Thursday, May 29, 2008

Misrepresenting Science to Non-scientists

So, Freeman Dyson -- who's got to be our, what? Fourth most famous physicist? Maybe we should take a time out and rank them. Stephen Hawking is number one, of course. Ah... Kip Thorne? Is Bill Nye in there? Why doesn't Wikipedia have a list of famous physicists! Jim Hansen? This was so much easier when Dick Feynman, Carl Sagan and Ed Teller were alive -- wrote something that annoyed University of Chicago Computational Chemist David Archer writing in RealClimate.
The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.
Which is a pretty funny slap down. There's also this:
I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It's made up to look like science, but it's PR.
I myself have picked up a prolific internet troll who's quite committed to this. What fascinates me is why s/he would be doing this. It's not climate-specific. If you check out her/is own web page, you'll see stuff and nonsense about the economy, tax policy and... well, there are only 12 posts. But a lot of nonsense.

I'm both wrong and pig-headed a lot. I was wrong, for example, in my belief that our troop buildup on the Iraq border was a cynical sham that would leave us tied up in Kuwait for years and cost tens of billions of dollars, and that Al Gore would be imprisoned in some fund raising scandal, George Bush would slink away in shame after realizing how deep in over his head he was, and Ralph Nader would take the 2000 election in a walk. It looks like I'll have been wrong that the 2008 hurricane season would start early. You'd think it'd be a pretty good sign that I'm going to be wrong if everyone disagrees with me, but as a practical matter I can't distinguish "everyone" from "everyone to whom I'm exposed." Also, there's an asymmetric payoff -- as every celebrity stock analyst knows, noone cares if you're wrong when everyone disagrees with you, but there are huge rewards for being right in that case. As for examples of my pig-headedness, I'll leave each of you to reflect on that in your own way.

I try, though, to not be pig-headed consistently. I largely instituted these brief periods of reflection to let me identify when I was wrong, and I look hard to discredit anything I'm forced to consider that undercuts my thesis of the hour.

But, ah, you see where I'm going with this. What drives this person?

I'm reminded a little of the internet bubble. Remember? All the people who didn't "get it?" It, if you'll recall, was that goods and services should be provided for free to everyone, and that this would somehow result in a profit. I'm not actually qualified to paraphrase it, because clearly I never got it -- I was in the business of accepting consulting fees from visionaries, not validating them. In that case, not believing the consensus view was correct.

One of my undergraduate professors tasked me with responding to an unsolicited manuscript he'd gotten -- physicist to physicist -- revealing the truth that sunlight was due to fairies, or something. There were math, diagrams, and discussions of elaborate causal chains, but it was nonsense. In this case, not believing the consensus view was insane.

So, I really am all for bucking the consensus view, but you have to be equipped to analyze the evidence, and work with integrity and intellectual honesty.

As a consumer of memes, though, that's not helpful. We need trustworthy authorities in the government and press to tell us what to believe -- it's not like you can check everything, or really anything beyond certain parameters. As long as there are people willing to produce and promote garbage, we've got trouble. And I don't know that, with oligarchs controlling both the papers and the executive branch of the federal government, our cultural functions are really up to protecting us.

1 comment:

nephos said...

" have to be equipped to analyze the evidence, and work with integrity and intellectual honesty."

Very true