Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Saturday, 3 September 2016

Would I Lie To You ?

Michael Gove's most famous quote is undeniably, "The British people have had enough of experts". But before we get carried away with this, let's remember that this is the moron who also said, "I set my personal ambition aside in my bid to become Prime Minister". God knows what the real limits of his ambition were. My money's either on being crowned king or becoming President of the Zoological Society. 

Still, the good people of Britain did vote against all the expert advice. The anti-vaccine movement continues to be a thing. The internet is full of people who think the Earth is flat. What's going on here ? What happened to a basic sense of good old-fashioned trust ?


Science has many peculiarities. New ideas require criticism, but not too much. Established ideas are venerated. but don't get spared attacks when new evidence undermines them. Many ideas are totally discredited, few are seen as indisputable. Similarly individual scientists often hold each other in varying degrees of regard, from, "that utter moron" up to, "the next Einstein", but most of us are aware that Einstein got things wrong. Science doesn't have authority figures, but it certainly does have more and less credible sources.

Science itself is not about trust. We don't leave our scientific pancakes papers out in the hope that the kitties other scientists will leave them well alone. If anything it's a fundamentally mistrustful process, the results are there (if people are doing things correctly) so that other people can hack them into little bloody pieces. Was the data properly measured ? Does the model work under these conditions too ? If I do things in exactly the same way will I get the same result or was there something wrong ? What if I change things just a little bit ?

It's not that we assume every other scientist is lying, it's simply that reality is complicated. The history of science is not just one of learning more facts, but one of models being replaced with other models - usually better models that give more accurate, more precise predictions. This is profoundly different from discovering the model which is the correct, complete solution, which is a very much rarer event.


But while science itself is not about trust, science communication is a different story. Between experts trust is not usually such an issue - we may trust a skilled theorist hasn't had any silly bugs in their code or an observer hasn't measured the wrong thing, but we know their ideas may be incomplete or misinformed. In small communities we become aware - either through personal interaction or by reading papers - that some people are extremely skilled at some things but are biased in other areas. And everyone knows that everyone else is doing this to them, which is why the system is (to a large but by no means perfect extent) self-correcting.

Communication to the public is different. For me as a scientist it's helpful to remember just how incredibly ignorant I am as soon as I stray from my specialist area. I can tell you with some degree of expertise what the latest thinking is about gas stripping from galaxies or the formation of long tidal tails. But stellar spectroscopy ? Nope, never done that. Cratering studies ? Nope. Pulsar timing ? Nope. High redshift galaxies, even ? Nope. But when I listen, for interests' sake, to experts in these areas describing their findings, I expect them to be fundamentally truthful. I expect them to tell me what they all agree on and which bits are controversial. There's no way I can judge these for myself, I don't have the years of experience needed.

In many ways, in a vast number of areas, I'm not much better off than the general public even within astronomy.

Tell me again about baryon acoustic oscillations, no really, I'll definitely try to listen this time... 
There are some advantages to being a specialist though. For starters I'm aware of the true complexities of my own field. If I hear experts in other fields making things sound simple, I get very suspicious. And more pertinently, I know when experts are doing a shoddy job of public communication in my own field.

The state of astronomy research is, in my opinion, in pretty good shape. Having worked at three different institutes and met researchers from countless others, I've encountered a diverse range of people - some are closed-minded idiots, some are open-minded idiots, most are in the happier middle ground of, "won't change my mind without evidence". But the job of public communication of astronomy is not always in such good shape, and it seems to me that in other areas of science it's in a positively dreadful situation.

Before we go any further, let me make one thing absolutely clear because I know you People Of The Internet just love to go to extremes. So listen very carefully, because I shall say this only once : not everything is dire. Got that ? Good. Now we can talk about the things which are dire without worrying that the world is going to hell, we had better weather in those days, get those kids off ma lawn and all that gubbins.


