Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Meaning of Data panel at a class on the Rhetoric of Science

Update: Lawrence Souder provided the audio for the presentation and panel questions.

On October 6, 2010 I had the pleasure to participate in a panel discussion at Lawrence Souder's class on the Rhetoric of Science. I gave a brief presentation on "The Meaning of Data" to kick off the discussion. I provided a scientist's perspective of data - with the basic idea that at best data are evidence. Data cannot be treated as irrefutable facts since there is always some uncertainty and many assumptions must be made in their interpretation. I also argued that, although uncertainty cannot be eliminated completely, transparency goes a long way to reducing it.

The students in the class did not have a science background and I think it was informative for them to explore a different perspective from their other exposure to science through popular media or even textbooks. The term "fact" is thrown around a lot in these information sources to simplify but it doesn't reflect how scientists think about data. We discussed how unbelievably wrong the scientific details in movies and TV shows such as NCIS and House can be. Nevertheless, one student pointed out that these shows can be effective in attracting people to science - as long as it was understood that the details were probably incorrect.

Because of market forces we recognized that science portrayed in the popular media would have a strong tendency to be exaggerated or oversimplified resulting in the phenomenon of "hype". A related effect can distort the way scientists communicate with each other, where there is a perception that exposing ambivalence in the form of seemingly contradictory data may not be in the researcher's best interest. This is a strong deterrent to the general adoption of transparency.

We explored the possible evolution of scientific communication as new tools such as blogs and wikis become increasingly used by scientists. Of course the issue of claims of priority was brought up and I discussed how this issue was handled in my own research work.

We debated whether these new forms of communication would alter the language used in scientific communication - even in traditional journals. I think that with the advent of the semantic web many researchers will start to write in a way that is understandable to humans as well as machines, their new target audience. One student remarked that the new generation coming up is very used to texting and that type of succinct communication is certainly in line with machine readability.

The assigned reading for the class involved a study of the language used by the Nobel laureates who discovered the buckyball to describe their research:
"In Praise of Carbon, In Praise of Science - The Epideictic Rhetoric of the 1996 Nobel Lectures in Chemistry by Christian Casper". This paper demonstrates that both personality and the perceived target audience can dramatically affect the language and focus that scientists use to explain their research.


At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Jean-Claude, for your visit. It’s clear to me from the Q&A that all of us were inspired by your remarks to think less casually about the communication of science. It you’re interested in reviewing your talk and its Q&A, here is an audio archive:>

I was particularly taken by your total candor when you described your own attitudes towards the practice of science. Given what’s at stake for most researchers (especially those who are still moving towards full professor), I can understand why expressions like “fuzzy logic” and “there are no facts” would not come easily. Yet for you they do.

In some ways your remarks amounted to a kind of radically altered form of the genre of discourse that our evening’s assigned reading was based on: epideictic rhetoric. As defined by Aristotle, an epideictic speech “has for its subject praise or blame.” A common type of epideictic speech is the conventional eulogy, one of the most memorable examples (if you’re old enough to have seen it but still young enough to remember) of which is Ronald Reagan’s eulogy to the astronauts on the Challenger space shuttle ( Reagan’s speech was quite traditional, portraying the astronauts as heroes. In fact, his last line of the speech described them as ascending to heaven.

Your characterizations of scientists, on the other hand, emphasized their feet of clay. The ideal of science is to produce knowledge by adding to our storehouse of facts, and yet, you say, there are no facts. The practice of science is supposed to be guided by reasoning and empiricism, and yet, you say fuzzy logic is often a part of a scientist’s day. Scientists are supposed to have their eye on the truth, and yet you say, they can be seduced by other forces (like their own media coverage) to follow a path that the evidence in front of them would reveal as a dead end.

So unlike Reagan’s apotheosis of the astronauts, your epideictic speech brought scientists down to earth. It left us with a more realistic view of scientists, one that makes them seem fallible, vulnerable, and human. But in that apparent demotion I think we can see an honesty and humility that make scientists more approachable. Perhaps as a consequence for us nonscientists, science itself will be more approachable. If so, it will be no small thing. Since so many of our personal and political decisions depend on our understanding of the sciences, we all need to feel comfortable in our attempts to inform ourselves about the work of scientists.


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