The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Don’t be a science jerk

Of late, I’ve written some things in my blog that, upon reflection, make me a science jerk. For instance, in my recent discussion of media coverage of the climate science mistakes uncovered in the last four months, I pretty much made it sound like anybody who doubts climate science is an idiot and should suck it up . . . and then walk it off.

As a scientist, it’s difficult to watch a great number of research peers come under attack by a public that largely ignores science until it either (a) produces a new toy or (b) conflicts with societal notions, common wisdom, or values. Climate science is one of those things where nature appears to be trying to tell us something, and most people in the U.S. don’t seem to know how to listen. Ultimately, the failure is ours. If the public fails to comprehend the scientific method and therefore disregards its conclusions, then it’s only because we failed to live up to our end of the societal bargain wherein good public education produces an informed electorate. If companies have better information machines that cast doubt on the science, it’s our fault for not having similarly organized grass-roots machines that communicate our science.

Being upset is not a license to bash. Even if I feel angry about how the media is portraying the climate e-mails, or climate data analysis, or some of the IPCC report conclusions, I shouldn’t bash my fellow citizens. At the time, I didn’t think of it as bashing. Everything looks different in the cold light that makes hindsight possible. Science as a whole only further fails the society that it criticizes for not understanding science. It’s more a sign that we have failed in our role as educators, rather than a sign that people can’t understand science.

I still stand by my fundamental concerns, and reiterate them here more as points than anything else:

  • Science is not a chain, it is a web. At first, as pieces enter the web and connections are made, the strength of the web is tenuous and, really, the web may be just as likely to fail as to succeed. The web can collapse not because its conclusions run afoul of common wisdom or societal values, but because its claims simply fail to hold under withering scientific scrutiny. As a result, an area of science is not slave to the weakest conclusions in the web, but instead by the number of connections joining one conclusion to many experiments, which themselves obtain reinforcing results. A chain is defined by its weakest link; science is not such thing, and by its nature tends to weed the bad or useless ideas and identify the useful or correct ones.
  • Mistaking short-term fluctuations for long-term trends is at the heart of the climate science discussion. Anyone who claims that snow trucked into Vancouver is evidence of global warming is just as dangerous to public understanding as people who claim snow in Dallas is evidence against global warming. Neither of these is evidence of anything, but rather are observations in a large web of observations, some of which may be connected by hypotheses and other which are irrelevant. It is incumbent upon all scientists to keep a focus on the long-term, using the short-term merely to add richness to the data set that is needed to establish trend and outcomes.

Most importantly, don’t be a science jerk. Don’t tell people who disagree with you that they are stupid. It’s a great way to make more enemies defined not by their understanding of science but by their opposition to individual scientists. Rather, focus on education. Focus on the quality of your own work, and on the work of others. Keep science beautiful, work to define your own brand in the enterprise, don’t let anyone tell you what you mean or who you are, and never tell anybody they are incapable of understanding your work. The only way we can ever make progress on anything in our society is to respect its members while at the same time arming those members with the very tools of skepticism that enable science to make progress in the natural world.

We will necessarily create more skeptics, armed with the freedom to inquire and the responsibility to respect the process, and while this will leave some people who disagree with the science it will create many more people who can act as independent and responsible citizens.