The Quantum of doubt, and Uncertainty of Journalism

ATTP wrote a great piece on policing science that prompted this blog post. I am shocked that Matt Ridley, as someone with a good science degree, is stooping so low as to ‘diss’ so many scientists, including the President of the Royal Society.

I have just seen the excellent first episode in Professor Al Khalili’s TV series on BBC4 on The Secrets of Quantum Physics which combined an historical perspective with some practical hands on science. Great stuff.

It covers the battle between Bohr and Einstein on the interpretation of quantum physics, and how much later Bell’s insight and subsequent experiments by others helped to show that Bohr was right after all.

Did the scientific community denigrate Bohr or Einstein over the many years that the controversy raged? No, they took sides for sure, but this was a scientific debate, not a personal attack. Was there a ‘Matt Ridley’ or ‘Melanie Phillips’ from the press judging this debate? No, because they hadn’t a clue how to judge it. Quantum theory is trivial in comparison to climate science, so how come they feel skilled enough to judge it’s veracity?

Yet, greats like Bohr and Einstein respected each other even as they deeply disagreed, like two top sparring partners, but ultimately, they respected the process of science above their mutual respect: science was the winner.

I respect the huge number of scientists grappling with something far more complex than quantum theory: the fate of our climate. They do so with great dignity and perseverance, amongst the noise and denigration of a few such as the aforementioned: The decades studying ice cores; The decades developing models that are brilliant (“all models are wrong but some are useful” is true, but a better term might be … “all models are created with great diligence using the appropriate best science, best computers, and best empirical evidence … and by goodness, they are very useful indeed”, and we do not have a Planet B to do a blind trial controlled experiment!); the list is long.

Science is about making mistakes. Challenging. Testing. Theorizing. Testing again. In true Popperian style: the goal is to make the mistakes as quickly as possible! But the diverse and argumentative community of scientists are the best at acting as judges and jury – this is how it has worked to date – because they have the skills and processes to do this. If there is a brilliant new discovery to be had to confound the status quo, why would someone keep quiet about it!?

And even when the knowledge did not exist to understand something like the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe’, it was scientists (first Planck in 1900 identifying quanta as a requirement for understanding the black body spectrum, then Einstein in explaining the photoelectric effect in 1905 and finally convincing everyone that light quanta were real) that resolved the problem.

Were they shunned as heretics who did not abide by the mainstream? Actually, after a little debate, the cream comes to the surface in science. Always has. Always will.

In climate science, we are not expecting or needing new physics. The problem is complex, but we know that we can derive broad and reasonable conclusions from complex and difficult data. That is true in climate science and true in big data. But not in Journalism.

The Wall Street Journal and Daily Mail give over acres of newsprint and webspace to the likes of Matt Ridley, Dominic Lawson and Melanie Philips to spout their ill-informed vitriol against science and scientists. These never genuinely challenge the science but aim to attack the person or organization. They ascribe motives not competing science. They have none.

Of course science weeds out bad apples, like the now struck off Andrew Wakefield. He is also a case study in the diabolical abuse of power of some in the press, like the Daily Mail, during the MMR debacle and now over global warming.

Not even a thousand years of study and re-evaluation will somehow elevate poor Dr Wakefield from poor misunderstood researcher to misunderstood genius, as his supporters would have us believe.

The Daily Mail does not appreciate that for every genuine genius, there are a legion of cranks. In journalism too often, diatribe and horrible brown stuff rises to the surface, not cream. The tendency to champion cranks over genuine science is both bizarre and a huge disservice to the readers of these organs.

Does Joe Public trust the future of science more in the hands of the institutions of science such as the Royal Society and National Academy of Science, or the habitually contrarian agents of scientific illiteracy such as the Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal?

I think we know that the wisdom of the masses would not fail us.


Filed under Climate Science, Essay, Philosophy of Science, Science

2 responses to “The Quantum of doubt, and Uncertainty of Journalism

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