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Perception of public and reality in science

  1. Jul 8, 2015 #1
    I was watching a Twilight zone episode yesterday . A spacecraft had crashed at a 'remote far corner of the Universe'...550 million miles from Earth (not even the distance to Saturn).

    Today I was reading a comment that complained about a local bottling company selling bottled water and using up freshwater resources. Turns out the annual amount of bottled water isn't even a half second volume of flow from the river.

    As a geologist, I see equally bizarre 'out of touch' perceptions about my discipline. Last week it was about how we've mined most of the gold out of the Earth....actually we haven't mined one millionth of the gold...just the stuff we know about and have access to.

    Anyways. In your own field of science or technology or work, do you ever just shake your head at the complete lack of 'perspective' of those people outside of your area of study? Not that people are dumb but rather that there is just no perspective as to sense of reality on some issues? I admit that on some geology issues I find myself going to make a comment on some misconception and then think to myself 'Why bother. This person is so out of touch with what the reality is that adding a few decimal points will mean nothing to him'.

    Do you ever think 'Ugh...that is so wrong'.
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  3. Jul 8, 2015 #2


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    A lack of perspective in particle physics is common, but at least on the quantitative side most realize that they have no idea about scales.
    Completely weird misconceptions about quantum mechanics and special relativity: I stopped counting.
  4. Jul 8, 2015 #3
    I have a twin brother who is now married and living far from me. We always fought about any subjects under discussion when we was still living together. I majored in IT and he in electronics. He always claimed the egg came before the chicken. I actually feel sorry for him as he has always been misguided to buy the best of the worst by Yankees and guys from San Francisco. He was suffering autism when he was young so until now his behaviors in public have not been very smooth, but 90% acceptable. And I love him very much anyway.
  5. Jul 8, 2015 #4
    Economics / public finance...

    Yes, I know that my area belongs to softer sciences... But still...

    Generally speaking in my area people instead of knowledge have political views... which can not only overrule any economic knowledge, but in case of budgeting can also overrule simple math...

    Funniest economic stuff that can't be defended as views? So far I liked US conspiracy theories concerning central banking - adopted in Poland - where central bank is just a listed in constitution gov agency, without any share capital... I was also impressed by explanation how sinister banks force governments to generate deficit... Or idea that budget deficit was caused by the missing amount just... being stolen. Or that social security system is anyway bankrupt so... shouldn't be reformed.

    My favourite political views I call as "low taxes, high gov expenditure". In case of question for where to find the huge tax shortfall, I usually hear an answer that from reducing bureaucracy (while the difference is greater that all administrative spending).
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2015
  6. Jul 8, 2015 #5
    One of the causes of misconception in particle physics is the use of analogies. There often aren't valid ones to relate quantum phenomenon to our everyday experience but we do it anyways. Someone will think that they have a perception but they are off track even more. ...electrons, etc. orbiting the nucleus of an atom like the planets around a star....grrr!
  7. Jul 8, 2015 #6


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    People often think that biology is black and white and determinate. God knows how many times I've heard people say "biologically speaking we're meant to [insert literally anything from "not eat meat" to "mate for life" or "be either make or female and that's it"]". The reality is far squishier.
  8. Jul 8, 2015 #7
    A little while ago my mom sent me some link about turning plastic into oil and wondering why people weren't doing this all the time because it seems like such a good idea. I didn't really look into it but instead sent her a quick note about how much oil is used per day in the US and how much plastic waste is generated per year. Even if the process is legit this simple calculation answers the question about why its not being done! I don't think it occurs to many people to question things like scientists if they haven't been trained to think that way.
  9. Jul 8, 2015 #8
    If we change the statement to, "We've already mined most of the gold we know about and have access to," is it still erroneous? I mean, if the remainder of the gold is somewhere we'll never find or have access to, is the error in the statement worth complaining about?

    (You tell me. I don't know anything about our gold resources.)
  10. Jul 8, 2015 #9
    You know what, I think I am gay and I love playing with mice, cats and fish. I learn a lot from physics forums. You know that your posts are always attracting me, it's because of your scientific insights, your concise and literal writings. I'd love it if you could write more and share more.
  11. Jul 8, 2015 #10
    Yes, we have lots of areas in paleontology to do with biological fuzziness. Simple taxonomy. When talking about 'life' trying to explain that the principal division in animalia is not vertebrates and invertebrates. Vertebrates are just one of many phyla and invertebrate phyla are as different from each other as they are from vertebrates. I try to use the ice cream analogy. 32 flavours of which vertebrates are one...not even a major one but akin to Butterscotch. Arthropods are like Chocolate, Molluscs like Vanilla, etc.
  12. Jul 9, 2015 #11


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    One of the worst out-of-touch public perception deals with radiation. I've seen people being paranoid about radiation levels, and yet, installed granite countertops in their kitchen. I remember someone telling me that no radiation level is safe, and then looking at me with a blank expression when I asked him if he had stopped eating bananas completely.

