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.