Science and Responsibility – Love Parade 2010

August 2, 2010

Last week several hundred thousands of young people from all over the world gathered in Duisburg (Germany) to celebrate this years Love Parade.  21 of them are now dead. Their families and the public are mourning. What remains are questions. Questions on why this could happen and who is responsible.

Since this is a blog about science I am not so much interested in the  mayor, who refuses to step back since he wants to ‘clear things up’. I am also not interested in the organizer who claimed 1.400.000 participants and, maybe after he realized that this will get him into trouble with his insurance, counted again to just find 250.000. Police and fire services also played some role which is not of my concern.

I am interested in the security concept which was certified by a professor from a near university. No names here since this is an ongoing case and it is hard to get the facts. Sure is that the organizer planned to get more than 250.000 people through a 40 meter wide tunnel to the location. This tunnel was also planned to be the only exit from the location. At first glance that sounds crazy and … at a second glance that still sounds crazy. How could someone certify such a security concept? Our scientist in question has a Ph. D. in theoretical physics and his wiki entry contains some name dropping in form of nobel prize winning collaborators. If he signs such a concept then maybe because of some ‘deep’ insights stemming from his research on ‘transport and traffic’. However, this is buried in some proprietory journals to which I have no access (as an unaffiliated random guy).

That leaves me with the publicly available information. That is a TV interview right after the catastrophe with the event still going on. My rough translation (out of memory) of the decisive passage ‘… the behaviour of panicking people is hard to model …’ followed by some disgusting allocation of responsibility. In a further interview our scientist denies responsibility at all since he was not allowed to see the whole concept. This assertion is shockingly unmasking.

My conclusion: As long as results are not publicly available, as long as concepts  are signed without being fully seen and as long as no responsibility for mistakes is taken over it is very hard to differentiate between a charlatan and a scientist.

Because of the omnipresence of this case in all media science has lost a lot of reputation in germany.

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What is Your Dangerous Idea?

August 28, 2009

When I asked my guest about his opinion on this little booklet edited by John Brockman, he actually started to smile and answered something like: ‘These smart scientists have a lot of dangerous ideas and have you recognized, all of their ideas are dangerous for other people? Scientists surely must be very caring.’ By then I was already used to his interesting approach to the concept of humor and decided to ignore the last remark. Instead I wanted to know, whether he had his own dangerous idea, preferably an idea dangerous for science.

He told me, that the single most dangerous idea for science is:

There is no proof.

The danger of this idea, according to him, does not stem from the fact that it might be true. The problem is, that you, as a scientist, cannot argue scientifically against it.

I was not able to follow. The Pytagorean theorem is proved! There are dozens of proofs, some of them hundred and thousands of years old. I have checked a few myself and all experts agree on the truth of this theorem. After all, this is not the classification of all finite simple groups and even this is settled. At least I hope so. How can one seriously think that there is no proof?

In a deliberately patient sounding voice he explained again, that the possible truth of the idea is not the problem, but our wrong understanding of what science actually is. Even in this moment when I writing down this post, I have no idea of what he was talking about. My face must have expressed my ignorance and he began a monologue on proofs. In essence he claims, that to deserve its name

a proof has to prove that it is a proof.

Otherwise, it is obviously not a proof, but only some consensus among the participating players. You can call it peer review if you like, but don’t call it a proof.

I am completely lost. No mathematician has ever proved that his proof is indeed a proof. That makes no sense! Or, does it? And if yes, then it is surely impossible! What do you think?