January 24, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
How to do things with GIFs: Some musings on online science communication
Some weeks ago my son said to me: “Mum, you should write a blog post about GIFs”. As I am a bit of a techno-culture-laggard, I asked him what these things were. He showed me a few and they made me laugh. They also made me think. Images, GIFs, infographics, short videos and so on have become an integral part of our increasingly multi-modal conversations on the web and part of our digital lives. They need to be studied by communication researchers and digital sociologists. What do they add to digital conversations? What are their functions? How do they compare to the use of emoticons? How do they function locally and globally?… How do they make science public and how are they used to talk about science in public?
In the following I’ll briefly summarise what GIFs are and then go on to provide some indications of how they (and other new digital social media tools) are creeping into science communication. I’ll end up by speculating what function GIFs or related types of image-media may perform in reader comments.
However, all this is really just me pointing at the tip of an emerging iceberg and saying: Wow, look at that! I hope that others will have time and expertise to explore the iceberg in more detail.
What are GIFs?
Most readers, especially of the younger sort, will know what GIFs are (although they may not agree on how they are pronounced) and will have encountered them in their digital chats. But for those who haven’t come across them, here is a brief introduction (and I want to stress that I am new to this). GIFs are small moving pictures or animated computer images inserted into web-chats and discussions. Strangely enough, GIFs have been around almost exactly as long as I have been using computers (1987), but I still didn’t know about them! (That shows how I use computers: as glorified typewriters!) (and there are even protogifs from the 19th century).
According to Wikipedia: “The Graphics Interchange Format (better known by its acronym GIF; /ˈdʒɪf/ or /ˈɡɪf/) is a bitmap image format that was introduced by CompuServe in 1987 and has since come into widespread usage … due to its wide support and portability.” For a bit more history on this new medium, you can watch this video. Lets now jump forward to the present: “In 2012, the word ‘GIF’ was officially recognized as a verb as well as a noun, meaning ‘to create a GIF file’. The United States wing of the Oxford University Press voted it their word of the year, saying that GIFs have evolved into ‘a tool with serious applications including research and journalism’ “(wikipedia).
GIFs have rapidly become a popular medium of communication – and here, using Pinterest, you can find a nice selection of them. There seems to be a spectrum of GIFs that extends from GIFs as extended emoticons to the use of GIFs as an artform. (And, of course, there now is Vine, a six-second video app that’s owned by Twitter; there also are cinemagrams etc etc…. about which I know nothing! GIFs can be found on Tumblr and Pinterest and… lots of info can be found on Gizmodo, io9 and so on).
GIFs and science, technology, art communication
GIFs are popular in all forms of digital communication, so it is not astonishing that they are also being used in science, technology, arts communication. In one blog on ‘awesome science GIFs’, Amy Robinson calls “chemical reaction GIFs, one of mankind’s finest internet creations”. The ‘coolest science of 2013‘ is summarised in GIF form. Many scientific disciplines are now developing their own GIFs to encapsulate scientific methods, discoveries, objects and so on in succinct and relatively ‘simple’ and enjoyable ways, covering topics such as ‘metagenomics’ or bodies in orbit.
A large selection of science GIFs can be found on giphy (a GIF search engine and community platform) here. You can also now source them directly from Google Images which has added a subsection on animated images. These images then find their way into science/technology/art etc. communication/education videos, such as those produced by the PBS Idea Channel (to give only one example), which explores the connections between pop culture, technology and art (and also explains how they source GIFs). Many other science (etc) communication video channels use GIFs, and some communicators, such as Hank Green, for example, also host their own GIF blogs. I would love to hear from people using GIFs in science (etc) communication and public engagement!
GIFs are of course also used in climate change communication. Some examples can be found on giphy here. There are websites that use GIFs to summarise how climate change will affect the earth, or major cities, or to try to demonstrate the ‘reality of climate change‘, or illustrate how certain graphs can be interpreted by various people.
GIFs, short videos and user comments/conversations
A few days ago I came across a comment stream on a blog dealing with climate change issues (andthenthereisphysics), where the comment section was punctuated, so to speak, by very short videos (not exactly GIFs but interesting, I thought). I am interested in the use and abuse of comments left after online articles and blogs (see here and a blog post by Luke). So, I began to wonder about the function of GIFs and related image-tools in reader comments and what, if anything, they may mean for (climate) science communication… My sample is extremely small, so I would love to hear about more examples, especially of the use of real GIFs in reader comments.
