Monday, May 01, 2017

Who speaks to the public?

The election of the current president is not the only one that has happened at this interesting time in history.  He and his complete disregard for the truth is not that unique.  That was on the political side of our lives. Almost all the dynamics that helped the president completely dismiss the truth are also the ones challenging the work of scientists.  Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan says:
The Internet and the World Wide Web have been a tremendous boon to scientists. It's made communication far easier among scientists. It's in many ways leveled the playing field.
Along with the benefits, what has happened is a huge amount of noise. You have all of these people spouting pseudoscientific jargon and pushing their own ideas as if they were science. They couch all their stuff in technical jargon. They talk about energy and negative energy. Well, what does negative energy mean? Energy has a very precise definition to a chemist or a physicist. These guys are using it in some mumbo-jumbo way, but it sounds scientific. Scientists are very busy, and our science has become so technical that it's a real effort to communicate it in an accessible way to the public. The public is bombarded with all this information, so who do we believe?
The people end up believing whoever tells them the simplest of stories--even if those stories are nothing but bullshit!

I blogged about Ramakrishnan, in 2010, after reading his essay.  Back then he was a freshly minted Nobel laureate.

Back to Ramakrishnan in the contemporary context:
How do we as a science community grapple with this and communicate to the public a sense of what science is about, what is reliable in science, what is uncertain in science, and what is just plain wrong in science? How do we live with uncertainty? Scientists live with uncertainty. We know that no matter how confident we are in our theories, it is possible that we're wrong, that our ideas may be wrong, and we always have to be prepared for that. That isn't to say that our ideas lack merit and that they shouldn't be taken seriously.
This is a problem in many fields. Climate change, for example, is a classic field where uncertainties in the consensus opinion are pounced on by people who don't like the idea of climate change and therefore oppose it. These are real long-term issues that we need to grapple with.
In the seminar class last fall, I had materials for students to think about the role of uncertainty in knowledge.  Understanding that is a necessary path towards intellectual boldness, I told them.  If Ramakrishnan had talked about all these back then, I would have made the students watch the interview.

So, why is Ramakrishnan talking about these now?  Because, he is now the head of the Royal Society.  With that honor comes the responsibility--he has to address science and society:
The last year has been very interesting because, for the first time, I've been taken out of my little area of ribosomes and structural biology into thinking about broader issues about science. How do we communicate science? How do we ensure that science is reliable? How do we promote interaction among scientists? How do we constantly make the case of why science is important not just to government, but to the public and to others? It's been a very interesting experience because it's made me think about science in a much broader context.
I wish scientists would do more of that--if they want to make sure that science survives the likes of the current president of the US.  Marching for science alone will not achieve anything.

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