Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Science and truth – some final thoughts

Science communication can be hard in the face of politics around climate change, vaccines and other issues that rile people’s emotions.

Last year I read Clear and Simple as the Truth, an excellent book on writing by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner which is hard to track down, but well worth the effort. You can read the introduction here.

The book makes a compelling case for presenting truth in the ‘classic’ style practised often (though certainly not exclusively) 18th century French and American writers. Writing in this style has faith in its audience; that if the communication is clear, simple, direct and truthful, an audience can’t help but accept it as fact and agree with the writer.

In the authors’ view. truth is the vital underpinning of all communication. Truth is not something that a person can coherently argue against, and the clear presentation of truth leaves no room for the mistakes of understanding that the above debates and others like them rely on for oxygen. Truth exists outside argument. It is not altered by argument or convincing. To perceive truth is to be convinced.

The book ends with an examination of different pieces of writing, including two quotes on the relationship between truth and belief:

Truth can never be told as to be understood, and not be believ’d.

– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The authors place Blake’s quote against one from philosopher and mathematician Pascal:

En montrant la vérité, on la fait croire / To present truth is to have it believed.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

Which do you prefer?

Though the sentences express very similar ideas at first glance, Thomas and Turner criticise the innate ambiguity of Blake’s quote  – whether or not truth can be understood is contingent on whether it is possible to explain truth and have it be understood.

They prefer the self-contained second statement. Presentation is separate to truth; if the audience does not believe what is sees or reads, it is a failure of presentation. They write:

Truth is perfect. It can gain nothing by being perceived. It is therefore disinterested. It has no motive for deception. It cannot present itself falsely because it does not present itself at all… Truth cannot fail any test. It can only be misperceived and mishandled, But nothing is lethal to it.

It is not a stretch to apply the same statement to scientific fact specifically. But the world we live in feels often seems like it doesn’t have the patience or openness to ideas to erase that ambiguity. How can we be sure it is possible to make some people believe facts when they show no interest in them?

But the problem here is not the belief; it is understanding. Here Blake’s hedged statement has one thing that is reassuring for science communicators. By acknowledging understanding, it gives us an avenue to cope with failure and an answer to this worry: to make people believe the findings of science, it is essential they understand the process of science. We can explain findings in the simplest of terms, but unless we help people to understand the why and how of stories about the politically contentious areas of science, we will always struggle to have them accept the most important (and usually most-explored) part, the what, and the what should we do.

Was that Climate Change?

It seems these days that everyone has an opinion on climate change. From scientists to politicians to your grandparents, people have their view and they stick to it. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post there is a significant gap between the scientific consensus and the public consensus on climate change. Clearly scientists face a battle to convince the public on the basic premise that we are causing the earth to warm, but there is another, more subtle challenge facing climate scientists.

Climate change doesn’t just mean that everywhere is getting warmer, it means the climate is changing, and we’ll see more unusual weather events around the world. Climate scientists have recently developed methods to work out just how much we are impacting individual extreme weather events. This might sound familiar, like when you hear that heatwaves are projected to increase or that droughts will be more common, but it’s not quite the same.

This new area of climate science is called Event attribution. We look at a real weather event, one that affected people, and make a statement about the role that was played by climate change, and by extension, us. The danger is communicating these results.

Polar bears on sea ice are the universal symbol for climate change. Source: Flickr

Communication Issues

The public loves a definitive answer: yes, or no. But in this case, it’s just not possible. An attribution statement is a number that describes how much more likely the event is now, because of climate change. Every scientist knows how hard it is to explain the nuance and detail behind whatever they’re trying to explain, and trying to explain probabilistic results like these is no exception. On top of this, there is added difficulty in the fact it takes time to find these results – I’m working on an event that happened in February. Often the media starts talking about climate change before an event is over.

It is impossible to ‘blame’ climate change for an extreme weather event, but it doesn’t stop people from trying. Nor does it stop people from using that fact as a reason to avoid action on climate change, as our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott did when talking about bushfires in NSW in 2013.

