Saturday, 16 August 2014

The escalating armoury: weapons in the war between science and woolly thinking

According to that admittedly dubious font of broad knowledge Wikipedia, there are currently sixteen Creationist museums in the United States alone. These aren't minor attractions for a limited audience of fundamentalist devotees either: one such institution in Kentucky has received over one million visitors in its first five years. That's hardly small potatoes! So how much is the admittance fee and when can I go?

Or maybe not. It isn't the just the USA that has become home to such anti-scientific nonsense either: the formerly robust secular societies of the UK and Australia now house museums and wildlife parks with similar anti-scientific philosophies. For example, Noah's Ark Zoo Farm in England espouses a form of Creationism in which the Earth is believed to be a mere 100,000 years old. And of course in addition to traditional theology, there is plenty of pseudo-scientific/New Age nonsense that fails every test science can offer and yet appears to be growing in popularity. Anyone for Kabbalah?

It's thirty-five years since Carl Sagan's book Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science summarised the scientific response to the pseudo-scientific writings of Immanuel Velikovsky. Although Velikovsky and his bizarre approach to orbital mechanics - created in order to provide an astrophysical cause for Biblical events - has largely been forgotten, his ideas were popular enough in their time. A similar argument could be made for the selective evidence technique of Erich von Daniken in the 1970's, whose works have sold an astonishing 60 million copies; and to a less extent the similar approach of Graham Hancock in the 1990's. But a brief look at that powerhouse of publishing distribution,, shows that today there is an enormous market for best-selling gibberish that far outstrips the lifetime capacity of a few top-ranking pseudo-scientists:
  • New Age: 360,000
  • Spirituality: 243,000
  • Religion: 1,100,000
  • (Science 3,100,000)
(In the best tradition of statistics, all figures have been rounded slightly up or down.)

Since there hasn't exactly been a decrease of evidence for most scientific theories, the appeal of the genre must be due to changes in society. After writing-off the fundamentalist/indoctrinated as an impossible-to-change minority, what has lead to the upsurge in popularity of so many publications at odds with critical thinking?

It seems that those who misinterpret scientific methodology, or are in dispute with it due to a religious conviction, have become adept at using the techniques that genuine science popularisation utilises. What used to be restricted to the printed word has been expanded to include websites, TV channels, museums and zoos that parody the findings of science without the required rigorous approach to the material. Aided and abetted by well-meaning but fundamentally flawed popular science treatments such as Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which looks at facts without real consideration of the science behind them, the public are often left with little understanding of what separates science from its shadowy counterparts. Therefore the impression of valid scientific content that some contemporary religious and pseudo-science writers offer can quite easily be mistaken for the genuine article. Once the appetite for a dodgy theory has been whetted, it seems there are plenty of publishers willing to further the interest.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the 'evidence' put forward in support of popular phenomenon such an ancient alien presence or faked moon landings seems all the more impressive. At a time when computer-generated Hollywood blockbusters can even be replicated on a smaller scale in the home, most people are surely aware of how easy it is to be fooled by visual evidence. But it seems that pictorial support for a strongly-written idea can resonate with the search for fundamental meaning in an ever more impersonal technocratic society. And of course if you are flooded with up-to-the-minute information from a dozen sources then it is much easier to absorb evidence from your senses than having to unravel the details from that most passé of communication methods, boring old text. Which perhaps fails to explain just why there are quite so many dodgy theories available in print!

But are scientists learning from their antithesis how to fight back? With the exception of Richard Dawkins and other super-strict rationalists, science communicators have started to take on board the necessity of appealing to hearts as well as minds. Despite the oft-mentioned traditional differentiation to the humanities, science is a human construct and so may never be purely objective. Therefore why should religion and the feel-good enterprises beloved of pseudo-scientists hold the monopoly on awe and wonder?

Carl Sagan appears to have been a pioneer in the field of utilising language that is more usually the domain of religion. In The Demon-Haunted Word: Science As A Candle In The Dark, he argues that science is 'a profound source of spirituality'. Indeed, his novel Contact defines the numinous outside of conventional religiosity as 'that which inspires awe'. If that sounds woolly thinking, I'd recommend viewing the clear night sky away from city lights...

Physicist Freeman Dyson's introduction to the year 2000 edition of Sagan's Cosmic Connection uses the word 'gospel' and the phrase 'not want to appear to be preaching'. Likewise, Ann Druyan's essay A New Sense of the Sacred in the same volume includes material to warm the humanist heart. Of course, one of the key intentions of the Neil deGrasse Tyson-presented reboot of Cosmos likewise seeks to touch the emotions as well as improve the mind, a task at which it sometimes - in my humble opinion - overreaches.

The emergence of international science celebrities such as Tyson is also helping to spread the intentions if not always the details of science as a discipline. For the first time since Apollo, former astronauts such as Canadian Chris Hadfield undertake international public tours. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku and Brian Cox are amongst those practicing scientists who host their own regular radio programmes, usually far superior to the majority of popular television science shows. Even the seven Oscar-winning movie Gravity may have helped promote science, with its at times accurate portrayal of the hostile environment outside our atmosphere, far removed from the science fantasy of most Hollywood productions. What was equally interesting was that deGrasse Tyson's fault-finding tweets of the film received a good deal of public attention. Can this suppose that despite the immense numbers of anti-scientific publications on offer, the public is prepared to put trust in scientists again? After all, paraphrasing Monty Python, what have scientists ever done for us?

