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Are Scientists Cynics?

March 2012

After last month's feature ("What's Up Doc?") I began to wonder if I had let by sarcastic and cynical sides get the better of me. I usually keep them somewhat in check, but when it comes to humor... its more difficult. Certainly a scientist must be skeptical. We must weigh evidence with an open mind, not giving in too quickly to a decision based on somebody's presentation rather than on the facts. The problem is that on the one side is gullibility and on the other is cynicism, and we need to find the middle. Its not always easy.

The other day I was sent one of "those" emails again. You know the ones, a girl dyning of cancer who needs you to pass on this beautiful poem to everybody you know because the American Cancer Society is tracking it and will donate to her treatment for every copy sent. Good grief - how dumb do you think I am? Well, this particular email has been circulating and mutating for years. here's a brief history. So I did a Reply-All to point out that this, and 99.9999% of all email that tells you to forward a copy to everybody you know is a hoax. I hesitated on the Reply-All thing as this embarrasses the sender, but there is a feeling of responsibility to let people know before they embarrass themselves by sending this thing out on another round.

So am I just cynical? What do I tell my kids I accomplished today? "Hey, good news, I've just made a hundred people less trusting!" Hard to feel good about that. The problem is that in so many areas a skeptical look proves something to be false, and repeated experience breeds cynicism.

We get a lot of these emails coming across the "Great Divide" at work (the break in cubicles between Admin/Sales and R&D). They only come in one direction and you can hear snickering on the R&D side whenever they do. A while ago one sales guy sent the old "inspirational story" from National Geographic of a mother bird spreading her wings over chicks to save them from a forest fire. Immediately the Physicists and Engineers are sending such things as BBQ chicken recipes. You see, we knew it was a hoax. Partly it was because we could think about the thermal properties of a mother birds wings and realize that at best the chicks survival was exageration. If we had all held off forwarding the email 'til we saw the National Geographic article for ourselves - that's skepticism. As was, we displayed cynicism. But gosh darn it all... a little research showed we were right yet again National Geographic never has published such as story.

We Physicists are often portrayed unfairly as cynics. Remember "Cold Fusion". As usual when there is a big story with few facts, the media goes digging for a story within the story. This time many of them settled on a Physicist vs. Chemist battle. The Physicists were supposed to be too proud and cynical to believe that Chemists had made a breakthrough in fusion. That would be a good laugh if so many people hadn't believed it. Every Physicist I knew was hoping it was true. There is nothing more exciting to a Physicist as new and unexpected Physics. "High Temperature Superconductors?" - now there were some real hay-days. However, claims need to be proven, and the larger the claim the larger the burden of proof. If scientists didn't operate this way new discoveries would be slower, not faster, because they'd be buried in all the junk.

One last story. In the fall of 2001 I went to a Promise Keepers meeting here in Winnipeg. It was a great event, except for one speaker who told a story that made me cringe. I don't even remember his point in telling it, I was too distracted by the fact that it was obviously an urban legend. I was just sitting there thinking "doesn't he know that by telling us about someone using balloons to ride his lawn chair up to 16 thousand feet - that he's losing all his credibility". That was my cynical side. However, skepticism says to check the facts before drawing conclusions. Fortunately, my cynical side is sometimes wrong.

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