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Monday 25 May 2015

Oh The Humanities !

The internet is awash with excellent articles on the importance of critical thinking, of how we judge evidence, confirmation bias, and all that jazz. In an age where so much depends on science, the importance of skeptical analysis has never been greater. But very recently I realised something that probably should have been blindingly obvious, but somehow wasn't.

I didn't learn critical thinking in University physics courses. I learned it in high school English.

That's perhaps quite a bold statement, so let me break it down a bit.

(First a note for international readers. In British parlance, "high school" generally means up to age 16, the limit of compulsory education (GCSEs). It can also overlap with "college", which is a term not often used but usually refers to education between the ages of 16 and 18 (A levels). Degree courses are almost exclusively taken at universities. Since college is such a rarely used term, I shall be referring to high school, A levels, and university.)

Science Education

I'd like to point out that I was the kid who accidentally lit the gas tap instead of the Bunsen burner. No, not the one who did it deliberately and claimed it was an accident. The one who actually did it accidentally and got the shock of his life.

Of course, I did learn about the scientific method in pretty much all science education, from primary school upwards. You can't have a science class that doesn't include the idea of formulating a hypothesis and testing it. But critical thinking was largely limited to being an implicit part of science education. In English, and to a lessor extent history, it's very much more explicit.

I want to make it quite clear that I don't want to belittle high school science education, which was totally solid. It certainly never forgot to emphasise the importance of having evidence to reach a conclusion or the importance of control experiments. But what it was lacking was the idea of critical, skeptical inquiry. This is perfectly sensible when you're dealing with things like equations of constant acceleration. Questioning them doesn't make any sense - it's far more important, and at that stage difficult, to understand the mathematics and work out how to use them correctly.

Things got a bit more unsteady during A levels, when you go from the idea of the atom as a miniature solar system to a much weirder notion of probability clouds of electrons which don't really exist. At that point you start to become aware that much of what you've been taught in science is a lie to children, a simplified version of the truth that's much more pedagogical* than it is literal. You can't teach 10 year olds quantum theory, you have to build up to it.

* No, I don't know how to pronounce it either.

Going into university, however, there's not all that much more development in terms of teaching skeptical inquiry. I'm not saying there was none - certainly the concept of a paradigm was explained, and there was a lot of explaining the evidence for contemporary ideas. Some courses did, very explicitly, get us to consider very alternative, non-mainstream ideas like panspermia, the Orion drive, and modified gravity. Most critically of all, we learned about statistics and selection effects. But generally, the focus remained on understanding equations and ideas.

Is that a good thing ? Generally, yes, though it really depends what you want to do with your degree afterwards.

At a PhD level things are different. You're compelled to think critically - though no-one actually teaches you - because you've got to test your own results to destruction. If you don't, if your analysis has a flaw then someone else is sure to spot it. And, hopefully, by experiencing the problems that occur and the imperfect solutions that sometimes have to be used, you come away with a much greater level of skepticism for everyone else's results too. Which does not mean you think everyone else is utterly gormless, only that you have a much better understanding of which bits of their results to trust and which bits you might want to question them about a bit more.

Oh, the Humanities !

Education in English (particularly literature), history, and PSE is an altogether different kettle of fish. I want to make it quite clear that I do want to belittle high school PSE and history education, which was, quite simply, utterly shite. To give an example : the existence of the British Empire was not mentioned. There's only one valid reaction to that.

I could wax lyrical on the horrors of British high school history education c1995-1999, but I'm not going to. Anyway while the attempt to actually teach us history - the story of how we came to be - was an omnishambles, it did do one thing very well. It taught us about the nature of proof and (primary and secondary) evidence. It taught us how to interpret evidence and how to critically assess it, how to form a conclusion based on data and (more implicitly) to be aware of the limits of the evidence.

Unfortunately it did so in the most ridiculous way possible, by randomly giving us assignments that had absolutely no connection whatsoever with what we'd previously learning about (e.g., the murder of Thomas Becket after several weeks of studying native American culture).

But, for all its many, many faults, history education did quite explicitly teach the importance of assessing evidence. PSE education was also dreadful, but in that case simply because the standard of teaching was abysmal. What they were trying to teach - morality, why we think some things are moral and some are not - was commendable, but PSE was treated very much as a "meh, who cares" subject by those in charge. Which was a shame, because when it was done well it taught us to examine our own beliefs and biases far more than any other course.

Fortunately, English lessons had none of the faults of history or PSE. We didn't spend a lot of time learning about nouns and pronouns and verbs and all that gubbins. Instead, we analysed things. We sought to understand what in the world Shakespeare was on about and why A Midsummer Night's Dream would have been oh-so-achingly-funny back in the day. We read contemporary poetry and tried to interpret it. Most pertinently of all, we analysed adverts and tried to assess how they were attempting to manipulate us. We were marked not so much on what our conclusion was, but in how well we were able to explain it and what evidence we had to support it.

English education covered something that science (at that level) simply could not : understanding what articles really mean, and what their intended effect is. When hearing someone expound the latest scientific theory, understanding if and how you're being manipulated is every bit as critical as understanding what the evidence itself suggests. That's something science classes never cover.

