Posted by: Green Knight | September 30, 2011

Blinded by Non-Science?

I subscribe to a couple of sites that send me periodic lists of media requests for sources, from reporters looking for experts on particular subjects, or people who have had weird experiences, to everything in between.  I’ve done interviews for magazines, radio, and TV through them, supplementing ones I’ve done for those media as well as newspapers in the past, and a monthly environmental column I used to write for the local law newspaper, a textbook chapter for a national hazmat certification program, and the text version of a presentation I once gave at a statewide conference.

Some of the media requests are pretty standard: reporters looking for stories on travel, dining, business, medical stuff, etc., but some are truly bizarre, and I’m sure you can fill in most of the blanks.  I saw one tonight that impinges on environmental issues, and I’ll just let it speak for itself:

We are looking for some insight into what happens to a patients [sic]
breast implants after they die. Are they removed? If not how
long would it take for an implant to decompose with the body, if
at all? Does the material have an impact? (e.g. saline vs
[sic]
silicone)

That’s a new one on me, and just shows that every time you think you’ve heard it all, new weirdnesses crop up.  Umm, the formaldehyde they pump you full of is going to make YOU not decompose for decades, either.  And probably contaminate groundwater eventually, because cemeteries don’t have to have liners, the way landfills do now.  Paper vs. plastic, disposable vs. cloth diapers, they all have their pluses and minuses, it just depends on how you handle them.  (And the “Depends” pun was initially accidental, but I’ll take credit anyhoo.)  Fake boobs weird me out anyway; I didn’t need to think about their afterlife.

It’s also disturbing that so many of these requests have so many typos, misspellings, and lousy grammar.  These are supposed to be journalists; I understand that they have deadlines and may be typing in haste, but that’s still no excuse for a supposed professional.  I don’t get paid for writing the Hot Sheet, except in the coin of the spirit, but I check it until it’s right, and go back and fix it if I missed something.  Spelling-bee champ and usage nitpicker me demands much from myself, and I expect no less from the pros.  A friend of mine had to correct my longterm misuse of hyphens, and I had to relearn that bit of style…my phrase is that we are all works in progress.

“Issues” such as those mentioned above tend to distract us from ones that are far more serious.  Let me tell y’all about another request I also saw last night that sent chills up my spine, and prompted me to unleash what’s going to follow.  Check this out:

National cable news show looking for people who have lost
trust/faith in science. Have constant controversies over global
warming, vaccines, and food safety got you wondering what the
scientific truth is? Does an argument supported by “scientific
evidence” carry less weight with you than it used to? We’d love
to talk with you.

This request was listed under “Anonymous.”  Usually the affiliations are listed, whether it be a particular newspaper, magazine, TV show, website, blog, or what have you, but not always.  I never expected to get an invite, especially since they were looking for people in the Northeast, or who could travel there, but I couldn’t resist responding to the temporary e-mail address anyway, as follows:

This movement to discredit a discipline that in itself is skeptical and requires statistical evidence and repeatable experiments is specious and spurious and bogus. I’ll bet that the type of respondents that you’re seeking or that will flock to you never took a science course in their lives. They avoided science classes like the plague in school, because science is “hard.” Clue for ya, science is only hard if you’re dumb. Or if you had a lousy teacher. I’ve been doing and teaching science for nearly 30 years, and I’ve seen the failure of our educational system in attracting students, negating dogma, and effectively communicating what science really IS. I’ve done a lot of remedial education work over those years and had some pretty good success stories. Your article might turn out to be relatively useful and unbiased if you weed out those whose minds were closed from the beginning.

Good luck,

BC

The current attack on science is nothing new, but let’s start with some recent examples, shall we?  Rick Perry is only the latest in a long string of bozos who say we shouldn’t do anything about climate change until all scientists agree that humans are causing it.  Clue #2 for ya, scientists never agree 100% on ANYTHING.  That’s what science is ABOUT.  You can’t PROVE anything in science (unlike in math; remember Euclid and Fermat?  But then they came up with non-Euclidean geometry).  In science, you can only disprove things.  It’s an asymptotic process, where you don’t throw out everything that came before, you just come up with a slightly more accurate explanation every time, ratcheting closer and closer to what’s really going on in Nature.  We found out some years ago that neutrinos have a tiny bit of mass after all, when before we thought they didn’t, and just  recently we discovered that they might actually move a tiny, tiny bit faster than light, which would require rehashing relativity.  Further tests are needed, but if it turns out to be true, does that mean we should start saying that Einstein was full of shit, and that everything he ever said was no good?  Of course not, but that’s what the anti-science crowd loves to try to do.  Oversimplification of things they don’t understand is their forté, and voters like ‘em because they don’t trust anybody smarter than they are.  When the mob burned the library at Alexandria in, well, nobody really knows for sure…see http://ehistory.osu.edu/world/articles/articleview.cfm?aid=9, the art of making decent glass was lost for about 400 years, not to mention all the literature and scientific knowledge that was destroyed.  It took the later flowering of Arabic culture (yes, those guys, before they went fundamentalist) to rediscover and publish much of what was left of the writings of the ancient Greeks, and it was when the Crusades were winding down and people started tolerating each other for a while that this information reached Europe and sparked the Renaissance.  But I digress.

The movement to discredit science is entrenched in the effort to deny the anthropogenic contribution to climate change.  People don’t know the difference between climatology and meteorology, so they’re easy to hoodwink.  That’s why the friendly scientist is here to clarify matters.  Meteorology is about weather, the stuff that happens from week to week.  It involves fluid dynamics, a complicated branch of physics, so next time a storm hits you or just misses you, don’t blame the weatherman; this stuff is HARD, and depends on so many variables that all they can do is predict with the info they have.

