When science is a conveyor of bad news

October 17, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedScience is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?


I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)


The Scientific Method

The best description of the scientific method I have ever seen is from a conceptual physics textbook by Hobson. Paraphrasing:

The scientific method involves the dynamic interplay between theory and experiment.

That’s it. Perfect. As a scientist, I don’t come to work on Monday and make an observation, then form a hypothesis on Tuesday, devise an experiment to test some prediction on Wednesday, perform the experiment Thursday, and interpret the result on Friday. On any given day I would be hard pressed to tell you where I am in the process. All of the above, really. It’s a mess. It’s a constant back and forth comparing theoretical expectations to the final arbiter of any dispute: nature. Some people specialize in one aspect of the process, and can spend years chewing on some piece of it. But it is seldom done in isolation.

Meanwhile, science fair projects across the nation—under the advisement of teachers who themselves often do not have personal experience in how science really works—approach their subject in an uncharacteristically formulaic way. Nine times out of ten the effort culminates in a proof that the initial hypothesis was right; as if that were the goal and criterion for success. The rare student is surprised by the data, admitting to a failure of the hypothesis, quickly reconsidering initial assumptions and driving into an unexpected yet rewarding direction (dynamic interplay). That’s the real scientist at work. Too bad the judges (in my experience as a judge) often don’t recognize this apparent failure as the true success.

I can’t pass up the opportunity to share with you the “best” high school science fair project I ever saw (when I was myself a student participant in the fair—and no, it was not my project): “Does light travel through the dark?” Setup: light-tight cardboard box painted black on the inside; flashlight shining through a hole in one end; a peephole in the other end to see if the light made it. Any guesses?

A Hungry Snake

What is so special about science is that it is constantly trying to tear itself apart, like a snake eating its tail. While such an action may not actually make a snake stronger, it does make science stronger.

This self-mutilation is driven by some of the less admirable traits of humans: ego, thirst for fame and status, the need to quell insecurity.

It works like this: Professor Establishment sees an opportunity to expose Theory X (be it evolution, general relativity, anthropogenic climate change, etc.) as a sadly misguided notion. What beckons is fame and glory, a Nobel Prize, and eternal validation—perhaps erasing years of victimization at the hands of bullies in school. All the incentives are there, for virtually every scientist on the planet.

I think this surprises non-scientists, who might perceive the scientific establishment as a sycophantic collection of losers who flock to consensus every time a bandwagon passes through campus dropping research funds off its tailgate. No. Scientists can be argumentative, clever, devious, competitive, possessive, and still manage to be really fun to hang around.

Late addition: Lest I convey a slanted view of scientists, I should also point out that scientists are almost universally driven by curiosity, a spirit of exploration, and are in it because discovery and understanding are fun.

What Holds it Together?

So with all these scientists itching to overturn the applecart, why isn’t the whole enterprise in a woeful state of chaos? Why do we see headlines about consensus views? Do I even know what I’m talking about?

Professor Establishment has one big problem. Data. Mountains of experimental data. For any new idea to be taken seriously, it has to demonstrate consistency with relevant data sets that came before. But a new theory that adequately describes existing data is in itself not enough to make headlines. To be considered interesting or superior, it either has to also explain anomalies that the current theories can’t seem to handle—or better, correctly predict the outcome of an experiment that had not yet been performed, while the older theory fails to match the resulting experimental data.

I’ve been talking about Professor Establishment rather than Joe Schmoe. Joe Schmoe has lots of really mind-bending ideas all the time—and e-mail access, unfortunately. Maybe there are some gold nuggets in there. But the Cinderella-scientist seldom has sufficient awareness of the mountain of data, the acumen to perform any meaningful analysis, or the mathematical skills to formulate their idea in a useful way. (Fed up with a constant stream of unsolicited crackpot e-mails, I finally put up a self-test page, which has, alas, reduced the flow.)

So years of professional training and research experience, reading and writing journal articles, and following developments in theory and experiment give Professor Establishment a substantial leg up when it comes to dealing a deadly blow to a well-rooted scientific theory. Scientific revolutions almost always come from within the establishment. And before you jump to the Swiss patent clerk as a counter-example, be aware that this fellow had a Ph.D. in physics, had published a number of articles in the leading physics journal of the day prior to 1905, and was known to leading physicists across Europe. Einstein was not the outsider many think him to be.

