Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Books: Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and Scams


Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and Scams
By Darryl Cunningham

Available now from Islington Libraries
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Like Jesse Pinkman says: "Yeah Science!" [1]

Confession: I am not a science-skeptic. I haven't actually done any real proper actual test-tubes and bunsen burner proper science since I finished by Science GCSE however many years ago [2] although every now and again I do like reading a Non-Fiction Popular Science book [3] but - hell - that doesn't stop me from rushing to defend the many virtues of science whenever a conversation calls for it and godamnit - from my own experiences at least - there always seems to be lots of people willing to cast doubt and aspersions on the (wipes away a solitary tear) good name of science (or maybe I just need new friends? I dunno). 

And while most people aren't as exterme to actually say anything as massively knuckle-headed as: "what has science ever done for us?[4]" there's still this kinda pervasive feeling embedded in our society that science - and by extenstion: scientists - aren't to be trusted completely. I mean - yeah sure - give us the cars and ipods and the fullscreen, wafer-thin, colour televisions: but - please - keep all the rest of that Scientific-method-mumbo-jumbo to yourselves yeah? Like (good example): all that fuss and nonsense that was kicked up when Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland went online and everyone got freaked out that it was going to create a miniature black hole or second big bang (depending on whose crazy theory you wanted to believe [5]): that kinda of reaction isn't really the sort that you'd get in a society that respects the idea of science and thinks that (by-and-large) people should just let scientists do all the crazy science stuff that they wanna do [6].

Of course there are reasons (some good, some bad) why most people nowadays are suspcious of anyone wearing a white lab coat: like Darryl Cunningham points out in this book: ""There is little argument anymore over the shape of the Earth [7] or the role of micro-organisms in disease. But more difficult concepts, such as quantum mechanics, need a high level of specialist knowledge to be properly understood... so these areas remain the domain of scientists." And continuing that thought - yeah: back in the day - it didn't really take that much to describe to someone how gravity works (just drop an apple to the ground right?) or where rain comes from (anyone else remember drawing the water cycle at school or is it just me?) but nowadays - the things around us have gotten - well - a little more complicated. It used to be natural for people to be able to take apart the things they owned (like say - a car) and tinker around and fix them up because things were much easier to grasp and make sense of (like: everyone has some idea of how an engine works - right?): but nowadays - hey - if your ipod breaks down - are you gonna prise it apart and tinker around with it's insides - or are you just gonna take it to the apple store or whatever? Because (and here comes my point) - how the hell does an ipod even work anyway? How do they squash all those millions of songs into such a small little pod? Do they make them all hold their breath? Is it done by sprinkling them with fairy dust? Or miniature tractor beams? I have literally no idea. I mean - I know - yeah: computers and all that and ones and zeroes - but apart from that: well - I hate to fall back on that old obvious Arthur C Clarke quote [8] but yeah: if you asked me how does an ipod work I would probably just have to say it's magic (which is just another way of saying: I have no idea). Because more and more everything around us is getting taken over and becoming - well - an area of specialist knowledge [9]. It's now humanly impossible to get to grips with all the nuts and bolts of the modern world, to have read everything - to know how everything works and - well - to know all the science. And I guess that's why non-scientists (and I'd include myself in that category) tend to be a little - fearful? distrustful? moody? - when it comes to dealing with scientists: because they've got - yeah - the "specialist knowledge" and there's no real way for them to be able to explain it to us in simple terms ("You see this apple? Now watch what happens when I let go of it...") because - well - there are no simple terms anymore - things have got so advanced and so strange and so damn complicated - that there's no longer any easy way to explain things.

