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Friday
Feb222013

Is A. Gelman trying to provoke me, or is that just my narcissism speaking?


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I don't understand. Why would you think so? Or was it a joke?

The conversation so far seems to have gone as follows - one person says that scientists communicating science is bad, because science is boring so they sex it up with drama to get people interested, corrupting it. A second person says science isn't boring if you teach it right, stuff like the infinitude of primes is easy to explain and rather mindblowing when you think about it. A third person agrees, but adds that doing good science and generating clear explanations are in many ways the same thing. You have to really know the subject to produce a good explanation that a layman could understand, and training and practice in how to produce such explanations will also improve your science, by forcing you to clarify and deepen your own understanding.

That's how I interpreted it anyway. What did I miss?

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I can't exactly understand your question here -- but in reading the exchange of comments, I think of the following:

I have found that often, students only really get to the point of figuring out what it is that they don't understand when they try to write. They think they understand a concept, and they write something they think is clear - but then someone reading what they wrote says "Hey, I don't understand what you mean by that. Then they are forced to re-think what they thought was clear. If you are a teacher - how many times have you written on a student's paper "Please clarify" or "Add some details or examples," or something along those lines? Or, perhaps, the (external) reader becomes a "naysayer," and says "Hey, I got what you were saying there, but you didn't think of a few other possible explanations, such as X, Y, and Z."

As a student grows in their scholarship, they begin to internalize that external voice that says "Hey, I don't understand." They begin to hear the "naysayer" emanating from their own internalized dialog. For the experienced writer, that process of "explaining" something to "yourself" usually takes place through the process of revision and editing, but the more experienced a writer is, sometimes, they can even integrate the revising and editing processes almost real-time as they write. This is, I believe, essentially the process that Andrew describes when he says the "first audience is ourselves."

As a side note - one thing that is interesting about that is that I have found that many academics i(n the sciences in particular), while they may have learned to communicate their own thoughts clearly (perhaps after much revision), are not capable of breaking down and translating their process of writing clearly so as to help their students know how to clarify their thoughts in their writing. They have developed a sort of "intuition" about how to write, but can't communicate how to conduct a process that has become intuitive.

My favorite example is an academic who knows how to be concise in their writing, but as advice to a student who isn't concise gives the advice "Say the same thing but with fewer words." Such advice is completely useless (although not uncommon). In fact, there are specific ways to explain to students the mechanics of how to be more concise - but those processes are basically reflexively integrated into the writing processes of a more experienced writer.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Ah! I see!

"Valid science does not communicate its own validity; it needs certification of its validity from forms of authority that are connected to the lives of everday people who need to accept as known by science more than they can possibly understand for themselves"

Argumentum ad verecundiam?

"creating and coordinating those systems of certifcation is extremely challenging in a liberal demcoratic society;"

Not just creating and coordinating, but maintaining accountability too. In a liberal democratic society, who is given control of that machinery? Who "coordinates"?

And what do you do about those people who take the time to understand for themselves, and come to disagree with authority?

This is the point we keep coming back to, and I'm still unsure if what you're actually thinking of is as scary as it sounds. I assume you don't mean a central committee that decides what the conclusions of science are and disseminates that to the public. I assume it isn't your intention to simply work out how such a committee could ensure it was believed, and ignore the question of how society is to make such decisions in the first place. It may be just your usage of the word "authority" that is confusing me, and that you mean something else by it.

" In the present age—which has been described as "destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism"—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society."

JS Mill, Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.

Does that sound like "we risk dissipating the value of all the knowledge that science gives us"?

"To abate the force of these considerations, an enemy of free discussion may be supposed to say, that there is no necessity for mankind in general to know and understand all that can be said against or for their opinions by philosophers and theologians. That it is not needful for common men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies of an ingenious opponent. That it is enough if there is always somebody capable of answering them, so that nothing likely to mislead uninstructed persons remains unrefuted. That simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised, may repose in the assurance that all those which have been raised have been or can be answered, by those who are specially trained to the task."

Does that sound a bit like " it needs certification of its validity from forms of authority that are connected to the lives of everday people who need to accept as known by science more than they can possible understand for themselves"? Do you agree or disagree with Mill's point?

I am assuming (hoping!) that by "authority" you don't mean an 'ad verecundiam' type of personal 'authority', but some method or set of heuristicsby which people can judge the validity of arguments and information without the deep training of a scientist. But you keep using the word, and it keeps setting off the alarm bells.

So can you say what sort of thing you're talking about when you say "authority"? I'm really not clear.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: It should be quite clear that I can't mean an authority, much less a "state" authority. "Popper's revenge" consists precisely in the impossibility of that -- which would in fact destroy the constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.

Likely, I could make myself clearer. But your confusion as to my meaning is in fact proof of your citizenship in LRS.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I agree with Joshua, and would expand his comment.

Not only has my experience been the same as Joshua's, but there has often been an underlying misconception that communication, or even thought, that when one is experienced in a subject that experience makes communication easy. The fallacy is not recognozing that something worth doing means that you will err, make mistakes, and learn from them. Whether it is the piano, or philosophy, the dues have to be paid.

