Thoughts on the Complexity of Modern Science

Science today is incredibly complex. Anyone who ever did scientific research knows that, but many in the general public seem to be completely unaware of this. I think this is a point where science communication can improve.

  • “I listened to some science TV show, now I came up with my own theory.”
    This could have a chance if the TV show would fully cover the topic. It does not.
  • “Scientists don’t know detail X, therefore they know nothing.”
  • “Scientists were once wrong in point Y, therefore we cannot trust any result.”
    Frequently seen as response to scientific arguments against various crackpottery.
xkcd cartoon

It is not that easy. From xkcd

If you are unaware that theories are backed up by hundreds to thousands of measurements, each based on various other publications and often years of research covering tons of details and various cross-checks, then those misconceptions can come up. Can we do something against that?

When I get asked what I am working on in particle physics, I always try to give both the overview but also an impression of daily work: Yes, the long-term task can be something like the search for new particles. But what you actually do is more like calibrating the response of some detector part to particles at different detector temperatures, different radiation damage, or one of the hundreds of other tasks involved in the overall publication that produces one round of news in the popular press (if you are lucky). I’m not sure how that can be translated to TV shows, newspapers and so on. “We search for new particles” sounds much more interesting than “I’m working on some tiny detail of the search”. But then the news reports “scientists looked for new particles”, drop one or two names of leading scientists, and it gives the impression scientists would “search for new particles” all day.

Another aspect: Science taught in school is often very basic – Newtonian physics for example is very simple compared to more recent theories. You cannot start with quantum field theory, obviously, but if you see Newtonian physics only you could assume quantum field theory is similar to the way Newtonian physics is taught: Do one or two experiments and then write down a few formulas. If that would be true, then sure, be very skeptical. But it is not true.

This is also related to funding: if you don’t understand the complexity of modern science, you don’t understand why experiments can cost billions of Euros/Dollars. Funding decisions are not made directly by popular vote, but the public opinion does have an influence on science funding in general.

What do you think? Can science popularisation improve in that aspect, and if yes, how?


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  1. Greg Bernhardt says:

    As we’ve seen in the thread: [URL][/URL] most concepts can’t be genuinely described using word language. Susskind also mentioned this in an interview I watched where the interviewer asked some quantum mechanics question and Susskind basically said he couldn’t answer it with words, only in math. Not long ago I debated a man who claimed to understand the concepts of the Big Bang very well and didn’t need to know the math. I promptly left the conversation. Fact is that the general public certainty can’t handle or have the patience for reading research papers so pop sci news agencies water the research down into cookie cutter pieces with catchy headlines which in the end only vaguely resemble what it really means. This is good for the public’s imagination but doesn’t do justice for how complex their research is.

  2. mfb says:

    [QUOTE=”Isaac0427, post: 5340451, member: 552304″]but some people (like me) learn from thinking, challenging the theories and finding out why I’m wrong.[/QUOTE]That is perfectly fine, as long as challenging the theories is based on actual knowledge of those theories.

    I don’t see what would be wrong with the quote.

  3. phinds says:

    I think the biggest problem is that people find it SO much easier to watch pop science on TV than to do any actual study of science, and you know how those shows get so much wrong. I think they do sometimes inspire young people to study but overall I’m not sure but what they do more harm than good and they certainly give those adults who are not likely to further pursue actual science a very poor view of actual science of the kind you talk about. The producers of the TV shows can’t be blamed for this any more than McDonalds can be blamed for serving tasty junk food. People sell what other people buy and there are lots of buyers for junk food and junk science, especially since they LOOK so tasty, what with all the nifty graphics and tomato sauce and all.

    The first thing we COULD do (and won’t) would be to insist that people who teach science, at any level but particularly below the college level, be required to have at least some idea what they are talking about. Teachers below the high school level in particular have no idea, generally, what science is really all about.

  4. eltodesukane says:

    Reminds me of the book "String Theory For Dummies", which I read all in less than 1 hour.One of the main goal of this book is "to avoid mathematics at all cost" (p.2).To explain string theory to a non-specialist with an inquisitive mind is certainly a noble goal.But when 1+2=3 is too much math already, not much can be done.

  5. entropy1 says:

    I think the popularisation of science is horrible. It gives all the wrong signals and apparently the wrong ideas. Now, I didn't make it to become a scientist, but I am very well aware that what is conveyed to the public has virtually nothing to do with (the actual) science. I had one moment I thought I might have had an eureka-moment, and contacted a physisist. He suggested my idea was 'probably not that interesting'. I knew that already, but having an authority figure actually pointing that out to me set me back to work. I discovered that what I was actually trying was to understand the matter I was interested in. To be told that only scientists have a right to be occupied with the field of interest you are also interested in, can be disappointing. I also discovered one important motivation I was developing ideas of my own: I was utterly convinced that physics shouldn't be that complicated, the reason being that I thought that elegance and simplicity are the sign of a good theory.So now I've figured it out. I haven't got a theory, and certainly not a new one. I've put down a set of well known laws that are enough for me to be satisfied. It is that satisfaction that stopped me from searching further. After all, I am not a scientist.

  6. RJLiberator says:

    As far as the question, can science popularisation improve in that aspect, and if yes, how?With regards to my initial post, no. Of course by some measure it can improve, but if we are looking for real change then we will need to change the environment.

  7. RJLiberator says:

    Without a doubt, this is an important conversation. But, what can be expected in today's current society? Does anyone really think it will get better in this system? Without fixing the environment, this issue will continue and likely become worse.

