Scientific Literacy

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polymer
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Scientific Literacy

Postby polymer » Thu Jan 20, 2011 2:26 am UTC

My question is on personal scientific literacy and competency, when understanding political, societal, and scientific issues. Before I state my question I want to briefly mention some of my experience in physics and math.

Quick background: I'm a physics major at the University of Oregon, considering double majoring in math. I am taking an upper-division probability course that's currently discussing Stochastic processes, and am mathematically and intuitively capable enough to read Feynman's lectures on Physics. I'm currently on the 23 chapter of the second volume. And it's my sophomore year. My experience with proofs is limited(getting better!), my experiences in the lab are limited, and my experience with statistics is okay, but not great.

With that said I know just enough to think I know what I'm talking about before embarrassing myself on these forums!

Some of the ways I've embarrassed myself, include using a historian's evidence to support the idea that Einstein was not mathematically inspired regarding his ideas on electricity and magnetism, and that he was perhaps sometimes shy of mathematical reasoning. Now after reading his first paper suggesting that testing the gravitational lensing of light was feasible(and other papers, "ON THE ELECTRODYNAMICS OF MOVING BODIES"), I have seen the error of my ways and recognize that I didn't know what I was talking about.

More importantly though, when it comes to understanding issues like global warming, I suffer from the same problem. I have a preconceived notion that global warming is destroying the world, without having a real strong understanding of the issues or evidence, and am unable to hold my own in an argument against people who are moderately prepared. In the same vein I now realize that I don't have any idea what I'm talking about, and am now stuck in a position that is leaving me incapable to actually form solid opinions.

Which leads me to my question...

I want to develop the skills that facilitate evidence based reasoning. Like being able to efficiently and effectively read and understand scientific papers and journals. I'm familiar with scientific principles, but I can't say I'm terribly familiar with standard scientific processes. I don't know how to work my way through the scientific system, I don't know how to consolidate the important and relevant results, which consequently severely hinders my ability to form a healthy opinion and form a cohesive scientific argument.

Basically I can't honestly call myself scientific. I'm reading books, having fun, but am in the end still effectively being "spoon-fed" the universe. Any advice on useful resources, specific skills, or whatever, would be sincerely appreciated.

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nehpest
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby nehpest » Thu Jan 20, 2011 3:22 am UTC

You might be interested in Less Wrong, since it sounds to me like you're talking about rationality. The site is "a community devoted to refining the art of human rationality."
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby Antimony-120 » Thu Jan 20, 2011 3:23 am UTC

Being skeptical is not a matter of learning everything. I will never know much about medicine, because I am not a doctor and have no aspirations in that area. However I can still apply skepticism to the area. Basically what it amounts to is accepting knowledge from experts, after confirming that they are indeed experts in the area and aren't benefitting from offering one side of an opinion.

This is not as easy as it sounds. I know I've had a number of people who claim to be skeptics full on deny something I said about physics in favour of something they hear of the telly. I am not a Ph.D by any means, but anyone on television is almost certainly eiher pushing an argument, or they're being edited by the producers (who are not experts) to sound more interesting and shocking. Communications majors could describe it better, but part of the authority of the message being conveyed to you is not only the authority of the actual words, but the authority of the medium as well. So for example I would consider the CBC more reliable than This Hour Has 22 Minutes (The major Canadian news source and a satirical news show respectively). But I consider the CBC less reliable than I do the word of a friend who practises medicine (as long as we're talking about medicine), because the CBC is a news show and so has to sell it's stories.

In short, don't try to become an expert in every area, simply try to become good at telling who the experts are, and what filter their words are coming through.
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby gorcee » Thu Jan 20, 2011 3:35 am UTC

From what I'm reading in your post, you're less concerned with scientific defense of a result and more concerned with overall discussion and debate of scientific concepts in a (not-necessarily) scientific atmosphere. In other words, you want to be able to effectively discuss scientific matters without necessarily being a subject expert with other intelligent and scientifically-minded people who are also not necessarily subject experts. If I'm wrong, ignore this huge post. If I'm right, then...

The issue is not as much one of scientific literacy but rational literacy in general. Let me go into detail.

