Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Communicating science fail

The little Bear and I were playing at the park last week. A pair of parents were discussing dogs, and then one turns to me and says, "Hey, you study genetics. So, how closely related are dogs and wolves?"

Being a complete nerd, and failing to recognize the social situation I was in, I started by responding with, "Well, that depends. If you're talking about the ability to mate, or about genetic relatedness, and then whether you're looking at genes or intergenic...".

At this point, the guy who asked me butted it, "Wait, wait, wait. I just wanted to know a number. Give me a number. How similar are dogs and wolves? 90%? 99.9%?".


I then tried to explain that I didn't know the exact number, but the father responded that I could just give him a ballpark estimate. But, by this point, he said, he didn't care about it anymore.

Communicating science fail.

Later in the week, the dog-wolf discussion came up again, and I told the father that I didn't want to give him an incorrect answer, and have him lose confidence in my scientific credentials. He assured me that he would never have checked up on it, and simply wanted to know the little factoid.

Therein lies the problem. Once people know that I study evolution, or anything related to genetics, many just want me to spew random factoids. But that isn't how Science works.

Science isn't a bunch of mini-absolutes. It is trends, and correlations, and interpretations. When enough of these are independently confirmed, then we have confidence in the results.

I don't know how to convey this to the public in a short response. I don't want to become a factoid-box. I don't want to proclaim myself an expert in fields where I'm not. I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that scientists think we are always right. But, at the same time, I want to convey the confidence that can be concluded from hundred, or thousands, of independent observations.

So, do I know exactly how closely dogs and wolves are? No, not off the top of my head. But, I do know that modern dogs and modern wolves share a common evolutionary ancestor, and, after a quick literature search, it was likely about 130,000 years ago.

What to do? Perhaps have qualified answers ready. Something like, "I don't study {dogs} specifically, but {dogs and wolves} are {more} closely related than humans and chimps, so probably about {99%}."

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