Issue 30 / 10 August 2015

AMERICAN astrophysicist and all-round media star Neil deGrasse Tyson has been talking up a storm on his current Australian tour.
A passionate advocate for science and science education, Dr Tyson last week argued that we need a more scientifically literate population and — even more importantly — political leadership.
“One of the great tragedies of modern society is that you have politicians cherry picking science in the interests of social, cultural, political, religious belief systems and that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy”, he said on last week’s ABC Q&A program
Dr Tyson isn’t opposed to people holding whatever wacky views they want. He just thinks “if your belief is not based in objective truths, you should not be creating legislation based on it”.
Interesting to wonder what he would have made of the federal government’s plans to appoint a “windfarm commissioner” to investigate complaints about turbines, despite the absolute lack of evidence for detrimental health effects.
To be fair, Dr Tyson doesn’t hold the politicians entirely to blame for scientifically illiterate decisions, suggesting there is something missing in an education system that produces people without a proper understanding of what science is and how and why it works.
“If you come out with that understanding, then you are incapable of cherry picking science”, he said on Q&A. “Imagine you gained weight last week and you want to repeal the law of gravity because you weigh more because of it.”
He may not believe it’s possible to repeal the law of gravity, but Dr Tyson is definitely gung-ho when talking about what science might be able to achieve.
Some might question his suggestion that in the future we will be able to suck all the energy from a hurricane and use it to power the city that would otherwise have been razed by the storm, for example.
Or the idea that shortage of resources won’t be an issue in the future because we’ll be able to get everything we need from asteroids.
But, hey, he’s a dreamer…
What I find most compelling about Dr Tyson’s arguments is his powerful defence of the importance of basic research, especially given the increasing pressures for all investigations to have clear and predictable real-world applications.
So often in medicine and other areas of science the major breakthroughs come as unexpected consequences of apparently unrelated discoveries, as Dr Tyson makes clear.
“Before Wilhem Röntgen discovered X rays, he wasn’t thinking, How can I create a medical device?” he said in an article in The New Yorker last year.
And on the ABC's PM program last week, he waxed lyrical about the myriad offshoots from an obscure finding about the stimulated emission of radiation made by a certain Albert Einstein early in the 20th century.
That was the founding paper on what we now know as lasers, with all their applications in medicine, electronics and industry, though nobody would have known that at the time.
“Are you saying, ‘no I don’t know how you would ever use this research so let’s not do it because I have to know right now what the eternal application of this discovery will be’”, Dr Tyson asked.
“What you are doing is you are burying, you are destroying the seed corn of truly revolutionary science and technology that could take this country into the next century and lead the world.
“Without it you will dance the tune played by others who have the insight of how to make those kinds of investments.”
Dancing to our own tune would require a political leadership that truly understands the nature of scientific research. 
Well, like Dr Tyson, we can always dream …
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

8 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Science dream

  1. Sue Ieraci says:

    Thanks for the article, Jane. It’s interesting to see the various forces at play on this very comment thread. Those who don’t want to accept what scientific evidence points to accuse others of so-called “scientism” – as if evidence were the same as belief or faith.

    Our very successful system of conventional medicine may not all be based on RCT evidence, but it is based on the fundamental and the clinical sciences. We go to medical school to learn biochemistry, anatomy, physiology and pathology – essentially these teach us how the body works. While we certainly don’t know everything, we have directly imaged and measured such phenomena as cellular organelles and cardiac action potential durations.

    So, when we say that homeopathic “remedies” (ultra-dilute solutions that can’t be shown to contain any therapeutic substance) are simple implausible, it’s not on the basis of belief, arrogance or narrow-mindedness, but simply an intimate knowledge of how the body works. Similarly, climate scientists proceed from an intimate knowledge of how climate works – not from faith or belief. I don’t have the intimate knowledge to know their area better than them.

    That’s not to say that all therapeutic questions are answered unequivocally by science – we are still debating things as widely disparate as stroke treatment and statins. That is partly because scientific evidence and the body of knowledge accumulates and evolves over time. This stands in contrast to beliefs, which remain fixed.