There are far important uses for the time and effort that goes into such nonsense as the 419,000 results on Google discussing 'moon landing hoax'. And there's worse: a search for 'flat earth' generates 15,800,00 results. Not that most of these are advocates, but surely very few would miss most of the material discussing these ideas ad nauseum?

Although it should be remembered that scientific knowledge can be progressed by unorthodox thought - from Einstein considering travelling alongside a beam of light to Wegener's continental drift hypothesis that led to plate tectonics - but there is usually a fairly obvious line between an idea that may eventually be substantiated and one that can either be disproved by evidence or via submission to parsimony. Dare we hope that science faculties might teach their students techniques for combating an opposition that doesn't fight fair, or possibly even how to use their own methods back at them? After all, it's time to proselytise!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

An uneasy alliance: science, politics and scientifically-trained politicians

Last April, whilst speaking of the need for technological innovation in order to promote economic growth, President Obama joked that his physics grades made him an unlikely candidate for "scientist in chief". With the recent unease surrounding the (now thankfully dropped) takeover bid of leading UK pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca by the American firm Pfizer, it seems appropriate to investigate whether science at the national level could be better supported if more politicians had a scientific background or were at least more savvy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. After all, had the Pfizer bid proved successful, the British pharmaceutical sector was predicted to lose in the long term, both scientifically and economically.

There are many statistics that prove the notion that the past half century has seen a major dumbing down in Western politics, such as the reduction in average sound bite length for US presidential candidates from over forty seconds in the late 1960s to barely seven seconds today. It's quite easy to suggest that politicians are simply following mainstream societal trends, but such lack of substance only serves to further distance politics from science, since the latter rarely offers straightforward yes/no answers, especially in cutting-edge research.

One rather bizarre example of how little science can mean in mainstream politics can be seen in President Reagan's reliance for key policy decisions during most of his term in office on astrologer Joan Quigley. Whilst it is easy to mock the far right wing (and Reagan himself looks increasingly liberal by the standards of the Tea Party), those on the left could be equally guilty of paying short shrift to science, especially if there isn't an immediately obvious benefit to society. A combination of relativism and overdosing on political correctness make for difficulties in proclaiming judgement values: if everyone deserves an equal opportunity to air their own pet theory as to how the universe works, then science appears as just another set of beliefs.

If we look back further than the Reagan administration, how well do scientifically-inclined American Presidents fare up? Here's a brief examination of those with scientific leanings:
  1. Thomas Jefferson made contributions to palaeontology and agricultural technology but perhaps more importantly promoted science as essential to national wealth. However, he was still very much man of his time, maintaining conventional Christian beliefs that sometimes overrode his scientific sensibility, including those that questioned the Biblical timescale.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt is well known for what would today be called sustainable development, creating national parks and wildlife refuges at the same time as promoting a balanced exploitation of natural resources. He went on expeditions to Brazil and Africa, ostensibly to find specimens for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, although the results appear more akin to the curious modern phenomenon of scientific whaling (in other words, somewhat lacking in the conservation stakes). Roosevelt also considered a "thorough knowledge of the Bible...worth more than a college education".
  3. Jimmy Carter gained a Bachelor of Science degree and later majored in reactor technology and nuclear physics whilst maintaining a conventional Christian faith. During the energy crisis of the late 1970s he seemingly promoted alternative energy, most famously having solar panels installed on the White House roof. However, in some ways he resembled Nineteenth Century Anglican scientists such as the Dean of Westminster William Buckland, particularly in his looking for the proof of God's existence in nature.
  4. An example from the other side of the Atlantic can be seen in Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, who trained in chemistry under the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. Despite her right-wing, monetarist policies (incidentally the political antithesis of Hodgkin), Thatcher has been acclaimed as an active environmentalist: her late 1980s speeches supported action to combat climate change; policies to rapidly phase out CFCs; and the promotion of sustainable development. Yet commentators have viewed Thatcher's concerns for cost-benefit analysis as taking precedence over science, with blue sky thinking getting scant attention. At a practical level, in 1987 she sold the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge to Unilever, which has been deemed detrimental in the long-term to British public science.
The only current major Western leader with a scientific background is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry. In contrast, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have backgrounds in STEM subjects. Is it any wonder they have already got their own space station and have become the world's largest exporter of high technology, now only second to the USA in terms of annual expenditure on research and development? Yes, the rate of progress has come at enormous environmental and personal cost, but the way in which the Chinese government is clearly imbued with science and technology is to be marvelled at.

From looking at the above examples, it doesn't appear that scientifically-trained national leaders have substantially improved science's output or public opinion and have on occasion been quite detrimental. The late Stephen Schneider, author of various reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that since is up to governments (and to some extent the general public as well) to formulate policy rather than scientists, the former need to understand not just the data, but how to interpret it. In the UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently launched a public consultation over spending plans for the research infrastructure of the next five years. But scientific endeavours require a certain level of knowledge and that least common of commodities, critical thinking. Science just doesn't adhere to the simple black versus white mentality so beloved of Hollywood.

This is where scientifically-literate politicians hopefully come into their own, being able to accurately represent to the electorate such difficult material as probability statistics, as well as understanding risks and benefits themselves. If anything, science will only fare better if the majority of politicians have a more thorough science education, rather than just relying on the occasional professionally-trained key statesperson. But therein lies an obvious catch-22: how to persuade politicians to invest more funds in science education? I suppose it starts with us voters...