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I write short stories and the occasional novel, generally in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and have a select few published stories out there in unheard of online magazines. I also do art on occasion, which I don't take quite as seriously as writing but for which I still try to maintain a healthy level of quality. I produce such works rather infrequently, as I'm an astronomy postdoc who's also trying to finish up a novel. When I'm not doing any of those things, I'm probably wasting time playing NES games or something.

The MLR stands for Monsieur LeRenard, si cela vous avez intéressé, but you can call me Frank.

Latest Journal

The SCIENCE of pop science

on 11 September 2017 at 16:22:52 MDT

There's something that bugs me about organizations or TV shows or YouTube channels or what have you that purport to proselytize the wonders of science to the masses. Because I'm in a mood, I'm going to attempt to articulate that right now.

What got me thinking about this again was, I was bored and so out of morbid curiosity I watched a video from the Game Theorists channel on YouTube. Every now and then I do this, to fulfill the same basic emotional need I can also get from watching a multi-car pileup progress . Now, as I understand it, there's some controversy over this channel. It has a hardcore fanbase and is quite popular, and I believe it has been deemed a natural law that anything popular on the internet must generate a certain amplitude of violent counter-reaction. It's probably a variant on Newton's laws of motion. Anyway, the creator of it at this point has, in accordance with this law, become jaded to criticism, likely because the bulk of the criticism he receives leaves, shall we say, much to be desired. Understandable. You've achieved fame and fortune, keep doing what you're doing.

What bothers me about this channel isn't so much the content (which seems to be everyone else's problem), but more the conceit. This channel, and a lot of other things like it, loves to throw around the word SCIENCE. And in this context it must be spelled with all caps, yes. But what Game Theory is all about is taking a mechanic or a plot device or some other aspect of a game that doesn't really make much sense and then do an amusing bit by trying to explain how it MIGHT make sense after all. That's cute and fun, but it's not... science. In fact, watching some episodes of the show, I get the impression the creator's method relies more on the techniques of conspiracy theorists: you come up with a possible explanation for something (a "theory", if you will), and then you do a ton of research in order to back that explanation up. You stop when you feel you've made a good case and you say 'theory proved!'

It's probably worth stating that this gets the philosophy of science precisely backwards. I know a lot of scientists in reality do tend to work that way, but the point is they really shouldn't. What you should do is come up with a possible explanation (a hypothesis) and then do everything in your power to DISPROVE that hypothesis. If you have a hard time doing that, then you know you're on to something. But if you disprove it you're done, and you try again with a revision. It's not as cool as saying "This is the truth", but that's the general idea behind the scientific method. It's also why peer-review is so damned important, because it turns out that people (even scientists!) aren't very adept at thinking this way about their own ideas. Kind of the same reason all fiction writers benefit from having an objective editor.

Game Theory's whole concept cannot possibly work that way, of course, because it would take no effort at all to disprove any theory you come up with that explains a silly mechanic that's not meant to be accurate to the real world. You can see this just by reading the comments section on any given Game Theory video. In which case, MatPat needs to stop using the word SCIENCE to describe his videos. That's not what he's doing.

Game Theory of course gets that part wrong, but the channel has a lot of other content associated with it as well, including one that always titles the videos "The SCIENCE of [insert topic here]". This one gets it wrong in a subtly different way, and it gets it wrong in a way that a lot of other pop science things get it wrong. This one's conceit is to pose a question (the most recent one is something on the order of "Can Five Nights at Freddie's actually kill you with fright interrobang?!?!") and then infodump on the audience in an effort to answer said question. The SCIENCE in question then is the info being dumped.

It kind of hearkens to my problem with how I was taught science in public school in the US, which was essentially to be handed a textbook and told to memorize certain things from it. I was expected to think those certain things were cool, I guess. Now, in my case, I actually did end up internalizing a lot of that stuff, because I in fact DID think it was pretty cool, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't work for most people. This YouTube show, or things like IFLS (I F***ing Love Science) take kind of the same approach, where you're just supposed to be wowed by the facts they're presenting, and that's supposed to magically generate interest in science for people who aren't involved with research. It's... a noble goal, I suppose, but in the end, I AM a bonafide scientist now, and these types of things mostly just make me cringe.

First of all: not everything in science is exciting. Science being exciting isn't why science should be funded in the first place. It should be funded because there's a CHANCE that the science people are doing will end up turning into something useful. Fact is, exploratory research is funded because no one knows how to predict which bit of science will end up being exciting, so the only option is to just throw money around and allow everyone to work on whatever the hell they want in the hopes someone makes a breakthrough that ends up being useful. We know this is a good option because some old Scottish guy who spent his time dicking around with loops of wire and batteries invented electricity, and no one at the time thought it was particularly useful or interesting. But this is the reality, and so posing every little advancement as "Wow, isn't SCIENCE so cool ALL THE TIME" is misleading. People catch on; they smell the bullshit. Your approach ends up causing the reverse effect you intended it to. IMO, it's better to be honest.

