From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Won't you be my neighbor?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 12 November 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Sometimes you encounter people who believe differently than you do. I know, crazy, but let's explore the hypothetical scenario just in case it were to happen.

People may disagree with you about any number of mundane and/or sensitive topics. But what do you do when the topic is something that you believe via science? What do you do when you know a statement to be accurate or disproven given the weight of the empirical evidence and the soundness of the theories?

This is a tricky thing, because science provide a powerful but impartial lens to view the world. In other words, we have very good reasons to believe in particular statements and not in others, and it's easy to forget that not everyone looks through the same lens. How can we best turn a potential argument into an opportunity to share? Here are two tips I've found useful:

- Unless someone asks for your opinion, don't give it. You don't want to be that person that goes around like a wet science blanket, explaining to people why they're wrong.

- If someone asks for your opinion, give it. Be polite and respectful but don't mince words. Trying to shield people from what you think they don't want to hear can itself be a form of disrespect and condescension. But when you respond, don't use "I" - don't make this personal. "The evidence suggests". "Experiments show." "Researchers found." Provide the impartial view as simply as you can. Tell a fun story about the scientists or the work. Connect it to a larger view.

I've found with this strategy that people either start asking a lot more questions, or they file away the info-nugget for processing later. Either way, the conversation rolls smoothly along, no hard feelings.

"Deus Ex Machina"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 05 November 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

We’re taught that science is split between theory and experiment. You either sweat away with pencil in hand, furiously scribbling equation after obscure equation, searching for answers. Or you sweat away in a laboratory or observatory, performing experiment after repetitive experiment, trying to wrangle some sort of clue from nature’s jealous grasp.

This view is…incomplete.

First, it completely ignores the fluid nature of scientific research - the lines between theory and experiment are very fuzzy. And secondly, it completely ignores a way of performing science that is relatively new: the rise of the machine.

The physical sciences use mathematics to understand nature. That is our stock-in-trade: we model systems with math, we analyze experiments with math, we discuss results with math.

But some (heck, most) math problems are too hard (heck, impossible) to solve with pencil and paper. Enter the computer, a machine specifically designed to…well, compute.

All modern-day scientists are basically amateur computer programmers. Computers are used to evolve predictions from initial conditions, to perform numerical experiments in situations where we can’t perform real ones, for data analysis, for…understanding nature. For doing science.

If you’re interested in science, I hope you like computers.

"Don't Trust Peer Review"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 29 October 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Peer review is an absolutely essential tool to the scientific machine. You may think you have a great, novel idea - a unique answer to a unique question - and that you developed the most excellent way to structure it.

You are careful in your research, meticulous in your methods. You write a lengthy paper weaving the threads of the history of your field, how your work plays into the greater context, what new advances you have achieved, exactly how you did it, and how the broader community can learn from your wise movements.

You submit to a prestigious academic journal. You wait. Finally, the editor comes back with the decision from the anonymous referees.

Rejected.

The work isn't novel. You made a major methodological mistake. Your conclusions aren't supported by the research. And don't even get me started on the grammar - did your kid write this for you?

You withdraw your paper from consideration; it's not worth fighting this battle. You submit to another prestigious academic journal. You wait. Finally, the editor comes back with the decision from the anonymous referees.

Accepted!

An important contribution to the field. Sound methodology. Strong, well-reasoned conclusions. And don't even get me started on the grammar - so excellently written that my kids could follow it.

Peer review is an absolutely essential tool to the scientific machine, but it's also a human enterprise. It has flaws. The actual peer review happens in the months and years after an article is published, when the community can poke and prod at the work and decide if it's worth keeping around. Peer review and acceptance into a journal isn't an end, it's a beginning.

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