How Scientists Engage with the Public, Media, and Policy

Scientists frequently use social media and engage with journalists, policy-makers, and the public. At the same time, many people have a thirst for reliable cutting-edge results on the latest scientific findings and on pressing questions such as responses to the Ebola crisis, climate change, and the drought in California. However, scientists themselves do not sufficiently value public outreach and policy advocacy among their peers. And the pressures of competition and the fast-paced news cycle can distort the scientific messages that reach people.

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Lee Rainie, director of internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, just released the results of a survey of 3,748 scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this week at the annual meeting in San Jose. He and his colleagues find that 87% believe that scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about science and technology, 51% of scientists talk to journalists, 24% of them blog, and 47% of scientists use social media—a higher fraction than five years ago. Social scientists, earth scientists, and physicists and astronomers engage in these activities more than those in other fields. (You can read the full report here.)

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

That’s the good news; now for the bad news. The majority of scientists believe that the limited public knowledge about science and the fact that the public expects solutions too quickly are major problems. Furthermore, although scientists interact with reporters, many criticize news media: they believe that news reports oversimplify findings and don’t distinguish well-founded findings, and they believe that this too is a problem for science. In addition, many scientists surveyed do not think that the best scientific information is used for crafting policies, such as those involving clean air and water, food safety, and medical treatments.

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Courtesy: Pew Research Center

Here’s where we transition from the survey results to my opinions about their implications..

Many people love science and they can’t get enough of it. In my field of astrophysics, I see people inspired by stories about the comet landing, theories about black holes, and observations of galaxies colliding with each other. People consume science news on newspapers like the LA Times, magazines, websites, blogs, television, podcasts, videos, and elsewhere. People want to know the latest science on important subjects, especially those that could directly affect them, including health and environmental issues. If, say, a psychologist at UCLA, an astrophysicist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has an exciting new result, they would like to advertise it and people would be interested in hearing about it.

Politicians also want to hear about the most up-to-date science when they develop new policies and regulations and when they determine budgets for relevant agencies and initiatives. Science journalists and advocates attempt to fulfill these demands by communicating research on fields from astronomy and biology to psychology and sociology, but it’s often not easy.

Some aspects of the scientific process itself complicate the situation. When presenting scientific research, it can be difficult to communicate the context of a contentious question, the assumptions of an analysis, and the statistical and systematic uncertainties that might be involved. One may describe competing scientists’ interpretations, but then one must be careful about creating a false equivalency between them if an interpretation is more well-founded than another.

Moreover, excitement over the announcement of a potentially groundbreaking result, such as neutrinos supposedly traveling faster than the speed of light, is often not sustained for long, which is problematic if the result is later retracted. In addition, debates between scientists, such as the recent one about the expansion of the early universe based on results from BICEP2 and the Planck telescope, may take years or even decades to resolve. Scientists compete to get their new results out first, and media outlets compete to get the story out first. In this situation, it can be difficult to communicate nuance and subtlety.

In short, we have plenty of blame to spread around. Scientists should continue to engage but could work on improving the ways in which they communicate. They should encourage each other to get of the lab and office and participate in public outreach, communicate with policy-makers, and interact more with local media. Scientists currently consider these kinds of work as much less important than working on research, and everyone would benefit if they valued them more highly. Scientists should also be as clear as possible about their uncertainties and about when they are presenting not just facts but also expressing opinions about their interpretation

Scientific research isn’t of much use to anyone if no one effectively communicates it and its implications. We should encourage science journalists to take the time necessary to investigate and clearly communicate relevant information in plain language, and when we read or watch those stories, we should try to pay attention to the important caveats. It’s great to get excited about each new science story and discovery, but we would all benefit from a bit of caution and patience.

Thoughts on “Interstellar” and Questions it Raises

I finally went and saw Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar a couple days ago. It’s definitely an entertaining and thought-provoking movie, and it’s worth seeing in a theater. This post won’t really be a review of the film, but I’ll give you a few of my thoughts about it and implications of it for our role in the universe. I’m interested in hearing your response to the movie as well. It raised some big and important questions that we humans should explore further. (Note: this post includes a few “spoilers,” so consider yourself warned.)

