Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XXVI)

Even though Brexit continues to be an ongoing calamity, it's probably time to resume the ever-popular Q&A posts. Don't forget there are actual answers in the links - it's not just me making snide remarks.

1) If nothing can escape from a black hole, why do they have jets ?
Everyone deserves their own private jet. Stop judging them, you socialist.

2) Why is Martin Rees calling for an end to human space missions ?
Because he's an elitist moron.

3) Does centripetal gravity affect different masses differently ?
No. Except for yo momma, because she's so fat.

4) Have we reached the end of physics ?

5) Could we build a space battle cruiser if we really, really needed to ?
Probably, but I say that if we're going to make war on the Universe then we do it properly.

6) If aliens visited Earth, what would be the hardest universal human behaviour to explain ?
Pokemon Go.

7) How do you know that dark matter is diffuse ?
Because I'm clever.

8) Could we all be aliens ?
I suppose so.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Worked Example : Selective Reporting + Prejudicial Language + Bullshitting = ?

Warning for new readers : do not fact check this. It is very deliberately a mixture of facts, mistakes, and stuff I just simply made up off the top of my head (which is an easy and common tactic in making the lies more difficult to spot and easier to believe). Or heck, maybe you should fact check this, but don't bother telling me about it. It also contains overt plagiarism - that's what the links are for, which I hope will make my point clear. There's one quote by David Starkey - I certainly don't wish to depict him as a far-right nutter, but the quote was too good not to use.

"The people of this country have had enough of experts". When Michael Gove - great guy, love that guy - said this, buthurt scientists and their socialist cronies took to their usual twitter-mob tactics to enforce their so-called "social justice", shouting and whining their ever-more bigoted denials with obvious delight at this latest perceived victimisation. I mean it was obvious, we all knew it. The loony left might not like it, but the facts are that Gove was just saying what a lot of people in this country are thinking.

Well, I say it's time to stop pandering to the political correctness being rammed down our throats and face the truth : the delusion of science, spreading through our country like a cancer, threatens everything we hold dear. This dragon, this mortal enemy of all our fundamental values is something which, unchecked, will bring misery and disaster to this country.

Let me tell you, I've done the history on this. I know history. And it's the best history, everyone's telling me. I used to just think anyone who didn't agree was just incompetent. Now I know they're just stupid. So let me tell you the history the science nuts and their phoney Westminster lapdogs don't want you to hear.

For thousands and thousands of years, scientists have been repeatedly proven wrong and yet still they inflict untold suffering on their indoctrinated devotees. And it's not just my opinion either, but accepted fact among historians : not a single historian I spoke to for this report disagreed with me. Not a single one. As far back as ancient Greece we find examples of scientists peddling their nonsense to the vulnerable. From Anaxagoras, who thought the world was flat and earthquakes were caused by winds, to Ptolemy's crystal spheres carrying the planets like flies in amber, no idea was too ridiculous for these so-called "thinkers".

Let me take a moment because they'll tell you I'm taking things out of context. Do you know what that means ? I don't. I don't care about the context, that's for losers. I'm just reporting the facts here, no-one ever calls me a liar because they know I'm right. I'm a successful historian. In fact I'm the historian, I'm a great historian. I'm the greatest historian ever. So don't worry when they whine about context. I know what I'm talking about, and they're just afraid of the truth. And the truth about these scientists is, they're nothing but over-privileged, delusional whiners. They're only dangerous because we've given them far too much power, and that needs to stop right now. But let me finish explaining - because the politicians won't want you to know this - how we got into this sorry mess, because that's the only way we'll find any kind of final solution.

What started as a minor cult soon spread, eventually holding all of the West in a grip of mass hysteria. The ravings of Aristotle, Ptolemy and Galen held us back for a thousand years. Now, at the time, their weirdo mysticism must have seemed harmless enough at first, peddled only to the most gullible and vulnerable - unfortunate, but not looking like any kind of threat to society. Even as their propaganda began to win a wider audience, it wasn't easy for anyone to see how truly destructive this wicked, vicious faith would ultimately prove. That's where people like me come in. We've seen the history, so we know what happens. We can tell you how to deal with people like this.

The dangerous nature of these cranks and charlatans only became apparent as they won influence in society. The mysticism of Kepler, who thought the Earth had a soul (I know, right ? Can you believe that ?!), soon gave way to the alchemical investigations that saw generations of "researchers" poison themselves with toxic chemicals in a search for immortality and increased sexual potency. Some, like Newton, escaped with merely temporary madness. Others were less fortunate.

We might have more sympathy if their reckless disregard for human life had been limited to their own narrow cliques. Sadly, it was not. And that's tragic, it really is. From Roger Bacon's first experiments with gunpowder, to Alfred Nobel's dynamite, centuries of careful, methodical research was devoted to the pursuit of efficient, explosive killing. The grisly anatomical studies of da Vinci and Vesalius provided every detail necessary to refine murder into an art, which was put to deadly effect. From the first muskets to grape shot and, later, machine guns, people like Hiram Maxim devoted years of their lives to the cruel calculation of how to kill as many people as possible. And I mean years, just sitting around coldly working out the best way to rip men and women into shreds. They'll deny it, but everyone knows it. It's just common sense.

For me, the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. I increasingly feel the same way about science. I'm always being accused of science-ophobia, but that's a non-word. I think science is the greatest force for evil in the world today. I’ve said so, often and loudly. What are you talking about ? There's this notion that science and scientists are a protected species. That if we talk about them at all or criticise at all, it's somehow hurting or humiliating scientists. It's a ridiculous idea. But liberals say that designing weapons of mass destruction and silencing opposition is part of their culture. Well, to hell with their culture !

Now, I don't want you to think I'm discriminating against scientists, or just cherry-picking a few examples. All the best historians agree with me. But it's not just history, it's happening today. Those scientists designing vaccines to make your kids autistic are like Fritz Haber designing chemical weapons, or Edward Teller building the first atom bomb. They're the same people. They keep doing it, over and over and over again. They lie and cheat their way to the top and don't care how many people they have to hurt in the process. They're not the right people to have in charge of the country. We have no protection and they have no competence, we don't know what's happening. But it's got to stop and it's got to stop fast.

It's coming from more than just a few researchers. It's coming from all over academia, from Werner von Braun who used slave labour to build the Saturn V rocket, to Joseph Mengele's brutal torture to satisfy his own sadistic "curiosity". Or James Watson telling us that black people are less intelligent. It's coming from Jack Parsons and his occult ravings. And Harry Harlow, the monkey torturer, and Geoff Marcy, convicted of sexual harassment, and Harold Shipman, and Lisa Nowak, the astronaut serial killer. Or Chester Southam, who deliberately infected people with cancer. I bet you hadn't heard of him.

No wonder, you don't need to. The cruelty of this barbarous profession is obvious, you don't really need me to remind you of this. I'm speaking to the libtards out there who call me a racist, but I'm just stating facts. And how many more will it take before people stop sticking their fingers in their ears and face those facts ?  Scientists aren't sending us their best people. They're sending us drugs. They're sending us crime. They're rapists and murderers. And some, I assume, are good people.

The bastards that are in that gang, they are in prison so the public think it's all over. Well, it's not. Because there's more of them. The police force and elected governors haven't done a damn thing about it. Their good textbooks tell them that that's acceptable. If you doubt it, go and buy a copy and you will find page after page of how nuclear weapons work, how nerve gas works, how radiation causes cancer. I honestly don't hate scientists - these people are cockroaches and they're doing what cockroaches do because cockroaches can't help what they do, they just do it, like cats miaow and dogs bark. They do it because they are what they are and they'll do what they do. The people I hate are the politicians who have sold us down the line.

This isn't just fantasy. All these people just have one thing in common : a belief in "rational inquiry". What is that ? I don't know. I don't want to know. We don't need to know what that is, because it's clear - the evidence is real, I've checked it with the best historians - science causes crime. Some people may ask what's the difference between historians and scientists, aren't they all experts ? But we all know the difference. There's a huge difference between an attack on science and an attack on those who practise it - it's not racist to criticise a belief system. I'm not demonising anybody. I'm demonising the political class who let this happen.

... or then again maybe all of this is just a ridiculous, massive selection effect.