Of course - one of the best way to explain things to people (if not the best way) is with - ah - stories (and yeah I'm gonna demonstrate that with a story): my literary flatmate [10] saw an episode of Horizon a week or so ago ("Eat, Fast and Live Longer") that was all about how not eating food (or "fasting" as others like to call it) can help people live longer. And - hey - everyone wants to live longer - right? [11]. And since that point (obviously I guess seeing how he's so suggestible) he's been living the life of somesort of Jedi monk and surviving on cups of tea and bottles of water. But what was it that swung him into a life of food denial and hunger pangs? It wasn't just that there were sciencists on the television saying that they thought it was a good idea ("I mean - what the hell? Who needs to eat food anyway it's just stuff right?"). I mean - yeah - they were scientists and they were on a TV programme on the BBC so that gave them a certain air of legitimacy - but the first way he tried to describe it to me was by telling me a story: "You see what it is - is that there's these chemicals in your body that get turned on whenever you eat something and these chemicals or whatever get burned up really quickly because your body is always in "grow" mode and actually it's better when your body is not in "grow" mode because that way you not burning through all your cells and stuff." [12] That lead me to thinking: that maybe it's not so much that people don't trust scientists so much - but maybe because of the complexities of today's modern world - people are only willing to believe what they're able to make sense of: and the best way to make sense of things is to explain them with a little story. If Horizon had just been people saying: "Fasting is a good idea - and hey: just trust us on this - we're scientists." Then I doubt that my literary flatmate (or anyone else) would have (hah) swallowed what they were saying: but the fact that they used little stories to back it up ("Your cells do this stuff") makes it much easier to comphrend and - well - believe [13]. 

If you're still with me then: if you want to make people believe stuff then you need to tell them stories. Which I guess is why Darryl Cunningham decided to call his book: "Science Tales." Picking it up for the first time I had no idea who Darryl Cunningham was [14] apart from - hey the cover looks kinda nifty and - well - "Yeah Science!": and it's kinda nice how it just drops you in from the get-go with a massive thunder storm that leads into a quick discussion of the ins-and-outs of Electroconvulsive therapy [15] before leaping on to things like homeopathy, the moon landings and evolution. The general pattern of things is that Cunningham will say that a bunch of people believe something that's anti-science (for example: "science is rubbbish") and will then use a few observations and little shocking anecdotes (the case of Penelope Dingle is particularly sad) to prove that - hey actually: science isn't rubbish.

The thing is (and I'm hoping this is the point where I tie everything together): science is - well - better than having to be reduced to stories. There's a thing called the scientific method ("systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.") that is basically how and why we can understand so much about the world and end up creating things like cars and ipods and the fullscreen, wafer-thin, colour televisions and the reason why all the scientific theories it gives up are true [16]. The thing that science doesn't need to do is to tell little stories and rely on anecdotal evidence to back itself up because - well - frankly: it's better than that and anecdotal evidence (not to put too fine of a point on it) is the language of the enemy. When someone says: well my nan's been smoking for a hundred years and she's fine: well - that's not really the language of science. Science is more about looking at a thousand nans and weighing up all their smoking together.

Which kinda puts me in a strange position: because altho me and Darryl Cunningham are kinda on the same "Yeah Science!" side: Science Tales left me a little - well - nonplussed. Because even tho I think that books about science and books acting for science are a good idea and something I'd like to see more of I - well - question the methods that Darryl Cunningham uses here. Of course - I might just be being super-harsh (it has been known). Maybe the intended audience of this book is more teenagers who just want to know what all this science-stuff is about. And hey if someone like that picks up this book and gets into the whole science-stuff then I guess that can only be a good thing.

But yeah: I don't know: it all just feels a little bit lightweight. Like it's not much more than the words on the pages and the pictures are just there to make things pretty. And if we're just vauling it on the words themselves: well: if this wasn't a comic - it would be a really short little book. The art is a bit Scott McCloud-light (and I was in no way surprised to see Scott get a little mention in the acknowledgements): but unlike Scott McCloud's ever-thoughtful comic skills (which may appear simple but actually manages to spin a whole bunch of different plates). There's a quote at the start of the book from Michael Specter: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however everyone is not entitled to their own facts."and I wish that the book had more of that kind of hard edge: less of the softy-softy with the stories and more: this is RIGHT and this is WRONG. But hell: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar I guess. But a whole book of honey is just a little too sweet for my particular tastes.

So: colour me disappointed. Oh well.

[1] If you somehow haven't seen Breaking Bad yet - well: I suggest you start. 

[2] Although I would anyone reading to know that I was super-amazing at science. So much so that in my last few years of GCSEs I used to end up messing around more and more (and my classmates Swan and Lacie are mostly to blame for that: so thanks for that guys) up until the point that our teacher (whose name I can't remember how to spell and won't attempt at this point - so she's safe for now) got so angry at me that she called me out and said if I was going to talk so much - how would I like to come up front and teach the class? So I was all like: hell yeah. Walked up to the front - grabbed the textbook and did about 10 minutes teaching after which I sat down (and I realise that this is most probably the egotistical side of mind embellishing things a little): to thunderous applause. Moral of the story: Yeah Science!

