Ed#458: It's all Geek to Me

9 May 2014 Melissa Cranenburgh

Ed#458: It's all Geek to Me

For those of us who don’t have a string of impressive letters after our names, it’s not easy to shift someone’s opinion on a scientific ‘fact’. More often than not, it’s an exercise in futility – destined to end in uncomfortable silence. After all, not being a scientist yourself, how are you supposed to convince someone similarly under-qualified that you know any more about a sciencey topic than they do? And even if you are a scientist, I mean, you’re just human right? You don’t have all the answers.

Which is exactly the point. Science ‘facts’ can be so hard to mount a case for because they aren’t simply a case of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. More ‘statistically likely’ or ‘no causal link has been shown’. When scientists have opinions – even those extrapolated from years of research in an area – they still hedge their answers. After all, hypotheses – even well-founded ones – must be interrogated, put under microscopes, tested, retested, then peer-reviewed. And still, they may amount to just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. When all those little puzzle pieces – the work of numerous scientists crunching satellite data, scraping algae off rocks, examining sediment layers or harvesting lichen samples – are fitted together, we start to see a picture. And it’s that picture that leads to a greater understanding of life, the universe and everything.

But when we everyday folk (especially media types, who need to make stuff easily digestible) get our hands on that complex tapestry we start to obscure it. Science is either deified as ‘all-knowing’ or slammed as ‘Bad Science’, with generally no explanation of the complexity behind any ‘results’. Which is not to say that there aren’t instances of science doing an excellent job of confusing things itself. Sometimes scientists get things wrong. Or, worse, vested interests skew conclusions or pressure scientists into particular lines of enquiry. And (to return to my initial point) when it comes right down to it, many of us can’t tell the difference, because we left our Bunsen burner in Year 10 Science class, and never went back. So we rely on better-informed people to help us form opinions.

As Lateline’s Emma Alberici wryly commented after attempting to question Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, on his disbelief in human induced-climate change: “I think the one thing we can agree on is that neither of us are scientists… But I’m just going on people with great reputations around the world... I mean, around the world, there seems to be consensus that it is a man-made phenomena.”

But all this is just a long-winded way of saying, you really must read our cover story, ‘Science Friction’ (p14). The author, Ginger Briggs, discusses the thorny issue of science versus belief – and isn’t shy about taking a side. We’re hoping this article will spark debate on the topic. So we encourage readers to email, tweet or comment on Facebook. We’d love to publish your thoughts on our ‘Your Say’ page.

And let’s not forget our nerdy coverboy, with the Brit-pop hair cut. British scientist Brian Cox may look like a pop star – even was one back in the 1990s – but his real ‘star’ appeal is as a particle physics professor and creator of wildly popular science shows like The Wonders of the Universe. He’ll be coming to Australia in October, but you can get a head start swotting up on your Cox trivia with our article ‘The Life of Brian’ (p18). And, in honour of Professor Cox, I’ll leave you to contemplate this exchange between the not-so-savvy Zack and uber-nerd Sheldon from TV’s The Big Bang Theory.

Zack: Is that the laser? It’s bitchin’.

Sheldon: Yes. In 1917, when Albert Einstein established the theoretic foundation for the laser in his paper ‘Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung’, his fondest hope was that the resultant device be bitchin’.

Associate Editor, Melissa Cranenburgh