Press Releases


I hate them. Not all of them, but I have to say I find the majority of them to be awful. They're prone to huge exaggeration to make everything sound exciting and new and most of them are completely unnecessary cries for attention. Take this one. It opens with this wonderful gem :
The solar system could be thrown into disaster when the sun dies if the mysterious ‘Planet Nine’ exists, according to research from the University of Warwick.
Riiiight. Because the death of the Sun would just be a bit of a mild inconvenience, I suppose. There are too many things wrong with this opening statement so I stopped reading at that point. I have to add that one aspect of research that does worry me is fashion. As soon as a major discovery - or even not a discovery in this case but mere inference - is made, the next 18 months or so are chock-full of people trying to jump on the bandwagon to publish sexy, trendy papers. We don't even know Planet X exists, but now we're speculating on its long-term impact on the Solar System ? Come on.

But I digress. The communication problem we have here is that whenever a paper is published, there's a magic little checkbox : "do you want assistance with a press release ?". If you tick it, the journal will help you write a press release and distribute to major news sites for distribution : regardless of the importance of the science content*. These sites being extremely large, people rely on them for their science news. And having an established, trusted source is a good thing, because it's damn difficult to trawl the internet for sensible blogs by sensible scientists**.

* I would hazard that a simulation of what a hypothetical planet might do to our Solar System billions of years from now is not really something that needs a press release. On the other hand there is a real, unavoidable need for researchers and their departments to make a name for themselves to attract funding.
** What ? I'm very sensible. Stop laughing. You shut your face.

Clearly, though, no-one stopped to think how potentially ridiculous this opening comment could sound. Still, at least in this case research was done and the paper published. Not so in other cases, like this very recent example of a supposed SETI signal. As far as I can tell, no paper was published at all, they simply decided to do a press release on a detection more than a year later. This "science by press release" is tantamount to pseudoscience, often done by people whose research is... well, sub-par. Informing the media before the paper is accepted is a massive warning sign, the kind you should take very seriously indeed.

No, not even to see what happens.
A final example I've already covered in somewhat more detail : Dragonfly 44, a supposedly Milky Way mass galaxy without many stars. Now I actually have no major problems with the original paper, but the press release annoys me intensely. First, we have this bizarre statement :
“Very soon after its discovery, we realised this galaxy had to be more than meets the eye. It has so few stars that it would quickly be ripped apart unless something was holding it together,” said Yale University astronomer Pieter van Dokkum, lead author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Yeah, so, just like every other galaxy then. This is a bloomin' daft thing to say. It may be literally true as stated, but there's no way people aren't going to interpret this as meaning that's what's unusual about the galaxy. Which it isn't. Did no-one stop to think, "what does this statement imply in this context ?" instead of just thinking, "is this literally true ?". Because that seems like high school English lesson 101 to me.

Then we have a slightly subtler but perhaps more important miscommunication :
“Amazingly, the stars move at velocities that are far greater than expected for such a dim galaxy. It means that Dragonfly 44 has a huge amount of unseen mass,” said co-author Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto... Dragonfly 44’s mass is estimated to be 1 trillion times the mass of the Sun, or 2 tredecillion kilograms (a 2 followed by 42 zeros), which is similar to the mass of the Milky Way."
Also literally true. But it completely misses out from the original paper the statement that this mass estimate is an extrapolation from the directly measured mass by a factor of 100 ! And that relies on models which are known to have severe problems. To bluntly state the mass estimate without any hint of the significant uncertainties is downright disingenuous.


This Press Release Will Shock You


Which leads me on to the ugly and deformed cousin of press releases : clickbaiting. Or rather, secondary journalism where the journalist doesn't bother to check the details of the original source. "Mystery solved", "we finally know", "scientists baffled" are all common staple headlines of this so-called reporting. These are all the more damaging when you realise that most people don't even read the article, all they see is the headline.

"Scientists baffled" is not all that bad by itself. It's good to emphasise that science is about uncertainty and not knowing how the universe works, of finding things out. "Baffled", though, is a rather strong word to use so often. If we were baffled half as much as the clickbait suggests, we'd have no friggin' clue about how things work at all. And that's not right, because while science indeed doesn't know everything, it most assuredly does know some things. To claim that we're baffled by the tiniest anomaly is almost to say we've just given up. Nope, can't solve any more problems, let's let the pseudoscientists have a go instead. We're all just a bunch of incompetents.