Recently we saw a storm in South Australia that was so severe it caused the entire state to have a power blackout. There was talk about the storm being caused by climate change before it ended. This makes for a tough situation for climate scientists. Particularly when this storm was almost certainly not made worse by climate change, or it’s just too complicated to work out.

Coral reefs are at risk because of climate change. Source: Flickr

Event Attribution can be very useful

While it’s almost impossible to make definitive statement on if climate change caused and event, an attribution statement is still incredibly useful. Getting answers to events now can really help understand how they change in the future. On the scientific front, we can use the results of attribution studies to inform our climate models and enhance our understanding of what is happening now. On the other front, we can use examples of events that were made worse by climate change to spark the public into action, and draw attention to the work being done by scientists.

One such example is the coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef earlier this year. Scientists at the University of Melbourne showed this event was 175 times more likely because of our emissions. There was also a particularly hot October in Australia 12 months ago that was found to be worse because of climate change.

This is a new area of science that has only really begun to pick up pace in the last few years. It is promising for helping communicate what climate change is actually doing to the planet right now. Hopefully it can lead to some real action.

Are we dumber than flies?

A laboratory experiment proves that neurons of simple flies can react faster than neurons of our brains. Surely, that can’t be! Aren’t humans meant to be the highest order of living creatures in our thinking capacity?

Even though the answer is yes to this question, speed is not the only covariate of the humans’ decision-making processes.

In May 2010, the Dow Jones stock index plunged by a record amount in a single day, a landmark failure event in the stock exchange world. Experts eventually ascribed the short-fallings of automated financial trading machines to this inexplicable dive.

Human brain

Photo credit to Health Blog at Flickr

Why the world hasn’t been taken over by robots

The machines didn’t misbehave. It was just that they weren’t flexible enough for the chain of stock events that required more complex programmed behaviors that only human brains are capable of. Even though the automated trading machines can make complex decisions in a thousandth of a second-hundreds of times faster than humans, they still can’t rule the stock exchange market.

Our brains are massively parallel in that there is many millions of separate processes are being run concurrently. We solve countless numbers of probability problems in our head at all times. What if this, given this, that, that and that. Computers are far too rigid and simple to obtain this level of flexibility and complexity.

The ability of a human brain to act to a given event providing the vast repertoire of alternatives that the fundamental unpredictability that our environment imposes upon us is truly phenomenal and far beyond the limits of any impressive machines.

This is why humans have not been replaced by machines so far.

Where does it all happen?

By studying the brain functions of patients with epilepsy, scientists have been able to narrow down that the medial frontal cortex of the brain dictates the length of competing decision processes. When it is working well, all possibilities of an action is considered and processed by the brain. However, when the medial frontal cortex is disrupted, the brain makes hasty decisions.

How does it happen?

The human brain functions much like a democratic parliamentary system, in that if every possibility of an action had a “voice”, it would be heard before the final decision is made. No matter if one voice is louder and more persistent than others, each action would only commence after all have had their say.

Only if democratic forums in real life are run the same way, sigh.

Your dog may be dreaming about you

“It would appear that not only do men dream, but horses also, and dogs, and oxen; aye, and sheep, and goats, and all viviparous quadrupeds; and dogs show their dreaming by barking in their sleep.”- Aristotle, The History of Animals. Image by Phillip A.M. via Flickr

Have you ever watched your dog twitching or even running in it’s sleep? Early this week, social media went into a frenzy after Harvard sleep psychologist, Dr Deirdre Barrett suggested that when the day is over dogs may be dreaming about their owners. 

Humans dream visually, usually about things that they encounter in the day. “There’s no reason to think animals are any different.” Dr Barrett suggests. “Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it’s likely your dog is dreaming of your face, your smell and of pleasing or annoying you.”