First of all, if you haven’t seen 2001 or Contact already, then you should rectify that immediately! They’re both excellent, and Interstellar was made with many connections and homages to them…so turn off your computer or tablet or brain implant or whatever you’re reading this with, and go check out those movies! You can come back to this blog later.

Also, if you’re interested in checking out other astronomers’ responses to the movie, you can read the excessively critical review and mea culpa by Phil Plait, the interesting tweets and more tweets by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this article in Wired magazine by Adam Rogers (and thanks to Lynne Friedmann for giving it to me).

ut_interstellarOpener_f

Why are astrophysicists discussing or questioning some aspects of the film? It’s because the filmmakers consulted Kip Thorne and did attempt to get the physics right, and because it’s the big space movie of the year, like Gravity was last year. In my opinion, they did do a pretty good job on many issues, though I wasn’t so sure about a couple others: for example, I’m not sure whether all the time dilation effects were calculated accurately (though their take on the “twin paradox” was interesting), and I’m skeptical about Matt McConaughey’s character’s experience in the black hole (which is the circular saw-shaped image above). And deGrasse Tyson made an accurate and important observation that bothered me too: “Mysteries of #Interstellar: Stars vastly outnumber Black Holes. Why is the best Earthlike planet one that orbits a Black Hole”?

I’m not going to get into these physics issues much here. (I’m happy to try to answer any questions you might have though—just post a comment or contact me on Twitter.) Instead, I’m more interested in exploring questions the movie raised. For example, how much of a priority is space exploration to us as a society? How difficult would it be to find another potentially habitable planet—and what are our criteria for “potentially habitable”? How would we traverse these great distances? How do we transport people (and necessary equipment and supplies) so that they can survive for long periods far from Earth—in spacecraft, space stations, or colonies? How vulnerable is our own planet and which vulnerabilities should we be trying to address? How might we eventually contact or even meet alien species, and what would we tell or ask them? Who would do the talking or asking? Will we behave with empathy or will we act like conquerors? What are own roles and responsibilities as Earthlings and citizens of the cosmos?

(We also learned a few fun things from the movie, such as: wormholes can be convenient; books get pushed off of shelves by space ghosts; NASA will survive even during the worst of times; and watch out if you land on an ice planet and find Matt Damon.)

It’s easy to become focused and fixated on short-term and local problems, as they can seem the most pressing. That’s totally understandable, but we as a society can’t forget the big long-term picture. What are our objectives and priorities as a global community? What do we want to achieve, and how can we work toward those goals and help future generations to realize them?

In the movie, a runaway Dust Bowl—presumably due to climate change—or some kind of “nuclear winter” devastates the world’s food supplies. Though this might seem far-fetched, it’s not out of the question for our planet. People had to struggle just to get through each day and to feed their families, such that exploration was the furthest from their minds and people started believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. But the drive to explore the unknown and see what’s out there is an inherently human trait. Carl Sagan once wrote, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” What are other planets, solar systems, or even other galaxies like, and what do their differences tell us about our own? Just today a Scientific American article came out, where the author discusses the thousands of exoplanets observed so far and argues that “Planets More Habitable than Earth may be Common in Our Galaxy.” These are issues we can’t stop thinking about.

One problem is that space is big. “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is” (to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Planets that support life are extremely rare, though we don’t know exactly how rare yet. It’s difficult to learn about planets far away, and it won’t be easy to find out which ones humans could visit or which ones might support alien life. Contacting those aliens is more complicated. And then visiting other planets and solar systems, or even setting up colonies on them is literally a multi-generational project. For example, Alpha Centauri is about 4.4 light years away. If astronauts could travel as fast as the Voyager spacecraft…it would take them 77,000 years to get there! They’d wake up from hibernation in their spaceship after all that time, and they wouldn’t even know whether other humans were still alive.

Finally, one of the main points I think we should take away from the movie is that we must take care of our own planet. Earth is rare, and it’s our home. We face many dangers and threats throughout the world, including global warming, drought, floods, famine, air pollution, natural disasters, pandemics, ozone depletion, killer asteroids, and war. We should note that these problems and their effects are related to poverty and inequality too, and that’s not to mention threats to other species on Earth. We might not survive for thousands of years—which is like a blink of an eye for our universe—but we have to try. We have to work together and plan for the future.

