A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science

Over at Compound Interest they’ve put together a handy Rough Guide to critically reading science reporting.

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Might have to invest in a poster for the wall of my office!

Top Ten Popular Science Books

I recently got a request to recommend some popular science books that don’t assume any scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. I was surprised at how hard it was to think of books, because to be honest, most pop science books do seem to assume that you have some fluency in science ideas or jargon, if at a lesser level than a scientist would. I’ve read some very popular books about biological topics that I found dry or hard to get through, because even though I’m a scientist I don’t know very much biology. But I came up with the following ten books, which explore different aspects of science in strongly accessible ways:

These books will give a nice overview of some of the great stuff that’s out there in popular science reading. (Note: the links above are affiliate links, just something we’re trying out!) Of course, I’m always interested in other people’s recommendations too, so have at it in comments if you like!

A chocolate conundrum

The British Science Association (BSA) has posted two ‘spring experiments’ for young people to try at home or in school on their website. One, involving eggs, has a small explanation about why the observed results are occurring but the other, about measuring the speed of light using chocolate, has no explanation and several seemingly random maths figures included on the sidebar.

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I originally clicked on the link because I was interested in seeing how they would explain the relationship between microwaves, light, and the way it can be measured using household materials. (Also I remembered Jessamyn’s excellent post on the polymorphism of chocolate and had a craving for more!) The experiment guide walks you through the steps for producing the right measurement with the necessary safety precautions but nowhere in the guide does it actually tell you what is happening! This raises far more questions than it answers, including:

  • What does the melting have to do with light?
  • What are microwaves and why are we using one to explore light?
  • What if I don’t get the ‘expected’ results?

Certainly there are more ways to learn than just instructively – indeed, for many people it’s  doing that nurtures true understanding. In order to truly grasp the workings of what you’re doing, however, it is important to provide the necessary background knowledge so that your results can be interpreted correctly. Merely plugging some measurements into an equation does nothing to lead people towards understanding and does everything to enforce the idea of science as a dry, incomprehensible topic – even with chocolate.

While creative exploration of science topics is to be commended, we need to make sure we always ground our exploration in good information and good procedure. I would be keen to see the BSA publish additional guidance for the experiment to tie in the relevant material so that young scientists can develop their knowledge as well as their chocolate melting skills.

Now if you excuse me, I’m off to fulfil a craving…

A Chat About Women In Science

What do Erin and I talk about behind the scenes of this very blog? Well, plenty, but often we discuss science communication and women in science. We decided to post this recent chat we had, with references! This is how the sausage is made, people.

 

