Friday, October 13, 2017 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

Calls to dumb down science at Wikipedia have to be dismissed

Journalists i.e. pompous fools love to pretend they understand things even if they don't have the slightest clue

I have started hundreds of science and hundreds of non-science articles at Wikipedia, edited thousands of others, and actually gained some automatic administrator privileges that allow me to edit certain articles when most of the regular people can't. Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's been immensely helpful to me – and I think that many of you – many times. Well, it's fashionable to sling mud at Wikipedia but scientists use Wikipedia more than they admit. A project like that had to be created but I am still grateful to Jimbo Wales for actually turning the vision into reality – currently the fifth most visited website in the world – some years ago.

Now, Wikipedia isn't perfect and in many cases, its texts are biased if not downright untrue. I think it's obvious that politically flavored articles are mostly left-leaning. Whenever a topic has been politicized, you should be careful and realize that someone could have hidden some key information or promoted some fishy memes. In particular, whenever you read an article related to the debate about climate change, it is very likely that William Connolley, an official at the U.K. Green Party, has "touched" it. In recent years, however, his vegetarian diet has basically destroyed his brain so he is no longer able to write a comprehensible sentence.

I would say that in most cases, the key facts and definitions are included in the important enough articles and if there's some bias, it's just the bias in the tone in which the article is written. When it is so, a sensible reader such as you may still extract the useful information and rephrase it in a neutral way which removes all the left-wing flavor.

Hours ago, journalist Michael Byrne at Motherboard.Vice.Com claimed that

Wikipedia’s Science Articles Are Elitist
His subtitle says
Maybe Wikipedia readers shouldn’t need science degrees to digest articles about basic topics. Just an idea.
Well, it's an extremely stupid and pernicious idea. Articles about scientific topics such as those he mentioned are written in the elitist, rigorous enough, jargon-dependent style because they're articles about objects and concepts that are being used by scientists, an elite, and science needs a certain amount of rigor and jargon. You don't need the actual degrees to understand specialized science articles but you need the same skills or knowledge that could bring you an actual degree if you wanted to get one.

If you don't have the skills or knowledge that are necessary for people to get science degrees, you shouldn't be surprised that you can't understand articles about science.

Byrne wrote his rant because his brain had trouble with articles about nonribosomal peptides, electroweak interaction, and graphene. If you're seriously interested in these topics – like a student or a layman who has simply gotten to a comparable level – you will appreciate the comprehensive and comprehensible "real deal" information you may learn about these topics.

In the subtitle of his tirade, Byrne has incredibly claimed that the Wikipedia's articles about the "basic topics" should be addressed to the laymen without degrees but his first example were "nonribosomal peptides". He must surely be joking, right? In which universe the "nonribosomal peptides" may be considered a "basic topic"? It's a term in biochemistry or molecular biology that is composed of two words. So it's surely not a "basic topic". Even most of the one-word terms in molecular biology could be said "not to be a basic topic".

Who is actually expected to read such an article and find it useful? It's some undergraduate or graduate student who writes a paper about some related topic but isn't an expert in peptides or anything of the sort. So he may quickly become a "superficial expert" by reading the article. Or a researcher in any adjacent field. Or a journalist who is really, really good and capable of going beneath the surface – a science journalist who is working on himself or herself and tries to be closer to the actual scientists than to the laymen. A meaningful reader of the article about "nonribosomal peptides" must be someone whose skills place him on the scientific side of an aisle, a person who is at least capable of studying new texts about science.

Obviously, you're not supposed to be an expert in "nonribosomal peptides" if you find this article really useful (but even some experts may find it useful, I am convinced) but you must be in the experts' "universality class". You must have been able to learn about some "comparably difficult" concepts in the past. If you never have, you shouldn't expect to understand "nonribosomal peptides". No people working in a "regular occupation" may ever encounter "nonribosomal peptides" in any meaningful or natural way.

Try to emulate how a reader who is really not a molecular biologist reads the article about nonribosomal peptides if he accidentally gets there. It starts by:
Nonribosomal peptides (NRP) are a class of peptide secondary metabolites, usually produced by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.
OK, first, we see that they may be written as NRP, an acronym. It's nice that molecular biologists can use acronyms. "N" stands for "non", "R" stands for "ribosomal", and "p" stands for "peptides". Cool, we learned something about the language but nothing about the substance so far. OK, next we learn that they're a "class". It's something like your classmates. If you don't know what a class is, Mr Byrne, you may imagine a "bunch", and that's good enough. ;-)

After the word "of", things get tougher. NRPs are "peptide secondary metabolites". A typical person outside molecular biology doesn't know what it means because "peptide secondary metabolites" sound as difficult as NRPs. However, if you know some molecular biology, or at least the typical "strategy" how definitions of complex terms are written everywhere in science, you will agree with me that progress has actually been accomplished.