I’ve known several scientists who jumped onto global warming confident that they could bring a wrecking ball to the hype and expose mistakes in analysis, data, or interpretation—only to find that the thing is much more robust than they imagined at first. They generally change their tune after personally experiencing the weight of evidence. I am not claiming that every detail is wrapped up, or that there is no chance that the whole story may unravel someday. But the odds get slimmer with every failed attempt.

Emergent Robustness

The result of all this scheming is a sort of scientific Darwinism. Prominent new theories stand out as bigger prizes for the taking, attracting more gunfire. Every failed shot gives the theory more strength, feeding a cycle of continued challenge. In the process, more experiments are conducted and the mountain of data grows. Eventually, exhausted scientists cease fire, and start working with the theory as a useful and as-far-as-we-know accurate description of nature, often providing a stepping stone to explore new frontiers. One upshot is that the emerging consensus does not come easily. Meanwhile, some scientists will continue to probe the foundations of all the important theories in the high-stakes game of seeking ultimate truth.

Very rarely, revolutionary ideas do prevail, but generally in a way that preserves the key qualities of the preceding theory in some well-tested regime. Einstein’s general relativity renders Newtonian gravity as fundamentally wrong, but still accurate enough in most situations to be darned useful to this day and forever more. General relativity may well falter some day, but its replacement must preserve the general-relativistic (post-Newtonian) aspects of nature that have already been measured and confirmed to moderate precision.

I like to say that physicists did not gleefully adopt quantum mechanics, general relativity, or ghostly neutrinos because they were eager for the novelty, or thought the idea just sounded really cool, or deferred to some authoritative figure (like Einstein) whose opinions on such matters were not to be questioned. Rather, ideas of this sort were forced down the throats of fussy physicists who didn’t want to adopt these strange notions. And it is the tight agreement between theory and experiment that does the throat-cramming.

Is it Truth?

It would be too strong a statement to claim that science achieves truth. But truth is certainly the aim, and at the very least science achieves an admirable level of Truthiness. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that science provides us with the best version of the truth we are currently capable of realizing.

All the same, science is never written in stone: it cannot become religious dogma. It’s only as good as the observations that support it, and the door is always open to new observations and new interpretations. So we can never call it Truth with a capital “T.” It’s just a whole heck of a lot better than anything we could spout from the comfort of our armchair—being vetted by nature and experiments.

The Good, the Bad, and the Jerk Called Science

The preceding exposition serves to emphasize the fact that science builds into itself a level of objectivity despite depending on the efforts of subjective practitioners. Science therefore acquires a certain indifference, exercising little in the way of value judgments. It’s jerky that way.

Many regard science as a good thing: providing the foundation for technology and bringing with it medical advances, creature comforts, security, and twinkies. Some see the bad aspects: nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, environmental degradation, and twinkies.

But science, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. Science enables humans to understand the evolution of the universe since the big bang? Shrug. Science cures polio? Yawn. Science unsettles us by revealing the ultimate demise of the earth, sun, and universe? All in a day’s work. Science unlocks the secrets to making nuclear bombs that are used to destroy all life on a planet? No matter. So science is a bit like an ornery uncle.

And it’s what this ornery uncle has to say about our future that makes me sit up. Uncle Science says:

  • Our familiar growth phase is a temporary phenomenon, as any exponential function must be;
  • The chief energy source that brought us to this place is finite and will wane over the next century or so;
  • Modern agriculture is dependent on finite fossil fuels, requiring roughly ten calories of energy input for every one calorie delivered to the table;
  • Population will continue to grow even if birthrate suddenly dropped to replacement levels around the world due to demographic inertia (a young-laden distribution not yet at reproductive age);
  • Escaping the bounds of this planet does not constitute a likely escape hatch due to both energy constraints and the hostile environment we find away from the eggshell-thin layer around the earth;
  • Our fossil fuel bonanza has created an unauthorized global-scale climate experiment that may wreak havoc on crops and the interconnected web of species on the planet.

