Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dialog with an anti-science journalist

Science writer Ryan Mandelbaum, who was also a researcher at CERN at one point, has published a fascinating exchange that took place between himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson , others, and anti-science journalist Anthony Liversidge. It was not a formal debate, but instead was a friendly backstage spontaneous conversation that Ryan has published in detail because it gives insight into much of the thinking behind science denial.


First a bit of context.

Ryan explains …

Last week, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson held a press event to announce the museum’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.

Following the media briefing, which focused on new exhibits and educational resources available at the Gilder Center, I and a few other members of the press—including Ken Gale from New York’s WBAI and Anthony Liversidge from the blog Science Guardian—had a chance to catch up with Neil. Our conversation quickly grew heated as Liversidge, a reporter and science skeptic, expressed concerns about the safety of the Large Hadron Collider and doubts over the well-established link between HIV and AIDS.

A rather heated exchange then developed, and Ryan captured and published all the details in a Gizmodo article.

Key Points

What we can learn from this dialog are a couple of rather important things that really do need to be appreciated if we are indeed going to be truly scientifically literate.

Point 1 – Having something published in a Peer-Review Journal does not establish “truth”

Publishing within such journals is the start of a conversation. Unless others can confirm the result independently, then that is the end, it goes no further. As an example (not part of the conversation). NASA, NOAA and many others independently gather data and come to conclusions regarding climate change, its causes, and impact. Because they all align, we can have a high degree of confidence.

Point 2 – Science strives for duplication and independent verification

Sometimes things are so huge that there exists a potential for nobody to be able to independently verify things. With that thought in mind those involved in such large projects often strive to build into what they are doing that independent verification. The conversation below has two specific examples …

  • LIGO established the existence of gravitational waves, but not with just one detector, they built two, each located in different parts of the country. Unless then were able to independently come up with the same result then such results would have been very much open to being challenged.
  • CERN has two quite independent teams with a line drawn in the sand between them. Each does their own completely independent analysis. When they put their heads together and present their results, then unless there is agreement, then there has been no verification. Actually, it is not just two independent teams, they have two distinctly different detectors, ATLAS and CMS.

Point 3 – Cherry picking one isolated un-refuted scientific article that conflicts with the consensus does not establish a viable alternative

Neil deGrass Tyson put it like this …

If somebody published a paper that the Earth was flat, would you say, in the last 30 years, no one has written a paper to refute that result. Would you invoke that as evidence that the Earth was really flat, or would you invoke it as evidence that the person has his head up his ass and didn’t do it right?

Point 4 – At the cutting edge things are often fuzzy

Conflicting stories about cutting edge science can lead to an impression that science is unreliable. The reality is that until things have been independently verified then it is like this. Such flux at the bleeding edge is not justification for the dismissal of well-establish and independently verified conclusions.

The Full Conversation

Ryan’s point in publishing the full informal conversation is that within the current climate of open hostility towards evidence-based science, understanding why such anti-science arguments are flawed is rather important.

I agree.

Normally I would publish a snippet and encourage you to go read it, but this is rather important, so here is that conversation, originally from Ryan’s  Gizmodo article here …

Anthony Liversidge: When you’re talking about black holes and dark matter, et cetera, is that a working hypothesis? Brian Greene (Columbia University string theorist and author of The Elegant Universe) keeps going around saying string theory could all be wrong, right?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: When you have scientific inquiry, and you make a discovery and publish that discovery, it’s not yet the truth. He’s gotta do research, and get the same result as you. She’s gotta do the research and [the results] don’t have to be exactly the same, they have to be approximately the same. Then someone is going to invent a new apparatus that you haven’t dreamt of yet that’s going to test the same thing. If she gets the same answer, we have a new emergent truth. Then that goes into the textbook.

On the research frontier before there is the verification of a result, it is a bloody, messy place. Ideas come and go like the breeze. If there’s not yet a consensus of observation and experiment, there is no yet established truth in that field. This is how you get, [the back in forth argument over is] cholesterol good for you or bad for you. Why? The press gets someone’s research result and they present it as a scientific finding. Because the press understandably will not wait around for six other people to verify the result. Then, another experiment comes in and gets a different result, the press all runs to her and says “what you thought was true is not, this is the new truth.”

AL: Leaving the press aside, I’m asking you about the scientists.

NDT: When Brian Greene says ‘it could all be wrong’ he’s talking about this bleeding frontier that’s in flux, weighing the results of each person’s research… My point is, yes we have black holes, exoplanets, an expanding universe. There might be a multiverse, but that’s on the frontier and isn’t being verified by multiple levels of experiment. Everything [Brian Greene’s] doing can be wrong. It shouldn’t be called “string theory,” it should be called “string hypothesis.”

