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. 


  1. Of course, nobody thinks they're the pig. I followed the link to Richard Easther's blog and read what he was saying about inflation. He doesn't understand conservation of energy! He's the pig! Let's see if you are too, via a serious question: why is your blog called The Fictional Aether?

  2. This was such a joy to read; thanks!

  3. Hi Mark,

    I appreciate your frustration over the climate change debate. It has become far too polarised, bitter & vitriolic. Rather than discussing and debating the science (which is where my own interest lies), it invariably descends into a name-calling match, and usually drags in some "conspiracy theory battle" between the conspiracy theorists at both extremes of the debate, e.g., "those pesky alarmists are all in the pay of Big Green" vs. "those pesky deniers are all in the pay of Big Oil".

    It is depressing. Instead of encouraging us to engage with each other, and try to appreciate the reasoning behind the different perspectives on the debate, it just makes the subject even more polarised and bitter. Participants from all sides of the debate, leave the debate even more convinced that the people they disagree with are all ignorant/uninformed/irrational/stupid/politically motivated/close-minded/etc!

    I found your blog post through somebody who had posted a link to the Clive James article on Twitter, and when I saw your comment you sounded like somebody who was genuinely interested in discussing the climate change debate. So, I left you a comment. But, I see from this post that it was a pretty stressful time for you. I'm sorry to hear that, and I hope your grant review went well.

    If you get a chance, I'd be interested to hear your feedback on my comment above.

    I'd also be interested on whether you have any views on how we (as individuals) can restore some civility to the climate debate. Clearly, a lot of us have quite strong views on the subject. But, I don't think any of us can have a proper chance to explain our views and listen to other people's views, if we spend the whole time insulting each other.

    I'm reminded of this quote from Jonathan Swift, "That was excellently observed, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken."

    P.S. Your blog commenting system doesn't seem to have a way of notifying me when there's a reply, but I've bookmarked your blog and I'll try and check back every so often...

    1. Yes, I have been a bit busy to write you a proper reply, but do mean to.

    2. Ok, thanks. I'll check back later...


[Note: comments do not seem to work from Facebook.]