Science’s image problem; an essay

19 10 2008

This was originally posted by me on the Skeptic Forum in February 2006. I wanted to keep a copy, so I have popped it up here with some edits following the advice of the forum readers.

Science’s Image Problem 
Jarrod R. Hart 
January 2006    

Science, technology and the whole idea of modernity has developed an image problem. 

To illustrate this trend lets pick a year some will remember well: 1969. 

Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin have just walked on the moon, microwave ovens have started to appear in kitchens and nuclear power seems to hold the key to unlimited energy. 

Communication has been revolutionised by the satellite, women’s lives have been revolutionised by the contraceptive pill and the quality of life is sky rocketing: labour saving devices such as automatic washing machines, food processors and lawn mowers are finding their way into the homes of the masses. Confidence in science is at an all time high. 

Now it is 2006. In the minds of many the term ‘science’ is associated with things like animal testing, genetic engineering, global warming and nuclear war. People are even starting pay a premium for food made in ways that avoid modern technology (so called ‘organic’ foods). So what changed? 

There are many answers to this question and I am sure many readers will have powerful examples from their own fields of experience; I will however put forward theory that I feel holds water. 

Events 

When Harold Macmillan, the then Prime Minister of the UK was asked what could steer a government off course, he answered “Events, dear boy, events!” And, as I now suggest, a handful key events has been largely responsible for starting the rot. 

Public opinion is a strange beast. It is wildly reactionary and often auto-catalyzes in a frenzy of irrationality. Although its true that amazing faith can develop with little or no evidence (the latest wonder-diet for example!), this is usually born from a strong desire to believe. Far more often, it is much easier to destroy public confidence than to build it. 

Three Mile Island (1979), Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989) all had profound effects on the public psyche. Not only did the dark side of industry rear its ugly head, but also, for the first time, the man on the street began to realise “hey, I have an opinion on this!” The general public did not immediately turn against technology, but rather, they started to ask questions. 

The Media Machine 

I would like to suggest that the rot only took hold when the media sensed this insecurity. In a fair world, an honest, open, questioning attitude is a good thing. But this world is not fair. 

Technology had, until the early 80’s, been presented in a very positive light in the media. Big business had for a long time used the public’s confidence in technology to ease in new products and services. All a marketing team needed to do was describe their product as “modern” – and this immediately implied an innate superiority. For some reason, old was bad and new was good. 

In the 1980’s something changed. People’s level of exposure to the media hit a critical level – just enough to make people think they were ‘well informed’. This new level of exposure meant, for the first time, that people were having news of industrial disasters piped into their sitting rooms. And since the public knew about it, the public would have an opinion about it. But who would decide what that opinion would be? This leads us to the ultimate downfall in the public image of technology, for too often, it would be the media that would decide for us. 

To illustrate, simply ask yourself what makes better reading – “Scientists develop drought resistant crops” or “FRANKENFOOD!” 

In the simple battle for the public’s attention, scaremongering has prevailed and its not surprising at all – its so easy! Science has this nasty habit of dealing with unknowns: questions, hypotheses and statistics. It rarely (if ever) deals in cold hard facts. This makes science a sitting duck. 

The nineties bear this trend out, and issues like the vanishing rain forests, global warming, cancer from cellular phones and genetic engineering all took their toll. 

To most people, something is either good for you or bad for you. Radiation is bad, vitamins are good; bacteria are bad and exercise is good. The media like this simple worldview – it makes for good sensational headlines and ensures that articles aren’t too full of ‘complicated science’. 

The need for shock value naturally leads to half-truths. While any chemist knows “the poison is in the dose”, most people don’t, and the media takes full advantage of this. 

Radiation (sunshine!), just like vitamins, can be good (in moderate doses) and bad (in excessive amounts). Bacteria, exercise, alcohol and almost anything for that matter is usually good and bad depending on how much, when and for whom. As Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. 

To make matters worse, once a piece of misinformation is out there, it is hard to stop and even harder to bring anyone to account. 

