Thursday, 15 November 2018

Julika Griem against story telling, heroic adventures and simplifying in science communication



The German eleventh Forum on Science Communication came to my home town, which was a good occasion to spread the word on Climate Feedback. I could write several blog posts inspired by this meeting, which is good and I might, but this post is just about the opening speech by Prof. Dr. Julika Griem, the vice president of the German Science Foundation (DFG) and the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities. Julika Griem slaughtered a few holy cows in front of the vegan science communication folks who were talking about this until the last session.

The conference offered a wide range of backgrounds. Well-dress communications people with slick rehearsed talks, natural scientists like myself in t-shirts freely speaking inspired by power point bullet points, journalists in the middle and Griem gave the opening lecture in humanities style by reading a written out text. I would have preferred to read myself, to be able to stop and think, so I was happy when they posted the text (in German). People who survive a humanities eduction deserve a medal.

Prof. Griem asked several controversial questions. Is it really such a good idea to focus so much on story telling, adventures, heroes/personalisation and simplifying? Isn't describing, explaining and argumentation better suited for science? Especially modern science is about working together in large groups with many specialised scientists in which management, administration and technical infrastructure are important. Documents, data and instruments are harder to turn into heroes than individuals.



Prof. Dr. Julika Griem speaking at the Forum on Science Communication.

Later at the form, the group The Debate, which organises science debates all over Germany, noted that their audience missed talking about the process, how we do science, why we are confident about certain results? While in science journalism it is common to focus on the results themselves and on people.

This fits to my blogging experience: posts on methodological and organisation matters are read surprisingly well, especially as they are not spread on social media that much. Maybe everyone thinks they are the only ones interested such details, i.e. in how science works. Such a meta science topic is something that does not fit that well in a story telling framework. My explanation how a scientific conference is organised will never get a Pulitzer price, but was read well. (Alternative hypothesis the title sounded nice, but the post was not what was expected, which would fit the linked example.)


Related, but not from the conference, is that I discovered Street Epistemology on YouTube. With this method it is possible to reasonably consistently have friendly conversations about hard topics, even about religion, which you are normally not supposed to talk about because it so easily escalates.

The Street Epistemology strategy is: 1) do not attack the person, 2) do not question the conclusion (closely tied to identity), but 3) do talk about methodology. In that respect it fits well into the above suggesting to communicate better how we do science and why we know what we know.

As scientists we talk about methodology all the time and we are normally able to have productive conversations at scientific conferences even though scientists come from a wide range of culture and backgrounds. However, outside of science we hardly talk about methods. Especially the media is very focused on people & conclusions.

Maybe we should do this more and see if Street Epistemology (SE) also works to get a friendlier chats on climate change. The first video below give an example of an SE conversation, while the second explains the idea in more detail.





We should not forget in this debate that scientists and journalists have different interests. For a scientist quality is much more important than quantity (number of readers). When I give a talk it is not important whether 10 or 1000 people are in the audience, if there is one expert in the audience who will build on my work it was a success.

A former journalist once did a short media training here in Bonn. He wanted us to do exactly what ever journalists want us to do. He was utterly disappointed when I told him scientists have their own interests, he complained I had not been listening. I did, and it is good to know what your counterpart wants to try to find the best compromise for both, but I do have my own interests.

Griem also did not like hero stories as the lone warrior recalls the same anti-institutional feelings of anti-science critics. Stories where technocrats and bureaucrats at universities, in Bonn (where her DFG is) and in Berlin (politics), hold back intrinsically motivated people to do ground breaking work. I would see that as a reason to like hero stories, trying to make institutions better is the opposite of being anti-institutional and there really is enough to complain about, from publish and perish, to funding science based on short-term projects rather than on long-term relationships with people and institutions. Project-funded science stifles innovation and waste enormous amounts of work in writing proposals, in managing them, and in each time building a new group. Time and energy that could have been spend on doing ground-breaking research.

Prof. Dr. Julika Griem proposed that science communication should tenderly overstrain the public. That does not sound like a good general strategy. It would lead to misunderstanding and would limit the audience interested in science even more. However, it is good to have a range of strategies and publishing a tenderly overstraining book like [[Gödel, Escher, Bach]] also belongs to science communication.