Second of all, painting science as being awesome all the time washes over just about everything that actually occurs in the course of scientific research. I can say from experience that a typical research project goes like this: a.) come up with idea to investigate; b.) do some background reading, formulate some tests, start writing code or whatever you need to get some experiments going; c.) find out your experimental concept was egregiously flawed in some way, and proceed to make endless tweaks; d.) get frustrated, talk to collaborators to get help; e.) kind of get on the right track; f.) work out a very noncommittal answer because it turns out your data isn't really good enough to answer the question you had originally asked; g.) publish, use lots of qualifiers, and go beg for more money to get better data so you can do it all slightly better next time.

You want to know why it seems like medical professionals are constantly changing their minds about what kinds of foods and drinks are bad/good for you? Because what I just described above is how they're doing their research. The problem is just that medicine is hip and relevant to most people, so every one of those noncommittal answers ends up making headline news and gets blown totally out of proportion. Or it gets discussed in a post by IFLS, or in a video on YouTube trying to make some point about how playing a dumb horror game will give you a heart attack. Again... this is counterproductive, because you're not telling the whole story. If people knew the whole story they'd know WHY the scientists' opinions keeps changing. It's not because they're incompetent, which is the impression most people will get when you portray every incremental study as a breakthrough; it's because they're still working on the goddamned project. You shouldn't call you car mechanic incompetent if you stop him 1/3 of the way through fixing your car and then found out your car wasn't working.

And that's how science should probably be portrayed. Not as SCIENCE but as science. Right*?

*Get it? I'm ending with a qualifier that makes the previous statement more noncommittal and also invites peer-review.

View This Journal and 4 Comments


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    Thank you for your thoughts.

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      Sure, and sorry for your first negative review. If you want, we could talk more, but if not, you can take that review as aberrant given the 23 other very positive ones and go forth as you were.
      By the way, if i didn't mention it, I did think the book's concept was really good. It was like an old sci-fi epic, but where the focus was on this unusual and tender relationship between two characters who were master and slave. I can't claim I've ever seen anything like that before.

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        I'd love to hear your thoughts amplified. The review is pretty damaging, I'll admit, but you're obviously entitled to write it; for my part, I am sorry that you didn't enjoy the story, and will happily refund you the price of the eBook if you like.

        There are elements of truth to some of your points, though others are simple stylistic differences—reading through your writing, I've concluded that you and I have quite different tastes. I was, however, extremely surprised by your comment in regard to "distressingly large number of [grammatical errors and typos]," and would be curious to hear more about that. That is something which is unquestionably unacceptable, and something I took great care to avoid.

        I don't disagree about some of the "fat," although I've discovered that it's very hit-or-miss; while some test-readers suggested some trimming, in that regard, others immediately missed it once cut. If you're familiar with Æsop's "The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass," you'll recognize the quandary. In the end, I concluded that all I could do was write my story, farm it out to various people, and pick and choose between their critiques as the deciding voice. I was actually trying very hard to find comments like yours before I posted it, but nobody was able or willing to go into that sort of depth.

        In the end, I'm relatively happy with Theta. It's not a perfect book, but many strangers have enjoyed it and rated it favorably, which is more than I could have ever asked when writing it. I consolidated it into a PDF from individual chapters posted on SoFurry, then published it only after people started asking for a paperback version; I created the eBook after people began asking for that... then created a publishing company to handle it.

        Publication in reverse, if you will.

        Professional editing was never an option, because I don't have nearly enough money to pay someone for the process—the book is already published at a loss—but it was extensively edited.

        In the end, I present none of this as defensive; when you publish a book or a story, you throw it to an audience who will react as they will. I thank you for reading it, and again for taking the time to summarize your thoughts on it, even if they weren't what I wanted to hear.



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    The permissions were given in the NOTES in another internet page.

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    I decided to follow because you are a familiar face and I was hoping to get to know more about you and read your stories. I hope that is okay? I can unwatch if I am making you uncomfortable, sorry.

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      Ha ha, no, it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I was just curious, was all. Came a bit out of the blue.
      In any case, thanks. Hopefully you enjoy the little I've got uploaded here.

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    remove my account

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    Greetings! How are you today?

    A question I wanted to address you: Have you by chance read "The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves"? by Jack Douglas.
    The way you title your writing tutorials reminded me of this book and I could not help but wonder if you have read it.