AL: Black holes don’t make a lot of sense right now.

NDT: The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

AL: It has a duty to make sense to you.

NDT: It doesn’t give a rat’s ass how your five cents interact with this world. Rattle off ten things and I’ll tell you where we are.

AL: Dark matter.

NDT: We don’t know what it is, but it’s there and we’ve measured it in multiple ways. But a problem arises—someone called it “dark matter.” It should really be called “dark gravity.” There’s this thing that accounts for 85 percent of the measured gravity of the universe—a verified measurement. Its manifestations aren’t going to go away. The same goes with dark energy. It shouldn’t even be called dark energy. I can call it Fred and Wilma. The names should not bias you.

AL: Last year…they found a gravity wave. When you looked, it was the tiniest little blip, you wound up wondering is it real. Do you believe in the [LIGO] apparatus? (LIGO refers to a pair of experiments, one in Washington State and one in Louisiana, built to observe gravitational waves from astrophysical phenomena like colliding black holes.)

NDT: The word “belief” will never come out of my mouth. The instrument is highly sensitive. It can tell if there’s a car driving on a road a half of a mile away. So you have to ask yourself what kind of signal would colliding black holes leave. We know general relativity and can calculate what that signal would be: it goes like this. Woop! (Tyson draws a squiggle on a page). Has anyone seen this? No? Then all of the sudden you get it. Holy shit, this matches our model for a black hole. Excuse me, same apparatus 1500 miles away, did you get this as well? Yes you did! Did you get it at the same time? No, you got it a 30th of a second later. Einstein’s prediction is that gravity waves move at the speed of light, and that is the time delay of the speed of light between these two institutions! (Tyson is shouting now) So, you will have to tell me that there is some glitch that knows how to mimic what we calculate for two colliding black holes (Pounding fist on the table) and somehow figured out how to put the same glitch 1500 miles away, a 30th of a second delayed. 

So we’re good to go. We’re on to the next problem.

AL: Okay. I just want reassurance.

NDT: No, it’s good! We have competent people thinking about this stuff. We’re not just making shit up.

AL: I’ve got a colleague (Anthony is talking about his friend Robert G. Houston, an independent researcher in New York City) who is absolutely brilliant at looking at papers and finding the smallest flaw like an eagle. He put me onto the Large Hadron Collider and found that an argument was not correct.

NDT: To catch everybody up on this, there’s a concern that if you make a pocket of energy that high, it might create a black hole that would then consume the Earth. So I don’t know what papers your fellow read, but there’s a simple calculation you can do. Earth is actually bombarded by high energy particles that we call cosmic rays, from the depths of space moving at a fraction of the speed of light, energies that far exceed those in the particle accelerator. So it seems to me that if making a pocket of high energy would put Earth at risk of black holes, then we and every other physical object in the universe would have become a black hole eons ago because these cosmic rays are scattered across the universe are hitting every object that’s out there. Whatever your friend’s concerns are were unfounded.

AL: That is a familiar rebuttal. It’s disproved. I forget why. (Liversidge later pointed me to Martin Rees’ 2003 book, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning, which contains a section about how we should still be concerned because these conditions have never been created in the way humans have created them. However, he also sent me this article from Physical Review D that more or less shows that even if cosmic rays could produce black holes by striking heavy objects, the black holes would evaporate before becoming a threat.) 

NDT: The 900 pound gorilla here is that Earth did not become a black hole. So somebody’s wrong in this conversation and it’s not the physicists who did the CERN calculations. It’s your friend who did not believe the calculation, asserted that we would become a black hole… and didn’t. 

AL: Well, my friend says their safety responses didn’t add up to a good argument.

Ryan F. Mandelbaum from Gizmodo: So I worked at the Large Hadron Collider, and you could also just take the energy [of] two lead nuclei hitting each other at the speed of light. The [total energy] of those collisions is no more than the mass of like, a mosquito or something (CERN equates it to a bumblebee hitting your face). Even a black hole that was the mass of a mosquito would evaporate…

NDT: Instantly. And why are we arguing something that didn’t happen, predicted to not happen?

AL: There are safety arguments that were unfounded.

NDT: The [arguments] were apparently good, because it didn’t happen… At the dawn of any new technology, you get some community of people who are completely terrified of what would happen if it gets in the wrong hands or think scientists themselves have the wrong motives. It’s happened since the beginning. Do you remember the first test tube baby? “You’re against god! How could you do this! Would that person be human?” Today you can date someone who was in vitro fertilized and it’s not even a point of conversation. 

