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It’s probably unfashionable to call it “Chinese Whispers” these days. At the very least, it’s politically incorrect, and as is so often the case in these situations, it turns out that the etymology of the game does include a racist streak. Namely; it was called this because westerners figured that spoken Chinese was unintelligible. So, a game where a message whispered from one ear to the next is eventually rendered nonsensical, was named for the Chinese “language” (which just goes to show how little was understood – were they listening to Cantonese, or Mandarin perhaps?)

So let’s call it “Telephone”, as it is called in the United States, according to Wiki, anyhow.

Really, that’s all by the by. What I’m here to talk about is the big picture.

There is a tendency these days to regard any item of news, or opinion from a talking head, as sitting on a level playing field with every other bit of news or opinion. A sense that one idea is as good as the next. It this world, the notion of “truth” ceases to have meaning, as if being “true” is a value judgment where none should be made. Just as the post-modern art era challenged the idea of “beauty” as a worthwhile goal in art, we now seem to live in the world of “post-truth”.

At some point, collectively we lost the ability to be able to distinguish an idea with merit grounded in observable facts, from an idea based upon another person’s opinion and ideas. This is a pretty big loss to society. If you can’t decide between things that are objectively true, and things that are mere conjecture, then you may find yourself completely lost in the world. Without this ability, airplanes would never have flown, and we’d still be cooking with a camp fire, and certainly would not have the ability to reheat our food in the microwave.

Somehow, we are fearful of value judgment. Some things, nonetheless, are more valuable than others. The effects of gravity are observable, for instance, and if someone were to say, “I have a different idea”, we might listen, but we would dismiss it as untrue at best, crazy more likely. Gravity is a fact. The warping of space-time causes bodies of mass to be “attracted” to one another in proportion to their mass (roughly – it’s easy to get your Newtonian and Einsteinian physics muddled up here, and that’s beside the point anyway).

So it is that even in the murky world of politics and international affairs, there is a version of events that is true, and myriad others that simply are not. The considerable difficulty lies in determining to which you have been subjected.

In to this quagmire steps the conspiracy theory. By definition, a conspiracy is a situation where a number of actors (people, groups, “governments”) get together and decide on a collective course of action, usually to achieve a mutually beneficial goal (perhaps at the cost of external parties), and normally protected by secrecy as to their intentions and as to the existance of the conspiracy itself.

In this sense, nearly all international government actions are conspiracies. They work to further their ends, and they keep the intentions and plans secret.

So what can this tell us? Well, if you’ve ever heard of espionage, spies, and the “intelligence community”, you’ll know that the conspiracies of one government are notoriously leaky and transparent to others. Sometimes through concerted effort, sometimes by mistake, in the end, secrets are hard to keep, even by those whose entire career is bent on keeping them.

Part of the problem is that we’re only human, we’re incorrigible gossips, and we just blab. We also suffer from various psychological tendencies, greed, pride, etc. Ultimately, someone lets the cat out of the bag. The more people who are in on the secret, the more probable the leak. As they say in the classics, The Truth Will Out!

As such, grand actions by a nation state, plans involved large numbers of people, plans shrouded in mystery and secrecy, rarely stay secret for long. It’s just highly difficult to keep the secret.

Also, the more people involved, the greater the work of co-ordination, which by itself requires more people who know of the secrets. It’s nearly an exponential growth of numbers of likely blabbers. The bigger the conspiracy, the larger the likelihood of a leak, therefore the less likely the secret will be contained. Multiply that by the time the conspiracy has been in place, and you get an even slimmer likelihood of success.

In short, big conspiracies are very unlikely indeed.

Let’s return to the co-ordination problem. Remember the game, Chinese Whispers Telephone? Well, the more people in the circle, the worse the end result. With enough people, it becomes complete gibberish by the end. That’s how the world of conspiracy works too! Sure, computers mean perfect messages can be copied instantaneously, but there are still people either side of the machinery. There’s still heaps of room for human error. Couple that with the secrecy problem and you have a near perfect recipe for failure.

