Roughan’s ready theory

By Gareth Renowden 08/07/2012


John Roughan has a theory. The New Zealand Herald‘s columnist and leader writer waxes lyrical this week about the discovery of the Higgs boson bringing excitement back to science — science having been made dull by being “dominated by environmentalism” for too long. Others may wish to make fun of Roughan’s somewhat incoherent take on particle physics:

The glimpse of the ‘Higgs boson’, or something like it, allows minds to boggle on the existence of “dark matter” and the possibility there really is a dimension to the world that is beyond human sensory perception.

Who knows where that knowledge will lead? Next they will work out how to control the particle, then they will remove it to enable things – people – to travel at the speed necessary to explore the galaxy.

But bring it on, I say. Let’s get the Roughan-Higgs drive patented. That’s a new technology that could really drive the economic transformation of New Zealand. Truly ground-breaking stuff from a political columnist.

Roughan’s real theory, sadly, is much more mundane, and amounts to little more than an extended and ill-educated rant against environmentalism.

After a barely coherent run through his incomprehension about humanity’s ability to have planetary scale impacts, he concludes thus:

Science has been dominated by environmentalism for too long. What it gained in political attention and research grants has come at a cost to its power to excite us. If a subatomic particle has opened a door to phenomena we can barely comprehend, science will be wonderful again.

What the hell does Roughan mean by “science”? I presume he’s talking about his perception of what science is, but his column makes it obvious that he has a sadly limited view of what that might be. His own boredom with science (but not geology apparently, which might speak to us in our dreams) — including all the many subjects that yield to scientific investigation that have little or nothing to do with the environment or environmentalism in any shape or form — tells us nothing about what science is or might be.

Being interested in “science” means being curious about everything. Doing science means being systematic in exploring the limits of our knowledge. It’s endlessly fascinating and exciting. You don’t need to be a particle physicist to have fun. And we should not let the ignorant trample on reality. Truthiness in service of politics is never a pretty sight. Which brings me to my1 quote of the day.

We need evidence-based decision-making; not decision-based evidence-making.
-Raj Sherman, leader of the Alberta Liberals

Unfortunately for Roughan’s rough and ready and right-wing world view, the evidence suggests that we have no option but to accept we’re stuffing up the planet, and must decide to do something rather urgently to stop it. We’re all environmentalists now. In the real world, we have no choice.

PS: Here’s a much more nuanced take on what we can learn from the discovery of the Higgs boson.

[My theory…]

  1. And Planet 3.0′s.