A Huckster in the Science Tent Writes…and Don’t Trust A Word

We don’t hear the phrase, “and when I say that, I should make it quite clear that I have no idea what I am talking about”.

Last night was the British Science Association dinner and they were kindly giving me a certificate for making jokes about Charles Darwin and the Large Hadron Collider.

Everyone who took to the stage at the British Science Festival dinner seemed to declare their impostor syndrome one way or another, so when it got to my turn, I didn’t bother. Hopefully I have openly declared my ignorance for long enough though no one could believe I was there under false pretences.
Earlier in the day, I had been interviewing Alice Roberts, and her eyes had widened and mouth lifted into a shape of mockery and outrage when I said that I had no science qualifications.

I never promise to impart knowledge, and I would soon flame war my eyebrows if I returned to a bunsen burner, or haphazardly gunk up an accelerator with a clumsily dropped bagel if asked to help out at CERN.
I am an idiot and an enthusiast, a potent combination of ‘skills’ that has somehow turned into a career. Twelve times a year, my job is to put the brakes on Brian Cox, “I think you might have lost some of the people at quantum entanglement”.
He looks quizzical, “surely everyone is running at the same speed as me with non localities and hidden variables”, he thinks, “but I’ll explain more for the benefit of this idiot on my right.”

I try to ensure that no one trusts my opinion, and if they do find something interesting in what I’ve said about the occipital lobe or Schrodinger’s flamboyant trousers, they seek some source material afterwards. I am a reader, an echo of more interesting people.
I know most of my limitations, that includes rock climbing and knitting.
(it is around here that this post could go off on a tangent about the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools, colleges and pubs)

I have to be alert that I will be drawn to ideas that please me and confirm the worldview that I hope is true. Our critical thinking pales every time we find out we are wrong.
When I was drawn back towards science, initially via sceptical examinations of pseudoscience, I started to become suspicious of books offering a view of the world without offering me footnotes and references that would allow the inquisitive me to at least know there was a place I could go and check their statistics or slurs if I wanted to.
“As we all know”
“As has been often chronicled”
“It is truth universally acknowledged”
I am sure it is, but for the benefit of someone who hasn’t been paying attention enough, can you show me where you found this incendiary/startling/disconcerting statistic or anecdote?
(This is why you just can’t trust me, I don’t think I can always show my working out).

Before the start of this year British Science Fair, the new president, Paul Nurse, bruised and horrified a few passers-by with language that made their eyes pop with indignation. Sir Paul asked scientists to be attentive to public figures who use inaccurate information or cherry pick data to make their points and support an ideological, political or financial standpoint. He urged the forming of relationships with those who may be misled or misleading so that they would feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence. Should these people continue to ignore the science and misuse what there was for their own ends, and here is where the pugilistic words entered the arena, they should be “crushed and buried”.

The newspaper reports are Here (Guardian), Here (Independent) or (Daily Mail) Here

Some seemed quick to misunderstand the point (or at least the point as I see it. I hope I haven’t misunderstood too, but I did start this post flaunting my shortcomings).
This is not a call to treat science as dogma, “there can be only one truth, bow to your Nobel messiahs”, but to say that if you wish to challenge the scientific consensus, you need to have evidence for your position, and if that evidence doesn’t pass muster, then this might involve the uncomfortable, sometimes tortuous, manoeuvre of changing your position.

Is it censorship to combat misinformation?

I am often wrong, and the older I have become, the easier I find it to be told, “you’ve not understood this theory, law or concept”. At the time, this is not a happy occasion, my stomach is less knotted during the correction, and afterwards I am relieved that I will no longer be piggybacking on the shoulders of the giant that turned out to be a teetering man on stilts. If I was peddling bad science, and I have, I would want someone to approach me and tell me I may be considered to be entering an arena of nincompoopery. It is quite a regular occurrence at my gigs, and I thank all those who have approached me after gigs to update me or challenge me, though please bring references too, so I can check the footnotes of your conversations.