Jessamyn:  !!!
YES
Erin:  I question whether the overarcing discussion is still so humanities-unfriendly (given the proliferation of things like Bright Club over here), but he’s got a lot of good points
I also think it’s worth thinking about why the humanities’ contributions have been overlooked
mainly because I think they are viewed as ‘lesser’ by a lot of scientists
which is kind of ironic given the way the tide has turned
Jessamyn:  yeah
I think that putting science up on a pedestal has both isolated it and decreased its perceived value
and being all shirty about the social sciences and how they have ‘physics envy’
Erin:  which is ridiculous!
we should be able to appreciate the value of other areas of study and hopefully see how they can benefit our own
Jessamyn:  being interdisciplinary and collaborative have huge payoffs
but they aren’t ego payoffs
Erin:  absolutely
but I don’t think scientists feel like they are being egotistical
Jessamyn:  they may not label it as that
but they are imposing a moral value system that conveniently places their work at the top
and then building a hierarchy of status based on that
Erin:  oh! how funny it ended up like that
Jessamyn:  sorry guys it just HAPPENS that my stuff is the most important EVER
Erin:  as defined be ME AND ALL MY BUDDIES
Jessamyn:  not everyone is smart enough to do what I do, sadly
so I have to tell you what’s important and what’s not
ME
I AM IMPORTANT
Erin:  sadly the current environment of academia does not help dispel that. PIs and researchers are constantly being driven to justify their work
and it’s only very recently that outreach and collaboration have had any place in that justification
Jessamyn:  yeah
I love doing all this stuff but I’m very aware that it’s not going to do much to help me get a faculty position
research publications do that
I think some departments are more into outreach than others, and I’m hoping one of those will place a higher value on someone like me… but it’s not a universally valued thing the way research pubs are
Erin:  I was talking to a PhD student today who is great, she is part of the bioscience team and is also spearheading a college-wide blog initiative. and the comments from her colleagues have just been so dismissive. “Oh, you’re good at talking to people? you should quit your position and go into publishing or communications.”
Jessamyn:  yes!
after I won that physics communication award people asked me if I wanted to take the outreach coordinator’s job
and I’m like, no, I want to do research and some outreach, and I want her job to be coordinating lots of scientists like me
and I think most scientists should be doing this stuff
at varying levels, but I mean… COME ON
Erin:  yeah, oh god, don’t get me started
and it’s like “overall that might be a good amount of outreach but my god it’s unfair to the few people who are willing”
even if they enjoy it
because as you said, it doesn’t directly help your career
Jessamyn:  my boss was also commenting to me and a gender equality committee yesterday that it’s generally female scientists who end up being great communicators
which, yes, because (a) I think female scientists are much more aware that they are unlikely to be able to be the single-minded scientist, if only because there is the ‘WHAT ABOUT BABEEEZ’ thing from so early on that men can just skate on past, assuming that a partner will do the bulk of the work
and (b) women are socially conditioned to value communication and language skills more than men are, and more ostracized if they fail to develop those skills, so
Erin:  yeah, I’ve definitely read studies and it goes: men without kids < men with kids < women without kids < women with kids in terms of scientists who engage with outreach efforts
Jessamyn:  makes sense
I mean I guess you could also say, well women in science know about the importance of role models
so they would be more invested in providing that, to get more scientists and more girls into science
but then that ends up being effectively another tax on being a woman in science
Erin:  yeah, especially since they’re also required to sit on all the committees, and be on all the brochures, and the panels, etc etc…
Jessamyn:  exactly
Erin:  :-/
AND WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO END UP IN THE HUMANITIES? (to tie this in to the beginning point)
Jessamyn:  yes!!!
oh I read a great thing about that awhile back
and more of those people are women
I hated the title of this, using storytelling to bring women to science, but it’s very interesting
I like how it challenges the framing that women need better sci/math skills
when it’s also, we just lose those women who go off and pursue other things they are good at
Erin:  yeah!
science needs better women skills!
Jessamyn:  yes!
stop phoning it in, science!

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Science

For the most part I don’t write that much about science communication here, because my posts on this blog are one demonstration of what I feel science communication can be! But I spent the end of last year thinking a lot about outreach, and seeing how my outreach philosophy is different from other communicators who are doing great work, and I wanted to explain that a little more.

I’ve always found science fascinating as a lens for understanding the world and appreciating its beauty. But I think that in science and engineering, and especially my field of physics, there’s an inherent tension. On the one hand, you have the beauty and awe that science help illuminate, and the excitement of increasing your own realm of knowledge, or even pushing the boundaries of the knowledge of mankind. That is all exciting and lofty and many people who aren’t into science still see the appeal, because curiosity about the world around us is something every child starts out with. But on the other hand, there’s often an elitism in science, a sense of scientists as gatekeepers of truth high up in a hierarchy, which is encouraged by the media at times and even some scientists.

When I tell people I’m a scientist, or a physicist, a lot of times they tell me a story about the one bad physics teacher they had, who ruined all of science for them. This apparently happens a lot, and I do get that teachers can make or break a subject at times. (My first physics teacher was not stellar.) But it’s not like bad English teachers ruin reading and writing for anyone. “If it weren’t for that middle school teacher harping on verb tenses all the time, I would probably be a Proust scholar by now, but as it is I don’t even remember how to read.” But I think culturally, communication and language and the arts derived from those things are considered fundamental, in a way that science and math used to be but no longer are. It should be as much a mark of education to know some basic science as it is to have read some of the classic novels or to know the Beethoven symphonies! I’m never going to be one of those people who makes the argument that science literacy is more important than other forms of cultural literacy, but why isn’t it at least equivalent? I think that’s a direct result of our having tried to set science apart as a better, higher thing. When you put something up on a pedestal, it gains status but loses accessibility. Science is now considered less relevant for everyone to know, even though it’s just as foundational as it ever was.