While there is no direct evidence that animals can dream; dogs, like humans, undergo REM sleep. REM, also known as Rapid Eye Movement, is a period of light sleep when our eyes flutter, our muscles become paralysed, and we dream.

Do cats dream of electric mice?

Back in the 50s, scientists tried to work out if animals dreamt like humans. They created a nifty experiment with cats, where they removed a part of the brain called the pons which causes muscle paralysis during REM.

This created a condition in the cats similar to Rapid eye movement sleep disorder, or RBD. RBD in humans causes sufferers to vividly act out their dreams. This involves anything from running, to screaming, and even jumping out of windows.

And the scientists found the cats did just that. They would lift their heads, try to get into fights and even chase invisible mice.

While this suggests that cats can see images during sleep, we can’t know for certain that they experience dreams like we do.

Another attempt to figure this out involved lab mice trapped in a maze. The mice were rigged up to a machine which recorded their brain patterns while they were trying to navigate the maze. Afterwards, these patterns were compared with brain waves during REM sleep.

Incredibly, the brain patterns were so similar that the scientists could tell what area of the maze the mice were visualising in their sleep.These studies seem to support the idea that mammals encode spatial information — like location in a maze– into long-term memory during REM.

But what about emotional memories? Where do you and I, the humble pet owners, come into this?

Sweet Dreams

While we can’t ask dogs about their dreams; it is highly likely that dogs are dreaming about their human owners. Dogs are known to be able to recognize and empathize with human emotions. In humans, REM sleep is known to play a role in encoding emotional memories. As brain wave patterns during sleep in dogs is very similar to humans, it is safe to assume emotional memories are also encoded during sleep in dogs.

So sleep easy knowing your canine companion is probably dreaming about you, too.

Colourful Sounds and Dancing Words

As the music grows louder, vivid colours swirl and dance upon your mind. Sounds flow vibrantly, in a blend of textures, hues and movements. It may sound like you’ve stepped into a psychedelic scene from the sixties. Nevertheless, “seeing sound” is an everyday reality for people living with chromesthesia.

Some synesthetes “see sound”. Image credit: Maxime Bhm via Unsplash.

Mixing Senses

Chromesthesia is just one form of synesthesia, an unusual neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one cognitive or sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in another. It’s caused by “cross-wiring” between different senses and different sensory parts of the brain. It’s a pretty diverse phenomenon and associations can occur between a range of different senses and cognitive pathways.

So some synesthetes often experience connections between words and specific colours, tastes and even smells. Others associate numbers and letters of the alphabet with specific spatial sequences. In other cases, sounds evoke colour, shapes and movements. Some synesthetes even hear sounds and experience sensations in different parts of their body.

Painting Music

So what does synesthesia look like? Well, artist Melissa McCracken paints music. As a child, she was certain that everyone constantly saw colours too. This all changed when she turned fifteen and asked her brother which colour the letter C was. She soon realized that she saw the world a little more colourfully than those around her. Today, Melissa channels her unique ability into melodious works of art. Many of her pieces blend lively colours and textures, strikingly portraying the movement of music.

Teaching Synesthesia

Although synesthesia brain training doesn’t yet exist, it may in the not so distant future. Evidence from linguistics reveals how language can impact perception. For example, people who speak Russian often make an additional distinction between dark and light blues in their language. As a result, they are able to visually tell the difference between different shades of blue a lot better.

The rare and quirky phenomenon of synesthesia is thought to run in families. But other researchers think synesthesia can be learned in early life and maybe even adulthood. A team at the University of Sussex wanted to see whether intensive training could help adults gain synesthetic experiences.

Volunteers underwent half-hour training sessions each day and read coloured e-books, to learn thirteen colour-letter associations. After a while, most participants began seeing coloured letters when they read normal black text. These effects were pretty strong for many volunteers by week five. Some of them even had the bizarre experience of seeing coloured letters on a daily basis.

After three months, all participants had lost their synesthetic tendencies. Regardless, these findings highlight exciting new avenues for influencing the way adults perceive and process the world around them.

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