Appendix 1 : Specific Details

To clear up the worst of the lies, as far as I know the search for aphrodisiacs was never a driving force of alchemy. I just made that up because it's the sort of the thing the Daily Fail would say (a paper that seems determined that everyone be sexually insatiable but unswervingly straight and monogamous). Edward Teller helped design the atom bomb but he was by no means the project leader, and there was great controversy in the scientific community over its use (Fritz Haber, in contrast, defended the use of chemical weapons). Von Braun did know about slave labour used in the construction of German V2 rockets, but certainly didn't use slaves to build the American Saturn V. Lisa Nowak was charged with attempted murder, and isn't a serial killer.

Some scientists have done brutal, evil things in the name of science*, just as some Muslims have done brutal, evil things in the name of Islam. But very few people think that all scientists are evil just because Fritz Haber, Joseph Mengele or Chester Southam (or indeed a whole host of other unethical biologists) were despicable figures. In part this is because we're aware of how many scientists aren't monsters - as well as the reports about scientists who are genuinely sadistic, we also hear of all the good things they do. In contrast we hear negative reports about Muslims all the time, but rarely about the times they just got on with living their lives they way everyone else does.

* It's true that scientific textbooks state how to do things, not whether or not you should. Religious texts, on the other hand, are subject to all kinds of interpretations even over the most apparently clear passages. Do people sometimes turn to violence because of this ? Of course they do. Does that mean that those who never commit or condone the violence are somehow culpable ? No, of course it bloody doesn't, because that's stupid.

The above text mixes genuine rhetoric from Donald Drumpf, Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and - of all people - Richard Dawkins, as well as my own inventions to provide context*. You can find who said what in the in-article links. It's particularly worrying how easy Dawkins' quotes fit with the other, less erudite figures - only the word "ovine" seems out of place (the "what are you talking about ?" was in a tweet in response to someone else - I included it as it fits very well with the Drumpfian style of short, silly, very personal sentences).

* I'm not so happy with the writing style here - the three main sources all sing the same tune in different ways, and it's hard to invent a consistent style to link them. But I thought it was important to try to show how one could demonise not just scientists, but science itself.

Dawkins' complaint that people are offended is patently absurd : he keeps saying incredibly offensive things and then doesn't understand why people are yelling at him. Sorry Richard, but you cannot go around saying that Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world and expect that Muslims won't be offended.  If someone said the same thing about science, you'd be bloody offended. You'd take it personally. You would not feel that it wasn't a criticism directed at you, you'd feel that you were being abused - and rightly so ! Farage (regarding Romanians more than Muslims) and Griffin do much the same thing. There isn't a "huge difference" between criticising a mode of thought or even a career choice and those who practise it. If you want to make that distinction, you have to be much, much more careful than you can be in 140 character tweets.

One other thing I've noticed is that such figures often say the occasional moderate statement, which their followers then seize on to say, "hah ! look, he's not a racist at all !", or, worse, more intelligent but less involved commentators will say, "it's more complicated than that". It isn't. The occasional mewling about "immigration from the Commonwealth" does not make up for years of roaring about the problems of eastern Europeans. Not all issues are complicated, and preferring some countries to others is just racist anyway. Usually, yes, things are more complicated than they appear on the surface - as indeed this little piece of satire should attest to. It's also important to remember that sometimes the world is frighteningly simple. And depressing.

Appendix 2 : General Demonisation/BullshittingTechniques

Only a Sith believes in absolutes, so please don't assume that anyone who ever makes a mistake or believes one or two crazy ideas is a dangerous madman. The following list comprises both abject bullshitting (especially mixing lies with truth, and wilful ignorance) and warning signs (using anecdotes is fine, only using anecdotes is not; presenting evidence that bad things will happen is OK, but using purely emotive drivel to induce panic is not). So be cautious, mull things over, above all things be prepared to admit you might be wrong, but don't let self-doubt cloud overwhelm you and hide the truth when it becomes clear : a polished turd is still a turd.
  • Never tell a lie when the truth will do. This makes it easier to get away with the lies when you need them. Use a mixture of the truth, half-truths, and massive in-your-face lies. It confuses the heck out of people.
  • Only ever use the truth selectively. But, occasionally say something ostensibly much more moderate. This will give your supporters helpful ammunition against anyone accusing you of being a bigot.
  • A closely-related tactic is to state that you're not demonising the people you are, in fact, demonising. Tell them you're just demonising everything they believe in, because that makes it alright. Whether people actually do believe all this is totally irrelevant.
  • Tell a story, use anecdotes. The narrative structure of cause and effect appeals to something very deep in the human psyche and we're none of us immune to this. Whether your tale really represents the larger picture or not doesn't matter, because people will automatically assume that it does. The story doesn't have to be complicated, it can be as simple as person A did bad thing B to other person C because of reason D. Stating a reason is important, even if it's not true -  if people can see an obvious causal connection, it's even easier for them to assume your story is just a typical example.
  • Scare people. Telling people they're being attacked is just one part of this. Make people angry and thus easier to manipulate. Deliberately make people hate you, then use that to accuse them of bias.
  • If possible, be an expert in the field you're talking about. If yours is a minority viewpoint, your supporters will ignore or try to discredit every single other expert.
  • If that's not possible, don't worry. You can be an expert in a completely different field instead. Your supporters will insist that gives you credibility regardless of what the real experts think
  • If you have no qualifications of any kind, that's fine too ! You can depict yourself as one of the "common people" and don't have to worry about statistics at all. You can also say things like, "that's just common sense" with absolutely nothing to back it up.
  • If you're really desperate, present yourself as a "generalist". Don't refer to your opponents as "experts", instead call them specialists. Your being a generalist gives you magical powers to see things the expe- I mean, narrow-minded specialists can't. Obviously experts are all stereotypical loners with no larger vision at all. That's right, every single one of 'em.
  • Regardless of who you are, always use as many statements that can't be factually verified as possible. Things are "probably" happening, "everyone knows", it's all just "common sense", you have an "opinion", again use personal anecdotes - people naturally learn by induction, not by reading statistics. 
  • A related tactic is to just make bold, confident declarations as though you were stating a fact. Don't give a citation or any kind of qualifier whatsoever, just state this happened. Better yet is to mix this will well-cited genuine facts (also consider citing sources that are hard to find or just plain don't exist, thus sending your opponents on a wild goose chase long after the actual argument is over). Use negatives as much as possible ("not many people use method X") because they're a lot harder to check.
  • But you don't even have to refer to facts at all. Attack the nature of the argument instead of (as opposed to in addition to, which would be rational) the argument itself or its supporting evidence. While all bullshitters use fallacies, educated bullshitters accuse their opponents of using fallacies - often without really understanding them. On the internet this typically looks like someone shouting, "straw man !" for no apparent reason.
  • Emphasise your own amazing qualities as often as possible. Drumpf takes this to absurd new heights, often stating he's a successful businessman as though that gives him legitimacy. Wealth brings goodness, right Socrates ? The trick is to convey authority. It doesn't matter what authority.
  • Use short, snappy sentences.
  • Try to use correlation to infer causation, forgetting any wider statistics, however forced that might seem. "But it tells them to do it in a book !". Exploit the Nirvana fallacy to the hilt : it happened that one time, so it's not perfect, therefore everything about it is bad.
  • Be personal. Although they all have very different styles, just about all the successful populists try to seem like "one of us". They have different ways of doing this, though, "I'm just saying what everyone's thinking" is a common tactic. Whether everyone's really thinking it is completely beside the point.
  • Inconsistency is a strength - be self-contradictory, but be subtle about it. As long as it's not glaringly obvious, instead of making it easy for your opponents to expose your errors it can simply make it literally impossible for them to respond rationally.
  • If presented with an irrefutable counter-argument, simply ignore it. On the internet you can literally do this. In real life the classic politician's technique is to answer a completely different question and keep talking until the interviewer gets bored. "Let me finish !" they say, and occasionally they will eventually give a direct answer, making it impossible for the interviewer to know if it's worth letting them keep talking or not.
  • Alternatively, as an alternative to attacking the nature of the argument, just completely miss the point and/or focus on some very small detail as though it were the most important thing in the world. Pick on one word and wilfully misinterpret it for so long that everyone forgets the real point of the statement.
  • Just keep repeating your argument regardless of how people respond to it. Say it over and over and over again.
  • Escalate. Always raise the stakes, always attack. If something has been exposed as ridiculous, just say something even more ridiculous instead. Never admit you were wrong, except in a very small way to make yourself look moderate.
  • Always go to absurd extremes. Treat everything your opponent says as though they intended the most extreme outcome possible - "we should regulate the banking sector more closely" becomes, "kill all the capitalist pigs !", or just assume that what they said was close enough as makes no difference. Make everything into a, "where do you draw the line ?" problem.
  • Put words in people's mouths. Don't tell them how they should do their job, tell them how they are (supposedly) actually doing their job without bothering to check if it's true. As long as it fits your narrative, your supporters will love it, your detractors will hate it and thus the bias spiral grows and grows. Once you're got some established core support, being as obnoxious as possible to those who disagree is a very powerful weapon.
  • But being obnoxious is about far more than merely being rude. You can be charming and polite : "Villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged". Making yourself seem like the victim can be extremely effective in the right circumstances - again feeding the bias spiral. Great vigilance is required to detect these sorts of people.
  • Strive to make your statements require tremendous energy to refute. Sometimes it can be an asset to make statements which are as wrong as possible. When your opponents refute one aspect of it, say, "ah, but you're forgetting about blah". Blah can be just as wrong, but it doesn't matter. You've kept them focused on petty details. The fact that you have so many arguments is often falsely assumed to be evidence in itself, just as "lots of people believe X" is wrongly assumed to mean they can't all be wrong. They can, and often are. Having a hundred reasons to believe a thing doesn't mean that you don't have a hundred reasons which are all bollocks.
  • Actually believing the idea you want to sell is an optional extra - it can make you passionate, but vulnerable to going too far and saying something really stupid. On the other hand not caring at all leaves you free to say whatever the hell you like, but then you have to be a very accomplished orator to be convincing. The key point is that you care far, far more about winning the argument than about being right. Insist that you won arguments you clearly didn't (a common strategy in political leaders TV debates these days). If you actually care about whether what you're saying and believe is true - I mean the overall idea rather than individual aspects - then you may as well forget it, bullshitting isn't for you.
  • Perhaps most importantly, cherry-pick to the extent that the cherry is likely to go locally extinct within a 50 mile radius of wherever you happen to be.
The hallmark of the bullshitter is the penultimate point. Normal people like to win arguments, but they also like being objectively right. The bullshitter doesn't care about the truth, they care only about winning. They will keep defending their argument long after it's obvious they've lost. On the internet, they will keep blathering even after you tell them you're not listening any more.

