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Peter Steinberg | USLHC | USA

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The Never Ending War

I admit it: I’m still pinching myself on a daily basis when I see “President Obama” in newspapers and on broadcasts.  While many are excited about how he will restore balance to American foreign policy and the gyrating economy, those of us in the science community are still buzzing about Obama proclaiming loudly and clearly, in his inaugural address no less, that he will “restore science to its rightful place.”

Dennis Overbye wrote a lovely piece for yesterday’s Science Times on this, thoughtfully explaning the connection between scientific method and democratic values.  In particular, science is “not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth”.  That is to say, it is an approach towards finding truth which implies a worldview based on values of “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”  Overbye goes on to discuss how this pragmatic activity, this behavior which “evolved because it worked”, is often squelched in authoritarian societies such as China.  There, any contradiction with Marxist dogma (which while anti-religion, does all those things that orthodox religions do), including advocating the Big Bang theory, leads to imprisonment or worse.  But even nominal democracies like ours can stray, as it has in recent years:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

What still surprises me, in this optimistic new era, is that science can still remain under attack — but the techniques get more and more insidious.  To my eyes, the doomsday crowd plays a similar role as the same gang of politically-motivated thugs who try and squelch actual science.  But rather than claiming that certain science is immoral (e.g. stem-cell research), they object to it on the grounds that it is somehow dangerous for humanity on scales that we can barely imagine — based on “scientific” arguments which can be proven false.  Seriously, I could accept their concerns, but only if they had a point and they took a consistent scientific approach to the problem, allowing all relevant evidence to bear upon it.

But check out this Onion-worthy headline Fox News ran today (pointed out by fellow blogger Seth): “Scientists Not So Sure ‘Doomsday Machine’ Won’t Destroy World.'” from an article by Paul Wagenseil.  It seems to start out in the right way: here is a scientific paper which says something, and I’m telling you the conclusion.  But he isn’t.

Instead of quoting the actual paper, an unrefereed (it’s arxiv, natch) preprint by Casadio, Fabi, and Harms (yes, Harms), Wagenseil quotes a blog post merely about the paper on arxivblog.org.  Arxivblog is  anonymously written by a blogger named “KFC” and is unrelated to the actual arXiv.org website.  I personally think KFC is an amusing blogger, as do many others, and seems to know something about physics.  However, the conclusion drawn from the last sentence of the paper: “Whoa, let’s have that again: these mini black holes will be hanging around for seconds, possibly minutes?” has two serious problems.  First, it has no obvious connection to the destructive power of said black holes.  Second, it is completely at odds with the conclusion drawn by the authors of the paper, who most-likely know their assumptions and results far better: “We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes described by the metric ([6]), the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible” (which is the second-to-last sentence.)

If you’re going to use a paper’s conclusions to support an argument, the scientific method requires you to cite the full conclusion, not just the part that you need.  All of the estimates in the paper, based on quite relaxed assumptions, tend to work against a doomsday scenario, but this doesn’t seem to make it into either the arxivblog post — nor into the article by the putative science journalist who doesn’t bother to read the original paper, or simply call the authors.

Instead, all you get is a punchy headline, which can only add fuel to the fires raging against doing actual scientific research.  We can only hope that in the Obama era, Overbye’s imagined “wild and beautiful” garden of wide-ranging scientific research is properly protected from those fires.

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