The Atavism

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lawrence Krauss on a bad day

Dunedin got to see Lawrence Krauss on a good day and a bad day this week, but that’s not to say one of his presentations was better than the other. Yesterday the award winning physicist and scientific communicator revealed to his audience that his outlook on life changes from day to day. On good days he can revel in the wonder of a universe that could come to know itself due to a series of accidents that started 10-31 seconds after the big bang and allowed the creation of first matter then atoms, stars and planets and finally astronomers. On bad days he despairs at the lack of scientific thinking in journalism and politics and thinks these problems, and the anti-scientific forces that fuel them, will probably prevent us from doing anything meaningful about climate change.

Krauss' awe inspiring story of an atom's journey from the birth of the universe to its death will gain nothing from my retelling it. If you weren't able to see it then you'l be glad to know his talk was a précis of his excellent book ATOM: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth...and Beyondand covers similar ground to this recored lecture. Perhaps I'm a masochist and a pessimist, but I'm going to skip the awe inspiring story to focus on what Lawrence Krauss thinks about on a bad day. His talk on "Science, Non-Science and Nonsense" described the sources of scientific confusion in society and the tactics used by those groups that seek to take advantage of it.

Krauss argued that the goal of science education and science communication should be to make sure everyone develops a functioning bullshit filter. He didn't express his thesis quite as bluntly as that, but his core idea is that spreading a scientific mindset would allow us to short circuit needless debates (is global warming real?) and let us get on to the important ones (what are we going to do about it?). He used a neat example to illustrate how this sort of scientific common sense could stop nutty ideas before they get started. UFO enthusiasts often cite the ability of the lights they observe to perform right angle turns at speed as evidence of their otherworldliness. In fact, Krauss pointed out, common sense should tell us that these apparently amazing maneuvers are evidence that the lights in question are not being emitted by a massive object moving through the sky. The only way to turn at a right angle is to stop then change direction, for a UFO to do all its slowing down and stopping so quickly a human observer couldn't perceive it would generate G-forces with a strength about 2000 times greater than earth's gravity. And quite a mess.

If the evidence used by UFO junkies is so silly then why do continue prosper? Why aren't people already filtering this sort of nonsense? The standard of scientific reporting in the media certainly has a lot to answer for. Krauss cited the normal concerns, a fractionated media market means viewers can choose a source of news that confirms their biases and the innate need of journalists to present balance is misplaced in science stories when, in almost every case, one side is wrong and we usually know which side that is. He also mentioned something I hadn't thought about before. According to Krauss, part of the problem with science coverage in mainstream reporting is that journalists don't feel qualified to make scientific pronouncements. Writers and broadcasters are happy to make bold statements on politics, financial markets and sports but will shy away from even a scientifically uncontroversial statement like "evolution is a fact."

Scientific understanding might not be helped by meek journalists and the false equality of balance but most journalists aren't setting out to deliberately mislead the public on science. Unfortunately, there are forces at work that are doing just that. Krauss had a tonne of examples from the culture wars in his native USA to draw on but he also took the time reminded us of our home grown cranks, citing the New Zealand Climate "Science" Coalition and Ray Comfort (The Apologists Nightmare [youtube video]) as evidence we aren't immune to anti-science in New Zealand. As you'd expect Krauss exposed just how vacuous the claims of intelligent design creationism and the objections of climate change denialists are, but he also attempted to deconstruct the PR strategies each group use. Both campaigns seek to take advantage of the public's sense of fairness and journalists' willingness to provide balance to any point of view. The Discovery Institute would have you believe their goal is simply to get their science a fair hearing in the classroom. But they don't have a science. For normal science, theories only make it into the school curriculum after they've been proposed, tested, retested and confirmed. The ID crowd don't want fair treatment, they want special treatment, to avoid that boring scientific process and start in the classroom!

Krauss could hardly have known this, but our own climate cranks play the same game. I hate to make an example of this article because the author usually covers science well, nevertheless it highlights the point. In an effort to provide balance to a story on how the IPCC might be made better the author contacted Vincent Gray for comment, here's the paragraph

Wellington scientist and climate change sceptic Vincent Gray said the researchers were continually coming up with "new models" but they were still "fiddling the figures" and were unlikely to restore public confidence in their work until their projections were proven

That sounds pretty fair doesn't it? Climate scientists can run their model forward in time and if their projections match observations we'll take action. Actually, it's absurd. As Krauss emphasised in his talk, the evidence for climate change doesn't only come from models, we have tonnes of data that tell us the earth is warming and the seas are rising. Combine those data with the fact recent temperature records are within the uncertainties of the IPCC's projections and sea levels are near to the upper bound of those projections and Gray's sound bite seem less fair.

Krauss had more problems than solutions in his hour long presentation. In fact, it's a testament to the passion he has for his science and skill he has as a scientific communicator that he managed make a talk made almost entirely of depressing facts seem invigorating. The only ray of hope Krauss offered us was that when people's backs are to the wall they abandon their their preconceptions and to turn to science. In 2003 George W. Bush said that he believed "both sides" of the "evolution debate" should be taught in schools. In 2005 Bush was faced with the prospect of Avian flu becoming able infect humans. Confronted with threat of a flu pandemic the Bush administration dispensed with its evolutionary agnosticism and planned for the possibility of genetic mutations allowing viruses to pass from human to human. That sort of infectivity requires conformational changes in surface proteins which create a new function, exactly the sort of phenomenon the ID crowd think is so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

Krauss will be presenting something very similar to his Dunedin talk in Auckland next week. I'd encourage anyone who has the chance to get out and seem him, he's a very chrasmatic and interesting speaker. You might even ask the question I really wish I did now- how are we going to fix all these problems?

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Posted by David Winter 5:17 PM

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