science

Reframing the war on science

America’s kind of tense right now. Leading up to and following the November 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of “the two Americas” and “the Divided States of America.” Americans are divided on a lot of issues, including scientific topics like vaccine safety and global warming. To many, it’s surprising that we disagree about these things because according to scientists who research these topics, there are no debates at all: vaccines do not cause autism and humans are responsible for global warming

At the same time, the current administration in the US has sent numerous messages that they devalue science (for example, by censoring scientists at organizations like the USA and EPA and establishing a Committee on Vaccine Safety). Actions like these seem to be only fueling the divided science beliefs.

In response, many people have declared that we’re in a war on science: This idea is expressed in headlines like Facts are the reason science is losing the current war on reason, How the Anti-Vaxxers are Winning, and documentary titles like The Vaccine War. (There are so many pieces that talk about the war on science).

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Scientific American

I’m a PhD student in Cognitive Science, a firm believer in the scientific method and basing beliefs and actions on evidence. I highly value scientific funding, vaccinations, and measures that reduce the effects of climate change. As Americans, we have freedom of speech, and we should exercise that freedom to speak up when scientific knowledge and interests are being trampled on. I agree with the ideas expressed in blog posts like The War on Facts is a War on Democracy and I’m a Scientist. This is what I’ll Fight for and many of the ideas that continuously populate threads on Twitter like #defendscience and #resist. But I’m much less enthusiastic about the widespread use of a war metaphor to get those ideas across.

Here’s why.

Metaphors shape thought

The metaphors we use to describe complex social problems actually shape the way we think about them. For example, when crime was described as a beast ravaging a town, people tended to suggest harsh law enforcement policies — similar to how they’d likely react to a literal beast ravaging their town. On the other hand, when that same crime was described as a virus, people suggested fewer harsh enforcement policies. Instead, they turned their focus to curing the town of problems that may underlie the crime, like improving education and welfare services.

People make inferences in line with the metaphors used to describe complex issues, so it’s important to reflect on what the war on science implies. It does have some helpful implications. Wars are serious, and often require urgent action. These are probably the messages that those who perpetuate the war on science want us to infer, even if not consciously.

But the war also suggests that there are enemies and casualties. There are two sides locked in combat, and neither will back down until they win (or they’re decimated). I like this quote from A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel I just happened to be reading while working on this post: After all, in the midst of armed conflicts, facts are bound to be just as susceptible to injury as ships and men, if not more so. In other words, we sometimes do stupid things in wars. We shirk thoughtfulness and conscientiousness, and instead we just fight. As I see it, our current political situation (for lack of a better word) needs all the thoughtfulness and conscientiousness we can give it.  

I recently expressed my concern in a conversation on Twitter:

The war metaphor challenges those who are not already on the “side” of science. It tells them they’re the enemy. When people feel that they’re being attacked, even idealistically, they’re likely to strengthen their stance and gear up to fight back. No matter how many scientists tweet about science or participate in the March for Science on Earth Day, people who have found themselves on the “anti-science” side of this war are not going to decide all of a sudden that climate change must be real after all or that they should rush their kids to the pediatrician for overdue vaccines (especially if we tell them we’re marching to fight the war on science!). People who have already been labeled as the enemy of science may as well go out and buy a new gas guzzler and decide that their kids are just fine without vaccines.

Others have already pointed out that actions like the science march are already in jeopardy of isolating anti-science proponents as opponents (for example see  Daniel Engber’s piece for Slate and Robert Young’s in the New York Times). Using war metaphors has the potential to only hammer that point home.

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This just doesn’t seem productive. Image: Battle by Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternative frames?

If we want to stop thinking about ourselves as engaged in a war on science, we need an alternative. Proponents of and believers in science are experiencing a sort of struggle, but it doesn’t have to be a fight between the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, Coastal Elite and Middle America. Maybe we can reframe the situation as a challenge that unites all humans. Science communicators want to share how important it is to address climate change and to have children vaccinated for the good of all people. We can all be on the same side, working to better the world we live in, and it’s important that we convey that message in our communications.

Referring to the movie Hidden Figures, NPR blogger Marcelo Gleiser points out that if there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.

I considered the possibility that guiding people to trust empirical evidence and the scientific process might be better framed as a puzzle — a challenge, no doubt, but at least everyone’s working toward a common goal.

Marisa makes a really important point. The peacekeeper in me would love a frame that emphasizes hey, guys! We’re all in this together!, but that ship may have already sailed. At this point, it’s important not to downplay the gravity of discrediting and distrusting science. This is not a game.

 

I’ve had quite a few conversations on the war on science, but I still don’t have a one-size-fits-all framing suggestion for talking about America’s disconnect in belief in science. But when we’re considering talking about this issue as a war, it’ll be helpful to step back and assess our goals and the potential consequences of the words we use.

