Monday, 26 May 2014

A sociologist, a scientist, and a slow leak

For everyone waiting since Friday to hear Harry Collins's answer to my question on how to correctly identify scientific experts, and thus save human society from otherwise inevitable descent into chaos, you'll have to wait a bit longer, while I tell you about our journey to the Hay Festival. We had other issues to resolve first.

We started from Cardiff in the middle of Friday afternoon, in a rental car with a slow leak in one tire. The tire was already slightly flat when we left. We would have pumped it up at the first petrol station, if I hadn't distracted Harry with my statement of disbelief that there could ever have existed serious bona fide intellectuals who really believed that science is merely a social construct.

"There certainly were," he said.

I was shocked.

He added, "I was one of them."

I was horrified.

He added more: "I still am."

I was outraged. I was also terrified. This man was driving the car, and all of the doors were locked.

He added yet more: "And you won't be able to convince me otherwise."

All right, so this was going to be my chance to get out alive. Could I argue him down from his philosophical ledge? A ledge he'd been leering over for decades?

By the time we passed Pontypridd, I could see I was doomed. His argument was irrefutable. Science is done by human beings, and the human brain is about as rational as an electrified cabbage. And the kicker: if it was any other way, if the human brain was really an especially even-tempered computer, then science would be impossible, because computers have no creativity and no imagination.

Then he remembered the tire, and we pulled over at the next gas station. Maybe I should make a run for it? He must have been reading my irrational mind. He gave me a look that said, "Go ahead. We're deep in the Valleys now. You won't get far alive." I knew he was right. With his real voice he offered me what I took to be an offer of financial payment in return for survival: "The air pump needs 50p. Do you have any change?"

He pumped up the tire, and we continued. I tried to press on with my argument. As we sped over the winding road through the Brecon Beacons, the way ahead obscured by dark meteorological constructs, I thought I found a technicality.

In my desperation I was pleading, "Saying that science is a mere social artifact implies that it is useless."

He pounced on the word "merely". "I never said science was useless! Those people from the Humanities might have, but not me. Why else do you think I'm so interested now in scientific expertise?"

Aha, perhaps this was the way to win? "But this is why so many people mistrust science," I said. I thought I had him. "You might not have said that, but the general public misunderstood it that way."

Was it time now for an admission of guilt and a full confession?

No. He just laughed. "But the general public misunderstand everything."

What an arrogant, snobbish, elitist thing to say! It went against everything I held dear about human equality, about intellectual freedom, and about the democratic principle. But I couldn't argue, because it was true.

"You're right," I said, defeated. "I should know: I am phenomenally smart, and I get confused all the time."

"You certainly made a mess of this argument."

I thought that was very generous of him.

By now we had arrived at Hay. Our tire might still have a leak, but my punctured ego was quickly patched and re-inflated to astronomical proportions. Now I was an official Hay Festival Artist! We drove right past the sodden masses of literary hangers on and scarf-wearing pseudo-intellectuals trudging to the festival site from the overflowing visitor car parks, and stopped right next to the Main Tent in the Artist's Car Park. It had been raining all day, and we got to squelch grandly through the Artist's Mud. Then we wiped our feet on the Artist's Doormat before being lead into the Artist's Green Room and offered drinks. There was no sign of anyone famous, though, so we moved on to the Artist's Restaurant. There was no-one famous there, either, but we enjoyed a long meal of Artist's Coc au Vin and several glasses of Artist's Red Wine, punctuated only by visits to the Artist's Portable Toilets. The bill that night included Brian May before us, and Billy Bragg afterwards. I didn't see either of them. Steve Winwood was continually in the Artist's Toilets, though. Not actually Steve Winwood, of course; that would be creepy. Just a playlist on a loop, to relax the bladder.

Then we were on.

I put to Harry my Big Question: before we listen to the scientific experts, we have to figure out who they are. How do we do that?

I wasn't expecting a revelation, and I was duly satisfied in my disappointment. The main thrust of his nuanced answer was, "It's tough."

Observing that I was not sufficiently dissatisfied, he added that getting to the bottom of a scientific controversy requires an understanding of sociology. Now he was really trying to wind me up! If all that can save science is sociology, surely the situation is even worse than I feared!

He backed up his view with a story. He asked how we can be sure that the American moon landing was not a hoax. He explained that scientists will point out many authentic scientific details that suggest the event was real: the US flag did not hang down in the low gravity, for example, and the radio signal was cut off when the capsule went behind the moon. But he pointed out that a good fake would include each of those. The most convincing evidence in his view is that the Russians believed it was real -- they had the technology to observe whether a spacecraft really did land on the moon, and the most cause to denounce the event if they saw nothing.

This was a cute argument, but we all know that it wouldn't convince a crackpot. Now, I don't want to get mixed up with the moon-landing-hoax loonies; the anti-global-warming loonies were bad enough. But I think I can imagine how easily they could argue out of that one. Couldn't the Russians and the Americans have been in cahoots, devilishly concocting an elaborate excuse to play a little space sport designed to further each superpower's idiosyncratic methods of oppressing its own people? Isn't that the obvious explanation for any respectable conspiracy theorist?