But far, far worse than this is, "mystery solved" and lately, "we finally know". No, the mystery bloody well has not been solved, no, there's nothing "final" about the latest piece of evidence whatsoever. This is a hideous thing to say, because 99% of the time a new piece of evidence will come along and disprove the apparently solved solution. Keep doing this - keep telling people we definitely know the answer then five minutes later tell them that answer was bunk - and it inevitably leads to mistrust. I know I wouldn't trust anyone who kept insisting that they were definitely, definitely right this time even though they said that fifteen times already.

The "experts were wrong" card becomes extremely, legitimately powerful if people are told that the mystery is decisively solved when it was really nothing of the sort - and that allows them to justify any ridiculous idea they want. The danger of this should be obvious : expert opinion loses the proper weight it should be given.

Worse than this, perhaps, is the combination of "scientists baffled" and "mystery solved". It gives such a starkly black and white picture of research - either something is baffling, or it's solved and therefore interesting for five minutes until we can find something else to be baffled about. And as we all know...


Research is nothing like the impression one gets from clickbait - or, for that matter, from rote learning in schools. There are only rarely secure, final answers, and most of the time the mysteries would be more fairly described as "a bit puzzling". Even the really major problems usually have plenty of possible solutions.

It's often said (or at least it was to me in schools) that scientists are like detectives, which is not entirely inaccurate. The difference is that in science you expect your conclusions to keep changing as new evidence is gathered - especially in something like astronomy or particle physics, which can never access the full information about the systems they study. The detective can prove whodunnit with a degree of confidence astronomers can only dream about. If they're very lucky the detective might have CCTV showing the entire murder. They don't expect that if they use a camera sensitive to another wavelength they'll find that there was a hitherto invisible elephant in the room, with murderous intent in his heart... but that happens in astronomy all time time. Only not with elephants.


Not stressing the uncertainties is hugely damaging for public confidence in science. The, "we're really very sure about this" card is one that should be played only very rarely. What you want is to emphasise the uncertainties, not brush them under the carpet. That gives the, "everyone agrees about this" card much, much more strength when you really need to play it. There's nothing wrong with an individual scientist saying, "I think this because..." but there are a hell of a lot of problems with them saying, "I know this is true because blah blah and all of my other colleagues are just wrong". They don't even have to say that directly, they can just imply it - as they do so, all too often in press releases - by failing to acknowledge other possible interpretations.

Compare and contrast :
1) The situation we have now, in which scientists say (or are presumed to say) that they're totally confident about every small detail - almost all of which are invariably discredited, telling the public that they need to trust them.
2) Scientists stressing the uncertainties involved and the sometimes very strong conflicts with other scientists, but very occasionally united about a major issue.
That's the real power of a scientific consensus, that's why it's trustworthy - precisely because most of the time scientists disagree with each other, those rare occasions when there's near-unanimous agreement should not be ignored. Yet that's precisely what's happening as "journalists" (i.e. clickbait writers) and some scientists abuse the idea of certainty for quick, attention-grabbing headlines.


Who Said That ?



While people seem all too happy to swallow clickbait thinking it comes from a credible source, there are other people who few people ever trust : politicians. Now, there are a few politicians out there who I think are fundamentally decent people. But would I trust them ? Hell no. It's in the nature of a politician's job to be untrustworthy. Winning votes requires appealing to people who want different things, I expect them to have an agenda because they damn well do. I expect them to use hyperbole and spin to make their point, because they damn well do that too.

Which is why although I rather like Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth was an absolute disaster. We should never, ever, ever have to resort to getting politicians to explain science to the public. If you already believed in global warming, you probably took the main message to heart and got fired up to hear, at long last, a major politician really trying to do something. If you didn't... well, here was a message about science coming from one of the least scientific and most biased sources possible. Of course you wouldn't bloody trust it. And that's more than enough to turn an issue that should have been as detached from political reality as general relativity and electromagnetism into a major, divisive political issue.

