Hey maths nerds! It’s Halloween. If you live in Australia like me you have probably never carved a pumpkin before… but I’m going to try and tempt you with instructions for these polyhedral nerd lanterns. If you’re too shy to try them alone, use the kids as an excuse. It’s a fun way to learn about the five Platonic Solids.
Tony Abbott’s new government has no dedicated science minister – the first time Australia’s been without one since 1931. Instead, some areas of science, including the CSIRO, will become the responsibility of the Minister for Industry, Ian MacFarlane. While top scientists are reserving judgement on the decision until its effects become clear, the move does imply that the new government sees science as no more than a blunt tool for building things and making profit – a worrying trend that’s certainly not limited to Australia.
But by having no science minister at all, we may have dodged a much bigger bullet. One of the main candidates for the position of Science Minister was MP Dennis Jensen, a PhD-holding climate change denier from Western Australia. He’s been vocally on the warpath against any kind of climate action, citing the ‘entirely reasonable’ arguments of Lord Monckton as examples of why he holds these beliefs.
In an interview with Fairfax Media earlier this month, Dr Jensen accused everyone concerned about the climate – including 97% of climate scientists themselves – of being unscientific. ‘In the climate area there is appeal to authority and appeal to consensus, neither of which is scientific at all,’ he said. ‘Scientific reality doesn’t give a damn who said it and it doesn’t give a damn how many say it. […] The argument of consensus . . . is a flawed argument.’
He’s right, of course. Scientific truth neither relies on consensus nor authority. But the main arguments for global warming aren’t based on the fact there’s a consensus of opinion. They’re based on verification by experiment – the ultimate arbiter of scientific truth. The fact that a consensus then arises amongst qualified scientists who have examined that data is then a legitimate reason for the public to listen.
Dr Jensen could have included another fact about science in his list: that it’s an open endeavour. Anyone can examine the evidence. And if you’re interested in doing that yourself, and want to check up on the validity of statements made by climate deniers like Monckton, Tony Abbott or, yes, Dennis Jensen, head over to the excellent site Skeptical Science, where John Cook provides point-by-point rebuttals of statements by many main offenders together with the scientific evidence that contradicts each one.
Unfortunately, Dr Jensen isn’t as outspoken about the importance of openness in science as he is about the nature of consensus and authority. He didn’t speak out when, on its very first day in power, his incoming government closed down the Climate Commission – which existed to inform the public about climate science in an unbiased way.
Dr Jensen has reminded us that science doesn’t rely on authority for its truth. Now he needs to remember that having a PhD in science doesn’t confer respect from other scientists, or the public. To get that, he needs to act based on facts.
You may ask – you are bound to ask me now: What, then, is in your opinion the value of natural science? I answer: Its scope, aim and value is the same as that of any other branch of human knowledge. Nay, none of them alone, only the union of all of them, has any scope or value at all, and that is simply enough described: it is to obey the command of the Delphic deity, get to know yourself. Or, to put it in the brief, impressive rhetoric of Plotinus […] ‘And we, who are we anyhow?’
I own a little, uninteresting-looking book I found in a second hand bookshop in the UK for two-pounds-fifty. I’ve never seen it for sale in any shop since. Yet it contains thoughts about science I think are so important I’ve quoted from it in at least a dozen public presentations that I can remember, most recently last Tuesday.
If a piece of steel or a piece of salt, consisting of atoms one next to the other, can have such interesting properties; if water—which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth—can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible?
Richard Feynman – jokester, safe cracker, bongo player, artist and Nobel-winning physicist – is revered by physicists around the world for his set of undergraduate lectures. Presented by him at Caltech in 1961-63, the lectures were adapted into textbooks that would set you back one to two hundred dollars – until now.
Caltech has just released an on-line version on a new website. It’s beautifully formatted with full html links, and best of all, it’s completely free.
While the majority of the text is by nature quite technical, the first four chapters can be enjoyed, I think, by anyone. Read them and enjoy his poetic descriptions, philosophical digressions, and ecstatic appreciation of how things work – and join the rest of the world in desperately wishing you had him as your teacher.