So again, be careful not to assume someone is completely beyond hope just because they use one or two of the above methods from time to time, or genuinely believe a few crazy ideas. Take care to distinguish between someone with a passionately-held point of view versus someone who just wants to win whatever the cost. Everyone bullshits to some degree. But when someone persists with many of the above techniques, readily exposing their wilful ignorance while simultaneously professing great knowledge, have no compunctions about exposing them for what they are : a bullshitter. How you persuade people of this is another story.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

They Said I Was Maaaaad !

It's the rallying cry of the pseudoscientist : "Some even call me mad.... And why ? Because I dared to dream of my own race of atomic monsters, atomic supermen! with octagonal shaped bodies that suck blood..."

But it's also one of those very well-known facts that geniuses can come up with seemingly delusional ideas that are later recognised to be revolutionary breakthroughs. It's so well-known that there's even a catchy song about it.

Oh, I wasn't a bit concerned
For from hist'ry I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
They told Marconi wireless was a phony, it's the same old cry

To an extent, this idea is useful - we should always remember that new ideas haven't always been well-received. Skeptical inquiry, attacking an idea to see if it survives, is precisely how the scientific consensus is established. But what some would have you believe, as in the above meme, is that all great revolutionaries were derided as loonies and crackpots - that their "fringe" ideas will one day be recognised for their true greatness and the establishment will have to eat a large helping of humble pie.

But did they really say all these true geniuses were mad ? Who said it ? Why ? How long did they persist before admitting they were wrong ? As far as the, "they said I was mad, but I'll show them !" crowd are concerned, these little details could be anything but. As we've seen, revolutions triggered entirely by lone geniuses are largely - if not entirely - mythical; while there is certainly a germ of truth here, the reality is much more nuanced. Geniuses don't make all their breakthroughs by themselves, revolutions don't really go from zero to paradigm shift overnight and their impact isn't immediately understood.

The myth of the lone genius makes for inspiring stories. Work hard, stay the course, and maybe you too can be the next Einstein. You're not wrong, everyone else is wrong. They're laughing at you ? Well, they did the same to Edison/Columbus/Wegener/etc. too, so that means you're probably a misunderstood genius as well. They're all just too proud to admit that they're wrong. Which is motivational and encouraging, but often it's also damaging and misleading.

And I'm not a historian, so treat the rest of this post with great caution and do let me know if you spot any mistakes.
Of course, scientific beliefs change with time because they're evidence-based and provisional. Few people ever suspect that we've got science well and truly licked, though, inevitably, there are always some people convinced that some particular aspect is completely done and dusted which later turns out to be fundamentally wrong. The question is one of degree : to what extent does the scientific community* act with an attitude of denial rather than skepticism when a new idea comes along ? Is there any truth to this at all, or is it a pure fiction invented by pseudoscientists to justify their half-baked quackery ?

* It's one thing for the lay public to laugh at ideas, and quite another for qualified experts. As the saying goes, the more you research, the crazier your sound to ignorant people. So in this case I'm going to largely ignore public opinion and concentrate only on the mood of the experts.

This is a somewhat subtle notion which can't be readily quantified. First, there's a fine line between rational skepticism ("using what we know currently, let's try and disprove this idea") and denialism ("we already know enough to say that this is definitely not true and nothing will ever change that"). Even apparent deniers are sometimes just full of bluster and can end up changing their minds if sufficiently strong evidence is presented; true skeptics can sometimes be entirely rational but examine every minor detail to a ludicrous degree before accepting a new idea. Attitude is not something you can put a number on, so we'll have to look at - wherever possible - what it was people actually said.

Second, our brains are not Bayesian nets - we don't update our ideas immediately when new evidence is presented. It takes a while for entrenched beliefs to shift. It's one thing to yell, "you crazy loon !" at someone and then five minutes later say, "whoops, I was wrong, how about that", and quite another to engage in a systematic campaign of denial for a few decades. The thing is that even staunch denialism does make sense in some circumstances : at one point there was little or no evidence for a round Earth, so saying, "I think it's round, because the magic pixie told me so" should have been met with denial. Repeating the claim that the magic pixie said so wouldn't have made it any more likely to be correct.

So it's very important to consider what people were saying, how long they were saying it for, and whether they changed their minds for good reasons. All this already makes the notion that all good ideas were once dismissed as crazy to seem like, potentially, a gross over-simplification. All new ideas are rightly considered controversial - almost by definition - but are revolutionary ideas really dismissed as heresy ? Does the establishment really label all dissenters as cranks and crackpots, or just the genuine loonies ?

But did they even do that ? Did they really laugh at all these popular examples pseudoscientists drag up as examples of mainstream science refusing to listen to reason ? Were they treated as merely controversial - which is absolutely the proper way of doing science - or was there a more sinister form of dogmatism at work ? This is a topic I've covered many times before, but today I'll try a new approach of examining specific historical cases. I'll start with those in the first meme and move on to some suggested in a comment and add a few of my own for good measure.

1) Columbus

No, no, no, no, no ! This is a complete and total myth, which, shamefully, is still taught to schoolchildren today. No medieval scholar believed the Earth was flat - if you want to find a time when this belief was widespread among academia, you probably have to go back to a time before classical Greece. Not only that, but even Columbus' crew weren't afraid of such nonsense - indeed as sailors, they would have seen the classic proof that the Earth is round by watching ships slowly disappear below the horizon. This is one of the most pernicious of all the "medieval Christian stupidity" myths that has absolutely no basis in fact.

Well... almost none. It's of course possible that the common people had a different view from scholars and sailors, but the idea that the experts were all given a right good kicking up the intellectual backside by plucky Columbus is pure bunk.

EDIT : Interesting note in a comment - Columbus struggled to drum up funding because he was using an inaccurate value for the circumference of the Earth, which was too small. If he'd stated the correct value - which was known at the time - he'd probably never have gone, since he never could have survived such a long journey across the (apparently) open sea. So one may claim that Columbus was derided by experts but for perfectly sensible reasons - indeed, he never did reach India. No-one could possibly have known that America would get in the way and ruin the trip.

2) Bruno

We've met Bruno before and seen how his case has been twisted to fit an anti-religion agenda, whereas in fact things are much more complicated. At best, he appears to be an extremely rare case of a victim of an anti-science attitude among the Church. In all probability - there's some controversy over what he was actually burned for - it's far more likely that he was burned for a combination of a very bad attitude, plagiarising, and preaching unrelated religious heresies. In any case, he had absolutely no evidence for many of his beliefs, and though some of them did turn out to be correct, he was essentially little more than a mystic and a charlatan - hardly a martyr for science !