But I don’t fundamentally believe that scientific ideas are out of reach for a layperson. There’s no insurmountable math barrier or smartness barrier, science is a topic like many other topics. And I mean that a layperson can understand basically any scientific idea, not just the vague and descriptive ones. Math is a great language for explaining science, if you know how to speak it. But actual language also does the trick! You just have to be willing to think about the best way to use it.

Only being willing to explain physics using math is a failure of imagination. And sure, maybe an explanation that doesn’t use math is going to be missing some things, but so is a math explanation that gives no qualitative interpretations. If you have no science background, and I’m telling you about electrons, you may not come to understand electrons in exactly the way that I do. But that’s as much because we are different people with different experiences and conceptual ways of thinking as it is because I have spent time studying physics.

There is a saying that you can’t teach someone physics, you can only help them to learn it for themselves. And while I agree that it’s the student who has to mentally grapple with and eventually accept the tricky topics in science (and life), that doesn’t mean there’s no point trying to teach! Each person comes to understand concepts, whether it’s particle-wave duality or mind-body duality, on their own terms. If someone is asking me to help them find those terms for a concept I know a little about, I can’t make the leaps for them, but I can try different approaches to facilitate that understanding. And I love doing that; it usually expands and reforms my own understanding as well.

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15 Inaccuracies Found In Common Science Illustrations

Thermoelectrics and the Movement of Electrons

Often the big picture, like a river winding down a canyon or flashes of lightning in the sky, can be understood by looking at the small-scale behavior of each component, like molecules of water rushing to lower elevation or electrons seeking to equalize potential. I’ve always liked that approach to understanding nanoscale physics phenomena, like electricity or heat. But if you think about it, since electricity is the movement of charge carriers in response to an electric field, and hotter particles also move around more, shouldn’t there be some interaction between the two? Can something develop an electric current as a result of being hot? Or can driving electricity result in the generation of heat?

If you’ve ever felt an electronic device heat up in your hand or on your lap, then you know the answer is yes! Running an electric current through some materials, like resistors, generates waste heat, which is a big practical problem for electronics manufacturers. But there are some materials that can do the opposite, converting heat to electricity. Extracting usable electricity from waste heat is especially impressive when you think about the reduction in entropy involved; turning the high-entropy disordered heat back into an ordered electrical potential is a strong local reduction of entropy. This is how 90% of the electricity in the world is generated, but at a low efficiency. Materials where a temperature difference creates an electrical potential are called thermoelectrics, and in addition to being really practically important, thermoelectrics are a great illustration of how important it is to understand what’s happening at the nanoscale.

The most common thermoelectric device is one where two different metals are pressed together, creating a junction. Each metal is a conductor, and will have its own electrons, which can freely move across the junction. But the electrons experience different forces in each conductor: they may find it easier or more difficult to move through the material, based on the physical properties of the metal itself. So applying a voltage across the junction will affect the electrons in each material differently, and can cause one metal’s electrons to move faster than the other’s. This difference in electron speeds, or a difference in how easily the electrons transfer their energy to the atomic nuclei in the metal, or just slow diffusion of electrons across the junction, can all lead to a temperature difference between the two metals. Thus heat can be produced at the junction, and it can even be removed given the right material properties. Heat generation or removal at an electrical junction is called the Peltier effect, and is the basis of some nanoscale refrigerators and heat pumps.

Conversely, if a temperature difference already exists across a junction of two conductors, you can imagine the faster moving electrons in the hotter material, interacting with the slower moving electrons in the colder material at the junction. For the right combination of material properties, an electrical potential will be induced by the differing temperatures, which is called the Seebeck effect. But it’s the same mechanism as the Peltier effect above, namely that both heat and electric fields induced the movement of charge carriers, and so of course the two effects have some interaction with each other.

It’s not just metals that exhibit thermoelectric behavior, though. Semiconductors can also be used as thermoelectrics, and actually have a broader range of thermoelectric behavior because their carrier concentration varies more widely than that of metals. Heat and electric field affect the charge carriers in every material, it’s just that some materials have properties that result in a more interesting and usable phenomenon.

Thermoelectric materials can be used as heat pumps and refrigerators, as I mentioned above. But the thermoelectric effect can also be used to measure temperature, by putting two metals that react differently to temperature together and then measuring the induced electric potential. This is how thermocouples work, which are incredibly common. And it all comes from the fact that both heat and electricity cause motion at the nanoscale.