Questioning

Imagine you lived in a place where you couldn’t say anything to contradict the person who somehow gained power in that region. What if you couldn’t even question something that they said which was plainly wrong? What if the consequence of questioning resulted in you being punished, either physically or mentally?

I have a good guess about what might happen: you’d slowly learn to not question what was said. At first, you’d probably think about your objections in your head, mulling over them as the person says ridiculous things, but after a while you’ll begin to not think about it as much. Sooner or later, you won’t even question what is being said.

This is the potential scenario that I find extremely dire for our civilization (and we used to live in one such as this, of sorts). When someone cannot ask a question about an assertion that is made, we have lost the ability to improve our knowledge of the universe. When we tell ourselves that we know everything there is to know, we blind ourselves to the potential of finding out more.

The reason I feel so strongly about this is because I believe questioning is the bedrock of science. Without a question, there is nothing to investigate. Without asking, “Could I be wrong about this?”, we turn our backs on the reality that our human senses are extremely fallible. Our senses tell us things that are wrong all the time. Trying to look at something at about the location of our nose tells us such.

Therefore, the quality that I want to promote in any student I meet is curiosity. I want them to ask questions, and to always be reevaluating the situation. I want them to try and ask questions about concepts they don’t understand, but I also want them to question the established authority. After all, new scientific advances don’t only come from improving our measurements. They come from questioning the established scientific knowledge and saying, “What if it actually worked like this?”

Asking questions is essential to the scientific enterprise. By asking questions, we dig deeper into the mysteries of the universe, and I have difficulty in seeing a scenario in which more knowledge is not a good thing (except, I suppose, for the person who is ruling others).

Unfortunately, there seems to be a sort of reflex to those who want to question things that just “feel” right. For example, many people will get very uncomfortable if you tell them that free will is just a construct that we make for ourselves, and we are in no more control of our atoms than we are of other atoms. When someone questions this implicit assumption, people don’t like it. Similarly, people don’t like when others question truths in their favourite holy text. In essence, it’s a taboo subject.

But the only reasonable reaction to confronting two conflicted ideas (such as free will and determinism, or a holy text and modern science) is to ask which one is correct. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential to be able to figure out which one makes the most sense in our world.

That is why questions are so important. They pierce issues straight in the heart, exposing their weaknesses in explaining the world for all to see. Questions serve as reference guides to figuring out what the heck is truly going on in our universe.

Yes, it would be nice to simply go to a certain person and ask about anything concerning our world, but this is simply a pipe dream. If we want students to think about the deeper workings of our universe, we need to educate them in science, and a great way to do this is to ask questions.

A skeptical outlook on things doesn’t mean you don’t trust anyone. It means you acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to figure out things about our universe without asking questions.

Portrayals

If I were to describe you in one word, there’s a fair chance that you would take issue with what I say. It’s not that I’m inherently mean or that I’ll offend you. Instead, the problem is that one word is not enough. One paragraph or even one page isn’t enough. In reality, it would take a lot of words to describe you as a person in a way that you would be satisfied with. Likewise, I’m sure that you’d notice if someone were to describe you with a term that you feel doesn’t fully capture you as a person.

Obviously, we are biased to notice these things when they are about us or other aspects of life that we are intimately familiar with. For myself, this is what I frequently see with the domain of science and mathematics.

What happens is that the people inside these domains are often seen as brainiacs that think on a level above the general population. They think that those who do science are cold and analytical, not wanting to feel the emotions from art and literature like those who pursue the liberal arts. You can tell that this sort of thing happens when it permeates culture as the stereotypes we employ.

Obviously, stereotypes only show one portion of truth (and that’s being optimistic). For science and scientists, the stereotype of a really smart person (and specifically, a white male) is one that is damaging to the scientific community as a whole and needs to be rectified. I fit squarely in that stereotype (well, maybe not the smart part), but I still want to have a more inclusive environment for scientists.

I’ve written about it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re curious about the universe we live in and want to find the best explanations that we can find about, you have the qualities of a scientist. It’s as simple as that. Notice that there’s nothing in there about the “kind” of person you should be, except for the curious part. You can be male or female, land anywhere on the spectrum for skin pigments or sexual orientation. Diversity is there, and science (ideally) has the capacity to accommodate everyone.

It saddens me when the stereotype of scientists is in full force, because it takes away from the brilliant work those who don’t fit the stereotype do. They are an integral part of the science community, and this should be clear.

Therefore, we have a responsibility in how we present the scientific community. If the people who do outreach and public communication are only of the stereotype, the truth is that it will continue. I know that puts me in an awkward position, but I trust that I can work at showing the diversity that is present (or could be) in science.

