Mission

We seek with this blog to clarify how science works, for the sake of those trying to make sense of the barrage of science presented in the public media.  We see as our primary audience the science neophyte — the student just learning about science, but also trying to justify “why we have to learn this stuff”, as well as the more experienced adult non-scientist who nonetheless is also trying to figure out how to deal with the often cryptic and ever-evolving “new” discoveries in science.  Despite this primary focus, science writers and scientists are welcome and encouraged to affirm or challenge our views of the world of science.  Our blog will only be successful if there is a full and free exchange of ideas.

Science as a discipline — as both a body of knowledge and a way to know — is increasingly serving more as clay than as rock in our society, constantly being reshaped to serve each new political, educational, commercial, or cultural purpose.  How is one to know what is true?  Scientists have a responsibility — nay, a mandate — to communicate their scientific findings to the scientific community, but are too often ill-equipped and ill-inclined to properly present and defend their work for more public consumption under these assaults, not being trained in communication beyond publication in esoteric science journals or presentations at member-only conferences.  For their part, science journalists and science writers generally have a responsibility — nay, a mandate — to distill and, sometimes, defend scientific findings for public consumption, but they are too often ill-equipped to achieve this properly and successfully, not being formally trained in science beyond the one science course they took in college while pursuing their English or journalism degree.  While the posts and pages on this blog will often take both groups to task, I proceed on the working assumption that the best approach is to focus on the person in the middle — the consumer of science — by equipping her with the tools for evaluating critically the knowledge she seeks.

For such a  project, our credentials are simple.  I’m an academic scientist, currently an Associate Professor of Biology at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, MA, with a pretty good grant and publication record in olfactory neurobiology and related fields over the course of 40 years and a deep interest in general education in the sciences.  I will be aided editorially by my daughter Amy Schoenfeld Walker, who is a Columbia-trained science journalist with degrees in biology, environmental science and journalism and a pretty good portfolio in science and business graphics at the New York Times.  Although I’ll be doing most of the writing, she’ll be keeping a keen eye on my posts to properly defend the honorable fourth estate, not to mention the English language.  I also plan to invite contributions from some of my students at Fitchburg State.

There are several tangible origins for this blog.  One goes back to 1991, when I was teaching psychobiology and neuroscience at Clark University in Worcester, MA, and made my first foray into “dissecting” public science.   I published a letter to Science that criticized both a prominent scientist (Simon LeVay) and a prominent science writer (Marcia Barinaga) for mischaracterizing the import of LeVay’s report in a previous issue on brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual men.  Their error, and upon reflection, one fully acknowledged by LeVay, was to suggest that his empirical findings somehow established a biological basis for a behavioral/cognitive disposition such as sexual orientation.  As I pointed out, the biological basis for behavior and cognition is a premise or first principle for psychobiology and neuroscience, as a specific example of the interrelatedness of levels of organization in the natural world that constitutes one of the most important first principles in natural science (see Sokal and Lynch, “Defending science: An exchange” in the March 11, 2012, Opinionator blog of the NYT  for a fascinating debate on the topic of first principles in science).  To carelessly suggest that a first principle is open to debate or empirical test misleads the general public about the nature and process of science, and interferes with improving public understanding about basic scientific phenomena such as the biological basis of sexuality.   I have dedicated this blog to rooting out just this sort of error.

Another seed for this blog was planted about 8 years ago, when I was teaching a course on human biology for non-majors, at Assumption College, also in Worcester, MA.  It occurred to me that a principal goal of science education should be to help our students learn how to access and evaluate for themselves the barrage of scientific information being posted in the public media.  (I call this public science, meaning scientific findings accessible in the public domain, in contrast to private science, which is science that is conducted and held privately, whether by professional scientists or just you or me.)   So, I asked my students to write a critique about a topic concerning human biology that they found in the news.   They were to identify 2-3 news reports on the same topic in a set of newspaper or magazine articles (no science journals allowed), often available on the Web, and review the reports with respect to their handling of the topic. Was there convergence or contradiction?  Did the writers give a balanced presentation of the facts and open questions at hand?  What were their likely biases?  etc.  I called these assignments article reviews, as they were to be reviews of the articles they found.  To my dismay, students often confused these with review articles, which are journal articles that review or summarize a body of scholarship, and are common fodder for students in search of material for a term paper.  But, with some help, most students got the idea and prepared reasonably insightful critiques.  This encouraged me to believe that I might be more successful and reach a larger audience with this project if I formalized the help, through a set of guidelines on critical thinking, a more thorough introduction to the process of science, and a host of examples of how science is represented and misrepresented in the news.  This blog is a concrete step in that direction.  (Check out an interesting version of this sort of exercise — a “web report” posted by a neuroscience student on the Serendip site at Bryn Mawr.)

