Ep. 147: How to Be Taken Seriously By Scientists

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For those non-scientists trying to get their original ideas accepted by the scientific community, you’ve got to have thick skin. It might seem like there’s a vast conspiracy, or a general attitude that drives away original, but unorthodox ideas. But that’s not true, the reality is that great ideas in science come from everywhere, even amateurs. In this episode we’ll help you understand what scientists will be looking for, and the best ways to be taken seriously.

  • Ep. 147: How to Be Taken Seriously By Scientists
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      Fraser Cain: You’ve been very busy traveling and still have more ahead. Where are you headed?

      Dr. Pamela Gay: I am going to be in London, England but ensconced in meetings probably not to be seen by the real world.

      Fraser: Right, so London’s out. You’re going to be at Dragon*Con.

      Pamela: I’m going to be at Dragon*Con during Labor Day weekend. On September 3rd there is going to be a fundraiser in honor Jeff Medkeff, the Blue Collar Scientist who passed away from cancer. I will be giving eight different presentations between science, space and the Podcasting tracks.

      Fraser: With Dragon*Con, Jeff was the person who named asteroids after me and Phil and Rebecca – not you. I’m sure someone will come along and name an asteroid after you.

      Pamela: I’m sorry.

      Fraser: This week for those non-scientists trying to get their original ideas accepted by the scientific community you’ve got to have a thick skin. It might seem like there a vast conspiracy or a general attitude that drives away original but unorthodox ideas, but that’s not true. The reality is that great ideas in science come from everywhere – even amateurs.

      This episode will help you understand what scientists will be looking for and the best ways to be taken seriously. Before we kind of get rolling, I think it is really important to distinguish. There is a lot of language that gets used that’s crackpot, crank [laughter] woo-woo, crazy, annoying.

      I think that there are a lot of people, who have been trying to get their ideas taken who have gone way out of bounds; who have threatened people, who have…

      Pamela: Yelled, screamed, harassing e-mails.

      Fraser: At the worst, exactly who yell, scream, and threatened violence against scientists because they think they’re not taking them seriously. So, you people we’ve got no sympathy for.

      If you’re going to cross that line and step away from the scientific process and debate and all good faith in humanity and just to be polite and nice, then don’t listen to this episode. [Laughter] You’re beyond help.

      Pamela: These people are not limited to any one category. There are people with PhDs in astronomy who are insane. There are people with high school diplomas who are doing amazing research. Educational boundaries do not delineate between crazies and really good researchers.

      Fraser: Right, cranks, yeah. That’s the point that a crank is through behavior not level of education, not the kinds of ideas that you have, not how radical the idea is you have – any of that.

      It’s purely behavior. It’s how you act in trying to get your ideas taken seriously by the scientific community. On the flip side though – you just mentioned this – you work with all kinds of amateurs, right?

      Pamela: Right and there are people out there – Marek Kozubal at Dexter Southfield High School in Massachusetts who works at the Clay Observatory has done amazing image studies of rotating asteroids of variable stars. He has his name on a number of different publications.

      There are a whole variety of people in the AAVSO who regularly spit out papers on variable stars. There are amateurs involved in extrasolar planets. There are amateurs involved in gravitational lensing in variable galaxy work.

      You name it, pretty much all the different fields have somewhere involved in them people who don’t have PhDs who are doing amazing work, working from home while working a regular 9-5 job on the side.

      Fraser: The great thing about science is that it doesn’t matter what your educational level is. If it’s right, it’s right. It doesn’t matter where the idea comes from.

      It doesn’t matter whether you spent ten years researching it or whether the numbers happened to work out on a napkin. If it is correct, it’s correct and nature will back you up.

      Pamela: Just to qualify that there are people who know as much about astronomy as I do who didn’t bother with a PhD. They are self-educated, have read the journal articles, gone to the meetings, and talked with the scientists.

      They’ve done the math; they’ve done all the background work. They just didn’t bother to get the piece of paper. These are people who are very well educated but lack the educational credentials. That’s fine.

