Friday, 30 October 2009

Information Spreading

It would be fair to say that there's a gap between science and culture. Science and in particular has crafted technology in such a way that almost every aspect of our lives are dependent on the discipline, while the average person wouldn't know how their television set works. (beyond the basics I don't either)

As a scientifically-inclined layman, I sometimes get frustrated at the difficulty at finding particular information. To have a good access to information seems vital in this modern age. It's not enough to be aware of the basics, we need to be informed and be able to tell science from pseudoscience.

And there are those now who exploit this medium and do it well, using the same anecdotal means as before but now on a global scale. Information is cheap, misinformation less so. Dawkins in his new book typified this by showing that a comment he made about the Cambrian explosion has been quote mined on a ratio of ~20:1.

Having people work on correcting misinformation isn't free, however. Expertise in any given topic takes time and energy, it's just not feasable. Nor are such people needed, we don't need a professor at Harvard to personally counter each bit of misinformation. Rather an attune collective of informed laymen should be sufficient.

To give one example, on a forum I frequent the claim that Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed was brought up. It wasn't brought up by a creationist, just someone who had heard this false claim and propagated it on. This claim is false, and even though I'm not a Darwin biographer, I was able to correct that claim and point him in the right direction.

The web and in particular web 2.0 has been great. The technology is there to allow for global access to data and information. Science in its current state can be made accessible to a wider audience at all levels, teaching can extend beyond the lecture theatre and into the homes of anyone who is interested.

In my view such an imperative is needed, it should be a focus of science education bodies in terms of outreach to the general public. And the cultural spread of information from anecdotal sources might be the most anti-scientific means one can think of, it's the way that since the dawn of humanity our species has transmitted information. We need as many people possible to not only know what they are talking about, but have the resources to back it up.

I'm not going to ever write a technical paper and further the knowledge of mankind. My understanding of how the universe works is not geared towards a life in the lab or public sphere. It's what I do in my spare time, it's a hobby, an intellectual persuit to keep my mind occupied and interested. Yet I don't need to publish in order to be useful.

It's at the grass roots where people can make a real difference, and where in my view the scientific establishment should be putting more work into supporting. Science beyond all else is free enterprise, yet it seems that paradoxically the open inquiry is limited to the establishment while religion has descended from the establishment and become a free-for-all.

I'm not claiming to have the answers here, only what I think would be helpful to me. Part of my frustration recently is that I'm reading wonderful things in books such as Your Inner Fish or Why Evolution Is True, yet all I can do is reference a book when I try to relay such information. If they were web resources, I'd be able to give people a link to the direct information and thus increase the chances of people actually reading them.

I've enjoyed immensely that there are several Youtube channels dedicated to putting up lectures both public and in courses, that iTunes hosts several lectures and lecture series for free download. That there are podcasts dedicated to spreading scientific thought and critical thinking. It's a great start, and hopefully more is done in the future to keep this trend going.

Anyway, the reason I wrote this was because Jerry Coyne mentioned on his blog about a public lecture series being held in Chicago over the next few days for the Darwin celebrations. Yet even though I'm stuck on the other side of the world, thanks to the internet and the organisers of the event I'll be able to see the talks online. This is fantastic news, it'll give many people the chance to see something they wouldn't have previously seen and it will be preserved in digital media. This is the kind of thing I think the scientific community can do for a little extra effort that can go a long way in making an informed public.

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