1. HACKS: SHODDY PRESS COVERAGE OF SCIENCE.
The Leveson Inquiry into the standards and ethics of the UK press, headed
by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, was prompted by the News of the World phone-
hacking scandal (WN 22 Jul 2011). The seamy British tabloid was the top-
selling English-language newspaper in the world when owner Rupert Murdoch
had to close it five months ago after its news-collection methods were
exposed. The intense public interest in the sex and drug culture of
celebrities is certainly troubling, but the same journalistic standards
applied to science news may be more dangerous. In 1998, for example,
Andrew Wakefield, an obscure British gastroenterologist, set off a
worldwide vaccination panic when he falsely identified the common MMR
vaccination as a cause of autism. Widely reported by the press,
Wakefield’s irresponsible assertion led to a precipitous decline in
vaccination rate and a corresponding 14-year rise in measles cases. An
editorial in the current issue of Nature (8 Dec 2011) urges scientists
to “fight back against agenda-driven reporting of science.” Who could
disagree? It is, after all, a fight against ignorance.
2. IGNORANCE: THERE’S PLENTY MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM.
A commitment to intellectual openness provides a mechanism for self-
correction that sets science apart from the unchanging dictates of revealed
religion, raising the prospect of transforming Earth into something close
to biblical paradise, at least for Homo sapiens. Directions to this
earthly paradise, however, are written in mathematics. In particular, the
dialect of scientific progress is differential equations. Unfortunately,
few people speak mathematics or have any interest in learning it. In the
modern world, the engine of scientific progress is driven by a subset of
the human race that speaks mathematics as a second language. This is not
healthy. Many people, unable to distinguish science from pseudoscience,
are duped by crackpots and swindlers who attempt to mimic scientists, and
often manage to fool themselves. How do they do it?
3. LET ME COUNT THE WAYS: PSEUDOSCIENCE IS AN ENORMOUS FIELD
There are, I think, many more of them than there are of us. Let me mention
just a few of the more notorious: Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishman, who
gave us Cold Fusion in 1989, are the most famous in the Free Energy
Category. Even so, physicists had their number in a couple of weeks. More
recently (2006) in the same category, the Steorn Company in Dublin gave us
Orbo, a classic perpetual motion machine. So classic it gets reinvented
every century or so. Unfortunately Orbo is shy and refuses to perform when
anyone’s watching. In the Chicken-Little Category, Devra Davis says the 5
billion cell-phone users are toast when we reach the latency period of
brain cancer. Alas, I’m reaching my limit and there are hundreds more on
my list. Maybe I’ll write a book, or did I already do that?
THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND.
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the
University of Maryland, but they should be.