Friday, July 17, 2009

Innoculating truth

Yesterday I caught up with the latest developments in the absurd case against Simon Singh. If you haven't already signed the associated petition, I urge you strongly to do so, and to encourage your friends and acquaintances to do so, too.

It got me thinking. One of the problems that science faces is that it deals with often complex situations, situations that have no simple, single yes/no, black/white outcome.

In contrast, the entire collection of made-up baloney on the unscientific side of the fence is very clear-cut and simple: all human ills are caused by subluxations (chiropractic), energy imbalances (reiki and similar nonsense), toxins (a whole host of bollocks non-therapies), and so on and on; your personality is determined less by a combination of genes and social environment, and more by the random positions of a collection of stars and planets at the time of your birth; and lets not forget the absolute certainty with which people assert the existence of their gods.

Science struggles because it doesn't fit so well into such absolutist frameworks. That's why the ignorant think they have scored a great intellectual victory when they spout such tripe as "remember, the theory of evolution is just a theory". They seem incapable of understanding the power of the scientific position. Scientists don't often say "This is absolutely true". They tend to say "This is the best model that we have developed so far". Idiots take this to mean that the current scientific model is therefore worthless, ignoring the fact that many scientific theories allow incredibly accurate predictions to be made, despite only being our "best approximation to date".

When scientific news is announced in the press, the truth is often lost because the detail gets squished in a black/white framework for which it is ill-suited. Journalists aren't interested in understanding the complexity. They don't want to know the details. They just want to be able to report that a new drug has been developed that will cure cancer, AIDS, obesity, or whatever else they think will sell the paper.

I've been pondering whether there is any way that scientific information can be innoculated so that it can survive exposure to the media without having its core message corrupted. Sadly, new age bullshit and religions all seem capable of surviving such exposure. So how can science be handled so that it becomes immune to corruption by the agendas of those reporting on it?

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