Contextualizing a scientist's work for understanding
September 5, 2019 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Oh, that's a great little essay. So true for areas outside of science as well, even in my lay person experience I find the need and want to provide context matched against the knowledge that doing so can bog everything down is a difficult trick to manage and liking often causes irritation in the attempt.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:32 PM on September 5, 2019

This comes up so much in statistical consulting and collaboration. It is possibly the most basic fact about the work: as Tukey said, you are always playing in other people's backyards. You get nowhere with your coauthors without establishing at least passably mutual understanding of their problem and your solution, and the process of getting there is irreducibly iterative. And it can be so hard to restrain yourself from the impulse to answer the question before it is fully asked.

I really like the way this author set up her story by complaining about how the postdoc discussant didn't do what she expected with his time, and how annoyed she was by what he did do, but over a period of months she came to understand why he made those choices, and to see the value in them. To be able to benefit from this, she needed to have a mindset that was open to having her work life changed by someone with an academic background really different from her own. Statistical collaboration can be like this, too.
posted by eirias at 12:33 PM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

...communication is much more difficult than we usually acknowledge. It takes a lot of patience, both from the sender and the receiver, to accurately decode a message. You need all that context to make sense of someone else’s ideas.

I empathize with Hossenfelder enormously. A large part of my job for the past half-decade, and intensely in the past two, has been to try to communicate ideas I've been working on, in the context of the larger field of study I'm in to small, regional audiences without a lot of educational resources at their disposal (and much worse than that, frankly), as well as the general public. What I'm trying to communicate is, on the surface, reducible to binary yes/no questions, but of course is more subtle and complicated than that.

Because its impossible to reduce honestly the science to simple binaries, the popular press and parties who want to take extremities of the questions, immediately jump to "they just don't know". Well fuck-you very much, we do know, but the "well it depends" explanations of what we do know and what we don't are very hard to convey in a single sentence or a soundbite. Lack of context is indeed weaponized in political discussion.

I apologize for the vague hand-waving. But this problem is massively hard even with good will on all sides. When there is contention, when people's livelihoods and ways of life are felt to be critically imperiled by decisions based, at least in part, on research and on models, these problems of communication are enormously important.
posted by bonehead at 12:40 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

One thing I wonder about is different norms of communication across fields. I absolutely chose the field I went on to join in part because I liked that reading papers in that field was relatively easy and that there was a high priority on communicability in that field's papers. That was not the case in other fields I was reading in and was interested in during my undergrad. I wanted to work in a place where I could expect to read and write clearly understandable articles, not one where the discipline style seemed needlessly obfuscatory.

It's been my experience that some academic disciplines place a lot of emphasis on communication and, relatedly, outreach, and that others don't necessarily emphasize these things. I know that in my field, one of the only two people to ever win a Nobel Prize did so as a function of his work clarifying communication between ethologists. We study communication! And yet there was a period of ethology and animal behavior in which people were constantly talking past each other because they had different answers in mind when they were asked, "Why does this animal perform that behavior?"

I think about that sometimes.
posted by sciatrix at 12:42 PM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is interesting. Thanks!

Looking up some of the papers by the author, who happens to be in a field slightly related to my own, it's not obvious to me that I need to know anything about their philosophical beliefs to understand the work. The random handful I've looked at make detailed, testable predictions about the physical world. (And seem quite thoughtful and compelling.) Maybe my understanding what motivated the author to pursue a specific set of choices would benefit from reading personal blog posts. But, I'm okay with not understanding those motivations. In fact, I'd probably prefer it. I don't particularly care about their opinion of what a measurement means if they can provide a model with testable predictions, except when it comes up in a fun argument at a cocktail party. Having to build a detailed theory of mind for everyone who writes a paper sounds exhausting and prone to failure. And, there's a danger that one might mistake a compelling story for a compelling argument. (Perhaps we do that already more than we like to admit.)

Understanding the unspoken assumptions and motivations of scientists, and particularly oneself, is a useful and interesting endeavor. But, I'm tempted to argue that if you need metaphysical context to understand someone's attempt to communicate science to peers (as distinct from thinking about the nature of science or motivating an interest in science), the results probably aren't actually worth communicating in the first place. Perhaps I'll change my mind after pondering this more.
posted by eotvos at 12:44 PM on September 5, 2019

It's a really complicated and hard set of questions. Unfortunately there is no right singular answers either, especially when you're dealing with multiple audiences, each with their own concerns, be they people who might be affected, industries who want to make money, government policy makers who may have technical appreciation but not social context, politicians who want to respond to majority voter concerns, the legal community, and on and on.

This is an aspect not touched on in the original piece. I think it's important to understand though that there is no right answer because there's no singular "listener" or no single set of take-aways from the research.

I've been having bar-room conversations for the past few years with a philosopher of science about the challenges my discipline has with the multi-audience question and contextualization of science in multiple communities, what each want to know and how they use that data. Its a really fascinating field of study.
posted by bonehead at 12:52 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

On a side note: her YouTube channel is great.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:04 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

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