Tuesday, 24 November 2015

But is it true?

Almost every year I get a phone call from a current student at my old college. They want to have a chat about the olden days, what you're up to now, how their course differs from yours etc. etc.  and it's usually a pleasure to talk to a bright young person who seems to be taking a genuine interest. Of course, it's all a lead up to a request for money and a few times I've even donated something to the college's funds, just enough to cover the pay that they've been getting to make the call, even though I really think that all students should get decent grants, like we did, and that the hardship funds shouldn't really be needed.

One year I was asked about our IT facilities and found it amusing to say "Well we were allowed into the library but had to supply our own pens and pencils". I could have added that when I was a research student I did begin to write a programme, on punched cards, to  work out something or other on the big computer in the Maths department but got so bored with the whole process that I found another way of presenting the data and never found out if my programme would actually work. 

Looking back it can sometimes seem incredible that we found out anything at all. How did I plan a trip to the Lake District from Bristol, and get hold of the Cumbrian bus timetables, without having an internet to use? For many years the very idea of being able to access huge amounts of information at the press of a button, the click of a mouse, from anywhere in the house, or even out on the street, literally felt like science fiction. Now, as we all know, it's commonplace.

If we were to divide the internet into two realms we could choose one of them to be "purported factual information", the other "entertainment" and that the social media contains a mixture of both. What surprises me, however, is that despite the ease of checking whether or not the things we post are true, or even could be true, they get posted anyway. So, as you could probably guess, I'm a bit of a Facebook curmudgeon. 

If someone posts something that I find surprising, and not so ridiculous that no amount of evidence could challenge it,  then my first response is to check up on the web and find out if its true, or if it could work, or if it could work and it's built like that then would it work. You get the idea.

Now whilst some skills, playing musical instruments, acting, being good at sport, are generally admired, and feted, others, like being a pedant for the truth, aren't. You don't please many people by challenging their thinking. Indeed, on a recent occasion when I questioned the actual existence of a supposed African tribe that punishes wrong doers by sitting around them in a circle and telling them about all the good things they've done, the final response I got was " Pedantic .. You are sad or wounded somewhere deep within I think ."

Given my background in Physics I have particular problems with postings about perpetual motion machines, or ones that make an unsung hero out of Nikola Tesla and confuse his ideas for the wireless transmission of electrical power with the idea that there's this hidden field of energy which, if only the big oil companies and the scientific establishment hadn't suppressed the knowledge of, would solve all our energy issues at a stroke. I've since realised that although I might be surprised by these things there are plenty of folk out there who find no conspiracy surprising. I suspect they've never tried to organise anything let alone a conspiracy. Can you imagine the diary secretaries of all these major players trying to fit the secret conspiracy meetings into already overloaded schedules?

Back in the days when we were obliged to chat to one another face to face and could respond with more than a like, share or troll, I remember that one of the participants in a conversation whose subject escapes me, a mathematics student, simply said "But is it true?"

In a feeble attempt to fight back against the anodyne aphorisms that often become internet memes I decided to make my own. 

I know, it could have done with a more relevant picture than a collection of lichen in the woods above Loch Ness.


  1. I love the bit about being "sad or wounded deep within"... The social media seem to be developing a new religion of compulsory positivity and elective beliefs, somehow based around cats. This is not a world in which an insistence on evidence is very welcome -- it's the same mindset in which serious medical conditions are the result of bad choices, poor (i.e. unfashionable) diet, and negative thinking. "You're only as old as you feel" -- oh, really?

    Keep it up, Science Man!


    1. Mike

      You'll also have noticed that I bang on about a number of lifestyle based public health issues, in particular low levels of physical activity. When one of the virtuous born again gym bunnies put up yet another post of her latest feats of exercise I suggested that, as a politician (she was a local councillor at the time) she might consider taking on the wider public health issue. Her response (her capitals) I AM NOT A POLITICIAN.

      Cats have an interesting role. If the rest of us are trying to say and do whatever fits in with the current mood then cats show that it's possible to live alongside us without paying any attention whatsoever to what anyone thinks of what they're doing. If I ever told the cat off the dog would apologise and the cat would take no notice. So maybe they represent the social freedom that most of us have abandoned.

      I can't bring myself to "like" a post about something awful even though I know its the only response available if you want to pass it on to "friends". I'd like there to be a dislike button but I suspect that the commercial sponsors would like a campaign of disliking their products.

      p.s when JW was dying of cancer those around him never talked about the struggle or the fight. After all, whose to blame if you lose the fight?

  2. Oh, and happy birthday (though this data was sourced from FaceBook, and I haven't checked its accuracy anywhere else, it's true)! So, Happy Probably Birthday!!