      Fraser: Yeah, absolutely. Personally, that’s the direction that I’ve taken with my career path in astronomy is I don’t have my PhD in astronomy. I went through computer science.

      But astronomy is my passion and so I was able to fit myself into that world and play the part that I do. I think absolutely, you do not have to have a long credentialed education at some Ivy-League college, right?

      You can educate yourself on these issues. I think absolutely that’s a great point. The education helps but it’s not a total requirement for being able to contribute.

      Pamela: So as we tell you how not to be a crank and point out how people have been cranks, we’ve basically spent the past six minutes saying we know there are really intelligent people out there doing really great work.

      If you don’t have PhDs, who aren’t working in academic settings, we love you – we support you. But there are crazies among you.

      Fraser: So that’s it – if none of this advice is going to be of use to you then don’t listen to more. [Laughter] What do you think is the interface between the enthusiastic amateur who maybe has an idea and wants to somehow get that idea explored further? Often it’s like it’s the biggest problem. I’ve realized that Einstein was wrong.

      Pamela: The scientific method is the same no matter who you are, no matter where you are. If you have an idea the first thing you have to do is prove your idea. This means that you have to sit down; you have to do your homework. Find out what other people have already done, put your work within the context.

      Do a compare and contrast essay basically of your work. Mathematically and observationally and experimentally test your idea. If you don’t have the facilities to test your idea write down in detail what is necessary to test your idea.

      One of the biggest problems with the emails that I often get from people is they start off saying Einstein was wrong – this is obvious – here’s my conceptional explanation of why Einstein is wrong using just words.

      Then they go on to say I don’t have the math to prove my ideas. Could you work with me in complete secrecy sharing no one my idea even though I’ve sent this to you without asking if I could and do all of the math for me?

      Fraser: I think that’s a great example of sort of the extreme end. Where has that person gone wrong?

      Pamela: They’ve gone wrong in three different places. Their first was “Einstein is completely wrong” because it makes me uncomfortable. Science isn’t about emotional reactions to ideas. It’s about whether or not ideas are testable in real world environments.

      You can’t say that an idea that makes your stomach queasy that you can’t visualize in your brain is wrong just based on your stomach and your emotions.

      The next place they went wrong is they didn’t do any math. They simply said here are a bunch of words. Well, you can’t use words alone to prove a mathematical concept. I can say with words “objects fall towards the sun”.

      Well, that is true if you’re inside Mercury’s orbit, you have the correct velocity – it’s in fact true anywhere in the solar system if you have the correct velocity.

      If I’m on the surface of the planet Earth it’s not true. You can make statements and they may or may not be true, they’re just words.

      It takes mathematics to describe the situation carefully in a way that proves or disproves an idea. You can’t just put an idea forward in words and say “well I’m not able to do the math; here you go do it for me”.

      Fraser: That is the big hurdle. I think it’s a big one. It’s the one that stops a lot of people at the door. If your mathematical skills aren’t up to taking on the concept that you’re trying to explain better.

      In other words if you can’t do the math on relativity to the same level that maybe a researcher who’s working on Einstein’s theories can do, if you can’t prove them wrong mathematically to the happiness of someone else, you’re going to have a really hard time convincing anybody that you’re right.

      Math is the language that they speak.

      Pamela: Exactly.

      Fraser: To use that analogy, is to try and explain to somebody in a language you don’t speak. If they can’t understand you then that’s that. You can imagine that scientists in that situation only speak math.

      Pamela: This is where if you have an idea that you think is worth proving is true, you have to do your homework to learn the math. You have to do your homework to figure out how to explain your theories.

      Fraser: Right and you could show a physicist and say see here, Einstein forgot to carry the one. The physicist would kind of go “you’re right, Einstein was wrong”.

      Pamela: The problem is that you have a lot of people who are looking at equations that are extremely difficult to understand. Saying “well this has to be wrong” and they’re not bothering to work their way through all the math.

      Fraser: So the point is take on the problems that are within your level of mathematical ability. Some don’t require much math at all. They might just require measurements as opposed to dealing with really complicated equations.

      Pamela: That’s the thing, sometimes you just have to look at the world around you and say “okay, if my idea is true these next ten things also must be true”.

