Having recently been to the Sense About Science workshop in Manchester: Standing Up for Science, I thought I’d stand up and say a few words about my experience of it.
It was good; I enjoyed it; it was a nice day out spent chatting about things I’m intensely interested in.
But what I felt the real advantage of the day was, was the networking. Standing Up for Science got a lot of science communication enthusiasts together in a room – whether the panellists or (like me) the participants, and basically said, “Let’s Talk About Science.”
And some interesting things were said.
But here’s a point, it doesn’t matter whether any interesting things were said or not. Because science communication is not a day long workshop during a wet Manchester day: it is an ongoing discussion which is going round all about us and between us.
At the end of the workshop, we were told about some of the things that previous groups of participants had got up to in previous years, including writing to the World Health Organisation and requesting that they released a statement making clear their stance on homoeopathy, which they did. And that’s exactly why they do this kind of workshop: to excite motions, change. That’s why politcal groups have rallies. That’s why protesters hold sit-ins. When people get together in big enough groups with strong enough convictions stuff happens. And that is immensely cool.
I really hope something comes out of this workshop, and I can be a part of it.
On the other hand, we were given a huge pile of leaflets to take away and read and, during my two hour train journey home, I read some of them. I was a little bit surprised. Those leaflets which are not case studies are basically selling peer review to the unenlightened. Now, I know peer review is good, but it has its pitfalls, and ones which any logical person should be able to work out: that people are not always logical, and it relies upon people. So, to me, selling the method of peer review seems like a bad idea: it initially convinces the audience to trust in good scientific results and then later opens the door to doubting scientists. Wouldn’t it just be better to be honest from the start?
Science is guesswork based on logic. It gets things wrong. Scientists try hard to invest in a rigorous system to test the weight of their guesswork, but this involves the same people employing the same methods.
Good science is determinable from bad science in that it deliberately evokes this system, in that it admits the scope of applicability and the limits of its findings, and that it urges others to follow its logic, rather than asks, “Why, don’t you believe me?”
Good scientists don’t use authority to convey weight. They use convincing arguments and as much evidence as they can obtain. When judging an argument, you must also make sure it has good evidence and is logical, et cetera. This is really important, because a lot of bad science (really, people opposing an idea for their own reasons) quote unrealiable sources in an attempt to obtain validity.
It’s actually really easy to tell good science from bad science, and you don’t even need to be a scientific to do it. You just have to start from the perspective, “That sounds interesting – can you back it up?”
Maybe the case studies are a good way of going about it – but I don’t think they’re the only way.