Science, openness, and conspiracy theory

By Marcus Wilson 22/03/2011

Hopefully, now that 20 March has passed, people feel a bit more confident in assessing for themselves the abilities of Ken Ring (and others) to predict major earthquakes. No doubt the offenders will try to wriggle out of it by claiming that a M5.1 aftershock in Christchurch was ‘close enough’, but I’m afraid Mr Ring that a 5.1 aftershock is hardly one "for the history books".

Last night (during the quarter/half time breaks in the netball – which by the way was much much better than last week – well done Ms Williams, Langman etc)    I was reading through an article I’ve been preparing with a couple of colleagues on Cafe Scientifique. To be fair, though, it’s the colleagues, Alison and Kathrin,  who have done most of the work here. One thing that we mention is that when scientists don’t listen to people’s concerns, the trust people have for scientists goes down. We draw from the UK’s House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Techology, who reported that "supressing uncertainty is bound to diminish public trust and respect". What’s needed is genuine, open discussion between the science community and the public, in a way that the public feels they own. Otherwise it’s fuel for the conspiracy theorists. So well done GNS for getting out there and trying to do just that in the run up to last weekend – presenting what we do know about earthquakes and what we simply don’t know.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk because science (and there’s no better example than understanding earthquakes) is full of uncertainy. As much as we (I mean scientists) would like to, we can’t predict exactly when and where earthquakes will strike. We can talk in statistical terms, and talk about the probability of one of size X or greater hitting near somewhere in the next Y years, but pinning a date to it is cloud-cuckoo land, which, I’m afraid, is where Mr Ring lives. There is no conspiracy to hide this information from anyone.

An example of where scientists fell off this tightrope was the run up to ‘switch on’ of the Large Hadron Collider a couple of years ago. There were many, many people who were genuinely scared of what was going on in Geneva, and us physicists didn’t really do our job properly in reassuring our communities. (I did, eventually, but only AFTER the thing had switched on, and then promptly fallen over.)

Cafe scientifique, amongst other events, is a way of getting that genuine dialogue going between experts and non-experts. People can feel that they can interact with scientists equitably – the latter don’t have some intellectual monopoly on knowledge that they wield for their own advantage. My experience has been that some topics create considerable discussion, some less so, but people do feel that they can air their views and genuine concerns about some aspect of science. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

0 Responses to “Science, openness, and conspiracy theory”

  • Marcus said…
    An example of where scientists fell off this tightrope was the run up to ’switch on’ of the Large Hadron Collider a couple of years ago.

    String theoretical physicist, Prof. Michio Kaku is a very good science communicator. He went on various TV programs to dispel the myth back then that the LHC would have created dangerous mini-black holes.

    “Michio Kaku: Mini Black Holes and the Large Hadron Collider”

    Its good that major TV network in the US frequently interview him on issues relating to science, such as CNN commentaries on the Japanese potential nuclear disaster after the tsunami.

  • Hmmm, conspiracy theories. I was checking out to see if KR had made any more quake predictions (after seeing a comment over on Silly Beliefs & stumbled across an astrology (I think) site where the locals were getting in a tizz over the fact that Ken seems to have removed a whole bunch of posts recently. Only, they said, it couldn’t have been him, it was Them, and They were trying to ‘silence’ KR… I followed the comments thread for a bit & also found a couple of people insisting that They don’t actually want us to know when earthquakes happen (why ever not? inquiring minds want to know!) and so They actively delete quake records from the USGS website.
    After that I was in need of mental cleansing, so I wandered home & made up a new recipe for dinner 🙂

  • “Its good that major TV network in the US frequently interview him on issues relating to science, such as CNN commentaries on the Japanese potential nuclear disaster after the tsunami.”

    Yes, but within reason. His foray into volcanology (commenting on Yellowstone caldera) was not well received by those in the field: Erik Klemetti, who writes the very good Eruptions blog, said:

    “Kiran Chetry decided to interview Michio Kaku, a noted physicist, about the caldera – specifically about the recent findings about the inflation. What happens next is one of the worst interviews about Yellowstone I’ve ever seen – and shows us what happens when you are lazy and don’t get a real expert in the field. Heck, it didn’t even need to be a volcanologist, but I’m sure that they could have found even a geologist for the interview.”

    • Carol’s comment reminds me of my foray into live national radio, with Jim Mora. My brief was that I would be asked a bit about the Large Hadron Collider, which I can do perfectly well to a general audience, despite not being involved with the project first-hand. So I suddenly found myself on air and then Jim asked about this time-travelling baguette thing that had caused a shutdown of the LHC. It was the first I’d heard of it! Unfortunately CERN’s own Twitter page, which I had checked just before for latest updates, hadn’t reported this incident (because it was so trivial) but news of the incident had grabbed someone’s attention and it had gone round the world media that day. So I was pretty flumoxed and gave a very waffly answer which was a bit silly now I look back on it. But then, SO WAS THE QUESTION.

  • Mind you Carol that he’s got interviewed on everything and anything scientific, so there is no surprise that he will make some mistakes on the line. But I think that TV Networks like to get his views because of its generality. He made a comment on Fox News about the BP oil disaster last year. Did they need to get an oil engineer to explain the problem? Nope! Kaku’s explanation was enough, even physicist like Marcus and myself understood what he described the main problem was of how to contain it. He talked about pressure & high school student understood what he said.

    Feynman figured out what was wrong the the mechanics of the Challenger when he investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster in the 1980s. Was he a space rocket engineer? Nope! Every mechanical parts of the Challenger shuttle must operate according to classical mechanics which every physicist pretty damn know. Volcano eruptions do act in accord with classical mechanics, since they’re physical observables, ie, they have momentum, energy, etc,… Sometimes we observe the physical world without quantifying using physical laws (or classical mechanics). These are empirical evidence. The question of hows, can only be well understood via application of those physical laws. We have earthquakes but why? Geologists will say, its the plate-tectonic movements? What causes it? You can’t have some physical observables’ effects that just dropped from the sky. Conservation principles (energy/momentum) must apply. Why is it recurring? What’s its frequency? Can some scientific laws/framework based on empirical observation be deduced from first principle or not? Blah, blah, blah.

  • I see your point, Falafulu. I’m not trying to make a general point talking down physicists here (I wouldn’t dare, on Marcus’s blog!). But in the interview I referred to, Kaku really did make a lot of basic errors.

  • Yes, that’s one thing with media, they should go to specialist in a specific topic rather than trying to get the opinion of a generalist, which regrettably they (generalists) will get it wrong sometimes.

    Anyway, I came across the following collection of references to Plate tectonics conserves angular momentum.

    In fact that document quoted that in fact, the plate tectonic’s motion is governed by angular momentum conservation.

    From section 4 (cut & paste):
    The exceedingly low acceleration/deceleration rates for the Earths tectonic plates clarifies why the early “no net torque” or “dynamical equilibrium” assumptions for global plate reconstructions provided reasonable assessments of the relative magnitudes for 25 possible driving forces (Morgan, 1973; Tullis and Chapplle, 1973; Soloman and Sleep, 1974; Forsyth and Uyeda, 1975). And, also why the concept of large scale mantle convection cells transporting the overriding plates at constant velocities over extended time periods seemed so reasonable. However, the velocity and acceleration data shown in Fig. 4 (4448 and 2046), and those in supplementary material S2, demonstrate that the plates do accelerate and decelerate. Therefore, plate tectonics is governed by conservation of angular momentum. Thus, if the angular momentum of one plate decreases, the angular momentum of some other plates must increase to conserve a constant global angular momentum.

    One point I want to add here is the modeling of conservation laws is quite complex, especially when mass is not a point object but it is distributed over a thin-shell surface area or spherical coordinates, where calculus becomes complicated due to mass being integrated over a certain azimuth angle because the coordinates have changed from Cartesian into spherical due to the earth’s shape (spherical).