In other words, think about it like this. If you were studying history or literature, how would you fare in such a debate? I use these topics because scientifically or mathematically minded people get attached to an idea that there is a single valid truth that remains to be discovered, and that only the limits of our efforts have precluded us from doing so. While this may be true, it is of little value in a debate. A consequence of this is that proxy arguments arise: questions regarding the source of the data, the methods used to analyze it, etc. While these are always important and relevant in the course of scientific analysis, they are easy targets to attack, allowing a debater to bypass the actual source of the debate. All of a sudden, you're debating whether someone should use an MVUE vs an MMSE or somesuch. Again, I want to re-iterate: these are important and necessary topics in the course of scientific analysis, but I personally feel that they are fallacious techniques for the purposes of non-analytical discourse. I will present my rationale.

In debating history or literature, we don't have these tools, because you don't (traditionally) statistically compute the impact of the works of an author vis-a-vis, say, the Church in post-Westphalia Europe or some-such. As a result, debate and discourse in such topics must stay relevant to the topics on hand. In other words, if you want to debate whether the works of Shakespeare are an attack on the policies of the Church of England (I'm just making things up right now, I don't even know if the timelines are appropriate), you are forced to stay within the confines of the literature, both source and related, to establish and defend your position. Debates over global warming, for instance, too often resort to discussion of the data analysis, which is only a step away from a straight-up ad hominem attack. In the end, you're debating data collection practices, and you may as well be talking about whether Sandy Koufax or Bert Blyleven was the better pitcher. Very little is done to actually establish and defend a position on the original topic; that is, global warming and its causes and impacts.

Now, how does the literature buff get this knowledge? She must be well-read. She must understand the context of the material, the history and politics of the time, the culture of the people, etc. etc. etc. But she didn't live in that time period, and there is too much information out there to read all of it. As a result, the debater is forced to also understand the works of authors who support her position, to appreciate the concepts behind their conclusions, etc. In other words, she has to be able to navigate the world surrounding the topic in addition to the topic itself.

So let's get back to global warming. First, obviously, you need to read a spectrum of material on the source. And it helps to have some knowledge on the topic so that you can navigate the scientific material. But, using statistics as an example, you don't necessarily have to understand all of the statistics. Rather, you need to understand why the authors use those techniques, what makes them successful, what factors may lead to them being considered unsuccessful, and consider this in light of the material being presented. In other words, you don't actually have to do the statistics yourself to determine whether or not the "hockey stick" graph is relevant to your argument. But what you should consider is the technique behind it, why the authors chose to use the model in that way, and what factors lead to those decisions. For instance, the hockey stick graph (as I'm familiar with it), is two linear regression curves: one curve leading up to some point, and another after that point, designed to be continuous. A good question is, "why did the authors choose that point?"

To get back to my point of scientists liking facts and truths, a debate is usually not about whether something is right or not. Debates about Shakespeare can usually never be scientifically proven right or wrong. Instead, debates are about why a point might be right, or what things about a point are right. This is a subtle distinction, but it's something that never regresses to, "well, this technique is bad so you should have used this technique, and since you did it, it's obviously false." (Such arguments rarely consider that if the other technique HAD been used that it might come to the same conclusion!) Instead, these debates require a sizable bank of knowledge both source and related material. Scientific discussion is much the same.

So, to answer your question, you need to read a lot of things from a lot of fields. They don't all have to be academic/scientific papers, but you do need to have a legitimate reason to trust the authors.

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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby justaman » Thu Jan 20, 2011 4:40 am UTC

I would argue that you are extremely unlikely to be able to be an expert in many fields at once... there is just too much literature and specialised knowledge required for *any* field of knowledge that you would like to discuss. This is why people tend to focus their careers on one or two small areas and still be able to make a life-times work out of it.

As a result of this, if you want to be informed about topics relating to global warming or Shakespearean attacks on the Church, you will probably have to rely to some extent on the work of others and what the "experts" say. Having said that, you can apply some critical thinking for your own part and gain some basic knowledge on the topic such that you are able to discuss the topic and inform yourself further.

With regards to the scientific process: Hypothesis, experiment, result, conclusion. That is the normal process. Now, not being an expert in the field means that you are at some disadvantage in that you can't go out and test ideas for yourself, but you *can* read the literature and see if the conclusions drawn fit what you see in the results. Your point about methodology is correct to some extent, people do discuss it because it plays a huge role in how conclusions are drawn. You, yourself did it in your post (bolded):
gorcee wrote:So let's get back to global warming. First, obviously, you need to read a spectrum of material on the source. And it helps to have some knowledge on the topic so that you can navigate the scientific material. But, using statistics as an example, you don't necessarily have to understand all of the statistics. Rather, you need to understand why the authors use those techniques, what makes them successful, what factors may lead to them being considered unsuccessful, and consider this in light of the material being presented. In other words, you don't actually have to do the statistics yourself to determine whether or not the "hockey stick" graph is relevant to your argument. But what you should consider is the technique behind it, why the authors chose to use the model in that way, and what factors lead to those decisions. For instance, the hockey stick graph (as I'm familiar with it), is two linear regression curves: one curve leading up to some point, and another after that point, designed to be continuous. A good question is, "why did the authors choose that point?"

