Tag Archives: skepticism

My favourite conference; the Institute of Physics Spring Weekend

This weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Institute of Physics in Ireland. I always enjoy these meetings – more relaxing than a technical conference and a great way of keeping in touch with physicists from all over the country. As ever, there were a number of interesting presentations, plenty of discussions of science and philosophy over breakfast, lunch and dinner, all topped off by the annual awarding of the Rosse Medal, a highly competitive competition for physics postgraduates across the nation.

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The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘A Climate of Change’ and thus the programme included several talks on the highly topical subject of anthropogenic climate change. First up was ‘The science of climate change’, a cracking talk on the basic physics of climate change by Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College London. This was followed by ‘Climate change: where we are post the IPCC report and COP24’, an excellent presentation by Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University on the latest results from the IPCC. Then it was my turn. In ‘Climate science in the media – a war on information?’,  I compared the coverage of climate change in the media with that of other scientific topics such as medical science and and big bang cosmology. My conclusion was that climate change is a difficult subject to convey to the public, and matters are not helped by actors who deliberately attempt to muddle the science and downplay the threat. You can find details of the full conference programme here and the slides for my own talk are here.

 

Images of my talk from IoP Ireland 

There followed by a panel discussion in which Professor Haigh, Professor Sweeney and I answered questions from the floor on climate science. I don’t always enjoy panel discussions, but I think this one was useful thanks to some excellent chairing by Paul Hardaker of the Institute of Physics.

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Panel discussion of the threat of anthopogenic climate change

After lunch, we were treated to a truly fascinating seminar: ‘Tropical storms, hurricanes, or just a very windy day?: Making environmental science accessible through Irish Sign Language’, by Dr Elizabeth Mathews of Dublin City University, on the challenge of making media descriptions of threats such as storms hurricanes and climate change accessible to deaf people. This was followed by a most informative talk by Dr Bajram Zeqiri of the National Physical Laboratory on the recent redefinition of the kilogram,  ‘The measure of all things: redefinition of the kilogram, the kelvin, the ampere and the mole’.

Finally, we had the hardest part of the day, the business of trying to select the best postgraduate posters and choosing a winner from the shortlist. As usual, I was blown away by the standard, far ahead of anything I or my colleagues ever produced. In the end, the Rosse Medal was awarded to Sarah Markham of the University of Limerick for a truly impressive poster and presentation.

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Viewing posters at the IoP 2019 meeting; image courtesy of IoP Ireland

All in all, another super IoP Spring weekend. Now it’s back to earth and back to teaching…

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Free speech, AIDS and the HIV virus

Johnny Steinberg has a depressing article on skepticism and the HIV virus in this week’s edition of New Scientist.

The article starts with the story of Christine Maggiore, a 52-year old who died in 2008 from infections typical of AIDS. Apparently, she had tested positive for HIV 16 years ealier, but shunned anti-retroviral therapy (ART), the therapy that is known to hinder AIDS developing from the virus. Her choice, you  might say; until you read that she also denied the treatment to her infant daughter, who died of AIDs-related illnesses at age 3.

Steinberg then goes on to describe the HIV denial movement, starting with arch-skeptic Peter Duesberg. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – led him to conclude that all such viruses are essentially harmless. In fact, many scientists shared Duesberg’s skepticism of the HIV- AIDS link in the late 1980s, but support rapidly fell away as clinical evidence linking HIV to AIDs mounted. In Duesberg’s case, rather than revise his views in the face of emerging epidemiological evidence, he chose to hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Professor Peter Duesberg of the University of Berkeley

The publicity afforded to Duesberg and other skeptics has had serious consequences for society. According to the New Scientist, a recent survey suggested that 25% of the US population currently question the link between HIV and AIDS. Even more seriously, NS cites the case of South Africa, a country where AIDS has made devastating inroads. Because President Mkebe chose to believe the skeptics, he strongly resisted the use of ART therapy in South Africa – it is now estimated that over 300,000 AIDS victims died unnecessarily there.

So what is at the root of this sort of skepticism? I have to agree with Steinberg when he states that “no amount of evidence will overturn the entrenched beliefs of some”. Combine this with the tendency of the media to highlight studies that show unorthodox results and you are well on the road to the public misunderstanding of science.

Perhaps we scientists are partially to blame. It seems to me that we do a poor job of communicating the consensus position – and how it is achieved – on important issues, from global warming to the MMR vacinne. There will always be scientists who question the mainstream, even in the face of overwhelming evidence; such is human nature and we cannot censor such views in a free society. Not to mention the fact that science progresses by asking the unthinkable. Perhaps the solution is to convince the media not to allow ‘maverick’ scientists disproportionate publicity – and for the elders of science to take the communication of science to the public more seriously. In Ireland, there isn’t a single university that has a Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science..

Update

In the same issue, New Scientist have an excellent editorial on the importance of scientific heresy. There is no contradiction here – the questioning of ‘accepted science’ from within is a vital part of scientific discovery and long may it continue. It is the misrepresentation in the media of the scientific consensus on a given topic that is of concern..you can find more information on this topic on Seth Kalichman’s ‘s blog denyingaids.blogspot.com

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