Knowing it all

Scientists need to be careful when speaking outside their fields of expertise — it's impossible to get everything right.

 
 Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

 

Overt Analyser is a monthly column by Chloe Warren that reflects on her experiences as a twenty-something scientist. Chloe is a PhD student in medical genetics at the University of Newcastle and really thinks too much about most things.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and astronomer, as well as the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He has written numerous books on popular science and narrated and presented several documentaries, TV shows and podcasts. Needless to say, he’s one of the world’s most famous scientists and science communicators. With a role like that, he’s also got a huge responsibility to represent science and scientists appropriately.

A couple of weeks ago, however, Tyson posted some scientifically nonsensical tweets and consequently struck the nerve of scientists across the globe. 

 
 
 
 

These tweets were quickly called out as biologists rallied to tell Tyson that plenty of species don’t enjoy sex, and also that the laws of genetics were a lot more complicated than he makes them out to be. 

  Cats are just one of the many species for whom sex is painful. Their spiny penis rakes in the walls of the vagina during withdrawal.   Mohamed Aymen Bettaieb/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Cats are just one of the many species for whom sex is painful. Their spiny penis rakes in the walls of the vagina during withdrawal. Mohamed Aymen Bettaieb/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It was annoying enough that Tyson’s statements were incorrect, but what was perhaps even more frustrating was his response to being told he was wrong. He continued to laugh along and make up excuses, instead of just doing the right thing and admitting his inaccuracies. 

Being a practising scientist requires an enormous amount of modesty. (Well, it should.) No matter what your field is, you need to accept that that any second, your theories could be proven wrong — or at the very least called into question. 

Scientists who are keen on sharing their work with the public and other scientists have been taking advantage of social media from the get go. Twitter in particular has given experts the power to interact directly with whomever wants to know about their field of expertise. Social media is a powerful tool, which Tyson misused to the undoing of many other researchers’ hard work. This hard work has not just consisted of sharing ideas, but of shattering harmful stereotypes about scientists.

These stereotypes already come with enough weight of humourlessness, stubbornness and egotism without one of the worlds’ most famous astrophysicists jumping on the pile and waving the flag of arrogance.

  He doesn’t even go here! Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and cosmologist, not a biologist.   Abdul Rahman/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

He doesn’t even go here! Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and cosmologist, not a biologist. Abdul Rahman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the reasons people can be hesitant to trust scientific messages is that scientists are often perceived as arrogant. That’s not surprising really, when we mostly only hear from them when they’re telling us what’s for the best or what we should be doing. While scientists can ‘get it wrong’ (science is built around uncertainty, after all), following the scientific methods means you’re far less likely to be wrong than when you base your ideas on a series of assumptions and anecdotal evidence. It’s not really about arrogance — it’s about the fact that when a report is published, it’s published based on rigorous analyses of systematically collected data. And no matter how many babies you’ve had, or cigarettes you have smoked or how often you’ve fainted from your windturbinitus, I can guarantee you that you do not know anywhere near as much about your topic of interest as the people who wrote that paper: it is literally their full-time job. 

In short, good scientists aren’t arrogant; they just know their stuff. They’re also chock full of humility and ready at all times to be proven wrong — if you’ve actually got the peer reviewed evidence to try.

  Despite the NHMRC finding no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affects health, the myth still prevails – possibly due to the public’s inherent distrust in ‘arrogant’ scientists.   James Russell/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite the NHMRC finding no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affects health, the myth still prevails – possibly due to the public’s inherent distrust in ‘arrogant’ scientists. James Russell/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But getting back to my previous point: no one was even asking Tyson about biology. That guy was just shouting nonsense into the void because (I guess?) he thought it sounded funny. For a start, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a biologist, he is an astrophysicist. 

No single scientist is an expert in every field. Tyson’s assumption that his expertise in astrophysics qualified him to make unfounded statements about biology perpetuates the message that scientists think they know everything. In reality, if you come across a scientist who doesn’t use the term “I don’t know,” then they’re a terrible scientist.

If a person has been trained in science, they might not necessarily know the answer to specific scientific questions (especially ones completely unrelated to their field), but they will excel at knowing where to begin at finding the answer. After all, being a scientist isn’t really about knowing ‘What?’, but approaching ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’

Neil deGrasse Tyson might be doing a great job of communicating the wonderful things scientists have discovered and achieved, but he’s not always so great at representing the science he preaches. I don’t necessarily mean looking through a telescope or doing calculations — but assuming the role of a true scientist by looking to other experts for advice and listening with humility and respect. 

Edited by Jack Scanlan