Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 6, 2012 4:12PM

Science is Real!

Rate: 9 Flag
The accessiblity for writing in public and self-publishing is amazing. I feel very fortunate to enjoy a few venues in which to do this. I have a passion for factual reality, and I want to spread the good news.

In real life I encounter far more diversity of rationality. It’s much harder to communicate. Culture, or psychology, or ideology, or misinformation often gets in my way. Which is both fascinating and incredibly frustrating. I’m also terrible at masking my emotions. “What the hell is wrong with you?” is easy to read between the lines on my face.

How can I convince someone of the fact of climate change when he earnestly believes that a skiff of snow anywhere on the planet is evidence that the climate is fine? How do successful science communicators bring reason to bear in public and private discourse?

DTMS’ own Greg Correll has a fascinating article about graphically representing information. He advocates all kinds of visual shenanigans to enrich the content.

On the 7 November episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast, host Chris Mooney interviewed Bill Nye (The Science Guy).  It was a great discussion about how to communicate with people who are either scientifically illiterate or who for other reasons deny factual reality. One compelling example Money and Nye covered was climate change.

Mooney asked Nye to advise scientists who want to do a better job communicating to the public, especially in hostile media venues where interviews devolve into shouting. Nye responded with three points: keep the answers short; listen to the first question; remember that it’s a process and chip away at it.

One problem in the public discourse is that scientists tend to over-qualify their responses, and that leads the general public to infer scientific ambiguity.

Mooney, “I think I’ve seen research showing that the IPCC climate change language that they use, which is meant to convey a high degree of certainty, they say ‘very likely’ at this point. [...] When an average person hears it, they think that it’s less certain...”

Nye, “Oh, man! Absolutely! And the other example is they asked a guy [...] ‘Is this uh, atom-smasher in CERN, the um, Large Hadron Collider, is it going to cause, can it cause a black Switzerland, that will consume the earth in a matter of hours?’ And he said, ‘That’s very unlikely.’ And by that he meant, whatever the expression is, twenty sigma to the left of anything that would go wrong. But because he didn’t say, ‘Absolutely not!’ in parentheses, ‘you nutcase, you dingbat,’ uh, people just exactly as you said, seized on it. [...]

You have to talk to people. ‘No! No black hole! Not gonna happen! Uh, in order to get a black hole, you need, now I’m not an expert, but roughly the mass of six suns. Six of our stars. We don’t have that, so chill.’”

Another amazingly effective science communicator, Neil Degrasse Tyson, was a guest on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe November 19th podcast. The interview begins around thirty six minutes into the episode. Podcast co-host Jay Novella calls Tyson a rock star and asks,

“Now I’m the lowly musician that just bought a guitar, and I want to know how to become a rock star. Is it really a huge portion luck, is there a secret that you stumbled on, is there an avenue that we could practice?”

Tyson spends a great deal of time talking about noticing when, why, and where people are interested. He studies people. He tries to figure out what engages people. He watches his audience for pupil dilation and adjusts his presentations to keep them interested. This requires him to arrive over-prepared and loose on his feet with pop culture references and humor to keep his audience involved.

Tyson and SGU host Steve Novella go on to discuss the importance of incorporating multiple sensory modalities into communication and creating graphical and visual references for people that adds information to the content.

Tyson, “My body is drawing a picture, when it can, of the content that I’m delivering. [...] Students learn more deeply the more senses you can excite in the effort of teaching them. [...] I think we should use all available ways to inform the senses that people have brought.”

Steve Novella, “The research backs that up, too. What you learned is backed up by a lot of research that shows, yeah, there’s lots of ways to affect the retention and people’s attention. [...] Every sensory modality you add adds to people’s perception and retention of the information you’re trying to get across.”

Which reminded me of Smell-O-Vision. If I had Smell-O-Vision, you would be inhaling the aroma of reason right now. This smells like very dark fair trade coffee that has been lovingly brewed in a coffee press.