In The Lightness of Being by Frank Wilczek, he writes of how “discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, and many other brilliant people greatly expanded human imagination”. Those who are prepared to peddle falsehoods or misunderstandings, and maintain their cocksure stance whatever the better information they face, help stagnate and congeal that human imagination. Whether the trite anti-evolutionary arguments of “how can there still be monkeys if we come from monkeys” and “how come the eye just appeared?” or matters that concern our life and existence – from vaccination to climate change – the human imagination is strengthened and broadened by deeper understandings of science and evidence, rather than propaganda and shift media sidesteps to secure narcissistic ideologies and bankrupt wishes.

“I want to believe this, now if I can just cherry pick and make up what I need to secure this position”. Is your version of “the truth” the best available, or the most amenable to your ideology or financial desires?

Well, that’s what I think, but beware my paucity of footnotes and lack of appendices.

I will be corrected in bars across the UK, Ireland, Norway (and eventually US and Australia) over the coming months – from Liverpool to Belfast, Nottingham to Goole, Leicester to Aldershot, and on and on. Dates HERE

The latest, and lengthiest, DVD is HERE

Also, this week’s Manchester and London Dates are sold out, but back soon – at Manchester Dancehouse http://www.thedancehouse.co.uk/whats_on/autumn_winter_2002/event_364.asp and Kings Place, London http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on-book-tickets/comedy/lakin-mccarthy-presents-robin-ince-blooming-buzzing-confusion

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11 Responses to A Huckster in the Science Tent Writes…and Don’t Trust A Word

  1. draziraphale says:

    You do a great service to Science in the public eye and are excessively hard on yourself about qualifications as you have grasped (and communicate) the core of science, which is the scientific method itself. I’ve a good few science qualifications and still consider the scientific method ITSELF to be the core. If I’ve a chance to come to your show in Ireland I’ll jump at it. Keep up the good work.

  2. noego says:

    If people were able to be completely reasonable, if we could eliminate bias, if politics had no influence on scientific research and is interpretation, then maybe there would be less controversy over the results of science. It’s dishonest and unhelpful to present science as almost certain, your humbleness is much needed.

  3. lanceleuven says:

    Well, I guess your point sunk in with me. When I got to the bottom of the post I immediately thought “Goole? Where the hell is Goole? As he misspelt that?” So I double-checked it. I’d never heard of the place before. (Apologies to anyone from Goole. Don’t take it personally. Just blame my poor geography skills).

  4. I completely agree. It’s so easy, and tempting, to cherry pick evidence to justify your own point of view or cause, and much much more difficult to go to the effort of understanding the science and reviewing the evidence to the best of your ability, then making up your mind after you have that to hand. Changing your mind about something is much harder than understanding evidence, and I think that’s why people don’t make an effort to (for example) try to understand climate science or evolution.

    There is a caveat though. We can’t expect everyone to be experts, and we can’t for that matter expect everyone to actually have the capability to understand even very basic science, and many people use what *they believe* is good science and evidence to justify their point of view. Those people aren’t being malicious, lazy or wilfully ignorant, they’re simply less educated or less able. I honestly believe many journalists fall into this category…

  5. Joyce Beck says:

    draziraphale, I SO agree with you. I’m not really bothered about how much “science” school pupils learn, so long as every last one of them as Scientific Method drummed into them repeatedly from the age of 5 to 18, along with logic, how to use valid methods of debate and argument and how to spot the horribly common errors we all see. A few decades of that would see off most religions and perverse views of climate change, vaccination, evolution etc.

  6. I love Robin Ince. He’s the cream and sugar in Brian Cox’s coffee. Not that Professor Cox drinks coffee, mind you. It’s just an expression.

  7. Have you done an IMC on the science of risk? Specifically the “micromort”?
    You could even stick the LHC in it (an episode without it would be unthinkable) and give us the projected micromort value the “black hole that swallows us all up” possibility might have been given.

    While it’s a little more maths than science, I think it would be a hoot.

  8. Andre van Westreenen says:

    Not as much of an idiot as you would have yourself believe. Great read.

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