On being ‘right’ in science

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This post will be cross-posted on Berkeley Science Review

The other day I was standing around with a few friends arguing about ergonomics  (these are the things you do when you’re a graduate scientist). At one point, my friend referenced a presentation that was chock full of the worst kinds of sensationalist science writing (it said that the act of sitting was literally killing you).

As a scientist and writer myself, I jumped all over the presentation, calling it sham science, and pointing out the many ways in which it was confusing or obscuring the truth. Expecting to be met with nodding approval, I instead faced several annoyed looks and the strong feeling that I was being wished out of the room.  I didn’t understand what was wrong – they had presented a piece of evidence, and I had summarily shot it down.  Isn’t that what arguing is all about?  Instead of feeling right, I felt like a jerk.

And then I realized something: it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.

Many scientists run into this situation on a daily basis, but understanding this problem digs into one of the biggest crises facing scientific research today: there’s a difference between being right and being persuasive.  The first entails having the facts straight, and the second means convincing someone else to believe them.

These facts say something, but I have no idea what it is.

These facts say something, but I have no idea what it is.

As an academic, I’ve often heard that “the facts speak for themselves”, or that one need only to “look at the data” in order to see the truth.  Unfortunately, experience has taught me that neither of these statements is correct.  Facts are always colored by the context in which they are presented, and data can be massaged and molded to tell almost any story you want. And so what if you’re correct, if nobody will pay attention to you in the first place?

This brings me to a saying that one of my advisors is fond of sharing with his students:

Never hesitate to sacrifice truth for understanding.

Let me take a second to tease this sentence apart.  On its surface, it would seem that this is an almost heretical idea in the world of science—we’re all pursuing truth, not trying to hide it.  However, as anyone who’s read an article full of confusing scientific jargon will tell you, incomprehensible truth is just that: incomprehensible.

As a scientist, our job is not only to make discoveries about the world, but also to share  our experience and our findings with those around us.  That’s where the persuasion comes in.

Let me give you two sentences, and you tell me which one is better:

  1. Neurons are composed of a lipid bilayer with embedded trans-membrane proteins for the purpose of transmitting ions across the cell membrane.  Upon firing an action potential, electrical and chemical gradients cause an influx of sodium, causing a spike in membrane potential. Calcium channels open and an influx of calcium cleaves SNARE proteins, releasing vesicles containing neurotransmitters.
  2. Neurons are cells in the brain with tiny “channels” embedded on their outside.  These channels allow electrically-charged chemicals (called “ions”) to go inside and out of the cell.  When sodium ions enter the cell in large amounts, neurons will “fire” in an event called an action potential. This opens channels for calcium ions, which enter the cell and cause the release of packages of neurotransmitter.

They’re both correct, but unless you’re a neuroscientist the first one is considerably harder to read.  If I were to give a random person the first explanation, they’d probably think: “well, that sounds smart but I have no idea what he’s talking about.”  If I gave you the second, you’d have an intuition (albeit incomplete) for how a neuron operates.  That’s sacrificing truth for understanding, and it’s essential as we attempt to make our science understandable by laypeople, politicians, businesses, and even other scientists.

Though the science communication greats are certainly astounding sometimes.

Though the science communication greats are certainly astounding sometimes.

So why belabor this point?  Because scientists are taught to speak like explanation 1, even though the vast majority of people think in terms of explanation 2.  We offload the incredibly important task of science communication to a vast army of journalists and hope that the few Carl Sagans and Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world will carry the load for us.  No wonder there’s a disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the public.

At this point, someone usually chimes in with the “science doesn’t need the input of ‘non-scientists’” argument, suggesting that we only need to talk amongst ourselves in developing new theories of the world.  Sorry, I’m not buying that.

Consider the fact that scientific theory and uninformed hand waving are often presented as equal and opposing sides to an argument in the media.  Clearly, we are not getting the message across to the public that science is not opinion, it is an argument grounded in facts.  It’s incredibly important to think about how we phrase our understanding of the world, as well as how we can make our ideas more relevant, interesting, and clear to the public. Don’t believe me?  Just ask the climate scientists.

As a young scientist, there is a lot of pressure to focus all of my efforts on my scientific peers, to keep up with the latest computational jargon, to remember the recently created acronyms.  However, this will only make up part of my education in graduate school.  The other part, equally as important as the first, entails sharing those ideas with others, using them to better the world, and inviting those around me to forge ahead into the unknown as we take the next scientific leap.

 

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Chris studies cognitive and computational neuroscience, attempting to link higher-level theories of the mind with information processing in the brain. He’s also an avid science communicator – check out his posts on the Berkeley Science Review and follow him on Twitter at @choldgraf

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