When you look at the comment stream above, you’ll see that the moving images used there are not science GIFs and they are also not climate change communication or persuasion GIFs. They are instead impromptu humorous interjections used, it seems, to keep the conversation in the comment stream relatively light-hearted. Such humorous videos/GIFs are often sourced from a distinctly British cultural resource, namely Monty Python.
These short movies don’t make statements about a certain scientific issue in a short and pithy way like some of the science GIFs referred to above. Instead they may be called ‘performative’ or perhaps better interactional. They are tools of conversation and and perhaps tools of comment moderation. They are used more like elaborate emoticons to make online communication more effective, enjoyable and less prone to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Other novel image-based conversation-structuring devices are hand gestures, such as these for example, which allow our usually embodied conversations to be imitated online. People engaged in digital conversations and chats can, of course, also use face-palm (and other) reaction GIFs, such as these. There are even some GIFs that can be used to ‘replace conversation’ altogehter (number 10 is my favourite and I use it, mentally, a lot!).
Of course, like emoticons, GIFs and other animated and moving images should not be overused ;), but they can change the tone of a conversation. They may contribute to making online debates less adversarial, as many of them are ironic and self-deprecatory and are frequently used, it seems, to undermine authority and undercut tradition. They also pull the conversational focus towards the author/commenter rather than the article that is commented on.
GIFs: one-way and two-way uses
As I said at the beginning, I have only just discovered GIFs and there will be lots of things to say about them that I haven’t said and other things that I have said will be wrong. On the one hand, GIFs seem to be used to educate, disseminate information and so on in a short and popular way in a rather one-way fashion. They are part of communication as information (science, climate change etc.) transmission. On the other hand, GIFs and related image devices are used as what one may call interactional tools, even engagement tools, that moderate a two-way conversation about certain topics, inject it with humour and emotion. Over and above that, they may be used to perform various other functions including the construction of identities, communities and so on. In whatever way they are used, they are now part of popular culture and should be studied by communication researchers and those interested in online, digital, social media … science-society-culture interactions.
PS: Added on 27 January 2014:
GIFs of birds in motion (HT
GIFs of engines (HT
PS added on 15 February 2014
A streamlined version of this post is now available at The Conversation
An interesting use of a GIF has been proposed by @theresphysics here.
Image: Iceberg at Baffin Bay, Wikimedia Commons
Title: The title is based on one of the most famous philosophy of language books: ‘How to do things with words‘ by John Law Austin, published in 1962.
Since some of this seems to have been motivated by a comment stream on my blog, I thought I’d leave a comment. I found the comment stream you highlight quite amusing. As you mention, it was partly people just adding light-hearted interjections. Although maybe not quite relevant, since you say that you’re interested in the use and abuse of comments left after online articles and blogs, I think what’s happened on my blog is that I’ve just got a bit tougher (with the help of a moderator) and so those who comment now tend to be of a similar mind and so the comments streams can be quite pleasant and friendly.
I ended up in a lengthy twitter debate about this today and it seems that some see this as closing down the debate and trying to control the dialogue. That certainly wasn’t the intent, but if it has been the outcome, it’s still the case that it’s much easier to manage now and the comment streams seem to be less confrontational. I’m also not aware of having lost anything. I certainly didn’t benefit from those comment streams that were much more confrontational, and I’m not sure that many others did either. I’ve still had interesting scientific discussion in which there was much disagreement. Some may have benefited from a looser moderation policy by being able to express their alternative views, but tightening up the moderation doesn’t stop them from doing so elsewhere.
So, I guess the question I still don’t know the answer to is whether or not a stricter moderation policy improves the content/discussion in some way or not. I certainly think it does, but I don’t have any real evidence to support this (other than I’ve actually had to moderate comment streams that have become confrontational and unpleasant). There are certainly sites where I typically won’t comment because of how the comments typically evolve, and so it’s my view that even a weak moderation policy can still influence the comment stream. Just because the debate is open doesn’t mean that everyone will feel comfortable getting involved.
