Practical Fusion is Just Around the Corner

I know there is a crisis in the public understanding of science.  Upwards of 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution or anthropogenic global warming, and about as many do believe in astrology and ESP.  Believe me, that’s a disaster in so many ways that I can scarcely bear to think about it.  But it’s not the only problem that Americans have with science, and I don’t think it’s the worst one.

astrology_symbol Evolution-des-wissensglobal_warming

More disturbing to me than the ignorance of one big segment of the public is the overconfidence and gullibility of another big segment.  And before I start bashing people, let me say that I don’t typically blame people for being ignorant, but I do blame them for their willful ignorance.  And I think the two groups I have mentioned are both guilty of that.

I took the title of this blog from a Facebook comment that I have made so often on some of my friends status updates that I am sure they are blocking my posts, “Bad Science Writing Will Destroy the World.”  I say this because much of my Facebook feed, and much of the popular media, is filled up with bad science writing which, as I may have mentioned, will destroy the world.  Why?  I was hoping you might ask.

The sort of bad science writing (and reporting) I refer to is mostly “gee-whiz,” good-news writing and reporting, and everyone from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye to the writers for Gizmodo and I F@*king Love Science are guilty of it in equal parts.  This “look at what we can do” writing is harmful because it engages a fairly well-educated class of people, people who do believe in evolution and global warming and not in astrology, in a way that makes them complacent and optimistic when they shouldn’t be.  These people, many of whom are my former students, have become indoctrinated in what is called scientism, the belief that science is the source of all the answers and, in the extreme case, that science already has most of them.

neil-degrasse-tyson-tells-us-why-star-trek-is-so-much-better-than-star-wars bill nye

The title of this post comes from a joke with long-standing in the power industry: “Practical fusion has been just around the corner for the last 45 years.”

Here’s a fairly recent example from Reuters:
Genome Scientist Craig Venter in Deal to Make Humanized Pig Organs

pig human twilight zone

In this article, the reporter somewhat breathlessly reports that rejection-proof pig-human hybrid organs are, as it were, just around the corner:

“We’re going to start with generating a brand new super-accurate sequence of the pig genome, and then go through in detail and compare it to the human genome,” Venter, the founder and chief executive of Synthetic Genomics Inc, said in a telephone interview.

“The goal is to go in and edit, and where necessary, rewrite using our synthetic genomic tools, the pig genes that seem to be associated with immune responses,” said Venter, who is best known for his role in mapping the human genome over a decade ago and who created synthetic life in 2010.

Of course, the other shoe drops later in the article when it is revealed that:

If all goes well, Venter thinks his team will be able to deliver the cells in a few years. Testing the humanized organs in clinical trials to ensure they are safe in people will take many more years…if the team succeeds in developing humanized pig lungs, hearts and kidneys from these animals may also prove to be suitable for human transplantation.

and also that a company called Lung Biotechnology

will take a $50 million stake in [Venter’s] La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics, which also will receive royalties and milestone incentives from the development and commercialization of the organs.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for pig lungs to be available for transplant.

It’s a complicated problem.  Most college graduates know very little “real” science unless they major in one of the sciences, and even then, they are so specialized that they lack a general perspective on the various fields and their interrelations.  And the students that go on to write for the news industry are seldom people who majored in a scientific field.  Even Bill Nye, admired as he is, is a master’s degree level Mechanical Engineer by training—training that occurred a long time ago.  And yet his is the most prominent defender of climate science and evolution.  A man with an irrelevant and outdated degree whose only other credential is as a host of a children’s show is now the official spokesperson for SCIENCE.

thomas_dolby

So for now, we have a situation where the publicly accessible “experts” on science are talking to reporters with little background in the field and who then, as a condition of their employment, sex the story up in the telling of it.  And all of this is fed to an audience smart enough to know things are bad in the world but human enough to wish, desperately, that things were otherwise.  We all want to fix the environment, reverse the effects of aging and bad living, raise everyone’s standard of living and the like, but we don’t want to make any sacrifices doing these things. Hence, the market gives us the story we want—the story of the human/pig organ boom that is just around the corner.

Right after we get practical fusion.  On the surface of the Earth, I mean.

fusion

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5 thoughts on “Practical Fusion is Just Around the Corner

  1. Scott says:

    Wow, and what a surprise that you offer nothing to replace science. So, if not scientism as you defined it, what should we have? For my money, if the students are going to be indoctrinated with anything, scientism as you defined it is a much better alternative than everything else on the table, especially all faith-based options. I’d much rather know that the students are developing skills to validate data experimentally, test the data’s statistical significance, and enhance logical reasoning skills than visiting a chaplain once a week to confess sins and pray the rosary.