Burn the Observatory

So my main question is: how will the public react to grumpy Uncle Science as the message pivots away from telling us about all the amazing things that are possible to detailing why some of our dreams are not possible? As our planet “fills up,” the balance will certainly shift—as it has begun to do already—to the negative side effects and to pointing out practices that cannot continue without dire consequences.

An example of such bad news crossed my path last week. A common dream is that once societies achieve a certain level of education, comfort, economic scale, and energy use, the population stops growing, and can even contract slightly. This so-called demographic transition is a main ingredient in many people’s hope for the future. Our goal, it is said, should be to foster growth in developing countries to speed them on their way to this state (and surely no one will object if we developed countries experience more economic growth as well, right?). A recent study (see also this related article) looked at the correlation between energy availability and population growth rate, concluding that the break-even value is at a per-capita energy intake rate of 13,000 W. Combining this with various projections for future energy availability, it was found that population will continue to surge to levels well above the UN projections by mid-century. The amount of energy necessary to achieve a global demographic transition (if the current correlation is to hold) is absurd. Uncle Science says not likely. Another dream dashed.

Look for more examples in newspapers near you. I predict an increasing drumbeat of scientists pointing out limitations to our ambitions. It’s not because that’s what’s “in” right now. It’s where the mountain of evidence is leading us.

This all makes me very worried. I cherish the scientific institution for its ability to transcend petty human shortcomings: actually building on those weaknesses to create a strong approximation of Truth. Science is a pursuit of luxury, borne by the citizenry out of a sense of goodwill, curiosity, and promise. It has served as a catalyst to economic growth not only by paving the way to a world full of gizmos and new capabilities, but also through the development of sophisticated methods for locating underground resources in the form of energy and materials. As long as science keeps it up, everyone is happy. But as the century wears on, the words “can’t,” “won’t,” and “shouldn’t” will likely appear more often in connection with science. Not so popular with the peoples.

Will funding for science wither as a result? Will we decide to stop paying for more bad news? Will scientists feel political pressure to stay away from “downer” topics after people get fed up or the dire news is deemed to be bad for morale and therefore a psychological impediment to economic growth? I hope we will always keep the door open to truth, even when it’s not music to our ears. But I am not so certain this will be the case—especially when money is on the line.

Image RemovedTaking insight from the Simpsons—that fountain of wisdom on matters of human nature—a favorite episode of mine starts with Bart discovering a comet while messing around with a telescope. As the local observatory confirms, this comet is barreling straight toward Springfield. All attempts to avert disaster only make the situation worse (like the missile sent to destroy the comet veering off course to blow up the only bridge out of town). Homer is the only one unconcerned, speculating that the comet will burn up in the atmosphere, reduced to the size of a chihuahua’s head by the time it makes landfall. Having completely botched any coordinated attempts at mitigating the disaster, the whole town ends up squeezing into Ned Flanders’ deluxe shelter, forcing Ned out. In a rare display of guilt, Homer follows Ned out to face “the end” together, shaming the rest of the town out into the open with them. The comet indeed burns up during entry—the remnant managing to strike and destroy the abandoned shelter, rolling to a stop at Homer’s feet where a chihuahua conveniently happens by for a favorable size comparison.


This is all amusing enough and I highly recommend the episode. But as etched as the story is in my memory, the part that is really seared into my brain is the reaction of the crowd. Moments after experiencing relief, anger boils to the surface in response to the emotional roller coaster to which the townsfolk had been subjected. An angry mob forms to march off to the observatory, intent on burning it to the ground “so that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Sadly, I think this could portend the fate of science. And it also captures the inaccuracy of public opinion: the observatory played a minor role in the story, let alone the larger point that knowledge of the approaching comet should only be viewed as a useful service. Perhaps I’m not justified in taking a cartoon as poignant commentary. What matters is what we do in the real world.

Whether dealing with predictions of global warming, limits to growth, ecosystem collapse, pollution, crop failure, aquifer discharge, fisheries depletion, or any number of similar warnings—when the anticipated fate befalls us, will our reaction be to blame the institution that brought awareness? Will we burn the observatory, shun science, and close our ears to further cautions? I hope we can be smarter than that. Meanwhile, keep a lookout for signs that science is waning in popularity—as I suspect it will in the decades to come. In fact, I sense that it has already started.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter... Read more.

Tags: Media & Communications, Overshoot