Archive for Outreach

Bad Statistics, Bad Science

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 2, 2015 by telescoper

I saw an interesting article in Nature the opening paragraph of which reads:

The past few years have seen a slew of announcements of major discoveries in particle astrophysics and cosmology. The list includes faster-than-light neutrinos; dark-matter particles producing γ-rays; X-rays scattering off nuclei underground; and even evidence in the cosmic microwave background for gravitational waves caused by the rapid inflation of the early Universe. Most of these turned out to be false alarms; and in my view, that is the probable fate of the rest.

The piece goes on to berate physicists for being too trigger-happy in claiming discoveries, the BICEP2 fiasco being a prime example. I agree that this is a problem, but it goes far beyond physics. In fact its endemic throughout science. A major cause of it is abuse of statistical reasoning.

Anyway, I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-iterate why I statistics and statistical reasoning are so important to science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable with even basic statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance it has to question itself. Getting this message wrong – whether by error or on purpose -is immensely dangerous.

Statistical reasoning also applies to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design.

Civilized societies face rigorous challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large. This is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.

The worst example of this tendency that I can think of is the constant use of the phrase “Mind of God” by theoretical physicists to describe fundamental theories. This is not only meaningless but also damaging. As scientists we should know better than to use it. Our theories do not represent absolute truths: they are just the best we can do with the available data and the limited powers of the human mind. We believe in our theories, but only to the extent that we need to accept working hypotheses in order to make progress. Our approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. We should be humble and avoid making extravagant claims that can’t be justified either theoretically or experimentally.

The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it’s probably the best logic there is in a world so filled with uncertainty.

 

 

Stargazing Live on Sussex University Campus – Tonight!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 18, 2015 by telescoper

Just a quick post to advertise the fact that the BBC Television series Stargazing Live will be broadcast in the evenings this week from Wednesday 18th to Friday 20th March, 2015. The programme is hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O Briain and will be beamed to you (or at least to those of you who have television sets) from Jodrell Bank, which is near Manchester (in the Midlands).

Closer to home, at least for those of you whose home is closer to mine than it is to Jodrell Bank, the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex will be running a series of astronomical activities (including planetarium shows, observing sessions and lectures) for all ages to coincide with the programme tonight (i.e. Wednesday 18th March). This also takes place within One World Week at the University of Sussex, which gives it added interest for both staff and students. There’s nothing like astronomy to make you aware of our shared existence on this little planet…

There are two sessions this evening. One is from 6pm to 7.30pm and the other from 8pm to 9.30pm. You can find full details of both sessions here, but here’s a taster of the menu for the earlier session:

stargazing

It’s lovely and sunny on Sussex University campus as I write this, and the forecast is good for this evening too. Might we be able to get a glimpse of the Aurorae that lit up the skies over Britain last night? I can’t promise that, but there’s a chance! Sadly the forecast for Friday’s partial solar eclipse is not so good, but we live in hope.

Anyway, wherever you are and whatever you do this evening, here’s wishing you Happy Stargazing!

Widening Participation – Outreach versus Bursaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I came across a University of Sussex News Item which explains that Sussex has made the shortlist, published today (Thursday 5 September), for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2013.  This piece reminded me of a discussion I had a while ago about the whole approach to widening participation in University education, an issue made all the more serious by the introduction of £9K a year tuition fees. In particular

The University has increased spending on widening participation activities to £8.1 million a year, with over half of this spent on the innovative First Generation Scholars scheme, which supports students who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to university.

Before commenting on this in any detail I should put my cards on the table. When I went to University in 1982 I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student was fairly comfortable.

Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly.  There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

To get back to the news item I mentioned earlier, I have always thought there is a tricky calculation to be made when it comes to designing programmes intended to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to come to university, whether that be to do with socio-economic considerations, gender, ethnicity, age or anything else. The question is whether pumping money into bursaries is actually effective. I can imagine that a large bursary, perhaps equivalent in money terms to the old maintenance grant, would genuinely influence the decision of a prospective student, but if the pot is shared out among very many people the resulting bursaries are fairly modest. How much does a bursary have to be to make a difference? Answers on a postcard.