The humanities classes, then, form an essential part of teaching the scientific method - when they're done correctly. Being able to analyse a poem isn't the point - the point is you're taught to analyse meaning and assess implication. Or, in its simplest form, not to take things at face value.

EDIT : This came out 8 years after I wrote this, but still, this little piece takes an interesting but tangential look at the problem so I can't resist adding a mention. The author of this notes that the process of finding and analysing patterns is fundamentally similar in both the humanities and the sciences, and that there is an more direct relation between the fields than I'm alluding to. While I'm a bit wary of the notion that mathematics, let alone science, should be "beautiful" in any sense of the word, I do think there's something in the claim that the two processes are not as distinct as we might suppose - particularly when considering mathematics as a language.

Bad Astronomy

Or rather, bad science journalism. Given how good English lessons were at teaching critical thinking, the obvious question is : why are there so many bad science articles ? How come all these journalists seem to do such a dreadful job at explaining things to the public ?

One particular example really stands out. Without going into details, the acceleration of the Universe is thought to be increasing. An alternative idea has it that we're actually in a large void, which can mimic the effect of this acceleration. A few years ago a press release claimed that the void idea had been disproved*. On the very same day, another website used that same press release to pronounce that we do live in a void so there's no acceleration !

*I don't know if this has stood the test of time or not but it's not relevant here.

A more recent example : one press release claiming that dark matter is even darker than we thought, followed just two weeks later by one claiming that dark matter is not so dark after all. Ho hum. Neither of these is accurate. Nor is the one about a tidal wave in space, which is taking enormous liberties with what is already a highly ambiguous phrase.

If you read press releases quite often you're sure to recognize the following stock phrases :
- "Scientists baffled"
- "Mystery solved"
- "... than was previously thought".
"Now, researchers think they have the answer"
The last two are merely uninspiring. But from the first two, according to the media, scientists are either perpetually baffled or continually solving ever more complicated mysteries.

There are times when these phrases are appropriate. In astronomy the last really startling - baffling, if you will - discovery was that the Universe appears to be expanding faster and faster. That was seventeen years ago. Of course, less outrageous unexplained phenomena do come up all the time in science - because that's what it's there for. Any scientist who is in a continuous state of genuine bafflement is probably in the wrong profession, because not knowing the answer is the whole point of doing the job. You've got to be curious, but if you're going to just throw up your hands in bewilderment and say, "I just can't even..." then science isn't for you. Consider becoming an accountant instead, or take up golf.

Although why you'd want to do that is pretty baffling.

OK, "boffins baffled" is probably no more than a newspaper stock-phrase, much as politicians have "robust conversations". Much worse is the idea that scientists are continuously solving mysterious mysteries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even disproving ideas is an extremely rare event, let alone proving what's actually going on.

Take, for instance, this recent article about galaxies being "strangled" (an accepted bit of jargon meaning removing their outer gas reservoirs) to death. It has the wonderful headline, "Murder Mystery Solved". Even from the press release it's clear that it's nothing of the sort :

"The scientists found that dead galaxies had much higher amounts of metals than live galaxies did. This finding is consistent with how strangulation would lead galaxies to evolve over time, Peng said."

Consistency isn't proof. It's consistency. That's why there are two completely different words that mean completely different things. Nothing in the article suggests they've ruled out any other ideas, yet the article also does nothing to clarify that the headline is, in fact, completely wrong.

Furthermore, reading most articles, one gets the impression that "scientists" are some sort of huge homogeneous group, and whenever a mystery is "solved" everyone is instantly content and moves on to something else (apart, presumably, from those unfortunate enough to be perpetually baffled). Of course outside this media fantasy land, proof almost never turns up, and trying to convince everyone that any one idea is better than another is a bit like trying to teach cats synchronised swimming.

Calling something "solved" when it's merely "more likely" isn't something I'd have been allowed to get away with in GCSE English, but it's de rigueur is mainstream science journalism.

The source of this sensationalism is hard to track down, and probably has a wide variety of causes. Most fundamentally, a lot of non-scientific problems are relatively easy to solve. Who was the killer ? Did a politician take a bribe ? Was the weather forecast accurate ? Will the construction project be on time and on budget ? "Real world"* problems like these at least can have decisive, clear-cut answers.

* A nonsense term considering that vastly more than 99% of the Universe is utterly uninhabitable to us. "Petty human world" would be better.

But it isn't like that in science, particular in astronomy where we can't fly off to distant galaxies to really check our answers. All we can do is make the best guess we can with the evidence we've got at the time. And that's not something you're really taught (in science or the humanities) until you study science beyond high school level. One would have hoped, though, that this is something science journalists would be aware of.

There's another, far more prosaic reason for sensationalism : it sells. Or more accurately, since not all news sites make a profit, it draws an audience (and yes, sometimes it's simply the scientists themselves clamouring for attention). Which naturally leads to clickbaiting : giving an article a title designed to elicit an emotional reaction strong enough that you're likely to click on a link. E.g., "These Ten Snuggly Kittens Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity", or "This Snuggly Kitten Went Outside And You Won't Believe What Happened Next"*. Being taught to recognize how you're being manipulated is a hair's breadth from understanding how to manipulate others**. Critical thinking is a double-edged sword.

