Monday, August 29, 2005

Try paying attention to that man behind the curtain.

In another round of maybe-the-blogosphere-can-save-us-from-the-mess-we've-made, there's a post at Weblogs in Higher Education that opines that "the blogging attitude" can help the public gain a better understanding of what real science looks like and shift science towards being more democratic and less authoritarian. From the post:

If science were more widely collaborative -- maybe not string theory physics, but certainly health and ecology and other more social and environmental sciences -- then more people would know theory from religion because they were involved in making science. For example, hundreds of people could participate in a survey of the species in a community and follow the studies that those surveys made possible. They, with the scientists down at the college, could create knowledge as scientists do.

Does it always come down to blogs? Of course not, but it does come down to the blogging attitude -- the collaboration, the shared work of making meaning, the authority won by work rather than by title, and so forth. If the scientific work of our society was more widely shared, then fewer people would be persuaded by non-science dressed up as science. This would be good for religion, too -- clarifying its real place in our lives.

I feel the appeal of this ... For sure, more people ought to understand what science is about and what strategies it uses to get the job done (and, what that job is and what that job is not). For sure, dialogue between scientists and lay people would be more satisfying (and would feel more like a bona fide dialogue) if it were based on a demonstration of reasons (and acknowledgment of uncertainties) rather than a "don't worry your pretty little head" appeal to authority. While most people don't become scientists to do PR, scientists should want people outside the community of science to have some inkling of why the things scientists study matter. (This may involve helping the public to understand how the object of scientific study is cool, quite apart from any actual or foreseeable practical applications of the knowledge.)

Of course, this would require some sweeping changes to business as usual.

Besides dope-slapping and purging the inept science teachers who drive all but the super-geniuses away from science, and beefing up educational requirements to expose every student to more science, scientists need to call bullsh*t on colleagues who give impenetrable talks. Doctor Theoretical Physicist talks for 45 minutes and loses most of the audience by minute 5. Why, oh why, do people walk out of the talk saying, "Wow, Doctor Theoretical Physicist is really smart!"? Why not, "Who the heck can tell if what he's saying has merit, since he sure as hell hasn't figured out how to communicate it coherently!"?

When scientists can't actually communicate with each other, they're already getting by on an appeal to authority.

The driving hope of empirical sciences is that there is a truth that we can get to by applying our sense organs and our powers of reason. The truth that scientists are after is one that, presumably, is there for any human to find -- given the same sense organs and cognitive machinery, any of us could get it. This is just the opposite of an appeal to authority ("Don't worry that you can't see it; take my word for it.").

So, a good scientific attitude, it seems to me, must include not only serious engagement with other scientists studying the same phenomena, but also an acknowledgment that lay people are not lesser beings than scientists -- given the proper training and, perhaps, different interests, they could have been doing science with you.

This doesn't mean one is obligated to administer a crash program in science to the lay person every time one tries to explain a cool new finding (or comes to ask for more public funding of science). But it does call for something a bit deeper than "Just trust me." The public often thinks of science as a product. Being more transparent about the process of science might be a step in the right direction.


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