As I've said before, it's fine to use a magic pixie to give you ideas, but if your pixie doesn't tell you empirical ways to test those ideas, you need a better scientific advisor. More to the point, if your magic pixie tells you something that turns out to be correct, that does not necessarily vindicate your pixie's supernatural scientific techniques or even prove the existence of your supposed fairy godscientist. You can have ideas for whatever reason you like, but you have to test them in an objective, measurable, repeatable way. Bruno did nothing of the sort - right or wrong, he was still a crazy.

Obviously burning Bruno was a step that was a teensy-weensy bit too far, but if his ideas hadn't been dismissed, we'd also have to put up with people going on about planets made of shrubs and Nazi flying saucers living inside the hollow Sun... oh, God. I just made the fatal mistake of Googling that in case it was a genuine crackpot theory, and it is.

3) The Wright Brothers

This is rather outside my specialist area but it's very difficult to believe that they were "ridiculed and condemned for believing a machine could fly". In 1903 human flight had been a reality for at least 120 years since the Montgolfier brothers launched a balloon; there are reports of the Chinese using kites to lift people in the sixth century A.D. As for machines, the first steerable airships are reported from the late 18th century, while the first engine-powered airship took flight in 1852. Zepplins were already a thing by the time the Wright brothers were flying, and even the powered aeroplane didn't just come out of nowhere - experiments had been underway for many decades (and gliders for even longer). So the idea that the Wright brothers would have been ridiculed merely for proposing that a machine could fly is itself ridiculous. Yeah, I know, it's a meme, and memes are simplifications. But it's still wrong.

On the other hand, one can see why there might be rather more skepticism regarding the idea that heavier-than-air flight was the future, or that Wright's specific machine was such a wonderful revolution. Their first machines were extremely crude, it was not easy to envisage them being scaled up to anything resembling modern jet airliners. Certainly other experimenters were derided in the popular press due to catastrophic failures, yet even the then-famous Samuel Langely had managed to procure substantial government funding for his efforts. While it's true that the still-famous Lord Kelvin was very skeptical about flying machines*, a widespread opinion among experts that this was impossible looks rather unlikely.

* However I cannot find any reliable confirmation that he really said, "heavier than air flight is impossible", as is often quoted. That would have meant he denied the existence of birds, which is stupid. What he actually said was (somewhat) more moderate, albeit still strongly skeptical.

About the closest thing I can find to this is a quote from Scientific American, which is remarkably similar to a ClickHole article :
“If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter…would not have ascertained all about them and published…long ago?”
Interestingly, there appear to be strongly conflicting reports as to how much publicity the Wrights generated and wanted. Forbes has it that they were publicity-shy, yet newspaper reports don't necessarily back this up; others have it that the press were skeptical about the possibility of powered heavier-than-air flight (though this didn't last long). The general opinion seems to be that they wanted to keep things under wrap until they had a solid financial plan, which ironically meant a lack of publicity that could have generated business interest.

So although there might have been an element of media denial, it doesn't look like that was borne out in the opinion of mainstream experts. I couldn't find any evidence of the Wright brothers being ridiculed by aeronautical experts, and even if they were, that could easily be attributed to them being overly-secretive - and it was, of course, dramatically and totally overturned in the space of a few short years. And if you Google, "Wright brothers ridiculed", you find results dominated by pseudoscience and related posts : "they were ridiculed" appears to be something people say to justify their silly theories, not something that actually happened.

4) Vesalius

I know even less about this dude than the Wright brothers, so this is limited to purely internet-based fact checking. Vesalius was a 16th century anatomist who was among the first to re-check the claims of the Greek physician Galen, who, it's fair to say, was treated quite wrongly as an authority beyond question. Certainly dogmatic thinking is a very real thing, of which the near-veneration of Galen is akin to that of Aristotle or Ptolemy. But what happened when Vesalius dared challenge the thousand-year gospel of Galen ?

It seems that reactions were somewhat mixed. He did suffer attacks for some of his discoveries, but I could find only one source claiming that he was denounced as a "heretic and imposter" (an odd choice of word - who was he impersonating ?), which is a self-confessed unorthodox book claiming that there's a very simple cure for cancer. The author also denies HIV is a disease and that chemtrails are actually a thing, for god's sake. Similarly, this very clearly biased website implies that the Church was very strongly opposed to dissections and that Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to avoid the Inquisition, which is now refuted by most scholars.

More reliable sources note that while he was subject to some vicious, personal individual attacks for taking on Galen ("the insolent and ignorant slanderer who… treacherously attacked his teachers with violent mendacity and time and time again distorted the truth of nature"), unauthorised copies of his books became available extremely quickly - hardly a sign of ridicule !

So my naive verdict would be that this is again largely a myth. You can always find someone to ridicule anything, just like you always can find anyone to agree with anything. There seems to be little or no evidence that Vesalius suffered anything like widespread ridicule or accusations of heresy, though it's worth noting that dogmatic thinking was definitely occurring even so.

5) Harvey

Another web-based fact checking exercise. At last, this one appears to have a grain of truth in it. Harvey was a highly respected physician who attended to no less than two kings , but he did lose some support due to his findings on blood circulation. Exactly how much is difficult to say, but it seems something of a stretch to say he was "disgraced" as a physician. He never lost his head or even his job, and though support for his findings was mixed (being rather more popular in his native England), he seems to have gradually won more converts within his own lifetime. Even so, he was not happy with the treatment he received from some of his detractors :
"You know full well what a storm my former lucubrations raised. Much better is it oftentimes to grow wise at home and in private, than by publishing what you have amassed with infinite labour, to stir up tempests that may rob you of peace and quiet for the rest of your days."
So it seems fair to say that Harvey was discredited by some experts, but it's very hard to say if this was the majority viewpoint or not. Could it have been a vocal minority that were hounding him ? Possibly. It would take a proper historian to answer this one, but it seems to me unlikely that he was widely regarded as a crank.

6) Galileo 

Everyone's standard go-to scientist for "proof" of the dogmatic evils of the Catholic Church. We've met him before, and it seems pretty clear to most modern historians that the case is rather more complicated than science vs. religion. However there was an element of this (much more so than with Bruno), particularly due to an unusually strict Inquisitor, but equally, his evidence for some claims was just not all that good. The idea of heliocentricism was genuinely scientifically controversial at the time - even Galileo himself implicitly acknowledged this, publishing ideas as a series of fictional debates (albeit one-sided ones).

Galileo did not shy away from courting controversy on other issues besides the more famous heliocentrism (read that link for a full description of how and why it became as controversial as it did -  Galileo himself is probably partially to blame*). But was he widely dismissed as a crackpot ? There seems to be little evidence of that, though undoubtedly his ideas on heliocentrism were controversial. A perhaps appropriate modern analogy might be Fred Hoyle, who more or less everyone acknowledges as a great scientist despite being wrong about a lot of things. Galileo was right, but he didn't really have the evidence to convince everyone - though again, there certainly was an element of dogmatic religious thinking going on here.

* Galileo was a brilliant but complex man. Reportedly he liked engaging in "robust conversations" with anyone who disagreed with him, Church or no. For example although he corresponded with Kepler, he apparently mocked his (correct) idea about the Moon being responsible for tides, and just never responded when Kepler suggested that planetary orbits might be elliptical. On the other hand, this didn't stop him from recommending Kepler for a mathematics position ! This attitude, as I can attest from first-hand experience, is not so uncommon today - some professors only respect you once you start to fight back.

As far as the meme goes, Galileo was placed under house arrest, which is a bit different to being thrown in prison. Galileo didn't invent the idea of heliocentrism, nor were his predecessors even arrested for their ideas. So as to the direct implication of the meme that Galileo was arrested because heliocentrism was not tolerated - well it's just not that simple.

7) Everything That Can Be Invented...

Not exactly a case of an individual having a crazy-but-true theory, but still a classic example of scientific hubris. This popular quoteable quote does seem to be an urban legend - apparently originating not from a patent commissioner, but a joke in an 1899 issue of Punch magazine. But what of the other widely-reported idea that scientists near the end of the 19th century thought they'd basically got everything licked ?

