Making Sense of Science

Separating Substance from Spin

Cornelia Dean, 2017, TigardLib, 500 DEA

I really wanted to like this book. I slogged through it intermittently, interrupting for more engaging and effective books, like outstanding book "Houston, We Have a Narrative".

Dean is a science writer for the New York Times, and I would expect more engaging and task-focused writing from a professional writer, as opposed to a professional scientist or a polemicist. Olson engagingly demonstrates that effective science writing (for journal papers, presentations, and books) is story-telling. The most memorable stories (fiction or fact) have structure: thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or "... and ... but ... therefore ... " (fill in the blanks). Often a nested structure, an overall drama constructed out of nested smaller dramas. This is the way humans have told stories since the invention of fire, and our brains are design to hear these stories.

Dean is spot-on about two related trends: (1) big journals (Science, Nature, Cell) focusing on dramatic results rather than falsification, and (2) ideology-driven fabrications displacing carefully collected data.

This is no surprise.

Science is not a "source of truth" ... it is a method built around the empirical falsification of tentative hypotheses. Most "truth-seekers" gravitate towards "good stories". Religious scripture is a very highly evolved story, winnowed from the very best stories ever told by millennia of re-tellings and re-translations. A Darwinian story-selection process, compared to the Creationist authority-managed story-selection process used by the government funded scientific community. As Olson points out, the majority of scientists are inept story tellers, and the peer-review process promotes them to gatekeepers.

Don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Don't bring a boring story to a battle of ideas. It doesn't need to be this way.

Cornelia is - sadly - an inept story teller. Her stories are extended " ... and ... and ... and ... " collections of pronouncements; the "buts" are ideological disagreement between intransigent "we are right and they are wrong" factions. Sorry, religious factions have fought these kinds of battles with each other for thousands of years, science is poorly armed for this battlefield. Sun Tzu teaches us to choose our battlefields, to the disadvantage of our opponents.

Instead of a litany of "true facts" and the perfidy of those who dispute or distort them. how about fewer facts and more stories about the personal journeys of those who discovered them?

Chapter 2, "The Research Enterprise", comes closest to an explanation of how science works. It vaguely mentions "scientists reported ... planet was cooling, not warming", and other scientists demonstrated warming after including orbital decay. The citation is to the science advocacy website, not the "other scientists" paper, which is also not cited by the berkeley website. This was an opportunity to dig deep into an example of science working, and SHOW readers science correcting itself; instead, it simply makes an authority claim. Authority claims are the problem, not the solution. Out of 7 billion people, we are sure to find a credentialed scientist claiming just about anything.

And on and on and on. Widening the ideological divide into non-overlapping authoritarian camps gives the Times something to report, and the Times' advertising sponsors some stressed people to sell "comfort" food to. Collaboration and community peacemaking are not newsworthy.

The book mentions a few incorrect statements made by the aging James Watson. The Olson book tells the marvelous story of Watson's transformation into the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Readers of the Olson book will be far more able to spread scientific thinking.

MakingSenseDean (last edited 2022-05-04 03:00:53 by KeithLofstrom)