The Dumbest Question You Can Ask A Scientist

From and published in “How to Fly a Horse“, the dumbest question you can ask a scientist.

The dumbest question you can ask a scientist — or any other creator, inventor, or discoverer — about his or her work is,

“What’s the economic value?”

One reason: In 1888, after eight years of experiments, Heinrich Hertz created electromagnetic waves in air. He died six years later, believing his work was theoretical and without practical value. (In an often repeated, probably apocryphal story, Hertz tells students the waves have “no use whatsoever.”) Then, after his death, inventors found Hertz’s waves could be used to communicate, renamed them “radio waves,” and started a revolution of immeasurable consequence. First came wireless telegraph, then voice broadcasting, two-way radio, radio telescopes, radar, television, microwave ovens, radio satellites, cellphones, radio-frequency identification, GPS, UAVs, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and, now, the Internet of Things — Hertz’s children all.

Another reason: In 1924, Gordon Dobson, working in his backyard in England, invented a device for measuring atmospheric ozone. In 1976, after deploying 100 of them globally, he died. His work helped save the world. Scientists discovered that CFCs, chemicals used in refrigerators and aerosols, could destroy ozone, exposing us to deadly radiation. The chemical company DuPont, which made billions of dollars selling CFCs, demanded “reputable evidence.” NASA satellites found nothing, but one of Dobson’s devices, in Antarctica since 1957, detected a massive ozone hole. CFC production stopped. Now the hole, once larger than North America plus China, will be gone by 2050.

Why does this matter? Because the dumbest question holds us back. In 2009, physicist David Kaplan gave a lecture on the Higgs boson. An audience member asked,

“What do we gain? What’s the economic return? How do you justify all this?”

Kaplan’s good-natured response appears in the movie Particle Fever:

“I have no idea.”

(Then he mentioned radio.)

The question must be especially painful for American physicists like Kaplan. Scientists discovered the Higgs boson — or something almost exactly like it — using Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. Members of Congress killed the American equivalent, the Superconducting Super Collider, in favor of what one, Don Ritter, called,

“making things people want to buy.”

Kaplan’s audience member was interested enough to show up at the lecture, and Ritter is an MIT alumnus who branded himself “the scientist-congressman,” yet both make the mistake at the heart of the dumbest question: confusing unknowable value with no value. History shows that basic science brings the greatest economic value of all — Hertz and Dobson are two of many examples.

Why? First, because of what economics is. Science begets technology, which begets goods, which beget value. Science is the principal source of value in modern economies. Second, because economies are chaotic, most of the consequences of any particular technology are unpredictable. An example: The watermill led to the automatic loom, which led to general literacy.

Add in the fact that the point of basic science is to know what’s unknown, and we see that the dumbest question requests the unknowable value of the unknowable consequences of an unknown thing. Note that only two of these are “unknowable.” The third, the “thing,” is only “unknown.” And the unknown, not the unknowable, is what should guide basic science. Kaplan ended his answer by saying,

“Basic science needs to occur at a level where you are not asking what is the economic gain, you are asking what do we not know? And where can we make progress?”

The work of basic scientists like Hertz, Dobson, and Kaplan can only be driven by curiosity, not purpose. What is the value of a particular curiosity? There is no way to know in advance. Discovery is curiosity’s product; everything else, including immeasurable economic value, follows. We cannot know the worth of something we have not yet discovered. The joy is the rainbow, not the hope of gold at the rainbow’s end.

Climate Change Fantasy Tournament #SassyObama

Alright guys, time to weigh in on who you think is the biggest denier of climate change!  Thanks to Mr. Obama, you can participate in the Climate Change Fantasy Tournament (it’s a different kind of March Madness).  First round is now. Is this funny, or all too real?

Despite the overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is real and man-made, these sixteen members of Congress prefer to live in a fantasy world, refusing to accept the basic facts. You can learn more about their denial here. Help us pick the worst of the worst. Vote now!


When Democrats and Republicans choose to ignore SCIENCE #listentoscientists

Researchers at UT Austin asked a small sample size of registered voters when they think its appropriate for politicians to defer to scientists for advice.  A good summary of the findings can be found here. The major (and not so obvious) points are that a) democrats are more likely than republicans to support and follow scientific advice and b) republicans aren’t as “anti-science” as the media would have us perceive.  For the most part, republicans also typically opted to accept scientific advice. Huzzah!


#Science Nerds! – Apply for AAAS Mass Media Science Fellowship #SCICOMM


Check out the fellowship and apply here! What a terrific opportunity for people interested in science policy and advocacy!!! Applications due January 15th!

