How Scientific Ideas Become Fashionable (Part 1)
THERE is no doubt that many people are susceptible to the repetition of a single message. No matter how stupid the message, if enough people say it often enough, a large percentage of those who hear it will begin to believe it. That’s the basis of advertising and also propaganda: it’s how you make ideas fashionable, even scientific ideas. But just because an idea is fashionable doesn’t make it right and just because an idea is right, well it doesn’t mean it represents the truth.
Fashion is in fact the lowest form of ideology and I have little regard for fashionable ideas – even fashionable scientific ideas. I also have little regard for what many claim to be good and wholesome ideas. My interest is in the facts, the evidence – the truth particularly as it pertains to the natural world.
There is intrinsic good in having a deep understanding, based on truths, of aspects of the natural world. For example, it is through understanding electricity – what it is and how it can be generated – that it many of our basic physical needs are now met at the flick of a switch: the lights come on, the house warms up, the kettle boils water. But not everyone studies science to discover useful things, for some it is the chase after facts and the thrill that comes with their discovery, for others an interest in an aspect of the puzzle that is the natural world in the hope of finding order in the universe.
But to be successful at science there is a need for a particular type of discipline – a discipline that is not necessary in many other intellectual pursuits. There is a need to be honest to reality and to always test theory against reality. In this respect science is different from the modern arts.
But science has not always been so different from art. For example, Leonardo da Vinci studied anatomy to become a better artist. That was during a period in Europe when the artist’s goal was assumed to be the representation of reality – of nature. But then a time came when European artists renounced representation as their goal. Art now is about emotion, culture and fashion – few modern day artists attempt to depict the world as it really is. This may or may not be a good thing for art but it clearly makes art something very different from science.
Science is meant to be about reality – it is meant to be about discovery and understanding and truth. Science is not meant to be about emotion or culture or even fashion. But how can you tell whether a conversation about a scientific issue is based on truth or fashion?
Until recently Larvatus Prodeo (LP), one of the first and most popular intellectual and political weblogs in Australia, regularly discussed issues concerning climate change. But I was banned from these discussions. I didn’t regularly visit the weblog, but I do subscribe to the daily e-news from On Line Opinion that used to advertise some of the topics discussed at LP. When I noticed something interesting on climate change I would sometimes click across and sometimes try and place a comment in the often very long comment threads. But my comments never appeared. When LP closed down in April 2012, I made comment at another popular weblog, Skepticlawyer, in a thread about the contribution of LP and weblogs more generally to political and intellectual debate, I comment that I was banned from posting at LP.
Interestingly one of the moderators from LP, Anna Winter, quickly posted that my comments: “got banned from LP because they weren’t adding to the conversation we wanted to have.”
Anna Winters has degrees in philosophy and graphic design and has a particular interest in feminism, politics, ethics, pop culture, fashion magazine and chocolate mudcake. Clearly Ms Winters felt comfortable, and indeed entitled, to block a scientist, myself, from contributing to apparently open and public discussion about an issue of science on the basis of what? Emotion?
In the discussion that ensued at Scepticlawyer it became apparent that not only had I been banned from LP, but that any comment that referenced me, or my weblog, in any way, were also automatically filtered out – censored. Yet most Australian intellectuals assumed that LP was a place of robust debate where all were welcome and that discussions on topics such as climate change would not have automatically excluded a “noted Australian climate change sceptic” – to quote from an article in popular press.
I introduce this anecdote because it shows that even in the most democratic of countries, Australia, on the most democratic of mediums, public and popular weblogs, conversations about science may be heavily moderated such that fashion is favoured over facts – or at least harmony over Socratic discussion.
So how can the average person find out the truth about issues of science, or at least both sides of issues of science that are in dispute?
If you ask most people, even scientists, how they might know something about the natural world, for example what causes coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef or ocean acidification, they will tend to reply with a piece of information, often a fact, that they will claim to have on good authority. For example, they may even quote an expert or a journal article, as though this proves that their fact is the truth.
Then there are those people who will tell a story about the topic often based on an anecdotal reflecting their own past experience.
There will only ever be a small percentage that can explain a phenomenon like ocean acidification from first principles and these experts will often speak in jargon that is unintelligible –unintelligible unless a great deal of self discipline is imposed.
So while there may be an intrinsic good in better understanding aspects of the natural world, or at least getting closer to the truth, its not always easy. And that is assuming that there is no reason for an expert, an institution, a government, or even a weblog, to want to obscure or hide the truth.
1. See ‘The debate platforms of the future: twitter and facebook?’, posted on April 10, 2012 at http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2012/04/10/the-debate-platforms-of-the-future-twitter-and-facebook/
2. See ‘Counterpoint puts boot into Mediawatch’, Nick Leys, March 10, 2012 at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/media/counterpoint-puts-boot-into-mediawatch/story-e6frg996-1226310909357