Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    the number of students who show up with the idea that they don’t like writing, so they’d like to do science is kind of terrifying

    I totally agree Lucy. Now when I talk to school-kids who come through our institute one of the things I emphasize is how important English is to their ability progress in science.

    But having good skills at English still won't necessarily help with communicating science to anyone other than another scientist, in your field.

    The problem is that most fields in science use a language that is almost unique. Even when English words are used their meaning is different from field to field. I liked the idea of appreciating science the way you appreciate art but the problem is in this case the art is in another language. Think of it as a great piece of literature written in Arabic. If someone shows it to you and says "wow this is amazing" you look at the scribbling and nod and smile. If you want to appreciate the art you'll need to learn another language first - or you could watch the rugby.

    It's even more difficult than simply the language. In any field the cutting edge stuff - the really exciting cool stuff - is built on a foundation of assumed knowledge. It's like trying to explain why Jonah Lomu's try was so cool to someone who has no clue about the rules of the game.

    "Why didn't he just around the Englishmen?"
    "Because he would have gone out"
    "Out? Oh and why was he carrying that funny shaped ball anyway?...."

    Yes the rock stars are often not the best scientists in their field, but they combine good scientific skills with skills that allow them to explain a game no-one knows the rules of, in a language no-one understands. They may have flaws but they deserve credit for doing someone that I know from experience is very hard.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • DeepRed, in reply to Sacha,

    I wonder what our nation's woeful private sector contribution to research and development does for science's perceived value?

    And for the relationship between that value and the funding of particular work. The current government is more explicitly focusing on applied research - or in other words, what business thinks is valuable rather than what scientists might choose to pursue. Government and business decision-makers seem like relevant audiences to consider as well as the general public.

    And if it's anything to go by, a very close friend of mine, despite graduating with a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Auckland, couldn't secure a single job here. Not even in Australia or Europe either. So he's basically gone freelance and promoted himself, writing scientific documents. While he's not earning to his full potential, it's a start for him.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 3897 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Think of it as a great piece of literature written in Arabic. If someone shows it to you and says "wow this is amazing" you look at the scribbling and nod and smile. If you want to appreciate the art you'll need to learn another language first

    Or appreciate it in translation. That's still worth something, indeed I've been appreciating a famous Arabian classic on and off for years, any time I can't sleep - 1001 Tales of Arabian Nights.

    It's even more difficult than simply the language.

    Yes, I remember a poignant example of this, when a friend was telling me he had been studying fast Fourier transforms and saw the applicability of them to voice communication over low bandwidth connections. I asked him to explain these transforms, so he began with "OK, so you get what a vector space is, right?". I had to confess to only having a hazy idea of this, at which point he simply gave up, telling me that until I grasped them in some detail the explanation would be impossible, and that grasping would take quite a while (he was also tutoring people in maths, I think, so he knew roughly how long it would take a motivated student to click to the ideas).

    I felt annoyed by this, that it was as much a failing of him in being able to describe the idea via a metaphor as a failing of mine to have not been diligent in stage 1 algebra, and it was highly likely that the result he was talking about would have been very useful to me in computing. But, on the other hand, I can't be sure that he wasn't right, and no explanation of FFTs would have conveyed more to me than what he had already told me, that it was a compression method that was highly applicable to pattern rich soundwave-like data.

    ETA: I raise this example since mathematics and computer science are very closely related disciplines, and yet the communication of ideas between them, that are to the practitioners quite basic and simple, can be very difficult indeed.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8015 posts Report Reply

  • andin, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Creation myths have a legitimate cultural aspect, and tell you a lot about how people perceive the world around them.

    I dont doubt that for a minute. So….does that lead anywhere apart from round in circles?

    Taking that into account when dealing with the ethics of scientific sampling and practice is quite different

    I’ll just have to take your word for that.

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1149 posts Report Reply

  • Yamis, in reply to Islander,

    Well the magnate seems to 'attract' followers. Maybe that's what I was getting at.