There may be some truth to this. Wikipedia states that, in the last years of the 19th century, no-one would have believed that physics was not all it was cracked up to be :
So profound were these and other developments that it was generally accepted that all the important laws of physics had been discovered and that, henceforth, research would be concerned with clearing up minor problems and particularly with improvements of method and measurement.
But was it really generally accepted ? Harder to say. This discussion thread gives arguments for and against; certainly there were examples of deep hubris, but the general mood is something much less easy to determine. Let's assume that really was the case. It didn't last very long - the few short years at the start of the 20th century saw long-held ideas saw an undisputed scientific revolution. Despite the magnitude and outlandish nature of his claims, few seem to have regarded Einstein as a crank. Controversial, sure - but that's not the same as dismissing someone as a crackpot, and it was hardly as though the scientific establishment wasn't prepared for new ideas.

8) Invention of Lasers

While the laser resulted in a Nobel prize for its inventors within just ten years, it does seem to have been met with very strong skepticism from extremely qualified experts. But not for very long. Wikipedia cites that one of the inventors was told it was impossible by scientists no less presitigious than Neils Bohr. Yet reading the source material, it's clear that it's hardly the case that they were widely dismissed as crackpots :
I described the maser and its performance. "But that is not possible," he [Bohr] exclaimed. I assured him it was... After I told him [von Neumann] about the maser and the purity of its frequency, he declared, "that can't be right !" But it was, I replied, and I told him it was already demonstrated... A younger physicist in the department, even after the first successful operation of the device, bet me a bottle of scotch that it was not doing what we said (he paid up). 
So a bit of a grilling from some experts. But by no means all.
Engineers... never had a hard time with the precise frequency the maser produced. They accepted as a matter of course that a maser oscillator might do what it did... Rabi and Kusch, themselves in a similar field, for this reason accepted the basic physics readily. But for some others, it was startling. 
And at least some of the doubters - and let's please also bear in mind that the inventors were able to publish papers and secure funding for their experiments - changed their minds very quickly when the physics was properly explained to them :
I am not sure I ever did convince Bohr... After I persisted, he said, "Oh, well, yes, maybe you are right," but my impression was that he was simply trying to be polite to a younger physicist. Von Neumann... wandered off and had another drink. In about 15 minutes he was back. "Yes, you're right," he snapped. Clearly, he had seen the point.
So, widespread dismissal ? Hell no. Not a bit of it. It's true that they had some brief problems getting the paper published - but that seems to be only because they tried for a prestigious journal which had just published a supposedly similar paper (very prominent journals try to focus on novel ideas). Dismissed as cranks ? Laughed at ? Ridiculed ? Not in the slightest.

9) Radio Waves From Spaaaaaace !

Ummm.... no ? Plenty of scientists were expecting to find radio waves from space decades before this actually happened, though the precise apparatus required wasn't properly understood. However, it's true that the discovery of the ionosphere discouraged efforts, as it blocks long-wavelength radiation. It's also true that the eventual detection was serendipitous and didn't exactly have people dancing in the streets. Jansky himself did no further research* into radio astronomy, but the first dedicated radio telescope was built just a few years later. Even WWII didn't stop research completely, though things didn't really pick up until the 1950s.

* Jansky was working for a private company and there wasn't any obvious commercial application of his discovery. Things would almost certainly had been different if he'd been working at a university.

I can't find any evidence that anyone trying to start doing radio astronomy was ever ridiculed. I suppose it could be argued that people stopped looking for radio waves after the discovery of the ionosphere, but a) that's a bit different from calling people names and b) it could also have just been due to the technological limitations of the time (detecting emission at different wavelengths can require radically different instruments). At most, you could make a plausible argument that it took a while until the importance of radio astronomy was widely accepted.

10) Magnetic Fields in Galaxies

The magnetic field in our own Galaxy.
Given that so many of the fundamental breakthroughs in electromagnetism were made in the 19th century, it comes as no surprise to learn that efforts to detect magnetic fields in space were underway in the early 20th century. This, however, is much the most difficult of the topics to research - it's important, but nowhere near as revolutionary as the other topics. And unfortunately it's dominated by the "Electric Universe" crew. Unlike the political institution, this EU is not well-regarded in the scientific community - long story short, it's considered to be just plain wrong. EU advocates are essentially confined only to the internet, where they make all the usual, "they said I was mad ! scientists are dogmatic !" claims of any group of true believers the establishment has discredited.

I don't particularly want to go in to that. It's possibly something - eventually - for a future post, but right now we need to cut to the chase. The problem is that the discovery of a galactic-wide magnetic field was predicted by Hannes Alfvén in 1937, who is basically idolised by the EU community in much the same way that Tesla and Zwicky are sometimes worshipped by their fanboys elsewhere on the internet. This means that researching this comes up with all manner of websites bluntly stating things that just aren't true or can't be verified, e.g. that Alfvén predicted the filamentary structure of the Universe in 1963 (there's no record of this on ADS), that for some reason this "confounded" (well at least it's not "baffled"....) astrophysicists in 1991 (it was actually known by the early 1980's), that this "added to the woes of Big Bang cosmology" (it does nothing of the bloody sort !), or that mainstream astronomers think that black holes cause galaxies to spin - which we just don't, because that's stupid.

The only thing I can reliably determine here is that Alfvén was indeed a controversial figure. He won scholarships, professorships, and ultimately the Nobel prize - hardly the sign of being regarded as a crackpot - yet apparently he had difficulty publishing papers. Certainly his proposed alternative cosmology is derided as mad, because it is. Similarly, Halton Arp was both widely respected for his Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies but condemned for his bizarre ideas about redshift. But did Alfvén face ridicule specifically for proposing that galaxies have magnetic fields ? About the only thing I can find is that it was "generally disregarded" and, shamefully, when the fields were discovered his original proposal wasn't acknowledged. Alas, getting to the bottom of this requires a true science historian and a genuine expert in plasma physics.

11) You Will Not Go To Space Today

Rockets have been in use for more than 700 years, but it wasn't until the 20th century that they received any amount of serious theoretical and practical attention from scientists. American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard was, if not ridiculed by the establishment, certainly not taken entirely seriously and was indeed lambasted in the press. The problem, perhaps, was that for the bulk of their already long history, rockets had been pretty crappy - powerful and terrifying, but wildly inaccurate. Using them to travel anywhere must have seemed like trying to ride a tiger.

Goddard seems to have been able but reluctant to publish, at least in part due to trepidation about how this would be received by the scientific community. However, the media attacks were vicious and unjustified, famously (and totally erroneously) claiming that rockets can't work in space*. No scientist would ever have said such nonsense (Goddard published rebuttals in scientific journals), though there are plenty of idiots still claiming such tripe today, but dealing with a hostile media appears to have sent Goddard into hiding. Things did change in his lifetime, but slowly. It perhaps didn't help matters that one of the other great pioneers of American rocketry was an out-and-out fruitcake.

* Even worse was their assertion of Einstein and colleagues as a scientific elite authority - urrrgh !

Unfortunately, while it's trivial to find out what the ignorant press were saying, it's nigh-on impossible to find out what scientists were saying. Many articles mention criticism from other scientists, but actual quotes appear to be non-existent. Clearly the responses must have been mixed, because he was publishing papers and securing patents and funding (albeit at a modest level). Goddard appears to have been naturally shy, but dealing with criticism is fundamental to the scientific method - given the track record of rockets at that point, harsh criticism might well be expected.

Goddard produced a memorable quote to a reporter :
Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realised, it becomes commonplace.
While true, thus far it's not seeming very likely that every good idea seems like a joke to the expert community, although Goddard would surely have approved of the Ig Nobel Prizes. But however strong the criticism in the US, elsewhere in the world Goddard and his rockets were being taken very seriously indeed.

12) Death From Above

That rocks from space occasionally collide with the Earth is now such an absolute certainty that it's almost difficult to believe that at one point, the scientific establishment was having none of it. The problem is that impacts are so rare that it's incredibly unlikely a scientist would just happen to be in the right place at just the right time to witness such an event. Terrestrial meteor craters are not always easy to spot or to distinguish from volcanic craters, similarly volcanoes were invoked to explain lunar craters (never mind the bizarre alternative pseudoscientific theory of "world ice"). Meteor showers were once explained as being the results of volcanic explosions or even an atmospheric phenomena, until eventually a meteorite impact had such a large number of witnesses that it couldn't be discounted.

It's worth remembering that at the time, the existence of the asteroid belt was utterly unknown. Theories of the formation of the Solar System were still in their infancy (perhaps they still are); no-one could reliably predict the existence of countless small rocks floating around in space. In contrast, volcanoes were definitely a known thing, as was lightning. So a terrestrial/atmospheric origin was much more likely given the evidence at the time. Thomas Jefferson even said that he'd rather believe that a professor would lie than the idea that "stones would fall from heaven".

