Scientists Stunned by Alliterative Assertions of Baffled Boffins
May 22, 2020 8:53 AM   Subscribe

 
"NASA scientists nonplussed by ..."

Better?
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:04 AM on May 22




the article doesn't go as far as my personal opinion, which is that (at least in some cases) it's active anti-intellectualism. "see? scientists don't know what's going on any more than the rest of us!" with an implied side of "...so when they claim they do, you can ignore them."
posted by Clowder of bats at 9:09 AM on May 22 [18 favorites]


What is baffling?
posted by chavenet at 9:15 AM on May 22


INFERENCE ATTEMPTED BASED ON NEW OBSERVATIONS: PACE OF ACCUMULATED KNOWLEDGE MOVES GLACIALLY FORWARD!

Yeah, I'd click on that headline.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:16 AM on May 22 [15 favorites]


The number of scare quotes in this article made me give up on reading it. I get that the author is breathlessly incredulous about something and are very worked up about it, but c'mon.
posted by mmcg at 9:28 AM on May 22


I've no doubt that reasonable people can disagree about this. But, as a working scientist and harsh critic of nearly all science journalism. . . I'd say that this is ten pages down on the list of offenses worth worrying about.

I'm baffled at least twice a month. Usually it's a dumb little thing that only two or three people on the planet care about: "How come these two seemingly identical devices perform differently?" or "why is the fourth temperature point consistently non-monotonic," or "what the hell caused those spikes in the timestream at exactly 11:00?" Often we find an answer. Sometimes we decide it isn't worth the effort. Occasionally we try, fail, and then give up. And every so often there's a really big, lifetime-career level of bafflement.

Perhaps baffling is too grand a word for most of it. But, it's not actually wrong. Given a choice between science journalists who use the word baffled and those who assume their audience is too dumb to understand exponents, or the opposite, I'm okay with baffled. Sadly, we're stuck with both.

That we never get the correction that says, "we found out it was a count-from-zero vs. count-from-one error," is a bigger problem, if you ask me. But, that's true of journals too.

On preview, I agree, mmcg, that the author would be well advised to back off on quotes. "Spectroscopy" has been an English language word for a long time.
posted by eotvos at 9:36 AM on May 22 [15 favorites]


im innocent
posted by poffin boffin at 9:46 AM on May 22 [11 favorites]


"Baffled" to my ears has a strong connotation of "it's beyond their ability to understand."

It's dishonest to apply it in a situation in which the scientist knows they lack the data to understand, or lacks the time to research it, or is outside of their area of responsibility/expertise.

Why not just say, "scientists found this curiosity" instead of "baffled by"?

Clowder of bats is correct. This is a huge spoonful of anti-intellectualism to bring something technical or amazing down to the common level.
posted by explosion at 9:49 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]


The number of scare quotes in this article made me give up on reading it. I get that the author is breathlessly incredulous about something and are very worked up about it, but c'mon.
posted by mmcg at 11:28 AM on May 22 [+] [!]
I dunno, he's literally quoting things. I just counted 3 things* that'd I might classify as scare quotes. The rest of the quotes seem to be legitimately delineating the thing being talked about from the author's voice.

(* "social" media, other "side", and political "science" in case you were interested.)
posted by Horkus at 9:54 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Scientists being baffled and then un-baffling themselves so they can tell the rest of us about it is kinda what science is all about!
posted by VTX at 10:00 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Also, I just thought of this, how about "Scientists Intrigued by"?
posted by Horkus at 10:02 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


Neil Degrasse Tyson Baffled by Bad Boys 3 Boffo Box Office, Explains "Explosions Don't Work That Way"
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:03 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


One of the moss ball researchers a few posts down the front page claimed bafflement himself in the article:

"We still don't know," he says. "I'm still kind of baffled."

I think scientists are often paying enough attention to notice some of the vast number of things we don’t understand yet. Baffled may be an appropriate way to describe it, but it does also seem overused.
posted by snofoam at 10:05 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


I for one want our scientists baffled. If there is not a small glimmer of mystery, it's engineering.