    Since Nov 2006 • 855 posts Report Reply

  • Lyndon Hood,

    Have you listened to 'that' Kim Hill i/v with Robert Winston? IIRC it was characteristed by Winston, probably justly, refusing to answer questions in Hill's terms - but not proposing terms of his own. (And a couple of cases of flatly denying controversey around historical controversial issues.)

    Anyway, only an informative chat for certain values of informative.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1091 posts Report Reply

  • Lyndon Hood,

    1001 Tales of Arabian Nights.

    Currently in progress on my phone. I read there's a new translation out, too.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1091 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew C, in reply to Russell Brown,

    And meanwhile, the Herald runs this weird "balance" column featuring the respective views of Chris de Freitas and Keith Hunter.

    At least the Herald hasn't degenerated into The Australian's War on Science. Not yet at least

    For anyone interested, that same blog has made mention of our Mr De Freitas a few times as well.

    Auckland • Since May 2008 • 121 posts Report Reply

  • Sophie Fern, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Very true.

    Hobart, Australia • Since Jun 2011 • 6 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    “Why didn’t he just go around the Englishmen?”
    “Because he would have gone out”
    “Out? Oh and why was he carrying that funny shaped ball anyway?….”

    "It's a Haggis, he was going to a barbie after"
    "Does he know Ken?"
    "Do ye nea ken?"
    "?"

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4443 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen,

    The rock stars of er, rock aren’t necessarily closely related to the good musicians, either.

    A one hour Media7 special on that topic might do better in the ratings too.

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 193 posts Report Reply

  • Stewart,

    The communication of scientific knowledge to laypersons is generally heavy on metaphor and simile in order to reduce the complexity to a level that has some chance of being accepted. It is like the translation of Ben's Arabian Nights from the Arabic (scientific jargon) into English (something at a level that laypersons can hope ot comprehend).

    So translators of science need to be conversant with the scientific/Arabic realm and be able to parse this knowledge into 'easy speak'.

    Te Ika A Maui - Waitakere… • Since Oct 2008 • 552 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    I wonder what our nation’s woeful private sector contribution to research and development does for science’s perceived value?

    And for the relationship between that value and the funding of particular work. The current government is more explicitly focusing on applied research – or in other words, what business thinks is valuable rather than what scientists might choose to pursue. Government and business decision-makers seem like relevant audiences to consider as well as the general public.

    /hobby horse
    I find policy makers difficult beasts to deal with. They have assumptions so vastly different from my own world view. For them the only value of science is economic gain and they are only interested in the most cost effective way to achieve that gain.

    Sadly that has led to funding of science that is predicted to lead to economic gain and over 20 years that has only resulted in lower quality science being funded (because it had higher perceived economic benefit). Sadly it has turned out that trying to guess which science directly leads to economic gain is ... er ... difficult.

    This isn't a result that is new, many countries have tried to "pick winners" and failed. In the end the only successful funding strategy has been to fund based on quality of science. Somehow by funding purely on quality you end up with greater economic gains.

    In some senses because the bureaucrats are not excited by high quality science, because they don't see the beauty in an elegant experiment, because nobody has managed to excite them about the science, they have defaulted to simply managing the dollars. That hasn't been a good thing.
    /dismount

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • David Winter, in reply to andin,

    andin,

    These things make more sense with concrete examples. I study snails, not medical science, so let’s say I decide i’m interested in flax snails and want to start a study of them.

    Lots of people people value our native fauna, so i’d have to talk to DoC about how I was going to sample, and what results my research might produce. As it happens, some Northern iwi also value flax snails in particular have stories about them and consider themselves to be kaitiaki for these animals. I don’t see how it’s any more arduous or damaging to science for me to spend some time talking to these people, to understand why they value these animals and to explain to them what my result might mean. In fact, taking as many people on board as possible should be a goal for science

    Dunedin • Since Aug 2010 • 10 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Fracking, magnates: how do they work?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2292 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich Lock,

    magnates: how do they work?

    They're magnates because they don't work.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Well, yes. But then the joke...wouldn't have worked.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2292 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich Lock,

    Comedy, it's complicated.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich Lock,

    work

    Speaking of which time to go sow my petunia seeds

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • David Winter,

    i think some of the hand-wrining about how hard it is to explain some concepts in science isn't really justified. Science isn't a collection of facts and impenetrable ideas, it's the method we've developed to understand the world and there's nothing hard about understanding that at all.