Thanks for your comment! (And as much as I would like to insert a smiley GIF here, I shall resist!) I am sorry you were my sample of one! I have been following your blog for a while, partly because I was interested in seeing how your ‘experiment’ in moderation (in at least two senses of the word) would go. The whole topic of moderation, theory and practice, would certainly make a juicy research project for some future digital world researcher. Whether ‘moving images’, GIFs and the like can really play a moderating role here is, of course, an open question, but one I wanted to at least ask.
Yes, the issue of moderation is interesting and I have found it both difficult and complicated. So, I’m not sure if either of my “experiments” in moderation have been particularly successful, but I’ll leave that for others to judge.
Whether ‘moving images’, GIFs and the like can really play a moderating role here is, of course, an open question, but one I wanted to at least ask.
I used to be very reluctant to use emitcons – for example – but I do find that there are occasions when a discussion can be recovered by the suitable use of an emitcon – a smiley face or a wink. There are, others, however where it became clear that nothing would recover the discussion. The hard part there is then working out how to get out of the discussing with some dignity intact. I have yet to work that part out.
Yes, I was mulling over the meaning of the word ‘judicious’ in this context… that is, the judicious use of emoticons or GIFs or whatever sign or symbol that goes beyond the mere/bare textuality of comments, tweets etc.
Judicious: wise, sensible, prudent, politic, shrewd, astute, canny, sagacious, common-sense, commonsensical, sound, well advised, well judged, well thought out, considered, thoughtful, perceptive, discerning, clear-sighted, insightful, far-sighted, percipient, discriminating, informed, intelligent, clever, enlightened, logical, rational; discreet, careful, cautious, circumspect, diplomatic; strategic, expedient, practical, advisable, in one’s (best) interests;savvy….
For me the key word—or at least the notable, new, informative word—in your account of bad comment threads is “confrontational.” I wish I’d known sooner that “confrontational = bad” in your value system, because that’s one thing it’s possible I’ve been guilty of being, from time to time.
For what it’s worth your Comments Policy and Moderation Policy (two separate pages…doesn’t that suggest something?) both omit the word “confrontational.” Perhaps it’s thought to be the antonym of “civil” and “constructive,” or a synonym of “vitriolic,” but this wasn’t obvious to this reader.
In truth, I just use the words that seem appropriate at the time of writing. So, as I think you’re suggesting, confrontational isn’t – necessarily – a bad thing. There can certainly be circumstances where a confrontational discussion can be constructive. However, what I was probably meaning by the term “confrontational” in this context was engaging in a manner in which one party was simply aiming to confront the other without intending to engage honestly or constructively – confrontation for confrontation’s sake, one might say. I’m no lexicographer, so this is how I intended it, even if this is not how it would be initially understood by others 🙂
This nomenclature issue is something that social scientists should sort out, else they’ll give the impression that they don’t really have much insight into the subject that many of them take a particular interest in. What does “pro-climate” mean? Nothing, I think is the answer. Although too busy to comment there these days I look at “andthentheresphysics” every day or two since I’m interested in science and its communication. “andthentheresphysics” is a science blog since it addresses issues of physical science with an expert perspective (the blogger is a professional academic physicist and most of its commenters are well informed and knowledgeable about science). The focus is on climate science so one might call it a “climate science blog”. Its particular focus is addressing misrepresentation of climate science at all levels, so one might wish to call it an “anti-pseudoscience climate blog” (for example). That’s a bit of a mouthful with an element of a double-negative about it, so why not call it a “pro climate-science blog”.
Everyone should be “pro-science”, since that’s how we found out about the natural world and the nature of consequent effects.
Thanks for you comment. It was a bit of a misnomer and I should have foreseen reactions to it. So I have taken it out of the post. Thanks.
Brigitte—have you corrected your adjective “pro-climate” because you understand that the other hemi-blogospere isn’t *anti*-climate, making the word “a bit of a misnomer”? In which case, that’s laudable and honorable—though I hope you won’t just move on amnestically from your poor choice of words, but will instead give serious thought to what factor or factors might have led a sensible grownup like yourself to entertain, temporarily, such a wildly implausible suspicion of “us.”
Or did you delete “pro-climate” because of the “reactions to it”? That would be neither morally necessary, nor helpful to the debate. People not only have a right but, I’d argue, an obligation to say what they really think.