The natural response to any of this is that common sense tells you that all of these explanations are nonsense, and of course the damn thing really happened. I mean, what kind of nutty world do you think we live in?

Uh-oh. Now we see the problem. Common sense will deceive you, and remember, people misunderstand everything.

So it looks like we're back to the start. "It's tough."

Never mind. There was cake, coffee, and more wine back in the Green Room, and the tire held up all the way home. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Experts in a Haystack

Tomorrow I talk with Harry Collins at the Hay Festival about his new book, "Are we all scientific experts now?"

Harry confronts a common scary phenomenon: ordinary people assuming that they are qualified to judge science. One example is good old Climategate, which I've talked about here. I repeated the same point Harry made: the public might have thought they were given sudden privileged access to the seamy underworld of science, but in reality all they were seeing, and inevitably misunderstanding, was science as it has always been, and as it should be.

The main point of the book -- that there really is a big difference between a scientific expert and an ordinary person -- may seem completely obvious. But sociologists of science (and Harry is one of them) spent a great deal of the late 20th century arguing that scientists are nothing special, and science itself is merely a social construct. As laughable as that sounds to anyone as clever and sensible as myself, this intellectual woolliness has seeped out into the real world, and infected many softer, more innocent minds. And now we have a situation where the same people who will boast "I was never any good at maths" when it's time to split the restaurant bill, also presume to be qualified to dismiss widespread expert scientific opinion on evolution, the big bang, the efficacy of vaccines, and of course climate change [1]. Now a few sociologists are putting up their hands and saying, "Just a minute, there's something to science after all." This book aims, if not to put scientists back on their pedestal, to at least give them a little stepladder to stand on.

It also aims to help us understand what it means to be a scientific expert. In particular, it doesn't mean just reading a few books about science. It doesn't even mean reading the primary literature. Just because you've read a few papers on climate science, or perhaps thousands of them, you still don't have the expertise to judge the results. You may have a better understanding of what the results are, but unless you start turning up to the conferences, and interacting with the other scientists in the field, and writing your own papers for their top peer-reviewed journals (as opposed to the bargain-basement, "open access" scam journals [2]), then you are not in any position to pretend to have a useful opinion. This includes -- and this was the lesson for my presumptuous physicist self -- highly qualified self-important clever-cloggs scientists in other fields. I may have a PhD in black-hole physics and be able to trampoline on a differential manifold, but if I subscribe to Environmental Research Letters, I have no more qualification to assess the worth of any article than a window washer, a web developer or, for that matter, a TV weather presenter.

The difficulty with all this is that even an expert may not really be an expert. Scientific disciplines bunch together, and it can be hard to tell them apart, and yesterday's expert can be today's crackpot. The book provides the striking example of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki was able to argue that they were toxic, and to prevent their introduction to the country, leading to tens of thousands of additional cases of HIV. This was partly on the basis of evidence from a distinguished Nobel-prize-winning leading scientist, who just happened to be ten years out of date.

The scientific expert may also be a fraudster. In the late 90s a medical researcher, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism, and the subsequent media frenzy caused a severe reduction in vaccination rates, to the extent that there was a brief measles epidemic in Swansea last year -- and it was all in aid of marketing an alternative vaccine that Wakefield just happened to have a financial stake in.

So, if you are an innocent member of the general public (and that includes me, on all but an embarrassingly narrow range of obscure topics), how are we to identify the real experts who we should listen to? One of the reasons I blathered on so much about climate change was because I thought that provided a nice clean example of where you can identify the experts, and you can identify their message. Not only does a massively clear and overwhelming majority of expert scientists support the notion of anthropogenic climate change, but there are even other scientists going to the trouble of documenting this support. That is the source of the famous 97% statement. It is not a hoax, a fake meme, out of date or roundly refuted. It was the result of a through survey of the scientific literature, and was published last year in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. How much clearer could that be?

But it seems that it is not clear. Many people haven't got the message, and they are not all crackpots. An innocent sailor on the seas of knowledge can be easily blown off course by the strong winds of confusion. Maybe the scientists really have been overtaken by rabid environmentalists? Maybe the people doing honest work really have been silenced? All these things are in principle possible, and how are we to tell, apart from becoming experts ourselves [3]?

And many topics are far less clear than climate change. Which of the latest medical studies trumpeted in the media should we believe? What should we eat, and what should we spit out? It could be that, despite the meaningless media noise out in the wide world, close to the centre of the scientific activity the experts really do have a very clear picture. Perhaps I should sneak along to a medical conference and wait in the hotel bar and nab a few scientists after the last session and buy them some drinks and loosen their tongues. Should I take statin drugs for my cholesterol? Is the answer blindingly obvious to them, or is the jury out? Yeah, that's a great idea -- except that I can never be sure that I went to the conference in precisely the right sub-field. Or that I didn't just find a group of old professors who have been irrelevant for the last decade and were delighted to finally find someone who would listen to them.

So: how do I find the true experts to listen to?

I have no idea, which is why I will ask Harry Collins this question tomorrow night. It may be that he cannot answer it, either. But the best I can do is to ask an expert.

