Can scientists speak truth to power when they aren’t in the business of “truth”?

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Can Science Speak Truth to Power?

For SIAM News:

Since the onset of COVID-19, government messaging has been scattershot at best. In the meantime, epidemiologists, public health experts, and other members of the scientific community have struggled to communicate accurate information to the public — sometimes without adequate data (see Figure 1). To further complicate matters, many of these same scientists are paid with public money in the form of grants or beholden to corporate funding. Additionally, the priorities of civil leaders do not always align with those of public health efforts, and scientists themselves are not apolitical machines and thus have their own biases.

These conflicts and confusions are particularly problematic during a global pandemic, but it doesn’t take a virus to reveal the presence of fissures in a world where people perform both science and public policy. Climate change, nuclear weapons, space exploration, deep-sea mining, endangered species protections, and garbage disposal are only a small sample of areas in which scientific issues overlap—or conflict—with governmental priorities.

“More scientists these days acknowledge that we are not those who are elected by the public,” Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said. “We understand that the policy decisions that politicians and governments make depend on more than just the scientific evidence that we present.”

Read the rest at SIAM News


The white scientist versus the African teenager

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A Rationalist’s Irrationality

Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk?

For Slate:

Richard Dawkins is not your garden-variety Internet troll. He’s a retired professor at Oxford University and the author of a number of well-received, best-selling books on science and atheism. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most-read popular accounts of evolution, and it introduced the term “meme,” long before Internet cats, as a way to express how ideas spread and evolve. In other words, he’s as establishment as they come. He is no fringe conspiracy-monger lurking in the anonymous cave of message boards and comment sections.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he is, based on his willingness to say offensive things on social media, often at the expense of non-famous people. In the latest iteration, he proposed the notion—just as a simple “what if”—that Ahmed Mohamed got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get money and attention. [Read the rest at Slate….]

As a personal aside, I expected some pushback over this piece, and I certainly got it. At present, there are nearly 1000 comments at Slate, and I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me angry messages on Twitter. However, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses as well, and despite a few people declaring they’ll never read a thing of mine again, I hope I haven’t driven too many away. It’s been an interesting 24 hours, to put it mildly.

One thing I did find interesting though was the various interpretations of the piece. I wrote a critique of a prominent scientist and science communicator, and intended it to be nothing more or less than that. It wasn’t a critique of atheism (though some took it that way), or a defense of religion in general or Islam in particular (though some took it that way). I personally am uninterested in debating those things in the abstract. Ideas are always fair game for criticism in my view, but people are only fair game in inverse proportion to their vulnerability. Thus, the powerful and the privileged are tough kids and can handle a little harsh truth if they need it. Picking on the poor, the minority, those whose voices are not widely respected is at best bullying.

Systems that privilege some and deny others demand criticism, which means yes! the practice of religion is definitely a legitimate target for criticism where it deserves it. But to say that any random practitioner of a religion — a child, say — is fair game because you don’t like some of the tenets of that religion? I can’t follow you there. Someone who uses political office to enforce their religious beliefs on another is leveraging power and privilege; an atheist like Dawkins with many listeners and a stable social position can also leverage power over others, albeit a less direct form of power. The privilege and power are the enemies when they are misused, and I think people of goodwill can unite in that cause, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.

Unless you’re a werewolf, the full Moon isn’t to blame for your problems

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Get Over Your Full Moon Fears

From The Daily Beast:

The full Moon is making everyone crazy. More people get arrested when the Moon is full.
The new Moon is making everyone depressed.

Maybe you’ve heard things like that. Maybe you’ve said them yourself. It seems plausible that the second-brightest thing in the sky, the closest astronomical body to Earth, and the object largely responsible for the tides, could cause measurable changes in human behavior. After all, some animals coordinate their behaviors with the phase of the Moon.

As a result of this style of thinking, hospital workers will sometimes claim more births or injuries happen, police will notice more arrests, mental health professionals will feel their clients change behaviors, and so forth, depending on the Moon’s phase. Despite that, repeated studies have shown no strikingly different behavior: there aren’t big differences in car wreck frequency, births, murders, or depression incidents between the new Moon and full Moon. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

The week in review (October 20-26)

Evidently, Nicole "the Noisy Astronomer" Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?" [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

Evidently, Nicole “the Noisy Astronomer” Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

I had a wonderful time at GeekGirlCon; thanks again to Dr. Rubidium, AKA Nick Fury, for putting together the DIY Science Zone, and to everyone who made it a great event. I have a more formal wrap-up post in the works, but in the meantime, have some science writing.

  • The river of spacetime (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to my earlier post, I extended the metaphor of dynamic spacetime. If spacetime is the river, gravity is the current, carrying matter and light along with it.
  • New type of quantum excitation behaves like a solitary particle (Ars Technica): In materials, the relevant entities aren’t particles, but quasiparticlesThese are quantum excitations that have mass, charge, spin, and all that jazz, but those properties depend on the specifics of the material…and of external influences. So, physicists would like to create quasiparticles that are less finicky, and behave more like free, solitary particles. That type of excitation is a leviton, and experimenters created them for the first time, as described in this new paper.
  • Taking Measure: A ‘New’ Most Distant Galaxy (Universe Today): It seems that every week, we see a new “most distant galaxy” announcement. However, this new find is special for two reasons: it’s a rare case where astronomers have measured the distance accurately using the galaxy’s spectrum, and the specific galaxy is producing new stars at a much higher rate than expected. Also, this is my first contribution to Universe Today!
  • For the love of Gauss, please stop (Galileo’s Pendulum): A somewhat ranting post in which I get grumpfy about the over-use and misuse of certain examples from the history of science in popular science writing.
  • What do we call a theory that is no longer viable? (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to that previous post, I ponder better ways to think about the history of science, and propose (somewhat seriously) a term to describe theories that were once viable, but are now ruled out by evidence.

The New Yorker recently started “Elements”, a science and technology blog. Their most recent contributor is…me! I covered a strange little controversy begun when the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a professional society with over 10 thousand members, decided to pick a fight with a company offering a contest to name exoplanets. That company, Uwingu, decided to fight back, and the exchange highlighted a set of philosophical questions about who gets to name new worlds.

However, the International Astronomical Union, a society of professional astronomers, strongly disapproves of the entire concept, and published a statement to that effect (though without mentioning Uwingu by name). According to its Web site, the I.A.U.’s tasks include serving “as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them.” The process of naming new objects is complicated (the Web précis of the document is itself formidable), and the I.A.U. press release claims exclusive rights to decide what a planet is called—even over the wishes of the scientist or scientists who discovered it. [Read more…]

Now, can I get a picture of Eustace Tilley wearing a bowler hat?

Who names the exoplanets? Who gets to decide?