Monday, May 25, 2009

Science at the end of the world: Lawrence Krauss addresses the 2009 meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association

Particle physicist Lawrence M. Krauss* addressed the gathering at the Canadian Science Writers' Association conference at Science North in Sudbury, May 24, 2009.

I made some notes of his remarks in "Star Trek Physics" in a darkened cave, the Inco Cave at Science North, though I do not have a transcript.

His talk was billed Star Trek Physics, and the PowerPoint revealed physics bloopers spotted in Star Trek, the X-files, and other film resources.

It was certainly entertaining, but not riveting, at least for me. Anyone who gets their physics from sources clearly labelled science fiction or UFOlogy, well ...

But Dr. Krauss had advice for science communicators:

1. Don't assume your audience is interested. "Don't expect interest, create it."

2. Science is dull, hard, and unrelated to the real world. Communicators must work against that. ("Remember how boring science can seem.")

3. "Most people perceive themselves as fundamentally uninterested in science."

4. Confront misconceptions: it's the only way people remember.

Now, I have reservations about career academic scientists advising journalists how to communicate, or high school science teachers how to teach. They tend to emit platitudes that are too general to be put into practice, and therefore too general to fail.

Take the advice offered above, for example: Few journalists doubt that we must create interest. (If we doubted, our editors would swiftly correct us.) Our readers typically do hard and boring jobs all day, so the idea that jobs in science are hard and boring would not - in principle - surprise them. However, in my experience, most readers are interested in science when they see its relevance to their lives. Yes, confronting misconceptions can be useful, but much of the time, huge gaps in our knowledge are a bigger problem than misconceptions - and we cannot easily fill in those gaps, either.

Dr. Krauss went on to say that there is an innate tension between journalism and science. The problem is, "journalists think there are two sides to every story." According to him, this is not true: "Most times, one side is simply wrong."

Oh well, that's all right then. Having been informed that one side is simply wrong, the journalist can forget about getting a range of opinion and simply act as a shill for the approved view.

The beauty of that strategy is that if there are problems with the approved view, the journalist is guaranteed never to find out, so she will always be sure she and her sources are right.

Dr. Krauss later conceded that "The editors are the bad guys." Yes, indeed, in the sense that editors often come up with additional people for us writers to interview, people who offer additional perspectives. They, like us, see most stories as having many sides, not just one, so they are guilty of multiple sins, and we are complicit (when we are doing our job, that is).

He also told us that fear of science is growing in Canada. I have lived here all my life, and I cannot confirm that. This is the home of the Canadarm and the Blackberry, after all. In fact, one of the very interesting presentations that same day was on Canada's proposed contribution to plans to mine the moon for moon base supplies, but more on that later. Canadians are - in my view, understandably, in these times - skeptical of high-budget schemes and far-fetched ideas. They want to know what the payload is. But that is a different matter.

While insisting that science doesn't undermine religion in principle (who said it did?), Dr. Krauss made clear that "In many ways I hope it does" and his talk was full of asides making very clear his views on political, religious, and social issues - which entirely belied his claims. Also, like many visiting United States residents I have listened to, he assumed that everyone here cares what he thinks about US politics. Not only do I not care who he voted for in the last US election, I imagine he does not care who I voted for to be mayor of Toronto. I did not seek anyone out to tell them, and would be pleased if he would do the same.

Much of the latter part of Dr. Krauss's talk was dedicated to the proposition that he knows exactly how the universe began and how it will end, and that Earth is entirely insignificant.

(The fact that Earth is the only known home of life of any kind - and of intelligent life - must apparently not be significant, though the reason why not was never made clear.)

In Dr. Krauss's view, the only reasonable view of the universe is that it is flat, and there are only a few little details to be ironed out. It was there that I wondered whether my colleagues - mostly salaried science bureaucrats, I suspect, not freelancers - had caught on. Many scientists don't think that the universe is flat. Are they also people whose side of the story journalists should not cover?

I asked Dr. Krauss during the question period about string theory, which he opposes. Of course he spoke dismissively of it. I don't get string theory either, but I don't plan on deciding that there is only one side of the story there either.

Walking back to my hotel, I was sure that Dr. Krauss reminded me of something, and later realized what it was:
In science, small, persistent effects cannot be ignored. Sometimes they force a revision of major paradigms. For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” on the horizon of Newtonian classical physics of the day, namely, Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was certain that these troubling little clouds would be blown away shortly.149 Yet all of modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—derives from these two little dark clouds. (The Spiritual Brain, p. 173)
It's always those little things that trip us up.

Later, I was embarrassed to overhear an animated conversation by two colleagues, one of whom claimed to see "some value" in religion, as long as it just makes you feel good and tricks you into behaving better and makes no truth claims. The perfect upper, right? Whereas any speculation is okay if it is called "science" and advanced with a great deal of assurance, and warnings against thinking that there could be two sides to the story.

(Note: Go here for update.)

*Note: At his site, Dr. Krauss describes himself as follows:

an internationally known theoretical physicist
a bestselling author
a frequent editorialist
a sought-after lecturer
a radio commentator
moderately photogenic
a profiled persona
and much more...