Just so you know

All right. I have ideas. I think about stuff. So here is the spot for stuff I'm thinking about and want to be able to share more broadly and possibly promote. Like I have time for this.

Everything is provisional at this point and subject to change in the future - as far as the blog is concerned. In real life some things will remain unchanged.

Also, our children are not really named Lenny and Linus. We are not that cool.

Feel free to share, rant, disagree, but please remember that I'm an actual person who tries to be respectful. I'd love it if you are and do to.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

So I Married an Astrophysicist: Dispelling Myths About Scientists

I wanted to post this on Earth Day but I didn't get it done.  I didn't actually seen that much about Earth Day on social media.  It was kind of a relief actually, because it seems like I'm just as likely to see "the earth is doing fine and anyone who says otherwise is selling something" as "lets all be responsible and take care of this our home since for now it's the only one we have."

Somehow I can hardly ever resist getting into discussions about whether or not the earth - specifically the climate - is in trouble and whether or not we should do something about it.  Without fail those discussions eventually get to the question of whether or not we can trust the people who are telling us that climate change is a problem - scientists.  It makes sense.  If you want to discount an idea a good strategy is to question the motives and qualifications of the people who are advocating it.

Except that few people really seem to question the qualifications.  We all rely on science and technology every day.  Our western world view is a "materialistic" one - we are interested in stuff and we accept that it can be studied and understood.  Most people accept that science has its uses and can be trusted in certain situations.  But it's done by people, and so is only as "pure" as the motives and methods those people use.  So the question of whether or not we should take global climate change seriously often comes down to whether or not we should trust the motives of the scientific community.

I notice this because I'm married to a scientist.  He's not a climate scientist - he's an astronomer, which means that he's well qualified to read the research done by climate scientists and he believes it's valid.  (This note from the resident scientist:  Specifically since Venus is thought to have undergone a runaway greenhouse effect in its past, astronomers need to have a basic understanding of planetary atmospheres and climate to teach planetary astronomy.)  Most of the rest of the scientific community thinks it's valid too, actually, which is pretty amazing.  But when people discount the science because they don't trust the scientists I sometimes take it a little personally.  I think that if they actually knew scientists the way I do they might think differently about the science.

I don't see "scientists" as guys in white coats with taped glasses and pocket protectors.  I don't think of them as "Dr. Jekyll" types trying to attain immortality by creating something never before achieved.  I don't see them as pawns of any particular political agenda or as money-hungry individuals who will make wild claims in order to get the next grant.  I definitely don't see them as people who are willing to engage in and promote a vast conspiracy for the purpose of controlling the public.

When I think of scientists I think of the man who sits across the table from me at supper time. He's the one who's been with me through years of illness.  The one who gingerly held that first tiny baby of ours, who loads the dishwasher after I'm in bed and takes the boy - now a great big five-year-old - to music class on Tuesdays.  "My" scientist is this guy who reads Tolkien and Game of Thrones, and is a member of the local curling league.  He's the one with the beautiful bass voice sitting beside me in church.

Sure, you say, sounds like a nice guy.  But that's just one example.  It doesn't really tell us about scientists as a class.  We all know that in general they have to make a living, so whatever research they do is tainted by the need for money.  Plus, they are politically liberal, and likely to be atheists or at least humanists.  Right?

Well... I wanted to put lots of links in this post to stats showing just how many scientists have the characteristics listed above, but they were harder to find during nap time than I had hoped.  (Links later dug up by the local astronomer :) )  But the Dr. looked them up, so I hope you take a look if you think I'm just... wrong.  So here are a few observations about what I have learned about science during my ten plus years of hanging around with a scientist.  For what it's worth.