Tickets are available on the Festival website, for £5, although we receive no money ourselves. I assume that the cost is to run the lights, and to pay someone to clean up in the event of a riot.

Annoying Pedantic Footnotes
1. Just yesterday I read this article that reeled off some US statistics. And before any of my UK neighbours smugly disregard those stupid Americans, I would invite them to take a look at the seething masses shambling down any British high street and to claim with a straight face that the situation here is any better.

2. Proper "Open access" means that any moron who wants to can read the journal, but not that any moron can publish in it.

3. It is also possible that the scientists will discover that they have been wrong. But this is a different point. There may be a new discovery next week that changes everything, but that doesn't diminish the fact that, if you have to decide which way to vote, to follow the current expert opinion is your best option. If the experts don't know that a new discovery is just around the corner, then the non-experts certainly don't know it either!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Kafka Museum

Kafka was from Prague. Less than a month after my son was born, I went with my new little family to Prague, and visited the Kafka Museum. The two events were not connected. Except, perhaps, in ontological retrospect.

Prague was once a trendy post-Soviet destination for US college graduates who thought it was a hip substitute for growing up. I learned this from the movie "Kicking and screaming", which is about US college graduates who don't even want to leave college. The exception is the protagonist's girlfriend, who departs after the graduation party at the beginning of the film, bound for Prague. He predicts that she will forget him and, even worse, become one of those unbearable Europeanised Americans who do "that whole `American coffee is bad' thing." She makes brief reappearances in answering machine messages throughout the film. The last message is, "By the way: American coffee is bad."

I also went to Prague thinking that I was still a student, and that even a baby was no reason to grow up. Part of the act was to shun such cluttered paraphernalia as a stroller. I carried the baby strapped to my body in a huge multicolored wrap. This not only had the wonderful attribute of shocking ignorant crusty old passers by who hissed horrified questions ("Can it breathe?") and dire pronouncements ("It'll never be able to walk") -- besides that number one selling point, it also provided me with a chest-level confidant as we navigated out of the train station in the middle of the night.

"What do you think, little guy? Should we take this street?"

He gurgled his assent.

"Do you think we should have brought a map or a phrase book?" I was sure he shook his head. "You're absolutely right. We can work it out."

Ah yes, this was exactly like being a backpacking student again.

Anyway, I was sure that the hideous ex-Communist monstrosity in the distance was our youth hostel. My confidence sunk a little when it seemed that we had to climb a steep bank up the side of a busy highway to get there. I looked down at my navigator for assistance. He had fallen asleep. That's right -- nothing to stress about!

When we finally reached the youth hostel we were met, as is customary at youth hostels across the world, by an Australian backpacker. I wasn't sure if he was drunk, or high, or just out of touch with the current intellectual pre-requisites for visiting Prague, but his first act was to point at my chest and ask in amazement, "Is that a real baby?" I opened the wrap and showed him. He was duly impressed. "Whoooaaaa!" he breathed, confirming in the process that he was both drunk and high.

The next day it was off to see the beautiful sights of the city. And, I'm afraid, the Kafka Museum.

What did I know already about Kafka? I knew that he was every self-absorbed clever teenager's literary hero. A miserable man who died young. A tortured genius. Strange stories full of alienation, both of people from each other and every individual from an impenetrably meaningless System. Plus, the clincher: a stifling antagonistic relationship with his bullying father. What more could you want? Kafka was probably the reason all those damn college students moved to Prague in the first place -- to get further away from their fathers, and closer to a man who would understand.

I could buy most of the legend. I had never liked the myth that you had to suffer to be a genius, and I liked worse the reality that you probably wouldn't be a genius even if you did suffer, and I was hardly afflicted with paternal conflict, but I still knew that Kafka was the ideal hero for a cool forever-young student like myself.

The Kafka Museum is unique. The interior is designed to feel like the inside of Kafka's mind. That means that it is also designed to make you want to get out. In order to get out, you have to go all the way through. It's much like an Ikea, except that afterwards your home remains unfurnished.

The inside of Kafka's mind, as represented by the inside of the Kafka Museum, was a place of anxiety, alienation, and frustration at his tyrannical father, who by all accounts, and certainly by Kafka's, was overbearing, self-satisfied, and unsophisticated. He was born poor, but worked hard to became a successful businessman. Kafka's issues with his father were so extensive that he required a 100-page letter to explain them, which his mother refused to pass on.

All of this must feed directly into the gripe mill of any budding repressed intellectual. I thought that was me, but I had the opposite reaction. Carrying around my one-month-old son, I was amazed to find that I was on the father's side. Ok, he was a bit of an oaf. But, unlike poor precious Franz, he had been around his son since the age of zero.

For all we know, the man crawled on the floor while his little baby gurgled and giggled after him, and thought proudly to himself, "Franz will not have to struggle like I did." While tiny Franz sat on his chest and blew raspberries, he thought, "He won't have to fight his way out of poverty to earn even a modicum of respect, and he won't have to make his wife work 12-hour days to keep the family afloat."