Climatology is a bit more straightforward, because it studies what happens over thousands of years.  How, pray tell, do you tell what Gaia’s atmospheric composition was before the last wave of ice ages?  Simple, ice-core samples from Greenland or Antarctica (until they melt away, that is).  There are little trapped air bubbles in that ice that preserves the composition of the atmosphere from ancient times and climes.  We can get estimates of how old a layer is by the principles of stratigraphy, just like with soil or bedrock; the deeper it is, the older it is.  We can even tell when ancient Rome was flourishing by the amount of lead in the ice, because they used lead for almost everything, and global wind patterns distributed the fumes even to the south pole.

So, back to the topic, is it science or is it scientists that we should perhaps be leery of?  Science, as stated above, is a discipline that’s all about repeatable experiments, so other scientists can verify your findings.  It turns out that there may have been something to the whole “cold fusion” idea after all, they just published way too soon.  This is what happened to the IPCC’s report.  The Intragovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a 3,000-page report in 2007, and it had a quote from ONE scientist, from a media interview in 1999, in which he speculated that the glaciers in the Himalayas would be gone by 2035.  The panel later stated that the comment was unfounded and shouldn’t have made its way into the final copy.  (Those glaciers are still melting away, though, just not as fast as the guy said.)

The anti-science crowd SEIZED on it, though, and that’s their basis for throwing Einstein out with the bathwater.  Sit back and think for a minute.  When’s the last time YOU whipped together a 3,000-page report?  Any room for error in there?  I go back and fix little glitches in the Hot Sheet all the time, and hope nobody noticed.  I caught some mistakes in the Missouri hazardous waste regulations when I was a state guy, and notified central office,  and about ten years ago I corrected an assistant director of OSHA on his interpretation of the asbestos regulations, and they had to agree with ME.  Did anyone pin a medal on me?  Naw, but I still look out for that stuff.

So, scientists are human, and make mistakes just like anybody else.  That’s no reason to damn the discipline outright.  But now we have to look at the denier’s claims that not all scientists agree that humans are causing this problem.  There’s an old saying, “follow the money.”  Or “cui prodest,” Latin for “who benefits?”  I know, “cui bono” is more well-known, but I go back to the sources.  Just WHICH scientists are climate change-deniers?  Well, consider that many of them, even at universities, get funding from some of the megacorporations in oil, gas, and big agriculture; yeah, the same folks who get away with paying no income tax.  There’s a clue in there somewhere.  And during the tenure of Reagan, Bush I, and Shrub, the EPA was told to dumb down or conceal its more alarming findings.  Christie Todd Whitman finally got up the gumption to quit as head of EPA over it, although in my opinion she waited too long.  At least she had a conscience.  William Ruckleshaus, whom I met in 1990, was the first head of the EPA under Nixon, and got roped back in to run it again under Reagan.  There’s a quote attributed to him about assessing hazard levels:  “show me the numbers, and I’ll make them say whatever you want.”  Sounds like another damn lawyer, doesn’t it?  And that’s what he was.  Nice guy in person, but I wouldn’t trust him with the cutlery.

Don’t even get me started with Colin Powell and the aluminum tubes.  He got understandably pissed with the CIA spooks that fed him all that misinformation so he could convince Congress that we should invade Iraq.  I digress again, but there’s MORE bad science being used to hoodwink the public.

To finish up (whew, this has been an effort to put together), during my research on the IPCC thing, I ran across some guy’s website who had some stuff to spout about the issue.  He’s a former TV weatherman, but doesn’t have a degree in climate science (he says, “well, neither does Al Gore.”)  He won the “best science blog” from the Weblog Awards this year.  I have 6 years of university training, and majored in chemistry, archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, the various earth sciences (in which I finally got my degree), and secondary education.  I started out at UCLA, and got my degree from Southeast Missouri State, the same university that Rush Limbaugh flunked out of after 2 ½ semesters.

This  weather guy criticized Gore’s 24-hour webcast for having non-scientists on the panels.  Hey, they tried to get people from all walks of life to contribute.  We are all in the same leaky canoe.  He made fun of them having a priest on board…I was raised Catholic and expanded my pantheon, but I want to kick his behind for him.  Then he cast aspersions at the panel including Allison Rogers, who ran “Green the Capitol” for Nancy Pelosi, because she was Miss Rhode Island in 2006.  He dismissed her as a “cute girl,” reinforcing the idea that women can’t be attractive and intelligent at the same time.  I try to be professional on here, as opposed to on Facebook, but F**K that guy.

Greening the Capitol building is a good idea anyhoo.  I’ll never forget that when Jimmy Carter was president, he put solar panels on the White House, and the first thing Reagan did when he took over was to have them removed and stuck down in the basement to collect dust.  True story.

Closing thoughts…my pal Donna said that back in the Space Age we trusted scientists for sure.  Thanks, Donna!  Also, I’d vote for Einstein’s hair over Rick Perry‘s hair any day.  And for those of you who aren’t averse to visiting your local library, I recommend the following two books that inspire me and prompted me to write this lengthy missive.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, 1964

Douglas J. Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, 1983/1995

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Responses

  1. I should’ve realized ever since reading the story that neutrinos are probably tachyons. LOVE it! http://discovermagazine.com/2011/sep/28-rest-easy-einstein-ftl-neutrinos-dont-violate-relativity


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