On that note, I’ll leave you with the ending of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

A Bad Week for Commercial Spaceflight

The US commercial space industry did not fare well last week. Two accidents on 28th and 31st October highlight the risks, costs, and difficulties of spaceflight—as well as pointing to potential setbacks for commercial spaceflight. (If you’re interested, other news outlets have commented on these issues as well, such as here and here and here.) Pardon the self-promotion, but you can check out our discussion with Ken Kremer on a Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today on the 31st for more information.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket

First, on Tuesday (the 28th), an unmanned 13-story rocket designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded a few seconds after liftoff off the coast of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried a Cygnus capsule with more than 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies and equipment, as well as school students’ science experiments. It was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and was the first time a resupply mission contracted by NASA to a private company failed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Though the flight facility is designed to handle explosion and fire, there was significant damage to the launch infrastructure.

Journalists were pretty close to the launch zone, and this video (tweeted by Pamela Gay) shows the launch, explosion, and fleeing from the potentially dangerous area (see also videos at LA Times):

It will take time to recover from this. And we will have to see how much this damages Orbital Science Corp.’s reputation and NASA’s efforts to outsource orbital flights. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s multi-billion dollar contract, the next one being scheduled for April. This likely will be delayed though, and according to Orbital’s press release, they will implement a propulsion system upgrade previously planned for 2016. The loss of this supply vessel doesn’t pose an immediate problem for the ISS’s crew, which includes two from NASA, one from the European Space Agency (ESA), and three Russians. The second US supply line to the ISS is with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has its next launch planned for 9th December. Although the ISS crew and their missions are not in any danger, this loss significantly affects Orbital Sciences, and more work and investment will be needed to proceed.

NASA held a press conference the same day as the accident, and their investigation into the cause(s) of the explosion and failed launch continues. These space-bound rockets have many components—many things that could go wrong—and there is considerable debris to examine, so it could take awhile. It’s not clear whether extra weight and length were factors in the accident, for example. A turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage-one engines might have been the culprit. These liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled engines, produced during the Soviet era in Russia (with modifications), likely will be discontinued in future Antares rockets.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

And now for Act Two. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of a commercial space program founded by Richard Branson, suffered an “in-flight anomaly” on Halloween. It crashed midflight during testing and broke into several pieces over the Mojave Desert (north of Los Angeles, for you non-Californians). One pilot (Michael Alsbury) was killed and was unfortunately still strapped to his seat in the wreckage. The other pilot (Peter Siebold) successfully ejected at an altitude of around 50,000 feet and deployed his parachute. He was airlifted to a hospital and treated for injuries.

HIRES for web AP673441118926

After successful programs like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, NASA has been attempting to privatize spaceflight and redefine its missions partly because of tighter budgets over the past couple decades. According to the NY Times and Lori Garver (former deputy administrator at NASA), public funds should be focused on activities that advance technology and provide public benefits to all, like planetary science. At the same time, Garver said, the government should encourage private companies to move ahead and find innovative ways of reducing costs.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference last Sunday with more details. A new fuel was being tested on this flight, which may or may not have been an issue, and a “feathering mechanism” might have been deployed prematurely on the spacecraft, when it was traveling beyond the speed of sound. But the investigation is still in progress, and I’ll give you more details in the near future. In any case, our thoughts are with the pilots and their families.

So what does the future hold? I’m not sure, but it looks like Orbital Sciences (and SpaceX) and Virgin Galactic will continue their spaceflight programs, as they should. Both of these accidents are unfortunate and costly—to say the least—but they should not deter us from space exploration. We have much to gain from continuing these programs. At the same time, I think we should be careful about outsourcing too much; I believe that our best prospects lie with continuing to invest funding, resources, and personnel in NASA, ESA, and other space agencies, where our scientific expertise and oversight are the greatest, and where short-term setbacks are less likely to affect our long-term objectives or derail whole exploration programs.

