Don’t understand something? Ask, don’t criticise.

The title of this post is not directed to the average Musings reader but what seems to be a significant minority of people posting comments on news items regarding science. It’s an odd mentality, but seems common enough to warrant comment, and with Linheraptor inevitably stirring up a few things, it rather brings it to the fore in my mind. The short version is that when they read something they don’t understand (either what it means or how it was derived) they assume it must be made up or incorrect.

What is infuriating about this is that these things are often easy to discover. Wikipedia isn’t half bad at simplifying quite complex bits of science, and there are all manner of websites devoted to explaining concepts and providing online tutorials, if something is big in the news there will often be quite a bit of commentary from various sources with some details about the research, and of course many papers are available on line, and resources like Ask A Biologist. If you actually want to actually know how some conclusion was reached, look it up or ask. This however, rather assumes that you genuinely want to know. What I suspect (and certainly the impression it always gives me to see these comments) is that the person in question thinks they have got one over on those dim scientists and wants to publicly point out how smart they are and the scientists aren’t. What this actually typically shows however is that they don’t understand the process and can’t be bothered to find out. Doubly frustrating is the fact that most people seem to side with ‘Mr Picky’ and not the actual scientists (you know, the ones who do the science).

This of course fits in with the other issue here, that any mistake made in an article is near inevitably attributed to the researcher and not the journalist. Why, I simply cannot fathom, but it is incredibly common. Why is the blame put on the highly trained and experienced scientist and not on the not-scientifically-trained-and-rushed-summarising-non-expert? I really can’t see why the benefit of the doubt does not fall to the researcher though it rather suggests that people trust them over the word of a scientist which in itself is rather a worry. When you combine this with the apparent attitude of over inflated personal ability over assumed incompetence on behalf of the researcher (which as ever, brings this paper to mind), then you can see how this happens.

All of which brings me back to the importance of good science communication. Getting the right and accurate message across to as many people as possible in the right way. Providing resource for those who want to learn, to learn, and gently correcting those who don’t want to learn or don’t realise they don’t know. It’s incredibly rewarding to get positive feedback from people who have gained knowledge or understanding that they didn’t have before from your work, but equally it’s rather dispiriting to see people claiming your ineptitude (and that of your colleagues) though their own ignorance. Still, that’s why we keep going, we might bring them round yet.

4 Responses to “Don’t understand something? Ask, don’t criticise.”


  1. 1 Strangetruther 24/03/2010 at 8:58 pm

    One thing you never touched on was the possibility of you yourself being wrong – and how such a situation might be fixed. You refer to the scientists who do the expert work, but I’ve visited the Ask A Biologist dinosaur page, and found the “biology” in use there was not what I would call good expert biology, not the important underlying aspects anyway. But then, I’m pretty sure the “biologists” there didn’t have a biological degree, or more importantly, since they’d inevitably picked up quite a bit of biological knowledge along the way, they weren’t brought up in a philosophical culture benefiting from a style of scientific approach developed under genuine experimental feedback, and integrated adequately with the rest of science.

    You talk about scientists as a simple single category. But no good thinking is simple, and certainly not good science. Some scientists are mediocre. Maybe I’m one of them. Yet there are a great many others in one or two fields who don’t even make mediocre – in fact, who don’t even make good enough, and who are responsible for more rubbish being put out on their subject than the room full of monkeys that is the media.

    You make a good point about people being too – whatever – to use Wikipedia, a site incidentally whose scientific pages require that content only be drawn from peer-reviewed sources, which should make fans of peer-review happy. But is there any circumstance at all where you and dino-bird palaeontologists who think like you, would ever voluntarily accept correction from anyone outside your own favoured community? If there is, would you like to give an example?

    • 2 Tor Bertin 25/03/2010 at 8:15 am

      Check out the KT impactor sometime. Major paradigm shifts can and do happen, and they can be pretty ugly. But if the data rigorously and consistently supports an idea, chances are it will eventually become accepted.

    • 4 David Hone 25/03/2010 at 9:05 am

      “One thing you never touched on was the possibility of you yourself being wrong – and how such a situation might be fixed. ”

      But here I’m referring to people who read the words in a news article and specifically don’t read the science it’s based on and specifically target the researcher for errors. When a journo calls Pteranodon a bird or dinosaur, it’s incredibly annoying to read various people go off on how these researchers should not be funded if they can’t tell a pterosaur from a dinosaur. TO take a more basic example, the old 2nd law of thermo being applied endlessly to evolution. Two minutes of reading on Wikipedia would explain why it can’t be right, but people seem to prefer to assume the researchers are incorrect than check that they have the right end of the stick.

      “You refer to the scientists who do the expert work, but I’ve visited the Ask A Biologist dinosaur page, and found the “biology” in use there was not what I would call good expert biology, not the important underlying aspects anyway. But then, I’m pretty sure the “biologists” there didn’t have a biological degree, or more importantly, since they’d inevitably picked up quite a bit of biological knowledge along the way, they weren’t brought up in a philosophical culture benefiting from a style of scientific approach developed under genuine experimental feedback, and integrated adequately with the rest of science.”

      Well then you have obviously NOT looked at the ‘About us page’. Pretty much everyone on the site has a biology based PhD or is working on one. To pick an admittedly non-random example, Professor Innes Cuthill is the head of Biology at the University of Bristol, Professor David Wyncik is a Professor of Medicine at Bristol, I, Corwin Sullivan, John Hutchinson and others all have palaeo-based PhDs and degrees in biology. If you don’t like the site, fine. If you don’t like the answers, fine. But to suggest that we are (singly or collectively) somehow ‘unqualified’ is an atrocious and obviously incorrect statement.

      While we take any questions from anyone, the site is primarily aimed at kids asking how many legs spiders have or why zebras have stripes or how basic evolution operates. To suggest we can;t handle that or the answers are not based on good principles is just silly. It’s the vast majority of our incoming questions and it’s basic, uncontroversial, high-school biology. If you disagree then I suggest you don’t use the site.

      Science constantly takes ideas from anyone who has good ones and can show their ideas use appropriate methods and data collection. You are asking for an overly specific example from a small field, but I would say that clearly there has never been a block on the publication of the various BAND / collagen stuff appearing in the literature. Many people profoundly disagree with the conclusions and arguments have occurred over the methods, but supporters of other hypotheses have had their work published.

      Finally since I have absolutely no reason at all to want to continue any discussion with you on any subject following you treatment of me before (your little e-mails to certain people), I will add this. On the subject of being wrong, you said on the Tetrapod Zoology comments that I had banned you from this site. Clearly this is not the case. You were wrong. I did however strongly suggest that I would prefer it if you leave the Musings and not return and I’m happy to reiterate that here. Please leave. There are plenty of places you will be welcome to discuss your ideas, here is not one of them.


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