A good example was the hullabaloo surrounding research by Dr Andrew Wakefield of the Royal Free Hospital in London. In his 1998 paper Dr Wakefield highlighted a “possible” link between the MMR jab (the combined Mumps, Measles and Rubella vaccine given to many children routinely) and Autism. Although it was only suggested as a possibility, needless to say the media had a field day, cleverly leaving out the ifs and buts: for example: “Child Vaccine Linked to Autism” (BBC News, 27 Feb ’98). This simple irresponsible action lead to several years of reduced vaccine take-up, with possibly fatal consequences. 

This type of misinformation is particularly dangerous because is parades as ‘proper science’. The media, by referencing a scientific paper in a reputable journal (The Lancet) are lending themselves credibility, but then the simple act of removing a single word (“possible” in the above case) they have degraded the science and greatly harmed its reputation. 

Statistics: The Media’s WMD 

Society used to simply trust the expertise of authority without question. People suffered from some sort of inferiority complex that made them think that ‘scientists’ would know best. As we have seen the media has eroded this with scaremongering, sensationalising and misreporting. However, they have one more killer tool in the toolbox: Statistics. 

The world is a complicated place. There is far too much information to possibly report it all, so we need to distil all the facts into key elements, ‘salient points’ if you like, that give a fair representation of the whole. In order to do this correctly, science produced the statistical method, a rational system for describing sets of data. It provides ways of letting the human mind grasp the important information held in large lists of numbers. The ‘average’ is a good example a player’s batting average is a faster and easier way to judge him then a long list of all the swings he or she ever took. 

So, statistics are essential to the media, who routinely inform us, sometimes well. However, few people out there realise how easily statistics can be coloured and spun. This problem is compounded by the problem that most people have coping with very large numbers (the same trick the lottery uses to fool people into thinking a lottery ticket is a wise investment). 

Rather than do a poor job of examining this, I refer you to a good analysis on the subject: “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists” by Joel Best (2001, University of California Press) 

Attacking Science 

Another damaging phenomenon worth noting is the new tendency for the media to attack science directly. Recently, especially in the global warming debate, certain parties (with vested interests) have used the media to accuse science of dealing in uncertainty. 

The very pillars that form the foundation of science, things like theories, scepticism and debate are being held up as evidence that scientists cannot agree on anything. Is the world heating up as the result of human activity? According to some, ‘possibly’ is the best answer that science can offer. 

Scientists are rightly incensed by this slander, but what can they do? It is proving very hard to explain to the masses why this uncertainty is good and right. 

It will be even harder to explain to the people that even when most scientists do agree, they are often later proved wrong, which many will cheerfully accept, changing their position in the light of the new evidence. But this great strength is seen as flip-flopping by the public, another sign of weakness. 

The Future 

In this short essay, I have tried to examine why the reputation of science has been taking a hit in the public’s eye. We have seen how certain terrible events like Chernobyl were associated with science and how the media has misreported on the debates of the day. We have also touched on the trouble statistics cause and the difficulty in selling uncertainty. So what does this all mean? 

Is science doomed? I don’t think so. For even though the scientific community has lost ground in the struggle against the tides of ignorance, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Big business will continue to tell us whatever sells products, journalists will continue to write whatever sells papers, politicians will continue to say whatever wins votes; but these truths are not malicious forces bent on the destruction of science, they are simple evolutionary forces in the pool of life. And I think, that just like mankind, science will simply evolve and move on. 

References: 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/60510.stm (article at start of MMR scare) 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2038135.stm (more recent article summing up MMR scare) 
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520219783/ref=pd_sim_b_3/103-2618564-5123866?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance&n=283155 
(Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists)

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Race track pondering…

19 10 2008

I have not personally ever raced cars. Of course I fancy my driving skills, and, like most people, am sure I am better than average, but only half of us can be right…

But watching the Shanghai Grand Prix this morning, I had a thought. Now this thought may be well known to race drivers the world over, but in all my years of listening to Murray Walker and his colleagues I never heard them discussing this. So perhaps the thought is highly original and clever. Or perhaps its thoroughly wrong!

So this is it: the racetrack can be divided into two parts, the parts that are engine (acceleration) limited (i.e. where the pedal is to the metal) and parts that are ‘grip’ limited (accelerating/braking or lateral/turning or a combination thereof).