So, the simplest answer to your next conspiracy theory, be it chemtrails, big-pharma/GMOs/Aliens, climate change (I mean look what happened to the emails of a bunch of giggling scientists – even their snarky emails couldn’t be kept secret!), Syrian war… whatever, it is this:

The bigger the conspiracy, the more unlikely it is.

More than that, beyond a threshold (lets say, collusion by a couple of countries, or multi-national companies), it becomes basically impossible. If you add natural commercial market competition to the mix (as there is in say the reporting of the news) then the threshold reduces. Next time someone tells you that the media is feeding you a lie, ask them to think of how that might work. The sensible end to that thought is, “It doesn’t.”

PS. This is not exactly the same argument as Okham’s Razor. Indeed you might think the Razor suggests that a conspiracy is the simplest solution given that perhaps it involves the neatest arrangement with least variables. But no, from the Razor, the most likely solution will never be a conspiracy, because it is quickly seen that to have a conspiracy is always to posit one more variable (namely the conspiracy itself) than is required to explain the phenomenon. Thus conspiracies nearly always fail the test.



When I was young I wanted to be a SCIENTIST. I wanted to pour over the literature; I wanted to argue about method. I especially wanted to spend hours traipsing about the wilderness in search of tiny little things that may or may not help my research, and I then particularly wanted to spend back breaking hours in a laboratory dissolving things in solutions and then blasting them with heat and lasers and collecting gasses and measuring them to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, I had visions of spending hours in front of a computer calculating the statistics and determining, within certain bounds, the exact results, resulting in a mystical dream of writing up the research. Of course I would then have it go backward and forward between peers (each with their own particular flavor of review) and finally, after six good productive months of politics and writing, those results would be published in a journal for most of the world not to read.

Of course, none of the above is true. That was not my childhood vision. I mean, I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that, sure, but what I’ve just described? No thanks!

No, I had dinosaurs! I grew up in the time where it was discovered that it was an asteroid that hit Earth and killed them! I was a child of the time of ‘Transformers’, and I was especially proud of a T-Rex transformer that I had that none of the other kids did. In hindsight, that just made me a spoilt brat.

I watched the occasional documentary, mostly because my grandmother and mother encouraged it. I remember seeing David Attenborough crack open a rock to reveal a fossil. I guess it was a trilobite, can’t remember, but wow, I was amazed!

I also had politics. My parents always had the ‘adult news’ on at 7pm – the national news, and the current affairs after. If I wanted to spend that time with my mum and dad, I was watching that. I didn’t have half a clue what these people were on about, but clearly it was important. My subsequent high school education ended up being all about science and mathematics, hardly surprising for a son of doctors. Although my best final marks were in English – pretty uncommon for a science and maths nerd.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I was studying science, specifically geology, at university. If you’re wondering about the time gap, I studied Law for about 3 years at one point, but it WILL NOT appear on my resume since I gracefully withdrew after, shall we say, attendance-related performance issues. I attended enough though to learn a bit about argument, or as they more commonly say, enough to be dangerous. I then worked in real estate for a year, which one might justifiable say that combined with my half-baked and inadequate legal training made me positively lethal.

So any way, after learning the art of snakes and snake oil, I went in to learning about rocks and well, other rocks. This 3-year journey of rocks and their interaction with other rocks and how they all relate to each other was so fascinating that I decided to do an honours project in geology for an extra year. In which I determined the age of some rocks from a costal area in my home state of Victoria (about 50 million years old, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging).

These rocks were basalts as it happens (like that which erupts from the volcanoes of Hawaii) but what is really important is that this got me out there, cracking open rocks and finding samples. It also involved considerable literature review and statistics and report writing. Remember the start of this essay?

One thing I did do while collecting little bits of rock was stand on a rocky shore platform looking for samples, all alone, in complete disregard of the risks. I am not exaggerating to say that I could have died that day. The water from that freak wave only reached my waist, but any further and I would have found myself in the water, possibly kilometers from land. It does happen. That’s why Universities don’t let people do what I did alone (actually they didn’t then either, I just kinda well, you know…)

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because there, there on that platform being hit with a freak wave, I did consider why I was doing it. At the time, I guess I just needed that sample. Badly – my degree depended on it! Plus, what a beautiful place to die! Only kidding.

