Tired of experts?

I’m reblogging this post, “Tired Of Experts?” from …And Then There’s Physics for a number of reasons, not least the following section:

“Not only are there those who are ideologically pre-disposed to dismiss experts – because what they present challenges their world-views – there is also an issue with those who comment on science. Many have little in the way of actual scientific training, do not really understand how it works…”

Having wasted quite a bit of time over the years engaging with those who are of the opinion that science works by doing two-minute keyword searches on Google so as to rip a result out of context (in classic Internet Guy style), that part of ATTP’s post certainly hit home. Here’s the rest…

...and Then There's Physics

I’ve been trying to think of what to say in regards to Michael Gove claiming that people in this country have had enough of experts. This is mainly because I just don’t really know what to make of it. Does he really believe this, or was it just a slip of the tongue? Brian Cox has some stronger words. Today we probably have a better understanding of the world around us than at any time in human history. We therefore have an amazing opportunity to make informed decisions and – in my opinion – should aim to do so.

This requires talking to, and listening to, those who have relevant expertise. This, of course, do not mean that the evidence they present defines the decision that should be made; there will be many relevant factors some of which will be hard to quantify. It doesn’t mean that the…

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Curiously confused

I thoroughly enjoyed Decca Aitkenhead’s interview with Brian Cox in this Saturday’s Guardian (which I’ve only now got round to reading, whilst on the train back from a talk for Skeptics In The Pub Maidstone). In particular, Cox’s reaction to Aitkenhead admitting that she didn’t understand a great deal of the first episode of his latest show struck a (major, five-octave-spanning, augmented, diminished, and suspended) chord with me:

So when Cox tells me: “There’s nothing in any of these programmes that virtually anyone watching couldn’t understand, if they wanted to. Everyone can get it eventually, if they just think.” I have to beg to differ. Feeling rather defensive, I mention my straight As in science GCSEs, then confess that after watching his show over and over, I still couldn’t tell anyone why a snowflake has six sides.

He looks momentarily surprised. Then he chuckles. “Isn’t that great, though? Isn’t that great that on BBC 1, someone who’s got a degree might still be thinking, ‘There’s stuff here I don’t quite get’?”

“I didn’t get it at all,” I clarify.

“I’m quite pleased with that,” he beams.

A while ago I wrote about the importance of confusion in learning. The increasingly pervasive idea that everything in science communication, either online or via traditional media, should be simplified so that it can be absorbed with as little cognitive unease as possible is troublesome, at best. Some confusion is often good, and it’s great that Cox highlighted this.

This is not to say that snappy, “clickbait” science —  or, alternatively, the type of short YouTube videos we here at Nottingham make with Brady Haran for Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, Computerphile etc. — doesn’t have its place. It certainly does. But the limitations of the medium beyond engaging and enthusing an audience need to be recognised. (A broader question, and something I’ll return to in a future post, is the extent to which online edutainment might be related to the  increasing aversion to reading).

Before I set off for Maidstone this morning, I was invited to explain, for a short item on BBC Radio Stoke, why glass was transparent (stemming from this Sixty Symbols video from a number of years back). And I was asked to do this in two minutes (or less). As an educator, I of course aimed to express the physics as clearly as possible. But I wish I’d read Cox’s interview rather sooner than I did. It would have reminded me that transparency isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be – sometimes it’s helpful to first see through a glass, darkly.

(…and that’s quite enough of the laboured metaphors and allusions for one blog post. I’ll get me coat.)

A team effort

All of us involved in Sixty Symbols are delighted that the project has been awarded this year’s Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Prize for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics“.

Unfortunately, however, the IOP’s rules mean that only three people can be named in the award. This is a great shame because Sixty Symbols is, at its core, a team effort, involving many of my colleagues in Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham (and elsewhere).

Although I am one of the named recipients (alongside Brady and Mike (Merrifield)), I’ve got to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable about this. For all of the reasons I discussed in a Physics World article a couple of years back, I love working on Sixty Symbols. A key element of the success of the project, however, is the camaraderie and collaboration between the team members. To recognise this, Brady made the brilliant suggestion of using the prize money to make up replica medals for the entire team. I’ll post a photo of the team with their medals here soon.