Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On being ‘right’ in science

From PLOS:

The other day I was standing around with a few friends arguing about ergonomics (these are the things you do when you’re a graduate scientist). At one point, my friend referenced a presentation that was chock full of the worst kinds of sensationalist science writing (it said that the act of sitting was literally killing you).

As a scientist and writer myself, I jumped all over the presentation, calling it sham science, and pointing out the many ways in which it was confusing or obscuring the truth. Expecting to be met with nodding approval, I instead faced several annoyed looks and the strong feeling that I was being wished out of the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong – they had presented a piece of evidence, and I had summarily shot it down. Isn’t that what arguing is all about? Instead of feeling right, I felt like a jerk.

And then I realized something: it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.

Many scientists run into this situation on a daily basis, but understanding this problem digs into one of the biggest crises facing scientific research today: there’s a difference between being right and being persuasive. The first entails having the facts straight, and the second means convincing someone else to believe them.


Consider the fact that scientific theory and uninformed hand waving are often presented as equal and opposing sides to an argument in the media. Clearly, we are not getting the message across to the public that science is not opinion, it is an argument grounded in facts. It’s incredibly important to think about how we phrase our understanding of the world, as well as how we can make our ideas more relevant, interesting, and clear to the public. Don’t believe me? Just ask the climate scientists.

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