'I was framed'

SNOLABAt the Canadian Science Writers’ Association convention in Sudbury, Ontario, our Sunday dinner speaker was American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who presented sample clips from famous sci-fi films. And a whole lot more.

Would you be astonished to learn that the films portray implausible or impossible physics? No? Filmmakers value audience numbers more than atomic numbers. His clips entertained, but did not surprise:.

However, his talk frequently targeted religion and politics: although he professed to respect theists, he offered snarky asides suggesting that fear of science is growing in Canada (because it might damage religion), adding, "In many ways I hope it does, but it wasn't designed to do that."

Dr. Krauss also told the assembled science communicators that in many key science controversies, there is only one side and journalists confuse matters by seeking out both sides.

Not so. New discoveries in science often result from minor, not major, deviations from an expected result. A science can live with minor deviations, but it must remain open to disagreement about what they mean. Here is what Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I said in The Spiritual Brain (2007):

In science, small, persistent effects cannot be ignored. Sometimes they force a revision of major paradigms. For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” on the horizon of Newtonian classical physics of the day, namely, Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was certain that these troubling little clouds would be blown away shortly. Yet all of modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—derives from these two little dark clouds.

Lord Kelvin, move over. I posted my skepticism, and soon heard from Dr. Krauss, as follows:

Needless to say, Ms. O'Leary misunderstood, or mis-represented much of what I said. but I now realize the reason for this, as it seemed she was at the wrong meeting. It was for science writers and not religious writers, which, as far as I can tell from her blog, is what she is. Her conceptions of science, and her understanding of modern issues, seem very confused.
Well, if I misunderstood or misrepresented him, it is curious that my recollections jive with online information. He has written dismissively of traditional religion and trashed Bush science policies.

For the record, Dr. Krauss brought up religion, not me. Curiously, his certainty about the assured end of the (definitely flat) universe and the end of science as part of the preceding Tribulation evoked fundamentalist Bible camps. Later, Dr. Krauss expanded on this "misunderstood, or mis-represented" theme elsewhere, whereupon the moderator replied, defending my reputation as a journalist. Golly, you don’t get many bouquets in this business. But when people slam you for hearing both sides, you are certainly headed in the right direction.

The following Tuesday, I toured SNOLAB - which has observed the electron neutrinos put out by the sun from deep in a Canadian mine (because a great many are mysteriously "missing in action"). SNOLAB is currently being repurposed for further experiments, and SNOLAB Plus, under construction, is attempting to capture a dark matter particle.

Down there, the atmosphere was completely different. The SNOLAB physicists were humble before the facts, which is smart, given that they will be lucky to capture one dark matter particle per year. And they never once brought up religion or politics. While Dr. Krauss considers himself an advocate for science, SNOLAB seemed far more like real science.

This was instructive, but not unusual. Finding "frames" for science that cater to demands for certainty is a growing industry.

But the trend may be peaking. Consider Ida, or Darwinius masillae, the virtually complete "missing link" fossil. The discoverers had hyped the fossil to media for years as a holy Grail that proves human evolution. Unusual behaviour for scientists, and the media sent the frame back to the shop.

That was smart. As Brian Switek explains in The Times Online (May 26, 2009), Ida "may tell us more about the origins of lemurs than our own species." Why? In an assumed split between two ancient primate groups 55 mya, Ida landed on the other side from us. So if she really is the missing link, the previously accepted primate family tree is wrong. But that's no holy Grail; it's just another warning against excess certainty.

Really bad pictures are sometimes marketed in an appealing frame, and the buyer needs good judgement.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


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