Further to Monday’s part 1…
1 – “Seek and you shall receive”
The problem with Science vs. The World
To deliberately misuse a biblical reference, if you want to find Science vs. The World style debate a simple google search will reveal a wealth of Hitch-slaps, however, how far is this really progressing scientific understanding? As discussed in the previous post, there are issues with elevating the Unscientific Counter Argument. Additionally though, and Hitch is a prime example, though these debates are bloody and bruising, do they actually develop science? Not really, they establish the application of scientific method to real world issues, but don’t further scientific knowledge in their own field. They are effectively Infomercials, in the best “Would you like to know more?” tradition.
Even if the debate is Science theory 1 vs. Science theory 2, is John q public really going to have the background to understand the nuances of the arguments/ the attention span to keep watching?
The problem with Current Science Theory 1 vs. Current Science Theory 2
Alot of the big Science vs. questions of the past: Round globe vs. Flat globe/Anthropomorphic vs. Cyclic climate change/Orbital vs. Cookie dough atomic model; have obviously already been largely answered over the course of many years by THE finest minds, and are only familiar to us due to hindsight. The larger public can really only understand once science does. Explaining to a non-specialist the entire arguments relating to current scientific debate would be exhausting and counterproductive. Besides, science isn’t decided by democracy.
I barely followed the finer points of the geochemical arguments surrounding the theories on the formation of a plateau in Tibet despite an Environmental Geoscience BSc. I plan on writing an article about the issues around the biomimetic ventilation processes surrounding the Eastgate Centre, Zimbabwe, just as soon as I find a way to condense 5000 words dealing with the ventilation of termite mounds, issues in building design and misrepresentation of science by architects into something a tenth of the size. And once biologists actually agree on how ventilation of termite mounds actually work. I’m sure once I do the BBC will commission “Turner & Soar vs. Mark Pearce – The story of whether stack ventilation or mixed regime osmosis is key in termite mound oxygen replenishment and the relevance of this argument to the Eastgate Centre” (working title).
Topically, the recent “earth-shaking” news from the Curiosity Rover is a perfect example of this:
NASA: Deutrium vs. Hydrogen ratio on Mars is diferent to earth and what we expected! Ground breaking!
The Press: What does this mean for us?
NASA: WE DON’T KNOW, ISN’T THAT AMAZING?!?!
A better breakdown of the weirdness of the AGU event is available here, but this proves the point is solid. Cutting edge pure science is so niche it generally means nothing to anyone who isn’t an expert in the field.
G.I. Joe’s post-credits catch phrase encapsulates what made me want to make science happen. I watched engaging, educated people presenting amazing things. So then I sought out more amazing things, and the more I understood, the more interesting it became. Richard Hammond got a bad rep for his recent work on biomimicry, which I think was largely unfair. A friend recently mentioned to me that “He wished he could ‘unlearn’ some science, so he could be amazed by the child like discovery of these things all over again, and a part of me had to agree, but only in that ‘hypothetical, what if?’ way. I still enjoy watching science programs, especially those that are tangentially related to my fields, and the BBC have in the past month outdone themselves in this regard. In vaguely chronological order:
I covered this in depth here, but to recap, Richard Hammond gives Biomimicry the Top Gear Treatment, including dropping lightbulbs from space. In any other month this would get my vote for best TV program and best science, but with this competition it’s too close to call.
This Beeb staple stays painfully cutting edge each year. While Autumn Watch and it’s sister Spring Watch are partially famous for ‘cute animals’, the Ecology/Conservation backgrounds of Chris Packham and new addition Michella Strachan (of the Really Wild Show of my childhood!) are core. Previous series focused the implications of beaver re-introduction to Scotland, and Hedgehog Counts, and this year their promotion the Ash Dieback Census probably did more than any other media outlet to constructively address the problem.
Each week Dara presents a different scientific topic in a manner very reminiscent of my favourite science teacher: background, discussion topic, experiment, current state of the art, developing future application, round up. This program does a great job mimicking my relatively inspirational South African science teacher Mr. Cairns: Present something your audience are vaguely aware of, providing more information than they knew before in order to build interest and understanding. Demonstrate with simply understood experiment, extrapolate, and never take yourself too seriously.
Sir David is in my opinion the only National Treasure. Others have claim but Dave wins purely as he has done so much actual good, and still has moments where he debates if he has ‘done the right thing’. Having pioneered the nature documentary format in Zoo Quest, he became controller of BBC 2. As well as giving Monty Python and The Old Grey Whistle Test green lights he continued making documentaries in all kinds of fields to show off the new ‘colour’ channel. Even these achievements are comparatively insignificant however. In 60 years he presents a view of his past nature films, sharing background details, filming techniques and even the parts that ‘seemed right at the time’. David questions a number of the practices involved in those early films, and presents a true ‘warts and all’ dissection of his own life’s work. He seems honestly regretful of his part in capturing animals for zoo exhibition, which in my opinion make’s him all the more impressive.
His personality aside, I challenge anyone to scoff at his contribution to scientific film and more importantly scientific curiosity and the value of conservation through 2 questions:
1) Watch any of his work and ask yourself ‘do I want to go there?’
2) Watch any of his work that showcases evolution and ask yourself ‘do I want to understand why?’
I think he’s inspired more than his fair share of young scientists to answer “Yes” to both of those.
So what have we learned?
That Robbins effectively argues that science should develop on the basis of furious debate rather than calculated evidence, ignoring the issues of raising the credibility of the unscientific counter argument and the fact that Science vs. The World debates are easily accessed and possibly not that useful to scientific progress itself.
That actually letting the public into cutting edge science as it is being developed leads to overhyping things 99% of people don’t understand
That documentaries are probably still the best way to present science to the public, and that the BBC are still producing amazing science programmes.
Enough fluffy opinion, hard science to follow next!