May 01, 2006

Scientific Divulgation 

I took a short break from blogging and other intellect-intensive activities, and now I'm ready to shoot my guns again! Fire in the hole!

There is a rather diffuse opinion that many scientific conclusions aren't really definitive and will change with the current fads and trends, much like winter coats. And if scientists can't even tell definitively whether coffee is good or bad for you, how could we trust them about evolution?

The reason for these popular opinions is sloppy scientific divulgation, rather than bad research and science in itself (some researchers are to blame, tho). The bottom line is that the avere journalist is deeply ignorant of scientific and technical matters - and not just of selected advanced issues, but they are ignorant about the fundamental principles and laws of nature. Knowledgeable journalists are few and far between exceptions.

This is the main reason that makes most scientific stories published on the mainstream media almost painful to read for someone with a solid scientific and technical formation. Specialistic publications such as New Scientist are much better, even if not immune from political slant.

Add to that the general features of the media, and what we have is that most "scientific" divulgation is focused on what is artificiously controversial, sensational, worrisome and/or horrific. It makes no news to talk about uncertainties, extrapolations, modelling and all the real issues that researchers have to face: it's too complex; the journalists themsleves often do not understand the problem and have a word limit. So the headline is often positive and absolute; doubts and criticism are eventually buried in some paragraph a long way down. Sci-tech ignorant people don't know the real extent of their ignorance; they don't know the proper questions to ask and thus get useless answers.

Returning to our coffee example, anyone sufficiently familiar with critical thinking will know that the question of whether coffee is good or bad is meaningless. Why? Because the reality is much more complex.

The first thing notice is that the dose makes the poison. The chemical agent Sarin is not lethal at minuscule doses, while even too much spring water can kill. A little caffein will keep you awake and sharp, but too much has a bad effect on the nervous and cardiocirculatory systems. What is the exact safe dose varies greatly from individual to individual, and with their general health situation. Coffee does not contain only caffeine, but also other substances with their own series of effects.

The second, and most important, point is that it's a matter of tradeoffs, not absolutes. Nearly all substances one can assume have a range of effects, some beneficial (or at least pleasant...) and some nocive. As a general rule, there are very few substances that are exclusively nocive, and none that is exclusively beneficial. Anti-cancer drugs tend to cause severe side effects, but they can save one's life. That's a most dramatic tradeoff, but even the common paracetamol has counterindications - and one of its metabolic degradation products is highly toxic.

So the correct answer to the above question is "A moderate consumption of coffee is unlikely to produce adverse health effects, and can even be beneficial in specific cases". Yes, it sucks as a headline. See the problem?

The media are often infatuated with the evolutionary "missing links" too. The mistake in this case is to think that evolution goes through a series of linked discrete steps, and if one is missing the whole chain is broken. But this is not the case; evolution actually proceeds through small incremental changes - on a timescale so long that human minds can hardly conceive: a human life is about a century long, and a generation 25 - 30 years. Evolution works patiently but unrelentingly through millennia, and during this time species change slowly and gradually until new ones appear. It's a continuum, not a chain or even less a ladder.

I see no easy solution to the problem of poor scientific divulgation. The "old" media will not easily change their business model and editorial lines, even feced with the competition of the "new" media (which most often are more interested in politics rather than science). The other ugly truth is that a great part of the public is desperately ignorant of science and technology, and does not know how to think critically. Scientific instruction must proceed from the basics upwards; otherwise the most novel discoveries and hypotheses will be lost out of context. One cannot grasp why it is so difficult to produce and use energy with a high level of efficiency without knowing thermodynamics. Instead, there are plenty of people who think that "hydrogen" is actually the solution to the world's energy problems.


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