Monday, 8 February 2010

Shitty Science

This isn't so much a small rant in itself as it is a promise of future things to come on here. In some ways it's something of a personal tribute to the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, as well as the writings on Donald Simanek's web pages. My personal attempts to summarise and argue against some of the bullshit demonstrated well on this demotivational poster:


The fact is that we live in a world now where information is freely accessible. The main problem is that a lot of people really struggle to filter out the good information from the bad information. It's quite easy for people to read about things, but quite often they're being misled, either intentionally or unintentionally, by what they're reading. Quite often people are shown conclusions based on false evidence, a poor scientific understanding, incorrect theory or logic, and quite a lot of people are easily swayed by what are utterly wrong attempts at science.

These things spread across quite a broad range of issues. Things like climate change, evolution, the Large Hadron Collider, perpetual motion machines, 9/11 conspiracy theories... all of these are frequently the victim of media hype and misrepresentation on the internet. There's actually a massive amount of utterly rubbish science in the media, and articles that frequently put a spin on things that just causes people to get the wrong idea. The MMR jab had absolutely no solid link with autism, and yet the stories coming out in the media made it seem like it was a closed case that it caused it. It was complete bullshit, and it resulted in presumably tens if not hundreds of thousands of children not being immunised, all basically on the back of the media scaremongering based on some extremely tenuous claims.

Even reputable scientific branches of the media like New Scientist can be guilty as with this article on a supposed "water-fuelled" car, which is complete bollocks (it basically runs with boron as it's raw fuel). The article explains what happens properly, but the headline and opening paragraph is massively misleading and incorrect, and I've seen the same "water-fuelled" bullshit on other media channels, and with a far more misleading representation that would genuinely convince the average reader that we've invented a car that runs on water. Which is completely wrong. Water is already burnt oxygen - there's no more energy we can take from it.These articles aren't just incorrect, but they can sway opinion on what are quite important topics. What's all the worry with climate change and an energy crisis when coal runs out? We can just power our engines on water! It's really unhelpful for people to be mislead in such a way.

As another example of how the media is damaging our decisions as a society concerning energy, nuclear power is completely the way forward, and we'll be totally screwed if we don't start switching over to it on a massive scale in the next decade or two, but it's gotten such a bad rep in the media that it's difficult to put a case for it. I'll say, as someone who has worked inside a company that designs nuclear facilities, who has seen the regulations and meticulous detail that goes into the safety, who has read up extensively on modern reactor designs and past disasters, that it is ridiculously safe as a form of energy. It has no carbon emissions, and while being expensive right now, we're not going to run out of fuel any time soon like we quickly are with fossil fuels. It's also still being improved massively, while we've sort of hit our limit of efficiency with conventional combustion power stations. The only sensible option to ensure we're still going to have enough power in forty or fifty years is to switch over massively to nuclear power, but this is tricky for government and planners to get support for, because the uneducated masses only have knowledge acquired from the media and sci-fi, and so provide far more resistance than they ever should.

So I intend, fairly soon, to use this blog to post a few things just to correct certain utterly incorrect lines of thinking, because sometimes it really does need to be pointed out. You especially get it with people who are supposedly educated, yet have been educated wrongly  - not all high school physics teachers know what they're talking about. I was told that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed due to resonance, which is utter bullshit. I was also told there's no such thing as centrifugal force, only centripetal, which is again bullshit. People get told how aerofoils work (the shape of the wings of an aeroplane) in a way that's completely not true. These misunderstandings of science are fairly harmless, but it's still irritating that people wrongly believe stuff like this. I don't so much blame them for believing things they're taught at school, more the fact that the people teaching go uncorrected.

Indoctrination is especially different to fight against. Creationists have so many theories which are utterly incorrect, and which are quite obviously incorrect to anyone of a scientific background, but which to your average person seem perfectly reasonable. Quite often it's not that easy, even for people who know the subject matter well, to point out what the flaw in the argument is, but there always is one, it's just that enough people don't see it and are convinced the argument is true. For example:

We start with two variables, x and y, so that
x = y
Multiply both sides by x
x2 = xy
Subtract y2 from both sides
x2 - y2 = xy - y2
(x + y)(x - y) = y(x - y)
Divide both sides by (x - y)
x + y = y
Substitute x = y
2y = y
Divide by y
2 = 1
So it turns out that two equals one. We've broken maths. The entire world as we know it is based on faceless lies and fallacies... except it isn't. As anyone who is fairly keen-eyed or has seen this before will know, there's a fuck up in the step where we divide both sides by (x - y), because as x equals y, (x - y) actually equals zero, and dividing by zero causes the final incorrect outcome. The conclusion is wrong because the logic used to reach it is wrong, but what I demonstrate here is that it's not always blindingly obvious why it's wrong. We know that two does not equal one, and therefore there's a trick somewhere, but it's not clear where it is, and if the final result was a bit more contestable (e.g. evolution, who perpetrated 9/11, etc.) then such an incorrect argument could easily be used to sway someone's opinion and mislead them, despite the fact that it's wrong.

What also makes this difficult is that the explanations of why the bullshit argument is bullshit are quite often quite complicated, or at least more complicated than the incorrect argument they disprove. Quite often you have quite a neat, albeit incorrect, theory that takes a fair bit of work to explain away, which also makes it difficult. When faced with abstract scientific concepts compared to propaganda designed to be convincing and to mislead people, it's not surprising people sometimes make the incorrect choice. A lot of effort and money goes into the spread of misinformation backing creationist theories, and not enough money gets spent to show people why the creationists are incorrect. It's also difficult when all these creationists band together, continually repeating their incorrect arguments to each other, feeding of each other's false logic, and together convincing themselves more and more that what they say is true. There are creationists who just flat out refute the existence of certain fossils that massively back up evolutionary theory because they continually tell each other that they don't exist, and nobody explains to them otherwise. It's also a fuckload easier for them to deny the existence of the fossils, or label them as hoaxes, than it is for me to show them to them, or prove their age is true. It's also difficult when scientists are apparently in on the conspiracy (9/11, climate change, etc) because then there's no apparently reliable source of evidence that can convince them.

But I ramble. The fact is that there are far too many supposed bits of "science" that get repeated by teachers and internet users which are complete bullshit. I aim in the future to write a few posts on this blog which will hopefully be informative, and will explain why certain commonly-believed fallacies are incorrect. I doubt many people actually read this, but I'd like to think that every little helps when it comes to educating the ignorant and uneducated. Knowledge is power, and in some cases it seems that depriving others of knowledge is also a power of it's own. I'll probably start off simple, with things like aerofoils and tidal systems, before going towards disproving some of the major "evidence" towards 9/11 being an inside job, climate change, and hopefully tie this in with work inspired by The Greatest Show on Earth on why creationism is definitely wrong and the 'theory' of Evolution is correct.

I hope that you guys will enjoy reading them when I start writing and publishing them, and hopefully they'll educate a couple of misled minds as well.

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