What makes it so hard to talk about climate science? Or course the short answer is "politics", but why is it political, and why does that prevent us from speaking clearly about the subject?
It's our mission as science communicators to, well, communicate science. And not just the process and methods, but also the value and importance of science in modern society. But there's a dangerous line that's very easy to cross when promoting all things science: that science is all the things.
As fans of the scientific method we should immediately recognize the need to provide evidence to back up our statements. Therefore a part of our mission as a community of scientists, educators, and communicators is to share with our audiences that science can be incorporated into their everyday lives.
It's so easy to dismiss flat-Earthers. Most of my colleagues do so with a contemptuous smirk and "of course the Earth is round", sometimes following up with "you idiot". I myself usually respond with a contemptuous roll of my eyes and "I refuse to feed the trolls"...sometimes following up with "you idiot".
Of course we want to promote healthy skeptical attitudes ("healthy" being a key word here, but that's another post) in the general public. Skepticism is a critical part of the scientific mindset, and a properly skeptical outlook allows one to - essentially - not waste time and energy believing statements that aren't likely to be true.
I don't know how, when, or why this myth emerged that Einstein was a poor or lazy student, or that he valued the creative side of humanity over the analytical. Perhaps it's because Einstein himself often downplayed his own mathematical prowess and emphasized the power of imagination.
You've probably encountered the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Well, it's not just some pithy saying that relieves you of the burden of having to believe every random statement you might encounter in your life.
Recently I was invited to appear on Midnight in the Desert, a late-night radio show hosted by Heather Wade and usually featuring topics such as UFOs, time travel, energy beings, bigfoots (bigfeet?), and more. Honestly, I was torn. One on hand, I tend to distance myself from those subjects - I'm here to communicate what we know about the universe through science, after all. And those topics are...well, less than rigorous.
Last week I mentioned an odd term, p-value, which is commonly used in deciding whether your results are worth mentioning to your colleagues and the public. Of course it has a strict and narrow meaning, and of course that meaning is abused and misinterpreted in discussions about science.
Science is hard. Scientists have to stare at mountains of data and try to figure out what secrets nature is whispering to them. There are innumerable blind alleys, dead ends, and false starts in academic research. That's life, and that's why over the centuries we've developed sophisticated statistical techniques to help lead us to understanding. But if you're not careful, you can fool yourself into thinking there's a signal when really you've found nothing but noise.
Once again there's a fresh round of blaring headlines and nervous chatter about potential links between cell phone use and cancer, this time based on a recent study purporting to show that a group of rats exposed to radio waves had greater incidents of tumors compared to a control group.
I feel incredibly sympathetic towards our ancestors for looking to the sky for answers. The dependable, regular movements of the heavens stand in stark contrast to the chaotic, unpredictable, and often violent Earthly world. It's not a huge stretch to imagine that perhaps the positions of the planets would tell us something important. Indeed, many of the early pioneers of what would become science were motivated not by understanding nature for the sake of it, but to build better tools for astrology.
Alas, the more we learned about the celestial realm the more we realized that it's just as chaotic, unpredictable, and often violent as it is down here. And while one of the great triumphs of scientific understanding was the realization that physics is universal throughout the cosmos, that same understanding places strict limits on what can influence what across the vast expanses of time and space that we call the universe. And it's very clear that the positions of the planets bear no relation to human activities.
So why does astrology persist even today? It's part confirmation bias - horoscopes and attributes are so vaguely written that you can give the exact same "prediction" to a hundred people and most will agree it applies to them, despite their sign. It's part cultural tradition - when humanity has been doing something for at least thousands of years it's hard to shake it off. And it's part comfort - who doesn't desire some form of control or knowledge over their lives?
It's this last part that puts science communicators in a tough spot. Obviously horoscopes fill a need in the lives of some people. If we're to (rightly) claim that they're bogus, what do we have to offer in replacement?