(not that there is anything wrong with engineering)
posted by sammyo at 10:23 AM on May 22 [7 favorites]


I dunno if I sense active anti-intellectualism in these sort of headlines, but they always scream "scientists are the others!" to me. At which point, the door is wide open for the anti-intellectualism to take root, given all trolls and toadies who do, in fact, actively push anti-science storylines. (smh thinking about public health, right now...)
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 10:29 AM on May 22


From the article:
Here’s another example of one that I watched unfold when I was in grad school. One of our HST instrument science team members did some observations of a star, wanting to understand its chemical properties. Everything in the universe has chemical properties. You do, I do, the planet does, stars do, galaxies do, and so on.

Knowing the chemical properties tells us something about an object. So, the scientist observed the star using a technique called “spectroscopy”. And, after analyzing the data, they found some chemical elements in the star’s atmosphere that you don’t normally find in stars. That told him (and our team) that there was something interesting going on with that star. The question then became, “What is causing these elements to show up in the star’s atmosphere?”

Was the scientist baffled? No. They were intrigued by all the possibilities, based on what they knew about stellar structure and atmospheric activity. After a lot of analysis, they came up with an explanation based on knowledge of stellar magnetic fields and the star’s rotation rate to explain the chemical “peculiarities” they found. No bafflement. No confusion. Just good, solid science.
It seems pretty clear that the tone for this section was deliberately chosen. I don't think it actually indicates that the author doesn't know what "spectroscopy" means, or that he's "breathlessly incredulous" about anything. If anything, it's the opposite. This sounds like a clearly written, very basic explanation of something scientific written for someone who doesn't already know anything about it. You can almost imagine Mr. Rogers saying "Knowing the chemical properties tells us something about an object. So, the scientist observed the star using a technique called 'spectroscopy'. And, after analyzing the data, they found some chemical elements in the star’s atmosphere that you don’t normally find in stars. That told him (and our team) that there was something interesting going on with that star."
posted by Lexica at 10:32 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]


im innocent

But are you Baffled?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:28 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


fuckin constantly
posted by poffin boffin at 11:33 AM on May 22 [7 favorites]


I was thinking of this yesterday when "parallel universe" started trending. At first it was cute and I smiled at the jokes, but then I was vaguely depressed by the whole thing. It's the same joke as when we find a new exoplanet that might be habitable: let's all move there and leave the Trumpists here with corona!

Maybe it's sad that I cannot imagine--I literally can barely picture--a populace so well-read that most of them could comprehend the import of a scientific development and the likelihood of its consequences.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:19 PM on May 22


When I was a scientist I made a concerted effort to regulate my fluids.
posted by srboisvert at 12:28 PM on May 22


the article doesn't go as far as my personal opinion, which is that (at least in some cases) it's active anti-intellectualism. "see? scientists don't know what's going on any more than the rest of us!" with an implied side of "...so when they claim they do, you can ignore them."

My recollections of the Weekly World News in the eighties was that a significant fraction of the articles mentioned either "baffled scientists" or "puzzled experts" in the headline, the first paragraph, or both. The anti-intellectual stance had its own flagbearer with a weekly editorial on the ridiculous expenditures of this or that research project on whether it was feasible to do thing X that might be very useful someday (say, growing vegetables in lunar regolith). The editorial would also cite the exorbitant sums researchers were blowing on this silly project (invariably in the low five figures). Stressing that this figure represented an expenditure of, say, 0.006 cents per taxpayer was never an issue.

I suspect it was pwning the readership decades ahead of the word being coined. But Poe's Law is a thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:52 PM on May 22


On the one hand, I pretty much agree with the author of this piece. 99% of the time you see the phrase "scientists baffled" or its variants in a headline, it's to describe a case in which scientists actually understand the situation really quite well, but don't have a complete explanation for all of it -- which is of course why we have scientists, if you already have complete understanding there isn't any science to do. It's lazy journalism and it's annoying to read, and I think it often does contribute to a culture of anti-intellectualism or anti-elitism, intentionally or otherwise.