Finally, I certainly began to think about science journalism in a whole new way when my daughter Amy entered the field in 2005, first as a graduate student and then as a practitioner at the Times.  As she shared with me her reading assignments at the J school, introduced me to the work of some of her early mentors at the Times, such as Cornelia Dean and Andy Revkin, began getting some of her own work published in the paper (several bylines under Metrics, e.g.), and saw some of her grad school cohorts begin to contribute to the field (e.g., Jeneen Interlandi writing for Newsweek, Scientific American, and the Times, and Curtis Brainard editing the Observatory for the Columbia Journalism Review), I developed an entirely different perspective on the task of educating the public about science than I had developed strictly as a scientist.

I have been inspired by the quality and clarity of many writers who have attempted to distill the process of science for the general reader.  Certainly, Isaac Asimov, James Watson, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Richard Dawkins and Oliver Sacks come to mind, but I am happy to add Sharon Begley, Ken Miller, Carl Zimmer, Jerry Coyne, Gareth Cook, Jeneen Interlandi, Curtis Brainard, and Stuart Firestein to a growing list of authors whose work has informed my own.

In writing this blog, and inviting others to contribute with posts and comments, my collaborators and I intend to serve as both creators and curators of content.  We intend to proactively research the literature on particular science topics in the news, and post our findings, ultimately archiving them in static pages.  We also plan to prepare similar pages that we view as settled knowledge, but still poorly understood by the general public, for example, why the scientific method is not always necessary or even possible in science.  We intend to write critiques and even extended analyses/commentaries on articles and books published by both science journalists and scientists, with an emphasis on how the process of science is represented or misrepresented.  However, in many cases, we will be merely calling attention to science writing that gets it right, and to other blogs that offer additional perspectives on public understanding of the scientific process.  Our blogroll of favored hyperlinks, and a frequent listing of related blogs and specific articles (as below), will certainly serve this purpose.  Finally, under “Just Ask”, I invite visitors to the blog to post general questions they may have about the nature of science.  I’m not trying, nor do I want, to compete with Ask A Scientist” sites like ones at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Energy, and Scientific American or those in many newspapers that already do a good job helping satisfy folks’ curiosity about nature (my favorite one growing up was “Where do June bugs go in the winter time?” I was probably 40 before I figured that one out).  My sole focus is to help folks figure out what science IS and DOES.

We hope that the result of all this will be a useful resource for the curious consumer of science that earns repeat visits.

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4 Responses to Mission

  1. Chris Reeves says:

    Hello Tom and Amy. I just began reading and following your blog, and I find the mission extremely worthwhile. I work in a small aquarium and visitor center in Santa Cruz, CA where I train and manage the people who talk to the public about the role that scientific research plays in the understanding and conservation of the world’s oceans, (sorry to quote our mission statement, but it is conveniently concise). We provide insight into a working marine laboratory and explain how the science conducted here is connected to people’s everyday lives. I spend a great deal of time focused on public perceptions of science and how to make it both accessible and exciting for a wider audience. In general, I find that communication can positively motivating people toward making decisions that aid in marine conservation without needing to explain the nitty gritty of the science behind it, as long as the theme of the work is clear. I also find that giving a personal perspective (something that scientists often avoid) can quickly connect people in ways that simply explaining a concept cannot.

    I noticed that you began following my blog, http://seemedlikegoodscience.com, which is largely unapologetic personal stories and perspectives that tie life-lessons learned, together with some science concepts. I am coming from a decade of educating public audiences who may or may not have even seen an ocean, and who may know nothing about science at all.

    I wanted to alert you to another blog by a friend of mine which has a sharp wit and humorous approach to presenting science. Thea Beckman writes http://whybecausescience.com, which is well worth the read for the belly-laughs alone. We have different approaches to making science entertaining as well as informative. Both blogs use their own style to motivate people to learn a little by making science entertaining. Though we don’t necessarily use the same style, I (and I may be able to volunteer Thea here) would be more than happy to contribute to your site if it would help you at all.

    I am relieved to find so many people who are working to better engage the public in order to raise the general level of knowledge and involvement in any sciences. Thank you for your efforts.

    • Thanks, Chris, for your thoughtful comments on our mission. As it happens, I discovered your blog right after I discovered Thea’s (you two clearly are the proverbial peas in a pod) when searching for science blogs on WordPress, and instantly enjoyed from both your humor mixed with some serious science. I’m afraid I’m a bit earnest for adopting that style myself, but you two will definitely be models of encouragement! 😉 In the meantime, I will enjoy going back over your extensive archive of previous posts and keeping current on the new stuff.

  2. nosy9 says:

    This is a blog with a fine mission, and already an amazing start! Its wonderful when scientists share their knowledge and experience objectively with the public and provide clarity for scientific issues which have been clouded over by those who might have vested interest. I like how you started the article review activity with your students as it is important for us to be able to answer those questions and not just take in everything we read in the news as valid (or true). True educators will influence the future generations and here’s wishing you the best in your mission!

    • Thanks for your kind words! I’m pleased that you particularly value our emphasis on education in this blog, as that is key. I hope you’ll come back to engage us on current and future posts.

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