For instance Greg Laden, the other day, called a prominent blogger on my “side” a “criminal,” adding: “they all are!”
Laden shouldn’t think this.
But he does think this, so he shouldn’t pretend otherwise. (Which is why I thanked and commended him for being candid.) As David Mamet says, if we were just honest with each other we could solve all our disagreements in 5 minutes, or words to that effect.
Hi Chris. Very surprised to discover that while your schedule precludes commenting on Anders’s blog, you still have time to pop in here. Flattered by the attention 🙂
On the subject of accurate nomenclature, you mention ‘pseudoscience’. What would be your definition?
Not sure what “Chris’s” definition of pseudoscience is, but the actual definition of it, in English, is “non-science that purports, appears, or is believed to be science.”
Given that 97% of people don’t have the formal education or experience to know what science looks like, it is perfectly possible to “fool most of the people most of the time” if you have a sufficiently sciencey-seeming product.
When I wrote the word, a voice in my head said, it’s not a good word, but I didn’t listen to it! it really isn’t a good word and I shouldn’t have used it, but sometimes in the heat of getting something off your desk before embarking on another set of marking or some other ‘real’ work, one doesn’t think deeply enough! It’s not a good word because its antonym would be anti-climate, which is even more silly. And, of course, I should have realised that somebody would pick me up on this (react), and rightly so.
Thanks for this post, Brigitte. Hugely enjoyable. Considering how prevalent GIFs have become through Buzzfeed, Tumblr etc, I was surprised how little literature there seems to be on them. The “Everyday I’m Tumblin…” thesis you link to at the end looks really interesting. Need more like this.
I am very interested in moderation too – this is a constant theme in climate blogs of all stripes (and other subjects too). The effect such videos could have on argumentation is an intriguing question.
Re the short videos in Anders’s comment stream, they are very prevalent on YouTube. Don’t know if they have a particular name. This is my all-time favourite http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyuoUwxCLMs (~500k views!)
Warren the definitions of “pseudoscience” one finds in dictionaries seem appropriate to me:
e.g. ” a discipline or approach that pretends to be or has a close resemblance to science”
“A theory, methodology, or practice that is considered to be without scientific foundation.”
“an activity resembling science but based on fallacious assumptions”
to give just the first three examples I found in dictionary definitions of the term.
In general misrepresentations of science tend towards pseudoscience since these misrepresentations are usually presented in “sciency” terms (i.e. as if they were scientifically/logically valid, but in reality often based on false premises). Examples might be scientific sounding arguments that there isn’t a link between smoking a lung and respiratory disease (outdated now), or that HIV cannot be a real virus since it doesn’t satisfy Koch’s postulates (largely outdated too, ‘though of course one still sees this stuff on the web!), or that since year-on-year variability in the increase of atmospheric [CO2] tends to vary with (largely) ENSO-mediated surface temperature variation, that accumulation of atmospheric [CO2] must be natural (and not anthropogenic)…..and so on, and on and on…
The second definition you call “appropriate” has little to do with the others, little to do with the real meaning, and is plainly defective.
There is an unlimited smorgasbord of theories, methodologies and practices in society which are “considered” unscientific, but unless someone *else* mistakenly considers them to BE scientific, or unless they APPEAR scientific to someone, they’re not PSEUDOscientific. They’re just UNscientific.
As a rule, asking a non-linguist to define a word is senseless.
I presume the custom originates in the American education system with its self-esteem fetish and its everyone’s-opinion-is-valid axiom. But you wouldn’t get heart surgery from a climate scientist, would you? And you wouldn’t get your climate psychology from a mainstream, non-climate-trained psychologist, would you? So why would you get your lexicography from a science blogger? Think, people.
Were you being ironic here or not? The climate debate seems to be a classic example of people with no formal/appropriate/relevant training making strong and supposedly informed statements about something. Myself being one, possibly, but yourself too, as far as I can tell.
You’re quite right that uncredentialled opinions and even assertions of fact are ubiquitously and omnidirectionally emitted in this debate—and since there’s no real definition of “climate scientist’, I suppose nobody/everybody will inevitably feel entitled to donate fiftieths of a dollar to every conversation that catches their interest.
But I wasn’t talking about unsolicited expressions of beliefs. I was talking about asking people questions to which you yourself don’t know the answer, and particularly lexicographic questions, which non-linguists are not only unqualified but typically impotent to answer properly.
