What right does a non-scientist have to write about science? Time to think out loud.
A couple of weeks ago, I submitted a post of mine to reddit’s r/skeptic community, which I do when I have content they might like, because I find the feedback to be usually quite informative. It “keeps me honest,” as that old chestnut goes. On that post I got a comment that began “I am glad that an English Teacher knows so much about Crop Production!” and, while my sarcasm filters are rather bent out of shape and not terribly effective, I do believe he was being sarcastic.
Now, I could start by using my field of expertise as an English teacher to point out that he didn’t need to capitalize “Teacher,” “Crop,” or “Production,” but the poor grammar of the Ad-Hominem Attack Troll is fairly well known.
What I would like to address are the facts that a) I’m not a scientist, and b) I nevertheless write a science blog. That is to say, all sarcasm aside, why should anyone believe a word I write about science, when for my day job I teach (and write) about reading and writing as forms of remix, and about sin and evil in medieval literature?
There are two reasons, and they’re intertwined. One has to do with what science is, and the other is about the tools the humanities use.
First, science isn’t an expertise; it’s a methodology.
“Scientist” isn’t a profession anymore. It’s not like plumber or electrician, jobs that can only be done (or, you know, maybe should only be done) by a licensed professional. Once upon a time, sure, scientist was a job. Back when we were pumping the air out of bell jars to see if birds would pass out, maybe there was something as general as the profession of “scientist,” but these days it covers hundreds, even thousands of disciplinary divisions. An experimental nuclear physicist is a scientist, a nanoscale materials engineer is a scientist, an evolutionary biologist is a scientist — but they’re very specific kinds of scientists. What they share, what makes them scientists, is a shared methodology.
The beautiful thing about science — what I love about it and what allows me to take part in it — is that it’s also a very simple methodology. Science is performed by creating theories, i.e. models of reality, based on evidence and inference. We use previous discoveries to generate the new hypotheses, and then use experimentation or logic to prove those hypotheses right or, more often, wrong. Intensely simple, but also incredibly brilliant, science is the methodology by which we generate knowledge about the world.
When we look at science this way, something about the humanities becomes apparent: we use science there, too.
Not all of us, not all the time, and not with the same perspectives, but some of us do. A theological argument from unprovable a priori assumptions about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin would not, of course, be using science, but many in the humanities do. Historians, for instance, might use the findings of archaeological digs and the evidence of anthropologists to create theories about lived experience in ancient civilizations. Literary critics might use the biases present in a given piece of literature to garner insight into beliefs so common — so “understood” by the author and intended audience — that they literally “went without saying.”
The trite and common truism is that “science tells us about the world,” while “the humanities tell us about ourselves,” but in reality there’s a lot of overlap.
What’s more, there’s a tool used commonly in the humanities that is very useful in the sciences: we call it “critical thinking,” but it goes by a lot of names. You probably know it as “analysis.” Being able to gauge the reliability of sources, to test the logic of their arguments, to see hidden biases based not only on what’s present but also what’s absent — these skills are at the heart of the scientific worldview. They allow for scientific meta-analysis, for the development of new theories.
Because to develop new theories, you have to know whether the old theories are built on strong foundations.
“But,” I hear you saying, “if you’d studied science, you’d have more of the specific knowledge necessary to understand the scientific papers you discuss.”
I might, yes. I certainly have to admit that. And if I wanted to engage in the scientific academic disciplines, to publish papers on molecular biology or geophysics, I’d have to go back to school.
But to understand them and explain them to others?
You don’t have to have studied science at the university level to be a good science communicator. You just have to be prepared to do a lot of homework, and to use critical analysis to gauge the reliability of your sources. And if you’re at the graduate level in the humanities (not that you have to be, but, you know, that’s where I am) you’ve got that skill set.
Who are the best science communicators? Right now I’d say Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Nye is an engineer and Tyson is an astrophysicist. But that’s not what makes them great science communicators. Astrophysicists don’t know any more about biology than biologists know about black holes. What makes them great science communicators is that they take the time to learn about things and then express those in ways simple enough for non-scientists to understand.
What makes them great science communicators isn’t that they’re great scientists, it’s that they’re great communicators.
When I started this blog, my knowledge base wasn’t huge. I knew what you’d know in high school — fission, fusion, evolution, the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow — but if you’d asked me what a hadron was, for instance, or how something without mass could generate pressure, I’d have been hard pressed to answer. So I read — a lot — and I wrote. I still don’t get everything right, but you know what? Neither does Bill Nye sometimes.
So I stick to the evidence, analyze my sources, and talk to experts — and in the end this English teacher reports on science.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.