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Communication Vs. Oversimplification


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#1 exchemist

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Posted 25 September 2017 - 01:48 PM

This thread is a spin-off from a discussion I have been having with hazelm. 

 

Here is a link to her opening statement:http://www.sciencefo...e-3#entry351810

 

I will put my response in a separate post at a reply to this one.....

 

 



#2 exchemist

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Posted 25 September 2017 - 02:35 PM

OK hazelm. Quite thought-provoking. 

 

You are certainly right that science can only hope to earn the trust of others in society if it can communicate in terms that non-specialists can understand. This applies particular when dealing with government.... or funding bodies (!).

 

And I also take your point about being careful not to seem patronising to the audience. This is something I personally wrestle with on forums, largely because it is so difficult to gauge the background and level of understanding of someone anonymous, with whom one has only exchanged a few messages. If one assumes little specialist knowledge, one tends to come across as patronising to someone who already knows some of it, whereas if one assumes more knowledge then one can easily be accused of speaking in incomprehensible gobbledegook, by someone who does not know the concepts and terms.  So one can easily be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

 

Your story about the German PhD student is a nice one. I wonder if explaining it in simple English was a good exercise for him, seeing as his oral examination was coming up. I have certainly found on some of these forum discussions that having to summarise a topic in simple, non-technical  terms, is a very good way of checking whether my own ideas on the topic are really clear. And sometimes one is brought up short on surprising things. For instance, I found I struggled to devise a simple and non-circular description of what energy is. It is a fundamental concept but in fact is not really very easy to put into words without begging the question in some way. This in fact gave me new insight into what energy is - something I had not troubled myself with for decades!  

 

But this imperative to communicate with non-specialists also poses a real dilemma. Many of the concepts in physical science are not at all easy to explain in simple language. One problem is that the natural language for expressing them properly is often the language of mathematics. The result is that generally speaking a simple explanation will be in some respects misleading, because important nuances will be missed. The popularisers do a necessary job, but one should always be aware that what is conveyed is often incomplete. 

 

Saying "you wouldn't understand" is something to avoid, I agree - so long as one's correspondent has shown him or herself genuinely interested and open to the ideas. (On the internet one sadly comes across quite a few who have a preset agenda and are not worth trying to reason with.)

 

I look forward to your comments about pseudoscience, in due course. There's a lot of it about. 



#3 hazelm

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Posted 25 September 2017 - 03:45 PM

OK hazelm. Quite thought-provoking. 

 

You are certainly right that science can only hope to earn the trust of others in society if it can communicate in terms that non-specialists can understand. This applies particular when dealing with government.... or funding bodies (!).

 

And I also take your point about being careful not to seem patronising to the audience. This is something I personally wrestle with on forums, largely because it is so difficult to gauge the background and level of understanding of someone anonymous, with whom one has only exchanged a few messages. If one assumes little specialist knowledge, one tends to come across as patronising to someone who already knows some of it, whereas if one assumes more knowledge then one can easily be accused of speaking in incomprehensible gobbledegook, by someone who does not know the concepts and terms.  So one can easily be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

 

Your story about the German PhD student is a nice one. I wonder if explaining it in simple English was a good exercise for him, seeing as his oral examination was coming up. I have certainly found on some of these forum discussions that having to summarise a topic in simple, non-technical  terms, is a very good way of checking whether my own ideas on the topic are really clear. And sometimes one is brought up short on surprising things. For instance, I found I struggled to devise a simple and non-circular description of what energy is. It is a fundamental concept but in fact is not really very easy to put into words without begging the question in some way. This in fact gave me new insight into what energy is - something I had not troubled myself with for decades!  

 

But this imperative to communicate with non-specialists also poses a real dilemma. Many of the concepts in physical science are not at all easy to explain in simple language. One problem is that the natural language for expressing them properly is often the language of mathematics. The result is that generally speaking a simple explanation will be in some respects misleading, because important nuances will be missed. The popularisers do a necessary job, but one should always be aware that what is conveyed is often incomplete. 

 

Saying "you wouldn't understand" is something to avoid, I agree - so long as one's correspondent has shown him or herself genuinely interested and open to the ideas. (On the internet one sadly comes across quite a few who have a preset agenda and are not worth trying to reason with.)

 

I look forward to your comments about pseudoscience, in due course. There's a lot of it about. 

