The above title says it all really. It’s a headline that won’t ever lead the news. But day in and day out, it’s utterly incredible what we can and have accomplished just by setting out to sincerely learn about the world around us. Just by observing and thinking. Humbly. Instead of presuming that we have all the answers.
Anyhow, after listening to the fantastic interview with astrophysicist/cosmologist Laurence Krauss on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, I figured it was time for some follow-up on my “Scientists May Have Already Destroyed the Universe!” post. If you’ve forgotten already, the controversy there was a story in the New Scientist and reprinted elsewhere claiming a new paper published by Krauss and a co-author James Dent suggested that mankind’s observations of the universe could have potentially shortened its life. Quantum woomeisters went mad with delight, mainstream scientists scratched their heads, and even the Drudgereport, always eager to portray scientists as nutty or dangerous, picked up on it.
Unfortunately, the whole thing was a giant mixup.
And in response, Krauss apparently made the rounds on blogs all over the internet (including this one) trying to apologize and explain the far more complicated truth behind the headline. If anything, he gives himself too much blame for the story: sure, he could have been clearer and less glib, but it’s still the job of a science journalist to do background work and check with other sources before putting out an inflammatory headline and even a press release about the headline. If the journalist in this case had done that, he quickly would have been told by other experts in the field that either Krauss or his interpretation of Krauss was batty… after which a quick check with Krauss would have cleared the matter up. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.
But it so often doesn’t: science journalists of the caliber of Carl Zimmer are sadly few and far between. And perhaps most are even dinosaurs, in a sense. More and more scientists are starting to realize that they both have an obligation to explain and connect with ordinary people directly, and that in blogs they have the means to do so without the confusing intervention of amateurs. Realizing that rushing on ahead of the rest of humanity in a quest for knowledge can be counterproductive or even dangerous (especially if you depend on those very people for funding and as a source for future colleagues).
Widespread scientific literacy just isn’t something that scientists can take for granted, or brush off as unimportant. It needs to be a core mission and ethic, and if this takes some time away from hard research, then so be it (though it’s probably not even a zero sum game: having to teach and explain concepts to the public can often be as enlightening and intellectually invigorating for the teacher as anyone else).
Let a thousand Carl Sagans bloom: