Monday, January 24, 2011

trust him, he's a nurse

I have had a bit of a pop at the current state of the venerable BBC science magazine Horizon in the past, and I stand by most of that, but full marks for at least being clear and un-woolly in tonight's programme (Science Under Attack) about difficulties with the public perception of science. Presenter Sir Paul Nurse is quite right that there is a presentational problem, and that broadly it can be summarised as:
  • science is hard, and the answers are usually quite rightly hedged about with error bars and degrees of uncertainty that don't play well with Joe Public, who just wants to know WHETHER HIS RUDDY SAUSAGES WILL GIVE HIM RUDDY CANCER OR NOT, and if these boffins can't even answer that, well, I don't know, I really don't;
  • scientists aren't particularly good at PR; a lot of them have beards and wear sandals, for goodness' sake;
  • science journalists are, in the main, lazy incompetent mendacious shits
That is indeed a problem. What is emphatically not a problem is whether any of the feculent fuckwitted conspiracy theory horseshit spouted by the likes of James Delingpole has any scientific merit, because it doesn't, and to his credit Nurse is pretty unequivocal about that. If you watch nothing else from the link to the full programme, watch the couple of minutes from 40:04 onwards, as Delingpole reveals his methods for determining the truth of claims about the complex climate data, viz. lounging about reading stuff on the internet: "I am an interpreter of interpretations.". Really, if you're latching onto the laughably inconsequential Climategate leaked e-mails as your best weapon in the debate then you really have lost the plot. I don't dispute that it was a PR own goal, by the way, which just illustrates the points above, but a "scandal"? No. Frankly most of my private e-mails aren't fit for publication in a national newspaper either. Particularly the ones where I call my small blog readership utter cunts; those must never see the light of day, for obvious reasons.

Nurse devoted most of the show to climate change denialism, and fair enough, so he only had a few minutes to devote to things like HIV/AIDS denialism, and no time at all for equally barking stuff like creationism and vaccine lunacy. Probably just as well.


Richard T said...

Indeed and it would probaly be too much to hope that James Delingpole might take on board Mr Attlee's request to Harold Laski - a period of silence from you would be most welcome (to the best of my memory).

The Black Rabbit said...

We saw this n all. Good, wa'nt it?!

I think the best part of the prog was Delingpole's (st)utter(ing)inability to deal with Nurse's rather strange* analogy of medical consensus (to compare to climate scientists consensus). (28:29 onwards)

*Most cancer patients will tell you that there is rarely any bloody consensus in oncology - or indeed the NHS as a whole for that matter!)

But anway - I digress.

He (Delingpole) was almost there - consensus does indeed have nothing do to with science - or facts at all for that matter.

He (Delingpole) could have retorted along the lines of "Well, if we're going to go down the weird analogy route - I don't believe in any supreme being, god or gods either - no matter what the majority of the world's popular agreement or general consensus is"

But. He didnt - he just made himself look like the beginnings of a moron (which as you say, he finished off magnificently after 40:00 by admitting he didn't really actually have the time to read anything of scientific value).

Nurse should have ended it there!

electrichalibut said...

Well, deciding where to attack is a problem, as there are almost too many options.

The most obvious area of ridiculousness to me is simply that for any of what Delingpole says to even have a chance of being true would require a conspiracy of roughly similar magnitude to the "NASA faked the moon landings" one, which science's built-in error correction and HUMAN RUDDY NATURE ensure can never happen.

And yet the moon landing loons are branded (correctly) as loons, while global warming denialism is treated with at least politeness, if not respect. It's odd.

Oh, and Delingpole is a big posh twat as well, which is just inherently annoying, regardless of what he's actually saying.

The Black Rabbit said...

Do you regard AGW as the most pressing issue we face bate?

Big question I know.

Take your time.
We're all rootin' for you!

electrichalibut said...

Sorry, I've just been catching up on some old comments and I'd missed this one.

AGW is inextricably bound up with a whole raft of issues; rising CO2 levels, sea ice retreat, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, overpopulation, fossil fuels, what to replace fossil fuels with, and so on and so on. Because it's necessarily a gradual and long-term process it's not the sort of thing our primitive monkey brains have evolved to formulate a proportionate response to, as we're generally far more inclined (and understandably so) to prioritise our short-term survival. There is a slightly paradoxical edge to it as well, in that while it's the developed nations that need to implement change, it's the least developed and privileged nations that will feel the pinch if we don't: Tuvalu is already starting to slurp beneath the waves, and Bangladesh will be fucked before too long it we're not careful.

So in the short term is it the most likely threat to my immediate health and welfare? No; religious fundamentalism is far more likely to render the planet a scorched and uninhabitale wasteland in my lifetime, whether it be by Ahmadinejad deciding to speed up his passage to the afterlife and all those willing virgins by nuking Jerusalem, or Sarah Palin getting elected president and attacking Russia by accident.

Long-term, though: yes. 2300 will be as different from 2000 as 2000 was from 1700, possibly more so. Unless of course we're all living on Mars by then. It's the FINAL COUNTDOWN, do do dooo doooo....