Science, of course, has a role in politics, because science provides the facts (or more often the most likely possibilities) on which to base a decision. There's no getting around that. But a politician trying to tell us not how to act on the evidence, but what the evidence actually is ? No no no no no nononononono ! NOOOOO ! If you start to see one group of scientists as politically motivated, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to doubt the others as well.



Al Gore is an extreme example, but the use of "science advocates"* to explain complex issues is considered perfectly normal. For some reason Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking and the like are routinely trotted out not just to tell us about the wonders of the universe, but climate change. This is crazy. Imagine if the situation were reversed and you only ever heard about astronomy from climatologists. Would that engender confidence in astronomy ? No. Of course it wouldn't, because that's ridiculous. You'd be thinking :

*I include real scientists in this list when they're speaking about areas they're not qualified in.


Climatology also suffers from (quite unintended) associations with environmental activists. Science is about uncertainty and learning. Greenpeace and the like, on the other hand, are about fanatical certainty : rather than examine the evidence, let's just burn down these genetically modified crops. Instead of investigating how dangerous nuclear power really is - which it basically isn't very much - let's just call for it to be banned. Every time a way is found to allow us to reduce the damage to the planet, nope, let's just insist we need to go back to living in the trees.

I am an environmentalist. I like cute fluffy animals and want biodiversity and to prevent climate change and all that stuff. But I also want to use a computer as often as I damn well please. I want to be able to travel to anywhere I want as often as I want without feeling guilty. I want to live my life the way I see fit, not the way some tree-hugging ecowacky wants me to behave.  These people are perverting the course of science for their own agenda and ideologies, not out of any desire for my welfare or because the evidence forces them to that conclusion. With enough bullshitting, you can make evidence suggest anything you like.


One Of Us


Which brings me to my final point : tribalism. Politics is of course inherently tribal : politicians usually have to toe the line for the (important) sake of party unity. Science as a whole is strongly anti-tribal : competitive collaborations ensure that no one group dominates for very long, there's a strong incentive to disprove theories that means any long-held theory isn't merely entrenched thinking, it's just a damn good theory. Science advocates, on the other hand, are much more of a grey area, blurring the lines between science outreach and political campaigning.

A recent article in the Guardian illustrates this greyness quite well. On the one hand :
Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family. That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds. It’s tribalism.
I don't necessarily agree that this is true of most science communication but it's certainly true of some, and certainly of the majority of the most influential sources. On the other hand, this particular article picks the wrong target - to wit, Brian Cox, who produced a graph in a debate with a climate change denier. I'm no fan of Brian Cox*, and even though as a particle physicist his defence of climatology is the very thing I'm trying to persuade you is a very bad idea (more on that shortly), I don't accept some of the other points :

*Though not for the reasons I dislike other science activists, which are far more serious. I just don't like his silly accent and presentation style.
Most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them. It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true. This is why, when you bring data to a TV show, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgemental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.
No. Discussing the facts isn't somehow elitist, and Cox's opponent was claiming that the evidence didn't support the science - leaving Cox with no choice but to discuss the evidence. The article also notes : "On the whole, I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science." Fair enough, but if that's true then it's an absurdity to suggest we shouldn't discuss the science with people who don't accept it. You can't have it both ways. Don't like the science or the fact that the graph disproves something ? Tough. Ugly facts are the heart and soul of science.

But this doesn't change the fact that the debate was between two non-experts. As I've mentioned before many times, St Augustine understood why this was important as far back as the 5th century :
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Their are many problems with relying so exclusively on science advocates as in the current situation. First, they can make mistakes that real experts wouldn't, as St Augustine understood. Sometimes, bizarrely, this is used to somehow try and defend science advocates : "well of course they got that wrong, they're not experts in that field." This is completely wrong-headed. Don't defend non-experts for making mistakes, get a bloody expert in to talk about it !

