They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me
dr_phil_physics

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What If It IS The End Of The World?

Here's The Hollywood Version

Imagine that you have access to a decent telescope. That even though you're just a school kid, you identify a new asteroid or comet. Later this object is found to be on a collision course with the Earth. OMG We're All Going To Die! (Deep Impact)

Of course interplanetary space is lousy with asteroids and comets. Indeed, an astronomy course at Calvin College in Grand Rapids requires its students as part of the course's lab to locate a previously unknown asteroid. Amateurs can definitely be a part of astronomy -- and have for a long time. And really, if there is a killer asteroid or comet heading our way -- and a couple of years ago we discovered a large asteroid AFTER it passed between the Earth and the Moon -- we have no good way of stopping it, so We're Really All Going To Die!

Imagine that you're a law school student and you uncover a conspiracy involving big oil, environmental damage... and the assassination of two Supreme Court justices. OMG Our Very Freedoms Are Being Bought And Sold And We're All Going To Die! (The Pelican Brief)

While law school students are not yet lawyers, they are hardly legal amateurs either. Not only are they expected to be able to do research and write briefs, it is expected that many will write important legal opinions in law review and get clerkships to judges and legislators -- thereby helping to make our very laws. Indeed, it has been the research of law students at Northwestern and other law schools which have investigated the flaws in the application of the death penalty in this country, or championed the use of new DNA analysis technology to solve old cases and clear the innocent. And if two Supremes really were assassinated, I think the word about a real conspiracy would come out. Too many people in the investigation and too many people who still think that Constitutional law is a Good Thing.

Or consider a physics grad student who solves a thorny problem of hydrogen resonant "bubble" fusion, only to find himself on the run from a killer thug secret agency project that doesn't want the secrets of powerful, clean energy sources to ruin the economy of the rich people. OMG They Killed Kenny! You Bastards! We're All Going To Die! (Chain Reaction)

First of all, physics grad students and post-docs are expected to discover things. For some, it's the most productive years of their research careers. They are hardly amateurs, even though they still have lots to learn. Discovering a new energy source or a vastly cleaner method isn't the end of the world to business. Even if 100 mpg cars were actually possible, for reasonable family and commuter vehicles as we use them now, it would take decades to turn such an invention into a real car, make it safe and reliable, then put into production and have it dominate the automobile market. And even if 100 mpg cars were for sale now, not everyone would buy one. Why? Because of costs. Gas is, relatively speaking, still cheap. If you have a car that gets 25 mpg now, how much money would you save per month if you cut that figure by a factor of four. Would three-quarters of your current monthly gasoline bills equal a new car payment? Probably not. This is why "everyone" is not buying 40-50 mpg hybrids now -- there's a premium cost for hybrid technology and for the most part you buy a hybrid because you want to buy a hybrid. And most of those buying hybrids now would have bought similarly sized nice smaller cars in the first place, had the hybrids not been available. So the conspiracy notion is odd, though not impossible. But it makes for a helluva chase movie.

What's Missing From This Equation

The difference between the Hollywood version and Real Life is the role of experts. We depend on experts in their field every day for so many things. It is the experts who are in part our gatekeepers to keep the madness out of our lives. This doesn't mean that experts all agree or they don't make mistakes. But there comes a time when a confluence of experts form a consensus opinion and we move on.

Oh, and who is an expert? An expert is someone who has the knowledge, education, experience, credentials and recognition in their field of expertise. While the first four are part of your resumé, the last is an acknowledgment of your peers. Self-appointed experts need not apply.

It is not likely that amateurs, and especially amateurs with grandiose notions and visions of conspiracies everywhere, are going to come up with something to challenge the combined opinions of the experts. Not impossible, mind you, which is good policy and good science, but unfortunately give certain whacko fringe amateurs the green light to proceed. We want to believe that a Ben Affleck really can crash a Presidential meeting and reveal his contrary analysis and save us from idiots wanting to blow up the world. (The Sum of All Fears)*** But that isn't really going to happen. And so far, we're still here.

Common sense and rational thought eventually persevere. Whew. It was close there for a minute. But not OMG It's The End Of The World! If some amateur really does have the secret to a disaster and the experts disagree, then I guess we're screwed. But I like the odds, so I can live with it.

Dr. Phil

*** OMG, Morgan Freeman is in THREE of the FOUR films I mentioned. It's A Conspiracy! We're All Going To Die!
Tags: experts, frauds, movies, rants, scams, science
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