Then Franz got a few years older, and the situation looked even better: the boy was smart! He could be a doctor, or a lawyer, and at the age of four he could even be taught to explain these lofty aspirations. "Do you know what he just told me?" boasted Hermann to anyone who would listen. "Now he wants to be a chemical engineer. What boy of four even knows what a chemical engineer is? My boy, that's who!" What a proud father he might have been, through all those years that shaped his picture of his son -- the years that his son, conveniently, would not remember.

What happened? The little shit went all sensitive on him. Hermann couldn't understand. "If you yell at your teenager, he's supposed to yell back, and the next day you slap each other on the back and return to work." But this guy sulked off into his room and came back five years later to nervously hand a 100-page letter to his mother. He got a law degree, then a good job in an insurance company, and he shot up through the ranks -- but was he content and comfortable? No way: he was miserable that he didn't have more time to write stories about people so tortured by their fathers that they leaped off bridges or turned into bugs. What happened to that gurgling giggling baby with the happy future?

This was all getting too much for me, in the midst of the weird lighting and warped corridors and clicketty-clacketty postmodern music of Kafka's mind. My own son had just woken up, and seemed to think that the prospect of the tortured future that he saw all around him was hilarious. He poked his head out of the wrap and gave perhaps the only squeals of delight ever heard within the Kafka Museum. I looked down to my little helper and asked for advice.

"Should we get out of here?"

He squealed and bounced up and down. So off we went.

At the end of the museum there was of course a gift shop. That is the final proof that Kafka's novels were unfinished: their nightmare vision could not possibly be complete without a gift shop. I went out through the gift shop to the courtyard beyond.

Thankfully at least one person involved in the museum's design had some sympathy for the visitors. In a fountain in the middle of the courtyard they had constructed the perfect Kafka Museum Antidote statue. It was of two men urinating. Even better than that, the man were mechanical. Each pelvis slowly rotated from side to side, urinating a wide swath of the fountain. I walked over to it and my son and I laughed at it together.

Then I went to get a coffee.

NOTE: There will not be a post on Monday.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Nightmare scenario

Last night I had the worst nightmare since I was a child.

I shouldn't be surprised. There's been plenty to spook my subconscious recently.

Last Monday I wrote my last blog post about climate change. There were a few kooky comments. I had thought that would be fun -- madness down in the mud pit at the end of the post -- but it was unnerving to directly encounter people who were so clearly utterly unreachable by rational arguments or facts.

But it got worse. The man who motivated the whole month of climate-change musing, Mr. Clive James, posted his latest television review column in the Telegraph on Thursday, once again mocking climate change and climate-change experts. Here was my chance to get my message of science and sensibleness back to the man himself. I had to give it a shot. So I put a polite little comment at the end of the article, referring back to my humble blog post.

What happened? You guessed it. More creepy-crawlies came out of the ground. There was nothing I could do.  This wasn't the place for many measured paragraphs of quietly reasoned argument. And I remembered what I'd read only weeks earlier on Richard Easther's blog: arguing with crackpots is like wrestling with a pig: you'll both get muddy, but the pig will enjoy it.

Plus I had other things to worry about. There's a research grant review today. I have to stand up in front of a panel of penny-pinchers and justify spending good taxpayer money to write computer programs that throw black holes at each other.

Between the climate crazies and my grant presentation, I was an exhausted wreck by Sunday evening. I was a mess. When I went to tell my son a bedtime story, I was so unhinged that I attempted a re-telling of Kafka's "Metamorphosis", which immediately after the first sentence veered towards a Disney adaptation, and the next thing I knew the entire population of the Samsa family's apartment block had transformed into a dancing chorus of cockroaches. I tried to get a grip on myself. I went to the bookshelf and took down "Fantastic Mr Fox" instead.

By the time my son fell asleep, all I could do was lay there in a daze. My fevered brain began to fantasise. Maybe it was all fine? The next morning I'd get a call from Clive himself. He'd want to talk about my blog. After running through an extensive list of elementary grammatical errors contained therein, and offering a few basic tips on prose style, he would confess to being converted. "I was getting sick of receiving fan mail from UKIP supporters anyway," he would say.

What a very pleasant fantasy this was. But before it reached the point where he explained that all of his family and the most famous of his friends were so thankful that they were going to hold a massive party in my honour, potentially televised -- somewhere in there I fell asleep, and things changed seriously for the worse.

I was in London, at my grant review. The review panel sat around a long table, and I stood at my laptop, in front of a screen. My presentation was about to begin. But everything was wrong. My Powerpoint presentation had changed. Now it was an internet comment forum. Below every bullet point was a string of comments, running off the end of the screen.

"You're an embarrassment to physics."

"You and your liar friends will pay for this."

"God is coming for you."

I turned back to the panel in shock. But then I realised that they were internet commenters, too. On the table in front of each of them was a nameplate. I read the names in horror. "ak47", "sc@zbot", "sh!tst!rra". At the head of the table was the panel chairman. He looked strange, too, although I couldn't read his name. The only believable part was that they were all men.

I tried to start my presentation. I explained about the black hole simulations I was going to do. I was quickly interrupted.

"You expect us to trust mere simulations?" sneered someone called Mr. Jumbalaya.

"Yes, of course. I'm solving the full Einstein equations. There are no approximations, apart from…"

"I saw a black hole simulation in 2003," shouted a certain J.J. Jingoist. "Two black holes bounced off each other and the code crashed. They're all NONSENSE." I marvelled at how he could speak so unmistakably in capital letters.