Second, because they're not directly involved in the details, they won't have the same knowledge of the uncertainties. Which leads to all the problems I've already discussed : "you scientists told us blah, but blah was wrong, again !". And because clear answers are easier to understand, science advocates get trotted out on a whole range of issues they really have no business speaking about as though they were the voice of all science. They become over-confident authority figures, which is the very last thing science needs. It also doesn't help when such incredibly influential figures speak in their professional capacity about purely political issues that have nothing much to do with science (as opposed to, say, a scientist with a blog written in his spare time with 28 followers) - they're seen as political figures, with all the mistrust that implies.

Third, there is a worrying, downright insane tendency among science advocates to dismiss philosophy as "useless". Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye... all seem to have views on philosophy that are utterly moronic. Nye's response to a philosophy student, which borders on, "philosophy won't make you rich", is just so ridiculous I can think of only one appropriate reaction :

Screw you, Bill Nye. Screw you.
It should be self-evident to any half-witted scientist* that philosophy is not merely useful for science, it's indispensable. I don't have time to go into that today so I'll just leave this excellent little piece here for the enthusiasts. More importantly for now, this attitude reeks of tribalism : only science (read that link, it's a good one) provides the correct way of thinking, any other form of thought is irrational, anyone who disagrees with me isn't merely wrong - they're unable to think logically. That kind of attitude inevitably means they see philosophy as useless, because philosophy can question what logic itself is, while followers of scientism are certain they know the answer already.

*And in my experience, which is now pushing 10 years in professional academia, it is. There was a well-attended weekly discussion group on the philosophy of science in Cardiff, for example.

Why do so many science advocates have this absurd attitude ? Well, firstly there's probably a strong selection effect at work. It's a lot easier to be charismatic when you're convinced your position is right, because uncompromising men* are easy to admire - they have a dark charisma, and it feels good to have enemies because all your problems are now someone else's fault. Hence they make great public speakers, whereas the "mealy-mouthed" ordinary scientists, who know that everything is subject to errors and uncertainties, aren't always such good communicators. But if all you see of science are the arrogant bastards who get on TV, no wonder people think we're a bunch of arrogant bastards.

*That linked article was originally planned to target Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose incredibly smug, superior attitude is by far and away the most tribal of all science popularisers. I ended up gearing it toward Donald Drumpf instead, who was much more (worryingly) popular at the time. Yes, I would go so far as to compare Tyson to Drumpf, one of them is just a little bit nastier than the other.


Anti-Science


Scientism, the peculiar view of so many big-name science activists and advocates, has it that only its definitions of logical, rational thought provides meaningful insight into the world around us. This makes it all too easy to label anyone who has an unusual opinion about anything to be "anti-science", even if they're not really anything of the sort. The most common variety of this I see online revolves around genetically modified foods, with a strong reaction of social media saying, "I agree with Tyson on most things but he's wrong about this one". Not that an astrophysicist deserves to be given the slightest bit of authority in pronouncing judgements on GMOs anyway. But are concerns about health automatically driven by, "anti-science" ?

No. Tell someone, "this food is unsafe !" and of course they'll react. It's also worth remembering the "flaw of averages" - hardly anyone is perfectly average, everyone's got some weird ideas. But if you invest an enormous amount of time and effort demonstrating, unequivocally, that vaccines are a damn good idea or that the Moon landings weren't faked or that the Earth isn't flat, if they listen carefully but still say, "scientists are all liars" or whatever - then yes, fair enough, it's hard to see those people as anything other than anti-science. It's probably a mistake to say there isn't any sort of war on science, but the majority of people who reject specific scientific findings tend, in my view, to be perverting the course of science - trying to use it to fit their ideology instead of accepting its most natural conclusion. That's very different to an all-out war against logic.


There's another cliché that I can't avoid here : in the age of information, ignorance is a choice. Or is it ? Despite all the problems I've described, there's nonetheless a wealth of great science information available on the internet. The problem is that it's drowned in bullshit. At the time of writing, the second search result in Google for, "Is climate change real ?" is a website, "Top Ten Reasons Climate Change is a Hoax". Type in, "vaccines are dangerous" and the whole page delivers total bullshit direct to your brain. You can find ludicrous claims to justify whatever idiotic belief you want. Rebuttals and counter-rebuttals... in the age of information overload, is ignorance really a choice ?