"Peptides" are more elementary than "nonribosomal peptides". If you click at peptides, you will immediately learn that they're some chains of amino acid monomers. OK, some chains in biological molecules. You may extract some other words that you're intrigued by on the peptide page. But you will probably be intimidated soon – you're not really interested in peptides, are you? OK, similarly, you may click at the phrase secondary metabolite to see that they're some food-like compounds that aren't quite vital for growth but without them, you will feel unhealthy after some time. The articles are written in more science-like words than the words I am using but if you keep on clicking, you may learn the meaning of all these things "in layman's terms" after several clicks.

When you're not a real biochemist, not even someone who is working on becoming one, de iure or de facto, you will give up soon. And that's how the things should be. There exists absolutely no logical justification why a random layman or outsider should read or should be able or willing to read whole long encyclopedic entries about things like "nonribosomal peptides".

Mr Byrne indicates that when he misunderstands a text, the problem must be on the side of the writers. But this arrogant attitude is a result of the society's treatment of these spoiled brats, mediocre liars and filth generally known as the journalists. I am oversimplifying things now, so that Mr Byrne has a chance to understand, but my oversimplification is very accurate for Mr Byrne himself. In reality, average journalists aren't any elite. Just look at the undergraduates' IQ in different fields. Physicists at the top of the table had 130 while "communication" was the third layer from the bottom and they were at 112. That's less than one standard deviation above the average Joe. Chemists had 124. You can see that the IQ of the "communication folks" is exactly in between "chemists" and the "average Joe". What a surprise that a journalist may have about 50% of the problems with a text about biochemistry that the average Joe has – and this amount of problems may still feel as "too much".

The electroweak interaction is another article that Mr Byrne criticizes. I obviously find it elementary because that's the field in which I was trained – and I was interested in since my teenage years. But even for other people, is it so hard? Most people start at the beginning:
In particle physics, the electroweak interaction is the unified description of two of the four known fundamental interactions of nature: electromagnetism and the weak interaction.
Now, which word is unclear to you? It is the "unified description". It means that one can describe two things. And they're described in a unified way, i.e. simultaneously. Unified description of what? Two of four "fundamental interactions". You may click at "fundamental interactions" if you don't understand the phrase – that's the beauty of the hypertext and web. But frankly, I don't think that people who realize that they have trouble with "fundamental interactions" should read an article about "electroweak interaction".

A person who thinks like a physicist understands – or has rediscovered – that the world must apparently run on some most elementary processes of some kind, and those are naturally termed the fundamental interactions. The phrase is really self-explanatory. And yes, the two interactions that are unified are the electromagnetic and weak force. Again, you may click to learn what they are. And so on.

My general point is that the words used even in the first sentence of such articles may still be difficult and require extra explanations. Nevertheless, progress is made in the explanation because these difficult terms are more elementary than the terms that one is trying to explain. And that's how science and its definitions work. One is "reducing" a complex thing – or a complex, composite concept – to simpler ones.

But one usually doesn't reduce it "directly" to concepts that are clear to the layman. That's simply not how science works. Sciences – especially physics but even biochemistry, as we have seen – are skyscrapers with many floors that are built on top of each other. If you don't have a clue what a peptide or even an organic molecule is, you simply shouldn't expect to immediately understand what a "nonribosomal peptide" is. This expectation is exactly as foolish as attempts to build the 7th floor of a skyscraper at the moment when 3rd and 4th floors are not yet built. It's just not possible. It's obvious that it's not possible and it's obvious why it's not possible.

I think that everyone with common sense understands that not all problems – e.g. problems with the understanding of a scientific term – can be resolved or are resolved "immediately". But the actual reason why Mr Byrne tries to present this mundane fact as a "scandal" is that he is being reminded that his expertise isn't just one floor beneath those who can edit Wikipedia articles on physics or biochemistry – and not all of these people have to be the global elite. He is obviously several floors beneath these people and he simply can't swallow this fact. He thinks that as a science journalist, he has the right to be assured by everyone – and every page on the Internet – that he is on par with the actual researchers or at most one floor beneath them. But he's obviously not.

