Archive for March 2011

Who do you trust? And why?

March 21, 2011

“In God we trust”, or so they say. Nice, if you truly believe that there is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful being out there who has your best interests at heart, and who can send you signs telling you what is going on. If you don’t believe any of this (and I don’t), then who can you trust? And where can you go to get information that you know is accurate?

Not this blog, that’s for sure.

Not that I would intentionally lie to you, I want to make that clear. But this blog gives my opinion, and those of others who comment on it. Some of this will be backed up by fact. But if you want real, true, hard facts, a blog is the wrong place to go looking for them.

Ok, so you don’t go to a blog. But maybe you look for the answer on the internet? Use a famous search engine or ask a question in a forum. Maybe you look up the answer in a book, or ask a friend. You could ask a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a scientist or other expert, depending on what your question is about. You could watch a TV programme about it. Or stop someone on the street and ask them.

What I am trying to get at is that obviously there are very many places you could go to get answers to your question. Some of these are probably more trustworthy that others – would you take the answer given to you by a passer-by over that of a teacher? Probably not. But most people would tend to believe their friend over a random stranger. Even if, unbeknownst to them, the random stranger might actually be a top expert in that very subject, whereas their drinking pal is not. It’s probably human nature, we spend time with people we like, we trust them more. We surround ourselves with people who we like and who have similar backgrounds, training, and beliefs to ourselves. And we trust these people over strangers. Which in the end means we trust our own judgement over that of others.

I’ve had countless conversations about various “non-scientific” groups such as climate change deniers and religious groups. Some members of these groups claim that belief is more important than what you can tell from the evidence. This is an inherently unscientific claim as all good scientists know that your hypothesis must be testable and you arrive at it by making educated guesses (inferences) based on your observations. If there is no evidence there is no  inference and no hypothesis to test. But it is not necessarily wrong – there may be things happening in the world for which we (currently) have no reliable evidence. Personally though, I would tend to regard ideas for which there is evidence as being more likely to be correct than beliefs for which there is no evidence.  

Another important side of this is whether you can or should believe someone when they tell you something. Governments tell their people something and expect them to believe and obey – like the Japanese government right now telling the people it is all safe and not to panic. Advertisers tell you that their product is best. Scientists tell you not to believe in ghosts. Your doctor tells you to cut down on fat. Your friend tells you it’s all a big consipracy and not to believe any of them. So who do you believe, and why?

Some people or agencies have earned our respect previously, by doing good work or by making pronouncements that have subsequently been proven to be truthful (particular charities). Some have a more mixed history (governments). Some we just want to believe because the alternative is too awful (climate change deniers).

As a scientist I want to engender trust in science and other scientists. I believe that, in general, what is peer-reviewed and published represents the best of our knowledge about a subject. (I say in general because, as many of us know, peer review and publication do not guarantee trustworthiness – think cold fusion, etc). I put my trust in the community-based checking mechanisms that ensure that only the truth is put out there. If I see a news story about science, I ask “where has this come from, where are the papers published?” and until I know the answer, I reserve judgement. Well mainly, anyway. As a human, if I see a story I want to believe, and think is likely, I will probably believe it anyway, especially if it comes from a source I trust. Except the BBC on April Fool’s Day.

Chickens and eggs

March 4, 2011

Which comes first, the love of science or the understanding of it? In my opinion this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you do not appreciate and understand how amazing science is, why would you want to learn more about it? And if you do not learn about it, how can you appreciate its true wonders?

I recently had a discussion in which I defended the importance of scientists going into teaching. I’ve also been doing quite a bit more in the way of public engagement type activity, as some of you may have noticed from my last post about the British Science Association event. I started this because I think it is important to ensure scientific literacy and appreciation in everyone, kids and adults alike. My experience and observations doing it have been great, and they have been thought-provoking.

Many of the comments we’ve received during the science-busking events we’ve done have gone along the lines of “Better than science in school”, “I’m really into science and this is great”, “Why don’t we learn about this in school?” Many adults assumed that the event was aimed at their kids and not for them, because “Science is for kids, it’s something you learn in school”, which is a shame because what we are trying to show is how vital science is for everything that you do, it surrounds us and is integral to our lives. Now you can argue that the busking is not the best way to reach the adults, and this may be right, but the attitude still persists and must, I feel, be addressed.

Science teaching is really important because it contains the message about the significance of science in everything. But the way that science is taught in many schools (especially due to over-zealous health and safety concerns) means that the wonder and amazement is difficult to convey. I’m not an expert in education and I don’t have direct answers to this, but I am sure that is would help if impressionable minds could be impressed with amazing things that science can do. It would also help if parents believed that science was important and conveyed this attitude to their children. It might help if science was not just one lesson in a list of english, maths, french, science, PE, etc. Science comes into all of these subjects and could be demonstrated in all of the lessons rather than as a rather abstract thing to be  learned by rote. There have been various attempts to do this and I am sure that some of them are successful. As I said, I’m not an expert. But you can tell by the state of society today and the media in particular, that many people have no interest in or understanding of science. So what’s going wrong?

Instead of targeting the kids, we could start with the people in charge, those with the power to make a difference. Ask them to promote the importance of science, and the importance of having a future generation as well as a current generation of scientifically literate people. They don’t all need to be scientists, but understanding the scientific method will help in so many ways in different parts of society. But if science continues to be taught in a way that makes it difficult to be enthusiastic about it, none of this will have much effect. We will just be imposing dull lessons on our kids, who will probably then hate science forever.

And how do you convince the policymakers etc. of the importance of something that they have hated since childhood and that only a minority wants to study?

As ever I would love to hear what you think – do we aim to start with the chicken or the egg? Or something entirely different? And what is the most effective way for one person to make a difference in this regard – should I write to my MP (who seems most uninterested in scientific questions in general) or go into teaching? (this is not a serious career-change question as I would make a terrible teacher but as a means to make a difference it certainly has potential).