Speak Up

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This is my first blog entry that I’m typing up from a shiny new MacBook Pro. It’s taking a little while to get used to, but I like it. Writing from my old PC was getting to be an exercise in futility; it would freeze for a few minutes while changing between screens (which I used as an opportunity to go refill my Diet Coke, obviously). It would shut down overnight to install updates (didn’t we do that yesterday? And the day before that?). To add insult to injury, when shutting down? It almost always lost something. Parts of blog entries were gone. Pages were deleted from history. Browser settings gone. The sound and a few plugins would be turned off, I would have to re-install them, and the next time it automatically re-installed? Same story again. 

It was old enough that I wrote from a detached keyboard because two rows of keys weren’t working anymore, and even the detached keyboard was… temperamental, at best. 

It was a lot of effort to speak out about science. 

A lot of effort. Huh.

It’s a pretty wonderful era where that’s considered ‘a lot of effort.’ 

A few days ago on the Facebook page, I posed the question, “Favorite scientist/science communicator who has faced persecution and whose research or ideas were considered dangerous… And then changed the world?” The responses included:

  • Alan Turing- A genius in multiple fields, his work in cracking codes was believed to have shortened WWII by several years. He introduced the concept of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. Modern computing may look a lot different without his influence. He was persecuted for being a homosexual by the British government. He was forced to undergo chemical castration or face jail time for being gay, and eventually took his own life. The British government issued an apology over fifty years later.

  • Giordano Bruno- was one of the first to publicly suggest that stars were all suns, committing heresy in the process. He was martyred. 

  • Galileo- We know what happened here, right? 

  • Norman Borlaug- father of the green revolution, it’s approximated that his work with breeding crops and, eventually, GMOs, has saved a billion lives from starvation. Now GMOs are hotly contested due to a fear and misinformation.

  • Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin- Though completing her coursework at Cambridge, she was not granted an undergraduate diploma as women were not conferred at that time. Her PhD thesis at Radcliffe, Stellar Atmospheres, revealed that stars are made mainly of hydrogen (not molten metal as previously hypothesized), and hence hydrogen was the most abundant element in the universe. It was initially ridiculed, and eventually accepted as fact for four years later. 

  • Clair Cameron Patterson- His research, Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man, concluded that our levels of environmental lead contamination were rising due to industrial uses. Because his research challenged the status quo and would eventually cost the industry a fortune, both industry and government organizations cut off his funding and refused to listen to him. After trying to discredit him, he eventually won the fight to remove  lead, a known neurotoxin, from industrial uses. 

  • Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis- the doctor who suggested that doctors wash their hands before attending to obstetric patients. He was committed to an asylum for the suggestion and was killed two weeks into his stay. We’re all familiar with the term ‘scrub up,’ yes?

These people are all heroes. Their work has helped us better understand the universe, end wars, end famine, and the list goes on. They not only made incredible new discoveries, but they had to fight tooth and nail to be heard. As we all know now, it was worth it. 

And then, of course, I was offered these suggestions as jokes:

  • Dr. Oz- he was a good doctor. Now he pretends to be a doctor on television. Over half of his advice is wrong. I hope he was a better cardiac surgeon than he is a charlatan.

  • Masaru Emoto- he yells “Hitler” at water to see what it looks like when it freezes.

  • The Food Babe- I may have mentioned her before.

  • Andrew Wakefield- he doesn’t understand how vaccines work and so he’s cool with kids dying from preventable diseases.

  • Dr. Mercola- My brain starts to hurt when I talk about him so I will tell you to google at your own risk. Please sit down first and don’t blame any injuries from punching your computer on me, I did warn you.

Here’s where things are going to take a turn for my usual audience.

Their ideas, as destructive and incredibly wrong as they are, are important (cue the countdown until I’m taken out of context). Not the ideas, but the freedom to express them. 

I contend that in order for society to reap the benefits from the first set of ideas, we must be in a system that allows the type of freedom of speech that also subjects us to the second set of ideas. It’s not because there’s a need for the absolutely false ideas; it’s because in order to shine the light on the truth, we need a system that doesn’t choose to what stays in the dark. Science will show us what we can bury without an agenda. The horrendous ideas need to be given every chance to fail in order for all the good ideas to compete for success. We can, with our reasoning and ability to spot reputability and good science, reject bad ideas after we’ve seen them for ourselves.

If we don’t allow both groups free speech, who’s going to be the next Galileo or Turing?

Yes, occasionally an Andrew Wakefield happens. We keep combatting that with education to the public so that they have the chance to do what the system has; reject him. And we have the free speech to combat him to the bitter end.

How do I know we’ll succeed? We all know who Galileo is today. That’s how you know a hero. Nobody knows, off the top of their heads, who founded homeopathy.

What would happen if we lived in a society where not only we did not have free speech, but all of it was decided upon and strictly controlled by one source?

North Korea.

I bring this up now partially because of what happened this week with the release of The Interview being postponed (or cancelled or… it’s somewhere in the ether). The government of a country ruled by a totalitarian dictator was offended by our idea of art. Or our idea of dick jokes, whatever you want to call it. I was looking forward to it. 