Reporting from the National Science Writers Meeting in Columbus, Ohio

As someone who’s still learning the ropes, I was excited to attend my first science writers meeting in Columbus this weekend. The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) organized the meeting, which included a nice variety of professional development workshops, briefings on the latest scientific research, and some field trips. It included a couple parties at a nearby brewery too, so I knew I was in good company, and I was happy to make some new friends and contacts. Here’s my name tag, which was a convenient little book of the program (and you can guess who I wrote down as my science hero):

photo 1

I’ll give you some highlights of a couple sessions that interested me. People “live-tweeted” most of the sessions too at #sciwri14.

NASW Meeting

One of the most useful sessions for me was the “pitch slam,” where writers had a single minute to pitch a story idea to editors, who gave feedback in real time. (The editors came from Slate, NPR, Popular Science, Discover, NOVA, Scientific American, and New York Times.) Speaking in front of the microphone understandably made people nervous, but I think I heard some pretty good pitches. Since I’m trained as a scientist, my approach to a science story or issue is to keep asking questions, but it sounds like editors want answers too! It’s important to be concise and clearly state at the beginning what the narrative thrust is and why the story is interesting. One should also describe the implications of the scientific result are why they’re surprising or new. Science stories need characters too, but that can come afterward. And one should keep in mind the audience of readers who would most likely read it, since some stories are more appropriate in particular news outlets rather than others. For example, Popular Science usually publishes “forward-looking” stories, so they’d be less interested in pieces focused on historical scientific advances.

The session on “diving into controversy and politics” was popular too, and it included Coral Davenport (New York Times), David Malakoff (Science Insider), and Nancy Shute (NPR). They spoke about hot-button topics in the news today—mainly climate change and Ebola. Davenport argued that climate change (along with energy and environment policy) is now a top-tier election issue and that this is mainly due to President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for coal-fired power plants, Tom Steyer’s money, and current weather events. She made a fairly convincing argument, but I think she overstated how new this development is, as fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline have been polarizing issues well before this midterm election campaign. Malakoff spoke about related topics and suggested that one should never pitch a “science policy” story (that is, one should frame the story differently). He pointed out that some stories are about a disagreement while others are about setting priorities. It’s important to state as clearly as possible who believes what and what their agenda is. We should ask whether the data and scientific results lead us to a particular policy prescription, and we should distinguish between scientists’ research and their opinions about which policy to advocate. We should write about the effects and impacts of particular policies, and then the reader can make his/her own decision.

The awards night took place on Saturday, and I was inspired to see so many excellent award-winning science writers. The winners included Azeen Ghorayshi for the Clark/Payne Award, Elisabeth Rosenthal for the Cohn Prize in medical science reporting, and the following Science in Society Journalism Award winners: Sheri Fink, Amy Harmon, Phil McKenna, Cally Carswell, and Charles Seife.

CASW Meeting

Getting back to climate change, on Sunday we toured the impressive Byrd Polar Research Center of Ohio State University. Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, who have published numerous influential papers in Science and Nature, showed us the center and explained their research to us, which involves many fields but especially ice core climatology. Since the 1970s, they have conducted research at the poles as well as on mountains near the equator (in Peru and Tibet), where they drill down and pull up the ice cores, then bring them down the mountain on yaks and trucks and eventually store them in a huge freezer, which you can see below. (Our brief tour of the freezer was the only time I wore my hat on this trip.) Drs. Thompson and Mosley-Thompson use the ice cores to infer details about the climate and history of a particular regionTEXTsort of like using tree rings. For example, from ice cores taken from Kilimanjaro, they found evidence of a 300-year drought 4000 years ago (evidenced by less snow and ice accumulation), which would have had a dramatic effect on societies at the time. With rapid climate change, unfortunately the glaciers are rapidly retreating, but a silver lining is that they’ve uncovered 5000 to 6000-year-old plants!

photo 7

Finally, I had looked forward to the discussions of the ongoing BICEP2 controversy, and I was not disappointed. Marc Kamionkowski (Johns Hopkins University) gave an excellent overview of the basics of cosmology, the expanding universe, cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), which is sort of an “afterglow of the Big Bang.” Many collaborations using different telescopes (including researchers at UC San Diego) seek to detect CMB “B-mode” polarization of the CMB due to primordial gravitational waves, which would constitute evidence supporting the rapid “inflation” of the early universe and would be a momentous discovery! At the BICEP2’s press conference in March at Harvard and in the preprint, the scientists did say “if confirmed…”, but of course everyone was excited about the implications of the result. However, new measurements from the Planck collaboration (see below) suggest that the polarization might not be due to the CMB’s gravitational waves but to foreground emission from dust grains in our own galaxy, though their calculation of the dust contribution is highly uncertain.