Nine-odd further years later, I am asking the same questions, but this time, there are no freak waves. Since then, I’ve been staring at rocks and reports and trying to decide where the next big gold or nickel deposits might be found. I’ve worked for a couple of the biggest mining companies in the world, I’ve also slept in a swag in the middle of a frigid desert night between stints supervising dusty, loud drill rigs.

Through all of this, I have continued to have an almost child-like fascination in science and nature. I have read all the famous authors – Gould, Dawkins, Sagan, you name it. I watch the docos. I watch them again. I sometimes write stuff about things on my blog. I follow my little curiosities down the rabbit hole that might begin with a name, lead to a wiki search, and end in several journal articles and a whole new ‘issue de jour’ for the week. I get involved in skeptical arguments and pursue the philosophical reasoning they entail. I pity those around me sometimes; I suspect I am quite, as they politely say, “intense”.

So, I could tell you something about evolution, I could tell you a little about quantum physics (which is only to say, for example, that I could tell you about Schrodinger’s Cat, and also explain that no cats are involved). I could describe the Monty Hall problem and why it demonstrates how flawed our thinking can be.

Why would you listen to me though? I’m a geologist, not a philosopher, or physicist, or even a biologist. In fact, I have never done a single formal course in biology, and that includes school level biology (I did physics and chemistry and geography, there’s only so much room). I did read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, when I was in high school, but I’m not about to say I’m some sort of cosmologist.

I would ask you to listen only because it is interesting; for no other reason. I would appeal to your sense of intrigue. I am suggesting to you that the real world is far more interesting than anything that you might have seen in the Da Vinci Code or, God forbid, stuff about the megalodon shark in Shark Week.

The real world has every sort of mystery of the sort that Dan Brown wrote his fiction about. But the thing is, it’s not fiction. Even Brown’s fiction contains some real science and real history. And that is the point. Its not just science, it is history and culture too. They all link together to make this great big wonderful story. And anyone can be part of that. Anyone can be that investigator. The scientist at the frontline, and even, with time, the one that the President calls when the aliens land.

For that though you’re going to need skills. Investigative skills, particularly of the sort that can be verified and tested. And this is where you will need some scientific training. Or at least, a good appreciation of rational thought and how something can be known, objectively. You need to have an appreciation of why scientific reasoning has lead to the advances it has. After all, you trust planes not to fall out of the sky, right?

Either way, rejoice in your fascination for all things interesting. Science is not a specialized territory only inhabited by nerdy, bespectacled introverts who are always portrayed as nerdy, bespectacled introverts. In fact, most scientists are normal. Really, they are.

Most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t want to be a scientist. I was almost a lawyer, and there are plenty of other valid, interesting and important pursuits in life, and no, science is not the only ‘way of knowing’. All that said though, please learn about science and its methods. The modern world demands it.


Reposted from Medium:

Students of the 70s and 80s enjoyed a certain freedom in their tertiary academic education – it was fully funded by the government. All they had to do was put a roof over their heads and feed themselves (which of course is a challenge when you’re a student), but they did not end up with a significant debt to the government afterwards as students do these days. Concurrent with this ‘golden age’ of tertiary education was a booming era of scientific research in Australia. Everything from medical research to planetary science got a gong, and Australia has its fair share of Nobel medals to show for it. Between all of this, these people found the time to agitate for progress in society. Before one’s eyes get misty with nostalgia, it can be summed up by saying that from the 50s up until probably the early 90s, Australia was one of the most progressive places in the world to be in research.

