Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Mythbusting: bringing science into the arena

My elder daughter is a big fan of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, who have spent eleven years testing myths (and not a few Hollywood set pieces) via science, technology, engineering and frequent resort to high explosives. Therefore, as a birthday treat I recently took her to the live Behind the Myths tour, fronted by Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Considering how macho the series frequently is - it's only female presenter, now left, is a vegetarian who was made to eat live bugs - it was interesting to see what and how the science was presented live.

In some respects it lived up to its reputation, with the hosts apologising for the lack of on-stage explosions but claiming their intentions were to 'blow the mind' instead of say, a pick-up truck or hot water cylinder. That's not to say that there weren't some fiery moments, including several montages of explosions and the infamous paintball machine gun aimed at someone wearing a suit of replica armour. Considering a large percentage of the audience consisted of pre-teens with their parents, the big bang elements were very much appreciated. But since the presenters have a special effects rather than science background, was there anything worthwhile beyond the showmanship?

Apart from a brief introduction to Newton's Second Law of Motion (force equals mass times acceleration, in case you weren't sure) there wasn't much of the classroom about the show. Except that for two hours Hyneman and Savage managed to painlessly convey a lot of scientific ideas. Examples included:
  • Archimedes' quote about using a lever to move the world was demonstrated via a fairground high striker and different sized mallets;
  • Perception, thanks to a point of view camera and some comedic cheating;
  • Tessellation and human mechanics, with four interlocked reclining men able to support their own weight when their chairs were taken away;
  • Friction via a circus-like stunt, in which Savage was lifted high above the stage thanks to the strength of interwoven telephone directories.
Although it might be quite easy to lose sight of the science behind all the razzmatazz, perhaps that was the point. These demonstrations reminded me of the Royal Institution's Christmas lectures, aimed primarily at 'young people' and barely a decade shy of being two hundred years' old. Unlike the television series, which has sometimes revisited experiments - occasionally reversing the original results in the process - the Behind the Myths tour was more a solid grounding in basic physics, with a little chemistry and biology thrown in. If anything, the most obvious outcomes would be to promote curiosity by recognising that science is deeply embedded in everyday life, and that exploring reality can be enormous fun.

The first section of the show had Adam Savage demonstrate juggling whilst explaining how he taught himself the techniques. Since his recollection discussed patience, perseverance and learning from your mistakes, you could say he was presenting in microcosm key elements of the scientific enterprise,' eureka' moments excepted.

I'm uncertain how many in the audience would cotton on to the science-by-the-backdoor aspect of the show. If anything, the children present may be more likely to want a career in movie special effects than in science, but the sense of wonder it generated may have also rubbed off on the adults present. Hyneman and Savage have become well-known enough in their support of STEM subjects and dislike of woolly thinking (take note, Discovery Channel , home of Finding Bigfoot) to have spoken at the 2006 annual convention of the US National Science Teachers Association, as well as presenting a demonstration to President Obama. That's no mean feat for a couple of special effects technicians with no formal science training. Let's hope that the some of the audience sees beyond the whizz bangs into the wonderful world that scientific exploration offers!

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!