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Uncertain about coronavirus? Welcome to the mind of a scientist.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Uncertain? Many questions but no clear answers? Welcome to the mind of a scientist

Darren Saunders, UNSW

Watching the world adjust to the horrific new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, has led me to contemplate a much more important lesson we might be learning together as we face this crisis.

We’ve all been ripped out of our comfort zones, with so much of the familiar rhythm of daily life suddenly replaced by a pervasive, visceral uncertainty.

So many questions without answers. So many experts with differing views. A brutal realisation that things don’t work the way we always thought. Seeing infinite shades of grey instead of that comforting black and white world.

Sound familiar?

Welcome to the mind of a scientist.

Read more:
Coronavirus distancing measures are confusing. Here are 3 things to ask yourself before you see someone

Uncertainty is unnerving – but you can learn to live with it

When this feeling dawned on me years ago on one of many early morning drives to Canberra during my PhD, it was almost crippling.

Digging deep into the mysteries of biochemistry and molecular biology – the ghosts in the machine of life itself – can do that. It can be an incredibly challenging, even unnerving experience.

But I learned to let that uncertainty wash over me. Like being caught in a rip in the surf, resistance just tires you out and makes things worse. After swimming around in it for a while I soon learned to float.

I even managed to crack a wave or two.

I wonder if this shows us one potential way through the viral-induced trauma surrounding us? We are all faced with rapidly shifting information and advice. What is true at 8am might not be by 6pm.

A role for scientists

Maybe scientists have a role to play here beyond the hard work going on to understand this new coronavirus, chasing vaccines and new drugs? We are comfortable swimming in the unfamiliar, we know how to float on a sea of uncertainty. We know it’s OK to say “I don’t know” or “good question”.

There’s an opportunity here for scientists to lead by example, both in the way we act and the way we communicate. To show the way in dealing with uncertainty, with changing information, and with appropriate responses.

But we need to start from a place of empathy. People are anxious and scared and we should acknowledge that. They want clear information and advice, based on best available data, not to be lectured or patronised. And scientists should be upfront about the fact that the advice may change – rapidly – or be slightly different to the next person’s.

Uncertainty and public messaging

We need, as a society, to become more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty in public, politics and business.

I’m OK with public messaging reflecting that. We’re so used to politicians holding a particular line on an issue, but the COVID-19 crisis has shown it doesn’t work when the situation is fluid and dynamic.

Maybe I’m just more comfortable with that as a scientist. Politicians absolutely have to be held to account but there should also be space for their positions to evolve – genuinely – with evidence.

We can change

Our sudden interest in disinfectants and hand washing, had me reflecting on my early days in a research lab.

Learning how to grow human cells without contamination by bacteria and yeast, or setting yourself on fire, takes some learning.

“Don’t touch that!”

“No, not that way!”

“What did you do that for?”

“No, hold it like this.”

It’s not intuitive. It takes real concentration – until it doesn’t anymore. Deeply ingrained habits and muscle memories have to be erased and rewritten. It’s hard, frustrating work.

It feels like the whole planet is sharing a similar experience now, but the stakes are much higher.

We can learn and change, until what was once difficult and uncomfortable becomes second nature. We’ve rapidly become much better, as a society, at things like handwashing and cough etiquette. Our relationship with uncertainty will have to change too.

Read more:
In the age of coronavirus, only tiny weddings are allowed and the extended family BBQ is out
The Conversation

Darren Saunders, Associate professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



How much longer can the deniers last?

The March for Science was a great success.

How much longer can a significant proportion of the population value people like this…

….over people like this?

Whose word should you respect in any debate on science?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whose word should you respect in any debate on science?

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

The motto of the Royal Society, Britain’s and perhaps the world’s oldest scientific society, is “nullius in verba” which it says translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

This is a rejection of the idea that truth can be sought through authority. It is a call to turn to experimentation and direct engagement with the physical world to discover truth. A noble sentiment indeed.

It’s also one of the key arguments used by deniers of climate science in attempts to refute both that the world is warming and that this warming is a result of human activity (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).

This is a common approach, exemplified by Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts in his many interviews on the subject.

Malcolm Roberts misunderstanding the role of authority in science.

It gives deniers an excuse to reject the overwhelming endorsement of science organisations around the world, including the Royal Society itself, and academies of science from more than 80 other countries, that AGW is a reality.

The argument is simple, and goes a bit like this. Science does not work by appeal to authority, but rather by the acquisition of experimentally verifiable evidence. Appeals to scientific bodies are appeals to authority, so should be rejected.

The contradiction here is that the Royal Society is saying the planet is warming through human activity, but its motto seems to suggest we should not listen to it (or any other group). How can this contradiction be resolved?

Rebellion against authority

It is important to understand that the Royal Society was formed in 1660 in the shadow of a millennium of near-absolute church authority, including the general acceptance of Aristotelian natural philosophy.

The rebellion against this authority was also a celebration of the freedom to elevate the credibility of scientific exploration over that of church teachings and other accepted dogma.Importantly, the authority to which the Royal Society’s motto alludes was a non-scientific one. The motto represents the superiority of verifiable empirical claims over claims driven by religious or political ideology. No motto could better represent the optimism of the times.

It is also important to understand that much of the science then undertaken was rather crude by modern standards and, by its reliance on very basic technology, was verifiable by individuals, or at least small groups of individuals.

Modern science

The science of the 21st century is in most areas far too complex to be understood, let alone experimentally verified, by any one person. Science is now a vast collaborative web of information characterised by the dynamic interplay and testing of ideas on a global scale.

