The Complexity of Modern Science

[Total: 18    Average: 4.2/5]

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?


122 replies
Newer Comments »
  1. Buzz Bloom
    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

  2. Isaac0427
    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.

  3. JakeBrodskyPE
    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.

  4. Monsterboy
    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.

  5. rbelli1
    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

  6. jim mcnamara
    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.

  7. jerromyjon
    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.

Newer Comments »

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply