SF: Where Education Starts & Ends

My second transmission from Eastercon 2017 is distilled from the 14 April ‘Science Educator & Author’ panel with Dr David L Clements, Anne Charnock, V Anne Smith, TJ Berg & Wyken Seagrave

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One of the many great gags in the US sitcom ‘Silicon Valley’ takes place when the embattled CEO finally gets his tech start-up project running, only to find that no one understands it. Forced to do public workshops, he patiently explains how his algorithm learns preferences and then manages them forward on the user’s behalf. The audience of seven stares back at him, then a man puts up his hand and compares the product to the Terminator.

There are many real-world corollaries to this scene, such as the GFP (green fluorescent protein) glowing rabbit. It’s part wonder, part horror and illustrates perfectly how science can sometimes be its own worst advocate. People are shocked by a few extreme examples of what scientists do, whereas the bulk of the important but less outrageous elements such as diligent research and data compilation go unreported. That’s partly the media’s fault, but science could clearly be a better communicator than it is.

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Science fiction can be a help and a hindrance. Living bunny lamps and ears on mice cast the imagination back to ‘Frankenstein’, a story that doesn’t end well for anyone. However, other SF such as ‘Star Trek’ was and still is created by people who love science and whose work has inspired generations.

Resolving these conflicts becomes ever more important at a time when science is under threat from so-called ‘alternative facts’. Indeed, an important distinction is that science doesn’t deal in facts at all. Histrionic stickers saying ‘this is just a theory’ on evolution textbooks in the United States have a point. Evolution, like many other considerations such as the creation of the universe, is ‘just a theory’ because science consists of theory, as well as observation and a margin of error. Often a scientific position will be the result of many smaller theories from various sources that have built up and been verified over time. Science is big, complicated and detailed. It is certainly not constrained by politics, whether in terms of making things convenient for managers of the national curriculum at one extreme to climate change deniers at the other. 

It’s not as if the scientific community makes things easy on itself either. The panel had several horror stories in which information culled over years of work was delivered at a lecture, only for someone not even associated with the project to record the results, publish them and get the credit.

Experiences like these have led to Kafkaesque levels of scientific secrecy. For example, the European Space Agency’s Planck Mission successfully used background microwave radiation to date the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, the most accurate measurement so far. However, participation in the project meant signing the notorious Planck Communication Agreement, which stipulated that no one on the team could physically share an office with anyone who hadn’t signed up. In a twist that perfectly illustrates the conundrums explored by the panel, these comical levels of paranoia inspired one panel member to write a short story called ‘The Inquisition’ (see link at the end)

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The continuing uneasy political/economic situation means grant funding is now harder to come by. Competition for scientific research grants has intensified, with access to data from, say the Cassini Project being limited to those involved in it. Ground-based astronomers can download information from, say, the Hubble telescope, but only after a year has passed since the information was received.

Even when scientific projects are successful, their practitioners face new and increasingly absurd threats. Chief among them is the new US administration, which while not able to sweep away entire departments like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the ease promised during the 2016 election, does have the authority to de-allocate funds.

There are precedents for the disastrous results: a Canadian administration de-funded research into ice cores that cost millions of dollars to extract. These cores contained gas bubbles that functioned as long-term climate records. A Canadian university attempted to preserve the ice cores, but their facility was not as robust as the government’s. There was a power cut and the cores were lost. 

SF excels at dystopian outcomes, with fact and fiction now converging at a terrifying rate. However, there are solutions. One is the inspirational element of SF; another is that people can take part in large scientific projects. Indeed, the human ability to find patterns is an invaluable part of the citizen science movement, whether as part of CERN or Atlas.

It’s important to remember how many decisions are based on emotion, not fact. One way of influencing an entrenched position is to go around naysayers, then simply organise better and let the results speak for themselves. Adversarial debates are an old information processing system based on the judiciary, which will rarely synthesis conflicting positions in any useful way. Perhaps the answer is conversation with a focus on agreement rather than discord.

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To borrow another great gag, this one from Dara O’Briain: ‘Of course science doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop.’

‘The Inquisition’ by David L Clements

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