“If there is anything that a man can do well, I say let him do it. Give him a chance.” –Abraham Lincoln
It was nearly four years ago that I started blogging back at my old site, branching out from the hardcore research of physical cosmology and the teaching of physics and astronomy, and into what I think of as science communication.
And there have been a number of very curious things I’ve learned, some of which I expected and some of which caught me by surprise.
The least surprising: the entirety of our experience in this world is something that practically all of you have a drive to understand. From the origins of the Universe to the far distant future, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest scales of the cosmos, from the formation of the elements to the biological and social evolution of human beings: this is how you make sense of the world. And you really do; you want it to make sense! This is, in my experience, not just for a handful of people; for a huge fraction (almost all) of you.
My philosophy about communicating the specialized knowledge that I have, the whole time I’ve been doing this, has been to focus on trying to give you an awareness and an appreciation for both what we know and how we know it. You don’t need to become an expert yourself, and I think it would be foolhardy for me to attempt to put you through the rigorous work that doing so entails. (I think, if I did that, you’d almost all likely leave!) It is far less important to me that you can, say, calculate the expansion rate of the Universe at any given point in its history, than it is for you to know how the Universe is expanding, and how we discovered just what its expansion rate is, throughout history.
Sometimes, you may be very happy to learn a new detail that fits neatly into your overall picture of how things work; at other times, you may be faced with a difficult dissonance to overcome, as the new information is incompatible with the prior picture of the Universe. In this case, there’s usually a strong instinct to say that the new information is wrong, or flawed, or that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. And it is all too easy to dismiss something that is unpleasant, even when it’s right.
(Like why the effects of gravity and light-emitting matter get separated when galaxy clusters collide.)
But that’s what nearly all of you strive for: a harmonious picture where you have as accurate as possible an understanding of not only what happens, but how it happens. And you want your understanding to be as accurate a mirror for the actual reality of things as it can be.
Well, for that, you need to either have sources of information that you know are trustworthy, or access to experts in all sorts of fields who can help you sort out what’s actually scientifically true from what isn’t. Because no one can be scientifically literate in all aspects of all fields of science simultaneously: there’s simply too much.
(Yes, even everyone in this picture didn’t know it all. I’m looking at you, Einstein, Curie and Lorentz!)
The more we learn about the world, the harder it becomes for any one individual to distinguish what’s actually correct from what gets promoted as scientific truth, but really isn’t. It becomes more difficult to know what news items present valid, sound scientific information, and what’s tentative, speculative, flawed or highly dubious. And it isn’t your job to check up on every claim in every single report you read. That’s not your job, not that you’d have enough time to do that for every article even if it was!
(I’m looking at you, faster-than-light neutrinos.)
So what do you do? I don’t just mean about physics and astronomy, I mean about everything science related. When the Fukushima plant suffered from the earthquake & tsunami earlier this year, how did you separate the actual news about it from the alarmism? How did you separate out the accurate assessments of risk from those in denial that radiation was actually bad for you?
(It’s not like if you went to Noor’s List you got a nuanced, informed take on it.)
But there’s so much more. What about the link between XMRV and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Is there a connection between vaccines and autism?
(“She told me,” Bachmann said, “that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”)
You might be informed about these topics or you might not, but I guarantee you that there are plenty of topics out there where you think you’re informed, but your information isn’t nearly as solid as you might believe. And there should be a resource out there to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.
Ideally, at least from my point of view, there would be a news outlet that catered to exactly this. There would be a place where one could go for not only the latest and most important issues, but for a scientifically accurate, appropriately nuanced take on those issues.
On what we know and how we know it. On what the confidence we have in those results is. Where the scientifically inaccurate reports are culled out, whether they come from the Huffington Post or the Wall Street Journal, and the most accurate, scientifically sound information is promoted to the forefront, whether it comes from Nature, NASA, or a little-known blog like we are.
(After all, we were the first and possibly only source to break the story of how the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget was sabotaged by the US Government!)
Well, this is important. This is something I care deeply about, and this is something that doesn’t yet exist. The best thing we’ve got going right now is to either sift through a giant news aggregator (like google news) and cut out the sources you dislike, or to create an RSS feed of all the sources you like best.
But different sources are better for different issues, and what was a good source on global climate change may not be a good source on the link between cancer rates and power lines. And then, if that source gives you a report on an asteroid likely to hit Earth, is it reputable?
(And if the source has a picture of Bruce Willis instead, does that make it more or less reliable?)
Well, since Labor Day, I’ve been working on a number of projects related to science education, communication and outreach. And I’ll continue working on them, just like I’ll do my damnedest to keep putting out the amazing quality articles you’ve come to expect here. Hopefully, there won’t even be a drop in the frequency with which I write and post them!
But today, I start a new project as well. There’s a new startup company that’s attempting to fill that niche: to be a quality, real-time news service that gathers all the articles on a topic from around the web and focuses on choosing articles based on the quality of the science in their science and health sections.
That’s right, not on traffic, or prestige, or the number of potential pageviews, or on the advertising dollars it can bring in, but on the quality, accuracy and reliability of the article in question. Because it’s your Universe, your world, and your life, and you deserved to have the best and most honestly accurate information out there at your fingertips.
(Actually, I’d prefer accurate and precise, but I’ll settle for simply being honest about what the data actually indicates!)
When I heard about this project, and I thought about how I could contribute to it, about how much I know about finding, analyzing, and discerning accurate information, as well as helping communicate it, I couldn’t say no. So I start, today, as the head editor of their science and health sections. My job will be to build and develop these sections, as well as creating featured collections on different topics, and working with the other members of this company to create as useful a resource as possible. Over the next few months, I’m going to work on not only editing but curating the topics that come up. It’s going to take a lot of work, because the eventual goal is to teach the software how to make these choices as to which articles are pure gold and which ones are pure rubbish, but the end goal is too great to not go for it.
So I’m going for it. And you can be sure that down the road, I’ll be asking you for help in doing this right, in making this great, and in creating — for the first time — a place where you can go to get exclusively accurate, informative news about science, health, and any topic you choose, but without the noise, scams, and dishonest, misleading tripe that’s out there. (And if you think google self-corrects itself to give you just that, you, my friend, are living in a fantasy.)
Because I want this service to exist. I want it to work, and I want it to come out working right. Not just for myself, but for you, and for everyone out there who wants a little more truth, accuracy, and honesty in their news. More details to follow soon, of course, including soliciting feedback from you, my esteemed readers, but in the meantime, I hope you keep on enjoying Starts With A Bang, and that you wish me luck in this new venture! If there’s anything you’d like me to keep in mind while I start working on this, now’s the time to let me know!