"But the simulations have improved since then," I protested. "There were breakthroughs in 2005. I even wrote a paper, comparing results from five different codes, and they all agreed."

ak47 snorted. "You expect us to trust that? That result was planned from the beginning."

"Well, yes, we were hoping to show that they agreed…"

"Of course you and all your friends were going to agree -- how else would you get your next grant?"

"It was published in a high-impact peer-reviewed journal."

"Peer review is a crock! How much does your university have to PAY the journals to publish your lies?"

I couldn't argue with B00zeHound. Journal publication fees are indeed high.

Sh!tst!rra leaped to his feet. "The whole thing is a conspiracy to forward the government's secret agenda!"

"What secret agenda?" I cried. "To prove the existence of gravitational waves?"

"Exactly! To promulgate the lies of Einstein! In case you haven't heard, because they were suppressed by your peer-review bullshit journals, the true MAJORITY of REAL scientists are against you. Take a look at this." ak47 threw down the table a battered manuscript.

The title was, "100 scientists against Einstein."

I was stunned. "This document is over 80 years old, and was written by anti-Semites!"

There was a chorus of protest. "That's the best you can do? Accuse your critics of being Nazis!?"

"But some of them were Nazis!"

B00zehound went red in the face. "You and your government paymasters won't get away with this."

Now I was getting angry. This dream needed to be taught a lesson. "You're all a bunch of complete loonies!"

The chairman thumped the table and silence fell. He rose to his feet. "We have a strict usage policy here. Abusive behaviour will not be tolerated. That comment will be deleted."

I stared at the chairman in horror and rage. And then I realised who he was. He was Mr. Bean. Not Mr. Bean, as in Rowan Atkinson's least impressive but most successful role, by Mr. Bean from "Fantastic Mr Fox", the apple farmer who lived entirely on a diet of potent cider. And indeed, as I watched, he pulled from under the table a gigantic luridly coloured child's water blaster, and began to spray me in a torrential stream of sticky cider.

Jesus Christ! This was getting Freudian. I had to escape!

I turned to run, and I saw that Freud wasn't the half of it. The panel members had metamorphosed into cockroaches. As I crossed the floor and the patterns in the carpet also CGI'd into cockroaches, I saw that now this wasn't even Kafka, but an out-take from an aborted Terry Gilliam adaptation of a lost Hunter S. Thompson masterpiece, "Fear and Loathing at the Grant Review."

I reached the door. It was blocked by two pigs, and I had to wrestle them to get out. I finally got the door open, and ran from the room and across the foyer and out of the building.

But outside was a seething crowd. It extended from the bottom of the steps, across the car park, and beyond into the streets. It never seemed to end. I was covered in mud, and they all jeered at me. I realised that this was truly every scientist's worst nightmare: the General Public had turned against me!

That was when I woke up. I had fallen on the floor next to my son's bed. One side of my body was painfully stamped with Legos. I struggled back to my own bed, where I lay awake for most of the rest of the night, until I gave up on sleep and got up to write this.

Today is not going to be a good day. 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Stupidity, and a mind full of Hay

The Hay Festival is the largest literary festival on Earth, which may make it the largest anything that is in Wales. The Festival is held in the town of Hay-on-Wye, close to the English border, which is both small enough and book-loving enough to have earned the distinction of being the town with the largest number of second-hand bookstores per population in the world. (This was true even back when other towns did actually have second-hand bookstores.) Ok, so that's another "largest" for Wales, but I suspect we can lump it in with the first. And another related extreme statistic for you: the attendees of the Hay Festival are invariably made up of the largest proportion I have ever seen of men wearing scarves.

I have been to the Hay Festival only once, and my two immediate reactions after listening to the literary luminaries were, (1) "Wow", and (2) "I wish I could do that!" I have the second reaction whenever I'm impressed, and usually nothing comes of it: every time I go to the movies, every time I go to a rock concert, or the time I stayed at that hotel on the Amalfi Coast where the proprietor was continuously overjoyed and sang while he worked. But this time it's different. The Festival also includes a series of lectures from Cardiff University academics, which occurs every year, and fulfils an important mission, namely to "Provide Cardiff academics with the opportunity to realise their ambition to speak at the Hay Festival." This year the series includes a discussion between my good self and Professor Harry Collins. The reason that these two characters will be present is simple. Harry Collins is a distinguished social scientist who has done pioneering work on the sociology of scientific knowledge, and has just released a new book on scientific expertise. I, as I've said, want to talk at the Hay Festival.

I have been preparing for this grand event by trying to carefully read Harry's book in my spare time. Unfortunately, I also write this blog in my spare time, and this week I got unusually distracted by some of the comments on my previous post, which lead me to gaze for far too long down into the murky underworld of climate-change scepticism.

It reminded me of something I heard about back when I was a graduate student. I had a good friend who had previously worked in Italy. On one of the many occasions when we were complaining about the vast abundance of morons in the world, he told me about a famous old Italian economist who had devised and written up a brilliant set of four "laws of stupidity". This precious document existed only in Italian, and no English translation existed, and even if it did, my friend assured me, it could never match the playful witty brilliance of the original. Nonetheless, he kindly attempted a basic translation, just to give me the idea.

