The last few days I’ve been reading BAD Astronomy, a book by astronomer Philip Plait that describes common misconceptions, misuses and scientific abuses of astronomy. Partly written to be funny and partly to debunk the nonsense that arises from people misusing and abusing science, it’s a good and worthwhile read for anybody (especially if you have some spare time on your hands). [amtap book:isbn=0471409766]

Reading through the book I came to chapter 14, which deals with the doomsday advocates who swore up and down that the world was going to come to an end on May 5, 2000 due to a planetary alignment (more or less) of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It was quite funny to read Plait’s description of why this neither would nor did cause catastrophe for our planet. But more than that, the chapter got me thinking about how bad science is all around us and affects us in sometimes rather drastic ways.

In the case of Plait’s example nothing really very drastic happened to anybody (except a few people who were duped into buying bogus survival gear to help them survive the new ice age that the planetary alignment was supposed to drop the planet into). However, not everything that is misunderstood is so innocent. Take for example a court case in the Netherlands (this was quite a long time ago, to be honest):

In this particular case a bridge guard was being sued by a barge captain because the captain felt the bridge guard didn’t open the bridge often enough daily. The bridge was too low for the barge to pass under (by a meter) and the frequent delays cost the captain money. So he sued to get the bridge opened more often. The judge in this case was a long-standing lord of the bench, properly educated in languages and law (as most judges), but not so much in the sciences. His ruling was that the bridge guard could not be forced to alter his ways and that instead, the captain should pay (out of his own pocket) to have the river bed under the bridge dug out an extra meter. It took testimony from a professor of physics of the University of Delft to explain to the judge that that is not how it works.

Lawyers (and related persons) are particularly good at bad science, it seems. And not just physics, but also mathematics and logic. A former professor of mine (a computer scientist, philosopher and master of law) told us some particularly nice anecdotes about the brilliance of Dutch traffic law, for instance. Dutch traffic law specifies that there are priority vehicles (ambulances, police cars, etc.) which have priority in all traffic situations. Dutch traffic law also specifies that traffic signs (signs, lights, arrows painted on the road, etc.) have priority over traffic rules. Makes sense so far, right? Except, my professor pointed out, the law was written by lawyers. Who encoded the two rules mentioned into two separate and completely unrelated articles like so:

A. One must always give precedence to priority vehicles.

B. Traffic signs have priority over traffic rules.

Taken like that, the law says that priority vehicles must stop for red lights. We are all grateful that they disobey the law constantly.

Recently, I got embroiled in an even more far reaching example of bad logic and the law. On some forum somewhere I got into an argument with someone (whom I suspect is a first-year law student) about the Dutch constitution. Our constitution is a pretty typical constitutional document which describes the basic organization of country and government, as well as the civil rights of the citizens and other inhabitants. Perhaps a little unusual (but quite well thought-out, I feel), our constitution recognizes that not every right can or should be absolute. Several of our civil rights are therefore worded in the following structure:

  1. Some general rule which applies if no exception is made;
  2. The Law determines which exceptions exist to the aforementioned rule.

For example, our constitution guarantees the right to free speech; but the constitution also leaves room for the law to set limits (such as forbidding insults to whole groups within society).

The suspected law student, in a bit of brilliant logical derivation, arrived at the conclusion that it is possible for the law in our country to contradict the constitution and therefore that our constitution as a whole is meaningless. That is (to stick with the example above), if it is forbidden to insult all Jews/Christians/Muslims in the country, then the law violates the free speech article and since the constitution is not enforced over the law it means nothing. I’ll admit that the truth is a little subtle: the constitution sets a general rule and allows the law to create exceptions. So the law creates an exception (or violation) of the general rule, but not of the constitution. But still, you’d think that even a law student (a lawyer to be) should be able to spot that he’s claiming that a law whose existence is explicitly allowed by the constitution is a violation of that constitution…

Bad science, I fear, is all around us all the time. Especially since the environment has started playing a major role in decision making. From the greenhouse effect down to whether or not you are poisoning the environment by dumping non-biodegradable plastic in it (you’re not, by the way — non-biodegradable plastic isn’t biodegradable, so it doesn’t interact with the environment if dumped in nature somewhere), bad science pervades life. Two months ago, in The Netherlands, there was a great commotion is some village about plans to store carbon dioxide gas in an old natural gas pit which has been depleted by the national gas seller. Now, this was a porous rock stratum at over a kilometer depth in which nature has stored flammable gas for millions of years, under pressure, without a single leak or explosion. But for some reason the inhabitants (who had been living, technically, on a bomb for centuries before the gas was pumped out) are now scared of living on top of inert, non-flammable gas that is to be stored in the same stratum under less pressure than the gas was under.

Bad science is often funny to read about. But equally as often it is no joke at all, as it leads to bad decisions. When people misunderstand science and especially when bad people are creating bad science in order to make people make bad decisions. So a valid question arises: where are the scientific and engineering communities amidst this storm of bad science? Why don’t they have a more active role in society and why doesn’t society ask them to have a more active part?

In this country, we have several professional societies for scientists and engineers. I’m even a member of one of them (KIvI/NIRIA). Now, it’s not that they don’t try. Really, they do. KIvI/NIRIA, the ONRI, the VSNU, all sorts of others, they all feel the need to play a more active role in society, to influence decision making and to try and be voices of reason amidst the insanity. But they do it in the way engineers have become accustomed to over the past forty years; silently, in the background, trying to be the quiet advisor in the ear of the board. And so they often miss; they get drowned out in the melee, overruled by the opinions of the crowd that are based on nothing that makes any sense. And then, instead of trying to push bask, they submit to the nonsense because the decision has been made and once the decision has been made you no longer disagree. And that may be the worst science of all….

Bad science…