Science is having a Tale of Two Cities moment. Scientists’ work has never been more closely scrutinized by the public (and ourselves), but it has also not been so discussed in decades. This was already true before COVID-19 spread across the globe, as the Trump government had systematically slashed science budgets since 2017 and the majority of American politicians (and world politicians) had either ignored climate science entirely or spoken of it only to critique for decades. There is also more science going on than ever before, largely because of the mountains of data we all generate daily on our phones and computers. People are collecting those data and using them, whether they tell us (23&me) or not (Facebook).
In an ideal world, we would have more scientists in politics and journalism. These folks could communicate with the public about these issues in a way that would more accurately and precisely explain findings reached through science. We saw a small preview of the careful and nuanced communication a government sci-comm team could put forth with a person like Dr. Anthony Fauci at its head in March of 2020. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there is only one Fauci. There are also only a few folks as excellent as Mona Chalabi, Christie Aschwanden, Ed Yong, and Brian Resnick (I’m certainly missing some great science writers and data visualizers here, these are just the 4 who pop to mind for me). Websites that used to do slow, thoughtful, and data-based journalism have morphed slowly into just more contributors to the daily opinion thresher on TV and online. Maybe we need a trained science reporter or advisor at every major publication, but I think if every reporter had a basic understanding we could nip some problems early in the reporting of a story.
Short of a future in which President Beth Loftus chooses me as her VP while the Washington Post is run by Chalabi and Yong, the average person will be at least partially left to their own devices (probably a good thing, cf. Plato). Our real situation demands that the global public become as educated about science as we can. I seek to have the conversation on the best way to do that in this blog. What topics must be included, which can be left out? How deep do we need to dive into each area? Should such a model/course/book include usable tools? Did the Calling Bullshit guys already do it the same way I would?
As of today, I see the three major facets of science as the main topics of this education: framing, argumentation, and statistics. Framing is easy to understand, but difficult to back up and spot, especially when done purposefully to obfuscate. Argumentation is a little tougher to learn, but enough basic understanding can get most people to be able to notice things like obfuscation, bad-faith arguing, and invention of straw men. Teaching statistics is difficult when the students want to learn it, doing so via blog or book when people just want to live their lives is a whole ‘nother challenge.
So I will be reading, and as I read I will post here. I’ve saved dozens of articles, and an incomplete book list appears below. I hope to eventually turn all this into a course, something like “Science and Statistics for Daily Life” or a more pointed “Psychology of Cultural Change” … brainstorming ongoing.
Understanding Psychology as a Science by Zoltan Dienes
Methodology and Epistemology for Social Science by Don Campbell
The Misinformation Age by O’Connor & Weatherall
Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M Steele
The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff & Haidt
Bad Advice: How to survive and thrive in an age of bullshit by Venus Nicolino
How to Not Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West (Releasing Aug 4)
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
A couple maybes, somewhat related:
Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?
Mauric Halbwachs’s On Collective Memory
Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism
The Black Jacobins by CLR James
I seek to elongate and diversify this list and will update this post as new books come to my attention.