[I’m keeping this conversation in this thread so it doesn’t get in the way of comments about GIFs]
Your definitions are focused on methods, but your examples are focused on findings. Scientific validity can’t be determined by results, only method. And those results are always subject to random variations. It’s easy to look into the past and argue that particular ideas are pseudoscientific. Isn’t it just that they have been falsified, disproved, discounted etc? Surely that is not the same thing?
The definition “an approach that has a close relation to science” doesn’t seem very helpful either, particularly as there is no singular scientific method – rather a variety of methods across a range of scientific disciplines.
I’ve read a lot of attempts to demarcate pseudoscience from science. But even in cases that appear obvious on the surface, such as Velikovsky, it actually proves surprisingly difficult to draw the line.
Back to GIF’s, and especially the likes of Monty Python videos:
one reason these can be effective is that creators of satirical comedy have already applied their talents to skewering abysmal or self-serving “arguments”, and dubious “arguments” can tend to be somewhat stylised and portable, and thus used to service dodgy agendas in multiple arenas (there are only so many logical fallicies one can employ: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies )
So, for example, one can make a long list of climate-related phenomena that climate models have predicted, but presenting these in a blog “debate” with someone determined to insist that climate models are useless often has little traction. In such a circumstance the Monty Python “What have the Romans ever done for us” sketch is quite useful to highlight that particular instance of contrariness:
Thanks Warren and Chris for your examples of short and shorter moving images (whatever they are called)! I loved them both, the handbag, very short, and the Monty Python sketch, a bit longer. Keep them coming! My son is probably laughing his head off about all this, as he sent me down this rabbit hole. However, it turned out to be quite interesting to explore – and still makes me laugh as well (in places) 🙂
Unfortunately science isn’t like other games of reason. Science is special.
In science, “one can make a long list of climate-related phenomena that climate models have predicted,” but it would be a waste of time because it only takes a SINGLE failed prediction to falsify the theory on which the models are based.
Muggles often don’t believe this, because they assume science must be fair, symmetrical and proportionate. It isn’t. If your theory tells you the Himalayan glacier system will liquefy by 2035, your theory is wrong, even if it’s successfully predicted the last 5 SuperBowl winners.
No, it clearly does not. Firstly, climate models make projections, not predictions. Secondly, they’re incredibly complicated. They’re based partly on fundamental/basic equations (that have been well-tested) and on parametrizations, for those aspects that the model cannot capture properly (through insufficient resolution, for example).
Let’s consider a scenario in which the model assumptions about future emissions turns out to match what actually happened. Let’s also consider also that the model results don’t match what actually happened. What does this mean? Has some fundamental theory/hypothesis been falsified? What theory? The physics/chemistry on which these models are based is well tested. How can a complex model not matching a predicted future reality falsify a theory that’s already been tested? If we knew that our future reality depended only on these theories and if our model was based only on these theories, then maybe that would be true. But they’re not. In the case of climate models, it probably means that some of the parametrizations are wrong. So, the model may well be wrong, but one can’t use that to argue that something fundamental has been falsified.
If you switched “theory” to “model” maybe this statement would be roughly correct. What I would argue is that climate models are not theories. They’re complex models based on basic physics and chemistry, but that also have parametrizations. Therefore it is quite possible that climate models could turn out to be wrong (i.e., some of their parametrizations turn out to poor) but that does not mean that some kind of fundamental theory is wrong/falsified.
Also, just because our current generation of climate models might turn out to be wrong, doesn’t immediately mean that one should start from scratch again. It’s quite likely that it’s one aspect of the model that’s wrong, not the entire model (i.e., it would be remarkable if we discovered that climate models are wrong because the equations of hydrodynamics are wrong). In fact, I would be extremely surprised if this didn’t turn out to be true. I’m sure that people are constantly changing some model assumptions when new information becomes available. Also, in the case of complex models one has to be careful about what one means by the term “wrong”. If we completely rejected all complex model results if they didn’t precisely match reality, we’d never really get any science done. Not precisely matching reality doesn’t mean “completely wrong”.