The laws of stupidity were formulated with a wonderful circularity that made them simultaneously self-contradictory, and obviously correct. The first law was that, whatever your estimate of the proportion of stupid people in a group, it is always larger. Another law noted that the proportion of stupid people is the same in every group, whether they are bricklayers, bankers, or Nobel laureates.

Both of these statements are counter-intuitive, but so is every other good scientific theory. When you think hard about them, they start to make sense. Another law encapsulated the definition of a stupid person, which is anyone who causes harm to others, while deriving no benefit for themselves -- in fact, they usually harm themselves as well. You can see why the seething sewers of anti-climate-change literature brought this all back to mind.

But I really should try to return my attention to the Hay Festival.

My previous visit was in 2012, and I'll never forget it. Among the great talks I attended, one was by the Nobel-prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, oddly "in conversation" with the novelist Ian McEwan. The accompaniment of McEwan might not seem so odd to you, since it would be natural at a literary festival to pair a scientist with a literary personality who has also written on scientific themes. Yes, that would seem natural, if that had been the reasoning. But as the talk progressed, from Watson's fascinating story and on into the discussion, it was possible that McEwan's job was in fact very different: he was there to whisk Watson from the stage, should he start raving. In the circumstances, a hired heavy from one of the local pubs might have been more appropriate.

I knew that Watson had got himself into hot water a few years previously, by making statements that included genetics and Africans in inflammatory combinations, but I had assumed that (a) this was merely an unfortunate faux pas, and (b) he would be a hell of a lot more careful in future. I don't know much about (a), but I can safely say that (b) had not come to pass. When asked about Rosalind Franklin, who many have claimed deserved equal credit for the DNA discovery, he graciously consented to imply that she was delusional. When asked about ethical issues in genetic research, he delivered his blunt assessment of ethical philosophers, and added what he thought was the rhetorical question, "What's wrong if we make all the girls pretty girls?" There were moments when the conviction in his statements worked, and words like "outspoken" and "cantankerous" floated affectionately through my mind. But less complimentary words floated through my mind, too. The other things that floated through my mind, perhaps entirely coincidentally, were, once again, those good old laws of stupidity.

I also noted, in case you were wondering, that Ian McEwan did not at any point during the talk take several steps back and launch at Watson in a running tackle. Either he was too much the gentleman, or he pulled a muscle in training.

With all these distractions in my mind, this week I tried to track down the laws of stupidity, and discovered a curious twist to the story. Their author, Carlo Cipolla, was an Italian economist who worked at Berkeley. In 1976 he wrote a short essay on his laws of stupidity, in English, of which only about a hundred copies were published privately for a group of friends. Its fame spread, and there was demand for a translation into his native Italian. He resisted, with precisely the reverse argument of my old friend: their "Swiftian wit" could only be appreciated in English. But in 1988 he finally relented. The Italian publication was a roaring success, and the essay was subsequently translated into all of the world's major languages. But not, ironically enough, into English. In was only in 2011, eleven years after its author's death, and 35 years after its composition, that the original essay was finally officially published. If you wish you can interpret that as a deep cosmic statement on the veracity of the laws themselves, along with the fact that the publishers hoped to make a profit from a short essay that is now freely available on the internet.

I also went back and listened to the audio of Watson's talk. In retrospect, 97% of what he said was insightful, interesting, valuable, and a privilege to hear. There are plenty of stupid people in the world, but also intelligent people who occasionally do or say stupid things. On May 23 I have my chance to be one of them. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Of free thinkers, blind sheep, and bloodletting

A month ago I began a series of posts that were ostensibly about climate change, but were really an attempt to chip away at what I think is a misunderstanding about science in general, even amongst many scientists. As I've said before, climate change is not my specialist area, and when it comes to explaining, justifying and arguing climate science, there are many other people far more qualified and far more patient than myself. Climate science just happens to be a good example of the point I want to make.

I've taken some time, because I wanted to get a few things out of the way first. For a start, I am not interested in the climate-change sceptics who are ignorant, ill-informed or dimwitted. They are a problem, but they are not an interesting problem. We all fall into that category sometimes: we make silly arguments because it suits our prejudices, or our mood, or we just don't want to accept that we're wrong. But the people I am interested in are those who occasionally take the time to think very carefully about a topic, to mull over many different perspectives, and different arguments, and take into account all of the information they have to hand, and then publish their honestly and scrupulously considered opinion. What is interesting to me is when those people express serious scepticism of the theory of anthropogenic climate change. As one example I put forward the critic Clive James, who I argued is very sharp indeed, but nonetheless mocks the conventional climate-change wisdom.

Now, he has every right to be publicly sceptical, and I sympathise with his complaint that the environmental community has its fair share of sawn-off wackos who would continue to believe in climate change even if the evidence proved otherwise. But I nonetheless feel that he is missing an important point. Part of that point is that to be usefully sceptical of the science requires an expert trained practitioner in that science, and the best a non-specialist can do is simply check that the scientists themselves are being suitably suspicious of each others' work. But that is not the whole story.