What you perceive as an attack on the methodology is in reality extremely important and totally valid for the points being discussed. As you read the literature more you will see that not everyone has one single view point, there is a spectrum of perception through which we hope to arrive at a consensus of the correct sort (and it doesn't always happen to work out). Occasionally you get an individual working alone who creates a paradigm shift in a field (e.g. Einstein with relativity), but it is extremely rare.

If you look at it, your conclusions will be coloured by what you think... including your pre-conceived ideas and own personal ideology, it doesn't matter whether you are looking at dinosaur poo or general relativity, everything is about perception. What you know now influences what you see - look for literature on tow people, HM, and the 8 minute man for more info.
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby Charlie! » Thu Jan 20, 2011 10:59 am UTC

gorcee wrote:For instance, the hockey stick graph (as I'm familiar with it), is two linear regression curves: one curve leading up to some point, and another after that point, designed to be continuous. A good question is, "why did the authors choose that point?"

Minor nitpick: it's not. The data (from tree rings, ocean sediment, probably some other methods I don't recall) really does look a bit like a hockey stick. Of course, including uncertainty (or multiple different data sets) and going back more than 1000 years makes it look a lot less like a hockey stick, as seen here
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby gorcee » Thu Jan 20, 2011 1:35 pm UTC

Charlie! wrote:
gorcee wrote:For instance, the hockey stick graph (as I'm familiar with it), is two linear regression curves: one curve leading up to some point, and another after that point, designed to be continuous. A good question is, "why did the authors choose that point?"

Minor nitpick: it's not. The data (from tree rings, ocean sediment, probably some other methods I don't recall) really does look a bit like a hockey stick. Of course, including uncertainty (or multiple different data sets) and going back more than 1000 years makes it look a lot less like a hockey stick, as seen here


The version I've previously seen shows that data, but reinforces the "hockey stick" shape with two linear regression curves. Anyhow, I don't disagree, I'm not attempting to make any points regarding global warming, just points regarding critical thinking. I found one here, but it does seem to have a different source of data: http://www.planetthoughts.org/userfiles/image/2008/Sep/Hockey-Stick-Graph.jpg

In the graph you showed, for instance, I'd argue that there are three major modes: an up, a down, and then a steeper up. A good question would be why do we choose certain breakpoints (corollary: why do we choose not to use others).

What you perceive as an attack on the methodology is in reality extremely important and totally valid for the points being discussed. As you read the literature more you will see that not everyone has one single view point, there is a spectrum of perception through which we hope to arrive at a consensus of the correct sort (and it doesn't always happen to work out). Occasionally you get an individual working alone who creates a paradigm shift in a field (e.g. Einstein with relativity), but it is extremely rare.


I was probably being unclear, but I don't perceive that as an attack on methodology. I'm trying to draw a line between scientific debate between subject matter experts, for which methodology is extremely important, and a debate between non-subject matter experts, for which methodology is too often a bad proxy for the debate itself (and that I argue is a fallacious argument technique).

My point is that in serious scientific discussion, you have a team of experts on a variety of subjects that allow you to analyze data. In more mainstream discussion of scientific topics, you need to understand the qualitative aspects moreso than the quantitative, because otherwise you get bogged down and you change the debate.

Using the hockey stick example above, I didn't discuss the efficacy of the regression methods, just the impact of certain choices on a more qualitative level. The debate could easily be one of "well, why not use Tikhonov regularization instead of XYZ," but it's not. It's more, "why are these breakpoints used, what do they mean, what factors could support such a choice, and how do those factors affect our conclusions."

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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby justaman » Thu Jan 20, 2011 7:53 pm UTC

gorcee wrote:
What you perceive as an attack on the methodology is in reality extremely important and totally valid for the points being discussed. etc...