This is a really interesting discussion about theories, models, falsification, ‘wrongness’ etc. and I am learning a lot from it. (Before the last comment came in, I was formulating some kind of rather naive response along the lines of: if your model of the world says that all swans are white and you find a black one, then the model is wrong… but are climate models LIKE that? And then I gave up, as climate models are well outside my area of expertise, so I was glad to get a somewhat more knowledgeable response). However, I think this discussion strays away a bit from GIFs, don’t you think?
This GiF stuff is actually quite difficult. Wanted to find one for ‘being sidetracked’ but only found one for being distracted: http://giphy.com/gifs/603DZO1SxPYpa (with cats!)
Obviously. You seem to be disagreeing with a strawman. If you don’t mind my saying so, this is reminiscent of a clause in your Moderation Policy (or is it your Comments Policy? I can’t keep up!), which states that evidence of prima-facie shady dealings between one or two climate scientists DOES NOT justify the claim that everyone in the field is corrupt. It’s reminiscent of your complaint about one of my comment threads: how can any decent person be OK with scientists receiving vile. abusive, frightening emails? In both cases, you’re deploring a claim that has never, to my knowledge, been made or even implied on your blog—certainly not by me or anyone I’ve seen. Denouncing strawmen is dishonest because it puts words in the mouths of the other “side.”
Lastly, while we’re talking about your writing (and I apologise to Brigitte if we’ve been digressing too far and too long from the issues raised in her own article), science bloggers who claim to teach science, as you do, really shouldn’t use Bjorn Lomborg’s homosexuality as an argument against his thesis!! It’s not only a morally ugly, homophobic ad-hominem but a completely unscientific thing to do. It implies a certain evidentiary desperation, of course, but more than that: ask yourself what one of your students would think if they read it?
Of course you’ve never actually done the thing I’m complaining about. And I’m sure you’re too decent a person to do so. The sole point of the preceding paragraph is to give you some idea of how exasperating it is when someone bemoans at length a claim you never made. Strawmen can be used in offense, not just defense, and they’re no less dishonest either way.
I’m really not trying to disagree with a strawman. That was not my intent. I also don’t really want this to be about me or my moderation policy, so if your next response is in the same vein as your previous one, I’ll simply ignore it. This could be an illustration of moderation, or lack thereof.
I was responding to you saying
In what way was my response a strawman? I was simply pointing out that a complex model that fails to make a correct prediction does not falsify the theory on which it was based. It may mean the model is wrong, but does not necessarily mean something has been falsified. If you agree with what I saying (i.e., it was a strawman) what was the point of your comment? I may well be missing something subtle about what you’re saying, so I’m asking you to clarify the intent of your comment.
The cats GIF moderation experiment failed!! 🙁 But more seriously, I think we can now regard this strand of the discussion as closed.
Of course. Glad that Brad and I could illustrate the complications and difficulties in moderating a discussion on a complicated and, sometimes, divisive topic 🙂
Thank you both!!
OK, good—as long as YOU know that I know that “just because our current generation of climate models might turn out to be wrong, doesn’t immediately mean that one should start from scratch again,” we’re not arguing. 🙂
Surely not Brad! The point of using words is to communicate meaning. I hope you’re not suggesting that the meaning that I try to convey in a statement can only be assessed or interpreted by a linguist.
Of course it may be that my meaning isn’t as clear to others as I might expect, and therefore I might need to qualify or expand on my original statement to clarify my meaning. But it’s obviously important to be quite clear what I mean when I use a word – it’s my meaning I’m trying to convey…not that of some linguist!
I suspect that all of us here have a similar sort of conception of what “pseudoscience” is. Warren asked me what I meant by the term and I suggested that the dictionary definitions are appropriate, which I think they broadly are. However the word is not the thing, and so one can’t expect words perfectly to encapsulate the thing that one may be describing! I take your point that the second definition really requires that someone pursues an unscientific interpretation AS IF it were scientific. So, that’s good…you and I both are clearly on the same wavelength with respect to the meaning of “pseudoscience” in the context used here…
I’d like to make one more comment in response to some of the things Brad says – I think it’s an interesting and important point. To encourage the moderators indulgence, I’ll post links to a couple of my favourite GIF-style links:
A satirical sketch about the UK BBC QuestionTime programme, which captures the inanity of much of public discourse very well:
A very incisive parody of a Lady Gaga song by a US biology research lab, the sentiments of which many of us that do research will recognise (quite a useful learning tool about the nature of experimental science possibly!):
Ah yes, I encountered the Lady Gaga parody a while ago and put it on my song list 🙂 towards the end, under ‘more songs’
As I was driving home from the lab this early afternoon, this sentence of Brad’s that “andthentheresphysics” commented on earlier, caught in my mind, especially in relation to the earlier discussion on words and their definitions/meanings:
That’s very interesting. I also use complex computational models in my research; not climate models, but models that simulate protein folding and dynamics that are based on the theory that won the most recent Nobel Prize for Chemistry (Karplus, Levitt and Warshel). These models have been hugely useful in understanding proteins, their functionally-relevant dynamic properties, drug design and so on.