The other side of the debate is what the balance should be between bursaries and outreach. In a subject like Physics one of the principal obstacles faced by pupils from the state sector is the dire shortage of physics teachers as well as the lack of laboratory facilities in schools. Here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex we have a very large (and growing) outreach programme which includes giving kids from local schools the chance to come into our building and do specially designed experiments in a laboratory set aside for the purpose.  This kind of activity is intended to get those of school age thinking about doing Physics or Astronomy, which they might not otherwise do.

I don’t see bursaries and outreach as mutually exclusive approaches to  the goal of widening participation. It’s more a question of the balance. How do we decide how to allocate resources? Is there research on the effectiveness of different programmes?

As always, comments are welcome via the box below!

 

An Apology: The Royal Institution

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 21, 2013 by telescoper

Earlier this year, in common with other media, this blog pledged its support to a campaign to save the Royal Institution from financial oblivion. In doing so I may have given the impression that the Royal Institution is a venerable and  highly esteemed organization dedicated to the task of bring science closer to the public and inspiring future generations with its exciting range of outreach activities, including its famous public lectures.

However, in the light of the Royal Institution’s recent decision to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures” , I now realize that this was misleading and in fact the Royal Institution is just another rapaciously self-serving organization, run by small-minded buffoons, which is dedicated to nothing but its own self-aggrandizement. It has further become clear that the RI will do anything it can to maintain its cushy existence in a  fancy property in Mayfair to the detriment of all  outreach activities elsewhere, and  should therefore be shut down immediately as a threat to the future health of UK science.

Moreover, as a protest, this blog calls upon all University science departments in the United Kingdom to organize their own series of  Christmas Lectures Yuletide Discourses  under the title Not the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, beginning each presentation with a lengthy preamble describing the unpleasant and idiotic actions of the Royal Institution and explaining why its Christmas Lectures® should be boycotted.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

P.S. For more blog outrage, see here, here here…. (cont., p94).

Public Attitudes to Science

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 10, 2011 by telescoper

Another quick bit of news to catch up on concerns the publication (on May 2nd) of a study by Ipsos MORI into Public Attitudes to Science. I have a special interest in this study because in fact I took part in it, in the role of a sort of science observer at the session held in Cardiff, which I blogged about in November 2010.

The study was not based on a particularly large sample – only 2103 people – but the results are quite interesting (and perhaps surprising). You can download the full report here, including a mention of yours truly on page 121, but it’s worth mentioning a few of the headline results for those of you who haven’t the energy to read the entire document. For example,

  • 82%  thought that “science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest”
  • 88% thought that scientists “make a valuable contribution to society”
  • 82% thought that scientists “want to make life better for the average person”

On the other hand

  • 51% thought  they see and hear too little information about science
  • 56%  do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments
  • 66% think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

These last three numbers compare unfavourably with corresponding figures from an earlier survey done in 2008. I’m not sure whether the results are surprising or not, but the results were considered sufficiently important for a Press Release from the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS) along with a response from RCUK which make interesting reading. Minister David Willetts is quoted as saying

Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital to economic growth. It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments. However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to.

The RCUK statement includes the following

RCUK is committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work. Along with the other UK funders of research, RCUK has underlined this commitment by putting in place the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat aims to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research. A copy of the Concordat is available here.

While it’s good to see a high-level endorsement of the importance of outreach and public engagement, it remains to be seen how well this message propagates to individual departments and research groups, not all of which take these activities as seriously as they should in terms of rewarding staff taking part in them.

I also think that part of the difficulty lies not with scientists, but with the mass media who  seem reluctant to accept that there is a significant demand for in-depth  science coverage, e.g. on television.

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