[Editor’s note: this article was edited to add the disclaimer at the end. A nice meta-lesson in general fact checking as well as science journalism. :)]
The reaction among some American politicians to the recent news that black holes might not exist again reveals how scientifically illiterate they really are.
In The New Yorker American Congressional Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) says this recent news reveals “the danger inherent in listening to scientists, adding “Actually, Dr. Hawking, our biggest blunder as a society was ever listening to people like you … If black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution.” She concludes: “Fortunately for me, I did not take any science classes in college.” Her views were echoed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science Committee, who said, “Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.”
Those who have never taken a science class and never done any serious thinking in their lives have the nerve to criticize those whose abilities and effort led them to the pinnacle of their professions. What kind of world do we live in?
Needless to say anyone who understood anything about science or its method would know that its conclusions are provisional–open to revision based on further evidence. Science does not simply accept something simple shepherds believed in the Eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago. Moreover, the scientifically literate recognize that some parts of science, like theoretical cosmology, are more open to revision than basic biology, chemistry or physics.
Of course it’s also possible that the politicians aren’t really ignorant but actually understand science and just lie for political gain. In that case they are not only illiterate but also immoral. But in the two examples above I’d bet on their just being scientifically illiterate.
As it turns out this “news” about black holes was a classic example. While news reports made this out to be definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.
… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.
Many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.
Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar and trans fats are bad. And of course there is much we don’t yet know. Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.
Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.” Of course scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories were basically mistaken. Radical changes in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare.
So the next time you hear that vitamin D will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while real scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.
Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist and a world-class researcher and authority on lupus. After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by earning a PhD, doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory for nearly 40 years in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He did this by the careful employment of the scientific method.
Anyone can proclaim truth. Actually searching for it is much, much harder.
My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, and athletes combined. I would like to thank him.
Disclaimer: Andy Borowitz is a satirical comedian/political writer who writes articles for The New Yorker, and this New Yorker article was a parody. Thus none of the quotes from Rep. Smith or Ms.Bachmann are real. (However the disdain for and ignorance of science by many politicians is very real.)
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com