Tuesday, November 15, 2011

saac Asimov and Bunk

From Planet 3.0.org: Isaac Asimov and Bunk
Two Short Essays, Loosely Connected

I have had a lifelong ambition to have Isaac Asimov’s job (which Carl Sagan more or less took over at one point.)

One wonderful thing about Asimov was his discipline, no matter what else befell him, to write a monthly science tutorial of some sort for Fantasy and Science Fiction. For most of my teenage years I read these faithfully and diligently.

So I just picked up one of the old F&SF issues I managed to hold onto, and did an approximate word count. It seems the essay was about 3500 words.

Perhaps 800 or 900 words a week. That really isn’t very much for a not entirely failed techno-bunny. Yet the teenage me was very grateful for it, as I recall.

Thoughts of Isaac Asimov came up today as I worked my way through the very accessible introduction to ocean acidification at Skeptical Science, in no less than 18 parts of about 500 words each. These seemed exasperatingly small chunks to me, but the whole collection amounts to perhaps a double or triple a standard Asimov pop science article.

But what does the web want? I’m thinking a science piece of 1000-1200 words might be long enough to advance an argument and short enough to avoid too much “tl;dr”, and that 1/3 of an Asimov piece should be our target pop science article size.

So anyone wanting to make an extended argument (based on high-school level maths) around here should plan on writing say three pieces a month of 1000-1200 words and a few equations and diagrams.

I am looking into these articles because of a specific question. If CO2 has been so much higher than today, why is ocean acidification a problem now? I know most of the answer but I haven’t seen an accessible version of it anywhere. I am not sure the answer will be clear enough for my taste in the SkS piece. I’ll report back on this, one way or the other. Any assistance would be welcome.

Amusingly, (given that I think the climate community spends way too much time on the defensive), the Asimov piece that I picked up was specifically about debunking a pernicious piece of nonsense of the time. This bunk is something which a few of my fellow boomers will recollect and everyone else has duly forgotten, as is the fate of all bunk.

The piece was about the work of one Immanuel Velikovsky, a fundamentalist and a pseudoscientific crank, whose thesis was basically that all of the miracles reported in the bible were a consequence of the erratic orbit of Venus and its interaction with a passing comet, or something of the sort. One of Velikovsky’s tomes was called “Worlds in Collision” and Asimov’s essay (in the October 1969 issue) was called “Worlds in Confusion”.

Among the ruefully familiar observations:

I said… “the reaction of astronomers varied from amusement to anger, and the Velikofskian theory has never, for one moment, been taken seriously either by scientists or by Biblical scholars.” That’s all I said, and it seems to me that I spoke gently and without undue heat. Nevertheless the vials of wrath were opened upon me and I received a number of letters from ardent Velikofskians denouncing my innocent statement with a great deal of emotional fervor.

Which just goes to bear out my feeling that there is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.

It isn’t even difficult to see why Velikofskianism would be attractive to certain groups. Velikofsky uses his theories to try to show that certain of the miracle tales in the Bible …are more or less true. To be sure, he removes those events from the miraculous by taking away the hand of God and substituting a set of weird natural phenomena instead, but that makes no difference.

Velikofsky’s book made the headlines as the work of a “scientist” (which Velikofsky is not). It was ballyhooed as demonstrating that “science” was proving the Bible true – though the amount of real science in the book could be placed in the eye of a needle without making it more difficult to thread.

Still, to all those who were brought up with traditional beliefs concerning the Bible, it was a great relief that science (the great enemy) had finally “proved” all those miracles, and the book became a best-seller.

Secondly, Velikofsky’s views tended to make orthodox astronomers look foolish. Imagine those stupid professors not seeing all those things that Velikofsky presented so plainly!

There is always something pleasant about seeing any portion of the “establishment” come a cropper, and the Scientific Establishment in particular. Scientists, these days, are so influential, so far out of the ordinary clay, so supreme in their self-confidence, and (to put it in a nub) so “smarty-pants” that it is a particular pleasure to see them stub their toes and go flat on their faces.

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