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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Science and society: Here a tic, there a tic, everywhere a heretic ...

A friend writes to draw my attention to "Mark Lynas: the green heretic persecuted for his nuclear conversion" (Sunday Times, September 28, 2008)

We are told that
The climate change expert Mark Lynas has been scorned by eco-colleagues for daring to speak up for atomic power.
Why?
Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. My tipping point came when I discovered just how much nuclear power has changed since I first set my mind against it. Prescription for the Planet, a new book by the American writer Tom Blees, opened my eyes to fourth-generation “fast-breeder” reactors, which use fuel much more efficiently than the old-style reactors, produce shorter-lived waste and can also be designed to be “walk-away safe”.

Best of all, these new reactors – prototypes of which have already been tested – can produce power by burning up existing stocks of nuclear waste. As Blees puts it: “Thus we have a prodigious supply of free fuel that is actually even better than free, for it is material that we are quite desperate to get rid of.” Who could object to that?
Who? Funny you should ask. That guy went from hero to zero in six seconds, just because he made the mistake of finding out about promising new developments in nuclear power. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the stellar courage of big science toffs is well illustrated by his experience:
When I e-mailed a senior ecological scientist with my conclusions, he agreed, but only privately. “Do not cite me as promoting nuclear,” he begged. I am still shocked that people of his stature are too intimidated to speak out. The result of this fear is that the public is dangerously misinformed about nuclear power.
Years ago, a retired Canadian scientist told me that he, for one, felt that properly managed nuclear was far safer in the long run than dependence on oil, which is disproportionately associated with dangerous politics. He also pointed out that keeping nuclear energy out of the wrong hands is a problem we will have whether we use it or not.

I guess he'd be a heretic too these days.

Anyway, American Darwin fan Jerry Coyne prophesies
There is a crisis in scientific literacy in the United States: only 25% of Americans accept our evolution from ape-like ancestors, yet 74% believe in angels.
Let's leave the apes and angels out of it for a moment. The United States is still the world science leader, so "Coyne's crisis" needs some unpacking.

Maybe I can help.

In the United States, and to some extent in Canada, people feel comfortable dissenting respectfully from authorities. Especially authorities that have often been wrong.

People here have access to non-state controlled media. So they know that authorities are often wrong. Yesterday, I talked about the false convictions that have depended on bad forensic science. Yes, reform is possible, of course. But reformers must start by facing the fact that "the assured results of modern science" can be plain wrong. And that requires critical thinking.

I myself have written several health science stories about wrong ideas marketed to the public. For example, being somewhat overweight is not a serious health hazard. Trying to lose a slightly excess amount of weight may harm your health more. And - since we are here anyway - any believable model of human evolution would predict that slight overweight is a plus, not a minus.

But that is only one example. There are many others. I don't want to get into the enormous global warming controversy because I do not have the background in it. But I must say that when foretold apocalypses do not occur, the dumb masses begin to question the wild-eyed prophets of climate science. They may not say anything, but they do know what to think.

If Prophet Coyne has so few followers in his native land, he may well wish to look to his Message.

Progress in science often depends on people who are willing to turn around and start running the other way, while the herd is stampeding off a cliff.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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