Red Cabbage

Yesterday I got the information pack for I Am A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here

I got my #IAS2010 Scientist Pack - exciting. on Twitpic

The pack has information about how to login to the IAS website, which
will go live next week. Each scientist is asked to create a profile, a
bit like a celebrity profile in Hello or Smash Hits (a pop magazine
from my school days).

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Suddenly the innocuous questions they put to celebs seem scarily
penetrating and revealing – what is my favourite thing? what is the
most fun thing I’ve every done? It’d better be fun, or else I’ll sound
very boring, won’t I? The advice in the pack is that I shouldn’t pretend to like Arctic
Monkeys just to seem interesting, be honest! Pity they weren’t
advising Gordon Brown.

OK. But, just in case, I’ve jazzed up my web pages to link to this
blog, and included my last.fm chart
. I am furiously listening to the

Arctic Monkeys, to see if I can knock Frank Sinatra and The Beatles
down a few places!

Some school students are set homework to research the background of
scientists in the competition, and I hope that if they are very
thorough they’ll find their way to this blog. Well done if this is
you! I think I should give a prize for the first one who can prove
they’ve read this blog by using the codeword “Red Cabbage” in a
question or chat at IAS. Read to the end of this article, and tell me
what you think – I’d be really interested to know.

All this attention is very nice for the ego, but most scientists are
rather wary of personal attention. Why?

One reason is that we are trained to evaluate ideas on the evidence.
When people become famous they gain a kind of authority, but it
doesn’t change the evidence and it shouldn’t make their views more
convincing* (think of King Cnut, or Pope Urban VIII, who had Galileo
locked up for arguing that the Earth went round the Sun).

Another (more worrying) reason is that some scientists who have big
public profiles often undermine their scientific credibility by
straying into areas where they are not experts. We are very careful
about how we express ourselves in research articles:

i) we have to include references which readers can check to find the
evidence you are relying on
ii) everything we write (in reputable scientific journals) is double
checked by (usually two or more) other scientists, often rivals with
conflicting ideas – this is called peer review.
iii) if our evidence is less than certain (almost always the case) we
are careful to use phrases that capture the uncertainty.

Here is a range of carefully judged phrases (X is the evidence, for

example an experimental result, Y is an idea that might or might not
be true):
X clearly shows Y
X indicates Y
X suggests Y
X is consistent with Y
X hints that Y may be worthy of further investigation

And so on. If anything we err on the side of caution. This means
journalists get frustrated with scientists, as it is hard to get them
to say anything with certainty. But precision about facts and evidence
is absolutely central to everything we do and is one of the few things
that all scientists agree about. This kind of precision can only
really be achieved by long familiarity with the evidence in a
particular topic. Outside this very narrow area it is very easy to go
wrong.

Rock stars, politicians and bishops can pontificate about things they
know little about, but for scientists it’s a bit of a no-no. Crossing
the boundary between well-informed discussion and ill-informed
speculation can have a big effect on a scientist’s reputation*. It’s
very hard to talk about science in a relaxed way without crossing this
boundary. And it’s because we don’t want to cross the line, that so
many of us hide away in our labs, keeping our thoughts to ourselves,
and leaving the communication to a few star performers (and sometimes
whinging about the way science is portrayed). Events like IAS
encourage us to come out of out protective shells, and give people a
clearer idea of how science works and what scientists are like. Mostly
we’re very normal people who like solving problems.

*there is a bit of a contradiction here: why would scientists care
about their reputation when they are all trained to ignore personal
authority? Sad answer: we are only human and not very good at ignoring
personal authority, we all want to be respected by our colleagues, and
this respect has an impact on our career progression (it’s actually
measured and called “indicators of esteem” – highly esteemed
scientists probably get promoted quicker and will earn more money).
Happier answer: there is a kind of evidence that builds up as a
scientist produces accurate and important results over a long career,
they are careful and methodical, and there is a justifiable sense that
results may be more reliable than less experienced or less careful
researchers.

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