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Dec142015

Niki Athanasiadou Explains How to Use Science Every Day – Even on the Subway - Lecture Recap

Report by Russ Dobler on November 21, 2015 event. Photos by Jonathan Nelson.
 
“The first step to thinking like a scientist is [to] be curious,” NYU research scientist Niki Athanasiadou told the crowded room of the Jefferson Market Library. “Don’t take things for granted and don’t settle for an unsatisfactory answer.”
At the November 21 New York City Skeptics lecture called “Science Everyday:  Simple Rules to Critical Thinking,” the molecular and cell biologist could have packed up and called it a day at that point. But while those two simple statements pretty much sum the whole package up, Athanasiadou had more details to describe how science came to be our best tool for evaluating the world, and how we might be able to use it in answering questions in our ordinary lives.
 
The second step to thinking like a scientist might be to realize that we don’t perceive the world as it truly is. “Our senses are really limited,” Athanasiadou said. Our vision serves us pretty well, for example, but we can’t see ultraviolet light, like a bee searching for a pollen, or infrared waves, like a snake on the hunt for prey.
 
“There is a whole unknown world out there on the cusp of our senses,” Athanasiadou said.
 
And like the old saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous when we incorrectly assume we’re getting the whole picture. If people just relied on their senses, we’d never have figured out the world is round. “It all looks pretty flat,” Athanasiadou said. A group called the Flat Earth Society still thinks it is! 
 
“Some people need more than 700 years of proof,” Athanasiadou said.
Yes, this is a real thing.
 
Of course the knowledge of Earth’s (more or less) spherical shape goes back way more than 700 years, as Greek astronomer Eratosthenes made the first known calculation of the globe’s circumference around 240 BC. And that’s one of the hardest things about being a professional scientist today – playing catch-up with hundreds or thousands of years of prior work. While earning her PhD at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, Athanasiadou said she spent 60% of her time studying what was already known, “just to be able to figure out what is the question you’re asking.”
 
“I didn’t have much time to appreciate the nice scenery,” Athanasiadou said. 
 
It’s still better than starting from scratch, though. “Science (knowledge) is a communal process,” read one of Athanasiadou’s slides. So maybe it’s actually not such a bad thing that Europe went through the medieval “dark” ages, because while not a lot of new work was being done, the people of the time were really good at maintaining the old records. We’d call that a literature search today, Athanasiadou said.
 
Since then, we’ve refined the scientific process by separating hypothesis from belief. “You can [then] change your mind without losing faith,” Athanasiadou said, adding that it also makes for better discussions at parties. And you don’t need to be tackling subjects with thousands of years of background material to use it, either. “The scientific method has a place outside the lab and in everyday life,” Athanasiadou said. 
 
Athanasiadou showed a slide providing three steps to create your own falsifiable hypothesis. The first is to make a general statement. Then make that statement directional – what is it you’re trying to test? Finally, you have to find a way to make that statement measureable. 
 
Athanasiadou provided an example in an experiment she and some colleagues conducted, asking an everyday question on the minds of many New Yorkers – what’s going on with the G train? If the general statement is “the G train is bad,” then an appropriate directional statement would be “the G train always arrives later than scheduled.” Well, it’s easy to measure if the the waiting times between trains are longer than scheduled. So she did it!
 
As it turns out, at the Hoyt/Schemerhorn G station from 4:00 to 5:00 pm on weekdays, the train is usually on time! That’s a counterintuitive result obtained with nothing more than a little thought, a couple of bucks and a few free afternoons. Of course more data should be taken at more times, and maybe it’s unfair to say your trip will usually be timely when the late trains can be really late, but that’s probably a lesson that’s equally as valuable as the first.
 
“Don’t dismiss errors, learn from them,” Athanasiadou said.

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