciences + sports/politics is that most people do the latter in some form. As kids, many play sports; most humans understand politics via human interactions; microeconomics because individual and small-scale interactions is what it's about. Biology, OTOH, is not apparent in daily life. Yes, illnesses occur but the existence of folk medicine should tell you how it's been dealt with. The closest that chemistry comes, is cooking. But the framework is not chemical, but a hodgepodge of rote knowledge about types (of ingredients, methods) and tokens. Beyond basic arithmetic, you can forget about mathematics, as well.
posted by Gyan at 12:51 AM on September 20, 2005


peacay: If you want to explain some nuance associated with rRNA then the audience needs to have fundamental understanding of biochemistry and molecular biology.

I don't know... Science is just layer upon layer of abstraction, after all. To do research you have to be able to look deep into the layers of abstraction to find new discoveries and avoid obvious pitfalls. That isn't required for a superficial understanding - like "Ah, so that is how it works. Now I know where to look if I ever need this", or whatever. We aren't talking about what it takes to pass a PhD qualifying exam, we are talking about getting a clue...

I am thinking that the algorithms question from a few days ago is highly related to this. For example, I know virtually nothing about biochemistry... When I hear about DNA being unzipped and how each half is completed again to make two copies it doesn't take biochemistry to say 'sounds reasonable, this is the current understanding so I accept it as such'. The abstraction rings true, I know that if I wanted to look for the research I could, and I know that nature actually does work or I wouldn't be here. (How it's related to the askme question, in case it isn't clear: Layers of abstraction are in some way just languages and algorithms. How does RNA work? Well, this molecule and that molecule do something something. The molecules and the somethings are the language, the description of how it works is the algorithm).
posted by Chuckles at 1:33 AM on September 20, 2005


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