The SoSC should be hard. And just as writing it down helps, so should the outlining and formalization of the SoSC both be difficult and revealing. Just knowing the science does not prevent one from making grand mistakes. An example of this is using temperature as a metric to describe heating which is energy not temperature. Yet, we see today those who cling to this even though it is feeding the opposition, and has intrinsic assumptions that require formulating a response that can be easily twisted. The results of good science communication should not be easily twisted, IMO.

The reason science should not be easily twisted lies in NiV's risk of dissipating the value of science comment. Not only do the persons matter; what they say, how they say it and where they say it matter. It should dovetail into the iterative steps to good science communication that was in a previous post. I think Ellenberg is one of first steps in the iteration, but not the only step. Without the testing/feedback loop envisioned, too much is left to chance. There is a good quote about how scientists should design experiments where things are not left to chance.

But I need another cup of tea at the moment. Which is to say my google-fu leaves a bit to be desired.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

Yes, but what do you mean by "authority"? By what mechanism can people come to know what is accepted as known by science (whatever that might mean) without being able to understand it themselves?

You identify in "Popper's revenge", that it is the same pluralist freedom of thought and expression enabling science that also enables polarised social conflict about science. You say that we need a science of science communication to solve this problem, presumably to prevent the polarisation without preventing the freedom of thought and expression that enables scientific progress.

You seem to be saying that we do this by creating forms of authority in people's social networks that certify an unpolarised version of science, from which people can know what is known without understanding it. But I for one don't see how that can be possible. How can you decide which version to present, except by debating and understanding all the candidates? How can you prevent conflict between different positions without preventing the different positions from arising, and having their say?

It sounds like a fantastic goal, but I worry because of the ways other people have gone about solving the same problem, which is to go down the 'ad verecundiam' route. The 'authorities' being spoken of are not always run by governments - we have journal peer review and university standing and professional bodies and mutually-respected "experts" - but these are all certification of humans by humans, not certification of arguments and methods and data.
If you start talking about the need to set up "authorities" I worry that this is what people will do.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV:
There's no need to "set up" anything. I don't think I ever used "set up" or "creating authorites" as a locution, did I? The authoritative networks of certification set themselves up. They are creatures of private ordering. I address only the need to use intelligence to avoid conditions that disorient them and set them in opposition to each other. Why do you keep imposing this central-planning trope ontop of what I say? You panic at the mention of the very simple idea that people can't know what's known by science unless they are embedded in networks of certification. I have no remedy for this reaction. (Also, don't worry about "what people will do" if I talk in a certain way; I have the greatest incentive here to overestimate my influence, & even I don't think my words will reverberate in that way)

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"There's no need to "set up" anything. I don't think I ever used "set up" or "creating authorites" as a locution, did I?"

Sorry. I was thinking of: "Creating and coordinating those systems of certifcation is extremely challenging in a liberal demcoratic society." Have I misinterpreted?

"You panic at the mention of the very simple idea that people can't know what's known by science unless they are embedded in networks of certification."

I panic at people using the word "authority" to describe those certification networks. I panic at the idea that these "authorities" might take precedence in society over people looking at the scientific evidence for themselves and making their own minds up.

And I still don't know what you mean by "authority".

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I agree with your elaboration, JFP. And in particular, I think that your point about equating "climate change" with global land temp measurements is a very nice example. Once the conflation of climate change and global land temps was locked in, it was inevitable that climate scientists would be hoist on their own petard, when "naysayers" sought to discredit the notion of climate change by pointing to (relatively) short-term trends in global land temps

I have seen pitched battles at JC's place over this very issue - touched off by the "global warming has stopped" argument from "skeptics" - which capitalizes on the conflation you pointed to.

Climate scientists that don't engage that discussion - due to the polluted environment - are just like a writer who isn't open to revising their writing even when a lack of clarity has been exposed.

But then again, the reality is that it doesn't really matter how climate scientists communicate their knowledge to people who have no investment in accepting what climate scientists do communicate - or actually, in contrast, by virtue of motivated reasoning - have an investment in rejecting what climate scientists do communicate.

Again, I go back to stakeholder dialog. The key is bi-lateral communication through a deliberately designed process. We have certain fundamental understandings from conflict resolution about, "getting to yes," "win/win," no zero sum gain, etc.

OK - here goes an anecdotal rant which more than likely will lack appropriately conditional terminology:

One thing I learned as a teacher is that you can never anticipate all the ways that someone might have difficulty understanding something. By our very nature, we are doomed to make mistaken assumptions that our understanding should be clear to someone else. Sometimes, a problem develops there because we make incorrect assumptions about the prerequisites of what someone else needs to understand. Sometimes, a problem develops there because we make incorrect assumptions about the validity of our own thinking (that is exposed by someone else).

