TV Top Picks #13: Engineering the Future: 3 Episode Series

The first of these 3 one-hour films is on wind power. I was instantly hooked.  In just over 50 minutes, you get amazing views into the interior workings of massively large wind turbines; learn extraordinary details on how they are made and what it takes to locate them.   At first I was a bit put off on having to join a new streaming service, this one called “CuriosityStream” to watch it, but that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.  If nothing else, watch this first episode on the engineering revolution going on in wind power and let me know what you think.

Before I tell you a tad more about these documentaries, let me explain CuriositySteam.  It was new to me, but apparently over 13 million subscribers have already discovered and signed up since it began in 2015, founded by the guy who created the Discovery Channel.  You need to subscribe, and it’s $2.99 a month or $19.99 annually for an HD subscription, although right now they have special $11.99/yr. offer.  Having cut the cable on our COX programming, I’m saving about $90 a month.  Being able to spend my subscription dollar on precisely the content I value and want to watch versus paying for massive amounts of programming I had no interest in is a no-brainer.  The way I figure it, I can sign up for another 25-30 monthly streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) and I am still getting better value for my subscription dollar.  CuriosityStream offers thousands of documentary films across a variety of categories like science, history, mathematics, technology, robotics and nature. Think of it like the online version of The Great Courses, much more entertaining and less academic, but still authentic and accurate.

The 3 episodes in the Engineering the Future series are Wind, Aviation and Fusion, each one just under an hour.  Production quality is some of the best you will find.  Narration is done by David Attenborough and Patrick Stewart.  Interviews are conducted with scientists and engineers at the leading edge of research and production in each of these three areas, and scripted in a way that is easily understood for non-engineers like me. This is all new, cutting-edge stuff: one of the wind farms was just completed and brought onto the electric grid in the fall of 2020.

TV Top Pick #5: Behind the Curve

The documentary film, Behind the Curve (2019), can be seen on Netflix.  It introduces us to a growing group of people who believe in a conspiracy suppressing the fact that the earth is not round, but actually flat.  Many people, like me, assume things like the Flat Earth Society were long gone.  But they are not and I found a lot to like in this movie and several important lessons, too.

I hate movies belittling or ridiculing people and this movie doesn’t do that. While the movie is unintentionally hilarious, no one makes fun of these people.  It never plays “gotcha” and has a gentle and human approach to providing thoughtful profiles on key followers of the theory that a vast conspiracy involving government, educators and scientists has duped us all (except them) into the delusion that the earth is a sphere.  It also plays into several ideas that have been on my mind lately (as regular readers may notice), such as last month’s newsletter titled Damn Science Stuff where I discussed related issues.

A motorcycle ride to Cave Creek on Saturday morning with my neighbor found us discussing this film and him explaining something called “Anchoring Bias” to me.  My neighbor is a physician, scientist and recognized leader in the field of childhood epilepsy, and knows a great deal about the rigor required to conduct scientific experiments and steps one needs to take to locate, understand and overcome our inherent biases.  It turns out genuine scientists look at problems arising from experiments very differently from the individuals followed in this film. After obtaining a $20,000, highly precise ring laser gyroscope capable of exceptionally sensitive and minute measurements, they set up an experiment. They knew if the earth was a globe and rotating once every 24 hours, then the gyroscope would have to indicate a 15-degree drift or shift, every hour.  Knowing for a fact the earth was flat, they were confident they could disprove this spherical earth conspiracy once and for all. They set up the device, begin the first 24-hour experiment and find, uh-oh, it shows a 15 degree shift every hour.  However, unlike researchers who adhere to the scientific method*, they disregard this rather obvious proof the earth is indeed round and rotating. Instead, they conclude there must have been something “off” with the device or the way the test was set up.  They keep repeating the experiment, encasing the gyroscope in various metals to block energy from the sky or something, to stop the drift.  But of course, it never did, as the earth is still rotating. But never once was the consideration raised that Earth might indeed be a sphere. They were unwilling to accept the data acquired in their experiments.

