The one and only Dr Karl Kruszelnicki explains how everything went so wrong — and why everything’s actually better than ever.
Long before Stephen Fry ever stepped onto the set of QI, and while Brian Cox was still in Grammar School, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki was making science accessible and absorbing for average Australians. A qualified medical doctor, engineer, physicist and mathematician, Dr Karl has received far too many accolades to mention — suffice it to say he’s been officially declared one of Australia’s National Living Treasures — and has published a casual 36 books.
Make that 37. His latest tome, Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science, sees the science communicator tackling the big questions of our modern times. Can antioxidant supplements do more harm than good? (Yes!) Is there really such a thing as “breaking the seal”? (No!) Why do some people think The Dress is blue-and-black, and some people think it’s white-and-gold? (Colour constancy!)
These are just a few of the 37 topics the good doctor tackles in his 37th book. Which makes you wonder — what question does Dr Karl still want answered?
“What are the missing parts of the universe?” he asks. “Even with all of our different types of telescopes, we can only see four per cent of the universe. There’s another 25 per cent of the universe that we call dark matter, and there’s another 70 per cent of the universe that’s made up of dark energy that’s forcing the universe to expand at an increasing rate. We know it’s real, but we don’t know what it’s made of. I’d like to know now.
“Almost certainly, our children will know, and their children will use it as a toy. You’ll say, ‘Come on, little Rohan Jr, stop playing with dark energy and come and have your dinner!’ The knowledge acquisition is happening at an incredibly fast rate. But we have this strange situation where, on the one hand, we have the fastest access to the highest quality information that the human race has ever experienced. And on the other hand, so many people believe crap.
“People believe that mobile phones cause cancer, or that the aspartame in diet drinks gives you cancer, or that you get breast cancer from deodorants, or that the quack of a duck does not echo. That’s all crap, but that’s the power of the anecdote… the power of the anecdote is greater than the power of cold, hard science.”
If there’s one thing that grinds Dr Karl’s gears, it’s disinformation. In Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science, for instance, he slams the producers of antioxidant supplements for packaging and selling a product that is at best useless, and at worst harmful, as a cure-all medicine.
“The people who are trying to take your money by selling you antioxidants are lying to you,” he tells me. “People who do not have four years of training in dietetics are the ones who are spreading this. To become a dietitian, you have to do four years of hard university. In my case, as a medical doctor, I only did eight hours of dietetics, and after eight hours I knew how little I knew! I just knew it was a huge field, and I knew enough to know when I needed to call a dietitian in for advice.
“The word ‘dietitian’ is a protected word; the word ‘nutritionist’ is not. So you get these people who go onto the internet, pay $10 to do a nutrition course, do an online quiz for 10 minutes, and then they get an online certificate that they can print off and hang on the wall and then they call themselves nutritionists. You’ve got all these people writing books on nutrition and food, but have they done the four-year course? No.
“Would you trust a mechanic, if they’d only done a 10 minute course, to work on your fancy new car? No! But would you take their advice about your body? Apparently, yes! That’s crazy, isn’t it?”
Another target of Dr Karl’s scorn is the disinformation campaign around climate change.
“With regards to climate change, there has been a very well-funded and deliberate disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel companies, via the George C Marshall Institute in Washington, DC. It’s well documented in the book Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway. So climate change, global warming, the greenhouse effect… that’s a special case.
“In 1973, the world’s largest insurance company, Munich Re, started factoring climate change, global warming and the greenhouse effect into its premiums. Way back then, the insurance companies accepted the science of global warming, because they could see the costs. In the same way, they were the first to say, ‘Mate, if you smoke cigarettes, you’re going to have to pay more for insurance’. They knew that if you smoked, you would die sooner, so medical insurance should cost smokers more. No hard feelings, it’s just business.
“So there are no deniers of climate science among the insurance companies. They can see it, as clear as day. It took the scientists another 15 years to be fully convinced, because they’ve got a higher burden of proof. In 1988, the climate scientists of the world got together and said, ‘Yes, this is real, we caused it, and it’s going to be bad’. The media of the world was on it, for a while. I have a copy of an eight-page spread that I wrote for a Murdoch newspaper, a centre spread, talking about the greenhouse effect back in 1989. And then the machinery ramped up.
