Tell the Jury, in Your Expert Opinion…

You may have noticed that I’ve been the only one writing on Trading 8s lately. Most of our contributors keep moving to bigger and better things, leaving less time to write. (They grow up so fast.) Alex Nakahara, as you’ll read, has been studying and researching at the world epicenter of his field. In an age where climate change and evolution are always in the news and increasingly important in our everyday lives, the importance of Alex’s message cannot be understated. — AWO

by Alex Nakahara

This fall, I started studying for my Master’s degree in Aeronautics at MIT. One of the first things we had to do when we arrived was to take the Technical Writing Exam. I was obviously extremely excited to write two essays on a presumably dry and pointless topic, remembering how much fun the GRE and SAT were. However, the topic turned out to be something very relevant to an incoming class of engineers, and especially the Aeronautics/Astronautics students: the debate between manned and unmanned space exploration, which I touched on in an earlier post.

We read two articles, one for manned space exploration and one against, and had to write a summary of the two articles as well as an analysis of what further questions would need to be answered in order to make an informed choice on the issue. In no time at all, pencils were scribbling away at paper.

While the topic was interesting, it was the structure of the test that made the most impact on me. It was not until halfway through the first essay that I noticed that in my supposedly impartial summary of the two articles I was in fact writing my personal opinions on the subject. I went back and removed my opinions (hopefully), and continued to write while focusing more on trying to be neutral on the subject. It was much harder than I expected.  

The second essay was also trickier than it appeared, forcing you not to argue for or against a chosen position, but to identify and justify the most important issues on both sides of the argument. Afterwards, I realized while talking to my fellow graduate students that many of them did not pick up on this subtlety in the assignment.

Our generation has become inured to the constant barrage of opinions: from the media, Twitter, Facebook and especially the blogosphere. I think that many of us are so used to this that it has become hard to avoid expressing our own opinions in what we write, even when expressly told not to. This is especially troublesome in science and engineering for two reasons.

First, science is based on reason and logic. Inserting personal opinions into a paper or research article lowers credibility and reveals a personal bias. Having a preconceived notion of what a result should be from an experiment can cause a scientist to try to obtain that result, instead of seeing what falls out of a properly conducted experiment.

Second, opinions are more and more becoming the basis that the public judges science on. Space is not the only sector where public opinion helps to drive funding and progress. Climate change and evolution also are often viewed as debatable issues with different, opposing viewpoints instead of as hard science. This lowers the level of discourse and helps to obscure the true costs and benefits of, for example, trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Scientists aren’t the only people who should learn how to communicate without biases. The general public is often confused and misled by all the opinions floating around; learning how to pick through them and find the underlying truth is vital for an informed population. When many people think that scientific theories are still up for debate, the world ends up with artificial controversies that muddy the names of all involved.

Science is both the driver and the marker of human progress, but it is dependent on fact, not opinion. The difference between those fact and opinion should be self-evident, but I fear that currently it is far from it.