Physics is a difficult one.  I tend to avoid it.  I'd not thought about it but I'm thinking now that most of what I've bumped into on forums is quantum physics and that is the difficult part.  Something we cannot see and yet we know is there?  Hmmmm?  On the other hand:  "Who has seen the wind?  Neither you nor I....."    Anne Rooney does a fairly good job with Physics.  Her book is a combinaion of history of physics, biographies of physicists and their contributions. 

 

The people with the preset ideas who will not be convinced otherwise - unless they do seem willing to listen and acknowledge responses - are the ones I allow their theories without me bothering them.  I will always believe everyone has a right to express his own beliefs.  Whether or not they want a  conversation is to be discovered and left alone if not.  At least on forums, it is absolutely possible to ignore them.  Now, Thanksgiving dinners?  That's another matter.  Let's skip that one.

 

Were you ever lucky enough to have a friend with whom you disagreed on almost everything and yet the two of you could talk about these things all day with no squabbles at all?  I am very lucky to have one such.  We have great conversations about most anything.  What holds it together is being interested in what the other person believes and why she believes it.  There is more to discussing science or education or, yes, even religion, than the topic itself.  It's the fun of exchanging ideas.  That helps me firm up my own beliefs. 

 

Must shut down and get the evening rolling.  TTYL.  hazel


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#4 Farming guy

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Posted 25 September 2017 - 03:51 PM

OK hazelm. Quite thought-provoking. 

 

You are certainly right that science can only hope to earn the trust of others in society if it can communicate in terms that non-specialists can understand. This applies particular when dealing with government.... or funding bodies (!).

 

Mixing science with politics is some particularly tricky terrain!  Remember how much backlash we had in the US to Al Gore selling himself as "Mister Science"!?  And from what I've read about his sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth", it seems he made it all about him!

 

One thing that troubles me when politicians talk about science, is their use of the phrase "scientific fact" to try to assert some sort of superiority to their argument.  I have always considered that science has it's value because it is a process for discovery, and would prefer if they would use  a phrase like, "scientifically investigated".  Science is not best learned through rote memorization, and if we treat it as a list of "facts" then it will surely wither and die.


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#5 exchemist

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 01:26 AM

Mixing science with politics is some particularly tricky terrain!  Remember how much backlash we had in the US to Al Gore selling himself as "Mister Science"!?  And from what I've read about his sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth", it seems he made it all about him!

 

One thing that troubles me when politicians talk about science, is their use of the phrase "scientific fact" to try to assert some sort of superiority to their argument.  I have always considered that science has it's value because it is a process for discovery, and would prefer if they would use  a phrase like, "scientifically investigated".  Science is not best learned through rote memorization, and if we treat it as a list of "facts" then it will surely wither and die.

I know. At university I was strongly of the view that science should be pursued for its own sake, without being influenced by politics. In fact that is really still my gut instinct, though of course now it is tempered by the realisation that limited public funds cannot be spent in an unconstrained way, so choices do in practice have to be made. When I went back for a college event a couple of years ago, I was slightly shocked to hear my old tutor - now retired - holding forth on intricacies of the process of submitting research proposals for funding. As an undergraduate, I had only heard him talk about physical chemistry - and, er, drink and women......but I digress... But since those carefree days he had become professor, so was running the physical chemistry dept. Very different, and far more worldly than before. But then I've grown up too. 

 

Politicians often misrepresent science. What's worse, they often seem to think science is like politics, i.e. that it is just a matter of opinion or ideology, in which arguments can be won by force of oratory. They miss that science is getting at objective reality. Of which there is only one. 


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#6 exchemist

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 02:36 AM

Physics is a difficult one.  I tend to avoid it.  I'd not thought about it but I'm thinking now that most of what I've bumped into on forums is quantum physics and that is the difficult part.  Something we cannot see and yet we know is there?  Hmmmm?  On the other hand:  "Who has seen the wind?  Neither you nor I....."    Anne Rooney does a fairly good job with Physics.  Her book is a combinaion of history of physics, biographies of physicists and their contributions. 

 

The people with the preset ideas who will not be convinced otherwise - unless they do seem willing to listen and acknowledge responses - are the ones I allow their theories without me bothering them.  I will always believe everyone has a right to express his own beliefs.  Whether or not they want a  conversation is to be discovered and left alone if not.  At least on forums, it is absolutely possible to ignore them.  Now, Thanksgiving dinners?  That's another matter.  Let's skip that one.

 

Were you ever lucky enough to have a friend with whom you disagreed on almost everything and yet the two of you could talk about these things all day with no squabbles at all?  I am very lucky to have one such.  We have great conversations about most anything.  What holds it together is being interested in what the other person believes and why she believes it.  There is more to discussing science or education or, yes, even religion, than the topic itself.  It's the fun of exchanging ideas.  That helps me firm up my own beliefs. 

