Monday, 21 December 2009

who's fooling who?

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.
Abraham Lincoln, in a speech delivered in Clinton, Missouri, in February 1858.
Some people can be induced to believe almost anything with remarkably little effort. It’s a thought that has been expressed many times, although seldom as succinctly as by President Lincoln. I was reminded of it one day in 2003 by my neighbour, a self-righteous lady who makes snap judgements about everyone and everything, and who continually makes outrageous statements based as much on prejudice as on any dispassionate assessment of the evidence.

“What d’you think about that thing in Hong Kong?” she enquired when I met her in the street one morning.

“Not much!” I replied casually.

There is little mileage in getting excited about something that you are utterly powerless to influence or affect.

“Don’t you know what’s happening there?” she asked scornfully, in the process jumping to yet another of her misplaced conclusions.

Of course I did. Like anyone who’d just spent four months in Hong Kong, I’d been aware of SARS since well before Christmas, but it seemed at the time—and still does—to have been nothing more than the latest viral nasty from East Asia, a little nastier perhaps, a little more virulent than usual, but certainly not a cause for undue concern. From a distance of eight thousand miles, it was hard to feel a sense of the panic that was apparently gripping Hong Kong.

“It was al-Qaeda!” announced my neighbour self-importantly.

Well at least she made a better stab at the proper pronunciation than did President Bush or any of his lieutenants. But there really is no way to argue with this kind of statement. I merely disagreed politely and continued down the street. My neighbour probably wouldn’t have accepted an outright denial delivered in person by Osama bin Laden himself.

In fact, we can confidently turf this hypothesis out of the window, as too the notion that it was all down to unhygienic farming practices in China, keeping pigs and chickens too close to humans, or something like that, allowing the easy transference of infective agents across species. This idea was mooted a few days after the encounter with my neighbour by a correspondent writing in the letters page of the Daily Mail, a leading refuge for members of the loony Right in the United Kingdom. The suggestion, made very forcefully, was that China be subjected to an immediate and total quarantine until it had cleaned up both its act and its pig sties. The risk was of the decimation of the world’s population by a pandemic on the scale of the one that followed the First World War, which killed many tens of millions of people. You could detect a strong whiff of xenophobia in the letter, another characteristic that my neighbour has in abundance.

Anyway, the reason for this diversion into recent history is to emphasize my point that reality is not a requirement when such people rush to judgement. However, two other aspects of the 2003 SARS epidemic in southern China are also relevant to the discussion. The first is the idea that boiling vinegar might be efficacious in fighting the infection. As in the old wives’ tales that once dominated popular thinking in the West, there may be a kernel of truth in the notion, but it does seem equally likely that you might ward off bubonic plague armed only with a pocketful of posies. And then there was the claim made by some of the scientists investigating the outbreak in Amoy Gardens, a housing estate in east Kowloon, that the infection was being spread by cockroaches. Never can straws have been clutched at so resolutely.

It turns out that scientists are no less gullible than the rest of the population, easy prey for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the weaknesses in the so-called scientific method and a bent for trickery. There have been plenty of instances: scientists are either easily hoodwinked or so dogmatically determined not to be fooled that they are unable to see the screamingly obvious. The cold fusion controversy of the 1990s is a case in point. Was it a hoax? The protagonists, Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, remain convinced that cold fusion works and claim that they were against releasing details at the time because they felt that the idea needed more work. However, their employers, the University of Utah, wanted to ensure that it would be first with the announcement in order to be able to bask in the kudos of being the host for such ground-breaking work, so it rushed out the lamentably incomplete information it had with all the fanfare and razzamatazz of a major press conference. Once the initial excitement had died down, it was inevitable, given the insufficiency of detail, that no one would be able to replicate the experiment, so it was soon dismissed as nonsense. However, whether it was a hoax or merely incompetent science, you will note, in passing, that the main opponents of the idea were those with the most to lose in terms of public reputation if cold fusion really were possible.

We are on much firmer ground when we discuss Piltdown Man. At least we are on ground that is firmer than that from which this purported missing link in the evolution of Homo sapiens was unearthed in 1933. It was in fact a crude forgery, pieces of an unusually thick human skull with the jawbone of an orang utan that had been filed down to make its true identity less obvious. This find confirmed the dominant theories of the time, that our fossil ancestors, when found, would carry a noble human braincase atop a simian frame, so the skull was not finally denounced as a hoax until 1951, partly because so many leading scientists staked their less than solid reputations on its being genuine. The identity of the hoaxer has never been discovered.