This 10-week summer program places science, engineering, and mathematics students at media organizations nationwide. Fellows use their academic training as they research, write, and report today’s headlines, sharpening their abilities to communicate complex scientific issues to the public.


Sen. Elizabeth Warren supports science based policy for FDA blood donation!

Senator Elizabeth Warren continues to be an amazing advocate for SCIENCE and SCIENCE-based policy. The FDA recently renewed the ban on blood donation by many Americans (specifically by members of the LGBT community), Senator Warren tweeted her frustration. More info on the blood donation ban here, and responses from other Senators here (both via Towleroad Blog).

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Senator Warren has previously voiced her support for science and research here.

WHY WE NEED SCIENCE LITERACY – Jonathan Garlick explains @ConversationUK

To seek common ground on life’s big questions, we need science literacy

By Jonathan Garlick, Tufts University

Science isn’t important only to scientists or those who profess an interest in it. Whether you find fascinating every new discovery reported or you stopped taking science in school as soon as you could, a base level understanding is crucial for modern citizens to ground their engagement in the national conversation about science-related issues.

We need to look no further than the Ebola crisis to appreciate the importance of science literacy. A recently elected senator has linked sealing the US-Mexican border with keeping Ebola out of the US, even though the disease is nonexistent in Mexico. Four out of 10 Americans believe there will be a large scale Ebola epidemic here, even though there have been just four cases in the US and only one fatality. Flu, on the other hand, which killed over 100 children here last winter, barely registers in the public consciousness.

Increasingly we must grapple with highly-charged and politicized science-based issues ranging from infectious diseases and human cloning to reproductive choices and climate change. Yet many – perhaps even the majority – of Americans aren’t sufficiently scientifically literate to make sense of these complicated issues. For instance, on one recent survey of public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, Americans barely got a passing grade, answering only 5.8 out of 9 factual knowledge questions correctly.

Without a solid understanding of the underlying science and its implications for our daily lives, we can neither respond intelligently on a personal level nor hold our public officials accountable for sound policy decisions. Moreover, we risk falling prey to the tremendous power of fear and partisan political rhetoric. By grounding our understanding of issues in knowledge, we can gain the confidence to participate in the science conversation in a thoughtful way. Science literacy is a path to that knowledge.

What’s needed to be scientifically literate?

Science literacy is a foundational knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes. For example, scientifically literate people should know that science is reproducible, evidence-based information that is fact and not opinion. They should have a working knowledge of the basic terminology needed to interpret the processes and outcomes of science. With this vocabulary in hand, they can engage in the critical thinking needed to apply healthy skepticism and to discern the grey areas and uncertainties inherent in science-based information.

As a stem cell scientist, I have spent my life tackling elusive questions such as “what is personhood” or “when does life begin.” Recently, my interest has shifted to helping the public engage in open-minded discussions about these types of questions.

The goal isn’t to move public opinion towards one side or another of the stem cell or any other debate, but rather to create a forum in which all sides are armed with basic scientific knowledge and have a legitimate voice in the conversation.

How to get literate

I teach a freshman seminar class at Tufts University called “Science and the Human Experience” that is largely populated with students whose interests are in the humanities and social sciences. The curriculum encourages these not-necessarily-science-lovers to explore the ways science affects their everyday lives. We talk about stem cells and abortion, right-to-die and drug treatment. We question when does life begin? What can our genome tell us? How do we experience pain? What does it mean to grow old? Students confront the emotional and personal consequences of science and its relationship to their lives.

Grappling with these issues is empowering. One student understood, for the first time, that her personal investment in science was connected to a loved one’s struggle with addiction. Another freshman planning on an English major discovered that she was, to her own surprise, “just as capable as anyone else of understanding and applying scientific material to my life.” Students uncover their own, personal rationales for engaging in these issues and then, most importantly, ask themselves, “Why does this matter to me?” They report that to learn the value of science, and to engage deeply in it, is to learn what it means to be human.

While knowledge is fundamental to addressing civic, science-based questions, our beliefs and values play an equally important role. As Yale law professor Dan Kahan, who studies science and civic engagement, says “What people ‘believe’ about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.” In fact, understanding the science is perhaps the easier part of the equation. The greater struggle is for people with diverse views on science-related issues to wrestle with these conflicting values. This is a messy but necessary part of a healthy civic dialogue. Therefore, any program to increase science literacy must equally embrace the goals of promoting a respectful, civic conversation that will work towards shared understanding.