I was probably being unclear, but I don't perceive that as an attack on methodology. I'm trying to draw a line between scientific debate between subject matter experts, for which methodology is extremely important, and a debate between non-subject matter experts, for which methodology is too often a bad proxy for the debate itself (and that I argue is a fallacious argument technique).

My point is that in serious scientific discussion, you have a team of experts on a variety of subjects that allow you to analyze data. In more mainstream discussion of scientific topics, you need to understand the qualitative aspects moreso than the quantitative, because otherwise you get bogged down and you change the debate.

I see what you mean now. I did think you were talking about experts in the field. Yes, as a "non-expert" it is very easy to get dragged into the methodology, which may not even be understood all that well if the discussants are outside the field of expertise. Unfortunately, as an someone outside the field you will have to rely on the opinions of the experts to understand the work being done. You could perhaps understand this best by reading reviews of the literature when they are published, though these are often focussing on one particular view point, as expounded by the author, and may be some time after the research itself is done.
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby gorcee » Thu Jan 20, 2011 8:42 pm UTC

justaman wrote:I see what you mean now. I did think you were talking about experts in the field. Yes, as a "non-expert" it is very easy to get dragged into the methodology, which may not even be understood all that well if the discussants are outside the field of expertise. Unfortunately, as an someone outside the field you will have to rely on the opinions of the experts to understand the work being done.


Exactly! Just as the Shakespeare historian must rely on the reliability of historical records dating back to the Elizabethan era, and the expertise of other subject-matter experts on how to interpret other historical or literary documents. I thought maybe my viewpoint might meet some resistance or controversy, but to my surprise, the posters that preceded my initial post seem to support the same idea: you need to find authors and materials that discuss the issue in the proper context.

justaman wrote:You could perhaps understand this best by reading reviews of the literature when they are published, though these are often focussing on one particular view point, as expounded by the author, and may be some time after the research itself is done.


Yes, which is why a spectrum of literature is important to read. And context is still king.

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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby polymer » Fri Jan 21, 2011 7:29 am UTC

LessWrong.com looks like a good site, thanks for the tip!

I agree it's impossible to become a professional about everything. Scientific papers can have significant conceptual and language barriers to entry. A good understanding of basic technical tools isn't going to make you automatically understand the questions and problems a biologist is having. Still, similar problems aren't going to exist for more basic(yet important) issues. Like the amount of radiation in houses in the Midwest or something. Part of my first point was, I don't have a good collection of resources to study or practice my ability to read scientific articles(in particular physics), and I simply don't have a lot of experience reading scientific articles. So any advice on where to look for good articles, what to pay attention for in said articles, etc. Was part of what I was asking.

Now that being said, you did directly address the context I would use these skills in. I must admit I have not had the fortune of debating physical problems in a more subjective setting. I'm sure that'd be much more fun then the spoon-fed approach to a beginner's understanding and learning of a mathematical science. Part of what I'm asking is for some advice on where to look to develop my skills that would allow me to be a contributing member in those types of conversations. I am planning on attending REU's and learning more statistics.

Scientists and Physicists aren't going to be the only people I'll end up arguing with though. I believe I should be able to defend my opinion regardless of who I get in an argument with. So two major points were mentioned regarding debate on issues like global warming: avoid the technicalities of the research, and appeal to professional authority. Now the types of discussions given in previous examples approach these subjects in a very reasonable manner. Discussing specific ideas behind the research and methodology, from a trusted resource, would certainly be excellent for engaging with and understanding issues. The problem is, not everybody is going to be initially willing to argue at that level. For example, an individual who is very close to me, and are themselves very intelligent, have a couple of ignorant attitudes regarding global warming.

First, they are skeptical of statistical methodology, because statistical methodology is being used in global warming simulations, some leading to doomsday predictions. His friend who works with these computers explains to him that these models are going to be as good as them arguing over a beer. He reasons that statistical tools leave enough wiggle room to allow bias from the individual to "corrupt" the results. Thus, he doesn't trust statistical tools altogether.

Second, he believes that environmental scientists come out of school without being able to contribute to society, and when they end up supposedly unable to find jobs, cry about various environmental issues to insure job security(he's generally skeptical of anybody he perceives can't get a job). He would much prefer to listen to the authority of professionals in a given industry, since he believes those individuals are invested in the survival of their industry.

So I can't appeal to my authority or my methodology as is, since he simply won't believe them. The thing is, because I don't know enough about the scientific system, or standard scientific reasoning, I can't debunk his points. I feel like they're wrong, but I don't know why they're wrong. This simple quandary further emphasized I didn't know very well how to show things were wrong(and I wanted to call myself scientific!)

