On this Mole Day, we’re talking about how science works

Today, October 23, is Mole Day, named after the unit of measure, the mol (yup, pronounced “mole,” and also known as Avogadro’s number). That unit is 6.02 x 1023, so those of us who think this is cool “celebrate” from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm on 10/23. I myself am baking molasses cookies to share with my coworkers to mark the day.

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Today, since it is a “holiday,” we’re going to talk about why science in the news can be so confusing instead of a specific biology news story.

To do this, let’s step back a bit and think about something many of us with good vision have done: putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Jigsaw
Picture of four jigsaw puzzle pieces, interlocked. Image generated and put in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons by Amada44.
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How do you start?

When I was a kid, my mom and I would sometimes do puzzles together. She told me that I should always start out by finding all of the edge pieces. If you can put together all of the edges, then you can fill them in. You can use the picture on the outside of the puzzle box to help you know which way is up.

Jigsaw pieces with border
Picture of two tubs of puzzle pieces sitting inside the completed outer edge of a puzzle. Image generated and put in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons by Octahedron80.
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My next step is usually to make sure the pieces are all right side up.

You can start filling in the middle of the puzzle in two ways. One way is to try to link pieces to the edge. The other is to link pieces together, without trying to see if they link to the edge.

How do you do this? You have to look at the pieces.

Puzzles are interesting partly because the shapes are really similar, right? So sometimes you can put two pieces together, and it looks and feels like they fit, even though they are not the actual match. This might happen more often if you are working with another person, or a bunch of people. Or, you know, if your puzzle has a repeating pattern, or really similar colors, or regions that are only one color, or actually identically-cut pieces…you get the idea.

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Which brings us back to why science in the news can be reporting, because: it turns out that science is very much like this.

Except we don’t know what the picture should look like when we’re done, and lots of teams can be working on the same part of the puzzle at the same time. A lot of the stories that get covered in the news are actually just telling you that scientists have figured out that we’ve got the puzzle piece right-side-up, or that two pieces we thought fit together before don’t, or that we’ve fit two pieces together. Very cool and helpful, but not always a new clear picture for non-scientists – or even different kinds of scientists!

When I was a kid, it was this huge big deal in the news that Eggs Are Bad For You. The reason given was that they are high in cholesterol. A few years later, the news said Eggs Are Actually Good For You. Reasons for that included that they are high in protein. The news also had messages saying Eggs Have Less Cholesterol Than We Thought.

It is no surprise to me that people watching the news sometimes think that scientists are idiots. “They can’t even tell us whether it’s okay to eat eggs! What do these people do all day? How can both of these answers be right?”

Now you know: we are trying to do a puzzle. Hopefully we all end up getting to one picture using all of the pieces, eventually. In the meantime, we have all of the problems anyone has while putting a puzzle together, and we try to tell everyone about our progress as we go. Sometimes, we may happily share that we fit two pieces together and not yet know we’re wrong.

There is more to be said about the way the news talks about science, particularly since both scientists and newspeople may have more going on than just curiosity and a desire to tell the world something interesting. But let’s save that for another day.

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