“School sucks, right? I mean you do what you can to improve it, but in the end, there’s a limit. Because it’s school. And ‘school sucks.’ Remember?” –Louis C.K.
At every level, education always seems to be a hot button issue. Whether it’s in primary and secondary schools, where testing at every level is the primary means to evaluate teachers, or in adult life, where we’re always hearing about how scientifically illiterate the public is, we have pressing issues facing us.
And we can’t be experts in everything, even the best of us.
Sure, if you want to know about space, astronomy, physics, or cosmology, you can always come here, and I’ll give you the best I’ve got. Over the last three years, hundreds and then thousands of you decided that I was a great source for this type of information, and I’d like to ask you to think about why for a minute.
You no doubt appreciate the accuracy and clarity of what I give you, as well as the accessibility of it. (In other words, you don’t need to be a theoretical astrophysicist yourself to get something valuable out of what I write.) Maybe you think I’m an excellent teacher and that I have a knack for explaining things, which can’t hurt, either. For whatever it means, perhaps there’s some aspect of how I communicate that you appreciate.
But beyond any of that, I’d like to suggest that you — at some level — trust me as a source for news and information about space, astronomy, physics, and cosmology. You believe that I’m competent, and also that I’m honest about what we know and how we know it. That I’m aware of the facts and the data, and that I’m capable of interpreting it and explaining it to you. And you also believe that if I tell you something that turns out to be erroneous, I’ll come back as soon as I find out and try to put things right.
But I’m not the expert on everything. Look at the image above; that’s a shrimping boat in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Is it now safe to eat Gulf Shrimp again? I certainly don’t know myself, but I’d like to know whom to turn to in order to find out.
Public health, medicine, global warming, and many more issues are serious issues that require a tremendous amount of expertise to accurately address. Scientists certainly have a well-known public relations problem, and plenty of prominent individuals have gone out of their way to publicly call science, science education, and scientists themselves a waste of time.
And yet there are real issues facing us. The evidence showing that the Earth is, in fact, warming is overwhelming, and yet climate skeptics abound. Although, I was heartened to see one climate skeptic get funding to do his own study of global average temperature in an entirely new fashion, and to conclude that the Earth really is warming, and that the three other groups studying it got it exactly right.
I’m an easy person to trust: I don’t have an agenda. I don’t benefit if you believe in the Big Bang versus a 6,000-year-old Universe, except in the realm of my own personal satisfaction for having done something I believe is an objective good.
But my goal isn’t to make you “more scientifically literate,” it’s simply to give you an awareness and an appreciation for what we know and how we know it, for what we don’t know and what we’re learning, and to help you make sense of some difficult things that I happen to be knowledgable about. I’m honored that you’ve chosen me as one of your experts and trusted sources for the things I do.
But how do you choose your experts? I live in a country where the law forbidding lying on broadcast news (the Fairness Doctrine) was repealed in 1987, and that’s where most Americans get their news. Do you rely on scientific consensus, and if so, how do you know whether there is one or not?
Do you have a set of sources that you trust, and are they your go-to-people for news, health, and safety? Do you insist on gathering as much information as you can and making a decision yourself? Do you have an informed viewpoint that you’re already convinced is correct, and would it take extraordinary evidence to change your mind?
Over the last two weeks, I’ve spoken about global warming, scientific literacy, public education, and other topics that I’m not an expert on with various classes at a couple of different colleges and Universities, and the overwhelming consensus is that there isn’t a good, centralized place to go to get factual, correct, expert information without a whole bunch of blather, filler, opinion, and junk along with it. But people wish there was.
So tell me: how do you get your information, how to you separate the wheat from the chaff, and whom do you trust for your science, health, and education news?