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In Praise of Hoaxes

Skepticism has acquired a bad name for reasons that Adam Ruben, Ph.D., finds perplexing. A healthy skepticism is essential for scientists, and in fact the science community has too little of it –- just like everyone else, he notes in an April 22 online column titled "Experimental Error: Forging a Head."

Ruben, a scientist himself, discusses the value of hoaxes, lists several famous examples, and offers suggestions for conducting a good science hoax. He opens the column by mentioning an entry he judged last month at a middle school science fair. The student inadvertently based her entry partly on a famous science hoax – the same hoax included in this month's Barry R. Weissman OH&S article about HazCom training, "Keeping the FUN in FUNdamentals."

Ruben mentions the modern problem with hoaxes: "They can take on a life of their own, sitting on the Web in all their well-faked glory, waiting for someone to read them and cite them as truth. They can even open with a disclaimer that reads 'THIS IS FAKE, EVERYBODY!' and people will still wonder if the disclaimer, not the hoax, is false."

He continues: "When did skepticism become a bad thing? The public often accuses scientists of being overly skeptical, of the narrow-mindedness of believing only what we see and hear, or of haughtily dismissing skepticism's opposite, faith. (On a side note, I recently learned that there are actually skeptics conventions. Those sound like they'd be pretty confusing: 'This afternoon's seminar will begin at 3:00. Or will it?') But the truth is, we're not as skeptical as we portray ourselves to be. We believe things simply because they're relayed to us by other scientists. We believe what we read in journals, and we believe what our teachers tell us. We believe in subatomic particles we can't see. We're told that an instrument measures these particles, we can see the output of the instrument, we can understand the theory, and we can learn how the instrument works -- but that's as close as we can come.

"And here we have no choice. We have to attribute validity to certain sources because we just don't know enough about every branch of science ourselves. Which is why, when one of those sources is debunked, we're deeply shaken. We remember how flimsy the foundation of our understanding really is. And that's scary, though maybe not as scary as the Manitoba Cypress of Demise.

"So go, create your hoaxes and see whom you fool. Expose the gaps in our scientific rigor. If nothing else, you'll make it easier to judge middle school science fairs."

Skepticism and the willingness to question assumed wisdom are useful traits in a safety professional and a safety trainer, as well. I recommend both Dr. Ruben's column and Barry's article for your reading pleasure.

Posted by Jerry Laws on May 01, 2011


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