Honest communication about science

It’s easy to lose objectivity when we feel strongly about an issue. Some of the things we feel strongly about might also be of great consequence, making it even more difficult to separate the strength of your emotional commitment from the strength of your argument. Some of the comment following my blog posts regarding Prof. Tim Noakes‘ research (especially on Twitter, where nuance is sometimes in short supply) ask why people like me focus on these issues, when obesity (or diabetes, or whatever) are such enormous problems – and the answer is simple, albeit two-fold.

First, because the more important something is, the more important it also becomes that our reasoning be sound, so that we can stand a better chance of convincing doubters. And second, because there are more problems in the world than simply obesity (etc.), and just because one of those is your focus, doesn’t mean it has to be mine. Furthermore, in what might come as a shock to some, it’s possible to focus on more than one of those problems at a time – you can promote critical reasoning while also caring about public health, for example.

I attended EthicsXchange this morning, a TEDx-style event where 11 speakers spoke on ethical challenges and potential responses to them. The Doctor has written about this event also, focusing on some of the hyperbole (such as the ‘addictive’ nature of sugar) we encountered on the day. Besides a general grumble regarding the oddity of an ethics conference that featured no ethicists, it was a worthwhile event. My favourite presentations were the ones that focused on the complexities and apparent contradictions we sometimes encounter in seeking the good, and I thought that my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price, and Peter Bruce of Business Day did the best job of raising those issues.

It’s the talks on scientific themes that I want to briefly address here. I do so mostly as a prompt to those of us who speak or write about science to remember that we do live in an age of celebrity, short attention-spans and a lack of patience for complex arguments. What this adds up to is beautifully illustrated by a recent xkcd panel, reproduced below:

xkcd on headlines as clickbait

Sensation and hyperbole grab attention. TEDx-style talks are meant to be slick, yes – and it’s also not a bad thing to make science compelling (quite the contrary, in fact). But we should remember that science is about the method, not the conclusion. When we forget to reinforce the method of good science in expressing our conclusions, we’re sending the message that things are a) more certain and b) easier than they actually are. Of course there are permissible shortcuts, or liberties. When we say that we know, for certain, that smoking is a cause of cancer, it’s only a pedant who asks you to confess that yes, of course, nothing is ever absolutely certain and there might be some other factor we haven’t spotted, with smoking and cancer being caused by that, etc.

When we get to a certain level of justification, we can say we “know” something – even though what/where that level of justification is can (rightly) be contested. But what we should not do is say things like:

  • “The literature says that X” – when we know full well that some of the literature says X, while other literature says Y, with no clear consensus having yet emerged.
  • “We now know that X” – where X is really your preferred view, and not at all “known” but instead the subject of significant dispute

And then, there are some words that we just know – going in to our talk, or sitting down to write our column – that people are going to invest with greater significance than is merited. Words like “caused”, or “proven”, or even sometimes, “evidence”.

I’m not saying that we need to include a ream of disclaimers with every sentence. But if a popular science talk or piece of writing doesn’t make it quite clear that there’s room for reasonable doubt, it’s doing a disservice to the goal of getting people to think more critically and clearly about knowledge-claims.

No matter how important the scientific subject under discussion, the goal of promoting sound reasoning is a worthy one too. And there’s no reason why one of these goals has to be pursued at the expense of the other.


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