There doesn't seem to have been a single leading figure in the early days of the extraterrestrial meteor hypothesis - it was a slow, gradual accumulation of evidence. Although there were those who ridiculed the idea, overall, it seems to have been little more than ordinary, entirely legitimate skepticism. Widespread ridicule, once again, does not seem to have been much of a thing, and in the worst case it quickly faded as the evidence mounted.

13) The Big Bang 

Oh, delicious irony. Pseudoscientists today just love to try and debunk the Big Bang, claiming (as mainstream scientists had once done) that it's nothing more than stealth Creationism. Yet it took many decades before the Big Bang was established as the mainstream viewpoint, and during that time things did indeed get ugly - with Fred Hoyle famously coining the very term, "Big Bang" as a pithy way to dismiss it*. Nowadays the Steady State theory belongs firmly in the realm of pseudoscience, though an unsteady state model might be feasible if you have an inexplicable desperation to avoid a "creation" event.

* He also said, "The reason why scientists like the "big bang" is because they are overshadowed by the Book of Genesis. It is deep within the psyche of most scientists to believe in the first page of Genesis", while simultaneously advocating something approaching the strong anthropic principle. It's fair to say that his views on science and religion were anything but simple.

So indeed the worm has decisively turned on this one. But was mainstream science being overly-dismissive of the idea ? Initially, probably not - if the only evidence was galaxy redshifts, it made sense to consider other options. But as the evidence gathered (an unavoidably slow process), the theory won more converts. There was certainly a strong element of prominent, public denial and even ridicule - but any argument that the main community had a persistent adherence to the older order doesn't stand up. Moreover, the instigator of the idea - Georges Lemaître - was on speaking terms with Einstein and Eddington, so the reception was very much "mixed", with not much hint of any one-sided derision of crackpottery.

14) Wegener

Alfred Wegener is someone I've long proposed should have a law akin to the more famous Godwin's Law - just as anyone mentioning Hitler instantly loses the argument, so should anyone comparing their theory to Wegener's ideas on continental drift. It's true that he was vindicated long after his death after being almost completely dismissed during his lifetime. It's also true that, although not a geologist, he presented a good deal of evidence in support of his theory.

Wegener appears to have been misunderstood for a variety of reasons. On the more positive side, he didn't speak good English so didn't defend his theory when aspects of it were misunderstood. He also didn't produce a satisfactory mechanism to explain it (though he did speculate along very promising lines), which for an idea this radical was a huge disadvantage. And other explanations seemed largely able to deal with the known problems without recourse to such a novel idea. The more negative aspect is that Wegener wasn't a geologist, and scientists don't always appreciate experts in other fields (i.e. non-experts) contradicting their ideas. The problem is that there's a very good reason for that : the non-experts are usually wrong !

Wegener, like Hitler, is an extreme case - it doesn't make a lot of sense to compare fringe ideas to Wegener any more than you should compare the EU to Nazi Germany. It's true that unlike Bruno, he had good evidence for his ideas - but he still had little clue about the mechanism. And while he was mocked for continental drift, it doesn't seem to have done his main career (as a polar researcher) much harm. Which is not so uncommon as you might think.


Scientific credibility, like most things, is a spectrum - ranging from mathematical certainties to absolute drivel. There isn't always a clear line between mainstream science, fringe ideas, and abject pseudoscience - but it's usually possible to differentiate between promising ideas and really stupid ones. By and large, ideas which have been extensively labelled by experts for prolonged periods as mad have tended to actually be mad.

Of course, science is a human endeavour subject to all the usual flaws, despite the many safeguards in place to minimise them. Yet in general, if you have to resort to saying, "I'll be vindicated one day !" then you've basically admitted you don't have enough evidence to support your claim. True, occasionally such claims are borne out - but the road of scientific progress is littered the corpses of far more such ideas that were simply wrong. Saying, "the establishment got it wrong once" in absolutely no way whatsoever implies that your terrible idea is somehow actually a good idea.

"Bah, you experts said the Titanic was unsinkable ! Yer fancy book-learnin' don't scare me nuffin' !"
It's all very well to point out that the public and the media have unleashed scathing criticism on some ideas - that's pretty common, you're on very firm ground with that one. And not all that unexpected either, since the lay public are by definition not as qualified as experts. It's also useful to remember not to pay too much attention to the slings and arrows, because reality doesn't care what people think of it.

But if you want to claim that all the experts just aren't listening, the popular historical examples suggest that you're on very thin ice indeed. Many of these appear not to have happened at all - the experts never dismissed Columbus or the Wright brothers. Others are more complicated - some experts did react strongly, only to retract their objections later (in some cases in a matter of minutes), while often there's a strong element of the historian's fallacy at work : often the evidence just wasn't good enough, and the dismissal was nothing more than standard skeptical inquiry without which science would never get anywhere.

It's really, really hard to find any clear examples of widespread, prolonged expert dismissal that flies in the face of the evidence. Certainly individuals are wholly capable of this (Fred Hoyle being the classic example), while widespread prolonged dismissal by the press happens quite often (e.g. Robert Goddard, climate change). Wegener probably comes closest to this, but even he didn't really have a good mechanism to explain continental drift, so it's not quite the same as if the evidence was being ignored. As for Alfvén, that's a possibility - the problem is that since his sainthood by the Electric Universe lot, it's damned hard to find anything about him that isn't unequivocally biased. Possibly, like Wegener, he never made a determined effort to convince his detractors, or possibly his good ideas were drowned out by his unnecessarily radical alternative cosmology.

I hate this quote. The thing about skepticism is that you have to fight back. That's part of the point : to provoke debate, not suppress it. If, like Goddard and Wegener, you don't really try, no-one's ever going to believe you. Which is an unfortunate reality for those not prepared to fight their corner. You can have an idea as crazy as you like, but if you don't have evidence to support it and you don't try to defend it, there's no reason to expect people to believe it. If people dismiss you and you still believe it, keep trying to get new evidence. But if absolutely everyone is still against you, perhaps you're, well, just wrong ?

Pseudoscientists love to play the, "they laughed at all these guys" card. As we've seen, that's an over-simplification at best, and at worst it's just not true. It's also an admission of weak evidence, which means there's little reason to prefer their ideas to any others. Of course all new ideas are treated with skepticism and are often controversial, but that's trivial and hardly worth mentioning. But, as far as I can tell, the evidence for systematic, widespread expert denial appears to be very thin indeed. Even when dogmatic thinking was occurring, such as with the veneration of Galen and Aristotle*, once evidence began to be presented, opinions changed.

* It's very unlikely that such authority figures could dominate science again. Most genuine experts are well aware that even the leading names in their fields make mistakes, because it wouldn't be research if you knew what they were doing. Some people carry more weight than others, but no-one is beyond question. However for other ways in which freedom of thought can be stifled in modern academia, see this.

Still, I want to end on a a couple of caveats. First, a few months ago I came across an article which looked to be the Platonic ideal for the pseudoscientists : claims that mainstream academia had not only dismissed ideas of animal consciousness/intelligence for many years, but also dismissed researchers from their posts for going against the mainstream. It appeared to be well-cited and with numerous examples. Despite a great deal of searching I've been unable to find it again. If anyone out there has any idea which article I'm talking about, do get in touch.

Second though, I'm not a historian, and I found quite a lot of "absence of evidence" - people claim there was scientific criticism, but the original statements aren't available. So the truth of the matter might not be quite as one-sided as it appears. Still the point remains that it's important to understand who was doing the ridiculing, for how long, and whether they changed their mind. It's not enough to simply declare, "they said Columbus was mad !". For this to justify fringe ideas, their has to be a broad similarity, not a superficial one : a consistent, widespread dismissal of clear evidence by mainstream experts. As far as I can tell, this is a very rare thing indeed, whereas the failure of pseudoscience appears to be something close to absolute. The truth is like a lion in one important regard : it's big and fluffy and sometimes it bites you. Or something.

Even with these caveats I'm surprised at the strength of this result, the possible animal intelligence article notwithstanding. Although strongly-worded debates are part and parcel of changing the consensus, still, I expected to find at least a few cases where the bulk of the establishment had persistently ignored or condemned strong evidence - conservative thinking is an entirely natural human tendency. Yet there appears to be not a single case of someone initially seen as a crank who presented good evidence still being widely treated as a crank, even in the Middle Ages when science, faith and mysticism were intimately connected. Curiosity, open-mindedness, and a simple desire to learn are not so easy to suppress, nor, though it undoubtedly does happen, do either religious or scientific institutions inevitably act to enforce dogma. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

I Don't Own You

We've gone and got ourselves into a right pickle. Anyone holding even a single non-mainstream opinion is derided as an "anti-intellectual", while anyone who ever says "anti-intellectual" is seen as part of the "establishment" or worse, the "elite", a snob bent on telling people what to think in order to keep the plebs/old people/the great unwashed in line. This was merely annoying when this was confined to the criticism of so-called "ivory tower" scientists, but as it strays into politics we might - potentially - be witnessing the development of something very dangerous.

