Saturday, October 27, 2012

Great Science/Technology documentary - just no STEM in it please!

Since these days every communication is supposed to be a story, see if you can find the commonality among these four vignettes:

1. A while ago I saw a documentary about a Steinway piano, Note by note, the making of Steinway L1037, which didn't really say anything about the piano: what wood it's made of, how the key mechanism works, how Steinways differ from Bosendorfers or Young Changs, the history of pianos, or really anything about the construction of the piano other than a sequence of glossed-over steps. But it did tell us about the lives of the people who work in the factory, showed a kid hammering away at the keys, and a number of other "human interest stories." The lack of any information about the piano or the making thereof doesn't seem to have stopped this documentary from earning accolades, quite the contrary.

2. Magicians Penn and Teller have a Showtime program called Bullsh*t, where they purport to debunk bad thinking. It's entertaining, but what they do is foster more bad thinking: they typically present the "wrong side" by having highly mockable people say stupid things on camera (helped by editing); then they mock those people. This is precisely the wrong way to go: though it's entertaining to watch, this creates the impression that something is wrong or right because of who is saying it, not of what is being said — a clear ad hominem fallacy.

3. Jerome Groopman's book How Doctors Think has a nice collection of decision biases in medical practice. It's a good book; I have both the audiobook and the hardcover versions. But about one-fourth of the text is wasted in descriptions of the environment where the author is interviewing someone, what the person looks like, their life stories, their hobbies, and other unrelated material. These fait-divers are distracting, and not in the sense that they are entertaining.

4. A long time ago I played my first (and I think last) game of Trivial Pursuit. I recall getting the following science question: "who was the president of the [portuguese version of the AMA] after [name long forgotten]?" I said this was a preposterous science question (preposterous enough that I remember it over twenty years later) but other players didn't agree with me. To these mostly educated, but not clear-thinking people, science was about bureaucrats in local professional associations of some scientific nature.

These are four examples — out of hundreds — of the popular misperception of what science and technology are about: most people seem to think that science and technology, STEM to use the broader acronym, is about the people involved. Hence a call for more scientists and engineers, instead of a call for better science and engineering.

But there's hope, though it comes from far away (the UK) and long ago (the 1980s): Richard Hammond and James May and Cosmos.

Cosmos was a great series. Carl Sagan didn't talk about Einstein's love affairs, the view from Galileo's palace, or what Copernicus looked like in breeches. Sagan made the Universe the hero of the series, scientific thinking the sidekick, and occasionally threw in some history for context. Brian Greene's documentaries on PBS are the closest intellectual heir to Cosmos, I think; unfortunatly few people even know these exist.

Browsing YouTube, I found a number of episodes of Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections and James May's Things You May Need to Know. These programs focus on the information or knowledge and leave all the "human interest" aside. (*) A little like Mythbusters shows, except that the MBs have a lot of problems with the science.

Far away and long ago these may be, but they might catch on due to the interaction between the power of the interwebs and a rare species, homo sapiens nerdus.

Reporting on Felix Baumgarten's skydive from the edge of space a few days ago, MSNBC had an unfortunate chyron with "Fearless Felix traveled fasted than the speed of light." A lot of people noticed the problem (MSNBC meant the speed of sound, obviously), but I took it a little further and made some minimal computations to determine that if FF had reached ninety percent of the speed of light, his collision with New Mexico would have wiped out a big chunk of that state in a 1500 megaton explosion. This is called "nerding out."

(Nerds might save our civilization. Be kind to your local nerd.)

Note that there's minimal knowledge of Physics involved in my nerding out. All one has to do is to compute the Lorentz mass $m = m_0 / (1 - v^2/c^2)^{1/2}$ and then use the kinetic energy formula $E= 1/2\,  m v^2$.  (In fact, you could ignore the Lorentz correction altogether and get a close enough answer.) I wonder what percentage of the people who laughed at MSNBC could have done these calculations; I also wonder how many understand why the speed of light is an absolute limit while the speed of sound is not. (**)

STEM is not about haughty jokes or the personalities of those involved. It's about truth (science), achievement (engineering and technology), and thought (math). It's a world of wonder beyond the lives of those involved. That some popularizers think that to make this wonder interesting we must intersperse it with gossip and distractions is an insult to their audiences. Or maybe the popularizers are cowards, unwilling to educate or inspire their audience.

Can we please get people who are really interested in science, engineering, technology, and math to take over their popularization? Otherwise, we'll end up with science documentaries that spend more time on Einstein's hair and political opinions than on the implications of $E = mc^2$.

Like the ones we already have.

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* This expression is getting on my nerves. Is suggests that humans are not interested in knowledge or thought other than gossip and the picayune. Some people defend the inclusion of irrelevant personal details as part of giving the characters involved more depth. My point is that the characters involved are irrelevant for the STEM part; focussing on them only emphasizes the natural human tendency for ad hominem reasoning. (Obviously if the field of study is leadership or creativity or similar the depth of the characters involved is part of the science.)

** In other words, how does most people's knowledge of science differ from what we'd call religious belief in science? To clarify: scientific knowledge (which must be consistent with experiment and observation) differs in a fundamental way from religious belief (based on revelation by authority). But, in my experience, many people "believe in science," not because they understand it and can work out the implications, but because it's been revealed to them by authority (the education system) and it's socially unacceptable in their peer group to not "believe in science." In that sense, their belief in science is not scientific, but rather religious.  Yes, there's a post about this in the wings.