So what would I do? My initial reaction was to understand how these statistical tools worked specifically, and explain what their specific intent and uses were in some kind of experiment. But I myself haven't looked into too many experiments...What's a good place to look for experiments? How do I know an experiment is good? I also have to defend my scientific brethren...how does the modern system work? Peer review...what is the modern approach to this?

I'm trying to transition out of a spoon-fed culture, into a more "yes you're allowed to have an opinion" mindset :). Anyways I best get back to homework...

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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby gorcee » Fri Jan 21, 2011 2:01 pm UTC

polymer wrote:First, they are skeptical of statistical methodology, because statistical methodology is being used in global warming simulations, some leading to doomsday predictions. His friend who works with these computers explains to him that these models are going to be as good as them arguing over a beer. He reasons that statistical tools leave enough wiggle room to allow bias from the individual to "corrupt" the results. Thus, he doesn't trust statistical tools altogether.

Second, he believes that environmental scientists come out of school without being able to contribute to society, and when they end up supposedly unable to find jobs, cry about various environmental issues to insure job security(he's generally skeptical of anybody he perceives can't get a job). He would much prefer to listen to the authority of professionals in a given industry, since he believes those individuals are invested in the survival of their industry.

So I can't appeal to my authority or my methodology as is, since he simply won't believe them. The thing is, because I don't know enough about the scientific system, or standard scientific reasoning, I can't debunk his points. I feel like they're wrong, but I don't know why they're wrong. This simple quandary further emphasized I didn't know very well how to show things were wrong(and I wanted to call myself scientific!)


Then you've graduated to Rational Arguments 202: You Cannot Reason With Someone Who Refuses To Be Reasoned With.

These arguments are typical. Person A claims to "know someone who is an expert who told him blah blah blah." The only way to possibly win this argument is to convince the person that you are also an expert in that same field, and to completely discredit the viewpoint through a superior knowledge set. The only way to do this is to actually become an expert, and then put your adversary on the spot.

"You say that these computer models allow for manipulation because they can be made to say anything statistical. Specifically what models are you talking about, and what method of statistics do you question?"

In such a case, then the argument very much becomes one of methodology, and it's an expert debating a non-expert with a dogmatic view of the world. There's a term for this kind of debate, it's called "American Politics." And it's broken and terrible and makes me want to cry.

If, on the other hand, the person is not a total dullard, then you have to concede certain points and work them into a trap:

"Ok, let's say the models are flawed. That isn't evidence that the problem doesn't exist. Therefore we need better evidence. What do you suggest?"

Eventually, if you're skilled enough, you'll bring the person back around to realize that what we've got is the best we can do so far, and that perhaps further investigation is indeed warranted.

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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby justaman » Fri Jan 21, 2011 10:59 pm UTC

polymer wrote: Part of my first point was, I don't have a good collection of resources to study or practice my ability to read scientific articles(in particular physics), and I simply don't have a lot of experience reading scientific articles. So any advice on where to look for good articles, what to pay attention for in said articles, etc. Was part of what I was asking.

Part of what I'm asking is for some advice on where to look to develop my skills that would allow me to be a contributing member in those types of conversations. I am planning on attending REU's and learning more statistics.

In the scientific world journals and articles are rated on what is known as an impact factor, which is essentially a measure of how often papers published in the journal are cited by other authors- the higher the impact factor, the more respected the journal is and typically the harder it is to get published in. You can use this number to independenly assess how "good" an article is to some extent, though it does have a few notable pitfalls - the major one being that work that is incorrect is frequently debunked in further publications and hence may be cited a lot. It also doesn't work so well where an important paper has been published in a not so well known journal. Importance of journals also varies somewhat with the field of research so in cancer biology the journal "Cell" is relatively important, but it would be completely useless for particle physics research. In general the journals Nature, Science, and PNAS are widely respected and cover a lot of different topics with very high quality research published.
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Re: Scientific Literacy

Postby polymer » Sat Jan 22, 2011 10:19 pm UTC

Thanks for the suggestions, it sounds like I really should just read more and get more familiar with the tools. I'll try embracing the brute force approach of just reading articles and journals with the hope that I'll learn some language and terminology. Thanks for the insightful comments on intelligent discussions in scientific circles, and thanks for the posted resources. I'll be sure to make liberal use of them!


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