He also complains that in his experience expert predictions rarely amount to anything, and although it is important to make a distinction between regular expert predictions (which are notoriously unreliable) and scientific predictions (which, in their purest form, have been rigorously tested) [1] this is indeed a problem with climate change, even if some climate crusaders are reluctant to show weakness and admit it. The fact is that the standard climate-change hypothesis is not as rigorously tested and verified as, for example, the theory of gravitation -- and oh how I cringe when anyone claims that it is! So there is legitimate room for doubt, and some of that doubt is expressed by experts in the field.

In James's 2009 piece, he cited as a dissenter Richard Lindzen, formerly a professor of atmospheric science at MIT. Now, the seasoned climate campaigner will reply that Lindzen's theories have been roundly thwarted, and that he is just bitter at being proved wrong, and anyway, he has now joined the Koch-funded Cato Institute, and so his credibility is completely shot. I would argue that all of that is irrelevant. Presumably a determined sceptic can unearth other impressively titled experts who can also present convincing arguments. And, even though they are experts in the topic and I am not, I would argue that they are also irrelevant.

How do I dare to do that? Aren't they the expert, and not I? Yes -- and precisely for that reason, I have no choice but to defer to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of other experts. 97% of climate scientists support the standard climate-change hypothesis, which means that for every big-shot scientist who opposes this theory with a water-tight argument, there are 32 other big-shot scientists who can rip gaping holes in that argument. Can I confidently parse those arguments? No. But I have to accept the sheer weight of numbers.

I admit that this is difficult to do. There is a natural human tendency, no matter how smart we are, to support the underdog. If only 3% of scientists dissent, then that must be because they are the good honest free-thinking sceptics, and the rest are just sheep. Our sweetly romantic minds may love that view, but it's demonstrably nonsense. Imagine that scientific opinion reversed (perhaps due to a discovery of the notorious Hannam Effect), so that only 2% of scientists did accept climate change -- would it now be much more convincing?

This is even more difficult to accept if you are unusually clever. You might be one of those people whose reaction is to cry, "This is intolerable! Not only am I the smartest person I know, and not only am I sure that I am smarter than all those egg-headed physicists and bearded biologists, but I am also extremely level-headed and practical and brimming with common sense, and plus I have absorbed a lifetime of experience." You might protest, "I have spent my whole life seeing through other people's lies and uncovering the truth, and this is no exception." Yes, you might be an insufferable dick. But if you really are so smart, then you will be able to accept that our understanding of the world is fraught with uncertainty, and although there is some risk involved in following the advice of the scientific experts, that is the best advice we're going to get.

What makes it yet more difficult is that we are continually told that, so long as we are sharp of mind and good of heart, the truth will be clear, no matter how seemingly tricky the topic. In a movie set in the Middle Ages, everyone thinks like a medieval moron, except for the hero, who deplores slavery, espouses greater rights for women, and sports the same hairdo as everyone else at this year's Oscars. If the opportunity ever arose, he'd probably also reveal that he believes in plate tectonics, wave-particle duality, and the principle of natural selection, and also has a pet theory that prior to humans the Earth was inhabited by giant reptiles.

Those clairvoyant fictional heroes delude us into believing that we could do the same. I would love to believe that if I lived in the age when diseases were routinely "cured" by bloodletting, I would have had the presence of mind to realise that it was a barbaric and harmful practice, and never allowed it to be used to cure my toothache. But in reality I would have had as little understanding of the human body as anyone else, and my strenuous intellectual objection ("It'll hurt!") would have been no more justified then than it was when I got a blood test last month. None of us would have had the least clue what was going on, not me, not you, and not Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman, Steve Jobs, Nate Silver or Malcolm Gladwell.

All of these issues arise in many areas of science, and especially in medicine. Climate change is one of the few topics where the majority expert opinion is easy to identify, and where the majority is overwhelming; if it was a 60:40 split between those for and against, then the situation would be far less clear. But it is clear, and the real question is what to do about it. Now that is a problem for our finest minds to devote themselves to.

Coda: Nightmare scenario.

1. There is a nice discussion of the poor track record of expert predictions in Tim Harford's book Adapt. The special role of scientific expertise is succinctly detailed in Harry Collins's Are we all scientific experts now? Harry and I will be discussing that very book at this year's Hay Festival on May 23rd.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

My expert prediction

As I have noted in the past, scientists excel at projecting an image of wisdom. Since the general public rarely meet an actual scientist and see what they are really like, they have no reason to believe otherwise. So why don't people trust what scientists say? What happened to good old-fashioned blind faith? Are you seriously telling me that all those charlatan medieval priests pulled off a more convincing act than modern scientists? It surely can't be enough to simply deliver to people your pronouncements from within imposing architecture while wearing long robes, in order to poison their minds, take all their money, and bugger their children.

And, no, it's not because the scientists say things people don't want to hear, or repel them with alarmist predictions. Yeah, right. When the climate scientists say, "Please ride your bike more often or the weather will get bad," that's just too much to handle. But when a priest says, "Don't drink, don't gamble, don't screw, or you'll burn for eternity," everyone cheers and flocks back next week, crying, "Please, take all of my meagre income, my immortal soul is more important than mere sustenance, and are you sure you don't want my youngest son for your bare-bottom choir?"

