November 27, 2011
In 1692, experts in Salem, Massachusetts arrived at the conclusion that certain members of the town were witches endowed with dark powers, and successfully convinced the community to convict and execute people for an imaginary crime. At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison ran a smear campaign to discredit AC power and promote his own DC power, which had a transmission distance advantage but was much more dangerous. At the end of the Apollo program, moonwalker Gene Cernan went through extended and publicized training in geology, and was partnered with Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, not because they would really need to analyze rocks while on the moon, but because it made a powerful image.
These are all people whom I’d like to call “celebrity scientists” – scholars with reputations that break through into the publicly visible, politically significant mainstream. Some of these individuals use that power for good, like the late Richard Feynman with his scathing critique of America’s textbook system. However, too many of the others use their incredible gift to cling to whatever wealth or power they can force out of the scientific and political community and the public at large.
I suspect this is not a new problem, and not one confined to any particular discipline. The most visible example today would be modern popular economics (if you are inclined to call that a science). Apparently, prestigious and short-sighted academics have crowded the media with flighty abstractions about easing and lending and rates and fees, and made the preposterous claim that the economy can be “solved” by their (and only their) intelligent authority. All this while ignoring the simple fact that every unexpected turn of the market during our three-year “recovery” was an unexpected observation, working to invalidate their theory! Regrettably, the Times doesn’t care.
It gets a lot worse: roving celebrity scientists popularized the mythical discipline of “climate science” (ostensibly requiring experience in atmospheric and ocean physics, solar physics, particle physics, geology, biology, chemistry, zoology, botany…) in the 1970s, and they rode their fame all the way to a Nobel prize and a super-scary movie featuring the former vice president of America! Years later, courtesy of some anonymous whistleblower, we find that back in reality those folks might not have had a single clue what they were doing, but regardless were mining their celebrity for as much money and power as it was worth.
People who know me might be suspicious of my reflexive animosity toward the wannabe environmentalist cult, but the evidence is all there for anyone to see. Sure, it’s telling that after swallowing this rubbery green worm hook, line and sinker, the media prefers a quiet, mealy-mouthed retreat. But isn’t the bigger problem that these scientists have funding at all? Isn’t the biggest problem that these junk theories had to be discredited by retired bloggers on the Internet? How much more of this sponsored ignorance can our culture possibly endure?
Thankfully, not all the news is so discouraging. NASA, one of the all-time great “celebrity science” outfits, has outgrown its childlike glee and subsequent fascination with floating around in spaceships, and launched its first rover toward Mars in eight years, the one that Spirit and Opportunity got them the budget to build. The celebrity for this mission will be Curiosity, a robot with unbelievable, super-human endurance, one that will revolutionize what we know about alien worlds yet again, and one that will become rightly famous for this despite not caring one bit.
Science is constantly recovering from its past mistakes. I’ll quote Michael Crichton in reverence:
In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth. One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent “skeptics” around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.
The silver lining is that the truth does emerge, however eventually. As long as science is regarded as the quest to understand what we can observe, no amount of philandering with politicians will change the sobering reality that is revealed by history and perspective. And if we can get there in less than half of a century, that isn’t even so bad, considering! The point is, most celebrity science is garbage. The sooner mainstream Internet realizes this and ignores the garbage, the better for everyone involved. Including the polar bears.
P.S. It’s possible that I’m slightly limiting my options for, ahem, “graduate education” by taking such a confrontational tone, but the weird thing is that it doesn’t matter and I don’t care! As far as I’m concerned, any school that would object to this perspective is going to be irrelevant rather soon.