Thursday, January 20, 2011

An evolutionary psychology blog (worth reading)

Two years ago I was excited by the launch of the first blog by a major evolutionary psychologist - Satoshi Kanazawa's The Scientific Fundamentalist. Unfortunately, it turned out Kanazawa is batshit insane and often face-palmingly wrong, so my search for a blog by a reasonable evolutionary psychologist continued. Luckily, a while back the interwebs provided: Rob Kurzban's ingeniously entitled Evolutionary Psychology Blog hosted by the equally ingeniously entitled journal Evolutionary Psychology. Being twice shy and all that, I didn't want to recommend Kurzban's blog before I gave it a good long look. Now that I have, I can say Kurzban's blog is well worth reading.

So... check it out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Quote: The scientific method

The following is a rather neat expiation of the scientific method. While it leaves a great deal out (institutions, the social nature of science, etc.), it's damn good nonetheless. The writer is John D. Barrow and the quote is taken from his essay "Simple Reality: From Simplicity to Complexity - And Back Again", published in Seeing Further: The Story of Science & The Royal Society:
Laws reflect the existence of patterns in Nature.We might even define science as the search for those patterns. We observe and document the world in all possible ways; but while this data-gathering is necessary for science, it is not sufficient. We are not content simply to acquire a record of everything that is, or has ever happened, like cosmic stamp collectors. Instead, we look for patterns in the facts, and some of those patterns we have come to call the laws of Nature, while others have achieved only the status of by-laws. Having found, or guessed (for there are no rules at all about how you might find them) possible patters, we use them to predict what should happen if the pattern is also followed at all times and in places where we have yet to look. Then we check if we are right (there are strict rules about how you do this!). In this way, we can update our candidate patterns and improve the likelihood that it explains what we see. Sometimes a likelihood gets so low that we say the proposal is 'falsified', or so high that it is 'confirmed' or 'verified', although strictly speaking this is always provisional, none is ever possible with complete certainty. This is called the 'scientific method'. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The African science, rationalism and skepticism blogroll for December

The updated African science and skepticism blogroll for December... If you know of blogs not listed here, please let me know. Also: add it to your blog! Tweet it! Do a post like this one! (Email me, and I'll send you the HTML).

Note: I generally remove blogs that have been inactive for more than 6 months, so if you're no longer on the list and have resumed blogging, please email me.

A Modest Proposal: Take "News" out of "Science News"

While there are fantastic science journalists out there, unfortunately, science journalism as a whole is in a rather shocking state. Why this is so is endlessly debated, but my Modest Proposal is that there is far too much "news" in "science news".

Before we continue, I should say that I take it 'our' goal is to educate the public about both the findings and the methods of science. Of course, the mainstream media (MSM) is in the profit-making business, not in the education business. The science boosters among us (yours truly included), however, would like to square the MSM's profit motive with our educational goals, hence this post and many others like it.

In any case, here is the crux of my view that there is too much news in science news, expressed neatly as a slogan: Context Is King. It is an unfortunate fact, but the public is abysmally ignorant of science. (The data are best for the US, but there is no reason to think it's dramatically better elsewhere). Moreover, science is hard and often counterintuitive. So, to make any real sense of what's new - i.e. what's news - one needs to have at least some grip on what's already known, one needs background. If I don't know the first thing about human evolution, for example, it's going to do me no good to hear about the discovery of the Denisovans. If I don't know anything about the methods of science, a scientific controversy - the recent arsenic bacteria thing, for example - is going to baffle me. (Or I'm going to walk away with serious misconceptions at the very least). None of this should be particularly surprising, of course, nor is it unique to science. If I don't know the rules of American football (and I don't really), NFL news is going to make little sense to me.

The problem, though, is that often the MSM in effect assumes the public already has the necessary background knowledge to make sense of science news because their articles contain little or no context. The result is not merely a public that fails to learn about and appreciate new discoveries, it's a public that's positively misled about the findings and methods of science. My remedy is that science journalists change their focus: their aim shouldn't be to convey the newsy bit of science news, it's to convey the sciency bit of science news. And that means recognizing Context Is King: explain what we already know in the necessary detail in order to convey what we might just have found out. Obviously, this is hard. It takes work. And, whaddaya know?, it requires actually knowing something about science. (I'm looking at you, Richard Alleyne).

I should hasten to add, by the way, that there are already a bunch of science journalists who do exactly what I suggest. Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Malcolm Gladwell et. al. do not need advice from me about the importance of context. Indeed, any MSM journalist who would like to learn to do science journalism right can't do much better than reading the Yongs and Zimmers.