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Explaining things to the non-technical public

  1. Mar 11, 2012 #1


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    I sometimes get questions from people asking for my opinion about something that they heard about that is either scientifically wrong or just a completely crackpot idea. They want me to tell them what I think from a scientific point of view but, then they're upset when I explain that they're probably wrong in their thinking. It seems that the more crackpot the idea, the more upset that they get.

    I'm sure that many of you have run across this before and I'm wondering how you deal with it - sometimes I feel like patting them on the head.

    Waiting for another zinger from Jimmy Snyder...
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  3. Mar 11, 2012 #2


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    Many people I encounter quickly realise that something is wrong if I explain why, usually because they know that the media does such an awful job of reporting the truth that they expect it to be wrong. Others however seem to have a horrible and dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance. For example: I've had conversations where I've asserted that alternative medicines are by definition unproven medicines and that many of them have in fact been proved not to work and are simply a scam. Because of this statement I've been met by people who smugly smile and roll their eyes before telling me that science doesn't know everything, that I can't say it doesn't work just because I don't like it and generally layering on platitudes regarding the folly of orthodox thinking (indeed I frequently get PMs from crackpots about this).

    The worse part is these people always display and even admit when questioned that they have no idea of the facts of the situation. I remember one argument where after being lectured by someone on my statement that homeopathy was rubbish asking them if they knew what homeopathy was, if they knew the principles homeopaths espouse and if they knew how homeopathic remedies were supposed to work. They revealed that they had no idea and even though I tried to explain they would just nod along before contently ignoring everything I said and going back to lecturing me on how science doesn't know everything.

    I call this a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance because it is exactly that. People will often have an arrogant sense of "bring them down a peg" when confronted by someone who makes a strong claim and they are so arrogant about it that they don't even think their ignorance is a problem. Most frustrating. Generally I deal with it by being as calm and patient as possible and trying to explain things in the most simple sense and working up. All the time I try to build upon what the other person already knows and try to make the person as involved and interacting with the process as possible rather than back-and-forth arguments. Sometimes however, for your own good, you just have to walk away. Many an hour and a lot of emotion can be wasted on pointless arguments with people who wont change.
  4. Mar 11, 2012 #3


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    That's an interesting (close) coincidence on the homeopathy. Technically it probably wouldn't be considered homeopatic but one of the conversations that I had this week was with my wife about a [STRIKE]PH adjusting[/STRIKE] machine for water that she heard about at a party. From what my wife was telling me, the woman was full of anecdotal evidence of the benefits her $4000 machine - longer life, cures cancer, etc. I especially loved the claim that one in three Japanese had one in their home.

    If my wife recounted the details to me correctly, the machine that they have adjusts the PH to 9.5. I would love to visit their house with a set of ph strips. :tongue:

    Edit: I got a few more details this morning. It's a different device but still without any support for its claims.
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
  5. Mar 11, 2012 #4
    People often come up to me when I'm drawing in Coffeehouses and ask questions about the process of drawing, or about Art. 98% of the time they already have some preconception they picked up somewhere that is so out of left field that I'm paralyzed and don't know where to begin sorting their misunderstanding out. It could well be that you, Borg, might ask me just such a question. Or you might say, "I wish I could draw, but I can't even draw a straight line!" To which I always want to say "If you need a straight line, use a ruler. Where the hell did you get the idea an artist needs to be able to draw a straight line freehand?"

    It could be you, personally, wouldn't say something so naive about art, but the point is there is certainly some field in which you are completely ignorant of the actual process and goals, and don't realize it because your preconceptions about it have never been confronted.

    You may think people would be a lot more open minded about being corrected about what artists are up to than they would be about being corrected on Science because Art has the reputation of being an extremely fluid, non-regimented endeavor, but they aren't. If you already think an artist needs to be able to draw a straight line freehand, that the meme is so prevalent and often repeated it must be right, it turns out you'll be made very uncomfortable to have that idea challenged, as I've frequently discovered. There's a whole slew of false ideas about rendering out there that I didn't even know existed until I started drawing in coffeehouses and talking to people.

    Technical vs non-technical is really just a special case of the greater problem of having to contradict anyone's ideas about anything. People react to how irritated you seem to be by a given question, and to how much what you say contradicts what they already thought. Generally stubborn people will be no less stubborn in this than they usually are.
  6. Mar 11, 2012 #5


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    Thanks, Zooby. I'm sure that I do have a number of misconceptions about art. I hadn't really thought too much about it but I guess that it's not too surprising for an artist to use a straight-edge. My wife and I have noticed pencil marks in large paintings that were clearly drawn with one. In any case, I've seen some of what you've posted and would consider myself quite a fool to argue with someone of your talent.
  7. Mar 11, 2012 #6
    Yeah, I have a few trusted friends who have some crackpot ideas about some things. I just tell them that I think differently about those things and let it go at that. So far they haven't pressed any issues. If somebody asks me what I know about something, then I tell them. Since I don't know very much about anything it's not a significant intrusion on our time together and we can spend most of it on just enjoying each other's company.
  8. Mar 13, 2012 #7
    Thanks for the compliment, but I'm not sure you would be a fool to argue with me based exclusively on your perception I have talent. All my assertion represents is my personal experience that enough artists use a straightedge when drawing a straight line that this method is considered acceptable, that it is my impression most artists don't put themselves under the onus of having to have the motor skills to do that particular task freehand. However, that's a bald assertion at this point. I haven't actually ever conducted a poll, and I have been surprised by poll results in the past, as I suppose everyone has. The formula: "Zooby can draw, therefore what he says about drawing must be right," makes the logical error of Appeal to Authority, even if I do say so myself.
  9. Mar 13, 2012 #8

    Ivan Seeking

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    The worst case of this for me involved a gentleman of advanced years, who had spent most of his retirement savings on a huge floating paddle wheel that generated electrical power. Beyond the apparatus itself, he had bought a crane to move the generator to the river! Based on the best-case efficiency of a well-designed undershot wheel, his design was surely much less than 10% efficient. He wanted me to evaluate his design after he was fully committed financially. He was just sure he was going to make tons of money each month selling power.

    How do you tell someone they just blew their retirement savings?
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