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Zeynep Isvan | Brookhaven | USA

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Is bad science bad for you?

Yesterday I was flipping through Spirit magazine, the Southwest Airlines publication you find in the seatbackpocketinfrontofyou, waiting for my 6am flight to depart. One headline among the many I skimmed mindlessly woke me up: “A solar powered bikini emits 5 volts of energy.” No, I’m not in the market for a solar powered bikini, which is apparently designed to allow its wearer to charge her iGadgets on the beach. I am, however, an over-traveling, over-educated overly picky scientist who allows herself the mundane pet peeve of incorrect science in media. I wanted to grab the flight attendant and point “energy is not measured in units of volts!!” I decided against it since he had been influential in finding me a prime overhead bin spot earlier, and he probably didn’t edit their magazine. I shook my head and kept reading. An article titled “Life Science” intrigued me a few pages later, and I decided against reading it in case it contained similar errors and would ruin my day. Let me repeat that. I couldn’t find the courage in me to read an article for fear that it contains inaccurate scientific language.

I spent the rest of the flight thinking if I’m justified in my sensitivity to accuracy in the language of science, or if I’m just being arrogant. I’m afraid it’s very much the latter. I know bad science is one of the worst things in the world, not because science is sacred or anything, but because it is a dangerously effective marketing tool and scams people. (I implore everyone to read Ben Goldcare’s brilliant book and listen to his TED talk.) Every scientist and otherwise sensible citizen has the right, even duty, to oppose bad science. It’s a form of lying to the public, usually for monetary gain. It’s wrong on every level – no question about that.

But is it reasonable to take out my frustration with scammers’ using words such as “quantum” incorrectly to market nonsense on an innocent article with an honest error in wording? Am I helping anyone to learn, write and speak better science or merely reinforcing the painfully accurate Ivory Tower stereotype? Would the world be a better place if every article that has as minor a science flaw as this were never written? Would people be more informed about science and math and engineering in that world? It’s clear that most writers, unless they’re specifically trained as science writers, which fashion writers usually aren’t (and need not be!) will not get every SI unit right. So? Would incoming freshmen in your Phys 101 class have fewer misconceptions if it weren’t for the solar powered bikini article? That’s hard to believe. I would like to argue that any article on bikinis that has a connection to something scientific, even if mildly flawed in its wording, is more likely to get people interested in science than the well written science articles that people can’t access for free or can’t follow past paragraph two.

Tonight on my flight back I will read the life science article I was scared of. Maybe it will have something in it that sounds off. Maybe, since I’m not a biologist, I won’t notice this mistake and proceed to have an iota of incorrect information in my brain. I suspect it will not be the end of the world. I also hereby take a pledge to be a little more accepting and a little less judgmental. I realize that its only purpose is reinforcing my self righteousness and justifying the decade (and counting) I devoted to learning physics. It’s not the writers’ fault that I did that! 🙂

I deliberately avoided attempting to explain the difference between voltage and energy until now. I quote below the few lines from the Wikipedia article on Voltage.

Voltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension (denoted ∆V and measured in volts, or joules per coulomb) is the potential difference between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points.[1]

So voltage is energy per charge. That was what all the fuss was about?? I know, it sounds silly. I still want to keep teaching physics and hope that more and more people realize the seemingly subtle difference between potential difference and energy. I also know that many people won’t, and my mother will keep using heat and temperature interchangeably. Again, not the end of the world. It’s really easy communicating science to those already attuned to these subtleties. The challenge is to deliver the correct concepts, if not the correct units of every physical quantity, to everyone else. Only if we accept that challenge will we be able to break a very real communication barrier. We have to be able to speak everyone else’s language first, before we can improve it, if they even choose to improve it – it is not mandatory. It’s analogous to learning a new language. If no native English speaker spoke to me when I had difficulty with irregular verbs twenty years ago, I would have never learned to speak it better. Unintentional ‘bad science’ is not bad for science, it might even be good.

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