The first problem: Every day as a teacher I have found that students had difficulty understanding what I was trying to get across because I made incorrect assumptions about the needed prerequisite knowledge. This was driven home most powerfully when I was trying to teach English to immigrants from Cambodia. These people were middle-aged, had never spent a day in a classroom in their entire lives, and had never worked formulated a conceptualization that a sound they would utter could be represented by an abstract symbol written on piece of paper. As much as I had decades of experience teaching all sorts of students, and as much as I tried not to not make assumptions, every day I would find that assumptions about, say, the relational dynamics of a classroom context did not apply to the people I was working with. The very notion of sitting in a chair and having something abstract explained to you through words was a completely foreign concept.

The second problem is trickier. That problem can only be fully resolved with bi-lateral communication within a context of trust. Without trust, more specifically in an environment where a lack of trust is the operating principle, we get same ol' same ol'. Now JFP and I disagree as to the antecedents of that lack of trust, but as far as I'm concerned the originating factor that lead to a lack of trust at this point is irrelevant: Good science communication will not occur without an explicit focus on establishing trust.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Edited version:

I agree with your elaboration, JFP. And in particular, I think that your point about equating "climate change" with global land temp measurements is a very nice example. Once the conflation of climate change and global land temps was locked in, it was inevitable that climate scientists would be hoist on their own petard, when "naysayers" sought to discredit the notion of climate change by pointing to (relatively) short-term trends in global land temps

I have seen pitched battles at JC's place over this very issue - touched off by the "global warming has stopped" argument from "skeptics" - which capitalizes on the conflation you pointed to.

Climate scientists that don't engage that discussion - due to the polluted environment - are just like a writer who isn't open to revising their writing even when a lack of clarity has been exposed.

But then again, (IMO) the reality is that it doesn't really matter how climate scientists communicate their knowledge to people who have no investment in accepting what climate scientists do communicate - or more specifically, in contrast to having no investment in accepting what climate scientists say, by virtue of motivated reasoning have an investment in rejecting what climate scientists do communicate.

Again, I go back to stakeholder dialog. The key is bi-lateral communication through a deliberately designed process. We have certain fundamental understandings from conflict resolution about, "getting to yes," "win/win," no zero sum gain, etc. That knowledge should be utilized, IMO.

OK - here goes an anecdotal rant which more than likely will lack appropriately conditional terminology:

One thing I learned as a teacher is that you can never anticipate all the ways that someone might have difficulty understanding something. By our very nature, we are doomed to make mistaken assumptions that our understanding should be clear to someone else. Sometimes, a problem develops there because we make incorrect assumptions about the prerequisites of what someone else needs to understand. Sometimes, a problem develops there because we make incorrect assumptions about the validity of our own thinking (that is exposed by someone else).

The first problem: Every day as a teacher I have found that students had difficulty understanding what I was trying to get across because I made incorrect assumptions about the needed prerequisite knowledge. This was driven home most powerfully when I was trying to teach English to immigrants from Cambodia. These people were middle-aged, had never spent a day in a classroom in their entire lives, and had never worked formulated a conceptualization that a sound they would utter could be represented by an abstract symbol written on piece of paper. As much as I had decades of experience teaching all sorts of students, and as much as I tried not to not make assumptions, every day I would find that assumptions about, say, the relational dynamics of a classroom context did not apply to the people I was working with. The very notion of sitting in a chair and having something abstract explained to you through words was a completely foreign concept.

The second problem is trickier. That problem can only be fully resolved with bi-lateral communication within a context of trust. Without trust, more specifically in an environment where a lack of trust is the operating principle, we get same ol' same ol'. Now JFP and I disagree as to the antecedents of that lack of trust, but as far as I'm concerned the originating factor that lead to a lack of trust at this point is irrelevant: Good science communication will not occur without an explicit focus on establishing trust.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

The reason I disagree to the antecedents is historical on the one hand; and on the other, I do not see how we can get into a bi-lateral communication within a context of trust without this determination. It fits within my concept of the iterative process: if you do not know where you are and how you got there, you should not necessarily expect you can get where you want to go.

I think without this, obstructionists will be able to not only feed, but like the temperature meme, will be able to conflate attempts to establish trust with the present failed attempts or lack thereof. In particular the post about local initiatives highlights a real problem. People can and will work on local percieved problems by adaptation.

That is not what the IPCC and the activists are asking for. They are asking in particular that humans forgo the local and adaptive and go to the universal and mitigate. These are not the same phenomena, and worse, the local adaptive can be seen, measured, even concretely discussed. In mitigation, one has some supposed counterfactual that will be the evidence of success at some future date. However, as stated by Knutti, whether that is 70 years, 100 years or even longer is not known, and if successful our "evidence" will be this couunterfactual that many do not even believe in. Whereas, it is easy to beleive in a higher level requirement for storm surge, simply by going and seeing it.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

The reason I disagree to the antecedents is historical on the one hand; and on the other, I do not see how we can get into a bi-lateral communication within a context of trust without this determination.

Yeah - I get where you're coming from there. I see it as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

A) Establishing a shared (neutral/objective) narrative of the history will be impossible.
B) Moving forward will be impossible as long as resentment continues due to differing views of he history.

I see both arguments as basically valid, but...

I will appeal again to principles of conflict negotiation - where the goal is often to move away from competing narratives of the past (or "positions") and to instead focus on common goals (or "interests").

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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