Tyson has been on The Daily Show with John Stewart a number of times and said he did a great deal of research prior to his first interview. He studied the rhythm of the show and calculated the average time before John Stewart interrupted. Tyson tailored his response to the first question (as Nye advocated) to match that (brief) time frame, thus facilitating Stewart’s joke on a complete thought rather than on a fragment. He parsed his information to match the venue. Here’s a
clip from 2007. I noticed both the rhythm and the way Tyson used his hands to illustrate his points.

Both Nye and Tyson spend significant time advocating for scientific literacy, and I completely agree. In this age of slick pundits shouting sciencey-sounding opposite-truths, it’s difficult for people to tell fact from fiction. I think it’s up to all critical thinkers to marginalize willful ignorance and celebrate reason. If someone makes a testable claim and a large percentage of smart people doubt it, look it up for yourself. Find the primary sources and watch for conflicts of interest and other red flags. Especially if the claim resonates strongly with your own biases.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Does This Make Sense. 

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Actually the Large Hadron Collider CAN create black holes, just very very tiny ones, so tiny that we wouldn't even know that they existed, if it wasn't for all the amazingly powerful detectors the LHC has, which really do run on the same technology as digital cameras. I know, that sounds crazy, but it's true. And it's science.

And no, the tiny, short-existence black holes created by the LHC are not capable of sucking us in. They're just there for a blip, and then gone. They're predicted by the same models that predicted the Higgs and the discovery of the 12 elementary particles! So we might catch a glimpse of one. Or maybe not. But it's not the end of anything.
Sam, really?! Amazing! I guess I won't see spaghettification any time soon, but that's probably a good thing.
Nope. Guess not.

I've never quite been able to work out whether the theory says they're created by the LHC, or whether the Higgs predicted to be created in the LHC lends a tiny, tiny amount of mass to a passing starved black hole that already exists and might be in the area. I think this is one of those macro- versus microverse things. Those guys argue a lot! According to the macro- guys, starved black holes should already be flying around the universe by the millions, since singularities, as far as we know, never go away, they just get smaller and smaller as they run out of mass close enough for them to suck in, so they're less and less capable of attracting anything, until they're no more than a little "ghost dot" which will never turn back into a black hole in a proper sense. But the Higgs boson might make one detectable for 'n' amount of time. Maybe this is where all the confusion started from, with a lot of help from people who like to believe the world is going to end. Something along the lines of, "Did you hear, they're going to create a black hole?" And the silliness begins...
baltemore aureole forgot to include in the list “people who are clueless commentators because they have a 6th-grade level understanding of science.”
When I'm Queen Empress of the Universe, I have a class that I want all high school seniors to take. Maybe first-year community college students too. It's called "Science in the Popular Press" and it's a class on how science works. The vast majority of people will never set foot in a science lab after high school, but we all spend our lives reading about science in the press, and we need tools to interpret it.

In my class, I'd have students learn about basic concepts like experiment design, control groups, and statistical significance. They'd learn what a reliable source is, what it is not, what a peer-reviewed journal means, what is data, and what is anecdotal evidence.

(As in "my neighbor cured her schizophrenia with blue-green algae" is an anecdote, and "several thousand people in a controlled double-blind study, reported on in the New England Journal of Medicine cured their schizophrenia with blue-green algae" is data.)

In my class, people would learn to ask questions like:

--Who funded the study and why?
--What questions did the study answer?
--What questions did the study not answer, that still remain?
--Who benefits from the study's results, if any?
--Who stands to lose from the study's results, if any?
--Is the study or experiment repeatable, and who has repeated it?
--Which community of peers reviewed the data?

