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From Here to There, and Back

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600px-Ptolemaicsystem-smallSabine Hossenfelder on her side gig as a physics consult, What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists:

Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one. During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.

I haven’t learned any new physics in these conversations, but I have learned a great deal about science communication. My clients almost exclusively get their information from the popular science media. Often, they get something utterly wrong in the process. Once I hear their reading of an article about, say, space-time foam or black hole firewalls, I can see where their misunderstanding stems from. But they come up with interpretations that never would have crossed my mind when writing an article.

I’ve been blogging since 2002. Like Sabine I can often tell if someone has a scientific background after a few sentences, especially if they are biologists of some sort. As for the rest, the chasm is between the intelligent vs. not so intelligent, and it is usually pretty clear too. Mostly the intelligent have liberal arts or social science backgrounds, but have the basic analytic tools to decompose problems at the most general levels. The less intelligent tend to speak in simple formulas when coherent, and devolve into total incomprehensibility when they try and attempt originality.*

The second issue is a somewhat different one from physics. Usually at a given moment there is a topic of particular interest to the media. Evo-devo and epigenetics come to mind. These are real scientific fields of inquiry. But because of disproportionate media attention to these sorts of topics, usually those who rely on their science knowledge from popularizations will assume that evo-devo and epigenetics have “revolutionized” our understanding of evolution and genetics, when in reality these are still developing areas, whose ultimate impact is to be determined.

In fact, I’d take this further: the area of evolutionary genetics has arguably not been “revolutionized” since the 1970s, with the theoretical and empirical debates triggered by allozyme work and the neutralist-selectionist debates. All the rest, including genomics, is just commentary.

* Here is a good example: the stupid reader who was explaining to me patiently how splicing and gene regulation “disprove” heritability estimates. I dismissed them, but the reality is that I’m 99% sure that that reader thinks I’m an idiot as well.

• Category: Science • Tags: Science 

3 Comments to "From Here to There, and Back"

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  1. Speaking of autodidacs and the reasonably intelligent– I’m well-read in various disciplines in the humanities but I’m fairly ignorant in the biological sciences. I recently discovered your blog and I’ve been trying to learn more about HBD and basic biological science in general ever since. My last serious look at the subject was when I got 85% in preparation for university level biology in high school. Can you recommend some books as a starting place to help people such as I remedy the ignorance? Or is the solution merely to just get my hands on a bunch of textbooks and take it from there? Your answer, even if it’s just verbal abuse, will be much appreciated.

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  2. If you try to search on this blog for it you’ll find a lot of advice. The hard part is to follow this advice=)

  3. Principles of Population Genetics

    Genetic Analysis

    Population Genetics

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