  • When I talk about scientists I'm talking about people with Ph.D.s.  It takes a long time to get a Ph.D. This study found an average of almost eight years for those seeking a degree in the physical sciences.  Plus, jobs that provide tenure usually require prior completion of one or two "post doctorate" position(s) which are 2-3 year stints of primarily doing research, or 4-6 years of work after the Ph.D. to become eligible for most positions.  It then normally takes another 6 years to get tenure, then at least another 6 years to promote to full professor.  
  • Most scientists teach at universities.  They may or may not have tenure - or even a job that offers tenure.  Many universities are hiring very few tenure-track professors these days, instead mainly hiring non-tenure-track instructors on (often) fixed-length contracts of 1-3 years.
  • Scientists do research that is published in "peer-reviewed" journals. The review process involves other scientists of note in the specific field of the submitted work looking over the paper and evaluating the scientific merit of the work (in particular ensuring that proper scientific methodology was used in drawing the conclusions of the work). 
  • Research is funded by grants which are provided either by the U.S. government or private corporations or groups.  But the groups that provide the funding do not determine whether or not the findings get published.  For a discussion of how National Science Foundation
    (NSF) grants are handled click here.  Note that (at least in the case of the NSF) the decisions of who gets the grants are not made by government bureaucrats but by a panel of scientists in the field brought in to rank the proposals for funding priority.
  • Scientists working at universities are, in general, not getting rich.  Considering the number of years they spend getting their education... lets just say if money were their main concern they would be doing something else.  Case in point (from the late 1990s): Wall Street firms were targeting new physics Ph.D. recipients to do complex analysis of business deals, and paying considerably more than your typical university.  But you can't do fundamental physics research on Wall Street...
  • Scientists do have egos.  They are generally extremely invested in finding truth.  They would most likely enjoy being the first to make a discovery, but they are also very interested in finding out whether a claim made by another scientist is true. So the idea of "consensus" is important.  There's at least as much to be gained by disagreeing with other scientists as by disagreeing with them.
  • Scientists are aware that their assumptions and biases affect the work they do.  They often try to spell those ideas out so that they can get the clearest view possible of what they are researching.
  •  I have observed that, at least in the "physical sciences" (as opposed to the "humanities") scientists tend to have a variety of religious/philosophical beliefs.  They share a passion for the truth and many (if not most) believe that the natural and the supernatural are different realms that should be addressed separately.  This study shows that scientists tend to participate in faith communities at close to the same rate as the general population.
  • It's true, scientists do tend to be politically liberal, although that's not always the case.  And on topics like global warming they are sometimes providing information to people who make policy changes or recommendations.  But data does not belong to political parties.  In my experience scientists are primarily interested in finding truth.  Politics getting involved is about as annoying for them as it is for the rest of us.
My take-home is this:  Scientists work very hard to become qualified to research a particular topic.  They work within a framework designed to drive them to use good methods and challenge their findings.   Money is involved, but it's not the main factor motivating most scientists.  Also the government doesn't decide who gets money for research or how it's used.  Scientists come from a variety of faith backgrounds.  They have a variety of political views.

These ideas are important to me because I believe that we should take care of the planet we live on.  We aren't going to be able to make good decisions about how to do that unless we have good information about the situation we're in at the moment.  But if we have good information and we ignore it because we don't trust the people who gave it to us.... we just can't afford to do that.

Note: 5/1/14 Just wanted to add (thanks to a reader who commented on FB) that medical research, which is often funded privately and performed outside of academia, and may involve a group of scientist with a different demographic profile.


    1. Very neat and informative! (NSF stands for National Science Foundation, right?)

    2. I love this post Rachel! Sums up so many things I have thought over the years, so thank you. With only a bachelor's in chemical engineering I am not nearly as qualified as your husband, but I know how the scientific method works, and also how the peer review process works, and I know what happens to scientists when their results cannot be confirmed: they are skewered! And no, they don't make a lot of money; they are in it purely for the science. I, too, have met a lot of scientists with Christian faith. {As a side note, what a wonderful portrait you painted of your loving husband, so thankful you have him.} So yeah, when I hear people disbelieving the climate science (which I do believe is backed by evidence), I think all these things you wrote. I think a deeper question, though, is *why* are some people distrustful of scientists? I think sometimes, it's because their scientific conclusions are in opposition to people's pre-decided-upon-and-immoveable theology. Which is never a comfortable situation, so one or the other has to change.

      1. Thanks! I've been wanting to write this post pretty much since I started the blog. I agree that the reasons that people distrust scientists go deeper than just not understanding who they are. I think that for Evangelical Christians in America it has to do with several factors including: Ideas about questions of origins and "end times," views on "dominion" versus "stewardship," theology surrounding human worth and "depravity," ideas of what it means to trust God and a distrust for the secular government. That's more than enough for a-whole-nother post... we'll see.