A number of mixed items today, mostly with the theme that Experts are often too sure of themselves.
- The organization GRASP, among many others, until yesterday warned of the “imminent extinction faced by gorillas” and other primates (not humans). NASA, an organization of experts, has a page called “Gorillas in the Midst of Extinction.” They used sophisticated, powerful, high technology satellites to count gorillas “giving scientists and conservationists” a way to count gorillas. The phrase “scientists and conservationists” must mean there is a difference between the two types of creatures. Anyway, the previously (?) communist magazine New Scientist recently had an article called “Ebola pushes gorillas towards extinction” (in the late 1990s there were several books published warning of the same fate for homo sapiens sapiens).
And then yesterday came a report by a group that unexpectedly came upon a troop of about 125,000 gorillas in the Congo, which more than doubled the previous estimate of the number of gorillas alive. Jillian Miller, the director of the conservation group Gorilla Organization, shockingly admitted (quoted in today’s New York Post), “I think the lesson for conservationists today is that, yes, the world is full of surprises. There’s a lot of uncharted territory.” I wonder if she’ll still feel the same way during the next round of fund raising.
- “Bubble fusion” researcher Rusi Taleyarkhan‘s research was burst at Purdue this past week. This is the guy who claimed in 2002 he could induce fusion using the force of collapsing tiny bubbles (the learned word for bursting bubbles is cavitation). The claim was always silly, which is fine, because there are more than enough silly ideas that pass for “research” in academia. The press and others originally bought the idea, however, and surely there will be some people who will always believe, just like there are still some who tout cold fusion. But the claim was too silly for some, who were angered by Taleyarkhan, and they sought to punish him.
This week’s Science magazine has an article (subscription required) on how Purdue is castigating Taleyarkhan. They suspected he fudged his data, but couldn’t prove it, so like the feds with Al Capone, they got him on a technicality, a move that I hope they are not proud of. Turns out that Taleyarkhan wanted a second author on a paper so that the paper would appear stronger: supposedly, more authors means less likelihood of cheating. So he showed the paper to a graduate student who made changes and recommendations, and then Taleyarkhan put the grad student’s name on the paper. Bingo! Research misconduct! cried the judges. Well, maybe, but if so, then roughly 98.3% of all academics are guilty of the same crime. People often, for a host of reasons, politics, fear, friendship, tit for tat, habit, and on and on, put names of people on papers even though those people had little or nothing to do with the work. Ah well. Poor Taleyarkhan.
- For fun, we have a list of the Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions from the List Universe. Here’s #2, from Mr Bill Gates, a well known rich person who lives near Seattle: “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” And #8 from Lord Kelvin, who was a mathematician and physicist, and president of the British Royal Society, 1895: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
Ho ho ho, we say to ourselves when we read these prognostications. How stupid can they be! We experience mirth. But that is exactly the wrong emotion. You might despise Bill Gates, but he is an incredibly bright person, an expert among experts in his field. Kelvin, who you probably haven’t heard of, was one of the smartest people who ever lived (not at the top of the list, to be sure, but ahead of all of us). These, and the other people with quotes on the List Universe page, were masters, yet they made remarkably huge mistakes.
You must also remember that when these men, superior in perception to their peers, made these predictions, there were not hosts of others saying the opposite. Most people believed the predictions, and with good reason. These experts had often been right before. What we should take away from this list is an increased skepticism, a belief that experts are not nearly right as often as they’d like us to think they are. Doubt, therefore, is the proper emotion.