We all need to thoroughly understand these basic concepts of modern science in order to be informed consumers of information. My college days in the chemistry lab are long over, and I don't have a career in science today, but being able to understand these concepts gives me a basis to interpret the science story of the day from Newsweek, my local paper,, and other sources.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson has what Carl Sagan had, personal charisma. People who are not scientists look for absolutes: there is a God - there is no God. Science, because knowledge depends on conclusions from data, is always subject to change, if ever so remotely, because all of the data is never in. So, we are left with the quandary that to get folks to believe in the overwhelmingly probable, we have to either use charismatic teachers or charlatans to get the message across. Scientists prefer the former. Crooks the latter. Big business has resorted to the use of "experts" to give credence to the lies they pass for refutation of scientific evidence. One of the logical fallacies is Appeal to Authority. An astrophysicist then becomes the hired shill arguing against the medical and scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer. It is pointed out that the astrophysicist worked for NASA, or has a Nobel Prize or some other evidence of his high authority.

If we have to resort to using people that the average Joe would like to go have a beer with to make the case then so be it.

Keep at it. I like what you write. R
Thanks everyone, and thanks for the Editor's Pick! It's a total thrill.

Baltimore Aureole, I think scientists have actually addressed many of those items. People like absolutes, and like Rodney Roe said further down, science is always provisional. Rabbit fossils in the cambrian, and all that.

Froggy, exactly. One of my biggest frustrations is how difficult it is for many people to sort out anecdote from peer-reviewed literature. It's really difficult for people to understand that both sources do not share equivalent credibility.
Baltimore Aureole, here's a good source for climate change science. I've linked a list of arguments and misinformation, but the site has a ton of other pages to check out too.
I think you may be wasting your time addressing Baltimore's points. They are straight from the oil company manual on "refuting" anthropogenic global warming believers.
really helpful discussion of the difficulties scientists have presenting science to a lay audience, it is a totally different skill set, and sometimes counterintuitive to, the other science training. Thanks for the insights and thoughtful post.
GeeBee, I suspect you're right. Maybe someone reading is on the fence and amenable to credible information.... hopefully....

Mother Nature Dating, Thanks!
TTP - You wrote: "How can I convince someone of the fact of climate change..." You only need to know that warm is good and cold is bad. I will ask you one question. Do you believe in "The Hockey Stick" graph of historic temperatures?
froggy - Do you believe entangled particles are non local? I reference The Drake Theorem.

I believe macro black holes are hollow. Do you believe they have a singularity? If so, how do you resolve for conservation of angular momentum. Just asking......

My bad. Its the Bell Theorem.
AU - You wrote: "I guess I won't see spaghettification any time soon, but that's probably a good thing."

Many people visualize a Black Hole as a sphere sucking matter straight down into it. This leads to the questionable [I believe erroneous] visualization of a singularity. However, all Black Holes have accretions disks. As matter approaches the event horizon it does the opposite of spaghettification; it smears thinner and thinner as it rotates faster and faster, in accordance with The General Theory of Relativity and conservation of angular momentum.

Hawking and Suskind thrashed this out in years past. Hawking proposed Black Holes could evaporate because The Standard Model allows for particles to pop in and out of existence near the event horizon, and those that pop out would escape, thus diminishing the Black Hole. Without going into details, Hawking resigned the argument to Suskind.

The larger arguement is whether actual physical infinities [as opposed to mathematical constructs] can exist in reality. I am among those who believe they do not. For instance, the universe is expanding and thus increases in volume.

Others contend the universe is 'Flat' and is thus infinite to begin with. Expansion simply adding to the infinity. [For reference, is the infinity of prime numbers smaller then the infinity of all numbers?] Blaa blaa blaa.
I love Bill Nye, but he makes a fundamental strategic mistake (in my opinion). He wears a bow tie.

I, and most people I know, have learned through hard experience to Never Trust A Man In A Bow Tie.

It's kind of like the little fish symbol on a business card or billboard... it's an asterisk that reads "I'm going to screw you over". Bow tie? Same thing.

Oh, there are exceptions that prove the rule (Nye, for example), but generally it is a robust observation.
Tobbar, I unfairly associate bow ties with Tucker Carlson, and my bs radar goes on high alert. As you said, there are notable exceptions.