Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#23 - Learning Science by Soundbites?

Created:  17 September 2012

I can’t tell you how many times in the last five years, or even in the last five months, I’ve been told that we scientists need to master the soundbite.  The main motivation for these endless calls to rally ‘round the soundbite is that the “other side” (whoever that might be) is using them, and we can only make an effective riposte if we learn how to do the same thing.

So let me get this straight, now – an anti-science campaign like that being carried out by the global climate change deniers using slogans and soundbites is so effective and so convincing to the American public that our only choice is to skip over that troublesome and evidently boring thinking process and replace it with an emotional campaign providing little or no substantive science content?  Really?  If this is actually true, of course, we in science might benefit from such a vacuous exercise if we could master the art of the soundbite, but would the public benefit from it?  I think not!

Call me an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy if you wish, but I believe our main problem is associated with a public so uninspired by nuanced reasoning that their attention span is restricted to a five-second soundbite.  If we have to resort to soundbites to have any hope of getting any sort of message across, then are we not explicitly admitting that our battle to help our society think through the host of challenging scientific and technological issues has been lost already?

It may indeed be the case that science and, more generally, critical thinking of all kinds has become obsolete, like a cultural appendix.  All we have left to do is snip it off and society can surge hell-bent for leather at the speed of a computer game station for whatever awaits them down a road with naught but 5-second soundbites to help them find their way.  They won’t know what makes those computers work, they won’t know how to use them for anything more meaningful than beating some slack-jawed bottom-feeding game freak in another state at some pointless game, and they won’t care about anything more than 5 seconds in the future. 

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s fundamentally impossible to get across nuanced reasoning via a few 5-second soundbites.  Science just doesn’t lend itself to highly abbreviated explanation.  Scientific concepts are built on previous scientific concepts, so it’s not possible to explain the latest and greatest ideas without knowing something about the background to appreciate the meaning of the newest findings.  Scientific ideas are not absolutes that remain static forever – they’re full of uncertainties and usually pose many new questions to replace those questions they do manage to answer.  A proper explanation of a scientific concept includes acknowledging the limitations of the new understanding.  Despite such limitations, science has been shown to work in the real world and is the intellectual basis for modern technology.

The old Latin saying Caveat emptor! – meaning “Let the buyer beware!” - is the source of a word used in science a lot: the notion of the caveat.  Caveats are qualifying statements attached to most scientific publications, describing not what the new findings are, but how confident we can be in using them, including some notion of the limitations that must be considered when thinking about the new scientific findings.  The data sample may be limited, the data may not include all the information needed to decide the issue in question, the instruments used for the measurements constituting our data have finite accuracy which necessarily limits the validity of our interpretation of the data, some parts of the analysis may have no objective justification, and so on.  Scientists use a lot of qualifications when they talk about their work, because they know their peers are going to be reviewing their findings and are prepared to attack any weak points.  If you make a statement that’s not justified, given the data and the analysis used to interpret the data, then you’ll be called on the carpet by your peers!  Therefore, scientists are trained to cautious rather than assertive!

Compare that to the anti-science propagandists.  They can be successful with superficial soundbites precisely because they only need to appear to be confident.  They dish out their falsehoods in small chunks that accumulate to heaping proportions and their rhetoric leads many to swallow it even if they have tiny alarm bells going off in their brains.  The big lie is successful when repeated enough and with the appearance of confidence.  The phrase “con artist” is derived from the word confidence, of course.  Scientists seem uncertain or wishy-washy by comparison, even though they have far more substance to offer.

Changing to a culture where science is dealt out in soundbites rather than lengthy explanations filled with qualifications and long-winded presentations of basic principles, it becomes quite impossible to express science clearly and properly.  I repeat: impossible!  For all you nonscientists out there, imagine the subject of your greatest passion:  music, history, trains, guns, single-malt whisky, painting, or even video games … .  Now, try to justify your interest in and passion for that subject in 5 seconds or less!  1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, 4-1000, 5-1000.  Stop!! 

You can’t do it, can you?  Not in a way to that would be very satisfactory to you and certain not in a way that might convince others to follow your passion.  Science will fall before the hordes of darkness and ignorance if we go the way of the soundbite.  All that technology that helped to make America the last remaining superpower will collapse into obsolescence and decay as its foundation in science crumbles to dust.  We’ll be dashing headlong into a new Dark Age of ignorance and decline. 

Do you think I’m painting too bleak a picture for our future?  Then you must believe we somehow can move beyond the 5-second soundbite.  You must believe in a rebirth of real interest in the development of critical thinking skills, unlike those who would eliminate critical thinking skill development in our schools.  You must oppose the trend to make learning more about entertainment than about substance.  You must seek to give every student a working “bullshit filter” by which they can separate the nuggets of substance from the dross of bullshit they’re inundated with every day by the media (including the Internet).  If we have to resort to slogans to win the battles, we’ve been vanquished in the war.  The war against ignorance and empty rhetoric can’t be won by using the tactics of our opponents.  In doing so, we concede them the field of strategic victory.  Our technology has dazzled us to the point where we constantly seek more and more of the addicting, constantly-changing soundbite.  This very technology that science has given us is leading to an ever-widening gap between the cadre of dedicated scientists and the general public wallowing in scientific illiteracy and apathy regarding the science.

We simply can’t expect to win this war against ignorance and apathy by trying to outdo the content-free slogans of the willfully ignorant and self-serving charlatans pushing an anti-science agenda.  Instead we must stand firmly behind those who seek to convey an honest impression of what science can tell us – the Carl Sagans and Neil deGrasse Tysons.  We have to try to re-awaken the curiosity and sense of wonder all of us had as children about the universe around us.  We can’t do that with brain-deadening soundbites and thought-killing rhetoric.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.