Science Corner: Says Who?

In reviewing the science news sites, it was hard to get away from Eric Metaxas’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on fine-tuning and what it says about the likelihood of God, and from the host of responses to it. I don’t have anything to add directly to that conversation; I’ve already discussed the provability of God and my thoughts haven’t shifted much since then.

What did interest me was a comment made by Lawrence Krauss in his response. Krauss claims that “by allowing a Christian apologist to masquerade as a scientist WSJ did a disservice to its readers.” I appreciate that Krauss feels strongly about this matter. Still, I’m not sure anyone was masquerading. The item was clearly an opinion piece in a religion column, and I saw no evidence anyone was claiming the author was a scientist, beyond the fact that he was discussing a scientific topic.

Is the objection then that only scientists should write about science? It can be frustrating for experts to see lay people get something incorrect, and it is a natural impulse to erect “You must be at least this tall to play” checkpoints. Yet I think we should instead be gracious and grateful whenever someone goes out on a limb to describe their understanding of a topic they have not mastered. It requires some courage to risk being wrong, and demonstrates curiosity when disinterest is an available alternative. It also creates opportunities for dialogue; if no one is willing to say what they understand, there is nothing to talk about and no way to know what is actually being communicated.

Who should be allowed to participate in public discourse on technical subjects? How do you respond to visitors from other domains who make mistakes while exploring your field?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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4 Comments

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    keseaton commented on January 7, 2015 Reply

    I think this raises a lot of great questions! It can be very constructive to have public discussions on technical subjects, particularly from people who are or will be affected by the policy, treatment, etc… Being able to explain complex technical subjects for lay people is a lost art, in my opinion.

    At the same time, I often see non-experts trying to make a point by disputing the basic premises held by someone with even a basic knowledge of the field. Perhaps it’s a balance of knowing when to pick and choose arguments based on the other person’s willingness for an open, constructive dialogue.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on January 7, 2015 Reply

      Yes, another benefit of having folks from outside a given discipline contribute their thoughts is that sometimes they can be more skilled at communication. That includes being able to explain things in a way other people can understand, which I think most public scientists appreciate, and also being able to explain things in a way that other people want to understand or even listen, which I think some public scientists don’t value enough.

      Which brings us to your other point. I was thinking in general terms, but you are absolutely right that some individuals will, over time, demonstrate either an inability or unwillingness to join a given conversation on common terms. In those cases, it seems reasonable to stop making an effort to include those particular folks, or to adopt another approach to interacting with them that is more appropriate to their circumstances.

  • hannaheag@comcast.net'
    Hannah Eagleson commented on January 8, 2015 Reply

    Andy and Kelly, I really appreciate your thoughts. As someone from the humanities side with respect for science, I really appreciate how clearly you both explain scientific concepts for a general audience.

    I’ve also puzzled over the question of how a subject area expert can interact well with someone who wants to critique a system of thought or practice (like science) but doesn’t seem to put in the time to understand how the system works and why it’s set up the way it is.

    Maybe one way forward, as Kelly suggested, is to start with listening to the way that a scientific or technical concept affects a layperson’s life directly. Perhaps the subject expert can sometimes build a conversation about how science works as a system and how it interacts with people’s lives from there?

    I think you’re both good at the use of thoughtful metaphors for scientific concepts, which helps me as a layperson also. I realize the metaphor isn’t the whole of the thing and that the technical knowledge behind it is more precise, but it helps me get the basic idea.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on January 13, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Hannah.

      To add to your thoughts, I think part of building a conversation is listening and figuring out what questions people are actually asking. Often times the questions that experts are asking are very different from what laypeople are asking, and not just because laypeople are asking simpler or more basic questions that the experts have already figured out. Sometimes that process is complicated, because the questions that laypeople are literally saying or writing are not really addressing what they want to know about, but their unfamiliarity with the domain makes it hard for them to ask the questions they really want to ask. Consequently, when the expert answers the letter of the question, the answer isn’t satisfying.

      I see this a lot at work. To use a fairly trivial example, the software my company provides allows customers to define custom categories for grouping their data. We limit them to 10 custom categories at a time. A customer asked if they could have subcategories. The direct answer would be ‘no’ because the system doesn’t have a notion of subcategories and we didn’t really know what they meant by that. But we talked it through and discovered what they really wanted was more than 10 custom categories, and that was a request we could accommodate.

      I’m glad to hear you find the metaphors helpful; it’s something I’ve been deliberately working on lately. Most people don’t really need the technical details, they just need the metaphors. And, as an added bonus, those metaphors can be useful in other situations, while the details tend to only be relevant in narrow circumstances.

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