A similar but less well-remembered hoax took place at Glozel, a hamlet in the foothills of the Auvergne just outside Vichy in southern France, in 1924, which again targeted the archaeological community. In an overgrown field soon to become internationally famous as le champ des morts (‘the field of the dead’), a cow stumbled into a hole in the ground. To cut a very long story down to manageable proportions, this event led to the discovery of vast quantities of artifacts, mainly pottery, frequently intact, on a site that should not have been able to produce even a fraction of these quantities, and certainly not undamaged. The soil was shallow, and the field was on a slope, so the degree of water throughflow would have ensured that no archaeological sequence could have developed. And to cap it all, some of the pottery was so badly fired that it actually dissolved in water. It took an international commission, but the Glozel ‘finds’ were finally found wanting.

However, there is a telling postscript to this story. Many years later, a new technique for dating ancient pottery was developed: by measuring the thermoluminescence of a pot, the approximate date when it had last been fired could be determined. The pioneers of this technique tried it on some pots from Glozel, and they came up with, not a modern date for their firing as the archaeologists had expected, but a date around two thousand years ago. The physicists could see nothing wrong with their methods, or any flaws in the underlying science, while the archaeologists were equally insistent that the Glozel site was not just implausible. It was impossible. Even when faced with damning evidence that they must, somehow, be mistaken, the physicists had faith in science, as all its practitioners are required to do. This misplaced faith is now enshrined in the pages of Wikipedia, which confidently proclaims the Glozel site to be genuine, solely on the basis of the thermoluminescence data.

It is sometimes said that we live in an age of science, but that is not true. We live in an age of faith. Faith in science. The mediaeval connotations of the phrase ‘an age of faith’ are not out of place, because there is an unquestioning orthodoxy about some key areas of science today, typified by the single voice with which scientists proclaim the origin of the universe in the Big Bang. The original theory has had to be modified more than once. For example, once it had become possible to calculate the mass of the universe, it also became apparent that we couldn’t see four-fifths of it. Hence the invention of ‘dark matter’, ‘invention’ being a mere courtesy title. On encountering such intellectual legerdemain, one is bound to ask: “How can you tell if what you can’t see isn’t there?”

And once the physicists had calculated the age of the universe, it became apparent that the structure seen in the present universe, at the current rate of expansion, couldn’t have been produced in the time available. Hence ‘inflation’. Expansion of the universe had been faster at some unspecified time in the past. Despite this blatant fudging, challenge is heresy; the penalty is excommunication. Naturally, no one likes to be thought a fool, so the silence is self-enforcing. Alternative and equally rigorous theories are not even discussed, or are dismissed outright as crackpottery, a term that would be more appropriate to describe the artifacts from Glozel.

However, it should be noted that there are many fields of science that are comprehensively beyond reproach. Anyone with a basic science education can follow the vast accumulation of evidence in favour of the theory of evolution, for example. Only someone who believes in the literal truth of the Bible would think it plausible to argue against such a well-attested theory, and on the terminally fatuous grounds that evolution contradicts their treasured source of knowledge. But this kind of idiot tends to dismiss all of science as a conspiracy, which of course it is not.

The problem lies with esoteric fields of science such as cosmology and theoretical physics. The vast majority of the general public are unable to follow the assertions of the ‘experts’ in these fields, because the mathematics involved is far too difficult, so they are reduced to accepting such assertions on faith. Ours may be a more sophisticated age, but at root there is little difference between this situation and that of credulous peasants toiling in the fields of ancient Sumer being told of the latest pronouncements by the city’s priests. These latter may have been able to predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, but they also advocated human sacrifice as a means of appeasing the capricious gods whom they alleged caused these events. In this matter only have we advanced in the intervening six thousand years.

3 comments:

  1. Great column! Thought provoking stuff. I'm off to read your Beatles post next…

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dearest... Dennis, I suppose. =]

    First things first, thank you for your positive and encouraging comments on my blog, and for choosing to follow me, which in hindsight sounds a little like I've gained a stalker, but we'll ignore this.

    It's almost hard to comprehend reading blogs such as yours, as somehow you never think you'll understand it... However upon "getting down to it" you raise some intelligent and thought-provoking points in ways I can actually understand.

    I like your writing style very much, and your mix of fact, quotation and personal experience keeps the reader (that would be me) gripped and interested throughout. Good stuff, Mr!

    ReplyDelete
  3. You forgot to leave a link to your blog, Fizzy Sid. Anyone else reading this should note that

    http://shopping-for-snow.blogspot.com

    is well worth a visit.

    ReplyDelete

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