Trust Me,
I’m a Scientist

6 July 2013

Performing an experiment for kids Brian Koberlein
Performing an experiment for kids

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 below). It’s why I try to engage with readers about science every day.

I trust I’m doing okay so far.