Experts,Scientific fact,Debate and PR

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by thegimp, Dec 3, 2005.

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  1. Just pulled this article from the Telegraph, Cut and pasted apologies, worth a read once you get past triple jumping on custard

    "Earlier this week, a select gathering of onlookers watched the Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards perform the triple-jump on a runway made of custard. Did he slip? Did he sink? Nope. He made a goodish distance and landed safely.

    The stunt was intended to demonstrate not the properties of Jonathan Edwards, but the properties of custard. Custard, as my colleague Roger Highfield explained, is a "dilatant" - one of a handful of "non-Newtonian fluids" that flows gently but hardens up when subject to the impact of, say, a triple-jumper's trainers.

    Why's that? Even scientists don't seem to be sure. The Royal Society of Chemists says the science underlying the behaviour of custard is still not fully understood. It is, it said archly, "a trifle difficult".

    The response of those of us who read about this in our newspaper will have been, then, no more complicated than: "Wow." "Wow" is about as far as we get with science. As the comedian Emo Philips said once: "I don't know how electricity works. But I know it calms me."

    A friend recently described to me the Banach-Tarski paradox: a mathematical proof that it is theoretically possible to chop a solid sphere into a finite number of bits, and reassemble them to make two spheres, each the same size as the first. I looked at him like a dog that had just been shown a card trick.

    Thing is, "wow" is all very well - but "wow" isn't a term you can use in an argument. Yet there's a huge list of serious issues of public policy over recent weeks on which there are strong polarities of public opinion, and yet which are based either on scientific findings few if any of us understand, or on data few if any of us actually know, still less know how to interpret. Chicken flu; MRSA; MMR; complementary medicine; organic food; global warming; nuclear power…

    These are areas in which the data are complex or, in some cases, non-existent. According to George Monbiot, for example, "reliable figures for the total volume of electricity that renewable power could supply do not yet exist". We don't, in other words, have enough data to arrive at an informed decision: we're playing tennis without a net; hell, without a tennis court. Mr Monbiot's own admirable effort to assemble some figures was so baffling and dense that few people will have got through it at all. And even if they did, they'd have no way of knowing whether he was right.

    Nuclear power is a prime example of something else that affects almost all of these issues, too. The argument over the science is pulled three ways - by political pressure, commercial interest and the formal requirements of the newspaper headline. As a result, what gets called "debate" is seldom that. The debate takes place between experts and largely behind closed doors; the rest is a public relations battle.
    It's not that we are purposely deceived, or that we are even wrong: simply that our reliance on "experts" is a matter more of faith than reason. MMR was a case in point. Help! The triple jab could cause autism! Cue mass panic and the strong suspicion that even the Prime Minister decided to play it safe with little Leo. Then we hear from another expert that the link has been disproved. Phew. Disproved. That's all right, then.

    Sometimes it can go badly wrong with experts. As the Guardian's "bad science" columnist Ben Goldacre discovered, the man many newspapers unquestioningly described as the country's "leading MRSA expert" wasn't even a qualified microbiologist, and his laboratory was, um, a shed at the end of his garden.

    We believe that "chemicals" are a bad thing, so we want organic food. We believe radiation is a bad thing, so we fear nuclear power. We eat aspirin. We sunbathe. We fend off chicken flu, like primitives appeasing the gods, by exhausting the NHS's supplies of vaccine for another sort of flu entirely.

    The same newspapers whose front pages quote scientists fill their back ends with accounts of fad diets, energy crystals, miracle foods and horoscopes. "Did aliens," they wonder, "build the pyramids?" The reason, I think, that hocus-pocus fits without apparent contradiction into the worldview of the modern rationalist is that it doesn't contradict it. Our reliance on the horoscope and the homoeopath is actually the same in psychological character as our reliance on the scientist: faith.

    Most of us believe global warming is taking place, and we believe that it's caused by emissions from fossil fuels. But it's curiously easy to have that belief compromised. A year or two back, Michael Crichton wrote a thesis novel about the environment arguing - with an enormous bibliography and detailed footnotes - that global warming wasn't happening. I couldn't have mustered an argument to say he was wrong.

    As the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut is prone to ask, pointedly: "Who knows?" And so we return to "wow". We defer to a priesthood of experts; we hold strong, even angry opinions on notions of cause and effect whose basis we don't understand; we respond to complex phenomena with a sense of wonderment, of mystery.

    If we needed an emblem that the lay apprehension of science has its root not in the rational but in the religious part of our brains, the custard jump would do as well as any. Two thousand-odd years ago, many people believe, a Galilean prophet walked on water to demonstrate the power of his God. Last week, a disciple of that prophet - the born-again Christian Jonathan Edwards - triple-jumped across a giant bowl of custard to demonstrate the power of physics."
  2. From Sam Lieth:Running on custard
  3. Top posting, Gimp. Very well put indeed.
    I've also recently read that book by Michael Chrighton (the title is State of Fear) and I, too, would have been very hard put to gainsay it, as you were.
    It would probably do us all a bit of good to be a lot more skeptical about the world, and not just about politics. One of the so-called "scientific" facts I've never quite understood is that old chestnut about us only using 10% of our brain-power. But my first question was: How do they know? As far as I'm aware, nobody knows what our brains are capable of, so how can they maintain something like that when they don't even know how much brain-power we actually have, or even exactly how our brains work?

  4. Good posting gimp, fair point well presented.
    i'm studying a science degree at univeristy, and we regularly chuckle/despair at the poor quality of science reporting by newspapers and mainstream media, most of which is clearly done by people who don't even understand up to GCSE level.

    For most people, i would advise taking anythnig even vaguely scientific being reported on in the newspapers with a large pinch of salt. There is a lot of debate about lots of issues in science, global warming, MSRA, MMR, nuclear power, pollution, DU etc..., but newspapers aren't interested in presenting a balanced point of view, they are interested in one thing and one thing only, selling more newspapers. For this they want dramatic headlines, and a point of view that ties in with their own politics, so they can blame capitalism/liberalism/multinationals etc....

    The most accessible and understandable level of reporting on scientific issues that is actually written by scientists rather than journalists is New Scientist magazine. It's where most journalists get their science news from anyway, so you can get it without filtering. Not that everything in it is to be believed, but at least the people writing the articles actually understand what they're writing about.

  5. the problem to me, as another bod working in science, is that often the sceintists, particuarly government ones, are the ones spinning and playing PR - the biggest one being misrepresentation of absolute words like proof.

    MMR and autism is a good example, I've seen government scientist stating categorically that MMR vaccine is safe, and that the studies that brought about fears have been "disproved"

    both these statements would never be stated by a true scientist - who would state that they have no evidence that it causes a risk, or that the evidence they have is contarary to earlier studies - there are very very rarely absolute statements used in science, thigs are a lot grayer than that.

    similar things happened over BSE/VCJD (link has still not been actually proved, its a working theory) Badgers and and TB (animal rights groups state that a link has never been proved, however like BSE, "all the available evidence points to it")

    If the scientists are allowing themselves to be misrepresented and misusing evidence in the interest of politicians, then no wonder the community at large is losing trust.
  6. You can't beat the courtroom for dubious generalizations and out-and-out nonsense served up as incontestable scientific axioms.

    An interesting book on the topic: Galileo's Revenge by Peter Huber.

    A memorable example from the book. In the '80s there was a lot of products liability litigation against Audi on the theory that the transmission on one of its models would spontaneously shift into forward gear from "park."

    Huber recounts that some "expert witness" was going around testifying that the transmission design was defective insofar as the gears could be shifted without operator input by microwave transmissions from telephone towers and passing aircraft.