Summary and Conclusions


It's sensible to respect science and expertise in general. It's not good to view any scientist as an authority figure.
There's no single reason for the mistrust of science today, but if I had to pick just one it would be the failure of scientists to convey the rigours and difficulties of the scientific method. We don't talk publically about the uncertainties, we just say, "we've done this, let's move on". But it's those uncertainties and the controversies that make a scientific consensus one of the most powerful tools for discovery that we have. Where agreement does occur, it's for very, very good reasons.

Instead what we often seem to be doing (in public communication - within the expert community it's another matter entirely) is claiming that we're certain about everything, only to inevitably find that we were wrong. There's nothing wrong with being wrong, but it's a crazy mistake to present this unwarranted level of confidence the whole time. The most extreme form of this are the science activists, who are so confident that they're right they have this highly divisive, tribal approach that's so vastly removed from real science it's not even funny.

This doesn't matter so much if you're already happy to trust the experts. But what you have to remember is the perspective of those who don't trust them. To have a bunch of non-experts in the field you're skeptical of just accusing you of being anti-science... I should imagine that's not really likely to win you over. And if you do already trust the experts, having your main figurehead telling you that nonbelievers (and yes, these figureheads do believe in science as a religion) are in effect your enemies... well what could be more polarising than that ?

Solutions : break the authority figure image. If a science activist wants to talk about something outside their specialist area, they should do so the way a good journalist would : by finding an expert who is (perhaps) not so skilled at public communication and helping them put things in a way the public can understand. They should be telling you what the experts are saying, not claiming (either explicitly or implicitly) to be an expert themselves. Stop saying, "Neil deGrasse Tyson knows the answer" and start saying, "Neil deGrasse Tyson knows someone who knows the answer."* Instead of defaulting to a regular friendly expert to talk about anything, get as many experts as possible to become more publically visible. If 97% of climatologists agree on humans as the cause of climate change, stop getting astrophysicists to tell us this ! Find some damn climatologists and get them to do some public outreach ! Surely there must be at least one charismatic figure among them ?

* There, I've found a way to let you keep Tyson and Dawkins. Like keeping venomous snakes as pets, you gotta treat 'em responsibly and don't go letting them loose without proper precautions.

Which is not to say that other fields don't have communication problems too. Press releases, as we've seen, can be absolutely dire. I'm not really sure why, public communication isn't really that hard and certainly not as hard as the science itself. Did basic language skills pass so many people by ? Are they only thinking of whether their statements are literally true and not considering their direct implications ?

I am of course a strong proponent of education in the humanities subjects as well as the sciences, partly because poetry is just damn cool, partly because it's important to understand that people are emotionally-motivated and not robots, and partly because it's a great way to teach critical thinking skills. So too is basic statistics. But that will of course take a science journalist only so far, you do need to actually have at least a basic understanding of science as well. The thing is that by the time you get to PhD level science stuff you really ought to have a decent grasp of communication skills anyway. Yet apparently all the routine questions one must ask while doing research - what does this imply, am I certain of this, what are the other options - get thrown out of the window when doing a press release. They could probably do with some form of peer review.

It's great that society has some public figures celebrated for their scientific prowess, even if said prowess is not always what it appears. What's not good is that this is taken to mean, "these are some of the smartest guys on the planet". No they are not. If we're talking first-author publications, for example, then I have more than Tyson. They are often teachers and educators, but not researchers.

Science doesn't have authority figures, and the public don't need scientific authority figures either. What they need is a respect for the scientific method itself, to understand that most major breakthroughs happen not (just) because of lone geniuses but because of the actions of a great many individual researchers, to celebrate scientific achievement and yes, to make the occasional hero of individuals. But this constant, extreme veneration of a very small group of individuals, to give their opinions undue respect on issues they really know nothing about, to allow this tribal attitude and the dogma of scientism to flourish unchallenged (regular readers are well aware that I don't use the word "dogma" lightly) - that's not helping. Lay off the activists, give real scientists a voice instead.


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