This is anchoring bias and we’re all guilty of it to some degree or another. Anchoring bias is the tendency to give excessive value to your initial thought or data point (the anchor) and to give disproportionately reduced value to subsequent ideas or facts, even if they appear to disprove the anchor thought.  It often results in starting with a conclusion or belief and working backward to find facts that support your view and disregarding data that does not.  Here is an example.  Perhaps you were to say something like, “The crowd at my inauguration was the largest of any presidential inauguration in history, and specifically larger than my predecessor Barak Obama’s inauguration.” Overhead photos of both events clearly show a larger crowd at the 2008 inaugural ceremony than at the one in 2016.  With that data, if you took the approach that the photos are “fake,” you would end up in the same spot as the flat earth believers in this movie.  My example may sound overtly political, but I picked it more because most readers have heard of this and likely have formed some ideas about it.  I believe truth in politics does matter, but likely is more important in matters of science and public health.  The documentary reveals how easily we humans construct our own realities despite what common sense and logic have to say about it.  The rise of social media makes it far easier for people susceptible to conspiracy theories to find communities which support their views.

Since watching “Behind the Curve,” the impacts of anchor bias and non-scientific thinking seems to appear everywhere I look.  One example is my gradual realization of the strong communities which form around shared belief and the way in which being dismissed and trivialized by “unbelievers” and non-members of the community strengthens these communal bonds. When I was a kid, the fundamentalist evangelical church my family belonged to urged its members to witness to others about their faith. Some even organized door-to-door community outreach or standing on corners distributing religious tracts.  I recall this being horribly uncomfortable and embarrassing and wondered why it was done when it clearly didn’t result in us adding even one single individual to our congregation.  But after watching Behind the Curve, I understand.  These forages into the outside world were not expected to recruit anyone, but to make us highly uncomfortable. Thus, when we returned to the group, it was with great relief and appreciation, full of positive feelings for those who believed the same way we did. Communal bonds were pulled tightly around our shared truth that was unknown, misunderstood or belittled by the outside world.

The other example of this is on Facebook or Email when someone forwards/shares a bit of “news” or tasty tidbit appearing to augment their political position, assuming it is true, because it supports what they already believe. When someone occasionally points out that genuine fact checkers have researched this “tidbit” or “news” and found it to be completely manufactured and false, they respond in the same way as the flat earth conspiracy theorists.  In other words, they accuse the fact checkers of being dirty rotten untruthful scoundrels or shills of the opposition, rather than considering they may be wrong.

Winston Churchill was reportedly quoted as saying, “A lie gets half-way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” I’ve also heard it said that “Lies run sprints and truth runs marathons,” and my experience on earth seems to bear this out, so perhaps I need not worry. Eventually the truth will win out.  It always does.

* As elaborated in the above mentioned newsletter and defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “Scientific method…is the technique used in the construction and testing of a scientific hypothesis.  The process of observing, asking questions, and seeking answers through tests…”


Damn science stuff

In today’s Arizona Republic newspaper one of our local columnists alluded to a certain political attack on science. Reports that “science got X or Y wrong” on topics from global warming to Covid-19 are frequent, leading me to conclude many people have a deep misunderstanding of what science is, actually.  Hopefully, I can shed some light.

Science isn’t a thing, it is a process.  It is a model consisting of specific steps designed to lead to the truth.  The scientific method dictates how experiments must be done. It specifies double-blind testing and other processes to eliminate the influence of bias or prejudice.  That is science, an objective, standardized approach to conducting experiments and, in doing so, improving the accuracy, consistency and reliability of the results.