    Further, the majority of science graduate students tend to be very aware of modern science interdisciplinarity, especially since the funded proposals on which they did undergrad research (and current research) are for interdisciplinary research, and their awareness and depth only increase with further study. For the other non-science undergrads, if they could get through college algebra on the first attempt they might have a chance to understand fundamental general physics and general chemistry. Then the tools would be in place to remediate the ignorance you highlighted; to be fair, I really don’t know what the answer is or how to go about getting incoming students to be better at math. But the students can’t do the math and so they choose softer science majors or default to the humanities programs.

    Now, Venter was absurdly optimistic and he should know better, although every scientist I’ve heard speak at universities and conferences, including no less than two dozen Nobelists, are very conscious of the language used to describe how soon and readily available a discovery will be; then again these same people are responsible for every development, innovation, and cure so it can be difficult to moderate ego when you’ve just attained a blockbuster achievement. Get over it. Meanwhile, the PIs and researchers doing the lab work absolutely must sell their field, much that same way that every professor must sell their major program to recruit, develop, and retain new students for all of the reasons that I don’t need to mention here; trust me, I know the reasons.

    Does the media, online and elsewhere, sensationalize? Of course, it’s their job. Should the media be more intellectually honest? Absolutely, but they won’t be because that agenda is not profitable. Such is the society we live in, and no I do not know the best way to change it. Maybe we could start with the whole publication industry and make all the journals open? I suspect you would be OK with that. By the way, as a mild digression, given that not all of the MIT professors are field “experts,” what do you think about sites like MIT open courseware, and others like it, who make course materials and lectures available? Where do you stand on Khan Academy? I suppose you don’t like Khan Academy, probably because Salman Khan studied engineering. What about online test preparation like Dave Hall’s velocity LSAT? You might like DH. He was a philosophy major!

    To attack Neil deGrasse Tyson is absurd. Seriously? What have you accomplished that compares to anything he has done? And Nye – mechanical engineering irrelevant…get real – as the most prominent defender of climate science and evolution? You’re not even wrong. Every prominent scientist from Richard Dawkins, to Brian Greene, to Roald Hoffmann and every trained scientist working in academia, government, industry, and elsewhere would state that not even the late Carl Sagan is an official science representative, as there can and never will be such a thing. Further, Nye’s credentials are legitimate and to dismiss him they way you did reeks of pompous, professorial arrogance. Nye makes a real effort to stay current, his arguments are evidence-based and coherent, and most importantly, he is intellectually honest. What more do you want?

    I have to say that as a debut blog post, I am left wanting. Are you feeling that your background is becoming increasingly less relevant in today’s data driven society? The only thing that is clear to me is that you really don’t understand science. Perhaps you can update your CV to include a heading named “Area of Incompetence” and list “Science”. That just might be the best writing you ever compose.

    • Thanks for the comment. I am sorry that I came across as writing anything remotely critical of science, which I understand quite well. My target is really the harm done to the average person’s understanding of science that is fostered, at least, by poor journalism, sensationalism and just plain bad writing. When I criticize some popularizers of science, I am just trying to point out that they often don’t confer any real understanding to their readers and viewers and that this is lamentable. I think Nye’s performance in the recent debate with Ken Ham is a case in point, and I think he (and the public) commit the fallacy of appealing to authority when they substitute proper appreciation of his area of expertise to all other areas of science.

  2. Steve Forrester says:

    I like it. Succinct, biting, and just barely insulting to those who should be insulted. –The “look what we can do” label is perfect. Sadly, I think my own father was sucked in by lots of bad science writing in the 70’s and 80’s. At various times in his life, he subscribed to National Geographic, Popular Science/Mechanics and Scientific American. He also came to ‘worship’ science (once proposing that we replace the notion of ‘God’ with hydrogen since it’s the most abundant element in the universe!). He also did not have a very realistic understanding of, or psychological perspective on, his own cancer when it afflicted him. He didn’t engage in any crazy cures (as you say, bullshit like astrology and ESP are removed from these peoples’ minds), but he did somehow believe that natural forces, like sunlight or carbonated beverages (I shit you not) would somehow save him because of the unknown scientific forces at work. –This is one of the ways in which bad science writing can deeply impact peoples’ lives. I think my Dad could have had met his personal demise in a much more intellectually honest and sane way had his mind not been pumped full of the miracles of science that were waiting for him ‘just around the corner’.

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