    The LHC is massive and ridiculous feat engineering and science about which I understand almost nothing, and we shouldn't be do concerned if very few of us really understand the maths the underpins it. What everyone should know is that it's a machine that we built to test an idea. The models that best explain how matter works predict that when matter has this much energy something will happen, so we built a machine (did I mention it's colder than space...) that accelerates matter fast enough to create those energies so we can measure what happens. And that's all science really is: you've got an idea? Ok, test it.

    That should really be the message of science communication, stories like the LHC other evolution of our species, or the origin of universe itself are awe inspiring examples that we can use as hooks to get the message across, but what we've learned about 1080, vaccines, GMOs and our climate system are all part of the same project.

    Dunedin • Since Aug 2010 • 10 posts Report Reply

  • James Green,

    geek alert -- FWIW it's worth, the title "Lord" is always concatenated with the surname, so he is Robert, Lord Winston [of XX], never Lord Robert or Lord Robert Winston. In contrast, "Sir" and "Dame" attach to the forename, so it is always Sir Ed or Dame Susan, never Sir Hillary or Dame Devoy. Actually, I guess to be really geeky, I'd need to understand the reason for this.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 667 posts Report Reply

  • andin, in reply to David Winter,

    I don’t see how it’s any more arduous or damaging to science for me to spend some time talking to these people, to understand why they value these animals and to explain to them what my result might mean. In fact, taking as many people on board as possible should be a goal for science

    Well that sounds like it was very enjoyable. And I think back to what has been trodden over in the race to colonise the continents by those insensitive to the local culture and environment. Not one of humanity's finest hours.
    I just wonder, with our highly developed ability to self delude, especially if some otherworldly entity can be conscripted to the cause, we should be careful when it comes to the baggage of past generations. Especially now as these ancient knowledge systems are shown to be riddled with fictions and inconsistencies, virtually with each passing week.
    Hey I don't really care, anyone can have whatever comforting fantasy they like just so long as they know and acknowledge it as a comforting fantasy to them and other don't have to buy into it, if they don't want to. I better stop now in case someone thinks I'm a lone nut. Or am I too late!

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1149 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to David Winter,

    @ David Yes and No

    Yes sometimes it is possible to easily explain the science, in which case you should. BTW most scientists (including me) really just want someone who will listen to them. The usual experience is people being bored spitless and walking away.

    But some science is complex. And if you brush over the complex and say "it's a big piece of equipment we made to test and idea" then you verge on patronising and people really hate that and are really good at detecting it.

    Yes you are right to some degree the important thing is the process of approaching problems using the scientific method. But some folks want to know more.

    In my field if I'm given enough time I can usually explain everything about what I'm doing. But I don't have to deal with the math which can become truly impenetrable. But even then the person has to actually be interested otherwise it becomes really boring. Can I describe the exciting bits in lay terms? Sure, but some of the excitement comes from knowing some of the details.

    But the one thing that has come to piss me off unbelievably about explaining science is the "So how is it going to make money?" question. Tips for young players - that question will make most scientists, especially me, grumpy. If that's the question you're interested in then I'd rather talk about the rugby thanks.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3108 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Now, convincing businesspeople to fund research in the humanities, that's a trick.

    I've been having a great related conversation with Ben today (thanks, sir).

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15715 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to James Green,

    geek alert – FWIW it’s worth, the title “Lord” is always concatenated with the surname, so he is Robert, Lord Winston [of XX], never Lord Robert or Lord Robert Winston. In contrast, “Sir” and “Dame” attach to the forename, so it is always Sir Ed or Dame Susan, never Sir Hillary or Dame Devoy. Actually, I guess to be really geeky, I’d need to understand the reason for this.

    I was wondering about this, but most people seem to called him "Lord Robert Winston". Where, then, does the "Professor" part go? I know it's full and correct to refer to "Professor Sir Peter Gluckman".

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17940 posts Report Reply

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