Right now, there are deep social and political divides in American society — and though it’s crucial to stand up for what we believe in (especially science and facts!), we should be careful about taking up arms in a war on science that might deepen those divides. 

I welcome other comments on the framing of the war on science. Do you find the war helpful? Why? Are there other frames we could use to avoid deepening ideological divides?


Featured image: United States USA Flag by Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0

What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.


P.S. Feb. 11, 2017: This post by Marcelo Gleiser really hit the nail on the head: “If there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.”

Lab Girl: Review

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I discovered Hope Jahren’s new memoir Lab Girl because it’s listed under the genre of Environmental Science, a type of book I don’t usually gravitate to. It didn’t take me long to realize that the scientific world has been begging for this book to be written for a while. As I’ve continued to immerse myself more deeply into academia, I’ve realized that the massive rift separating the Ivory Tower from the rest of the world is not narrowing. Lab Girl is an account of one woman’s journey toward and through academic science, a glimpse of what a scientist might actually be like as a person and what it means to conduct scientific research as a career.

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Jahren’s story starts when she was a little girl, spending hours in her dad’s lab, and continues to cast glances into her life as a young adult, graduate student, assistant professor, and finally as a tenured professor. Her road was anything but smooth. While many features of her path were unique, so many were not. Financial struggles were a theme throughout a good portion of the book. First, she had to pay for her education as an undergraduate, and once she completed grad school, she had to apply for competitive grants to afford her lab, her right-hand man Bill’s salary, and her own. At one point she writes about buying a bunch of fast food burgers when they were on sale and freezing them for future lunches. She also writes about periods in which mental illness overcame her daily life and left her unable to function. Again, the Ivory Tower might seem like a utopia where everyone is happy and nobly working toward the pursuit of knowledge, but such struggles are not so rare among the ultra-driven academics who have never failed a test in their lives and are now pursuing PhDs or esteemed faculty positions. And she writes about the tedium, discomfort, and anxiety involved in doing science, like meticulously labeling vials and taking long road trips to dig up and study the earth in new (often desolate-seeming) locations.

Writing about these less glamorous moments and years sends the message to other academics, you are not alone. This shit is hard. And it sends a message to non-academics that the road to becoming a successful scientist is not paved with gold. Jahren adds even more value because she’s a female scientist, and although she doesn’t belabor the point, there are many stories that shed light on the extra hurdle that many females experience in science.

Jahren paints a clear picture of what doing science was like at different stages of her life, while also shedding light on what being she as a person was like at different stages and interspersing short chapters that expose trees’ beauty and complexity. Lab Girl is a love story between Hope Jahren and science, exposing their relationship’s joys and challenges and showing the readers that all along these two were meant to be together.

A glimpse of high school science education through the lens of a science fair

Last week, I volunteered to judge the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair. I found the experience interesting last year, so I participated again this year. Judges have about 3 hours to visit 12 projects and discuss the contents of the posterboard and research journal with the student who did the work. These conversations allow the students to tell us what they did, but they also give them practice at answering questions they may not have anticipated, and the conversations give judges the opportunity to gently teach and discuss things that could have made the project better. Last year, I judged middle school behavioral science projects – unique questions that 6th, 7th, and 8th graders came up with about human behavior, and often equally unique ways of testing those questions. The students put in a lot of effort and did great work, but judging the projects also made me realize that science is really hard. They still had so much progress to make before these projects could even be considered sound, let alone innovative or informative.

But these kids were on their way! I felt that if I could see their science fair projects a few years down the line, my mind would be blown by their progress. This year, I was assigned to the high school division – exactly the opportunity to see the progression of scientific thinking. I knew these students had been working on the projects since the beginning of the year, and many had dedicated class time for guidance. But after visiting just a few projects, I was let down. I wasn’t let down by the students – they were all so earnest, pleasant, and proud, and it was clear that they had put a lot of work into their projects. Instead, I was disappointed with their teachers. So much of the scientific process needs to be explicitly taught, and for some reason, these kids weren’t taught it. Either the students weren’t getting the guidance they needed, or they were actually being misguided.

Imagine that someone eats eggs for breakfast on every weekend day, and never on a weekday. That person tells you, “every time I eat eggs, I have a great day. I guess having eggs for breakfast must cause my day to be good.” You’d probably quickly object to this conclusion – what if the fact that it’s a weekend causes your day to be good? In fact, this explanation seems likely. One variable in your “experiment” is whether the day is a weekend or weekday. The other variable is whether you ate eggs, which happens to vary with the weekend vs. weekday variable. In this case, if you want to know the effect of eggs on the quality of your day, the type of day (weekend vs. weekday) is a confound. It makes it impossible to attribute the results you saw to the variable you want to attribute it to. I saw lots of these egg/weekend confounds in the students’ problems, which is alarming because they invalidate the results the students tried to convey.

