Tag: science communication

Stephen Hawking RIP

Stephen Hawking is dead. Far be it from the likes of me to write him an obituary. You can see several of these elsewhere, many of them heartfelt and insightful.

Two thoughts come to mind at this time. Firstly, Hawking is to be greatly admired for being both a highly regarded theorist and researcher, and a genuine celebrity scientist. In this he joins very few who have managed to achieve fame in their own lifetimes by changing the way we understand the fundamentals of our universe.

These days, it often seems that celebrity scientists are not really leaders in their fields, and that leaders in their fields seldom become real celebrities.

Secondly, Hawking — at least to me — exemplified someone who practiced the role of scientist in its totality. He not only talked scientific talk, he walked a scientific walk.

By this I mean Stephen Hawking can be thanked not just for his theoretical and empirical contributions to physics, but also for the way he promoted scientific skepticism and critical acuity among the general public. Many scientists purport to do this by role-modelling rigour in their work. Hawking went further. He frequently set aside time to actively promote the cause of scientific thinking in the general population, and to advocate against bunkum and pseudoscience in the public square.

Most of us will permanently struggle to appreciate the true impact of Stephen Hawking’s work on cosmology and theoretical physics. However, we can all applaud his advocacy in the promotion of reason, balance, rigour, empiricism, logic, and evidence.

Hawking railed against the dangers of ‘fake news’ decades before the term ever became fashionable.

As such, it is somewhat ironic that this quote is so often attributed to him:

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The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

The statement teaches us something important about science and pseudoscience — namely, that the bravado of assumption is more treacherous than the caution of self-aware naivete. It is consistent with Hawking’s many messages about the importance of scientific rigour. The phrase ‘illusion of knowledge‘ encapsulates the warning in an eloquent and powerful way.

The problem — wonderfully — is that, while Hawking conveyed this view many times, the quote in question was never actually his own.

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Nobody has identified any record of Hawking ever making the statement as phrased above. The exact source of the quotation is unclear, but it has been doing the rounds in one form or another for a very long time:

  • 1861: ‘the great enemy of knowledge is not error, but inertness‘ — Henry Thomas Buckle, historian

It was used several times by author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin.

All we can say is that the claim Stephen Hawking authored this quote is itself an illusion of knowledge.

Stephen Hawking did more than most scientists to warn humanity against the perils of seduction by charismatic ignorance. It is because of people like him that more of us are willing to question the flim-flam, propaganda, and pseudo-knowledge that threatens to overwhelm public and civic debate.

He will be fondly remembered as a true cultural icon of our times.

Rest in peace, Professor Hawking.

 

Telling parents how vaccines are safe makes them *less* likely to vaccinate their kids

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Here’s a classic science communication fiasco. Many of us believe empiricism enables the resolution of uncertainty with data, and that more information is better than less. That’s why we do science.

One of the moral imperatives that drive us is that carefully scrutinized, systematically replicable, and objectively verifiable information trumps hearsay. It allows us to dispel rumour and prejudice by offering tangible evidence as the alternative. It may be a slow process, but gradually we crawl towards enlightenment. And so we become a better species.

A classic illustration of the reasons why is vaccination. Scaremongers who spread misinformation about vaccination — such as the vastly researched and now thoroughly debunked claim that MMR vaccination causes autism — can be refuted simply by presenting the contrary facts, backed up with data. Right?

Well, as it turns out, wrong. Continue reading “Telling parents how vaccines are safe makes them *less* likely to vaccinate their kids”

Bad things are bad for you. As are good things.

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It’s all bad news this week, I’m afraid. Literally. Not only does it look bad and sound bad, but it also has bad effects on you. It’s all-round baaaaaaaaad. First of all — and you’re not going to be hugely surprised by this — the Daily Mail thinks that a leisure activity engaged in by millions of people every day is dangerous. To wit: watching television makes you fat. But what is breathtakingly shocking (or, more accurately, mildly distracting) is the reason why. Apparently, watching bad news on television makes you increase your food intake by a whopping 40%.

It’s just as well that websites like the Daily Mail focus solely on reporting good news. Continue reading “Bad things are bad for you. As are good things.”

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