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

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Disney didn’t buy Twitter — partly because it can't master the Bare Necessities

Walt Disney Co. has decided against bidding for the social network.

Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your – @simba DIE U STUPID LION UR SONG IS SHIT.

That was a short representation of one the alleged reasons why Walt Disney Co. opted out of bidding for Twitter last night. Despite hiring two investment banks to help them weigh up a deal, Disney have dropped out of the running partly because – according to Bloomberg – of the social networks’s reputation for bullying and harassment, as well as its falling profits. Individuals close to Disney management allegedly told the business news website that Twitter did not fit well for the company, which, after all, is more famous for feel-good anthropomorphic animals than angry, anonymous eggs. 

Those who mistakenly believe Twitter is a happy place where ev’rybody wants to be a cat might need an explanation. Despite the apparent abundance of cat gifs, Twitter can be a violent and angry social network – a report last year stated that 88 per cent of the abusive mentions on social media happen on the site. Twitter has long struggled to stop abuse overwhelming discussion on the social network. This has fed the perception among some of its 300 million users that tackling abuse is a low priority, with efforts at reducing trolling overshadowed by the release of new features such as increased message length and curated news feeds known as Moments. Because of this, the site has become seen as – in one former employee’s words – “a honeypot for assholes.” Oh, bother.


Earlier this year, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was bombarded with racist tweets upon the film's release, forcing her to leave the site for a few weeks. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines," she wrote. The company did take action in the wake of the Jones case, permanently banning the prominent right-wing journalist and notorious troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, from the site for his role in fanning the flames of the abuse. But, while Google has set up a new company, Jigsaw, to make the internet a safer place, Instagram regularly bans offensive hashtags and Facebook has devoted time to constantly updating its anti-harassment tools (most recently making it easier to report revenge porn), Twitter’s trolling problem continues.

Even Twitter's former top employees have criticised the company's efforts. In a leaked memo from 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo said: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years." Earlier this year, the current CEO Jack Dorsey admitted Twitter "must do better" at dealing with abuse. Salesforce, another potential buyer, have also allegedly been put off by the site's reputation. "The haters reduce the value of the company... I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion," reported CNBC's Jim Cramer

Neither company has declared publicly that Twitter's abuse problem dettered them from the sale, but could the loss of this latest suitor push them to take the problem more seriously? Having some sort of pre-emptive anti-harassment tool has become the bare necessities of running a successful social network, but Twitter still waits for users to report abuse and then, frequently, tells them that the abusive content actually didn’t violate their rules. 

It is not too late for Twitter to turn itself around, as many of its users are still loyal despite the abuse. With one successful attempt to tackle harassment, a resurgence for the site could be just around the riverbend. In the words of the wise Rafiki: "Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it."