Map

A short discussion with Matthew Francis (freelance) and Betsy Mason (Wired) followed Kamionkowski’s talk, where they tackled questions that scientists and science communicators frequently face. Scientists want press attention and news outlets want headlines, so how should one describe and report caveats and uncertainties, especially when the implications (if confirmed) are so exciting? What is the best way to express skepticism of a particular aspect of a scientific result? And a question that I often ask: how can we communicate the messiness or “self-correcting” nature of science? In any case, we’ll all continue to follow the ongoing CMB debate in the scientific community and the media.

Now I’m looking forward to doing much more writing (and reading) and to participating in next year’s meeting!

Is “Data-driven Science” an Oxymoron?

In recent years, we’ve been repeatedly told that we’re living and working in an era of Big Data (and Big Science). We’ve heard how Nate Silver and others are revolutionizing how we analyze and interpret data. In many areas of science and in many aspects of life, for that matter, we’re obtaining collections of datasets so large and complex that it becomes necessary to change our traditional analysis methods. Since the volume, velocity, and variety of data are rapidly increasing, it is increasingly important to develop and apply appropriate techniques and statistical tools.

However, is it true that Big Data changes everything? Much can be gained from proper data analysis and from “data-driven science.” For example, the popular story about Billy Beane and Moneyball shows how Big Data and statistics transformed how baseball teams are assessed. But I’d like to point out some misconceptions and dangers of the concept of data-driven science.

Governments, corporations, and employers are already collecting (too?) much of our precious, precious data and expending massive effort to study it. We might worry about this because of concerns of privacy, but we should also worry about what might happen to analyses that are excessively focused on the data. There are questions that we should be asking more often: Who’s collecting the data? Which data and why? Which analysis tools and why? What are their assumptions and priors? My main point will be that the results from computer codes churning through massive datasets are not objective or impartial, and the data don’t inevitably drive us to a particular conclusion. This is why the concept of “data-driven” anything is misleading.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of data-driven analysis that have been in the news lately…

Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight

Many media organizations are about something, and they use a variety of methods to study it. In a sense, FiveThirtyEight isn’t really about something. (If I wanted to read about nothing, I’d check out ClickHole and be more entertained.) Instead, FiveThirtyEight is about their method, which they call “data journalism” and by which they mean “statistical analysis, but also data visualization, computer programming and data-literate reporting.”

I’m exaggerating though. They cover broad topics related to politics, economics, science, life, and sports. They’ve had considerable success making probabilistic predictions about baseball, March Madness, and World Cup teams and in packaging statistics in a slick and easy-to-understand way. They also successfully predicted the 2012 US elections on a state-by-state basis, though they stuck to the usual script of treating it as a horse race: one team against another. Their statistical methods are sometimes “black boxes”, but if you look, they’ll often provide additional information about them. Their statistics are usually sound, but maybe they should be more forthcoming about the assumptions and uncertainties involved.

Their “life” section basically allows them to cover whatever they think is the popular meme of the day, which in my opinion isn’t what a non-tabloid media organization should be focused on doing. This section includes their “burrito competition,” which could be a fun idea but their bracket apparently neglected sparsely-populated states like New Mexico and Arizona, where the burrito historically originated.

The “economics” section has faced substantial criticism. For example, Ben Casselman’s article, “Typical minimum-wage earners aren’t poor, but they’re not quite middle class,” was criticized in Al-Jazeera America for being based on a single set of data plotting minimum-wage workers by household income. He doesn’t consider the controversial issue of how to measure poverty or the decrease in the real value of the minimum wage, and he ends up undermining the case for raising the minimum wage. Another article about corporate cash hoarding was criticized by Paul Krugman and others for jumping to conclusions based on revised data. As Malcolm Harris (an editor at The New Inquiry) writes, “Data extrapolation is a very impressive trick when performed with skill and grace…but it doesn’t come equipped with the humility we should demand from our writers.”

