Irony: Bill Nye uses a philosophical argument to disparage philosophy

Amused and disappointed. This is how I felt when I saw Bill Nye’s Q&A posted on YouTube on the 23rd of February 2016. In it, the Science Guy, as he is known to my generation, tried to criticize philosophy using a well-known philosophical argument. I was amused because seeing people make fools of themselves is, admittedly, entertaining. I was also disappointed because abject ignorance is discouraging, particularly when displayed by otherwise intelligent people.

There is a lot wrong with Mr. Nye’s entire tirade, but, for brevity, I will focus on the most egregious: the irony of using a philosophical idea to claim that philosophy doesn’t offer meaningful ideas. In the video, Mr. Nye says: “[philosophy] doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising; it doesn’t always lead you to some place that is inconsistent with common sense.” These two sentences demonstrate how uninformed Mr. Nye is, because he is actually paraphrasing philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. In 1973, Lakatos proposed that a fundamental difference between scientific and pseudo-scientific theories was their ability to lead to unexpected, stunning, novel facts. Before Lakatos, theories were considered scientific as long as they were logically sound, supported by evidence, and, importantly, vulnerable to evidence against it (i.e., refutable).2 For Lakatos, however, this wasn’t enough; to be truly scientific, theories should also imply novel, surprising predictions that turn out to be true (i.e., empirically verified). Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, has led to the discovery of astonishing, novel facts like black holes.3 Now a common place among scientists and science enthusiasts, black holes were considered and anomaly at the time. Even Einstein doubted that nature could produce such an “aberration.”4 Decades later, in 1971, the first black hole was discovered.5

Lakatos’ proposition, in itself novel and contrary to common sense at the time, has become a pillar of the modern scientific enterprise and it often guides us scientists in our efforts to learn something new about the universe. In other words, it has become standard practice in scientific circles. Perhaps this is the reason Mr. Nye invokes this idea while being unaware that it was conceived by a philosopher.

I have dedicated these paragraphs to comment on Mr. Nye ‘s Big Think Q&A, because there is an important lesson for us science communicators: there are times when one should decline to comment and when it is best to concede that one knows very little about a particular subject. Otherwise, we risk loosing the trust of our audience and, thus, doing a disservice to them and to the scientific community.

References

  1. Lakatos I. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. New York, NY;  Cambridge University Press: 1989.
  2. Popper K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY; Routledge: 2002
  3. Taylor N. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. In Space.com https://www.space.com/17661-theory-general-relativity.html. Accessed: 23rd of August 2017.
  4. Stillman D. Einstein and Beyond. In NASA Education. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/F_Einstein_5-8.html. Accessed: 24rd of August 2017.
  5. Tayor N. Black Holes: Facts, Theory & Definition. In Space.com. https://www.space.com/15421-black-holes-facts-formation-discovery-sdcmp.html. Accessed: 24rd of August 2017.

Lies, pseudoscience and “journalism” in Japan’s current nuclear situation

The current situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant is a serious matter; and having family in close proximity of it makes it even more serious to me. For this reason, I appreciate the onslaught of emails and phone calls that friends and acquaintances have sent me to express their solidarity. Thank you!

At the same time, I am appalled by the way western media has represented the situation, which has led some people to send me distraught missives about the “imminent” crisis and the lies of the Japanese government. Since I haven’t posted in a while, I seized opportunity to type some words about risk and science communication. Since this is going to be a little bit of a rant, I apologize to my regular readership (that handful of patient people) for having digressed a little, yet again.

Here is my rant:

Continue reading “Lies, pseudoscience and “journalism” in Japan’s current nuclear situation”

Risk taking is a matter of format

Risk-taking is often associated with the character of a person. However, researchers have demonstrated that this behaviour greatly depends on the way people are presented a decision problem: most people decide to take risks when they face choices with negative outcomes (injuries), and choose safer options when they face positive consequences (dancing in the prom). Consequently, road safety, health promotion and injury prevention campaigns should convey risks in positive terms, and avoid communicating negative outcomes.

Risk-taking is often associated with the character of a person: some individuals are considered risk-takers and are said to lead risk-taking lives1. However, researchers have demonstrated that this behaviour greatly depends on the way people are presented a decision problem2, 3, 4. Indeed, most people decide to take risks when they face choices with negative outcomes3, 4 such as diseases or injuries. Conversely, most individuals choose safer options when they face positive consequences3, 4 like “dancing in the prom” or “playing with my children”.

Continue reading “Risk taking is a matter of format”

Evaluating road safety campaigns: success comes with failure

Many campaign evaluations focus only on one side of the issue: message acceptance. That is, they only measure how the message positively changed self-reported attitudes, intentions or behaviour. However, most evaluations pay little attention to message rejection―the extent to which the message fails.

Initiatives to educate drivers and promote road safety are not scarce in British Columbia. Right now, there are at least seven communication campaigns that focus on different issues: drinking and driving, intersections, speeding, high school speakers, cell phone use, child seats, and young drivers1, 2. Considering the effort and money spent in these programs, it is important to measure how effective they are.

Continue reading “Evaluating road safety campaigns: success comes with failure”

Audience analytics for road safety: personality traits

In order to be effective at educating the public, road safety campaigns must answer basic questions about drivers: who are they? Are there any identifiable groups? What gets their attention? How to communicate effectively with each of them? In this post, I will these questions in terms of personality traits. As I will describe, psychological research on this area has proven to be very useful for road safety and injury prevention in general.

In order to be effective at educating the public, road safety campaigns must answer basic questions about drivers: who are they? Are there any identifiable groups? What gets their attention? How to communicate effectively with them? In this post, I will answer these questions in terms of personality traits, because psychological research on this area has proven to be very useful for road safety and injury prevention in general.

Continue reading “Audience analytics for road safety: personality traits”

“Drinking and Driving CounterAttack”: does science support tougher laws?

Drinking and driving CounterAttack is the current road safety campaign by the Province of British Columbia, ICBC and police departments around the region. While some people disagree with its core policy (harsher penalties start at alcohol levels of .05), I contend that science supports it.

Drinking and driving CounterAttack is the current road safety campaign by the Province of British Columbia, ICBC and police departments around the region. While some people disagree with its core policy (harsher penalties start at alcohol levels of .05), I contend that science supports it. Continue reading ““Drinking and Driving CounterAttack”: does science support tougher laws?”

Vancouver cyclists: how to change unsafe behaviours

According to the Vancouver Sun1, many cyclists don’t know the laws, believe they don’t apply to them, or simply flout them intentionally. Here, I present two considerations on how to educate cyclists in Vancouver.

While the municipality plans to spend $25 million dollars in bicycle infrastructure1, other Vancouverites are concerned with the behaviour of cyclists and how to change their unsafe habits2. According to the Vancouver Sun1, many cyclists don’t know the laws, believe they don’t apply to them, or simply flout them intentionally. For instance, Statistics Canada reports that only 60% of B.C. cyclists wear helmets3. Continue reading “Vancouver cyclists: how to change unsafe behaviours”