Adam Rutherford interviewed Don Johanson about Lucy on Inside Science. Immediately something hit you in the eye – or rather the ear – and then something else in the other one: When he saw that elbow bone sticking out of the ground in 1974, Don Johanson “immediately knew it was from a human ancestor”.
Straight from the “Obvious Innit” school of science. And that instant reaction has never been questioned by him or anyone else paid to think scientifically about human evolution – which overlaps hugely with chimpanzee evolution.
The other insult to the listeners was the way Rutherford seemed to think he was Kirsty on Desert Island Discs. SCIENCE IS NOT AN EGO-STROKING EXERCISE, ADAM! It’s dueling theories! In fact, “Islanders” get probed rather more forcibly than “Insiders”. “But the non-existent chimp and gorilla fossils Don, why do you not mention them at the start of EVERYTHING you say? The non-existent quadrupedal human ancestors Don – you might not expect them in a shoe-box, but why aren’t there any in our pallet-load??? Do you know anything about statistics, Don?”.
The problem arises from the BBC doing science, as I’ll touch on in another posting. The BBC in general is about looking cool, and in particular, following the BBC view of science: Science is about logic (scientific thinking is school geometry thinking, you see, since modern cognitive science has yet to reach Broadcasting House), and you can tell the good scientists because they’re the ones who remove as much emotion from describing their work as possible – and then try to inject some “Science Can Be Fun” back in, for publicity purposes. Also, they’re the ones who show where their heads are by picking up the meme of starting every answer with the word “so”, faster than they learn anything else. Are the ones who get invited onto the BBC the ones keenest on accumulating irrelevant social status trivia? Not entirely, but you do wonder. I’d say it was no more than half true.
Not that Don Johanson is a “So” merchant, but that’s just because he’s too old to change, and American men of his time didn’t waft around following the latest fashion. However Don has, unfortunately, never shown anything remotely resembling astute scientific insight – not that I can remember. Comparing him with Hawks shows a massive difference – it’s almost like comparing astrology with astronomy. They’re not on the same planet, and yet… because Hawks thinks intelligence and expertise on the relevant subjects is enough, he still takes understanding ancient human ancestry no further than Johanson. In fact I’m sure he believes in Johanson’s tree, though he’s probably even wronger about the ages.
They’re just as bad as each other in the end, because neither accepts that they have to follow the discipline of science; whatever they feel like, that’s scientific enough – indeed it is, by definition, science. No need for constant referencing to the standard compass…
Echoes from Atul Gawande’s Reith lectures 2014 impact here:
He explains how today’s challenge for science is not just knowing stuff but putting the knowledge to use every time. I don’t think he’d used the phrase “Situation Awareness” by the end of programme 2 but his stories of children’s lives being saved in emergencies vividly illustrate the vital challenge of getting Best Practice honoured at the coal face. Often, this means getting team members to follow what’s going on around them and not forgetting basic stuff.
He quotes how not all professional medics want to be bothered with having to work through the type of checklist that pilots run through before takeoff… but when under the knife themselves – oh that’s different! They all want the surgeons performing on them to use the checklist!
Keen readers will be aware of the sciencepolice-14 rules: a checklist for science. Following these adds power to your science, not restrictions. As Atul Gawande says: Discipline enables Daring. As I said years ago to Mike Keesey when he was still answering my emails: Why is it I always go for the peculiar theories? He gave no reply but I know he thought I was dancing to a different drum – which of course I was, and proud to: following the explicit rules of science will take you swiftly away from the crowd (and faster from a crowd of palaeontologists than from any other science group).
People take the care to get things right when lives are at stake (though even then only slowly), but when we only risk getting the family tree of fossilised bones wrong, then people care about nothing but fashion and egos and not rocking the boat or you won’t last long in this corporation, Deary.
And I don’t care if you’ve spent loads of money and the whole of last year in the African earth: without scientific discipline you’re still not taking science any more seriously than the twats at the BBC.