I spent the afternoon playing with the kids, but when I should have been preparing to catch one or other at the end of a death defying flying fox manoeuvre, I found myself trying to think of exceptions to my hypothesis.

What about the approach to a corner, before you start turning, I thought? When driving round town, I commonly coast into corners with my foot off the pedal, and no G-forces to speak of. But then in a race, would you coast, even for a moment?

I think not, you would keep your foot flat until the last second then hit the brakes, with ‘coasting’ only lasting as long as it takes to move your foot 6 inches.

So ‘late braking’ is not just braking late, it’s pushing at the boundary that exists between two parts of the track.

This concept should let driver know when to just put the foot flat (and relax!) because the engine limited boundary is fairly safe – it simply can’t be exceeded, whereas the grip limit, if exceeded, will end badly. 

It should also guide the racetrack designer, they know grip limited sections are more stressful, and that the transitions from one limit to the other are ‘interesting’. 

Now, half way though the movie version of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”, I realised my hypothesis needed a big tweak. Racetracks also have bumps, debris, oil slicks and sometimes rain. Not to mention, those other pesky cars. These all mean either limit could suddenly apply at almost any time, any place on the track. So the division of the track would never be precise, only a guideline.

However, I restate the hypothesis: one limit should always apply, if it doesn’t, you could be going faster…

Someone please shoot his down..





The scientific method defined (well hypothesised at any rate)

19 10 2008

I recently realised that the jury is out on exactly what science and the scientific method are (or should be, at least).

Some would say that science is the endeavour to understand the world, answer the “how” behind the ocean tides, rainbows or seed germination. So the scientific method is any way we might do this. Sounds reasonable to me.

However, some would say that science is the business of ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ and proofs. We do experiments to ‘prove’ our hypothesis. This is the definition I would like to take issue with.

Theories and facts confused…

I get really agitated when I hear people say that evolution is a ‘fact’. Not because I’m a  nutty young earth creationist (I’m not), because no-one has yet furnished a proof. But, you may argue, there’s loads of evidence, its clearly a fact.

But evidence is not the same as proof.

Even if something is 99.999% sure, it is still not sure.

I think the trouble comes because people are never taught that those ‘theorems’ and ‘proofs’ they learned in maths class are not quite the same as the theories and evidence in the scientific method.

So is maths a science? Well, yes, sort of. But while it can deal with real things, like counting sheep, it actually deals with a sort of imaginary world (the so-called Platonic ‘world of ideas’). The whole of maths is a mental construct with no known (‘proven’) basis is reality. But nonsense, you say, of course there are numbers in the real world! Well so there are, but there are no proofs!

Proofs are only possible is a fully ‘understood’ world, and because the world of maths is underpinned by a set of axioms, it is, more or less, ‘understood’. But the real world in which we live is not like that. We don’t understand how the brain works, we don’t know how many dimensions there are, we don’t even know if there is a god.

So does that mean we don’t know anything? The media (and opponents of science) use this uncertainty to undermine science. “You can’t prove there is no God, because there is!” Hey presto, a proof of God.

No, science and the scientific method doesn’t do proofs and facts. So what does it do?

Let’s consider the old chestnut, evolution. People had a book that explained the marvellous spectrum of life, from the caterpillar to the jellyfish. This was good enough for many years. But some clever folks started to question why God would bother to make different tortoises on different islands, and why He would go to all the trouble of putting dinosaur bones in certain rocks and why he would disguise their uranium-lead isotopes to make them look millions of years old.

So a theory was proposed (Darwin’s natural selection) that explained the incredible story of species and, for good measure, predicted that humans are apes, which went down well in the church.

Since then, loads and loads of observations have been made that confirm the theory (with the odd tweak). Its a theory that would have been easy to disprove. If it was wrong, some animals that couldn’t have logically been explained by the theory would have cropped up. But they haven’t.

But all this evidence is not proof. And the lack of a disproof isn’t a proof.

The same is true for all accepted theories. The sun and the moon are thought to cause the tides. If that a fact?