Recently, it’s become apparent that in some of the models the electrostatics may not be so accurately parameterized (and so charges of opposite sign stick together a little too strongly; a “failed prediction”). Does this mean that the theory on which the models are based has been falsified, and that the results of all the modeling to date should be disregarded? Of course not. The models, warts and all, have explained and stimulated, respectively, a vast range of observation and experiment. It simply means that the models aren’t perfect and that there is scope for improving these. But we always knew that anyway – that’s the nature of models!
What struck me is the relationships between words and their meanings discussed above, and models and the elements of the natural world that the models are simulating. In the same way that words are used as representations of things and ideas in order to convey meaning, so models are representations of the elements of the natural world they simulate. We do our best to convey meaning if doing so is important to us, but if we don’t do so perfectly that often doesn’t matter too much. The same applies to models.
Ah now that is an interesting topic or two, first: words, representations, meanings – and the inherent imperfection of these, see here (I hope that link works):
and second, related to this, the issue of meanings, models and metaphors….now thinking on that topic reaches back at least to Max Black’s 1962 book Models and Metaphors, but more recently, I found this quite interesting: http://www.edge.org/conversation/metaphors-models-amp-theories
I wish I had seen or read this when thinking about these issues a few years ago (but I would have needed a bit of time travel).
I didn’t notice this earlier, Warren, but that’s completely wrong. My examples aren’t focussed on “findings” at all. They are focussed on method. It’s methodologically pseudoscientific to attempt the deceit that HIV isn’t a virus because someone suggests that it doesn’t satisfy some outdated postulates. That isn’t a “finding” or a “result”; it’s a deceit. The same applies to my other examples. What makes these examples pseudoscience, is that they attempt to portray a misrepresentation using deceit (ciggie and lung disease example) or false premises.
I don’t believe you suggestion about “looking into the past and arguing that particular ideas are pseudoscientific” is valid either. I would say that ideas can be considered scientific or pseudoscientific only in relation to well-established knowledge of the time. Of course it may be difficult to draw the line when dealing with things long ago (phlogistin; the aether and so on), but we’re not talking about things in the past. In relation to what I was actually referring to (“andthetheresphysics” blog and its possible descriptors), many of the examples s/he addresses are contemporary examples of pseudoscience, largely in relation to misrepresentations of climate science. We could discuss specific examples. Of course one needs some knowledge of science to recognise what is and isn’t pseudoscience…
Thanks for the reply! Apologies for my tardiness in responding. Been busy 🙂
If one accepts that there are a variety of scientific methods, as is well established in the literature, then it seems to me that defining science is, well, tricky. It then follows that defining pseudoscience is also tricky. As a professional scientist, I don’t doubt that you know more about various scientific cases than I do. However, the original point was about categories. One may assert, as you do, that various scientific practices are pseudoscience. The challenge is to provide evidence that there is commonality between these practices which then gives us a definition of pseudoscience. If that commonality is deceit, as I think you are claiming above, then I am left wondering how this could be satisfactorily proved. In the course of my research I have met people who I daresay some would accuse of climate pseudoscience. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that they are being knowingly deceitful.
One other question that arises from this exchange is why some scientists are so keen to use the pseudoscience label. Here is a hypothesis: that if science is hard to define then some scientists may prefer to define themselves in terms of what they are *not* rather than what they *are*. As a result, the most solid definition of pseudoscience that we could muster would be “those people which scientists seek to exclude”.
