I love science. I love technology. Quite a shock, I know, to all those skeptics who think people like me are “science-haters”. My concern with science, is that sometimes it becomes more akin to a religion, rather than the very handy (and in some ways, limited) tool that it is. On the other hand (and, sometimes as a direct result of the foregoing) there are too many people out there who fear (and even hate) science, which is something that I don’t really understand.
A recent post on Bad Astronomy might be a worthy case study in how science can be treated like a religion – in particular, how apostates to the accepted dogma are treated. Phil Plait posted a video and short comment on how Professor Brian Cox (quite literally a ‘rock star’ physicist) had opened “a can of intellectual whoopbutt” (Phil Plait’s words) on Sir David King, current President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in regards to their short debate on whether the science of the Large Hadron Collider was worth the financial cost of building and running it.
There’s a lot to like about Brian Cox (see this TED talk he gave on the LHC for a look at how well he handles himself) – he’s the sort of spokesman that can bring science to the masses. But David King is no slouch either, especially in terms of knowledge in this debate – he is an extremely well-qualified scientist, and has extensive experience in liaising with governments on science funding and policy.
In the short video debate posted on BA, King openly conceded the LHC was exciting, and that he was eager to see the results. He called Brian Cox “brilliant”, and wasn’t obnoxious at all – he remained quietly spoken even when Cox kept talking over the top of him. He simply tried to make a point about the allocation of research money – something he’s very familiar with – and whether the theoretical nature of the LHC experiments could justify their expense, considering the numerous imminent threats to humanity that science funding could be directed at helping to solve.
To view the comments at BA though one would think that King had asked for all science funding to be stopped – perhaps inspired by Phil Plait’s original statement about Cox opening “a can of whoopbutt” on King. “Always a perverse pleasure to be had from seeing a pompous stuffed shirt get smacked down,” says one commenter. “Administrator, meet … excuse me, did your head just come off?” says another. There’s a certain ‘flock’ mentality happening here, with very few asking whether King had something worth discussing. It appears he has been deemed apostate, and therefore shall now be excluded from the congregation.
However, one very good point made in the comments is that the LHC funding is dwarfed by military spending around the globe, and so it is quite daft to say too much is being spent on this project. King though, I think, is maintaining a practical line here – he knows that ‘defence’ spending is not going to change, and that limited funds are available to science – he is, after all, very experienced in this area. (It’s also quite ironic that many of Cox’s statements about spin-off technology could equally be applied to military spending.) But it is a point worth keeping in mind when dissing funding of science – it is but a drop in the bucket compared to how much is spent on destructive technology, and so it is an absurdity to take science to task when there are real decisions we could make about advancing humanity rather than continuing to behave like territorial savages. As our good friend Michael Grosso once commented: “The current U.S. military budget is roughly $350 billion, all dedicated to the technology of death. Contrast this with the funds available to do research on the conscious survival of death. Did I hear an amused snicker?”
Note that I am simply discussing the debate at hand here. I am not conversant with David King’s thoughts and opinions – I may well have very different views to him in numerous areas. But I do think, in this case, that he is being treated rather unfairly, and that it has arisen from a group ‘religious fervour’ that has deemed it blasphemy to question (no matter how politely) scientists. I find that worthy of comment. Quite apart from that, it’s great to see two top-line scientists discussing this topic in a civil manner on television.
One final note: in supporting Cox, Phil Plait sums up by saying “All science has spinoffs, and sometimes powerful ones. Not only that, we don’t know what they will be in advance (usually) so, guided by our wisdom, it pays to let basic research go wherever the science will lead it.” I’m glad to see the new president of the JREF is in support of parapsychology research by the likes of Dean Radin…
Other LHC features worth checking: Alan Boyle reports on the controversial start-up in “Big Bang Sparks Big Reaction“. And MSNBC also has Professor Michio Kaku discussing the “nightmares and dreams” surrounding the LHC.
Addendum: Synchronistically, this IO9 story was the next thing I came across this morning…