  8. ComplexVar89 says:

    I don't get why some people want to overturn SR. Special Relativity is one of the most intriguing things I have ever come across. It's where my love of physics began, and it led me directly down the path to GR, which is my favorite scientific subject period. What do people have against relativity?

  9. Jeff Rosenbury says:

    Physics Forum is dedicated to advancing the standard model. This discussion doesn't seem to be part of that.As I see it, every part of the standard model was once part of fringe science at least to the extent of not being accepted/proven. While some fringe science is clearly wrong (or not even wrong), some tiny fraction of it will someday work its way into the standard model. A discussion like this opens up the question of what is right or wrong about fringe science. That's a problem for a website that tries to avoid fringe science. I do think anyone attacking the standard needs to have a good understanding of it before declaring it wrong. This forum helps to provide that understanding. Hopefully the work we do here will one day allow us to replace the standard model with one closer to the truth. (Not that the standard model is off by a lot, but there are still outstanding problems.)Historically liberal arts have always ruled science. That is because a good story has always received more funding than being right. (NSF budget: $7 billion (2012), Disney: $11 billion)

  10. jerromyjon says:

    I think there will always be two camps, those who try to strictly adhere to the rules of science which relies mainly on the math which is enough to communicate. and the laypeople who know the world from their own perspectives, which are numerous, I'm certain. The perspective they have built in their mind to comprehend the reality they are familiar with typically fails and so they grapple for a mechanism to leave their sole understanding intact. Many don't have the neural plasticity to drop lifelong thought processes and start over, let alone the determinism to seek a deeper, more accurate understanding, and the mental ability to assemble intricate models. So pop-sci caters to their inadequacies with "fantastic" phrases like "wave-particle duality" and life goes on.

  11. jim mcnamara says:

    Non-Science is a societal problem. It forwards the interest of the idiot fringe and of FUD mongers.Idiot fringe:In the US, there are so-called 'anti-vaxxers'.  They are people who are vehemently against vaccinating children.  Therein lies the issue with junk science in general.  These folks made decisions based on pulp news sources and  magazines that impact not only their immediate family, but others in the community. Measles was essentially unreported by the US CDC for years, there were very, very few cases.  Not anymore.  Measles can result in death and lifelong medical problems.  Example SSPE: same thing happens with a variety of issues that are subjected to *FUD attacks,  in order to further the economic positions of very powerful companies.Example – The US tobacco lobby's very effective attacks against anti-tobacco legislation.  The stupidity did not abate until Science made discoveries that were so very plain, smack-you-in-the-face, that even the pop-science idiots could not get them wrong. FUD stills lives on with the climate "debate" – as newspapers call it.  It is not a debate.  You cannot legislate scientific observations and results. *FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

  12. rbelli1 says:

    Unfortunately you are using theory in the layman's sense. What you are coming up with are at best hypotheses. It is good to think up new ideas but calling them theories without rigorous testing does an injustice to science.BoB

  13. Monsterboy says:

    One can't expect science T.V shows to tell all the intricate details ,if that is the case the public will stop watching because everyone in the public aren't scientists  and most of the things will start going over their head and will scare the public away from science ,the shows are only aimed to give a brief idea to the lay public (and to motivate them to pursue science) who are completely or a large extent, disconnected from modern science, i think the problem mentioned in this article can be overcome if the science documentaries are screened for errors by the actual scientists who work on the topic (either retired or active scientists)  and they should make it clear to the public that they are simplifying very complicated science in order for them to understand and that real knowledge only comes with hard study.

  14. JakeBrodskyPE says:

    When I was a child, getting in to ham radio, I was amazed at what the retail for a radio was versus what the parts cost. What I didn't realize is that the radio had a lot of marketing and engineering expenses that needed to be recouped.This may sound crass, but we need MORE marketing. Science invokes a sense of wonder in its practitioners that is only rarely ever described well. Carl Sagan did that. We don't realize how good that was, until watching the remake of Cosmos.  Even his masterful and charismatic protege Neil deGrasse Tyson is only a pale reflection of the kind of science marketing that Carl Sagan did.  Don't get me wrong, Tyson is brilliant; but Sagan's presentation was the very embodiment of artistry. If you can't be as brilliant as Sagan, you can make up for it with quantity. That's where we need to go. Relying upon public enthusiasm will get you only so far. The biggest successes in business and history in general were accompanied by masterful marketing. We need more.

  15. Isaac0427 says:

    So first of all, I find this insight to be very interesting. However, as a crackpot by some definitions, I must disagree with you and phinds on one point. I do study actual science and calculus with that science. I learned on this forum to stay away from popsci, but still, I come up with "theories". No, as a middle schooler I do not believe these theories will go anywhere. What I do is I make a theory based on math and what I have learned so far from other sources, and then I look for what I did wrong. Sometimes I need to ask a professional about what I did wrong. In fact, I learn better from actually thinking about it and then finding a problem in my thinking and/or math. I do agree that some people do need to learn real science before making a statement like "special relativity is wrong" but some people (like me) learn from thinking, challenging the theories and finding out why I'm wrong. Just something to think about. Overall, however, a great insight.

  16. Buzz Bloom says:

    Hi mfb:This is a great topic to discuss.  I hope that some useful ideas will emerge, but I confess I am very pessimistic.  NOVA is an excellent source for informing the public about science, but I am guessing that for each viewer of NOVA there are more than a hundred viewers of FOX NEWS.Regards,Buzz

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