The Incomprehensible Jargon of Science

We blogged recently about the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, especially when it comes to climate science. The October 2011 issue of Physics Today contains yet another article addressing the very same concept. From the article:

Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes.

We particularly like the table provided at the end of the article, titled "Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public." For example, the scientific term "uncertainty" translates to "ignorance" for the general public; the article suggests scientists use the word "range" instead. Error, which the general public reads as "mistake, wrong, incorrect," might be better replaced by "difference from exact true number."

The Downside of Research: How Small Uncertainties Can Lead to Big Differences

Contrary to popular perception, most research yields very few conclusions with 100 percent certainty. That's why you'll often hear economists state their conclusions with "95 percent certainty." It means they're pretty sure, but there's still a small margin for error. The science of climate change is no different, and, according to a Washington Post blog post, scientists are currently struggling with how to explain that uncertainty to the public. "What do you do when there’s a small but real chance that global warming could lead to a catastrophe?" asks Brad Plumer. "How do you talk about that in a way that’s useful to policymakers?"

Research Retractions Rising

There's a new trend emerging in academic research: more retractions. According to a recent article in Nature by Richard Van Noorden, "[i]n the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 (see 'Rise of the retractions') — even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade."

The article suggests that the increase is a result of 'an increased awareness of research misconduct" and "the emergence of software for easily detecting plagiarism and image manipulation, combined with the greater number of readers that the Internet brings to research papers."

While scientists and editors support the change, they point to various problems with the system: policy inconsistencies across journals, "opaque" explanations for retractions, ongoing citation of retraction papers and the stigma surrounding retraction. "[B]ecause almost all of the retractions that hit the headlines are dramatic examples of misconduct, many researchers assume that any retraction indicates that something shady has occurred," writes Van Noorden.

The Myth of Common Sense: Why The Social World Is Less Obvious Than It Seems

This is a guest post by Duncan Watts, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Labs, and the author of Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer.

The Myth of Common Sense: Why The Social World Is Less Obvious Than It Seems
By Duncan Watts

“Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.”
-Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly

“This is not rocket science”
-Bill Frist on fixing health care, The New York Times

As these two quotes illustrate, there is something strangely conflicted about contemporary views on government and policy. On one hand, many people are in apparent agreement that government frequently accomplishes less than it ought to, sometimes embarrassingly so. Yet on the other hand, many of these same people are also of the opinion that the failings of government do not imply any great difficulty of the problems themselves—that they are not rocket science, as it were.

Surprise, Surprise: The Future Remains Hard to Predict

"There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts."

In what realm do you think this "huge discrepancy" exists? The financial markets? Politics? Pharmaceutical research?

Given how bad humans are at predicting the future, this discrepancy could exist just about anywhere. But the above quote, from the University of Alabama-Huntsville climate scientist Roy Spencer, is talking about computer models that predict global warming:

Scientific Literacy Does Not Increase Concern Over Climate Change; Now Go Shout About It

A new study by the Cultural Cognition Project, a team headed up by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, shows that people who are more science- and math-literate tend to be more skeptical about the consequences of climate change. Increased scientific literacy also leads to higher polarization on climate-change issues:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

What Will Be the Consequences of the Latest Prenatal-Testing Technologies?

Here's some big -- and good -- news on the birth-technology front, from Amy Dockser Marcus in the Wall Street Journal:

New, noninvasive blood tests are being developed for expectant mothers to find out if their babies have genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, without the risks of tests available now.

Pregnant women often opt for a prenatal test called amniocentesis that requires a needle to be inserted through the walls of the abdomen and uterus to draw a sample of the fluid surrounding the fetus. The test is uncomfortable and carries a small risk of miscarriage, as does another invasive test for genetic disorders called chorionic villus sampling, or CVS, that samples tissue from the placenta.

Now, scientists say new tests of fetal DNA sampled from a mother's blood can be used to screen for Down syndrome, which occurs in one in 691 live births and causes cognitive disabilities. The new blood tests could be performed as early as nine weeks into a pregnancy—earlier than amniocentesis—and may be available as soon as the end of this year.

The Next Alternative Energy Source?

If you're looking for the next big alternative energy craze, look no further than your toilet. Gerardine Botte, a biomolecular engineer at Ohio University, has developed a "technology to generate hydrogen fuel from urine."

GMOs and Mother Nature? Closer Than You Think

When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one criticism stands above the others: it's unnatural. The idea that (unlike conventional genetic exchange within a species) genes from one species can be transferred to another fuels this perception of unnaturalness.

Pesticide Politics

Pesticides freak us out - and understandably so. The idea of otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables marred by residual poison unnerves us because, generally speaking, we're clueless. We're totally removed from the process of production. We don't know what was sprayed, we can't see the trace pesticides, we can't measure them on our own, and, let's face it, the vast majority of us don't remotely understand how these agents work. The upshot is that we're left to trust outside interpreters to assess the risk for us.