“There’s a document that’s just been released recently that proves ExxonMobil knew the science was real, and accepted the science was real, and then they had to make a policy decision. Will we, number one, accept that the science is real, realise that this is a bad thing to do to the world, and then stop burning carbon? We could remain an energy company, but the energy would have to come from somewhere else, using new and untried methods. We could work it out and stumble through. Or, will we just stick to business as usual, and fund a campaign of massive lies and disinformation? And unfortunately, ExxonMobil, I’m sorry to say, took the second path.
“So when you talk about science literacy, and then you talk about global warming, you have to understand that global warming is a special case. There’s not a massively funded disinformation campaign to say that the quack of a duck does not echo. There’s not a massively funded disinformation campaign to convince people that we never went to the moon. But there is one to deny the science of global warming.”
Unlike those moon landing conspiracy theories, Dr Karl says the impact of the global warming disinformation campaign is having a real impact on our lives.
“If you factor in the positive feedback loops, we’re looking at an ocean level rise of five to seven metres by the end of this century, and yet in Cairns, the hospital and the police station are virtually at sea level, and they’re just building a really expensive casino right on the harbour at ocean level.
“The Dutch, quite clearly, accept the science of global warming, because they’re already building their dykes up five to seven metres higher. They’ve started. In Australia, the capital cities are the only ones that can afford to build the sea walls. Cairns? Coffs Harbour? Anglesea? Forget it. They just have to retreat inland. They don’t have enough citizens paying enough tax to build and then maintain sea walls. They don’t have the population density. So they’ll have to abandon the coastal areas and live inland. And yet because of deliberate misinformation, what could be a minor cost now spread over a long period of time, is going to turn into a massive cost later on.”
It’d be easy to take all of that in and get disheartened. But here’s the thing — in the face of it all, Dr Karl insists that we should be optimistic. We’re getting smarter, and as far as he’s concerned, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
“If you read my 36th book, House of Karls, it talks about the Flynn Effect, where each generation is nine IQ points smarter than the one before it,” he explains.
“Society isn’t getting dumber. Society is changing. The first thing that’s happening to the next generation is that they’re actually getting smarter. The second thing is that they are living in the most peaceful time ever in the history of the human race.
“Now, I can hear you thinking. You’re finding that hard to believe. But if you read the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker, he breaks down the numbers and proves that we’re living in the most peaceful time in our history. In the eighth century, in China, there was a revolution against the Chinese emperor. To put it down, he killed one in every six people alive on Earth in the eighth century. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan created the largest land empire in the history of the human race. To do that, he killed one in every nine people alive on Earth at that time. In the Second World War, they killed one in every 45 people.
“As you come into modern times, we’ve got fewer murders per head of population, fewer people in jail, and slavery’s dropping down. There’s only one country now that legally allows torture to get evidence for court proceedings, and that’s the United States in Guantanamo Bay. They call it enhanced interrogation, it’s torture. And they’re the only country that legally allows it.
“So you might ask, well, how come you think the world is more violent? And the answer is, because of those five words beloved by the media — if it bleeds, it leads. If you’ve got a story about a school library getting a donation of books, or a six car accident happening right outside that library, you’ll go with the one that bleeds. So you think things are bad, but overwhelmingly, we’re in more peaceful times.
“The third factor, besides the increasing IQ of the next generation, and the fact that they’re coming of age in a more peaceful time, the third factor is the changing social interactions via social media. The social networks are changing in new and different ways that we don’t know the import of yet. So, on the one hand, many people don’t even know their own phone number, but they’ve got all of these people that they interact with and there are subtleties in how they interact with them. In some cases they might be quite shallow, but in other cases they might be extremely sensitive.
“So if you put all that together, I’m extremely optimistic about where we’re heading. I think the future’s in great hands.”
Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science is available now through Macmillan Australia.