[PS Chris, if you are responding to this, please could you use ‘reply’ to keep it in this thread. I would prefer our off topic musings (which I of course started!) to keep out of the main GIF thread]
That’s wrong again Warren. I didn’t say anywhere that the commonality of “pseudoscience” is deceit. I said that misrepresentations of science tend towards pseudoscience (and explained why); I gave the first three examples of pseudoscience that came to my mind, and these happened to involve misrepresentations or are based on false premises. These examples came to my mind most likely in the context of the “andthentheresphysics” blog, which was actually the original point of departure.
But not all pseudoscience is necessarily deceitful. That’s obvious isn’t it? One doesn’t have to decide whether many of the ideas of Velikovsky or von Daniken were or weren’t genuinely held to recognize that these are pseudoscience. We decide what is an isn’t pseudoscience by considering notions in the context of contemporary knowledge. So it often really isn’t very difficult at all.
Oh dear…that’s a truly dreary definition. As if we are incapable of making objective assessment of the merits of ideas in the context of existing knowledge.
Incidentally, as a scientist I certainly define myself in terms of what I am. Your “hypothesis” is a dud.
Fair enough, I was just to clarify exactly *what* you were defining as pseudoscience. Getting to the bottom of this has been quite hard, which was the rather the point of my initial intervention.
If you get to define what constitutes science is and what being a scientist is, then what is to stop anyone doing that? Or in GIF form: http://static3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20100305231211/uncyclopedia/images/c/cd/Circular_reasoning_fore-back.gif
Warren, surely getting to the bottom of this (“what I was defining as pseudoscience”) isn’t that difficult since I spelled it out, gave examples of dictionary definitions which I consider are broadly appropriate, and gave some examples.
First of all I didn’t “define what constitutes science” (although I could have a go at doing that if anyone was interested); nor did I “define what being a scientist is”. I said as a scientist I define myself in terms of what I am (in response to your unevidenced suggestion “that some scientists may prefer to define themselves in terms of what they are *not*”).
Second, there is nothing circular about one’s designation of oneself as a scientist, any more than a plumber stating that he defines him/herself in terms of what s/he is (rather than what s/he is *not*) is making a circular argument.
One really should address the reality of the “thing” in itself, rather than insisting all-encompassing definitions of categories! One doesn’t need to have to define “scientist” to know that since I spend a good part of my waking hours engaging in systematic investigations of problems relating to phenomena in the natural world, using modern equipment, techniques and analyses, in order to generate hypotheses related to causality which I (and colleagues) explore and make interpretations on…. and then organize the data, evidence and interpretations into presentations that are disseminated in lectures and scientific publications, and that this work is (hopefully) funded by stakeholders that have an interest in exploring the phenomena that I investigate and their outcomes…….then I am a scientist.
Likewise one doesn’t need to define “pseudoscience” to know that if someone asserts that because the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations has been broadly smooth throughout the 20th century, that therefore greenhouse warming does not exist….then they are engaging in pseudoscience. How do we know this is pseudoscience? Well, for one, we could consider the statement in the light of the dictionary definitions of “pseudoscience” I showed earlier in this thread.
One CAN make objective assessments of things. We can objectively assess what is and isn’t pseudoscience in most cases for example, and we can objectively assess whether someone is scientist or a plumber. What a tedious world we would live in if this wasn’t true
Thanks for mentioning my metagenomics GIF! I appreciate that someone actually took a liking to it in the name of science communication. My bacterial chemotaxis GIFs are my proudest ones thus far. I really enjoyed the post. Thanks!
I am glad you enjoyed it. Will tell my son who prodded me to write it. He is a budding scientist with an interest in genomics!
Quick thought. GIFs are used a lot (and often very well) on Wikipedia. See this entry on ‘parallax’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallax
I knew I was only pointing at an iceberg – or the part of it that I was aware of! So much more to explore! Thanks for that!
I really like the rising use of GIFs in science communication. I think there is a wide range of ideas that are ideal for expression in GIF form. These are concepts or scenarios that are difficult to describe with words and require visual aid but are not long enough to warrant a video. I find that I am more inclined to view a GIF of a topic over a short video on that topic. I’m not able to pinpoint exactly why; perhaps it is because of the lower load time or the lack of an ad at the beginning. Nevertheless, I think that a GIF is a more enticing click than a video and this creates a more engaged audience.
Yes, I agree, although I also don’t know why. There should be some research on this 😉