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Scientific acronyms and buzzwords April 27, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Musings.
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As a scientist I find myself more and more often explaining science to lay people I know. Our society gets more technological every day. People are exposed to science, hear about new developments, and yet do know knoiw squat about them

A medical technique like MRI is now common knowledge, but with little or no knowledge of what it is. Completely different techniques that do similar things, like positron-emission tomography scanning or other radiological scanning gets muddled up with it or radiation concepts get muddled into MRI (one reason it does not mention the nuclear we chemists know of in its parent NMR technique).

New electronics have LEDs, LCDs, plasma, and the scientifically illiterate succumb to pure advertising in choosing devices with these – no real understanding of advantages and disadvantages. Heck, the difference between RAM and Rom pr other types of memory in devices is lost.

Environmental issues are hot topics, yet few people understand things. Risks and benefits are alien concepts – just look at how well they have been applied to investing and finances. Greenhouse gas means a lot of different gases, each with its own complex issues. Toxins vary from acute and chronic poisons, mutagens and carcinogens, hormone mimics that affect reproduction and bodily functions, and several other classes.

The media solves these complexities by dumbing everything down and leaving out details and any subtleties, so that you end up with good versus bad.

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Comments»

1. The Chemist - April 28, 2009

Well, what are you going to do? An introductory science course should carry a disclaimer: “In order to get you to understand science, things will be oversimplified, abridged, ignored, and ultimately you will even be lied to. If this course is a success, you will walk off merry in the ignorance that comes with knowledge of problematic definitions, idealized formulas, and laws to which there are many,many, exceptions and convolutions.”

In Gen. Chem 1 you’re not supposed to think about chemical bonding. Just worry about coefficients and memorize periodic trends.

In Gen. Chem 2 you’re not supposed to worry about chemical bonding, OR physics. Just memorize and apply the math.

In Org. Chem 1 you’re not supposed to worry about many kinds of bonding, the physics, or the math. Just worry about fitting things to prepared datasets, and regurgitating memorized mechanisms.

In Org. Chem 2… etc. etc. etc.

Look at the pedagogy- the scientist-in-training has to be sheltered from information overload. Meanwhile the substance of the information itself is ultimately not the substance of science- that’s all just primer. The layperson has no idea just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. But what do I know? I’m not even fully primed, and I already find it difficult to explain to certain people how we know what we know in a way they can understand.

Other people simply underestimate what we can know. One person I know was shocked to learn that we do in fact know how muscles work on a molecular level, and that we even have pictures. In fact he was coming dangerously close to making the argument for irreducible complexity that anti-evolutionists use so often- yet he believes the theory of evolution! At that moment I understood that people who are capable of being logical, will still apply ideology to fill in the gaps and well- Here Be Monsters.

2. fetzthechemist - April 28, 2009

Interesting twist. Most people, including non-evolutionary scientists do not understand evolution. It is not survival of the fittest in the sense of most fit, but in the sense of the best fit….to the ecological and food chain and the other factors that control successful living. That is why some very odd and specialized animals exist. They survived in specific niches that had advantages once upon a time. Now they may not, so pandas are endangered when their bamboo food supply dies off every few decades.

My main point is that people are deciding as individuals, consumers, and citizens with an ignorant knowledge base to rely on. A plasma TV might be new and glitzy, but it sucks up energy. Solar power might sound great, but what deserts are we going to sacrifice? anmd on and on……


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