Two science-based blog carnivals have gone online recently. At Pharyngula the Creation Museum Carnival has just gone live. I appreciate the freedom of speech issue. If someone wants to spend millions of dollars fighting against science that it their right, but there’s no need to agree with or even respect dishonesty.
Ash. Photo (cc) Owen Booth.
There’s an interesting piece on the Grauniad’s Comment is Free today (yesterday by the time this goes live). People are campaigning for Hiasl of Austria to be considered comparable to people convicted of drug abuse, drink driving or George W. Bush.* Why would someone want that? They argue Hiasl should have basic human rights. Whether or not he’ll get them is uncertain because he’s a chimp.
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I haven’t commented on this with the flood of other recent comments because I wanted to take time to think this over. If you haven’t seen the news recently Sky at Night presenter Patrick Moore has complained about banal television programmes and then blamed the fall in quality TV on women becoming bosses.
It’s a big disappointment. It would be an exaggeration to say Astronomy IS Patrick Moore in the UK, but he is an enormous influence. It’s likely that if he hadn’t been the presenter of Sky at Night for fifty years that the programme would have been repurposed like Tomorrow’s World. So I’ve been taking time trying to make sense of why he’d say such a thing and it’s difficult. I’m not eager to believe that he is so badly wrong. What makes it more difficult there aren’t really any mitigating factors and that he’s almost right.
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Here’ some positive news. A new campaign has started to appeal to celebrities, Sense about Science. It has its own celebrity backer, Derren Brown, who has written recently about the dangers of sensationalist science reporting in the press. How dangerous are some of the claims being made?
Homeopathy is not just useless, it is worse than useless in the case of malaria because it dupes people into thinking that they are protected when they are not. I was shocked that there was such willingness to give advice and sell products that would leave people exposed to a highly dangerous disease…
Beforehand I suspected that one or two homeopaths might offer pills to protect against malaria, but it turned out that ten out of ten were guilty of such irresponsible practice. This makes me think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way homeopaths are regulated.Simon Singh
The danger is magnified when celebrities attract attention to what they think is a good cause. The willingness for celebrities to try and do their bit was one of the major segments of the series Brass Eye.
You can also watch celebrities tackle the menace of Cake. If you’ve not heard of Cake it is not a natural drug but, as Bernard Manning described, a made-up drug from the Czech Republic. No-one doubts the sincerity of someone like Noel Edmonds, who explained that Cake stimulated the part of the brain known as “Shatner’s Bassoon” which alters the users sense of time. “Sounds like fun, but tell that to the Czech boy run over by a tram. He thought he had two weeks to cross the street.” But if people like Tania Bryer can tell a camera that inverted clouds are raining upwards into space and causing drought, then there is cause for concern about the damage a well-meaning spokesman can cause.
I think an advisory panel where public speakers can get another point of view before committing themselves to what might be dangerous nonsense is a good thing. It would mean that campaigns about genuinely important matters do get a better chance to be put before the public.
I went to see An Inconvenient Truth this week. It’s on a short run outside of London making it briefly a slightly more convenient truth. I was rather impressed. There’s little new in the film, at not to those living in Europe, but what is there is put together and presented very well. The film tackles four basic issues, What is Global Warming? What’s causing it? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?
The explanation of Global Warming is simplfied, it solely about CO2 in Al Gore’s film, which skips over the problems that might be caused by things like Methane clathrates. For the sake of explaining the problem this is a very smart move, because it allows him to then concentrate on one issue for tackling the cause. The common rejoinder from industry is that warming and cooling follows a natural cycle. Gore’s able to show that this is true it does. He’s then able to follow this up by showing the range of natural variation, and how modern carbon dioxide levels are way waaaay in excess of natural variation. Some of the more powerful scenes in the film explore why this matters. In the preview above you can see that a feasible rise of sea level caused by the melting of Greenlandic or a portion of Antarctic ice will cause large scale flooding of densely populated coastal areas.
The weakest part of the film, from a European perspective is the call to action. He says nothing wrong, but it’s all very old news over here. This is very much a section for the North American audience where being green is a matter of envying your neighbour’s gas guzzler. One scene is about proposed improvements in fuel efficiency by the state of California which are being opposed by the motor industry and it’s hard not to laugh. They’re pitiful. California wants to be, in twelve year’s time, where China is today. If this really is a problem for Ford or General Motors then who in their right mind would buy an American car?
This aside, it is a very good introduction to the problem. Like all politicians Gore cannot tell jokes, but he comes close on a couple of occasions. What he does do is get across his message clearly, effectively and powerfully. Visual aids are used well, but so is his presence as a speaker. As an example of science communication its hard to beat.