Informed citizens = productive dialogue

So what’s a responsible citizen to do? First, become sufficiently science literate to understand the nuances of the important science-based issues of our day. Next, be prepared to engage in difficult conversations with fellow citizens with different opinions so that dialogue is valued over doctrine, as we work together to balance self-interest with compassion.

If everyone comes to the table with a base level of information and a willingness to listen to each other’s concerns, we can replace the polarization of our current public discourse with productive public problem solving. We can then approach each other with a genuine curiosity to build a science conversation that is enlivened by a search for mutual understanding regardless of a position held on an issue. We need not hold the same beliefs or values to find common ground on the important science-based issues that face us today and will only become more urgent in the years ahead.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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@OttolineLeyser describes the DARK SIDE OF RESEARCH!! @ConversationUK

The dark side of research – when chasing prestige becomes the prize

By Ottoline Leyser, University of Cambridge

I love my job. I’m trying to understand how plants build themselves out of thin air. It’s exciting, it’s creative, it’s beautiful and on top of all that it’s important and useful. I like working with other people with different perspectives and I like the sharing of ideas and the piece-by-piece building of understanding from careful observation, experiment and analysis. Then there are those rare eureka moments when suddenly something that was obscure makes sense and unconnected ideas fit together to make a satisfying whole.

All these motivations for life as a researcher are evident in the results of a survey conducted as part of a project led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to examine the culture of scientific research in the UK. The 970 survey respondents, most of whom work in universities, picked improving their knowledge, making discoveries for the benefit of society and satisfying their curiosity to describe what motivates them in their work; and they identified collaboration, creativity, openness and multidisciplinary working as hallmarks of a high quality research culture.

But the project has also uncovered threats to the vibrancy of this intellectual melting pot. While participants in the project acknowledged the positive influence of competition in driving up the quality of research, they also expressed concerns about the current criteria used to find the competition winners.

Competition in science

Science has always been competitive. There are more ideas for new research projects than there is money to fund them – and there are more people wanting to pursue careers in research than there are jobs for them to fill.

With the expansion of the scientific enterprise, the current squeeze on resources and the drive toward more assessment at all levels, researchers are spending increasing amounts of time competing for funding and for jobs, and assessing the applications of their peers for funding and for jobs. Some aspects of research assessment are reasonably objective: have these experiments been designed rigorously? Does this researcher have an established track record in using these techniques?

However, many aspects are fundamentally subjective and inexact. Is this project exciting? Will this person revolutionise the field? All these judgements take time and careful perusal, and all of them require the judges to accept the subjectivity of the exercise. But time is in short supply and scientists don’t like basing their decisions on subjective criteria.

As a result a range of easy-to-collect metrics have been widely adopted as proxies for scientific excellence.

Publish or perish

Researchers are now assessed almost entirely on the research papers that they have published in peer-reviewed journals. These are easier to assess than important but less-tangible qualities such as public engagement and training and support provided to colleagues. But even assessing papers is time-consuming and subjective. So instead, it is now common to use proxies such as the number of times other people have cited the papers.

However, garnering significant numbers of these is only possible for papers published some time ago, so often quality is assessed by the perceived prestige of the journal in which the paper is published. Although it is widely agreed that using journal prestige in research assessments has serious limitations, the researchers who took part in our study were clear that publishing in prestigious journals is still thought to be the most important element in determining whether researchers gain funding, jobs and promotions.

The wrong incentives

A relentless focus on publishing papers in prestigious journals can lead to a wide range of non-ideal practices, such as over-claiming the significance of research findings, sticking to trendy areas of science and leaving important but confirmatory results unpublished due to lack of incentives to spend the time writing them up.

This can erode the quality of science in the short term, but the long-term effects are even more worrying. If research stops being about finding out how the world works for the benefit of society, and becomes being about competing to get your work published in a particular journal, then the most creative and brilliant people will go and do something else. The people who stay in research will be those mostly motivated by wanting to look good according to some semi-arbitrary yardstick. This is causing widespread unease in the research community.

So what should be done about it? The good news is that since assessment processes are implemented almost entirely by the very researchers who are worried about them, it should be possible to change them. However, another clear result from the Nuffield project is that everyone in the system – funders, universities, publishers and editors, professional bodies, and researchers – claim to be powerless to change things, believing that it is someone else’s responsibility.

We hope the findings of the project will stimulate discussion and debate about how to shift the culture back to its roots in creativity and innovation, coupled with rigour and openness. If left unchallenged, the current trends will inevitably influence what science gets done and therefore what we learn about the world, what problems we’re able to solve and whether public funding is well spent. This is not just some arcane academic debate, it matters to everyone.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.