Thursday July 21, 2005
Â· In our eagerness to focus on the supply side of pseudoscience – the dismal outpourings of flaky humanities graduates in the media and the bogus pseudoscience of people with products to sell – we’ve neglected an important area of study: the impact on the end market. Take this from reader Richard Neville, last weekend, who was simply trying to get a drink: “I was at the bar buying a round,” he begins. “‘Grapefruit and soda please.’ I said. The barman adopted a pained expression. ‘I should point out to you, sir, that this juice is 100% pure organic and, therefore, I don’t like to add chemicals – you see, I don’t know what’s in soda water.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think it’s mostly water – which, of course, is a chemical plus a little bicarbonate of soda and added carbon dioxide.’ He didn’t look happy, while I just looked thirsty and persisted: ‘Well,’ he warned, ‘if you’ll take full responsibility …’”
Â· So it occurs to me: if I have a grandiose delusion, it is that we’re engaged in a useful project here, the study of the Public Misunderstanding of Science. And this is uncharted territory. So I’m asking for qualitative research; I’m asking for your help in a grand experiment, with the widest possible sampling frame, that is: you. Only you can help me to document the stupidity that’s out there.
Â· I’ll get the ball rolling. Last week, I was at a party and somebody starting telling me that the theories produced by science would be different if it had been done by women. I asked her whether she thought Newton’s three laws of motion might have turned out differently if he had been a woman, and she said yes, of course. I asked her how, exactly, she thought that Newton could single-handedly change the fact that acceleration of a body is proportional to the force acting on it, divided by its mass? And she walked off. Chalk up one to the nerds; and this is only the most stupid thing I’ve heard this week. Perhaps someone has tried to tell you that “science, you know, it’s kind of a belief system, like any other religion,” in a way that made you want to slap them particularly hard. Perhaps you did slap them. Perhaps they told you scientists say we’re all energy so nothing is real. Perhaps they told you that the stuff they believe is “outside of science”. Perhaps they told you that science wants to reduce their life to simple laws. Forget the media, we know we’ve lost there. I want to know: what’s the most stupid thing anyone has ever said to you about science at a party?