Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fed up with "trust us, we're experts" science

Somehow in my lifetime we went from Feyman's idea of science requiring 'a belief in the fallibility of experts,' to a caste system where science experts must be trusted without question, and acolytes jump on anyone who dares ask anything.

The trigger event for this rant was the Mythbusters Breaking Bad Special. In particular, the test of the hydrofluoric acid disposal of a body in a bathtub that ends up with a big hole on the floor and ceiling of Jesse's home. (Season 1, Episode 2, "Cat's in the bag.")

(Big Breaking Bad fan here, and still grudgingly a fan of the Mythbusters.)

First off, the Mythbusters test the effect of the 100ml of hydrofluoric acid on a number of samples of the materials involved (meat, wood, drywall, iron, steel, linoleum), all of the same size. Yes, size, not appropriate mass computed from molar calculation. Apparently no one thought of asking a chemist (though one is present to run the experiment) about mass balance and stoichiometry. 

After they fail to dissolve these objects with the apparently arbitrarily chosen volume of hydrofluoric acid, the Mythbusters move on to replicate the scene in the show with a different solvent.

This is the point when I really lose it: they say that the solution to the body-disposal problem is to use sulfuric acid and a secret sauce.

A. Secret. Sauce.

Because knowledge should only be held by experts?! Say whaaa?

This is what science entertainment teaches its audience: if you're not an expert, you should not expect full information: "Trust us, we know what's going on, and you'll get to see the result on TV, so it's real." Of course this trains audiences to (a) accept TV as the authority on who's an expert; (b) believe in experts' statements without requiring proof or independent verification; and (c) think of science as something beyond the comprehension of the audience member, and therefore not to be questioned by him or her.

Yes, I get their legalistic "we're not here to teach people how to dispose of bodies," but it's ridiculous: acquiring the large quantities of acid necessary would be more suspicious than a number of other ways that can easily be found on the interwebs or on Bones or Dexter. Joe Pesci explains the traditional approach at the beginning of Casino: "dig the hole before you whack the guy, so you don't have to dig it with the body out in the open."

(The secret sauce is hydrogen peroxide, another chemical that would really raise eyebrows -- FBI and DHS eyebrows -- if purchased in quantity, since it is used for improvised explosive devices. Also, really really really temperamental chemical.)

Then I remembered the Mythbusters had done this before, in the thermite episode, for which they blurred the names of the igniter reagents. FYI,  to ignite thermite you drop glycerol on a mound of potassium permanganate on top of the thermite; though you can simply use a long-neck torch, like they did on, oh irony, Breaking Bad.

When I was a kid, I liked chemistry almost as much as electronics, and this is the kind of thing we got to play with before the world became full of Sitzpinkler. Do they even sell chemistry sets for children anymore? If not, where is the next generation of chemists and chemical engineers going to come from? Chemistry can be dangerous, but bringing up an entire generation ignorant of it is terminally stupid. But I digress...

Back to the main problem: It has become acceptable to make the argument that the audience should trust the experts on faith, since the technical stuff is either too difficult or too dangerous or too easily misused by the non-initiated.

This kind of thinking is more dangerous to science than 10 Tomás de Torquemadas. Because this is the kind of thinking that creates 10,000 Torquemadas, all convinced that they are the paladins of science and all ready to auto-da-fé those whom the experts deem to be the enemies of Science™. Thus quelling dissent and killing the basis of all progress in science.

A lot of people will line up for this; after all there are many people who like the idea and image of science. As long as they don't have to learn any, of course.

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Note: edited on Nov 21st to remove unnecessary detour about "skeptics."