* I have a sudden urge to write a post entitled, "Learn This One Weird Trick That Will Make Any Snuggly Kitten Teach You Astronomy".
** Also worth mentioning : even an article composed of nothing but facts can be manipulative. If I write an article comprised of nothing but anecdotes about reformed prisoners, you might come away thinking that the prison system is a model institution. If, however, I give you the larger statistics...

One final point : there seems to be a tremendous lack of interest in the journalistic world into actually bothering to check the press releases and get more details. While the sandwich-eating abilities of politicians are microscopically scrutinised by every news agency in existence, most science articles are little more than carbon copies of the press release. Which doesn't make a lot of sense because whenever anyone bothers to ask, it's very hard indeed to get most scientists to shut up about their research.

"I just get so lonely !"


Science education is great. English education is great too, though history education is dreadful. The humanities (when taught correctly) are at least as important in developing a rational, inquiring mind as science education is. School-level science has to be primarily about knowing facts and mathematical techniques; it's the humanities which provide a much better vehicle for teaching critical analysis at that stage.

But somewhere along the line something has gone badly wrong. Understanding what makes a good emotional article doesn't make for a good science article. Getting a lot of hits doesn't mean you've written a good article if your article is full of - literally - schoolboy errors. It just means you've written an article that got a lot of hits.

All too often, for a variety of reasons, science articles just aren't treated with the same level of respect or rigour that other stories are. Even mainstream media often simply regurgitate the information provided and stick the science article at the end of the programme : "... and that's how George the tortoise overcame his fear of toenail clippings. In other news, scientists announced a revolutionary breakthrough in solar power....". It's a weird phenomenon indeed when science is simultaneously trivialised and, paradoxically, sensationalised. There can be no clearer indication that science is not really understood.

Afterwards, George became a star on late-night SyFy channel movies.

Worse than this, even the official press releases - written by scientists in concert with a professional press officer - are sometimes able to use ridiculous terms like "tidal waves in space". When it gets to this stage, we've really got a problem. (Well, OK, it's not quite that bad - the press release was only using that as an analogy. To be fair the problem is almost entirely with secondary sources, e.g. the periodic reports about whether the Universe is a hologram - hint : it isn't.)

Some level of sensationalism is healthy. It's fun to speculate about the latest development in physics and where technology could take us. But we seem to have a culture of nothing but sensationalism, with some of the most popular (and high quality) science blogs being heavily devoted to debunking such nonsense.

A teacher once told me that the summer students we got at Arecibo were freaks of nature - meaning that they were the few for whom long tedious lectures were interesting. His point being that current teaching methods for science aren't a natural way for humans to learn. Perhaps we need to reconsider what we class as "dumbing down" and use more interesting, playful techniques to teach science, because clearly people are being lost along the way. Maybe.

For now, and for whatever it's worth, here is my advice to science journalists that may help improve at least the accuracy of their articles. It could equally be used as advice to readers.
  • Anyone claiming proof is probably lying. If they don't make this claim, don't make it for them. Don't imply a solution with "mystery solved" - no, not even by using "quotation marks". And if they do claim this, then try as hard as you can to get them to admit their level of confidence.
  • Always get a second opinion. Even if the scientists doing the research don't back down, chances are you can find another expert who will most likely not entirely agree with them. If necessary, ask the scientists for people to ask for a more skeptical opinion. It's your job to decide how many levels of counter-responses you want.
  • Ask what it would take to get real proof. There is usually some "wiggle room" for alternative ideas with most theories - try and find out what those are. In some cases proof is impossible.
  • Remember the unknown unknowns. It wouldn't be research if you knew what you were doing (Pratchett, Science of Discworld). Science is hard, and sometimes entirely new ideas or discoveries render previous theories irrelevant. But don't go nuts. There are facts in science, it's not all probabilities. No amount of quackery will ever disprove that the Earth is round.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, generally speaking. Or rather, be extra vigilant if scientists are claiming a major breakthrough. So NASA are building a warp drive, are they ? Which bit of NASA ? How much thrust is their engine producing ? Has anyone else had a look at it ?
  • Think through the implications of the research. You may find it "odd" that it may be possible to produce meat or cheese without a cow, but potentially that means the elimination of huge herds of methane-producing cattle. "Odd" scarcely does it justice - if it pans out. 
  • Avoid sensationalism. Just because a discovery could one day revolutionise energy production doesn't mean it will, or will anytime soon. Speculation is healthy; implying immediate massive effects makes everyone look pretty stupid.
  • Avoid trivialisation. Chances are that any science story is more important than anything Kim Kardashian will ever or can ever do.
  • Be careful with analogies. They're great for explaining complicated issues, but make it clear that they're only analogies (and if necessary state what their limits are).
  • In short, remember your high school English lessons. Don't sensationalise. Don't trivialise. Be critical, be skeptical, be uncertain, be inquiring, but above all be reasonable. There's no reason - no reason at all - that being moderate has to be boring.

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