      Fraser: Is this a way to skip the math problem?

      Pamela: Yeah, you do the experiments. The fact is that we had Kepler figuring out the correct equations for orbital mechanics without knowing why they worked. He looked at the solar system which was his experiment. He figured out the math behind the solar system without the ‘whys’.

      We had to wait for Newton to come along to get the ‘whys’. There are lots of instances of only getting part of the story but being correct. There are other things that we’re still trying to figure out mathematically how to describe that come out of quantum mechanics where we’re 99.9% of the way there but then gravity comes in and we can’t get 100% of the way there.

      Fraser: Right so if you could make predictions that could be borne out by experiment that’s also good.

      Pamela: You need to either be able to do the math, you need to be able to make predictions, and you need to be able to do the experiment. There are lots of amateur astronomers who’ve made really neat contributions to fields like binary stars by looking at systems that if you look in the literature it says “has a stable orbit of X years”.

      Then over a lifetime a single individual observing those two stars over and over again is able to actually see changes in how long it takes those two stars to orbit one another and learn new things about that system that run contrary to what was already written about in the literature. That’s an example of people taking on a problem that is intellectually within their ability.

      Taking on relativity isn’t within my ability. It’s an example of people running the experiment carefully sometimes over the course of a lifetime. Then the next step is you don’t send your results to me telling me to keep them completely secret.

      You don’t send them to Fraser asking him to publish them on Universe Today and tell the entire world that science as we know it is completely false and they deserve the Nobel Prize.

      What you do is send your ideas to a journal. There are a whole bunch of them. If you do variable stars a good journal is the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. If you are doing gravitational lensing working with a team and doing follow-up observations the Astrophysical Journal is a good place.

      There is a whole list of different journals. Sending in your ideas to go through peer review is free. In many cases if your journal article is accepted you have to pay page charges.

      That’s probably something that you can work on once the paper is accepted and trying to find money from other sources if you have come up with a good idea that is worthy of being published.

      Fraser: So just to be clear then, will you be taken seriously? In the episode we just did you go through that whole process of – but you do it all in your spare time – and you come up with a question that you want an answer about gravitational lensing or variable stars or something like that.

      You have a telescope; you’re able to put in your own telescope time. You get your data, put it together in a paper you put your results together and you hand it in to a journal and you say “take me seriously”. What would be their response?

      Pamela: It depends on the journal. It depends on if you are an already known factor. If you’re an amateur astronomer who has built a reputation they’ll just take your paper.

      Fraser: Well let’s say you’re not. I think this is the point.

      Pamela: If you’re starting then sometimes instead of heading straight for a major peer review journal, the first step is to attend a major scientific conference. Something with the American Astronomical Society, present your results as a poster. Discuss them with peers.

      Present your results as a talk, discuss them with peers. Find someone who you can build some sort of a relationship with that will help endorse you when you put your paper in.

      Fraser: Isn’t that what people are trying to when they send their information to you and me?

      Pamela: That’s actually kind of going to the wrong audience. Someone sending me a paper on how their theory disproves relativity, well I’m not an expert on relativity. What they’ve just done is completely unsolicited.

      Places like scientific conferences are places that all of us go to present our ideas to find people who are working on similar ideas to brainstorm and collaborate and find ways to improve our research. Within the context of the scientific meeting everyone there is there because they want to engage in scientific dialogue.

      They may not want to engage it in one specific idea but in a conference of a thousand people there is probably someone doing relativity. There is probably someone doing magneto hydrodynamics. There’s probably someone doing supernovae.

      Within that context you find your peers. You find their research. Talk to them about their research. Talk to them about how your research fits in within the context of what they’re doing and start that dialogue.

      Fraser: Going to AAS, there are hundreds of talks throughout the whole conference and they’re broken up into topics. There’s going to be one on variable stars, one on extrasolar planets – well there are ten on extrasolar planets. There are ten on variable stars [laughter]. There’s a ton of them.