On the other hand, the section headline Science is Rarely (if ever) 'Baffling' is like one of the wrongest things you could say. I find my field baffling all the time. It's confusing and I don't know how to make sense of it, and no one does. That's why we do research, so we can find ways to make it less baffling over time. But honestly, my colleagues and I are flailing about with only the barest hint of an idea of what will work to reduce our own confusion the vast majority of the time, and the people who seem to have the greatest certainty that they've got a handle on things are the ones I trust the least to ultimately figure it out. And I'm sure part of this is that my field, neuroscience, is still relatively young (only a bit over a century, depending on how you count things) and has yet to discover many of its most important unifying theories, but I have the sense that good researchers in other disciplines generally feel similarly.

Like, as an example, one of the research questions that occupies my time: how does the brain extract social information from complex sensory stimuli, organize that information into models of the social environment, and then use those models to guide adaptive social behavior? I can tell you a lot of things that I know are important for answering that question, things that other researchers spent years or whole careers working extremely hard to discover. The things we have learned over the last few decades that are important for answering this question can (and do) fill volumes. And within pretty limited problem domains (like face processing) we may have some good answers for some components of that question. But as far as being able to give a satisfying answer to this question in general? I would say that it is not simply that I don't know the answer, but I don't even know what a satisfying answer might look like. I mean, I have ideas, I certainly have a sense that certain kinds of data would help us build that answer, and that certain models are probably better foundational building blocks than others. But yeah, it's safe to say that this problem baffles me.
posted by biogeo at 2:40 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]


I used to enjoy the Weekly World News in the 80s and I'm pretty darn certain that the reader was not intended to take Ed Anger any more seriously than Bat Boy.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:40 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Weekly World News was probably just upset the money wasn't being spent on researching the biology of Bat Boy.
posted by biogeo at 2:41 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Is "science headlines overuse the word baffled" a valid critique? Sure. But it is so strange to me that someone would look at those headlines and think, "Clearly, the scientists are not baffled, but the authors!"

We aren't talking about the world of newapapers in which the fpp's author served at a copy desk, nor the 24-hour news cycle of cable news.

People who write for the web aren't baffled. They also don't get to pick their headlines. They can suggest one, but editors have free reign to change headlines to drive traffic, and they do.

So are those headlines accurate? No. Are they sensationalist? Yes. Are they a desperate attempt to secure the ever-diminishing advertising revenue that's necessary to keep a publication in existence? Also yes, until everyone starts buying multiple full-price subscriptions that they can't afford.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:50 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


For reasons that are beyond me, Weekly World News once ran an entirely factual article about an assistant district attorney turning in her brother for a series of attacks in the housing development I grew up in. It was super disorienting to read about it right in the middle of all the Bat Boy stuff.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:06 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


On reflection, I think I'm going to make it my personal mission to try to get "befuddled" into science reporting. It's a funner word. (I'm not famous and talk to a journalist about science once every three years. . . so it's going to be a challenge.)
posted by eotvos at 3:51 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]


Scientist quoted in an article a few FPPs back, one with a headline that uses the word baffled:

"'We still don't know,' he says. 'I'm still kind of baffled...It's always kind of exciting, though, when things don't comply with your hypothesis, with the way you think things work.'"

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Seems like semantics to me!
posted by captain afab at 11:27 PM on May 22


I dunno, he's literally quoting things. I just counted 3 things* that'd I might classify as scare quotes. The rest of the quotes seem to be legitimately delineating the thing being talked about from the author's voice

I'm sadly not baffled by how many people assume a science writer must be male. (Hint: They're not).
posted by daybeforetheday at 3:21 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


It would help if the author or others making the claim that 'baffled' and similar words are overused in headlines would link to some examples. If it's such a prevalent trend then it shouldn't be too hard to find them.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 4:16 AM on May 23


The ultraviolet catastrophe! That must have been well and truly baffling until quantum thermodynamics came along. I can only imagine how utterly befuddling that one must have felt.
posted by biogeo at 11:56 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I'm with Peterson.

I guess the writer could ask the researcher for a characterization. If the researcher is baffled, then fine. Maybe, if the writer put the operative word in her lead paragraph (perhaps in bold type and underlined), the headline monkey would have a better clue how to go about filling the white space on that page.
posted by mule98J at 12:03 PM on May 23


Mostly, scientists are baffled by the decisions of regulatory agencies.
posted by Knowyournuts at 5:01 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


« Older people r mixed about it but 1 thing everyone...   |   "I want in on it" Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.