Scientific Perspective

by the other theo

Surplus energy for blog posts is in short supply these days.   I am recovering from a couple physical injuries that I hope to document in an entry here shortly.   The Missus is also at an “off site” meeting held by her employer for the last few days, and I am “solo parenting” the Peanut in her absence with minimal day care help from friends (who are angels, in the best sense.)  I consider solo parenting to be nothing particularly remarkable, except that halving the workforce requires twice the energy from me, and I am tired.

I will therefore keep this entry short.  I happened upon the little essay entitled The Jargon Trap about writing technical articles for the general public in the New York Times the other day.   In it, the author notes:

Scientists who want to pluck out the most important findings from a body of research and contextualize them for a mass audience need to step back from wallowing in minutiae and transform themselves into an outside observer of their own field.

This should not be hard for most scientists skilled at writing to do.   Being somewhat familiar with technical writing in both academia and industry, one of the first things one must learn to communicate effectively is cultivate such an observer perspective.   That perspective allows an author to effectively describe what makes his or her work novel to other experts in the field.   Is it such a big leap then to step a little further back and draw “the big picture” for someone who knows nothing?

I wonder if it is.  Science is both terrifically exact and inexact.  We construct experiments to test small things we can measure, and then extrapolate them to the world at large.   We do so, knowing that new results are often disproved, and interpretation of those results amounts to opinion until they are confirmed numerous times by multiple experiment.

Yet, to the general public, this uncertainty tarnishes the notion that scientists are Promethean “bringers of fact.”   It also confuses terms; what a scientist calls a “hypothesis”, the public would call a “theory”.   What a scientist calls a “theory”, the public would in many ways call a “fact”.