      In many cases the same faces that show up they all sit in the same room together. Five of them give their talks and the rest of them listen and ask pointed questions. Afterwards they meet and talk to each other and swap ideas.

      Would you say that would be a good place to start? Sit in some of these talks and ask some questions and afterwards introduce yourself and explain what you’re doing?

      Be open about that you don’t have the credentials but here’s the work that you’re doing and would they be able to take a look at it. Maybe they will give you some feedback or whatever.

      Pamela: Yes and in some cases you can just go to one of these meetings and present. If you’re a variable star person, meetings of the American Association of Variable Star Observers are completely open.

      The AAS, if your check clears and you show up often there is space for you to present. You just have to follow all the guidelines of the society in terms of getting your abstract in on time, following through with all of the paperwork on time.

      Fraser: That costs money though, right? It costs money to attend those conferences.

      Pamela: The thing is science isn’t free to any of us.

      Fraser: I know but I think at the same time it makes it harder to pony up a few hundred dollars to be able to just talk to a scientist.

      Pamela: The thing is even professional observers often have to pay money – their own out of pocket money – to go to these conferences. Even for us to get our ideas heard among our peers, all because we work at a university doesn’t mean our travel is paid for.

      A lot of us go to these meetings at least in part on our own dime. Saying “well I don’t have funding like you big professionals”, well we big professionals don’t always have funding either.

      It is part of the dues that we pay if we want to be part of the community we have to not only buy the suits but we have to buy the airplane tickets.

      Fraser: I think that there must be other ways that you can do this for free. I think if you know exactly what your work is – let’s say you pick something that you can prove experimentally and it’s a very obscure aspect about pulsars.

      You can find a short list of working researchers, maybe even post-docs or even grad students where you can talk to them and say “here’s my work. Would you be able to take a look at it”?

      You could still make those contacts. It doesn’t have to be the conference; you just make those contacts with the people who know that material the best.

      Pamela: You can still make the contacts. It’s definitely going to be a lot harder simply because we all have a very high “oh, this is scary crazy person threshold”.

      Fraser: Right and that’s where the onus is on you as the researcher to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.

      Pamela: One way to help give yourself some credence is to get involved in your local astronomy club. Often there’ll be professional astronomers that come through the local clubs.

      Get to know some of them within that context and see not if they can help you specifically with their research unless it’s exactly in par with what you’re doing.

      Ask instead, “hey I’m working on pulsars; I know that you’re an extrasolar planets person but is there someone working on pulsars that you could put me in contact with”?

      Fraser: I think part of it as well then is to definitely understand that everyone’s first instinct is “uh oh, here comes another crank”. On the Universe Today forum we have a section we call “Against the Mainstream”.

      This is a place where people who do have these controversial theories can post them up there and then everyone from enthusiastic amateurs to accredited scientists and people with their PhDs in astronomy will take a look and give feedback.

      We’ve had some informal surveys and in the years and years that we’ve been doing this we’ve had a couple of people provide new ideas that are very interesting people have thought would warrant further explanation. We have put people in contact with other people.

      We’ve had most of them are people who weren’t willing to do their homework to willing to step through the existing researcher willing to go through the math; who weren’t willing to do the math. Then we had a high percentage of people that were just plain mean and got banned because they were so mean.

      Pamela: In general what I’ve found is there are lots of people with really amazing ideas that need someone to pursue them. They may not have answers but they’ve at least come up with good questions.

      One question that was asked to me that I have no clue what the answer is and I’d love to find out is “why the heck do minerals in planets tend to come in nice mineable sections”? Why is it that when you dig through the planet Earth you end up with a nice clump of gold?

      Why is it that you can’t just scoop up any old shovel of planet Earth and get a representative atomic distribution of all the minerals that the planet is made of? I’d love to know the answer to that. I don’t. It’s a great question.

      Fraser: Okay so you need to make contact, you’ve got to bridge that gap, right? You’ve got to make contact with the scientific community. You can start a blog. There’s a whole other world these days – you can start a blog where you post your thinking.

      You can join the discussion forums where existing scientists are talking and you can talk with them. You can join forums like the forum that we have and there are physics forums. There’s a whole bunch of great forums with very experienced scientists on there who are more than happy to help you think through the implications of the idea.