If you ask a scientist, even a good one, he/she may well say yes, its a fact. Because it is so darn likely to be right. Because there is no good alternative theory. Because non-one is disputing it. Because the maths is just so neat. Because the theory can make predictions. All good reasons to accept a theory. But they do not make it fact.

So we do know ‘stuff’, plenty of stuff, facts to all intents and purposes, but not strictly facts in the sense of logical proof.

So what is the scientific method, then?

Science is the system of theories and hypotheses about the nature of reality that have not yet been disproven and which are ranked by the weight of evidence in their favour.

It is like a model of the world that we are ever refining, chucking out wrong theories, refining the ones that work. The scientific method is that refinement process. Well that is my hypothesis. The truth may be altogether different!





Dumbing down?

19 10 2008

This is my first ever blog post. Ra-ra and all that, let’s get to the subject matter.

Yes, its going to be one of those repositories for all those thoughts I probably vastly overvalue when I first conceive of them. But as I cannot be objective and they may actually serve some purpose, I might as well pop them on-line.

Topic of today? UK exam scores. Why? I just read some other blog on the subject: http://www.badscience.net/2007/08/calling-all-science-teachers/ and have some feelings on the matter.

I am not particularly qualified to comment on the education system, so I beg of you don’t listen to my ‘opinion’, but rather follow my logic…

Many people have suggested, and most recently in the public eye, Dr Goldacre in his excellent book “bad science”, that exam standards may be dropping in the UK.

I’d like to analyse this statement for the general case (i.e. any population of which a subset write an annual exam in which the questions do not repeat). Let’s try to frame the question of their ease in a less emotive logical statement…

Let’s say we have data that show the pass rate is gradually moving up year-on-year.

This must mean that one or more of the following is true:
i) the population is getting genetically smarter
ii) the population is increasing well prepared by its environment (parents, teachers, peers, the internet, etc.)
iii) the subset of people in doing the test has changed
iv) the questions are becoming better correlated to what people know
v) or last, the test questions are getting gradually ‘easier’ (or the marking more generous)

There may be more, but don’t want the extreme complexity to cloud my (eventual) point.

Now each of these statements is hard to prove without more data – and the only data we seem to have is the test scores (although we do have the tests themselves which may prove useful).

It may well be that people are getting smarter – but we might use some science to tackle that – for example you could argue that evolution cannot work this fast (and I personally doubt that nerdyness is particularly good survival and seduction tool).

But the environment is certainly changing, the subset doing the tests may be drifting, schooling techniques are being constantly refined and the correlation between what’s interesting (celebrities, MMR vaccines) and what’s examined is also hard to pin down.

I would say there is more than enough vagueness to ensure that no-one, no matter how well qualified, could answer the question “are we dumbing down” with any conviction.

However, there is a “but”.

The examiners can set the difficulty of each fresh test to be whatever they want (in theory). They could make it easy and let everyone get A’s, or they could make them so hard that only the brightest “X” percent get an A. Yet what we see, year on year, are slight improvements.

There are (at least) two hypotheses as to what the examiners are doing:
a) they are aiming to make the questions identical in difficulty to the last year, despite the full knowledge that this strategy has, to date, resulted in a gradual trend toward better marks.
b) they are deliberately aiming to get just slightly better results than last year due to some “incentive”

As the examiners for all the subjects are probably a fairly independently minded bunch and as there is no evidence for it, there are good reasons to doubt the latter hypothesis. Occam’s razor would surely favour the former, though we can’t be sure.

So where does that leave us?

We can’t suddenly make the tests harder, thus lowering the number of A grades to what they were years back – that would be unfair, and would mean that future young people will actually have to know more and work harder than their colleagues from the present time to get an A.

Why not simply rank the scores, then place predetermined fractions into each grade? This, incidentally, is what (I believe) was done when I went to school, which was essential as we had several different regional exam boards with different exams, so rankings rather than absolute results were felt more comparable. Isn’t this how IQ tests scores work? This would mean, incidentally, that by definition, exam/IQ scores for a population simply couldn’t increase with time.

Perhaps most attractive is the option to leave things as they are in the UK, and ignore the media circus. After all, what does their opinion matter?