[3] Highlights include: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene ("In a rare blend of scientific insight and writing as elegant as the theories it explains, Brian Greene, one of the world's leading string theorists, peels away the layers of mystery surrounding string theory to reveal a universe that consists of eleven dimensions, where all matter is generated by the vibrations of microscopically tiny loops of energy."), A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy Of Godel And Einstein by Palle Yourgrau ("By 1949, Gödel had produced a remarkable proof: In any universe described by the Theory of Relativity, time cannot exist. Einstein endorsed this result-reluctantly, since it decisively overthrew the classical world-view to which he was committed. But he could find no way to refute it, and in the half-century since then, neither has anyone else. Even more remarkable than this stunning discovery, however, was what happened afterward: nothing.") and - but of course: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre ("We are constantly bombarded with inaccurate, contradictory and sometimes even misleading information. Until now. Ben Goldacre masterfully dismantles the dodgy science behind some of the great drug trials, court cases and missed opportunities of our time, but he also goes further: out of the bullshit, he shows us the fascinating story of how we know what we know, and gives us the tools to uncover bad science for ourselves.").

[4] "TV off."

[5] And - if you're curious - you can check this handy little website to see if the Large Hadron Collider has destroyed the world yet.

[6] Just to be perfectly clear on this point: I like scientists and think that scientists should be allowed to do science (provided that you know: it's ethical and isn't going to destroy us all - so: bombs and stuff = bad; cruel and unnecessary animal testing = bad; evil nazi experiments = bad) and of course - if scientists start altering their results because they're being paid by third parties or because they have ulterior motives or stuff like that - then - well: I wouldn't really consider them to really meet the defintion of "scientists" anymore - the same way that someone isn't really a "doctor" if they go around making people sick - yeah?

[7] Gotta say tho: I would have thought that the reason we know the world is round is due more to explorers like Magellan and Columbus: I would have gone more for - we know that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way round - but that's less easy to depict visually so - whatever.

[8] "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

[9] There's a book I've seen on our shelves called: The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone (I thought that meant that Thomas Young was the last person who had read every book in existence up to the point he was alive but if you go ahead and google the "last man to have read everything" you'll get a few different answers including: Coleridge and Kant) but this is just to say: how crazy is it that the was once a time where it was possible to read every book in the world? I mean now I'm guessing it would be beyond the limits of anyone alive today to be able to read 1% of all the books currently available: and the thought of 100% - well: there's just too much stuff in the world.

[10] Who recently has taken to spell-checking and proof-reading my old posts on here - so big thanks for that literary flatmate!

[11] That well-used Woody Allen quote: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

[12] Or something like that. I can't actually remember the exact details. In fact a better example came a few days later when I was talking to one of my girlfriend's friend's boyfriends and it turned out that he had seen the same Horizon and was thinking of becoming a fasting convert and his story/reason of believing was that on the programme it had said that in the Great American Depression there was a whole bunch of people who survived it by eating very little who went on to live way beyond their average life expectancy: reason being that not having so much food all the time is good for your body blah blah blah.

[13] Of course (oh the irony) the real story is a lot more complicated than that: literary flatmate didn't just take Horizon at it's word and did do some reading up on the internet of scientific papers (etc) to see if they were telling the truth. Plus: in a sense taking scientists at their word is kinda already buying into the whole scientific narrative thing. So - yeah - well: whatever. Let's not let that stuff get in the way of a good story.

[14] In fact - now I think of it: I still don't know who Darryl Cunningham is. Is he a scientist? Or a cartoonist? Or both? Did he start off doing one and then switched to the other or what? What are his credentials damnit? (I guess I should have asked before I let him in the door).

[15] Durdur! Durdur-durdur! Durdur-durdur!

[16] Or (if you really wanna be pedantic about it): you know - true enough. As close to truth as we can get. Whatever.

Links: Independent Review.

Further reading: xkcd, Feynman, Logicomix, Asterios Polyp, Understanding Comics, Couch Fiction.

All comments welcome.

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