For example, one student tested the effect of different font colors on reading speed. She pulled three equal-length passages from a book. One passage she left in black font, another she turned orange, and the third she made multicolored. She then had all her participants read the three passages while she timed them. She found that they were fastest to read the passage written in black ink. But wait – what if that passage just happened to be an easier passage to read? Wouldn’t that account for her results, without taking ink color into account? She thought about this, and then agreed. Together, we worked through the solution that would have avoided the confound – if some people had read passage A in black ink, others had read the same passage in orange, and still others had read that same passage in multicolor, and then we did the same with passages B and C. This way, everyone would have read each passage once and experienced each ink color once, but that the passage-ink pairings would have differed for everyone. This is counterbalancing. Counterbalancing is done specifically to avoid confounds.

These kids of errors were evident in many projects. Another pair of students presented people with songs once to see how much of the chorus they could remember. Oddly enough, they used two songs with the same lyrics in the chorus, but extremely different melodies. They presented Song A first for everyone, and had them recall the lyrics. Then they presented Song B, and had them do the same. Perhaps not surprisingly, people recalled more lyrics for Song B. The students told me this was because Song B was a more familiar genre to their participants. While that’s a possible explanation, it’s not a scientifically valid one. Their participants all had more practice by the time they got to Song B, which had the same chorus as Song A. They should have been better at the latter simply because practice improves performance.

Luckily, as I gently explained these confounds to the students, something seemed to click – they could see the logical problems in their methods and conclusions. A few mentioned to me that they didn’t counterbalance important variables because their teachers told them to keep as much constant as possible. Normally, this is true – you want to keep as much constant as possible when testing different conditions so that variations don’t make your results noisy. Noise in data makes it harder to detect real effects. But the teachers forgot to impart an important caveat of the keep-everything-constant rule: You can’t keep things constant when the constancy could explain your results – when it could become a confound!

This opens an important question for me – were the teachers not able to give guidance on these fundamental logical ideas for doing science? I realize that they have many students to oversee. Or do the teachers lack an understanding of how experiments should be designed, implemented, and interpreted? My intuition is that it might be some of both, but it seems to be pretty problematic, regardless of the source. Allowing students to carry out months-long projects that violate important rules of scientific logic seems like a very bad way for them to learn how things should be done.

But then I started to wonder, do these students actually need to understand how experiments are conducted? Do they have to know why confounds are to be avoided at all costs and how to do so? Many will pursue non-scientific fields. Others will pursue science to the extent that they might not ever need to conduct research, and will get by learning the things that other scientists have found and trusting those scientists’ conclusions. And the students that do pursue scientific research can learn from their future mentors how to conduct science (and how not to). Maybe this is all true, and maybe I can chill, but I’m still thinking about these questions almost a week after the fair, so there must be something to my concern. Shouldn’t educated citizens be able to understand the scientific process, so they can understand why scientists make claims about global warning or about how innocuous (and important!) vaccines are? I’m not sure, but these are some of the questions I’m trying to work out.

Faith in science

We have a bit of a science problem in America. For some reason, our students aren’t learning it very well, or at least not as well as they are in many other countries. Most people seem to acknowledge this issue and advocate for an improvement in our education.

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And if students aren’t learning it, that probably means that adults, even those who are generally educated and motivated, probably have some conceptual gaps too (for example, when asked whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth – a question that gives people a 50% chance of getting it right if they guessed blindly! – only 74% of Americans correctly reported that the earth orbits the sun). Our widespread knowledge gaps are Problem Number 1.

A related problem is that many people tend to distrust science. For one, science is not always right on the first try (eggs are bad for your cholesterol! No wait, eggs are good for you!). Relatedly, some people do actually do crappy science (Problem Number 2), and other times good science gets reported badly (Problem Number 3). The recent “study” that recruited a very small number of participants, gave half of them chocolate, measured a ton of correlations to find a few that would reveal significant results, and published these results in a phony journal highlighted this. This hoax demonstrated both bad science and exaggerated, sensational reporting, and people who were initially fooled into believing that chocolate is the key to weight loss probably feel duped – rightfully so.

Problems 1-3 are a recipe for societal skepticism about science. It’s really difficult to evaluate science even when you’re being trained as a scientist, let alone if all of your training is in an entirely different field. Science can easily seem foreign, unrelatable, and unreliable. Who has the power to do something about this? Prominent scientists could maybe help sway the public’s opinion, but we might need a revolution in our cultural ethos towards science, and old people are rarely behind revolutions. What about wide-eyed and idealistic science grad students?

In a few hours, I’ll be on a plane heading to ComSciCon, a workshop on communicating science for grad students. The goal is to help us become better at communicating our own science as well as other people’s science – hopefully a step towards society’s impending science ethos revolution.