Monday, November 19, 2012

Clarity and simplicity in science!

The most common response I get when I tell people I'm a graduate student studying chemistry is "Wow, you must be really smart!"

Pictured: Me as a child

I really hate that response. 

There are two main reasons I hate that response:
1. No, I'm really not that smart! 
I don't say this as a point of humility. I'm really not that smart. I found a subject that interests me so I was willing to put the time needed into studying. I never finished an advanced placement class in high school (I dropped out of AP calculus).1 I've written before about my slacker, no direction lifestyle in my post high school years, but it's worth repeating. I missed 85 days of school my senior year. I had no plans for a career, and I definitely had no interest in science or math.

I'm a little embarrassed about my first math class when I finally decided to go to college. I took the placement test and was put in the correct class for my math abilities. On the first day of that class we were given an assessment to make sure we had the math knowledge needed to succeed in the class. Questions for the assessment were things like:
What is 107+24? 
What is 25+81?
To this day, I still use a calculator for simple arithmetic like 8+5 (My calculator is just much cooler now). So no, I'm not really smart. I'm not too far from average and I definitely don't have any special or magical ability for math and science. I had an excellent chemistry professor that showed me how amazing science is and a few really great mentors. Once I saw how amazing the universe is it was an easy decision to learn more.

2. Science isn't difficult!
I also hate that response because it gives the idea that somehow science is difficult or unclear. That's far from the case, and I'm not just saying that because I have a "brain built that way" (see point #1). Yes, to become an expert in some area of science it does take years and years of studying, but isn't that true for anything? I don't think most people would be taken aback by how incredibly smart their plumber is, but it took him years to learn his trade. In the same way, it has taken me years to understand quantum mechanics (and I'm probably not much closer to understanding it than your plumber is).

Journalists have a knack for making science sound difficult, and I think they are partially to blame for scientific illiteracy. Some of them joke about how hard it is to understand science and make a special effort to point out that they don't understand what they're reporting on. This, among other reasons, is why I hate science reporting. As a science reporter it's cool to  be scientifically illiterate. Imagine if a field reporter was uneducated about the war they were covering, and instead of studying up and correctly reporting the situation they just joked about not understanding it. In all but a few cases, I'm sure that reporter would be fired. But for some reason it's okay for a science journalist to joke about not understanding the thing they are reporting on!

Science is meant to be clear!
In a odd twist, the point of science is to make things easier to understand. Science was developed as a way to understand the universe, not as a way to separate the smartest people in the world into a class of their own. Science takes complex ideas and simplifies them. We look at questions about the universe, test them, and come away with an answer! Science is supposed to be clear!

As an example of the opposite of clarity, take a look at this picture:

Now, the correct answer to the question is 8. But the real question I have is why write it like that in the first place? By writing it like that you're just being unclear for the purpose of being unclear, and that's not what science or math (especially math) is about. Here's an analogy of why you shouldn't feel stupid if you got the answer wrong:
Calling you stupid for getting that math problem wrong would be like me writing a really really long drawn out sentence without any punctuation and trying to put a bunch of ideas together in the same sentence and then I'd be really upset at you because you didn't understand what I was trying to say but you should know what I'm saying because the words are right there just read them what are you stupid?
There is a much easier way to write the question:

Mathematically I'm asking the same question, but by adding parenthesis you make the question much easier to understand.2 Sure, there are rules in math to define where those parenthesis are supposed to be placed. Sure, we could answer the question without them, but why make it harder than it needs to be?

The person that originally posted the picture wrote an article on why it was alarming that 74% of Facebook users got the answer wrong. It may be alarming that so many people got the answer wrong, but that doesn't tell me that 74% of Facebook users are stupid. It tells me that we're only being clear enough for 26% of Facebook users to understand us. That's a number that we need to work on.

[1] My thoughts on calculus since then have...changed (Get it? Calculus is math all about infinitesimal changes? Right? Anyone? Ok, never mind, I 'll keep my dumb jokes to myself).
[2] There is one reason to use an unclear problem. If you're trying to teach the mathematical order of operations it can be helpful to make a ridiculous problem. That way you force students to really think about what the order should be. In the real world, though, it's not necessary.  

EDIT: I forgot to add the obligatory XKCD reference.

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