Their “science” section leaves a lot to be desired. For example, they have a piece assessing health news reports in which the author (Jeff Leek) uses Bayesian priors based on an “initial gut feeling” before assigning numbers to a checklist. As pointed out in this Columbia Journalism Review article, “plenty of people have already produced such checklists—only more thoughtfully and with greater detail…Not to mention that interpreting the value of an individual scientific study is difficult—a subject worthy of much more description and analysis than FiveThirtyEight provides.” And then there was the brouhaha about Roger Pielke, whose writings about the effects of climate change I criticized before, and who’s now left the organization.

Maybe Nate Silver should leave these topics to the experts and stick to covering sports? He does that really well.

Thomas Piketty on Inequality

Let’s briefly consider two more examples. You’ve probably heard about the popular and best-selling analysis of data-driven economics in Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. It’s a long but well-written book in which Piketty makes convincing arguments about how income and wealth inequality are worsening in the United States, France, and other developed countries. (See these reviews in the NY Review of Books and Slate.) It’s influential because of its excellent and systematic use of statistics and data analysis, because of the neglect of wealth inequality by other mainstream economists, and of course because of the economic recession and the dominance of the top 1 percent.

Piketty has been criticized by conservatives, and he has successfully responded to these critics. His proposal for a progressive tax on wealth has also been criticized by some. Perhaps the book’s popularity and the clearly widespread and underestimated economic inequality will result in more discussion and consideration of this and other proposals.

I want to make a different point though. As impressive as Piketty’s book is, we should be careful about how we interpret it and his ideas for reducing inequality. For example, as argued by Russell Jacoby, unlike Marx in Das Kapital, Piketty takes the current system of capitalism for granted. Equality “as an idea and demand also contains an element of resignation; it accepts society, but wants to balance out the goods or privileges…Equalizing pollution pollutes equally, but does not end pollution.” While Piketty’s ideas for reducing economic extremes could be very helpful, they don’t “address a redundant labor force, alienating work, or a society driven by money and profit.” You may or may not agree with Piketty’s starting point—and you do have to start somewhere—but it’s important to keep it in mind when interpreting the results.

As before, just because something is “data-driven” doesn’t mean that the data, analysis, or conclusions can’t be questioned. We always need to be grounded in data, but we need to be careful about how we interpret analyses of them.

HealthMap on Ebola

Harvard’s HealthMap gained attention for using algorithms to detect the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in Africa before the World Health Organization did. Is that a big success for “big data”? Not so, according to Foreign Policy. “It’s an inspirational story that is a common refrain in the ‘big data’ world—sophisticated computer algorithms sift through millions of data points and divine hidden patterns indicating a previously unrecognized outbreak that was then used to alert unsuspecting health authorities and government officials…The problem is that this story isn’t quite true.” By the time HealthMap monitored its very first report, the Guinean government had actually already announced the outbreak and notified the WHO. Part of the problem is that it was published in French, while most monitoring systems today emphasize English-language material.

This seems to be another case of people jumping to conclusions to fit a popular narrative.

What does all this mean for Science?

Are “big data” and “data-driven” science more than just buzzwords? Maybe. But as these examples show, we have to be careful when utilizing them and interpreting their results. When some people conduct various kinds of statistical analyses and data mining, they act as if the data speak for themselves. So their conclusions must be indisputable! But the data never speak for themselves. We scientists and analysts are not simply going around performing induction, collecting every relevant datum around us, and cranking the data through machines.

Every analysis has some assumptions. We all make assumptions about which data to collect, which way to analyze them, which models to use, how to reduce our biases, and how to assess our uncertainties. All machine learning methods, including “unsupervised” learning (in which one tries to find hidden patterns in data), require assumptions. The data definitely do not “drive” one to a particular conclusion. When we interpret someone’s analysis, we may or may not agree with their assumptions, but we should know what they are. And any analyst who does not clearly disclose their assumptions and uncertainties is doing everyone a disservice. Scientists are human and make mistakes, but these are obvious mistakes to avoid. Although objective data-driven science might not be possible, as long as we’re clear about how we choose our data and models and how we analyze them, then it’s still possible to make progress and reach a consensus on some issues and ask new questions on others.