      But, it’s give and take. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t abuse their time and the gift that they’re giving to you which is to take the time to help you look through it.

      Pamela: There are certain things that if you do will instantly, even if you have a good idea, get you labeled as a crank. One is the yelling, screaming, and all capitalization. That’s just not nice anywhere.

      Fraser: Yeah, be nice – don’t be rude.

      Pamela: The other is – and this is my favorite – “I have a college degree. I got it a long time ago. I realize it’s in a different field but it still qualifies me because I have a college degree”.

      There are lots of stupid people who have college degrees. There are lots of brilliant people who don’t have college degrees.

      Needing to say you have a college degree means you’re trying to prove something that you don’t necessarily need to prove.

      Fraser: The other thing that you have to be really careful about is sort of a need for secrecy which is very strange to me. If you’ve got an idea that’s going to change the world you should be shouting it from the mountaintops. You should be telling anyone who’s going to listen.

      Don’t worry if people are going to hear it. There’s a great saying “You don’t have to worry that people are going to steal your ideas. If your ideas are any good you still have to jam them down people’s throats”.

      Pamela: Yeah and there’s something very contradictory in sending me something I never asked for and then demanding I keep it secret.

      I think I’m actually going to start a section on my blog that every unsolicited anything I’m sent and asked to keep secret goes on my blog.

      Fraser: I used to maintain a list of secret list you should not be showing and send them around to my friends. Hey another warp drive design. [Laughter] With no math – little box that says “warp drive goes here”.

      Don’t be worried and this is where it comes back to the blogging section, don’t really be concerned about people stealing your ideas. It’s not like you have come up with a new way to trade stocks or you’ve come up with a new way to make pizza that is very commercially viable.

      You’ve come up with a thought, an idea about some aspect of nature. If you were public about your ideas then now in this age we can always trace them back to the beginning. That’s why it makes sense to have a blog and to participate in forums and have open conversations with people and contribute to the knowledge. Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas.

      Pamela: The other side of this is another early warning sign to us that someone might be a crank is when they self-publish books instead of going through peer review.

      Paying money to get a thousand copies of your book published that you send unsolicited to random scientists instead of saying “I have an idea, I’m going to write a 30-page paper and go through a peer review and get it made part of the standard set of scientific literature”.

      It’s like you’re skipping steps for no reason and spending money you don’t have to spend. It’s just red flags left and right.

      Fraser: That is a sort of drastic mistake that a lot of scientists sometimes even make. Even though they’re fairly well-respected scientists they think that now is the time to write a book, now is the time to have a surprise press conference with everyone and announce their unreleased findings.

      Then in the light of day when all the scientists get to take a look at it and study the results and looked through the literature to find the holes, it all falls apart. This is what happened with Cold Fusion with Pons and Fleishmann.

      They made that mistake which was instead of going through the process and getting other scientists to really tear their ideas apart and help strengthen them, they skipped all the in-between steps and went straight to the public.

      That unfortunately kind of gets you nowhere. Take the steps, bring in the friends. Get the peer review. Get people to help you out.

      Pamela: We all follow the same rules. None of us get to skip steps. I don’t care how smart you are, you gotta follow it.

      Play with us and if you play with us instead of demanding special treatment, it’ll get you a lot further. I think most of us are about collaboration.

      Fraser: Yeah so I think to encapsulate right which is to work on ideas that are within your mathematical or experimental ability.

      Pamela: Yeah.

      Fraser: Make contact with professionals who specialize in the areas that you’re interested in and be respectful and helpful in engaging with them.

      Don’t be afraid to do your homework and do the work to fulfill what they need. If you can do that then you can be as well-respected as other scientists.

      Pamela: Exactly.

      Fraser: At the end of the day the truth is the truth and nature is more than happy to back you up. Nature’s got your back. [Laughter]

      Pamela: Yeah, the universe is trying to tell us the truth and we’re just not always good at listening. Help us learn to listen a little better.

      Fraser: Thanks Pamela.

      This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.