    This may all be nothing more than just an amusement if it did not directly affect science and public policy, but it did. The high-flux beam reactor at BNL, which was a nuclear reactor producing very high flux neutrons for research purposes, was shut down because the public in the surrounding neighborhood got spooked when radiation leaks were detected in the monitoring well surrounding not the facility, but rather the waste storage area. The monitoring wells were doing their jobs, and steps were taken to stop the leaks. But the damage was done, regardless of the fact that the amount of radiation that leaked was less than the radiation contained in the smoke detectors in a typical movie theater.

  13. Jul 9, 2015 #12


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    Why? If the costs are low enough, it could be a cheap source of oil, even if it would just give 0.1% (random guess) of the total consumption.
  14. Jul 9, 2015 #13
    Well, I guess that is the question. If I remember correctly the entire year's worth of plastic produced in the US wouldn't produce enough oil to last 1 day at the 2008 level of consumption (assuming a 1:1 ratio of fuel to plastic).

    Now I suppose if the method is cheap and you are looking to run your weed whacker or something it could be worth while for personal use. I was thinking about large scale production.
  15. Jul 9, 2015 #14


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    Large-scale production would be cheaper than your home-made device.
    If it would be possible to use scrap plastic to produce oil cheaper than the existing market price, it would be done, simply because it is profitable - no matter how small the output is (assuming it is sufficient to fill at least a tanker truck to make transportation worthwhile).
  16. Jul 9, 2015 #15
    Indeed. Good point.

    If it is cost effective, yields more energy than it takes to produce, and helps the environment then it makes total sense. My initial response was more directed at the 'this is the miracle cure that is going to solve our energy problem' attitude (okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated). Granted, I didn't do a good job of expressing that in my initial post.
  17. Jul 9, 2015 #16
    The oil from plastic is a bit like free range chickens. Nice in principle but...reality gets in the way.

    About 8 billion free range chickens need a lot of space...use of energy to feed, water, harvest. They would use up a good chunk of any natural environment near human settlement...pollute water, spread disease, etc.

    On a more realistic scale this is where some well meaning environmental proposals lack scientific perspective. Infrastructure, resources, energy, space, etc. are often used. Economy of scale exists for a reason...it is efficient. The trend to eat more locally produced food sounds great in principle but can be a loser for the environment.
  18. Jul 15, 2015 #17


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    Don't get me started on all of the crackpottery that arises from electricity and magnetism. :mad:

    Aside from all the "free energy" devices on YouTube, there are also many spiritualists who claim to be "in-tune" with magnetic fields/forces that allow them to do various types of ridiculous things like communicate with the dead, realign one's spiritual energy, telepathy, etc.

    I believe the most dangerous misconceptions come from people who know just enough to sound like they know what they're talking about, but don't. For example, one of my in-laws was rambling one day about the government being able to control our minds with invisible magnetic fields. He reasoned that since magnetic fields induce electrical currents (with no mention of a time-changing field, btw), then our thoughts and actions can be manipulated since every action within the brain is caused by electrical impulses. I had a "why bother" moment; I didn't have the energy to get into it with him.

    It's cute when my wife misconstrues something based on an innocent misunderstanding and we both laugh, but it's another thing when someone with a great deal of public exposure perpetuates ridiculous theories and nonsense. I'm going to end my post here because I'm getting worked-up on my lunch break instead of relaxing.
  19. Jul 15, 2015 #18
    In 2002 there was this misunderstanding about Mars appearing as big as the moon. This misunderstanding kept reappearing each August for the next couple of years. In August 2005 some gal at work emails our whole division about this celestial event. I find this picture on the 'net and inform her that Mars is a tiny dot when compared to the moon.

  20. Jul 16, 2015 #19
    I hate say the truth... ok no I don't.

    where I live the majority of people would call you squares who can do equations but probably couldn't tie your shoes.

    my own mother thinks I'm stupid for buying books...
  21. Jul 16, 2015 #20


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    Shouldn't the difference be obvious just by looking at the sky?
  22. Jul 16, 2015 #21
    The word 'obvious' isn't at all obvious.

    Even among science groupies there is utter disconnect. Many of them will supposedly be living on Mars within a decade. Those lining up as Martian space colonists are no different than we were as six year olds when we threw a blanket over a table and convinced ourselves we were in darkest Africa. Even sadder, the press just laps the stuff up. They have technology that is akin to that of Lego to make a spacecraft, habitation, etc. It's such a pathetic understanding of space technology that one expects the Candid Camera to pop out.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2015
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