Peter Bye

‘Nature cannot be fooled’

The title of this piece is a quotation from the great physicist Richard Feynman. Late in his life, he was asked to join the commission investigating the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 28th January, 1986: the shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after lift-off. There were no survivors in the crew, which included a school teacher. The disaster was seen on television by millions of people, probably including the children in the teacher’s class.

Professor Feynman’s account of his role in the investigation is described in his usual compelling style in a piece that appears in a short autobiographical book[1]. The culmination was his demonstration that low temperatures reduced the elasticity of the rubber O-rings, which were used to seal the joints between sections of the booster rockets. As the temperature at the time of the launch was below freezing, he suggested that this was the likely cause of the failure.

But he also made a wider point about the way the shuttle missions were presented to the public. He had detailed technical discussions with engineers about the risks associated with the technology. He determined that ‘The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of one percent. (It is difficult to be more accurate.)’[2] The official claims from NASA were that the probability of failure was a thousand times less, i.e. 1 in 100,000. The most serious consequence is that the risk of shuttle flight as conveyed to the public was relatively low. He then made the point that provided the title for this piece: ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled’[3].

There is no doubt that politicians and other groups have always taken liberties with the truth, for various reasons, including public relations. The EU referendum and the Donald Trump campaign followed by his early days in office reveal lying and distortion on a heroic scale. New expressions have entered the language; ‘I’ve had enough of experts’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are examples.

Failure to take account of evidence in policy formation leads to attempts to address problems that are not serious or don’t even exist, while ignoring problems that are real. Mr Trump’s attempt to paint a truly dystopian picture of the state of the USA, especially the threat from Islamic terrorists, is an example of the former[4]. His dismissal of the evidence for human involvement in climate change is a case of the latter. And it’s this point that brings Professor Feynman’s warning that Nature cannot be fooled into sharp focus.

A valuable framework for considering humanity’s impact on the planet was proposed in 2009 by Rockström and others at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They identified nine planetary boundaries, representing the Earth’s limits for human enterprise[5]. Crossing them could lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic environmental change. Climate change is one of the boundaries. There is now a compelling body of evidence for climate change and the role of human activity in causing it. Although there is some scientific dissent, the great majority of scientists are in agreement. Denying that human activity causes change is to hold that the majority are wrong.

Of course, the fact that many people believe a theory does not prove its validity; people can be wrong. Group-think, where many tend to adhere to a theory because it is popular, can also be a factor. However, refuting a well-researched view requires a scientific approach. We may question the logic behind it and the methodology used in the research. Are observations or experiments repeatable, for instance? Are the data collected sufficient? Are there flaws in their analysis? All this and more is part of the scientific method.

But what we all too often get, and what we certainly see in Donald Trump and his entourage, is not remotely scientific. Facts are simply denied or misrepresented, and lies presented as truth, because the hard evidence is inconvenient. An even more disturbing approach, heavily used by Mr Trump and others, is to mount attacks, often highly personal, on the people holding views with which they disagree.

This brings me back to the title of this piece: Professor Feynman’s stark warning that we cannot fool Nature. Nature is going to do what it is going to do, never mind what Mr Trump and all the other unscientific, even anti-scientific, people think. If his Florida seaside home gets washed away in the near future, Mr Trump may perhaps change his mind.

I will end with what I believe to be a delicious irony. Many of the holders of anti-scientific beliefs, who ‘have had enough of experts’, choose to express their bizarre views using technology which represents a triumph of the expert. The whole internet structure and connected devices are the result of more than two centuries of fundamental and applied research, and subsequent engineering, by a large number of brilliant people. From electricity to quantum mechanics and the development of micro-electronics, the invention is endless.

Notes and sources

[1] What Do You Care What Other People Think? Feynman, R P, Unwin Hyman, 1988. More information about Feynman, including his work in the Challenger commission, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqleIxXTpw

[2] Ibid, p 236.

[3] Ibid, p 237.This quote and the one cited above appeared in an appendix to the commission’s report, which is reproduced in Feynman’s book.

[4] See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38911708 for an analysis of Trump’s claims about the state of the USA. The BBC More or Less programme provides a lot of the analysis.

[5] For more information about the Planetary Boundaries, see the Stockholm Resilience Centre website at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

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Comments

  1. As usual, music to my ears and thoughts provoking Peter.
    When you bring politicians into play, then my question is: is it really that they do not understand, do they really ignore the facts or do they simply lie because they have no solutions?

    Take the immigrants “fact”. Forget everything else and just focus on the numbers. Only the numbers. We should be all in agreement about the numbers that shape this immigrants “fact”. We should not assume that these simple numbers can still be ignored, for sure not by those that are in charge to find a solution to the problem. If someone still doesn’t understand the magnitude of the numbers in this immigrants “fact” I suggest this short video which is monkey’s proof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdHtrcXGYck

    Now, imagine you are a politician in charge to find the solution. Would you admit you have none? If yes, then you are not a politician, so you are by chance in the wrong place. The only thing you can really do is to lie. So, “facts” must go bananas, in one way or the other one.

    Gilberto

    PS: can you believe we went to the Moon in 1969 and the fax has become popular years later? May we today calculate how many chances had those people to get there and come back?
    Did someone really know the truth before pushing the “go” button? Of course yes, they were not idiots. Did they publish the truth upfront? Of course no, … they were not idiots!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Gilberto. The point that politicians who do not have answers to problems, or answers that would lose votes, tend to lie is a very good one. We urgently need more people prepared to explain bad news.
      Since my blog is concerned with respect for facts, I have to point out the gross errors in the video to which there is a link. The speaker cites the World Bank as the source of his data on poverty. He is wrong (or lying). He says that there are over 3 billion people in absolute poverty and suggests that the number is increasing. The World Bank shows 767 million, having fallen from 1.85 billion in 1990. See http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview The main reductions are in East and South Asia, caused by rapid economic development.

      1. Fine for the number of people in absolute poverty. The video in about an American setting the threshold using the Mexicans as indicator: all that are in a similar condition than Mexicans are candidate to be willing to move into US. Whatever that number is, it is likely about billions. If people were a fluid, in phisics this means that they would move from one side to the other one until a new equilibrium is reached. And this has nothing to do with judging people or stating whether this is bad or good. I live in Italy and I assume that likely 6 billion people would love to live here close to me. If they, all together, decided to come, then there it us s moment that Italy starts becoming less attractive (compare the various density of population, country by country). It all goes a bit into a paradoxal interpretation of the facts, but this helps understanding the magnitude of the facts.

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