Category Archives: opinions

Communicating Un/Certainty

[opinion] We aren’t supposed to claim that scientific findings were “The Truth”. But to say that every scientific statement was uncertain also is usually mostly wrong.

The blanket statement “everything in science is provisional” is used by doubt-spreaders to undermine scientific consensus in the public. It’s the basis for all denial of expert opinion. “Oh, these scientists don’t really know anything, they say so themselves. Hence, my fringe opinions are as valid as a scientific consensus that emerged from centuries-worth of scientific inquiries”. When a layperson heard this false argument before, they will be reminded of it, whenever you use such blanket statements about science being uncertain. This is where the mindsets of researchers and communicators differ immensely from the mindsets of everybody else.

And it also usually isn’t true considering the context. Let’s take Classical mechanics as an example. Physicists, high-tech engineers, and other researchers and developers would call classical mechanics only conditionally valid, unfinished, or incomplete. But in the real-life experience of virtually every other human being, the projections made using classical mechanics are more than just sufficiently reliable. So, if we report on things that are within the realm of classical mechanics, adding “well actually, classical mechanics will probably be replaced by a better theory at some point” isn’t helping.

Pointing out that the scientific consensus is preliminary when in the context of the subject matter it has proven to be absolutely valid, invites doubt. This may not be so tragic with the example of mechanics (unless someone tries to quantum-tunnel through walls). But with the big ecological catastrophes, this is clearly a problem.

Of course, you should not present the worst-case scenario in your climate model as our certain future. But, you should also make it clear that the best-case scenario will already be extremely bad, and also will almost certainly not happen. And, if you choose to talk about the worst-case-scenario, make clear it is because in your opinion it is prescient to prepare for the worst.

When you say “there is uncertainty”, it sounds like you are saying “everything is equally possible” to anyone who’d wish your inconvenient truth to be false – even those who actually do care are prone to this bias.

No sentence in your piece should make a lazy blanket statement about un/certainty.

A good place to start is probably to rigorously delete phrases like “everything in science is preliminary” or “science is always changing” and replace them with content. Explain the context and clearly communicate what is scientific consensus, where exactly are the uncertainties, and how big are they.

The danger with communicating the necessary context, of course, is to overwhelm the audience with details. We need the cognitive load to be manageable for our audience. Otherwise they can’t possibly follow your argument.

A lot of the craft of science communication is to understand and convey the current state of scientific inquiry. And a big part of it is to identify the relevant uncertainties and provide the context appropriately.

Science can provide certainty to a high degree in most everyday situations. And that is exactly how it should be communicated. Relevant uncertainties, however, can also be tolerated by the audience, if they are properly communicated.

Six things I learned at FWK19

Business Cards: remember to have them printed in advance, or you have to print them on thin paper and cut them yourself.

As I just moved to Germany, I am joining the science communication scene, here. So, I went to a German science communication conference: “Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation” or “Forum Science Communication”. I could only afford one out of three days but I still found out a couple of things.

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Insecurity and Uncertainties for Early Career Academics (SfP podcast episode)

One of my pet peeves with academia is the treatment of PhD students and postdocs which I feel borders(?) on exploitation. I talked with Maria Pinto, who is from Portugal and is currently PhD student in Austria in marine microbiology for my podcast “Science for Societal Progress”. Looking forward to her final year as a PhD student she is beginning to think more and more seriously about what a career in academia would mean to her.

Science for Societal Progress Podcast Episode 19
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Comment on Obama’s raise

Currently, every scientist with a salary above ca. $24k/yr is exempt from over time pay in the USA – and over time here means everything over 40hrs in a week. Obama now thinks about changing this threshold to ca $50k/yr. This is big, because postdocs make only about $43k/yr on average. So if this comes, and if postdocs become eligible for over time pay, PIs will need deep pockets, because postdocs often routinely work 60-80 hour weeks. In this scenario they probably would increase the minimum salary for postdocs above that $51k level, which would be an enormous jump for most postdocs. Now, while I am confident funding agencies and leading academics will lobby against it, and not all postdocs are officially employed, and I’m rather on the pessimistic side of things, I still think one should at least have spoken up. Otherwise I wouldn’t be eligible for wining, later, right? 😉

So, today I wrote the following comment and made it official by posting it on!docketDetail;D=WHD-2015-0001 – which I think is something every US grad student and postdoc should do, too.

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random thoughts about ‘postdocs’

There was a discussion about postdocs and if and how they would benefit from Obamas plans to increase the salary threshold below which overtime must be payed to a number considerably higher than the NIH average postdoc salary… or… fellowship. I won’t get into details why, but there were different types of postdoctoral positions thrown around for different reasons. I think I made things a bit chaotic because some assumptions about what would be a postdoc position really annoyed me.

So here are some of my opinions about what a postdoc is and should be:
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