Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An observation

Skeptics and scientists both attempt to employ the same scientific method. The difference is that scientists focus on hypotheses that are promising, whereas skeptics focus on hypotheses that are popular.

This can have ramifications. For example, I've noticed that a lot of people with first-hand scientific experience (inc. my dad, for what it's worth) don't have a lot of respect for Karl Popper's attempts to distinguish science from non-science and identify a distinct scientific process. They tend to see science as working in a more intuitive, less formalised, fashion.

That's for two reasons. Firstly, scientists are mainly surrounded by promising hypotheses generated by other competent scientists. Skeptics aren't - we deal with the daftest ideas that human ingenuity can devise. And secondly, if a scientist comes across a non-promising and unsupported idea, they are "allowed" to discard it out of hand. Skeptics aren't, because then the cranks and quacks start whining that we're not treating them fairly.

Going the other way, I know many skeptics* are disturbed by the climate science community's complete PR failure in the case of "Climategate" and other alleged scandals. "Why did they not see this coming?" we ask ourselves. "Have they never dealt with people like this before?"

No, they haven't. They're scientists, not skeptics. They spend all their time working through complex climate models and looking at atmospheric data. They've never argued with a creationist, or tried to talk sense into a Holocaust denier. They're not equipped for this kind of debate.

Scientists and skeptics are natural complements, and there is a lot of overlap between the two groups. Skeptics have always taken scientists seriously; hopefully in the future this will go both ways.

* By this I do not mean climate change pseudoskeptics. I should mention that I don't have the knowledge (yet) to evaluate the claims of modern climate science, so I can't comment on whether it's correct. But what I do know is that most of the main claims made by climate change deniers are ludicrously simplistic and/or just plain wrong.
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British law: Bloody inconsistent

It's been barely a month since the brilliant response by the Court of Appeals in the BCA vs Simon Singh case. Sadly, they can't all be gems. Paul Chambers has just been convicted.

In case anyone hasn't come across this case, Mr Chambers made a comment on his Twitter feed expressing frustration at the closure of his local airport:

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!"

Pretty normal for Twitter, you'd think, and frankly rather mild for the Internet as a whole. Sadly, the Crown Prosecution Service didn't agree. When they got wind of this comment, they decided to prosecute him for sending a message on a public network that was "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character".

Quite apart from the WTF that we have such a fuzzy law on our books, there is no evidence that Mr Chambers intended to menace anyone, or that anyone in fact felt menaced. This is apparently a case of the CPS deciding that Mr Chambers must be guilty of something, and then hunting up an obscure law to fit. (We actually have a law specifically dealing with bomb threats, but that would have required the CPS to make a more solid case so they (ab)used an obscenity law instead.)

Now, as an average netizen, I'd normally respond with a comment like:

"These vindictive fascist little jobsworths will be first against the wall when the revolution comes."

But given the CPS's apparent inability to recognise hyperbolic comments, I wouldn't dream of saying any such thing.
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