 

Must shut down and get the evening rolling.  TTYL.  hazel

I don't know Anne Rooney but I do agree that approaching physics via the history of science is an excellent way to explain it. You get the sense of how the ideas build up on top of each other, with each new unpredicted observation leading to a revision of the theory. Or sometimes the other way round: a new theory that is then tested observationally - and found to work, or not. Of course the process is not smooth: there are egos, difficulties in comprehension and fierce arguments, just as there are in any human enterprise. 

 

You are certainly right that forums seem preoccupied with quantum physics and relativity, at the expense of the rest of the subject. I suppose that is precisely because they are so difficult to take in. Sociologically one can perhaps see these forum obsessions as society trying to digest these difficult concepts.

 

Your point about indirect observation is important, I think. (Who has seen an electron? Who has seen the wind?) Philosophically it seems to me that almost all observation is indirect. When you see something on TV you are not seeing an actual event, after all, just a pattern of coloured dots on an electronic display, often thousands of miles - or several weeks - from the actual event depicted. You trust the accuracy of its depiction, because you've used your TV display equipment many times and it always seems to be corroborated by other means of checking the information presented.

 

Similarly, if you are an organic  chemist, using an IR spectrometer to identify a compound, you will look at a squiggly line on a chart and say, "Oh yes, there's the carbonyl stretch at 1750 cm⁻¹, so we have a ketone" - or whatever. You may not think any more about it, but you are implicitly relying on quantum chemistry: the C=O bond in an invisible tiny molecule, alternately stretching and compressing after an IR photon has been absorbed by it.  But really, to the chemist, this is no more indirect than the picture on your TV is to you.

 

Re disagreements yes I have had that experience certainly, quite often. One can respectfully disagree with people who show themselves able to explain a position, listen to the counterarguments and question them in a spirit of constructive criticism. And of course people in an open society should have the right to express their beliefs.

 

But that does not mean their beliefs all have equal validity. In science, objective observation is the arbiter of what is a legitimate belief and what is not. 


Edited by exchemist, 26 September 2017 - 02:42 AM.

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#7 Farming guy

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 04:15 AM

 

 

Politicians often misrepresent science. What's worse, they often seem to think science is like politics, i.e. that it is just a matter of opinion or ideology, in which arguments can be won by force of oratory. They miss that science is getting at objective reality. Of which there is only one. 

This makes me wonder how much of the climate change deniers are doing so out of pure partisanship.  In today's political environment, especially here in the USA, there is a belief that if my opposing political party believes one thing that I should believe the opposite.


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#8 LaurieAG

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 05:17 AM

How the public service operates is often more important than which political party is in power. In the pastAustralian public servants offered advice to politicians without fear nor favour now our public servants tell politicians what they want to hear other wise their contracts are not renewed. 

 

When "Hear no Evil, See no Evil and Speak no Evil" becomes the rule, what actually rules? 


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#9 exchemist

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 05:38 AM

This makes me wonder how much of the climate change deniers are doing so out of pure partisanship.  In today's political environment, especially here in the USA, there is a belief that if my opposing political party believes one thing that I should believe the opposite.

Oh I think that's obvious. There is a strand of thought on the political right that thinks anything restraining the freedom of the individual, or business, must be bad.

 

This is especially extreme and widespread in the USA (probably due to the grip of money on US politics and the consequent influence of business tycoons). So they start from the ideology that any government attempt to control the size of your car, how electricity is generated, or anything like that, is "socialist" and must be due to a left-wing conspiracy. (This goes, notoriously, with a strain of anti-intellectualism: he's got a degree so he must be talking out of his arse. We have this in the UK too: e.g. when the snags of leaving the EU were being pointed out, the reaction from the pro-Brexit people was:  "We've had enough of experts." Fair enough, you can't argue with that.....er...... )

 

There is a c*nt (and I choose my words with care here) called Myron Ebell who advises Trump and has told him climate change is a conspiracy by the Chinese to damage the US economy. Now, I can recall Ebell in a radio interview on the BBC many years ago, telling an incredulous interviewer that climate change was all a conspiracy by the EU to damage the US economy! 

 

Either way, the start point is a political ideology and then "facts" and arguments are subsequently constructed, to manufacture what is called a "narrative". A "narrative" is a splendid word, isn't it? Not necessarily lies, but not truth either, that's for sure. 


