The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Sanity Now Statistical

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Our modern tradition of trial-by-evidence is easy to take for granted. Having only just edged out trial-by-ordeal and gladiatorial combat to take its place amongst pillars of modern civilisation, it now attracts some suspicion when someone proposes that a person be convicted based on popular opinion, and this is a point which I may come to appreciate even more in my later life.

Politicians the world over, however, can have rather a poor grasp of the relationship between evidence and democracy. If I were to dedicate my time to documenting every instance of this in Australia, my server would probably collapse under the weight of the miniature black holes thus created. But Dr Dennis Jensen, Australian Federal Member for Tangney, has managed to be a little bit more offensive than usual for his rank (while still managing to maintain the level of mediocrity unique to Australian politics).

Dr Jensen is sponsoring a petition opposing the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, set to be introduced by the Federal Government in 2010. Now, I'd like to state that I'm no supporter of the Labor government's emissions trading scheme either. If compromise was represented by a straight line between two desirable outcomes, our government have managed to travel away from it orthogonally.

Labor Govt ETS
No one is with you on this, Kevin. No one.

In short, I politely disagree. But Dr Jensen's petition… well, the petition addresses the following:

  • We live on a dynamic planet; natural climate change occurs all the time.
  • As a nation we need appropriate infrastructure and planning to protect against climate change including long-term warming or cooling and severe weather related events such as cyclones, droughts and bushfires.
  • Global temperature increased slightly in the late 20th century and has been decreasing since 1998. Neither the warming nor the cooling is of an unusual rate or magnitude.
  • Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in Australia will result in no measurable change in future climate. Australia contributes less than 1.5% of global emissions.
  • The introduction of a Carbon Trading Scheme represents a major economic intervention that will drive Australian industries and jobs overseas.

Now, some of that poll is fairly inoffensive. Actually, it isn't, but what I mean specifically is that every clause up there that isn't emphasised might well be a matter for public and parliamentary debate. Say, forty years ago. Those highlighted sections, though? They're a little disturbing.

I don't really want to launch into a debate about climate change. That's not what scares me about this. They way I thought it worked, though, was that if we are suspicious of certain pieces of evidence or the conclusions drawn from it, we can dispute it with some other evidence or logical argument. That's called science. Dr Jensen, amazingly, has found a shortcut that completely removes the need for scientific debate: if he gets enough signatures on a petition, the evidence disappears. Presto!

Does Dr Jensen think a criminal trial should be conducted this way? Should forensic evidence be countered by a few hundred signatures from people who know nothing about the crime in question? If it's about numbers, I'm pretty sure that there are more supporters of teaching Creationism in public school than there Tangney citizens, no matter which way they vote.

But Jensen's disregard for science and reason is not the most frightening aspect of this. There is another, far more disturbing possibility here, out beyond political opportunism and clinical insanity — a possibility that nonetheless might deserve some attention.

What if he's right?

What if Dr Dennis Jensen, the man himself, has the power to enact a material change on the universe through the power of opinion polls? What if, simply by gathering a number of signatures on a piece of paper, he can actually change the laws of nature? He clearly thinks he can, and he has a much better suit than I do (it doesn't have a utility belt, though, so some points to me).

In the interests of being truly scientific (pending a magic petition, of course), I propose we test this. There are a variety of laws and conclusions that we live our life by that I think are dangerous, offensive and even downright silly. If Dr Jensen has the power to change the evolution of the Earth's climate through a petition, surely the following suggestions are not beyond his abilities.

  • I would quite like to be able to fly. I know I'm not the only one. And there are so many problems and mortal dangers caused by gravity that my case is already pretty much made for me. You should have no problems here, Dr Jensen — the nature of gravity is still hotly disputed by the world's most eminent physicists, so there's plenty of room for a wedge.
  • The sky. It's blue. It's always been blue, it always will be blue, even when there are clouds I know it's the same damn colour underneath. Make it purple, Dennis. Just to see what happens. The kids will love it, and you should be able to get enough signatures again to change it back if it looks awful. Come on. You know you want to.
  • Cancer. This might require a lot of signatures (I'm not quite sure how your petition power scales), but I will personally walk from Perth to Canberra with as many petitions as there are remorseful Tangney voters.
  • It has long been my personal ambition to destroy the Sun. You might just be the Member of Parliament for the job. Call me.

If we're all wrong about environmental policies being a good idea then I'll take that on the chin, along with aaaaaall the people who are paid to actually know what they're talking about. But the idea that we can replace science with a petition… well, it's a bit ridiculous. It makes me a little uncomfortable, in fact. It's basically how a theocracy works, except without the sparkle.

I will make the concession, though, that if it turns out we can't change the laws of nature through an opinion poll, we don't have to return to an evidence-based debate straight away. There's always gladitorial combat.

Think about it.

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