  2. Ediriweera Desapriya says:

    Great post and thank you Jane for your valuable perpectives on this important issue. I believe that we need to understand importance of  best evidence as well as common sense, when making decision on certain things in this world. When you have both perspectives in balance, we can make better decisons for us as well as for betterment of our communities. Ironically, what is happenning today is that most of us, those who love evidence based practices, sometimes ignore the value of common sene perspective.

  3. Richard Middleton says:

    @Philip Dawson..

    Calling somebody “scientifically illiterate” or just plain dumb, is reasonable if that is the truth and they are opining on something about which they clearly know nothing, or worse, are bluntly lying.

  4. Guy Hibbins says:

    What passes for misinformation is often deliberate disinformation paid for by those seeking to avoid regulation.

    In Merchants of Doubt a 2010 non-fiction book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik M. Conway of NASA. It identifies parallels between the global warming controversy and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, passive smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case “keeping the controversy alive” by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.

    It is well established for example that the tobacco industry knew by the early 1950s that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, but sought to obfuscate this by claiming that any link was unproven.  Oreskes and Conway document how this pattern has been repeated in subsesquent controversies, most recently in relation to climate change.  

    The similar tactics in each case: “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt”.

  5. Farmey Joseph says:

    I agree with Philip Dawson.  Too often when people quote “science”, they are anything but scientific.  

    “Science” (as a generic concept) does not prove anything.  There is scientific evidence for and against a hypothesis.  If you can’t describe in detail the specific scientific evidence that supports your hypothesis, then don’t claim to have “science” on your side.  Even more so, don’t accuse people who have a different view of being “unscientific”, when those people probably know more about the actual scientific evidence than you do.  

    Yes, I’m thinking of climate change alarmism here, which has been previously propogated in this journal (despite purporting to be a medical journal).

    As Richard Lindzen writes: science is a mode of inquiry, not a source of authority.  It would be best for the author to keep this principle in mind before making thinly veiled accusations against those with a different view to her own.





  6. Leigh Dayton says:

    I dream of evidence-based government policy…

  7. Hamish C M Foster (FRACS) says:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is a brilliant advocate for what the planet needs most…………an educated scientifically savvy population who can elect unbiased scientifically educated leaders to run society on reasonable scientific and humane principles, as well as promoting the advancement of basic scientific knowledge and bebeficial technological advances derived from those advances.

    We might even see a reduction in religious and political conflict, war and waste on preparing for war, appropriate population control and a resultant high improvement in living standards worldwide.

    ( Abolish State governments in Australia, and we would really be in utopia!)

    But alas, not even the basic principles of scientific method are widely understood.

    Even worse, many human brains seem to have an affinity for legends, half-truths, fairy stories, emotional narratives and theories without any basis in verifiable evidence.

    Dr Tyson is a brave and optomistic scientist, whom we must fully support.  Where can we find a few million more like him to improve the way humans live?


  8. Philip Dawson says:

    calling people “scientifically illeterate” when they disagree with you for good reasons is called the “ad hominem” logical fallacy, or in common parlance “playing the man not the ball”. this is not a scientific way of conducting public discussion. The other logical fallacy is ” argunmebt form authority” , or in common parlance I am a scientist and I know what I am talking about and you dont so just be quiet and listen! In medicine the idea that the opinion of eminent specialists in the field is of any use was disabused years ago, in the evidence based medicine hierarchy it is the lowest level of evidence, shown in controlled trials to be no better than tossing a coin. Why should it be any different in other areas of science? the idea that spending a lot of money despoiling the countryside and the shore with windfarms will improve the supply of electricity, reduce use of fossil fuel burning and somehow be beneficial to society is unproven, and both Germany and Denmark, which have invested heavily in windmills, have both stopped because all they do is raise the price of electricity to unaffordable levels for the poor ( resuling in energy poor people dying of cold in their harsh northern winters, which havent improved by the promised/threatened 2 degress of warming), and have NOT reduced fossil fuel burning due to the need to keep the coal fired stations running in case the wind doesnt blow. Which it doesnt on those cold still frosty winter nights. If scientists and Governments around the world are serious about reducing fossil fuel burning ( which i submit by their actions they are not), the answers are here-fourth generation nuclear, and in the interim convert all gas and petrol plants/large vehicles to LNG for a 30% saving

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