From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"It's Time for an Update"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 15 October 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

At first blush, it seems absolutely insane to constantly update your beliefs. After all, how could you possibly really believe in anything if, at a moment’s notice, you could completely discard those notions like an out-of-fashion shirt and replace it with something new and possibly even radically different? Doesn’t that, you know, run exactly counter to the very definition of the word?

Yes, it does. And that’s a good thing.

Beliefs in science are provisional. They’re based on the accumulated weight of evidence. New evidence comes in? It’s time to re-examine all of your hypotheses, your assumptions, and your final conclusions: your beliefs. Sometimes the new evidence only serves to reinforce your beliefs. Sometimes it puts your beliefs on thin ice. Sometimes it’s a whole new paradigm.

All of those outcomes are great, all of those outcomes are wonderful, all of those outcomes are good news, and all of those outcomes are welcome.

It’s liberating, really. You never need to worry about having an existential crises of belief systems - you just wait for the evidence to tell you what to believe. This frees up valuable time for many things, such as putting your beliefs to good use.

"Making Cents"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 08 October 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Of course everybody, even science communicators and educators, need to make money. We've got bills to pay, kids to feed, Netflix subscriptions to renew, the works. So it's tempting to think of how we can sell our science; to think of how potential customers can buy our communication and education.

But we are not competing in the marketplace of commerce. We're competing in the marketplace of ideas. We're trying to win over hearts and minds to our point of view and our unique way of understanding the world around us. We're trying to get folks onboard with concepts like critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and skepticism.

To do that we can’t think of what we can sell. We need to think of what value our ideas provide to people and their lives. Maybe some folks are just naturally very curious and love learning about the mysteries of the universe. Great! That's value we can provide. Maybe some folks could use a little more skepticism so that they don't waste time and energy on junk health scams. Great! That's value we can provide. Maybe some folks are desperate to not only know what to believe, but need a framework for making decisions. Great! That's value we can provide.

Our first job is to figure out the value science brings to audiences, and our second job is to figure out how to communicate that value to them.

And the all-important dollars? People are perfectly willing to open up their wallets when they see something that adds value that they want to incorporate into their lives. But value comes first - money is a result of fulfilling that, not a cause.

"A New Sensation"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 01 October 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

How many times do we chance upon a headline that boldly states that scientists are baffled by a new discovery? Or forced to rethink all our theories? Or that the current paradigm is about to be overthrown? Or that what we once knew to be true is now false (and a year later will be true again)?

Sensational headlines are a poison to science communication. They give the impression that science is fickle and temporary - that we'll change our minds with every new experiment or observation. That we have no firm grasp on the understanding of the world around us.

Don't get me wrong: mysteries abound in the sciences. Scientists do change their minds when the evidence is overwhelming. Paradigms do get overthrown. But headlines make it seem like this happens every other week instead of every other decade. Science is slow, cautious, and meticulous.

It's easy to blame the journalists and editors for the shoddy headlines. But in this case, I'll forgive them: they're doing their jobs. Yes, they should know and do better, but their main goal is to drive clicks and eyeballs to their articles. We should simply accept as fact that some of them will twist and distort their message for maximum impact.

So where do sensational science headlines start? They start with the scientists themselves. If we know how journalists will tend to be, then it's up to us to put our work in the proper framing, refrain from giving quotes that can be easily taken out of context, and emphasize the slow-and-steady nature of scientific exploration.

I'm not saying that journalists are malicious or the enemy. But they are driven by goals that are different than our own, and we need to be aware of that.

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