converging

I generally have little time to indulge too much in learning things which are not work related. I spend a lot of time not working (well, just enough!), but I spend only a small fraction of that time intellectually engaged in new ideas. This is not necessarily something I’m sad about – note that I’m excluding music, fiction, friends and general travel from this. That’s what takes up most of my free time – but I do find it harder and harder to sit down and actively learn. Again, note that I spend a lot of time reading about things and consuming information, but I’m generally happy to take other people’s opinions on most issues. Sure, I make an educated guess on who to trust (and that on itself takes some effort), but by large I don’t have the time to do the necessary research to (semi-)seriously challenge many of these opinions. It’s worth making the distinction between active and passive learning and, outside of work, my learning is decidedly dominated by the latter.

This is probably the main reason why I have always had a hard time identifying myself as skeptic. It’s not that I lack an inquisitive mind (clearly I don’t, or else being a scientist would be a nightmare), but I don’t always follow up on that inquisitiveness outside of work. It’s incredibly time consuming to form an opinion, and I think I deem myself satisfied a lot earlier down the line than any self-respecting skeptic would. I’m also relatively happy not having an opinion – I’m decidedly undecided about many issues, and not necessarily bothered about it.

I’ve recently noticed that the exception seems to be on evolution, natural selection and related issues. There are many reasons for this. Most obviously, it’s an amazingly interesting subject with profound consequences for how one sees the world and that fascinates me. It’s also a subject that has seen me change my mind dramatically about certain aspects of it and having my mind changed is one of the best feelings around.

In 2005 and my first year as a PhD student I went to the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) where one of the guests speakers was Professor Conway Morris. I was taken aback by this lecture, and immediately fascinated with the idea of convergent evolution. There are many examples of convergence in evolution, but just how important it is to the overall evolutionary path that led us to where we are today is a matter of controversy. This is not a blog about my views on the significance of convergence (maybe some other day), but rather on my changing my mind about it, and the whole process behind it: being presented the information, consuming it, processing it and forming an option.

The reason is that it recently dawned on me that this puts me where my public normally lies. I’m passionate about science communication in Astronomy, but it’s rather easy to forget what it’s like to not be an expert. And it’s hard.

I don’t want my audience to take my opinion on faith. Ideally, I would like to expose the problem in such a way that the answer is self-evident, given the evidence I present at the time. And of course, I don’t want to be selective in the evidence I present. If my audience is made up of my peers this is more or less easily done if only because I can point them to my technical publications and because we share a common background. But if my audience is made up of non-scientists then my job is much harder. This is one of the reasons I fundamentally disagree with Martin (although there are more!), in that there is such things as a scientist and there is such a thing as the public. I am both, and I can tell you that they are not the same. And I think it’s virtually impossible to convey most science to the public in a single event – be it a talk, a book, a blog post or a chat down the pub.

The point I’m trying to make is that the process of science communication is a two-way street. It has to be. I as a scientist have the responsibility to communicate (in a responsible and unbiased way, to the best of my ability), but as the public I have an equally important responsibility to actively learn. And both have to happen if science really is to be shared. Professor Conway Morris’ lecture introduced me to a concept (presented at the time as fundamental, as you can probably guess) but simply learning about convergence taught me little about the science of evolution. Reading his and other (opposing) books, blog posts and endless articles – that’s what taught me about the science. And whereas Professor Conway Morris’ lecture was fundamental in this process, it was never going to be enough.

There may be a way to learn from my experience as the public and put it to use as the scientist, even though I did start this post by saying how little time I spend actively learning these days. But in a way it’s empowering, as the public, to realise that it’s OK to change your mind, challenge the expert discourse and take as much time as needed to form opinion for which we can truly take ownership – or even not form one at all. Maybe that‘s a more important lesson to learn.

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