Whatever Happened to Skepticism?

Science! is a big thing these days especially among politicians who insist that you have to listen to the experts because, presumably they know more than you do. Don’t trust your own common sense because that’s the kind of thing that told people that the earth was flat. Except, whoops, nobody ever believed that except maybe some nut job living in a dark cell. The ancient Greeks were a seafaring people, so they knew that as a ship approached from a long distance away, the first you could see of it was its mast looming over the horizon then the rest of the ship as it came closer, clearly indicating the earth (or at least the sea) curved away from you in all directions. Also the moon always looked circular when viewed from earth. Even the shadow during the darkening phases of the moon showed its curvature (the crescent moon) indicating the moon had to be a sphere. In fact Eratosthenes fairly accurately calculated the circumference of the earth in 250 BC by observations of shadows of vertical sticks at the same time at different locations on the summer solstice. I know, more than you ever wanted to know, but the point is that the common jibe that people used to think the earth is flat is nonsense despite what “everybody knows.”

All the more reason to trust the scientists, right? Except that there’s no such thing as a “scientist.” There are chemists, biologists, astronomers, physicists, etc. The only reason you would call someone a “scientist” is to let them get away with saying things outside their expertise. You see the thing that makes a scientist a scientist is that they have gained an ever deeper knowledge of a narrower and narrower field of study. The joke among “scientists” is that BS stands for Bull Shit, MS for More of the Same, PhD for Piled Higher and Deeper. (I heard that one from my wife, the chemist.)

There is a problem with science popularizers, Carl Sagan was an astronomer who opined on nuclear weapons and potential climate change caused by their use. Bill Nye is a distinguished mechanical engineer who retired young after an important invention and began a second career as a comedian. The current go-to science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote the following in one of his books:

“During the heat of the space race in the 1960s, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided it needed a ballpoint pen to write in the zero gravity confines of its space capsules. After considerable research and development, the Astronaut Pen was developed at a cost of approximately $1 million US. The pen worked and also enjoyed some modest success as a novelty item back here on earth. The Soviet Union, faced with the same problem, used a pencil.”

There’s only one problem. Every sentence in that quote is wrong. NASA had no inkling such a pen could ever be devised. The first astronauts used pencils, but they were a problem. You couldn’t sharpen a pencil in space without creating floating debris, so you needed a mechanical pencil and, after the disastrous fire of Apollo 1, NASA was wary of even using anything with graphite since graphite is a conductor and floating debris might short something out or create a spark. They ordered a bunch of custom mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing at $128.89 each. Meanwhile Paul Fisher who made his fortune creating “universal” refills for ballpoint pens (most ballpoints required a unique refill for each brand), was trying to solve a different problem. He wanted a ballpoint pen that didn’t leak, could write at extreme temperatures and even in the rain or underwater. What he came up with was a pressurized refill for a ballpoint pen. The ink was even semi-solid until the metal ball rolled it out, and it dried instantly after writing. He sold some to NASA, who tested them, and eventually bought 400 of them for $6 each. That allowed his company to market them as Space Pens. As to the last sentence, no, the USSR did not use pencils for the same reason NASA didn’t. They instead used grease pens, a far less elegant solution.

So, why is this appeal to experts over common sense an important problem? I give you the South Pasadena City Council voting on whether to shift all their police vehicles to all-electric Teslas. Keep in mind that this happened on September 21, 2022, just weeks after California experienced 10 consecutive days of Flex Alerts, telling consumers to cut back on their electricity use or face power outages. Do you need to be a scientist or have expert studies to advise you on the wisdom of such a decision?

Of course I’m no scientist at all, so you’d better fact check everything I write. I might be lying to you, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

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