Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Comprehending science and the rest of the world

Ever so often I am reminded of how insularized I am as a Scientist. It's not until I hear or read people's responses to events that I come to appreciate how overwhelmingly uniformed many people are. I find myself fighting the urge to remark - "You are one dumb ass. You didn't know that's how it worked?"

And no, they obviously didn't, so why be mean. I readjust my face, but my thoughts still linger on. As noted by many, and I last read on Black Snob's page, Black people don't hold the market on anti-illectualism, it is a pandemic problem. But I am especially pained when I hear or read about people just going on and on about a topic and they have no real information to offer. And I see people just ranting and chanting on in support. Are people that attuned to sensationalism? I keep waiting for them to say something substantial or make a point or offer some evidence. I'm thinking "yeah, and..." But most every one else is caught up, carrying the banner, and cheering in thunderous applause.

Then, I am reminded of how important FRAMING is to science -- or any topic for that matter. Do we only respond when something shocks us, or disgusts us or frightens us? And the answer I'm arriving at is Yes. Most people are just waiting for someone, some authority, some preacher or activist - a charismatic soapboxer I call them - to tell them that something is a problem and that they ought to be disgusted and even scripts them on how to respond. For example, a posting on WOAD where the author had to tell people that they don't need her approval to tell them something is disgusting and illegal and to report it to the proper authorities.
I blame it on Tavis and investigative news reporters. They've done all of the research and work and now they package it up for us with an emotional spin "Oh Black Folk, you gonna get mad when I tell you this." Right there, they've set us up to expect to hear something disappointing; we're riled up.
What about balance or encouraging people to make up their own minds - to be discerning? So what happens when we are just given the information, evidence, balanced interpretations, and contexts? Do we engage in thoughtful discourse then? No, most people still walk away only remembering and quoting that which supported their original positions.

I find myself frustrated, because a meaningful dialogue still hasn't occurred. There hasn't been a vetting - of the source or the information. And then I'm back to where I started...I'm not like everyone else, at least not when it comes to certain information. Am I better-read or more exposed to things compared to the general public? Yes, I am, particularly about topics that relate to science or research or the environment. That's because I'm immersed in the information. I know about many advances in life sciences 1-5 years before the general public. That's because I go to conferences and I know scientists. I get the scoop before things go to press; sometimes I get the scoop before the entire experiment is complete. Plus, I've read ALOT of papers and textbooks, so I'm aware of all of the nuances and exceptions. So it's easier for someone like me to not respond so eagerly to dramatic information. It's likely old news for me. But on the flip side I'll admit that I'm a buffoon about economics and markets. I mean I can add and subtract. I watch or listen to the general news...But read the Wall Street Journal or watch the Bloomberg Report. What are those damned letters racing across the screen at different speeds? I digress.

The rest of this week's posts will explore the the importance and challenges of sharing science with the general public.
Stay tuned.

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