A little while back I wrote about the supposed historical conflict between science and religion. It's not entirely unfounded, but the extent to which it actually happened appears to have been vastly exaggerated. It is, with certainty, not necessary that such a conflict occur, provided science and religion mind their own business. I also referenced this interesting article, which has it that most people believing non-mainstream ideas actually try and use science to support their claims, which is clearly much more subtle and complicated than a simple anti-science crusade. And I also gave a personal example of two very intelligent staunchly pro-science people, who both hold some non-mainstream opinions, getting quite cross with each other.

This would all suggest that maybe things are not as bad as those proclaiming widespread anti-intellectualism would have it. The "flaw of averages" means that hardly anyone believes in all mainstream ideas; human beings being fallible and irrational creatures, it's scarcely an extrapolation to say that everyone believes at least some things which just aren't true. To take this to extremes, not all Creationists are hell-bent on taking down the entire scientific establishment - a few are actually entirely respectable radio astronomers. That certainly came as a shock to me, but it's quite true - they treat the whole thing as a sort of cute intellectual exercise.

If your basis for "anti-intellectualism" is, "anyone who disagrees with the consensus on anything", then we're all anti-intellectuals. And yet... if you're going to say things like, "we've had enough of experts", or "experts said the Titanic was unsinkable" to justify your ideological beliefs... then yes, you are being anti-intellectual - the vast majority of Six Day Creationists do seem to be willing science deniers; Flat Earthers are science deniers by definition. It is foolishness indeed to pretend this never happens. It can be very unpleasant to say it, but some people are genuinely very stupid and/or not only refuse to think rationally, but wish everyone else would refuse to as well. The truth can often be the most offensive thing of all.
The consensus does get it wrong, obviously. But it's an extreme Nirvana fallacy to say that "because you got this one thing wrong, all these other things are probably wrong too". Literally everyone in the entire world is wrong about some things - sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad ones - so it's completely unrealistic to expect that the "wisdom of crowds" (people arriving at independent conclusions) will always produce the right answer, even if it had all the relevant facts. You can harp on about the Titanic or continental drift as much as you like, but the fact is that the vast majority of ideas which seem like utter bollocks are indeed just utter bollocks.

The comments on the above tweet make it clear that, unsurprisingly, people don't like being told what to think, and they especially don't like having their own stupidity pointed out to them. E.g., "Rhetoric like this is why so few were swayed by your arguments. You are self defeating." And this is indeed one of the biggest problems I have with Neil deGrasse Tyson : he talks the talk (science is about getting things wrong) but he can't walk the walk (he wouldn't admit he got anything wrong if it hit him with a hammer). The attitude of some science popularisers* succeeds for precisely the same reason that demagogues like Donald Drumpf succeed : they're uncompromising men who are easy to admire, using the same old "us versus them" rhetoric which has been fabulously, destructively successful for so much of human history.

* This is a somewhat subjective opinion, however, as certainly not everyone gets the same impression as NGT as I do - a smug, supercilious, arrogant little SOB with the charisma of an erudite yet pedantic turnip.

And yet, for all that, the problem is that the "anti-intellectualism" cry seems to me to be a response to some really batshit crazy extreme positions - positions so extreme that normal rules do not apply. Like the Flat Earth. Now, I like to think I'm a patient person. Some of my art takes months, some papers take years. Yet when presented with the notion that the Earth is flat or that vaccines cause your genitals to drop off or your cat to grow sixteen extra heads, I give up. Some people don't - they maintain the pure evidence-based arguments with saintly devotion to the cause of logic, gentle persuasion, and reason. Yet even these people are not enough to convince some hardliners, who seem to earnestly believe that knowledge is no match for wilful ignorance. And then we end up in this horrible, ghastly, bias spiral in which anyone who holds some opinion is seen as irrecoverably biased, an idiot not worth arguing with.

"Not a late paleolithic era supporter are you ? Think you're better than me ? I'll have you, you scrawny twat !"
The bias spiral is one of the most successful of the bullshitting techniques of modern politics and pseudoscience alike. Can't win against the objective facts ? Then don't try - attack the nature of the arguments, which are far more subjective and therefore much harder for your opponents to debunk. If not strictly impossible to refute, debating the nature of the argument at least shifts the debate away from those pesky facts. It's good to understand popular fallacies, but as a general rule, when the argument shifts to identifying what fallacy your opponent is using, everyone has lost.

I don't want to tell you what to think. I certainly don't want to tell you what to do. I just want most people to agree, most of the time, that objectively measurable facts are indeed correct. I don't want to enforce a false consensus (in fact a consensus is stronger, not weaker, when there are dissenting voices because a consensus arises through considering alternatives), I don't even want to stop people from questioning scientific findings - but I draw the line when legitimate skepticism (the basis of science) shifts to paranoid denial. And I'm sorry, but if you're going to go off spouting gibberish about the Earth being flat they said Galileo was crazy hahahah look at my pie chart, then I for one can't help but call you an idiot.

Well... actually, in another world, perhaps I could. If we were limited to purely academic disputes with zero real-life consequences, this might all be fun and games - but being able to think rationally matters in politics as much as science. If your voting rights are going to affect me, then I want to know that you're capable of making at least half-sensible choices. Moreover, were we still limited to slowly writing letters, I might have the time to write back saying (in more polite terms) that you just have an idiotic belief - which is altogether different from saying you're an idiot, because everyone's got some idiotic beliefs. Unfortunately we've got this wonderful thing called "the internet", which is an incredibly powerful mechanism for sharing pictures of kitties.

Like almost anything of great power, the internet is capable of being used for both virtuous and nefarious purposes. Cat pictures can tell us profound truths...

... or outright lies.

The internet is a great and terrible thing. Everyone can have their say, every opinion counts, every voice can be heard. The problem is that even the true idiots get their say as loudly as people who've studied issues for decades, expert opinion is not given any extra weight, every voice must be heard no matter how utterly stupid it is. Simply by tail-end-of-the-Gaussian effects (a small fraction of any population always believe arbitrarily ridiculous things), we now have to listen to people who really aren't worth listening to, as though open-mindedness were always a virtue in any circumstance. It isn't. And depending on who you believe, we must either not allow anyone to say anything offensive at all, or we have to allow people to make death threats for any reason (woe betide any who say we should find a middle ground between the two !); perhaps most dangerously of all we can't call out people's stupidity or disrespect them because "that's offensive" - even when what they're saying is dangerous and deserves to be shot down. The democratic process is being perverted to an absurd absolute.

The sheer mass of misinformation on the interent forces quick responses. If you ever try moderating a large community, you'll quickly find that fighting the tide of pseudoscience is like Canute's (deliberately) vainglorious attempt to hold back the sea. Would I like to try and respond in detail to absolutely every non-mainstream idea ? You betcha. The problem is that if I did that I would have literally no time left at all to do anything else whatsoever, including pooping. And I need to poop. So that demands the wholly unsatisfactory, "I'm sorry we don't allow that here" response, which people naturally object to.

Small wonder that if you see me dismissing your theory out of hand you might see me as "biased" or a "true believer" - but you're not seeing the full picture. You're not seeing the dozens of other, completely different theories about the exact same topic I could also spend hours and hours refuting. Would you choose to do this in your free time voluntarily ? A few saintly individuals would, and I commend them, but it obviously isn't for everyone.

Entropy, the sea, pseudoscience... poor Canute.
But would you really see me as a member of the "elite" ? Or at least seeing myself as a member of the elite, which is just as bad ? Because that's just so neeeeeeaarrggooooooaaaaargh level of wrong that words fail me. Saying, "the opinion of a heart surgeon should count for more than the opinion of an eel catcher when it comes to doing heart surgery" is not elitist. Unless, of course, that heart surgeon also professes an intimate knowledge of eel-catching despite having caught exactly zero eels. Such intellectual snobbery does exist, but my impression is that this behaviour is now assumed (by some) to be the case for any and all academic experts.