And to whet your appetite, enjoy this animated adaptation by Fraser Davidson of one of Feynman’s most renowned monologues. Taken from the 1981 BBC documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, it features Feynman describing beautifully how science enhances his appreciation of the world around him – a fittingly poetic refutation of Keats’ famous assertation that scientists only detract from nature when they ‘unweave the rainbow‘.
To the delight of almost no one, water fluoridation is in the news again. A fortnight ago, Lismore Council voted to remain part of the (shrinking) 4% minority of New South Wales with no fluoride in its public water supply, despite the area’s much higher than average rate of tooth decay. An article this week in local paper the Northern Star typifies the nature of the debate: with the headline ‘Listen to science in fluoride debate, local doctors say‘, it goes on to quote GP David Guest urging councils to ‘listen to the science as the only rational way to address this important health issue.’
And that’s the problem: on this issue, arguments based on science seem to be the only currency accepted in public debate. Similar situations arise when debating wind turbines, climate change, nuclear power and vaccinations. But while good science is absolutely vital in providing solid data, there’s a limit to how far it can take us before we also need values and ethics to guide our decision. If we try to take science too far, we damage both the ethical and the scientific debates.
That’s not to say the situations necessarily get murkier if ethics are involved. In the case of fluoridation (as indeed with vaccination), I believe the ethical decision for Lismore is nearly as clear-cut as the scientific findings. But by giving less credence to objections based on values – like questions of individual risk versus common good – we make science seem like it’s the only game in town. Is there any wonder fluoridation’s opponents clutch at pseudoscience – and worse?
Let’s take a look at the recent public debate about fluoridation in the Lismore region, and see why greater scrutiny of ethical statements – and not just of science – could help everyone, and improve the way science is discussed at the same time.
‘More than 40 per cent of Australians do not know how long it takes the Earth to travel around the sun, according to a new survey.’
This was how ABC news opened its story last month on the Australian Academy of Science’s findings about science literacy in Australia – the results of an online survey of 1515 people. Other news outlets ran the story too, giving column space to how people failed to identify how much of the earth’s surface was ocean (only 39% got it right), or whether humans coexisted with dinosaurs (73% passed). Only Gizmodo framed their headline to mirror exactly what most of us were thinking: ‘The Five Dumbest Science ‘Facts’ Believed by Australians.‘
‘How can people be so stupid?’ we asked each other over coffee or on Twitter the next day. ‘I blame the parents!‘ commented one person on the ABC site; another wrote that ‘I would put it down to the dilution of education … Excursions for films, way to much sport and so on’. ‘It’s the dumbest people having the most children,’ wrote another. The Academy’s Professor Les Field himself pointed the finger at Google and the school curriculum. ‘I would hope that a survey like ours is a wake-up call that says there is an issue, an underlying issue that we need to address,’ he said.
The problem is, this survey actually tells us very little. Its questions ask the wrong things, its method is severely flawed, and what data it does provide is used to leap to invalid conclusions, not just by the media and the public, but by the academics at the Academy themselves. In fact, when compared to proper scientific studies on science education outcomes, this study paints a completely wrong picture of the state of Australia’s science literacy – a reprehensible outcome for a prestigious organisation that’s influencing science policy.
In fact, the whole project uses such bad science from start to finish that it’s a great teaching tool about science – but only by demonstrating what not to do. Let’s take a look at where it goes wrong, why it’s giving the wrong message to policymakers and a detrimental message to the public, and how things could be done better next time. Because science literacy is vital enough that it’s worth getting right.
Everyone who’s studied arts or sciences at university will be aware of the gulf between the faculties. Arts students think scientists are arrogant and insular, and scientists think the arts are pointless and dumb. When engineers get involved, the mutual hatred rises like in a cartoon thermometer.
The separation has been referred to as ‘The Two Cultures’ since C.P. Snow coined the term in a 1959 lecture. I just re-read the book to try and see what light Snow sheds on the problem, and whether it’s still historically relevant today, when people like Brian Cox and projects like Synapse are helping to bridge the gap.
What I found was a lecture that defined a problem while typifying it, rather than helping to solve it.
Read my review of the book here, and see if you agree with my conclusion: that while Snow and Leavis were taking pot-shots across the arts-science divide, they were missing a much bigger and more important problem that could unify the faculties – or sink them both.