Sunday, June 5, 2011

Scire: Scio, Scis, Scit

The World Science Festival was in town this week, when scientists go onstage to present some of their work for a broad audience and tease out some Big Think. It was founded by Columbia University string theory guy Brian Greene and his wife Tracey Day five years ago and it's gotten bigger each year.

The word Science comes to us via old French from the Latin “scire” “To know,” from its present participle “sciens” for “knowledge.” Hence its primacy in many lives for what is “true.”

In a broad cultural sense, I wonder how different things might be if our language had instead used the Latin participle from “explorare,” to explore, to define “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world.” Science is always an exploration——a neutral concept——but the concept of “knowing” is a value judgment which has consequences. Naming things. Now there's the real power (Joseph Campbell anyone?)

Storymakers & Storytellers: Who’s Narrative Is It?

I attended the panels at the Paley Center. The highlight was the rock star panel of Steven Pinker, Siddhartha Mukherjee, James Watson, E.O. Wilson, and Brian Greene, who were then joined by science journalists Jonathan Weiner, Deborah Blum, Natalie Angier, and Timothy Ferris. The premise of the panel wass if/how scientists can control their own stories.

Each scientist had written one or more popular books for a general audience about their subject. They spoke about how reaching out to nonexperts was dismissed by many of their peers, and their concerns that it might escalate to the "Carl Sagan Syndrome," where their science would be questioned simply because they had translated their idea for the general public. Moderator Robert Krulwich asked James Watson why he wrote The Double Helix: “Because it was too important a story not to tell for all.”

The surprise of the panel was seeing that Watson and Wilson are the Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis of the science community: ornery, brilliant, hyperliterate.

E.O. Wilson had the best quotes of the day. One he attributed to Truman Capote: “Interviews are seductions followed by betrayal,” and the other was his: “Funeral by funeral [scientific] theories advance.”

Alan Alda’s session was about his work bringing improv skills to young scientists. He brought some young science grad students from Stony Brook and ran them through some improv exercises, with the goal of them being able to better translate their work to nonscientists.

“Scientists should be able to speak in their own voice. They shouldn’t have to be mediated by anyone else, because it’s their work…not only their work, but their passion, their understanding, and their intuition.”

Alda feels strongly about the need for scientists to be able to communicate to the general public: “More people believe in Satan than in evolution. This is a communications problem.”

That seems a simplistic idea in itself, that if scientists could only communicate evolution clearly enough everyone would believe it. Not sure if Alda is implying not to believe in Satan, but I did just see the Anthony Hopkins film The Rite (which was better than Stephen Holden thought), and I’m sure that no amount of clear communication will dissuade someone from a belief in evil incarnate if it’s part of their religious faith (or direct empirical experience).

The Illusion of Uncertainty
I went down to the panel at the Tishman Auditorium at the New School about risk, probability, and chance. There was audience participation, filling out cards with “heads/tail” while Josh Tenenbaum of MIT flipped a coin 5 times, and Amir Aczel demonstrating probability by blocking off just 30 people in 2 rows and saying that at least 2 people would share the same birthdate, and they did.

What isn’t an illusion is the maleness of this field. That one of Gerd Gigerenzer’s examples had something to do with a gynecologists and I swear he was cupping his hands to his chest as he talked about birth control. I know that there was a panel about women scientists, but many of the main panels are dripping in testosterone.

These are not my people, this is not my world. My understanding of numbers is always opposite of what’s going on. It’s so bad it’s amazing I get through the day. I am always happy to return to the lens of language and literary concepts: then the world starts making sense again.


dorki said...

The panels at the Paley Center was certainly a high-voltage crowd. I have just finished reading Brian Green's "The Hidden Reality". Very informative and enjoyable even though my brains are still a bit numb from it. After all, how many folks can think in eleven dimensions or consider holographic universes?

Another good writer in this area is Lisa Randall. Her book "Warped Passages" is a bit more approachable but still covers this complex field properly.

All this work to try to understand reality (whatever that is).

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, thanks for the reading suggestions. The fields that look at 'what is reality" are tantalizing, but the best part is that if you don't want to think about it, reality certainly does take care of itself:)