From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Dangers of Scientism"

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

It's our mission as science communicators to, well, communicate science. And not just its processes and methods, but also the value and importance of science in modern society. But there's a dangerous line that's very easy to cross when promoting all things science: that science is all the things.

Let's look first at the difference between patriotism and jingoism. It's perfectly fine and acceptable to be patriotic: to love one's nation, its people, its ideals, and to strive to make it better. It's another to turn that love for one's own country into a hatred for others, to believe in its superiority over all the other nations of the Earth, and to use that belief to back aggressive aims.

Scientism is the position that science isn't just a cool way to learn things about the universe, but The One True Way, superior to all other paths of knowledge and understanding. Something along the lines of "If it ain't science, it ain't nothing." That science is capable of answering any possible question (or at the very least, arguing that the only questions worth considering are those that are amenable to the scientific method), and that humanity can safely discard religion, philosophy, and even the arts as relics of the past.

I'm not saying that it's our job to promote anything but science - we are to be clear, strong-voiced advocates for its value. But the people we are speaking to are real humans with real lives with real beliefs. The moment we switch from promoting to attacking, we stop communicating, and we've failed our mission.

"Providing Value"

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

It's easy to say "science is great!" It's another thing entirely to explain why.

As fans of the scientific method we should immediately recognize the need to provide evidence to back up our statements. Therefore a part of our mission as a community of scientists, educators, and communicators is to share with our audiences that science can be incorporated into their everyday lives.

In other words, our message has to be that science provides value.

Some of the value of science is in the facts, the cool stuff that generations of hard-working scientists have revealed about our world and our universe. It's fun to learn new things and figure things out, and we should definitely share that. And I have nothing against putting that front and center; after all, "gee whiz isn't that neat" forms the backbone of most of my own outreach efforts.

But it can't end with facts and basic knowledge. That's only the entry point to the true value realized by communicating science: how to think critically, how to sharpen one's mind to recognize bias and cut out BS, how to apply inductive reasoning, how to form and evaluate hypotheses, how to navigate noisy and incomplete data, and so on.

We must strive to share how we can all apply the methods of the scientific trade to solve vexing problems. Science can't find a solution to every issue (that's the subject of another piece) but it's a wonderfully handy tool that can be applied to many situations.

In other words, science can be valuable.

That's our message. That's our focus - not audience size or revenue targets or growth projections. Those are the result of providing value, not the cause. And that value isn't necessarily in what we say to our audiences, but what we create within them.

"The Challenge of the Flat Earth"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 26 March 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

It's so easy to dismiss "flat-Earthers". Most of my colleagues do so with a contemptuous smirk and "of course the Earth is round", sometimes following up with "you idiot". I myself usually respond with a contemptuous roll of my eyes and "I refuse to feed the trolls"...sometimes following up with "you idiot".

Or at least that was my response until an interaction during the last COSI After Dark, when a young couple started asking me about flat Earth and various conspiracy theories during my live planetarium show. I answered their questions, but after the show I realized that I probably didn't convince them of anything. Where was I going wrong?

I don't really care what a person believes; what's more important is why a person believes. If we agree on the "why", then we can debate the evidence and discuss the facts. If we disagree on the "why" - if we're approaching the issue from fundamentally different perspectives - then that's what we need to examine first.

After the planetarium show it struck me (and I apologize if I'm late to a common realization) that the question of Earth's roundness isn't a debate about facts, but something deeper. Perhaps a flat-Earther isn't questioning the evidence, or even doubting me personally, but challenging the system that I represent.

That line of thinking leads to some intense questions. How many times has science been used to lie to a group of people? To harm them? How many times have scientists been willing participants in that deception?

To put it crudely, how many times have groups been screwed over because of science, or at the very least the socioeconomic systems that promote and entrench scientists? Can you blame people for rejecting the entire apparatus altogether, and voicing that rejection in the form of flat-Earth theories?

If we want to honestly respond to flat-Earthers, I think we first have to take an introspective look inwards and solve the riddle of rebuilding trust.

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