Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Planning ahead

January is the perfect time to make idealistic plans for the rest of the year, just as February is the perfect time to forget them.

With this in mind, allow me to jot down some thoughts on what I'd like to write about here in the coming months. I'm afraid this process will also involve a re-hash of some of the things I wrote about last year. It'll be a bit like those 80s sit-com episodes made up entirely of flashbacks.

Ok, hopefully not that bad.

I spent some time last year mocking scientists as petty, self-absorbed, childish, unscrupulous, unprofessional, dim-witted clowns. I was utterly convinced that this portrayal was 100 percent accurate, based on the irrefutable fact of the universality of physical laws, i.e., if I am like that, so must everyone else be. That was a lot of fun, so I plan to continue.

However, there are a lot of simple-minded and confused people out there (my extrapolation procedure once again serves me well), and they may construe all of this as an attack on Science itself. If some people can't distinguish between the shining intellectual edifice of Science and the preening egotists who just happened to build it, that's not my problem -- although I'm told that apparently it is, so I suppose I will have to occasionally try and say responsible things.

As much as I am having a great time rolling around in the drunken stupor of a humorous blog that employs clumsy irony to avoid making direct statements on any real issues, there are certain things that will make me leap to my feet, stone-cold sober, and make some Very Serious and Dull Arguments indeed. One is the notion that science is purely a fiction, that its results are merely an illusion, and that its "Truths" are no more valid than those of Art, or Religion, or any other portentous product of the human mind.

I used to think that no-one worth listening to held such silly notions, but in my little road trip with a sociologist last year, some of which did actually happen, I discovered otherwise. I also realised something else. The claim that science is a "social construct" is not so different to my personal revelation that scientists are just as much bumbling buffoons as the rest of humanity. Science, just like Art or Religion, or Law or Business or Politics, is the product of human beings. And human beings are no more than wild beasts with delusions of rationality. How, then, am I able to bang my fist on the table and loudly defend the glory of Science? There is a way, and although I doubt anyone will be interested to hear it, one day soon I plan to write it down anyway.

I circled around some of this in my series of posts about Climate Change. There was a tricky point in there: we must remain resolutely sceptical of everything scientists tell us, and demand over and over that they explain to us the evidence for their claims, but at the same time we have to accept our limited expertise, and trust that, within every field, the scepticism of the scientists towards each other will keep them honest. You don't have to spend long amongst working scientists to find this bargain disturbing. Yet I still want to claim that it works. I'm going to keep thinking about how to do that.

There were also cruel words for the Public Communication of Science, in one of my first posts, and in my most recent. There will be more of them. We scientists are continuously reminded, again and again and again, how important it is that we work out how to communicate our great discoveries to the wider world, so it is probably quite heretical of me to question whether this is possible. But question it I must. I've seen too many examples of apparently crystal-clear and concise explanations being utterly misunderstood by otherwise intelligent people -- not to mention by teachers who should know better. Maybe some time I'll get round to sharing some of those examples. And maybe after enough of this questioning I'll be able to answer, "Don't worry, it's all right after all. You really can learn all of science from a metaphor, or an analogy, or a tweet." Just don't hold your breath.

I also enjoyed making up stories. I hold to the sentiment of my rallying cry for Real Science Fiction, which boils down to the problem: how do I regale you with the full absurdity of my esteemed peers' shameful misadventures, and still have them cite me? So far I haven't got much further than broad caricatures of suffering students and psychotic professors, but I modestly submit that I've done better than the science stereotypes that prance around in popular culture. I plan to talk about one such example next week, the film The Theory of Everything.

Somewhere in the back of my subconscious I'm also concocting a new tale, even more epic than the last one, which will plumb the full freakish depths of the academic experience. There are some technical problems to solve first. I haven't yet worked out how to string you along for upwards of six months with a story that proceeds at a glacial pace via an interminable number of 1000-word chunks. My best ideas so far are either to fold in a murder mystery, or pepper the action with torrid scenes of kinky sex, or both.

I hope you don't mind if I hold out a little longer for some better ideas.


  1. Perhaps you should consider a book rather than a blog? Then, you can fill us all in on the mishaps and hilarities inherent in publishing.

    1. That's an excellent idea. I look forward to reporting on the bidding war between the major publishing houses.


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