But it brings up another point; North Korea is a country where most adults aren’t even aware of the existence of the internet. They’re told that Dear Leader, literally, doesn’t shit.  They were told that when his father was born winter turned to spring. They have state approved haircuts. They were told that previous Dear Leader could control the weather with his moods. 

And that’s just the stuff that I’ll put onto my blog that I’m not worried will cause North Korea to hack my new MacBook. I don’t want Dear Leader knowing what’s in my porn collection.

All that being said, if they released a statement that they had a new scientific discovery tomorrow, could you trust it?

“North Korean scientists discovered” is not a phrase you hear. Even if you heard it, you wouldn’t trust it.

These are ideas born out of a place devoid of free speech. We have a surfeit of evidence that solely patently untrue statements escape their government and their borders. Even if something that had plausibility were to float to our ears, you would raise an eyebrow before dismissing it entirely.

Sadder to me is that, somewhere in a North Korean Labor camp, the ideas of another Alan Turing are locked away in someone’s brain, slowly dying, unable to be researched and communicated.

And here I am happy that I have a MacBook because my old computer was running a little slow.

What I do here at Science Babe is unique not just because it presents the “scientist as drinking buddy” perspective. I am trying to show the difference between the failed and successful ideas, science and pseudoscience, and I am glad we live in a system where both exist. 

We have to remember that when a scientist puts a hypothesis forward to be tested, it’s put forward with an unbiased question to allow it to fail or succeed. That’s what all ideas should have the chance to do, the good ones and the bad ones. That’s all that science and communication allow, they shine a light on new insights without bias. If you add a bias, the system may get rid of bad ideas, but we will lose some of our finest heroes. PC and Mac make each other better, Batman and Joker give Christopher Nolan another excuse to write a movie every few years, and eventually we will forget about Andrew Wakefield while we will still celebrate Jonas Salk.

Food Babe and I will always have each other. But we’ve found some common ground on communications; we’re both posting from a Mac.

 

-Science Babe.

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6 Comments

  1. The breakdown seems to be the part where we let wrong ideas fail. There’s a pervasive attitude that believes Freedom of Speech means that you /must/ be taken seriously. I think part of the problem is that we /do/ have such great historical examples of people that were absolutely right, but who were ridiculed and disposed of. The argument is, “What if Food Babe really is the next Galileo?” But, as you pointed out, history has forgotten the names of all the other terrible philosophers and scientists who came up with horribly wrong ideas. Maybe we should point those out more often in schools: “Here kids. This is a huge list of people who were stupid and wrong and got ridiculed and criticized because of how stupid and wrong they were…”

    • There’s a great routine from Patton Oswalt on this. “Oh, that comes from the Bible so we have to respect your point of view? No, we have to acknowledge your point of view, then we can dismiss it. I’m glad you like a book, but if someone said we had to make policy based on the Green Lantern, we could just as much dismiss it.”

      Same with the Food Babe. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  2. Just a little note of information. A lot of people suggest that Giordano Bruno was a persecuted “scientist”. Although he did say a lot of things that today sound perfectly reasonable from *our* perspective, he was not a scientist (at least as Galileo was). His convictions were purely metaphysical and theological, and were not based on actual observation or evidence. This, however, does not mean that the the persecution by the Inquisition was justified.

    About the Galileo, sadly a lot of people have more a gross oversimplification of what happened to him. To have a clearer picture, I always recommend Maurice Finocchiaro’s book _The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History_.

    Finally, I wish to add that sometimes what is needed is an “adversary” for scientific engagement. A lot of the scientific advances by the US was due to its competition with the Soviet Union.

    I see adversaries of science in a way as blessings. in the sense that they bring forth a lot of subjects to public attention that later engaged many scientists and science reporters to demystify and truly inform the public. I think that I’ve learned more from evolution because of its responses to Creationism and Intelligent Design than from a textbook in highschool. The same thing has happened to me regarding homeopathy, GMOs and other subjects.

  3. Well put, indeed, “Babe”! I always dislike writing about people who believe in all of that woo as “them” – putting us in two separate camps is really not the solution.

    There has to be balance in all things; my time in my own pool of woo has taught me that. Things cannot be all black or all white. Some of the woo-meisters are my friends and family, and there’s much more to them than the fact that they’ll down a gallon of Goldenseal tea before visiting a physician.

    While some old-time remedies are fine, it crosses a line when children and those who are ignorant (I say this not out of malice, but simply because some haven’t learned any better) are harmed. If I have the sniffles, I’d much rather stay at home drinking Goldenseal tea than clog up an urgent care so the doc can tell me to stay home and drink tea.

    There has to be some manner of quackery in any discipline, whether it’s medicine, industry, IT, or banking. It’s simply the nature of humans. But it also must be offset by facts, reason, and science. Science isn’t a belief system; it simply IS.

    If you want to try out beliefs, you’re always welcome to put the ‘belief’ in gravity to the test. 😉

  4. Just wanted to say that I googled dr mercola, and the first thing that came up was his personal website and the second was quackwatch. Made me wonder if maybe humanity has a chance after all.

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