Edited by exchemist, 26 September 2017 - 05:39 AM.


#10 DrKrettin

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 06:37 AM

 For instance, I found I struggled to devise a simple and non-circular description of what energy is. It is a fundamental concept but in fact is not really very easy to put into words without begging the question in some way. 

 

But surely a description of energy is inevitably circular? All physical quantities are defined in terms of each other - you can claim that energy is a fundamental concept, or you can define it in terms of other quantities which you choose to call fundamental. This relative definition of physical terms is very difficult to convey to a non-scientist because they assume that concepts are more rigid than that.



#11 exchemist

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 06:52 AM

But surely a description of energy is inevitably circular? All physical quantities are defined in terms of each other - you can claim that energy is a fundamental concept, or you can define it in terms of other quantities which you choose to call fundamental. This relative definition of physical terms is very difficult to convey to a non-scientist because they assume that concepts are more rigid than that.

You have a point, certainly. The same goes for dictionary definitions of words, so it is not a problem unique to science.

 

The classic definition of energy as the ability to do Fd work is not a bad start. The aspect I spent most time on was the idea that energy is not "stuff": you can't have a bottle of energy. It is a property of a physical system. But then you have to explain that an electromagnetic wave is a physical system.  And then you have to deal with E=mc². And so on. 



#12 hazelm

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 06:55 AM

Very enjoyable reading and great thoughts.  Nice to wake up to as I look forward to another day of humidity-laden warming. 

 

Energy:  The power that enables the job to get done?



#13 Farming guy

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 06:59 AM

I don't know Anne Rooney but I do agree that approaching physics via the history of science is an excellent way to explain it. You get the sense of how the ideas build up on top of each other, with each new unpredicted observation leading to a revision of the theory. Or sometimes the other way round: a new theory that is then tested observationally - and found to work, or not. Of course the process is not smooth: there are egos, difficulties in comprehension and fierce arguments, just as there are in any human enterprise. 

 

 

I am in full agreement about the importance of the history of science!  It can add so much to the interest of the subject to learn the human story of the lives of the scientists as well.  It is also important, I think, to learn about how things had to be done when we knew less.  When I first learned Calculus, my teacher started by having us perform limit functions, so we were able to experience and get a fuller understanding of what was going on when we learned differentiation.



#14 exchemist

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 08:05 AM

Very enjoyable reading and great thoughts.  Nice to wake up to as I look forward to another day of humidity-laden warming. 

 

Energy:  The power that enables the job to get done?

Ahem, a bit of irritating science pedantry called for here: "Power" is the rate of doing work or expending energy, i.e. energy/unit time. So for example a watt of power is one Joule of energy per second.

 

But apart from that yes , more or less. Energy is the capacity to do work. But in science, "work" is defined as applying a force through a distance, F x d,  e.g. lifting 1 kg one metre, against the force of gravity (9.81 Newtons for a mass of 1kg) , needs an equal and opposite force to be applied and does 9.81 Joules of work. It therefore requires 9.81 Joules of energy (from your muscles, an electric motor or whatever), to do it. If you do it in a second, you are working at a power rating of 9.81Watts. 



#15 hazelm

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 09:04 AM

Ahem, a bit of irritating science pedantry called for here: "Power" is the rate of doing work or expending energy, i.e. energy/unit time. So for example a watt of power is one Joule of energy per second.

 

But apart from that yes , more or less. Energy is the capacity to do work. But in science, "work" is defined as applying a force through a distance, F x d,  e.g. lifting 1 kg one metre, against the force of gravity (9.81 Newtons for a mass of 1kg) , needs an equal and opposite force to be applied and does 9.81 Joules of work. It therefore requires 9.81 Joules of energy (from your muscles, an electric motor or whatever), to do it. If you do it in a second, you are working at a power rating of 9.81Watts. 

Ah yes, vocabulary must fit topic.  :-)  I did wonder about 'power'.  Almost said 'force' but that didn't seem quite right either.   As for "energy is the capacity for work",   I'm thinking.  "Capacity" = "the maximum amount that something can contain".  Is that the same as "capacity for work"? 

 

Notice how I skip the  math? :-)



#16 DrKrettin

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 09:06 AM

 

Notice how I skip the  math? :-)

 

THE WHAT ????????????????????????



#17 hazelm

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 09:17 AM

Side trip, please?  This belongs in news but I think it fits here also.  The White House has asked the Department of Education to commit 200m per year to computer-science education.  Good news?  :-)

 

https://www.geekwire...6d-7cb702b2f383