Friday, March 6, 2015

Transferring Truth

I've been thinking a lot this week about scientific communication, or really, any kind of transfer of expert knowledge to a popular audience. It's a topic that has emerged as a theme this entire year, starting from the Three Books panel during NSO in which the authors of the Three Books we had to read got into a discussion about the nature of truth and how to determine whom you can trust in terms of scientific matters. This quarter a lot of different factors have converged to bring it to yet greater prominence: taking a writing course. Taking Environmental Literacy. Participating in Financial Literacy for Youth. Being on a very technical project team for ESW. Even the competition team I'm on has an element of this: bridging information imbalance.

In Environmental Literacy on Tuesday, we discussed the media, and more specifically, how environmental issues are covered in the media. According to my prof, science journalism used to be a staple of every major news outlet, but then budgetary concerns made them get cut. This leads to journalists who lack scientific background having to cover scientific topics, and covering them in a misleading way.

I wonder how feasible it would be for scientific associations or organizations to hire writers, trained journalists, and offer them enough scientific training that they could report on scientific topics accurately and accessibly. To me, that seems a valuable exercise. Imagine: scientists who wish to popularize their work would still have that venue, but would not have to if that was not their thing because a separate profession of experts in writing, well-trained in the relevant science, would take care of that. My roommate is in a writing class about science communication and I need to talk to her about this topic. I do not know the average level of science education of the public, but I do not imagine that it is higher on average than that of today's journalists.

I used to want to be a technical writer and sometimes, in this class, I wonder if I owe it to someone to use my writing skills in the service of science. But then I remember that I love infrastructure and that improving the systems of the built environment is one long lever for changing people's lives.

Which leads me to this week's John Oliver segment:

Usually I do not watch John Oliver, or any news or comedian of any sort. I'm probably not going to start. But we talked a lot in ELit this week about the role of humor and how comedians have a considerable amount of political capital because people like and trust them. I cannot speak to this myself, but it seemed to hold true for a lot of people in the room. Maybe that's just because we're college freshmen.

Trust and credibility are key. How can people convey their degree of trustworthiness? My ELit prof talks a lot about how a scientist has nothing but her reputation. One lie and your credibility is evermore suspect. I agree that untruths are wrong, but we have also seen evidence of people who tell lies, outright lies, about their work and yet remain in positions of authority. How does that happen?

Tonight we went over to our professor's house and watched a movie called The Global Warming Swindle, and then the rebuttal interview that the Australian Broadcasting Company produced in response. The GWS included graphs truncated before the years that disproved whatever point they were trying to make, misrepresented scientists' views through editing (example: Carl Wunsch, who requested that his interview segments be removed), and conflated weather with climate. Watching in a room full of people who have been reading about environmental issues for the whole quarter, with a damn good climate scientist whom we all love and trust providing her commentary, my classmates and I were struck only by the absurdity of the film's arguments. But without that kind of support system/reality check, perhaps I would have found the film convincing.

And that scares me. Truth is a tricky thing, and I believe things that people say when I trust those people. I have not gone through the facts on every core belief I have, which means that it is likely that I am wrong about some things. And that scares me. What knowledge am I missing that will prevent me from making the right decisions in the world?

I mentioned that this quarter I am involved with the group Financial Literacy for Youth. We go to a local Boys and Girls Club and teach topics relating to financial literacy or professional life, such as credit or resumes. I actually have only been to a couple of lessons this quarter, but every time I am struck by my vast ignorance. And I actually know some things about finance, because I thought when I was in eighth and ninth grade that I would go into finance.

That is another career path that haunts me sometimes: working in finance, learning the ins and outs of personal finance, and bringing that knowledge to people to help them make the right decisions about their money so that they will be able to live the life they want now and in the future.

The little lessons I help with now--a lot of these high schoolers that we work with are not getting financial literacy anywhere else. Hell, I went to a tiny rich white suburb and we never got any official schooling in the very basics of financial literacy. If I hadn't thought I had an interest in finance when I was thirteen, I might not know what the difference is between a mutual fund and an ETF. And that knowledge will be useful to me, and it will be useful to others, and it is ridiculous that the school system does not teach this to students.

I get angry about this. I get really angry about this. Communication of relevant science, of personal finance, of important political issues, is vital. But whom do you trust? How will you know when you find them? That question was raised at the very beginning of the year and I am still fighting to find an answer. I trust people whom I respect and like, and will listen to people who say things I don't agree with as long as they are not diametrically opposed to me or obnoxious.

But I am getting things wrong and I don't even know what those things are. Ignorance is a difficult chasm to cross, and we build our bridges piece by piece.

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