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‘Nature cannot be fooled’

Peter Bye (Article 13 senior associate)

In 2017, we will be featuring a series of posts from our senior associate network, each providing unique insights into some of the global challenges we are facing. Here we are delighted to present 'Nature cannot be fooled' by Peter Bye...

The title of this piece is a quotation from the great physicist Richard Feynman. Late in his life, he was asked to join the commission investigating the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 28th January, 1986: the shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after lift-off. There were no survivors in the crew, which included a school teacher. The disaster was seen on television by millions of people, probably including the children in the teacher’s class.

Professor Feynman’s account of his role in the investigation is described in his usual compelling style in a piece that appears in a short autobiographical book[1]. The culmination was his demonstration that low temperatures reduced the elasticity of the rubber O-rings, which were used to seal the joints between sections of the booster rockets. As the temperature at the time of the launch was below freezing, he suggested that this was the likely cause of the failure.

But he also made a wider point about the way the shuttle missions were presented to the public. He had detailed technical discussions with engineers about the risks associated with the technology. He determined that ‘The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of one percent. (It is difficult to be more accurate.)' [2]. The official claims from NASA were that the probability of failure was a thousand times less, i.e. 1 in 100,000. The most serious consequence is that the risk of shuttle flight as conveyed to the public was relatively low. He then made the point that provided the title for this piece: ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled' [3].

There is no doubt that politicians and other groups have always taken liberties with the truth, for various reasons, including public relations. But failure to take account of evidence in policy formation leads to attempts to address problems that are not serious or don’t even exist, while doing nothing about problems that are real. Ignoring the evidence for human involvement in climate change is a case of the latter. And it’s this point that brings Professor Feynman’s warning that Nature cannot be fooled into sharp focus.

A valuable framework for considering humanity’s impact on the planet was proposed in 2009 by Rockström and others at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They identified nine planetary boundaries, representing the Earth’s limits for human enterprise [4]. Crossing them could lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic environmental change. Climate change is one of the boundaries. There is now a compelling body of evidence for climate change and the role of human activity in causing it. Although there is some scientific dissent, the great majority of scientists are in agreement. Denying that human activity causes change is to hold that the majority are wrong.

Of course, the fact that many people believe a theory does not prove its validity; people can be wrong. Group-think, where many tend to adhere to a theory because it is popular, can also be a factor. However, refuting a well-researched view requires a scientific approach. We may question the logic behind it and the methodology used in the research. Are observations or experiments repeatable, for instance? Are the data collected sufficient? Are there flaws in their analysis? All this and more is part of the scientific method.

But what we all too often get is not remotely scientific. Facts are simply denied or misrepresented because the hard evidence is inconvenient. Which brings me back to the title of this piece: Professor Feynman’s stark warning that we cannot fool Nature. Nature is going to do what it is going to do, never mind what unscientific, even anti-scientific, people think.

I will end with what I believe to be a delicious irony. Many of the holders of anti-scientific beliefs, who ‘have had enough of experts’, choose to express their views using technology which represents a triumph of the expert. The whole internet structure and connected devices are the result of more than two centuries of fundamental and applied research, and subsequent engineering, by a large number of brilliant people. From electricity to quantum theory and the development of micro-electronics, the invention is endless.

[1] What Do You Care What Other People Think? Feynman, R P, Unwin Hyman, 1988. More information about Feynman, including his work in the Challenger commission, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqleIxXTpw

[2] Ibid, p 236.

[3] Ibid, p 237.This quote and the one cited above appeared in an appendix to the commission’s report, which is reproduced in Feynman’s book.

[4] For more information about the Planetary Boundaries, see the Stockholm Resilience Centre website at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of Article 13.

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