Another example of a difficult text that Mr Byrne picked is graphene. He compared it with the entry at the Encyclopedia Britannica which seems clearer to Mr Byrne. The first sentences say:
Graphene is an allotrope of carbon in the form of a two-dimensional, atomic-scale, hexagonal lattice in which one atom forms each vertex.

Graphene, a two-dimensional form of crystalline carbon, either a single layer of carbon atoms forming a honeycomb (hexagonal) lattice or several coupled layers of this honeycomb structure.
Which one is clearer? They're about the same. The first, Wikipedia text talks about "hexagonal lattice" while the second, Britannica, talks about "this honeycomb structure" while it also uses the adjective "hexagonal" as well as the noun "lattice". Both say that it is "two-dimensional". So at the end, the only difference is that the Wikipedia text has omitted the laymen's words such as "honeycomb" and it's more concise in general; and it has used the difficult term "allotrope".

But is it really a problem that you read a sentence with a word such as "allotrope"? I don't use the word myself. It may even be said that I strictly speaking didn't understand the word even passively. And I would bet that a big portion of the world's graphene experts don't actually actively use the word, either. But the meaning is clear from the context. On top of that, you can click at allotropes of carbon to immediately see a picture of various shapes of the infinite networks of carbon atoms, so you know what they mean without reading a single word on that page! But yes, sometimes, to be sure, you need at least to click a few times and to look at a few pictures.

Why should it be even simpler to get the meaning of the words? If "allotropes" were replaced by childish words everywhere, what would be the benefits that could compensate the reduced rigor and precision of the pages?

What is actually happening is that Mr Byrne is a part of a degenerated culture of people who don't really understand a damn thing but they constantly pretend that they understand everything or at least everything that is important. It's just bad. It's a reason why lots of important questions are being decided by self-confident morons such as Mr Byrne these days. Nonribosomal peptides, electroweak interaction, and graphene aren't terms from the everyday life of an average person so it should be absolutely unsurprising that it's nontrivial to understand – even superficially – what these terms actually mean.

For a regular person, and especially an educated one, it's much more important to understand that things may be hard and that there are lots of things that experts may understand while he doesn't than to understand any particular thing, e.g. what is roughly a peptide. For decades, the laymen and the journalists were dishonestly told "you can actually understand and work on things easily as well" – because popularizers of science wanted to look folksy. The result is that science itself has become endangered by these stupid yet overly self-confident laymen. They basically demand scientific encyclopedic entries to be removed from the Internet and they're suggesting many worse things, too. This "anti-elitist" process has had several stages. Populist scientists have persuaded journalists that those are "basically experts" if they learn some childish caricatures of science. And these journalists have assured their readers that the readers are also "basically experts" once they learn some even more oversimplified or misleading slogans – in extreme examples, slogans like "climate change is real". The result is that no one has a clue but everyone thinks he is very smart and demands everyone else to be equally "smart".

Folks like Mr Byrne don't have a clue. They're not capable of reading introductory texts that were written for the broader but intelligent public. But these likes of Mr Byrne nevertheless feel self-confident to "teach" everyone about the climate change, peptides, graphene, quantum mechanics, and sometimes even electroweak theory if not string theory (I found his text because of a breathtakingly idiotic sentence that includes "string theory"). I am sorry but you should not. If you're not capable of reading the Wikipedia introductions to these concepts, you shouldn't pretend that you know what you're talking about in front of your readers because you don't. If you pretend the understanding while you can't swallow even the introductory articles, you are deceiving your readers.

Mostly off-topic, inflation wars: the author of "Is Inflationary Universe Scientific" (a blog post) has declared that "cosmic inflation is no longer science". I won't write about inflation wars because the author of the blog post doesn't really bring anything new and he or she is reacting to events that everyone discussed half a year ago or more. But let me just say that the very idea that "suddenly" a part of science ceases to be science proves that she's not thinking as a scientist. Either something is and always has been science, or it isn't and never was science.

His or her claims (and those by Steinhardt et al.) that the usual justifications for inflation aren't real or aren't serious shows that she is exactly one of the superficial readers of simplified enclyclopedia entries and slogans – such as those that Mr Byrne wanted to have above – but she has never really understood how (almost) any of these ideas work. The statement that flatness would be doubly exponentially unlikely without a preceding phase such as inflation is a fact. One may derive it just like \(11\times 11 = 121\). And it's about the same with all the other profound facts he or she tries to mock.

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