No matter the field, from biology to physics and engineering, the process of making observations, testing, and continuing to revise a theory based on the results remains the same.  My friend Frank was involved in software testing in his business career.  He knows firsthand how the process works and why it was so important, even when his superiors at the time pushed to bypass testing or minimize its importance. A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation.  Theories are tested in experiments under controlled conditions.  Established scientific theories have withstood hundreds and even thousands of rigorous tests and close scrutiny to become what now embodies “scientific knowledge.” Sometimes people attempt to denigrate certain aspects of scientific progress by saying “it’s just a theory.”  Technically, in scientific terms, that is correct.  But gravity is also a “theory,” although I’m not sure how many people would wish to throw themselves off a cliff with the idea that “falling is just a theory.”

As additional scientific evidence is gathered, theories are frequently modified. On occasion, it can be rejected entirely if it cannot fit the new findings.  That does not mean all theories can be fundamentally changed.  Foundational scientific theories such as gravity, evolution, heliocentric theory, cell theory, plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, and many others aren’t going to change.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explained it like this “…facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

The scientific method consists of the basic steps below and what led to the breakthrough in medicine responsible for my being here today. I’ve included a diagram of the scientific process at the end of this article from Wikipedia.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Do background research.
  3. Develop a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the question.
  4. Test the hypothesis in a manner that allows for proof or disproof of the hypothesis.
  5. Analyze the results of the testing.
  6. Formulate a conclusion.
  7. Refine and Repeat (back to #1).

This past year I read two history books on how open heart surgery began and how we got to where we are today.  One is “The Sublime Engine” by Stephen and Thomas Amidon.  The other is “King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery” by G. Wayne Miller.  The topic interests me, of course, as I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 15 years old in 1966. While far enough along back in 1966 to confidently predict good results, the dangers in this surgery have been reduced a hundredfold since then by repeated experiments which these books chronicle. My family and I were relieved that although I had two additional heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018, much of the medical mysteries surrounding my particular heart issues have been uncovered.  You can read more about those surgeries here.

What I like most about the scientific process is that once you’ve crafted the hypothesis you wish to test, you set up your experiment to not only find data to help prove your theory but also identify what factors, outcomes and data may potentially arise which could disprove or raise doubts about your hypothesis. You must try your damnedest to prove your hypothesis is wrong because in so doing, you test that it’s right. You can’t focus only on the affirmative – you must construct the negative arguments as well.  When setting up an experiment, there is a human tendency to want it to be true and to prove it is so.  The scientific process anticipates this human bias and compensates with how tests must be set up, such as double-blind testing, but also in requiring strict and exhaustive peer reviews.  Many scientists make it their cause to repeat experiments with greater thoroughness than the original work to cast doubt on conclusions.  In science, this is not bad manners but a highly-respected and important part of the process leading to the truth.  During my debate competitions in high school, my partner and I often did not know on which side of a proposition we would be arguing until just minutes before the competition began.  Learning to be equally persuasive and able to support both sides of the debate resolution greatly sharpened and deepened our understanding of the issues we debated.

While my parents were very religious, I am eternally grateful when the life of their child was on the line, they chose science and the medical establishment to find a solution to a defect in my heart that would have ended my life at a relatively young age.  Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse, it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions on hard evidence — evidence that is continually updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.

It is unclear to me what process those who claim science is “wrong” would have us use in its place. Should we adopt a “might makes right,” approach, where whoever’s bigger, stronger or richer gets to dictate what is true? Perhaps we should allow truth to be determined by whatever political party accumulates the most votes in a particular voting season? Frankly, the idea of accepting the opinions of actors, musicians, politicians or religious leaders over the findings of a group of established scientists just seems wrong.  Is it rational to decide the truth for your life based on slogans, wishful-thinking and superstition?

I’m grateful to be in the final third of my life.  I doubt I’ll ever see the results of a society of parents who choose to ignore science and not vaccinate their children against polio, smallpox, measles and Covid-19 and whatever else we vaccinate against.  Vaccines save lives.  Science saves lives.  I believe in saving lives through knowledge.  Science is the right path to gain that knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process