(The conversation quickly turns to the idea that the H-bomb test could have destroyed the atmosphere, but Americans and Russians blew one up anyway. We all agree that Cold War politicians, not scientists, were mostly to blame for testing a bomb with any percentage of existential threat. But Livsersidge was concerned that CERN also comes with a significant degree of threat.)

AL: I’m just saying that the papers are flawed and a few people admitted this to me.

RFM: Who did you talk to from CERN who told you that they were covering up the fact that [papers] were flawed?

NDT: If they were on the paper that made the calculation then they would have access to CERN’s data.

AL: I can send you the argument.

NDT: Do you have any other example where a particular scientist was wrong?

Ken Gale: I think the corporation-funded research is what’s messing us up. No one funds scientists to check, then politicians make decisions based on what the corporations say.

NDT: Science has evolved in a way that is not for the greater good. You do not get points for verifying someone else’s result. You want to get a new result. A truth is not what any one scientist puts forth. It has to be from the cross checking that goes on in the field. We have to figure out how to give more credit to the people who will check the work of others.

AL: Absolutely! Give money to people who criticize.

NDT: That is a deeper issue than corporate funding. If you have a supremely expensive project that would be hard to duplicate, the people who do the project design [secondary checks] within the system. So at CERN, the discovery of the Higgs Boson wasn’t just [based on] one particle beam, but two with separate teams researching them. They draw a line in the sand and these guys don’t talk to these guys and analyze data on their own. Only when [the two team’s results] matched did they announce the Higgs boson. That’s why there are two LIGOs and not just one.

AL: That’s the thing I’m looking for. It’s reassuring! 

NDT: I’m glad I can reassure you! And even though I’m screaming at you, I value your open skepticism.

AL: Many scientists don’t. Biologists, for example. There’s horrendous misleading by the consensus that are obviously wrong. I’m referring to AIDS being caused by HIV. This was demonstrated to be clearly wrong 30 years ago. [The link has] been disproved in the literature and everyone ignores the literature.

NDT: Based on what? You’re going to find me a research paper that says HIV doesn’t cause AIDS? One published paper is not the truth.

AL: Why not? It could be.

NDT: No, hold on. One paper is not what makes a scientific truth. It has to be verified by competing groups, people that design experiments differently. Only if all of these results point to the same direction can we then say this person made a discovery.

KG: If you judge how an athlete does the first few months of the season, you can’t extrapolate how good that athlete will do the rest of the season. There are good months and bad months. That is why some of these contracts are so bizarre. [Athletes] get contracts based on a month that is good or bad and not how good or bad the athlete was. It’s the same with those papers. You put them all together to find out what the truth to find out what the truth is, not one month of the season.

AL: I’m saying a paper collected all the evidence and he published it in the top peer reviewed journal, and found that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for HIV causing AIDS. (In the meantime, I Googled the paper he’s talking about here, a review by Peter Duesberg from 1987.)

NDT: Do subsequent studies agree with him?

AL: The fact is that he published a superbly written paper and did another one when everyone else tried to sweep it under the carpet. I’m saying it sat there in this top journal. (Numerous studies have countered Duesberg’s various hypotheses. Duesberg and others still contend that HIV does not cause AIDS.) 

NDT: Why do you think they did that?

AL: Because they knew they were vulnerable to having a radical change in course in funding for their research into HIV.

NDT: Listen. Somehow the public has been lead to believe that scientists clutch to a thing they think is true and will defend it to the grave, even in the face of conflicting evidence. That misses something entirely here. If I have an opportunity to show that the whole body of work is flawed and I can base that on something demonstrable, then I’m going to do it.

AL: There are examples of people who would love to say that something is false but they can’t because the other scientists are so antagonistic that they would order security to remove them [from the meeting]… Politics can be horrible outside your field.

RFM: I want to know what paper you’re talking about. Is it the Duesberg paper from the eighties? Hasn’t there been 30 years since then in which scientists have had time to do research into these things?

AL: It was reviewed by more people than you can count.

RFM: You’re going to weigh five years of evidence against thirty years and then say that this one thing is the truth?

NDT: If somebody published a paper that the Earth was flat, would you say, in the last 30 years, no one has written a paper to refute that result. Would you invoke that as evidence that the Earth was really flat, or would you invoke it as evidence that the person has his head up his ass and didn’t do it right?

(The conversation winded down as Tyson chatted about other controversies not yet settled, such as cholesterol causing heart failure.)

Security guard: If you can retrieve your coats…

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