Professional athletes don't have this problem. No-one describes an Olympian as an "elite" with the implication that they're some sort of snob. Yet anyone who's ever been seen as a nerd in school will recognise this as the more adult version of "swot" or "geek" or indeed "nerd", with "intellectual" itself having the same connotations in some quarters. "Oh, he thinks he's better than us !" they say, after repeated insults on the basis of a presumed greater intelligence*. It's nothing more than the politics of the schoolyard, writ large.

* It's actually, in my opinion, nothing of the sort - people are just good at solving different sorts of problems. I think we'd all be a lot happier if we stopped assuming that people good at astrophysics must know the slightest thing about climate change.

Fortunately, public perception of experts may not be as bad as it may appear if you spend much time on the internet / verbal diarrhoea dispensation network, where the anti-intellectuals are given an undeservedly loud voice. In at least some circumstances, experts are still more trusted than any other group. Maybe the reason that public opinion contrasts strongly with the expert consensus is because the expert voice is drowned by politicians, media commentators, and other enthusiastic but malevolent interest group. The media may over-report experts who go against the consensus in an entirely legitimate (but extreme) effort at impartiality, or, far worse than that, because of inherent media bias. Hence trust in experts may not be all that low, it's just that the experts aren't being reported accurately or completely.

Yet clearly if a government minister can say, "we've had enough of experts", we've got a real problem on our hands - even if that remark wasn't widely appreciated, the fact that he said it at all is a cause for concern. All social groups have their stigmas - models are seen as dumb bimbos, pop stars are seen as wildly hedonistic socialites, golfers are seen as boring, experts are seen as aloof or even hostile. As this very nice article from The Independent puts it (slightly edited here) :
In a study published in 2015... The authors argue that for an expert to be high on trustworthiness they need three characteristics: expertise, integrity and benevolence. For us to rate a person as a trustworthy expert they need to know their information, to be honest and to be good-hearted. This is problematic when we live in a world in which the idea persists that experts are mad geniuses with no moral compass who constantly need their egos stroked. As it turns out, most of us don’t trust people we believe to be narcissistic psychopathic geniuses. 
When experts talk, they often fill the air with complicated words and unintelligible acronyms. Experts seem to want non-experts to rise to their level of sophistication, rather than approaching non-experts with appropriate language... Using words and phrases that most people don’t understand in everyday conversation and through the media can be seen as an elitist attempt to assert intellectual dominance. In this time of crisis and expert shaming, we need to stop blaming the public for not listening to experts and give a stern talking to the experts themselves.
I hope that's true, because if it is, the problem is relatively easy to address. To re-iterate, do you really see me as an elitist snob ? I hope not. If the problem is that experts aren't seen as being nice : well, we are ! We're very nice ! Look how nice we are !

The back of the shirt reads, in large pink friendly letters, "ARECIBO : THAT'S THE PLACE THAT I'M REPPIN'"

Here I am, hard at work suppressing the plebs.
OK, if not me, then what about this guy ? Are you seriously going to look me in the eye and tell me Professor Ethan Siegel is any kind of a snob, and if you are, WTF is wrong with you ? Do you think the blue spandex angel costume company is a tool of oppression ?

That said, and notwithstanding the vast amount of excellent outreach material available on the internet (though it's not always easy to find), experts have long tried to main an air of cool, authoritarian detachment. There's a certain logic to this, the idea being to convey an impression of total objectivity, unhindered by the emotional passions that sway the rest of us. In some cases, that's probably still a good thing - I'm not sure I'd want a surgeon to go around dressed in a skin-tight bright blue angel costume. But then with doctors and nurses and the other healthcare professionals, benevolence is an intrinsic part of the job, everyone already knows they fundamentally care about people. Not so with astrophysics, climate science, economics or politics. Consequently, attempting to appear detached can all too easily make such experts appear completely detached : an unfeeling robot, from which the step to "monster" is all too small.

So certainly experts themselves are partially to blame when the public refuse to accept even very strong consensuses. But the media also have to accept responsibility when they give undue weight to minority viewpoints. Yes, fringe ideas do deserve to be heard - but not 50% of the time if only 3% of the experts think that's a better explanation. In the case of climate science in particular, journalists need to take a much bigger step back and let the experts speak directly to the public - too often, journalists are given far more screen time than the scientists. There are certainly experts out there who are great at public communication, but in the vast wastes of the internet their voice is not always heard. The mainstream media is still hugely important.

This "nice friendly experts" approach appears to be very successful - few people (except the vocal minority on the internet) seem to be genuinely distrustful of astronomers. Then again no-one has any reason to distrust astronomers to start with, but there's pretty good evidence that this approach could also work for economists and politicians. Oh, irony of ironies, look no further than Nigel "bigoted idiot with a pint" Farage ! He's worth about $3 million, yet rarely is he accused of the elitist snobbery that plagues wealthy Tory politicians. Boris Johnson's tactic is very different but no less successful : he doesn't hide his Classical education, but he deflects it by deliberately playing the buffoon, a sort of political version of the harmless absent-minded scientist, clearly very intelligent but with a weakness and therefore not trying to oppress anyone at all.

As David Cameron correctly put it, "If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph." Only someone with a very carefully cultivated image of buffoonery can get away with this.
Farage and Johnson go to extremes. But most other politicans and economists go to the exact opposite extreme, trying to appear as consummate professionals. Politicians are intensely public figures so it's understandable that they don't want to expose one whit more of their private lives than they have to. And I'm not sure I particularly want the Governor of the Bank of England to appear as a beer-drinking blue angel stuck on a zipline... but surely, a more moderate level of "I am not a robot" behaviour is possible. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn retain immense popularity in some sectors (the latter not with me) by simply being who they are, even if who they are are middle-aged men who like gardening. That's hardly a recipe one would think would guarantee popularity. The thing is that the rest of the political establishment appear so incredibly corporate that almost anything seems like a better alternative.

Ordinary politicians don't have to go to the extremes of Boris or Nigel, but they do need to make more of an effort to appear less as corporate drones. The media have also got to stop dragging them over the coals over every minor infraction, yet hold them fully to account when they say something genuinely offensive. It's not an easy circle to square.
Trust in experts is not about keeping the plebs in line or the Establishment fat-cats in place. It's about unqualified people being able to make rational choices without the years of training needed to establish real expertise : because all experts have to do this outside their specialist area too. Expertise, in many fields, is not the same as authority - but it's a damn sight better than blind ignorance.

I believe a world run purely by experts (essentially Plato's Republic) would be an immensely poorer place, not least because self-determination is (by Plato's own extremely lengthy admission) the essence of justice, and it's important to let people make their own mistakes... but like all things, this is only true to an extent. You want to allow children to scrape their knees, you don't want them to fall off the edge of a cliff. A world based purely on evidence and rational thinking would not only be impossible (because not every decision can or should be made rationally), but it would also be monstrous because people have come up with all sorts of crazy ideas about what logic and evidence suggest.

I don't want to tell anyone what to think. I just think we should work towards a world in which expert advice counts for more than it does now, where evidence plays more of a role, where the ability to think rationally is celebrated but not worshipped. In that way, I think, we'd have a world with far fewer major mistakes and much less angry controversy over the big decisions.

I know this isn't as popular as the uncompromising ideas that we should all have three rounds of voting to decide what to eat for breakfast, or insist that that no-one be allowed within 50 ft of a can opener without a Master's degree in civil engineering. Moderate ideas seldom have the emotional appeal of simpler, but usually wrong, more extreme messages. But as Western politics feels increasingly polarised, it's moderate voices that are needed - fighting extremism with extremism only drives the wedge in further.

The notion that are experts are elitist snobs needs to be nipped in the bud, but that can't happen without a multifold effort. A few experts, it's true, need to get over themselves and realise that they're not fundamentally better people than anyone else. More generally, experts have to learn not merely to tolerate but to embrace outreach, and its needs to be done by actual "practising" experts, not "science advocates" or "economic advocates" or whoever - but people who actually understand the nitty-gritty details. This is true for both the institutions who want to promote themselves and the media who want to consult a friendly expert. Generic "advocates" (or experts in another field) look very silly and undermine confidence in all specialists when they say something later revealed to be inaccurate by a true expert. Solution ? Stop relying on advocates ! Train more experts to talk directly to the public - it's not that difficult ! Don't say, "we'll get this professional science communicator to talk about blah blah blah" - that's fine for very basic stuff, but not for the complex issues we face today. Instead, get an actual expert in blah blah blah to come and talk about it. I think you'll find that in that situation, the idea of any kind of widespread, snobbish elite will rapidly disappear.