Whether we like it or not, those of us who write about scientific topics (even at a relatively unknown blog like this one) end up being the public face of science. I was reminded of that fact very strongly last week, and I’m still pondering the lessons I learned from the experience.
Here’s the story, briefly: nearly two weeks ago, baseball player Jose Canseco tweeted a few short statements about the nature of gravity in the time of the dinosaurs. Many people wrote snarky comments or even articles about it, mocking Canseco’s conjectures, but did not talk about the scientific substance. (I didn’t check my own Twitter feed, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I wrote something mocking at the time.) However, one of those snarky stories triggered science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong to write a critical response:
This irritates me. It’s a guy laughing at another guy’s silliness. But why’s he wrong? Oh you don’t know/won’t say. pcmag.com/article2/0,281…
— Ed Yong(@edyong209) February 23, 2013
Then I stepped in it: I wrote back to Ed, saying something unfairly derogatory about the publication that mocked Canseco (which I subsequently deleted, with an apology). During the resulting back-and-forth exchange, my friend Brian Switek proposed each writing a blog post, focusing on our own areas of expertise. Brian’s two posts discussed dinosaur reproduction and blood pressure; mine discussed gravity.
That’s where things stood for me until last Friday night. In the interim, Brian and Canseco were discussing the topic on Twitter, and I’ll let the conversation that followed speak for itself.
Summary: I spent a fair amount of Friday night talking about gravity with Jose Canseco in a very friendly way, which ended with him inviting Brian and me to hang out with him in Las Vegas, if we’re ever in the city. Both Ed and Jennifer Ouellette (very good at the science communication game herself) praised Brian and me for Doing It Right.
“Obvious” isn’t obvious to everyone
At this point, I could pat myself on the back and say “good job”. However, I was raised in the American Midwest, which means I’m not allowed to accept any kind of praise without saying, “Thanks, but….” (We didn’t believe in the Evil Eye growing up, but we kind of behaved like we did anyway.) So, I’ve been second-guessing myself, and pondering how to do better in the future.
The first thought is one Ed Yong previously raised: why did none of the other writers who mocked Canseco say why the “weak gravity” idea is wrong? Besides the easy answer—mocking requires relatively few words, while explaining the real science can take a thousand or more to do properly—I think it may have to do with degrees of obviousness. Most people, looking at Canseco’s tweets, could probably tell you that Earth’s gravity wasn’t half its modern strength, but could they say why?
Anyone who writes on websites for any length of time will run across the commenter who says things like “I found a typo or grammar error in your post, therefore I can’t trust anything else you write”. (Worse are ones that say in effect that the commenter wouldn’t phrase things in a particular way, so therefore the writer knows nothing.) I know I’m always finding grammar errors in my posts after they’re published, or even spelling mistakes (which my spellcheck software should catch!). When writing, I’m very focused on content, so it’s not surprising small errors creep in. I wonder sometimes if that isn’t a dodge: the commenter cannot insert themselves meaningfully into the story, either because they don’t understand what it’s about, or they understand well enough to see they can’t add anything productive to the conversation. The negative snarky articles about Jose Canseco might also fall into that category: it’s easier to poke holes than to be constructive.
For me, a trained physicist whose Ph.D. thesis had a lot to do with gravitation, the problem with “weak gravity” is pretty obvious. Similarly, Brian Switek just wrote a whole book about dinosaurs, one chapter of which dealt with the question of how some of them got so huge. I’m no dinosaur (or geology) expert, but I could state with confidence that gravity didn’t change much in the last 100 million years. Similarly, Brian was happy to pass any physics stuff along to me, but he could draw on his expertise to say that sauropod dinosaurs weren’t nearly as massive as they might seem. What is obvious to him isn’t to me, and vice versa. A major part of science communication is understanding that relative obviousness.
My undergraduate thesis advisor spoke often about “building intuition”: that we aren’t born physicists, but we can learn to think like physicists with practice and training. Once we have that skill, things become obvious that aren’t necessarily so to non-specialists. It’s not anything magical—it’s something available to other people, if they are patient and dedicated. I know a number of good physics writers with no formal physics training; they’ve built that intuition over time.
A common concept in journalism or science communication is the “deficit model”, which says that people’s lack of acceptance of (say) evolution or climate change is because they simply don’t have enough facts. A major problem with the deficit model is that the human brain is perfectly willing to reject any fact that doesn’t fit into the intuitive worldview we build up. (This is something Liz Neeley and John Bruno spoke about at ScienceOnline, but unfortunately I missed her session, since one of mine was at the same time.) The problem is, if the deficit model is wrong, then those of us who do science communication have to work harder, acting as educators instead of just as reporters of fact. We have to help people build their own intuition, bringing them to a level where they can understand—at least in part—why an explanation is trustworthy.
Web of authority, web of trust
Another common misconception is that, if a writer states something, it must be his or her own idea. If I ever continue the conversation with Mr. Canseco, I’ll bring that up: you’ll note in the Twitter conversation linked above that he attributed the sauropod size study to Brian, and gave me credit with Einstein for gravity. However, both of us are quick to say that these ideas aren’t original to us: they come from many researchers, in some cases stretching back centuries. My authority in asserting that gravity hasn’t changed in 100 million years doesn’t rest on my own research, which hasn’t dealt with planets at all!
In fact, that’s a major reason I can trust Brian when he writes about sauropods: he’s not just making it up, but talking to paleontologists and reading their papers. When I write about gravity, I hope you trust me for similar reasons. If I can’t convince you that what I write is drawn from evidence, from research, from the efforts of others who know what they’re talking about, then I’m not doing my job. The reason you can (and hopefully do) trust me is that I’m not writing on my own behalf entirely. An accusation commonly made by crackpots against professional scientists is that they are self-proclaimed experts, who close ranks against outsiders. (Unfortunately, some scientists do seem to think it’s an exclusive club, not open to others.)
However, we are all part of this web of trust: scientists doing research, people communicating about said research (whether their own or others’ work), and those who read or listen. Nobody is simply a passive, empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. We science communicators have to trust our readers and listeners to be intelligent, and give them our respect.