In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Getty
Show Hide image

Thanks to social media, ordinary people can now influence elections more than tabloids

The Conservatives spent £1.2m on online adverts – but the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.

Who or what spread the single most influential message of the 2017 general election? Was it Britain’s top-selling tabloid, the Sun, which chose 7 June to chastise us all with: “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin”? Was it Facebook, home to Theresa May’s £1.2m anti-Labour adverts that pleaded: “Don’t risk Corbyn in charge of Brexit”? Or was it Jennifer ­Agnew, a 21-year-old administrative assistant from East Kilbride?

You’ve probably heard of the first two. Since the newspaper first claimed as much in 1992, it has been a popular idea that it’s the Sun wot wins elections. This year, much has been made of “dark ads” on Facebook – paid-for messages that political parties can spread across the social network, beyond the gaze of the Electoral Commission. You’ve probably not heard of Agnew, but you might have seen her viral tweet.

After Theresa May disclosed the “naughtiest” thing she ever did on ITV’s Tonight, Agnew took to Twitter to mock the revelation. “Never have I ever ran [sic] through a field of wheat,” she wrote above a picture of May drinking from a glass of water, riffing on the student party game in which one drinker confesses to a misdeed and others take a sip if they, too, are guilty. Her tweet was shared more than 24,000 times and gained an additional 60,000 “Likes”.

“It was just a joke, really, but also poking fun at the difference in classes,” says Agnew, whose post went on to be retweeted by the pop star Ellie Goulding. “I can’t say I’ve ever run around in a field of wheat as a child being chased by farmers. It seems rather middle class.”

On 8 June, Agnew voted for the SNP. She didn’t intend for her tweet to have political ramifications but describes herself as “a big fan of Corbyn”, saying: “As far as politicians go, he’s honest.” Yet, regardless of Agnew’s intentions, her tweet was political. It was a powerful anti-May message – and it didn’t cost the Labour Party a penny.

Since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, it has been widely understood that elections are fought across social media. Algorithms, some claim, boosted the fake news that propelled Donald Trump to office. By adding like-minded people as “friends” and deleting any dissenters, we all became entrapped in filter bubbles, unable to see the 2015 election result coming.

Face­book adverts that were micro-targeted to spread specific messages to specific people helped to bolster the vote for Brexit. All of these analyses are true, but each misses the most transformational aspect of social media. You know: the actual media part.

As of December 2016, the Sun had 1,611,464 readers every day. That’s a lot. But nowadays, people don’t need Rupert Murdoch and a printing press to wield political influence (they do, however, still need a witty pun). According to Twitter’s ­analytics tool, Agnew’s tweet reached over 2.9 million people. Everyone now has the potential to have the reach and influence of a tabloid.

Her tweet isn’t remarkable. It is merely one of thousands of viral social media posts that have spread this election, many of which generated headlines (“This Facebook comment about Jeremy Corbyn is going ­viral” read one on Indy100, the Independent’s sister site).

Hannah Thompson, a 24-year-old PR officer from Surrey, is another meme-maker. When the concept was introduced by Richard Dawkins, a meme was “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Now, it most commonly means “funny internet picture”. Yet memes might be just as influential as Dawkins’s original definition implied.

“I pretty much exclusively use Twitter as an avenue for my lame political jokes,” says Thompson, who tweeted a zoomed-in picture of Theresa May with the caption: “Nice wheat field you’ve got there. Would be a shame if somebody . . . ran through it” (7,243 retweets, 22,450 Likes).

“It would be helpful if more politicians understood the ‘social’ element of social media,” she adds. “Then, instead of spending hundreds of thousands just getting views for their posts, they can create things that actually engage people and help shift the narrative in people’s minds. I was really impressed by how Labour encouraged their members and activists to share things online. Seeing posts by actual human beings, rather than a party, is way more convincing than seeing a paid-for ad.”

There is a chance that, by the next election, politicians will have realised that a picture is worth a thousand words. Astro­turfing, the practice of masking the origin of a message to make it seem like a grass-roots opinion, is already common online. Advertisers frequently create profiles for fake teenagers, who then tweet about how much they “love” a product in order to make it seem popular.

After the shock election result, analysis by BuzzFeed revealed that stories published on the websites of right-leaning news­papers (such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun) failed to reach large audiences on Facebook and Twitter. BuzzFeed’s headline read: “Not even right-wingers are sharing positive stories about Theresa May on Facebook”. The most shared stories on social media were pro-Corbyn.

For all of the Conservatives’ power and wealth, their social media campaigns did not take off. Why? Because they weren’t inherently social. Theresa May relied on pounds to push her message, while Agnew and those like her relied on people.

As one social media user put it (receiving 8,790 retweets and 19,635 Likes): “Tories spent £1,200,000 on negative anti-Jeremy Corbyn social media adverts ... And the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496