There are many wise scholars of human history, culture, and psychology, who can offer a host of plausible explanations for why scientists don't get universal respect and adoration, but I would like to suggest one aspect of the problem that they may be reluctant to mention: it could be precisely the continuous chattering of these experts that gives real scientists a bad name.

When most people think of an expert, they mean someone who appears on a television panel discussion and makes confident predictions that are invariably wrong. Political experts told us in 1988 that Soviet communism was a permanent reality that we just had to get used to, and in 1990 they told us that Russia had a glorious democratic future ahead of it. Economic experts told us in 2007 that not only was property a fantastically safe investment, but we should also take advantage of all of the cheap mortgage options that were so readily available. It's not that there is something flaky about political or economic experts. The problem is that they are making predictions, and as deep and wide-ranging as their knowledge may be of political history and economic theory, or economic history and political theory, predictions are hopeless. Studies have shown that expert predictions are indeed better than those of non-experts, but the numbers are hardly inspiring: a random guess is correct 50% of the time, and the experts are correct 51% of the time (with a margin of error of 2.3%). Many people assume that the same is true for scientific experts.

But those were not scientific predictions. A good scientific theory is built from the results of reproducible experiments, and makes predictions that are confirmed by further experiments. If I tell you that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, that is based not just on the fact that it has risen on every single morning that anyone has bothered to pay attention, but also a mathematical model of the Earth's orbit around the sun, and the Earth's rotation, that is derived from an understanding of gravitation that has been rigorously tested and confirmed for hundreds of years. So I can tell you not just that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but also what time it will rise in your neighborhood. The risk in trusting this prediction is negligible, assuming that I did not do the actual calculation myself. If someone is stupid enough to argue that it works differently, we could make ourselves a tidy fortune betting against them. (Amazingly, there do exist such dolts.)

On the other hand, I cannot so confidently predict that the sunrise will be followed by a broadcast of the BBC World Service. At the risk of upsetting die-hard British imperialists, I'm afraid that the BBC is not governed by a fundamental force of nature. It is instead run by a collection of people whose work may at any moment cease due to a surprise managerial decision, a collapse of government, or the revelation of a child-abuse sex scandal. These outcomes are not at all predictable (with the possible exception of the last), and a bet that the BBC World Service News will play at 6am tomorrow is fraught with just a little more risk than the previous dawn wager.

These fine philosophical distinctions are usually unimportant, because we know that non-scientific experts can be easily identified as the people who turn up on TV and argue with each other over whether Ukraine will be part of Russia by next Wednesday. On the other hand, scientific experts beaver away in complete obscurity, and do not need to be identified at all.

Now we get to the problem of climate change, where everything is turned upside down. Now the scientists have emerged blinking from their labs to go on television and argue with all the other experts. Given a good scrub and a new suit, they are difficult to tell apart. Even more confusing, they too are now making predictions that will affect economics and politics. And most disconcerting of all, they are missing their usual scientific guarantee. They have made models of what will happen to the Earth's climate if human activity continues unchanged, but humanity hasn't yet completed the experiment to verify that the models are true. Given the fallibility of human beings and the mischievousness of nature, there are sure to be many aspects of these models that are not true.

In this situation the correct scientific advice is obvious. It is this. "Please continue industrial activity at exactly the same level until the year 2300, so that we can properly calibrate our models. Then we would like you to revert to a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer society. Don't worry, this may require no effort at all. Remain this way until all traces of modern civilization have left the land, oceans and atmosphere, which shouldn't require more than a few thousand years, although if you could spare ten million that would be really great, because there may be some crucial species that we'd like to re-evolve. Then could you please reconstruct all of your cities and factories and highways and commercial jet airliners, and we will predict for you the effect on the climate over the subsequent century. At that point we expect to know for sure exactly how human-made climate change works. Ideally we would like to repeat this experiment several hundred times, but we wouldn't want to try your patience."

For some reason people refuse to adopt this proposal. I don't know why the scientists don't just throw up their hands in despair. They would be entirely within their rights to conclude that any species that will not follow standard scientific procedures does not deserve to survive anyway. But instead they have done something quite different. They have asked themselves a wise and noble question, which is: "What would a Hollywood hero do?"

A Hollywood hero would take the laughably limited data to hand, concoct a brilliantly clever explanation of what's going on, and then declare, "I've got a plan! Everyone follow me! Trust me, I'm a scientist!" And their plan would work, and everyone would be saved.

This is what has happened with climate change, but on a scale where there are thousands of hero scientists. They have frantically collected all the data they can get, and made as much sense of it as they can, and announced, "Quick, follow us! This is our only way out!"

Unfortunately not everyone has followed the script. "Well, well, well," say the politicians and policymakers and pundits. "This is highly unorthodox. We're not sure whether we should follow you or not."

Should they? You can guess what my opinion is, and I'll explain why next time. It might even be the end of this interminable succession of posts on climate change. But don't bet on that prediction.

Next: Free thinkers, blind sheep, and bloodletting.