The sharing of experimental results and the collective scrutiny of ideas forge deep and complex understandings. Teams of scientists from a range of specialities are often required to interpret and use this knowledge.

The suggestion that a subject as complex as global warming, for example, could be verified by a single person, untrained and untutored in the norms of scientific inquiry, betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of modern science.

It is also arrogant in its assumption that something not immediately obvious to oneself cannot be the case.

Engineers clean mirror with carbon dioxide snow.
NASA/Chris Gunn

The non-fallacy of appealing to authority

It’s also worth pointing out that the recourse to authority is often presented as a fallacy of reasoning, the so-called “appeal to authority” fallacy.

But this is not the case. The fallacy would be more correctly named the “appeal to false authority” – for example when celebrities who are famous for their sporting or entertainment achievements are cited in support of a particular medical treatment.

Appeals to appropriate authorities, such as experts in their fields, are one of the glues that hold our technological society together. We go to our doctor for her expertise and we are happy to take her advice without the insistence that the efficacy of potential treatments be demonstrated to us there and then.

Engineers build impressively tall buildings, pilots fly incredibly complex machines, and business experts advise on financial markets. All this expertise is confidently assimilated into our lives because we recognise its value and legitimacy.

It is not fallacious reasoning to accept expert advice. We rely on the authority of experts for quality control in many areas, including the peer-review process of science and other academic disciplines.

Assuming that the motto of the Royal Society suggests we should not listen to the collective wisdom of scientists because science is not about respecting expertise is simply indefensible.

Experts advise

In fact, the role of many such societies in the 17th and 18th centuries was to act as a conduit between scientists and governments for the provision of expert advice.

If legitimate authorities are not to be consulted, presumably there is no point in having scientists around at all, as each person would need to verify any claim on their own terms and with their own resources. That would mean a speedy decline into very dark times indeed.

Deniers of climate science such as Senator Roberts are among those most in violation of the creed “nullius in verba”. Their continued insistence on “empirical evidence” while simultaneously rejecting it (usually through invoking some conspiracy theory) suggests an immature rationality at best, and outright duplicity at worst.

Their refusal to accept empirically verified evidence because it goes against their existing beliefs is the very stuff against which the Royal Society rebelled.

They may have a voice, but they have no authority in this debate.

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

xkcd’s best work yet!

Timeline of the Earth’s average temperature.

This graphic from xkcd says it all.

The Australian is spreading misinformation on climate change … again

sea ice

The Climate Council has the details of The Australian’s latest attempt to delude its readers.

The Australian is back at it, skewing the facts and publishing harmful misinformation on climate change. We’ve previously debunked their claims of a “pause in warming” here.

Their latest claim, that Arctic seas ice melt has stabilised, is flat out wrong, here’s why:

Read the rest of the article at the Climate Council.

The alarmism accusation – claims of crises created to funnel funding

If I warn you about the dangers of red flags, am I an alarmist?

How to recognise this tactic

Those who use this tactic insist that the current scientific consensus on some issue is corrupt. This, they claim, is because a group of scientists has colluded to hype the position which favours its own interests. The purported motive is to attract funding for their research. Look for derisive terms such as “follow the money” or “pal review”.

Read more…

‘The Australian’ applauds bad science

Long ago, I decided to cease posting about the pitiful state of science reporting in the Murdoch media. The cases are just too numerous and they come too frequently. In any case, I think those who still give the Murdoch empire any credibility are pretty-well immune to the scientific form of inquiry.

But this one is a such a classic that I can’t remain silent. Read more…

Global warming has continued, unchanged, since the 1970s

At Open Mind, Tamino has a masterful post in which he shows quite clearly that there has been no “pause” or “hiatus” in the rate of global temperature increase since at least the 1970s:

It’s the Trend, Stupid

Both NASA and NOAA report 2014 as the hottest year on record. Despite the new #1, neither the news itself nor the response to it has surprised me.
The news that last year was so hot is certainly no surprise. The simple reason is that for the last 15 or 20 years, let’s say since the turn of the millenium just to be specific — you know, since back when we expected global warming to continue without slowing down — global warming has continued and shows no sign of slowing down.

As a matter of fact, according to the NASA data this year is dead on the projection we would have made back then by using the “global warming continues without slowing down” hypothesis. By the time 1999 came to a close, a warming trend was abundantly clear:


But besides just rising with the trend, temperature fluctuates up and down from year to year; hence the dashed red lines above and below the red trend line showing the likely range. Assuming global warming continues without slowing down, we would have expected this:


This is what actually happened:


Just what was expected, that’s what actually happened.

  ……. Read the rest of the article here.

Don’t call deniers “skeptics”.


Forty-eight prominent skeptics (real ones!) from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry have signed a statement calling on the media to stop using the term “skeptic” to describe those who deny scientific reality. The list includes our very own Richard Saunders and Dick Smith as well as such notables as Daniel Dennett, James Randi and Edzard Ernst.

As Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, we are concerned that the words “skeptic” and “denier” have been conflated by the popular media. Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

Read the rest of the statement here: Deniers are not Skeptics.

The Climate Change Denier cartoon is from Cakeburger.

This newspaper editor knows how important science is

In this information age, where Professor Google has become the expert of choice, being scientifically literate is an essential life skill. It is as important as reading and writing.

Sydney Morning Herald editorial, 20 October, 2014

At a time when the Murdoch media are focused on bullying scientists who won’t come round to the empire’s way of thinking, it’s good to know that there are newspaper editors around who are not only intelligent, but have a lot of integrity. I refer particularly to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald who today published one of the most lucid and timely articles I’ve seen about the importance of science and the state of scientific literacy in the general population. Here’s some of the text: Read more…