Monckton and Science

Snail escape!

There’s been some excitement about Mr. Monckton’s visit to Australia, and his speech at Notre Dame University in Fremantle. The reactions I’ve had when I talk to people about it have been fascinating. A prevalent opinion is that in not hosting Monckton a University would be engaging in censorship.

Of course, it’s easy to show it’s not censorship. To dabble in a little reductio ad absurdum, if I don’t invite you to give a speech at my birthday party, or at my wedding, I’m not censoring you. I’m just not giving you a podium. You can go make a speech somewhere else.

The other (and I think more worryingly) common idea is that all views should be heard. This statement is absolutely correct, and also absolutely misunderstood. This is also where we find the real problem – very few people know what science means.

Science is (very, very briefly) observation – gathering data on a problem, hypothesis – coming up with a potential explanation for observations, prediction – reasoned, logical deductions from the hypothesis, and then testing and experimentation – verifying the predictions.

The absolutely crucial thing is that your tests can be performed by others. Science has bee a social activity as long as it has existed. Results are published and then verified by others. Precisely described experiments are repeated. This allows the scientific community to check for errors, or for fraud, and also allows for members of the scientific community to devise tests that provide new evidence for or against a particular hyptothesis.

Anyone can observe, hypothesise and test, and anyone can publish their results. In the era of the internet this is easier than it has ever been. Anyone can participate in the scientific community. Your results may be disproved, or not; they may attract further study. The important thing is that anyone can do this.

Monckton and his ilk aren’t scientists because they don’t participate in this process.

Unfortunately, as humans we are fantastic at determining credibility by appearance and by context. If I see a ten second clip of someone on the news, standing at a podium addressing a University I will by default find them credible. Reductio ad absurdum again; if someone is wearing a nice suit, or a doctor’s white coat, I’m far more likely to find then credible. This is an almost inescapable reality of being human.

Hopefully you now see what the academic community is worried about. It’s all too easy for vested interests to plonk someone onto a podium which lends them credibility. The innate credibility of the University podium comes from centuries of academic excellence and rigor, and it is offensive that institutions such as Notre Dame are happy to sell it on to anyone with enough money.

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3 Responses to Monckton and Science

  1. teme says:

    Are you Graeme Bird at this blog?
    http://graemebird.wordpress.com/

  2. Yes, so true. I agree – if someone looks like a scientist, it seems to be enough. Likewise, if people have a large dossier in their hands with lots of paper in it, it can look like “thorough research” or “evidence”.

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