Scientists have to become better communicators

Keywords: TED, talks, climate change, history, science, religion, astronomy, philosophy

they have to explain to us not just what they know, but how they know it [ca. 18:55]

What Naomi seems to overlook in her conclusive remarks (perhaps because she’s so thrilled by the phenomenal scientific successes she covers in her TED talk) is that scientists don’t actually know anything — instead, they simply make more or less educated guesses.

Normally (haha, there’s a sort of pun in there which IS in fact intended) scientists are highly educated in quantitative statistical methods — basically, most of this relies on something that is often referred to as the “Law of Large Numbers“. These days, there is such fanatical focus on these quantitative methods that science is increasingly succumbing to the fallacy of not actually paying (enough) attention to what it is counting up… and increasingly such quasi-scientists are counting up mesmerizing mashups of bullshit and similarly amorphous phenomena. Several decades ago, before the tsunami of big data overwhelmed most of the so-called scientific community, this junk was called “GIGO” (“garbage in, garbage out”).

My main point is that qualitative analysis must be the foundation for all quantitative analyses. Unfortunately, modern science does not have a long tradition or history of actually dealing with qualitative analysis — in other words: on this account, we have hardly even reached square one. We can easily measure and count up how often a stone, when released, falls directly to the ground. We can easily explain the reasons why leaves behave differently than stones. But we have not yet paid enough attention to the many and vast differences that exist between what we refer to as a “leaf” vs. what we refer to as a “stone”. In the case of leaves vs. stones the differences are indeed so vast (and numerous) that they appear obvious to the naked eye. But in cases such as “global warming” (the anthropogenic kind) or “corona virus” (the COVID-19 kind), the causes of “death”, “extinction”, and many other similar phenomena (e.g. what makes something a species, or a race, or whatever), we are dumbfounded by the multitudes of mutually exclusive interpretations — or perhaps we might be traumatized by various degrees of cognitive dissonance from our attempts to reconcile numerous different theories about “true” reality.

Obviously (to me, at least) we need to pay more attention to the qualities of things — in particular, what makes one thing a different thing than another thing (and also, thereby, what makes the similar things similar enough to be as countable as “one banana, two banana, three banana, four…”).

Once we have successfully achieved that, we can return to heralding the wonders of quantitative analysis (and / or beginning to analyze what is so wonderful about a Gaussian distribution, and / or whether the laws of physics actually do need to be changed inside of “black holes”, and so on). One result we might then trumpet is to revise Naomi’s conclusions to read something more like:

Scientists have to explain to us not just what they guess is probably* right, but how they guess it’s probably* right [* in most cases, usually]

moi (with acknowledgements for yet again calling my attention to related issues: Joe Rogan w/ Barbara Freese, Jeff Skoll & Diane Weyermann and Pierre Omidyar)

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