Something happened in the 90s though, politics changed, people switched off and governments no longer felt the need to invest so heavily in fundamental societal values, like research and innovation. The boom in private wealth probably lulled everyone into thinking that capital markets had developed a momentum to help carry this burden. The shifting ground of popular politics also helped sideline exciting fields of research, and science in general. It simply wasn’t news any more, and it was too easy to sit back in suburban comfort and say, “the money should be spent elsewhere, what’s the value of nerdy scientific research?”. This coupled with a growing conversation around elitism versus egalitarianism, which in the Australian context was read as “academics in their ivory tower are wasting money”, laid the groundwork not just for cuts to funding, but for those cuts to go largely under the political radar.

Fast forward to 2013, and we are in a situation in which federal funding for research and higher education faces cuts and deferrals of $3.8 billion over the next four years. Anyone familiar with the research grant process in the country will know that it is a back-breaking, time consuming exercise, a process that takes valuable time from research efforts, without any certainty of success. And it has to be done at least every few years. But don’t take my word for it, here is the process put beautifully in metaphor by Professor Suzanne Cory, the President of the Australian Academy of Science in her address to the National Press Club today:

Imagine you decide to build a house – you go to the bank and borrow enough money to buy 1000 bricks, and you lay them. And then you have to go back to the bank to ask for another loan, to buy another 1000 bricks. Having laid them, you then once more have to stop building and spend time convincing the bank to lend you enough for the next 1000 bricks and they only lend you enough for 600. When you know you are working with so much uncertainty, how far do you dare plan?

That is the current situation in research funding in Australia, has been for years, except now it is against a backdrop of a shallower pool of funds (and getting shallower).

The consequences of this for Australia will be simple: Research and innovation will decline, our brightest minds will leave the country, and Australia will lose status as an innovation powerhouse. Following that will be a negative flow-on effect to the economy, the scale of which will dwarf the cuts currently being made. This will be a sad state of affairs for the country to find itself in, the country which produced WiFi, flu vaccines, cervical cancer vaccine, the cause (and cure) of common peptic ulcers, the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer… the list goes on.

For the future of Australia, for it to have a prosperous, innovative future; scientific research needs to be funded as a central national priority. Indeed funding should increase, and the onerous short timelines of the grant process need to be reviewed to take into account the natural process of scientific research; to let academics and students evolve their work. Governments on both sides of politics cannot afford not to provide this support.


This article first seen at ABC News Australia’s ‘The Drum’ Opinion and analysis:

At what point should a person move from explaining their scientific discoveries towards advocating their importance in policy development?  And is science communication simply a form of advocacy itself? These are some of the thorny questions posed to Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, in “Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?” by Matthew C. Nisbit.

In the interview, Nelson refers to his paper, co-authored with John Vucetich entitled “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” in which he finds that “advocacy is nearly unavoidable, and that scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities, to improve their advocacy abilities, and to advocate in a justified and transparent manner.”

It is still not an easy question though. Really it boils down to what we are prepared to accept in society from our scientists. Read the rest of this entry »

The recent story whipped up by the Australian Sex Party regarding restrictions on, amongst other things, small breasts appearing in pornography in Australia (on grounds of them appearing child-like) highlights some of the subtle problems that exist in Australian political life. Whilst it concerns the independent classification board, this story has stirred commentary from politicians. Most Australians would find the censorship ridiculous and a little abhorrent. We do not like censorship per se, believing that freedom of expression, properly used, is a cornerstone of democracy. On the other hand, we have a strong underlying discourse on “family values”, much of which is born out of a Christian heritage. Read the rest of this entry »

Ahh, the national day. A time to have a day off, relax, have a barbie, do whatever. Maybe enjoy how lucky you are to be living in a prosperous country on a warm summers day. The cricket on telly, a few beers, great stuff. Back to work the next day feeling a little seedy, but ready finally for another year.

Well, that’s how I remember it, “back in the day”. I don’t remember cars festooned with the flag and stickers with “Love it or leave” written on them. That wasn’t part of Australia Day. In fact, it has always been a rather awkward public holiday – one that you just enjoy without having to think hard about anything. Which makes it different from ANZAC day, which commemorates a tragic episode in our history where to some extent, the nation called Australia was “born”. Read the rest of this entry »

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