Science is an idea, a mindset, and a process. It’s a framework to view the world, and that has nothing to do with the physical properties of those that do it. Science is for everyone. You don’t have to be amazingly smart (trust me, I’ve met my fair share of both smart and less smart people), and you shouldn’t have to be of a particular demographic. There’s still work to be done, but I know that we can restore the public perception of diversity in science if we work hard at it.

Let’s get to work.

Overstuffing

When I was in CÉGEP, I had to take a couple of complementary courses to get my degree. Due to the way my schedule was structured, I basically had no choice but to join a social science class. I’ve written about this class before, but there’s one thing that I have to repeat: I am not a social scientist, which means my lack of interest in the subject did not help for the boredom I experienced.

In this class, I had to read many texts that were technical (in the social science realm). Depending on your view of brief, they were around twenty to thirty pages, which isn’t that long unless you dislike the subject such as myself. However, what I noticed about all of them (I’m pretty sure I am not exaggerating here) was that they exhibited symptoms of being overstuffed. What I mean by this is that the author would use roundabout ways of explaining a point. Instead of a brief sentence, colourful metaphors were used (as if this was a novel). They also broke one of Orwell’s rules for writing, which suggests that a writer should not use a complicated word when a simple one will do.

The worst part was that the complicated word tended to not even be a technical term. For example, if the writer wanted to describe the colour red, they wouldn’t just say “red”. Instead, a whole flurry of many-syllable words would be used. Sure, it made the writing colourful, but it did not make it easy to sort through.

I have a very simple test for finding out whether your writing is overstuffed or not. When you read a sentence, does it make sense right off? If so, you’re good to go. If not, does the sentence take multiple read-throughs because the concept is difficult (such as a subtle scientific point)? If so, then you may want to try to clarify, or you can accept that the concept is just a little difficult. If you answered “no” to that question, then your sentence is probably overstuffed.

I’m sure there are more exceptions and edge-cases here, but I would say that this test covers a lot of scenarios. If you can’t make sense of a sentence and there’s no real reason for it to not make sense, then you’ve done something wrong in your writing.

The reason this interests me scientifically is because transmitting new scientific and mathematical concepts can be very difficult. I’m thinking more in the case of students in secondary school and beyond, but this also happens when trying to understand what is happening on the frontier of an area of research. If the essay or paper is so overstuffed in its language that a person gets to the end of a paragraph and can’t figure out what they have just read, something has gone wrong. If an author is trying to make a scientific point, than this runs counter to their desires, because the point is lost in place of the language, which is never a good thing.

Therefore, I certainly don’t want a scientific paper to be as fun to read as a manual, but I don’t want it to be a literary novel either. There’s a balance to be struck, and overstuffing one’s writing with extra or more complicated words means the author does not have the reader in mind.

Take the needlessly complex language out, because showing how one knows these rare and obscure words does not help a reader receive the message that is desired.

A Needless Goal

As far as I can remember, my goal for any test is to get a perfect score.

Personally, I thought that this was the goal for everyone, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that many people don’t aim for this grade, citing is as unrealistic. Of course, this score was not unusual for me, so I continued to try and get these grades.

However, as I’ve finished CÉGEP and am about to start my university studies, I’ve become more reflective on the topic of grades. I’ve written about this before, but there are two principle reasons I try and get a perfect score on any test I take: I like to push myself, and I know that good grades means bursaries. That’s it. Therefore, I’ve started to reflect on what it means to want to get perfect grades.

The first thing is that it shows that I want to learn and master principles. However, that isn’t the only way to master what you learn. After all, just because you don’t really absorb the material before a test does not mean you cannot learn it after a longer period of time. As such, good marks show initiative, but they aren’t necessarily required.

The second thing is that good grades don’t really change what you do in the day-to-day duties of a scientist. I will still have to calculate things, and as long as I know how to do the general steps (which can be learnt and referenced over and over until it sinks in like any employment), I’ll be good to go. I’m reminded of a comment one student who is older than I and was working at the university for the summer: “I barely even know how any of this computer code works. I just use it.” Any task can be learnt, even if you didn’t get a perfect score on an exam back when you were a student.

This is why the long-term need for great grades seems pointless to me. Or, said another way, I don’t think is a goal that should be pushed on to anyone. I do it because I enjoy the challenge and want to financially aid myself through my studies, but no one needs to do this. In the long term, I don’t think it will make you a better scientist (except for the opportunities that one may get because of their good grades).

A good scientist, like I always say, is about curiosity and trying to find all the ways that your results may have fooled you.