Related reading

Opening speech by Prof. Dr. Julika Griem (in German): Impositions: Science communication and
its contradictions. Zumutungen. Wissenschaftskommunikation und
ihre Widersprüche


Interview with me on Climate Feedback (in German): When researchers look the press over the shoulder. Wenn Forschende der Presse auf die Finger schauen.

Climate Feedback, a group a climate scientists who review media articles on climate change.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

America, it is Tuesday the 6th of November: VOTE

Opinion polling is hard because one needs to sample all groups evenly.

Election polling is even harder because you need to predict turnout as well. With the low turnout in the US (2014: 37% of eligible voters; 2012+2016: 61%): TURNOUT IS EVERYTHING.

If all young people would vote Republicans would have nearly no seat in the House. That is how important turnout is. (Take your friends with you when you vote.)

One advantage election polling normally has is being able to correct for biases based on past data. With turnout being this unprecedented, this will not help this time. Normally polling errors are about 3%. This midterm election my guesstimate is 7% nationally, 15% locally.

In other words: polling is nearly useless this time.

Historical results are also useless. In a West Virginia district Trump won by over 40 points, Justice Democrat Richard Ojeda has a 50/50 chance.


A large confidence interval may not sound like much of a prediction, but it does matter: If you think you live in a save state or district: you are wrong, go out & vote. You may otherwise regret it on the day after the elections.

Let's talk about the issues

Trump wants to kill a bunch of poor people in the South of Mexico. Similar historical that only a few will arrive at the border in several weeks. The so-called left wing press does his bidding by spending hours on this non-issue. Wednesday this topic will again have the prominence it deserves: none.

What we should be talking about, what should determine our votes:
  1. Climate change denial and lack of action
  2. America global pariah by refusing to do its part
  3. Incompetent management of climate disasters leading to thousands additional Americans dying #TrumpsKatrina
  4. The Republican Death Panel on Capitol Hill, mostly stopped by McCain, but far from fully
  5. Trump is in court to take away protections for pre-existing conditions #barbaric 
  6. Medical bankruptcies #OnlyInAmerica
  7. The biggest funder of global terrorism bribing Trump #bonesaw
  8. An upcoming war with Iran to help Saudi Arabia 
  9. Help with the famine, cholera epidemic and genocide in Yemen to help Saudi Arabia
  10. Nearly a devastating war with North Korea
  11. Intensified existing wars after promising to get out
  12. Still no infrastructure spending that could be paid from money waster on those wars
  13. Declining wages 
  14. Less decline in unemployment as the previous government
  15. Steady increase on the stock marker for a decade stopped
  16. 83% of the tax cuts going to the 1% rather than to you
  17. Corporations paying less taxes, no loopholes fixed, you pay their share 
  18. Otherwise the stock market (sign of how well the rich are doing) would be even worse
  19. Huge deficits and debt
  20. Obstruction of justice on national TV
  21. Putin's puppy in Helsinki
  22. Systemic corruption
  23. Basically ignoring the opioid epidemic running rampant, especially in Trump districts
  24. More Goldman Sachs employees in the White House than ever before
  25. More indictments, convictions and forced resignations than ever before
  26. Republicans who are unwilling to limit Trump trampling the Constitution
  27. Trump using a telephone that is not secure with Chinese listening #ButHerEmails
  28. An unconstitutional Muslim ban
  29. Ripping children away from their parents
  30. No plan to ever reunite the children with their parents
  31. Attacks on the press and thus Constitution #FirstAmendment 
  32. Rampant right-wing terrorism
  33. 71% of terror victims over the last decade died at the hand of right-wing terrorists
  34. Four attacks of them in the last two weeks
  35. Mr affluenza watches TV all day, clearly hates presidenting and is incompetent
  36. The only part of the job Trump likes is calling for violence at campaign rallies #VeryFinePeople
  37. Abusing presidential power in return for money is not part of the job
I am sure you can get this list to 100.