Monday, July 19, 2010


I recently participated in an astronomy conference here in Hobart and the Governer gave a speech to kick it off. Now I have to admit I was expecting a dry and somewhat uninteresting performance but I was pleasantly surprised to hear a lucid, funny and hard hitting orator drive home his point.

His major issue being that if you are going to progress (in astronomy) you have to get your message across to the public in an understandable manner.

This of course doesn't apply only to astronomy but to just about everything.

That evening, delegates had a reception at the Governer's residence (read castle) and as we were all milling around, drinking expensive wine and wondering what the poor people were doing, up walks Peter Underwood AC, Governer of Tasmania (and ex Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tasmania) to have a chat. He wasn't working the room of course, he just saw that our group looked the most intelligent and decided to join us. :-)

I complimented him on his speech and I wanted to discuss his main point. He gave me a legal example of how technical terms can be a problem. "For example", he started, "If I was representing you legally and I said..." (legal jargon that I didn't understand) "...then all you would probably think is dollar signs".

And he was right.

At this point I said: "We have a the same problem. In your profession you have a very strict definition of evidence. Things that don't meet a certain criteria cannot be used in court." He agreed completely.

"In science", I continued, "we have the same thing. The rules of scientific evidence are equally strict."

"And", I concluded, "the general public typically hasn't a clue about either".

He thoroughly agreed and suggested we needed to get together and solve this world problem. I told him I'm free on Saturday and I'll pop over.

(I didn't show, so he's probably not speaking to me anymore.)

Anyway, the point of all this is that generally speaking most people have different views of what evidence is. e.g. "My uncle Norm saw this bright light in the sky" means "aliens exist". "X is written in (some book)" means "X is true". "Fred saw John holding a gun" means "John is guilty".

I think a lot of the world's issues today are because different people accept different levels of evidence as true. People aren't typically dumb (well mostly), they just accept as evidence what others may reject.

It is a useful exercise to learn and understand what is accepted as evidence in science and as evidence in law. These definitions help to weed out knowledge from heresay.

Remember that next time you are taking an antibiotic or are appearing in court and then you'll really appreciate that some people take the time to get it right.

1 comment:

  1. based on that, you wouldn't agree with AGW then as it's all very anecdotal evidence rather than hard evidence - your argument a while back was that if 99% of scientists argue that AGW exists then that's good enough for you. Anyway, I liked your entry and it goes to show you should believe nothing straight off the bat, there's always a different way to view things. Good work!