Trust Me, I’m a Scientist

In Education by Brian Koberlein9 Comments

When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine asked about my research. I was studying aspects of black holes in the early universe, so I explained a bit about black holes, the big bang and such in broad terms. Afterwards she shook her head and responded: “Bull poopy.” Our conversation went for a bit longer, with her arguing that I couldn’t possibly know what I was claiming to be true, and me trying to explain how I knew these things, but it was clear that opinions wouldn’t change. The simple fact was that she didn’t trust me. I was either confused or lying, so nothing I said could possibly change her mind.

As a scientist striving to convey an understanding of science, trust is essential. I can try to write about astrophysics in a way that is clear and honest, but if you don’t trust me it’s all rather moot. So in all of my writings, while I try to be clear and sometimes entertaining, I also to build a level of trust with my readers. Hopefully over time you’ll come to trust that I’m being honest and earnest about our understanding of the universe.

If you’ve been following my posts for a while, you’ve probably noticed an overall pattern. I don’t sensationalize topics. When I talk about current research I link the original source, not just a press release. When there are legitimate opposing views I explain the evidence behind why one view is accepted over another. When there is unfounded opposition to a concept I explain why it is unfounded. When there are misconceptions I work to dismantle them. I say “we don’t know” when we really don’t know. There’s a reason why I follow this method. I’m a scientist.

This doesn’t mean that scientists are more honest than others. What it means is that the way I present ideas in my posts parallels the modern scientific method. Document sources of data, be open to criticism, be prepared to defend your ideas, be willing to admit when you’re wrong or don’t know. If you don’t follow this approach, the peer review process will eat you alive. Peer review is not about taking things on trust, it’s about requiring you to prove what you claim. Being open and honest about your work lets the peer review process go a bit more smoothly.

Keeping posts honest and informative isn’t easy. It would be easier to simply post jokes, or gorgeous photographs with emotional phrases on them. But while that can make us feel good about the science we love, it doesn’t raise our understanding of science and scientific thinking. It doesn’t raise the level of scientific understanding.

Science matters. It’s worth doing, and it’s worth sharing. That’s why I write about astrophysics. It’s why I’m willing to dress in a science costume to teach science to kids (as you can see above). It’s why I try to engage with readers about science every day.

I trust I’m doing okay so far.

Comments

  1. Just another note to say that you’re doing okay! In fact, when I saw those recent articles in my news feed about the amount of light in the universe, my first thought was “I think I’ll wait and read what Brian Koberlein has to say about this.” So yeah, good job.

  2. I read you every night, so yes, you have my trust. Keep what you do the way you do it, That is fine with me.

  3. Like I’ve said in another comment here, you are doing uphill work. Hugely valuable work in a “copy pasta” communication world.
    I’m looking forward to seeing what you write about the Kollmeier paper (=”missing light”)

  4. I’m reading your post semi – regularly but even if I haven’t been here for 2 weeks then I still catch up on everything you have posted so far. Sometimes i wonder how you can publish 4 articles within a couple of days and it makes me think that you might get somebody else involved but to be honest: I don’t really care. I’m following this blog because I’m interested about astrophysics. I spend a lot of time thinking about the universe and I have thousands of crazy ideas how it all could hang together but I do lack the education to make my own judgement on recent astrophysical research. So I come here and read about the research, and about your opinion on those claims. I depend on a specialist to tell me if the latest claims can hold up on their promise.

    Sometimes I just miss a few important points and then I read your blog putting things straight for me.For example, I was scared about the particle accelerators in Europe and thought that forcing 2 particles together could create a black hole and accumulate more mass from there and swallow up the whole earth at the end. Reading your recent article about high energy particle from space hitting earth more or less all the time put this really into perspective. I simply didn’t know this.

    So thanks Brian and I hope you keep going for a long while.

    1. Author

      I’m actually only writing a post a day. The afternoon posts were done on Google+ about a year ago, and I’m gradually updating them and adding them to the blog.

  5. I don’t know what prompted the post, but I haven’t seen anything that even remotely challenges your credibility. Your doing a great job.

  6. Your blog is extremely helpful, Brian, thank you so much!
    I particularly like how clear you put your ideas and the information about modern scientific research.
    For example, the article about radioactive decay is just awesome, I’ve taken a huge delight in reading it.

    I wonder what such conversations you’ve mentioned in this post end up with? When you face such unlikeliness to accept your ideas from your companion in conversation and if you can be sure that he won’t change his mind anyway, what do you do?

    I’ve faced such a situation a couple of times and I actually thought that it’s my ignorance doesn’t allow me to convince my companion, however, if even you face such problems sometimes it might be not the whole story.

    Thank you once again for this blog and for being clear and honest.

Leave a Reply