What does the Challenger disaster tell us about the meaning of “evidence”?

I’ve just been watching the excellent new BBC/Open University movie, The Challenger, starring William Hurt, telling the story of how Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman uncovered the truth behind the 1986 space shuttle disaster.

As a former physicist with a passion for science stretching back as far as I can remember, I’m getting increasingly concerned about the way the the meaning of the word “evidence” has been subtly changing over the last 40 odd years, to the point where it now means the opposite of what it originally meant.

Language is, of course, constantly evolving. There are many words which now mean something very different to what they originally meant. For most of human history that’s been a natural, organic process. But ever since Edward Bernays combined the science of crowd psychology with the psychoanalysis of his uncle, Sigmund Freud nearly a hundred years ago now to create the ‘science’ of Propaganda’, the practical applications of Public Relations, Messaging and Language Management have been going from strength to strength.

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Phoenix Dance Theatre – Particle Velocity

The Observer
Luke Jennings

Phoenix dance theatre is on a high. With new purpose-built premises in Leeds, and a charismatic director in Sharon Watson, the 10-strong ensemble is ready to take on the world. On Tuesday night, with a cold wind slicing off the sea, a small but enthusiastic crowd bundled into the Connaught theatre to catch Phoenix’s latest programme, Particle Velocity.

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Reflections on the dance phenomenon at Harehills Middle School by Nadine Senior

by Nadine Senior, dance UK

Nadine Senior, Founder of Northern School of Contemporary Dance, reflects on the incredible success of her work as a dance teacher at Harehills Middle School in the 1970s and 1980s.

How it began

In 1970, I was appointed Head of Physical Education in an all-girls high school in Leeds. Many of the girls in this inner city, multi-cultural school had behavioural problems and one of them eventually burnt the school to the ground, though fortunately no one was hurt. Thereafter, we simply moved into the boys’ school which was on the same campus.

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Back to school?

BBC Leeds

Harehills Middle School has been transformed into a multi-purpose unit catering for start-ups, established businesses and even features a restaurant serving African cuisine.

The landmark, grade II-listed Victorian building on Harehills Road was formerly known as Gipton Board School and Gipton Council School. The old school has been reborn as Shine – a building for start-ups, established businesses and the arts.

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Brunel, Bhagwan, The Beatles and the Collapse of Western Civilization

“I endeavour to understand the current state of railway matters when everyone around seems mad. Stark staring mad. The only sane course is to get out and keep quiet.”

Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

How tragic is that? The man responsible for building so much of Britain’s railway network, driven to a point where the only way he could keep his sanity was to get out of the business entirely and keep his mouth shut.

But I know exactly how he feels. Replace ‘railway’ with ‘television’,  ‘journalism’, or ‘science’ and I’ve come to exactly the same conclusion myself.

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BBC replaces inquisitive, creative people with undistinguished managers in suits

“The BBC, under the successive regimes of John Birt and Greg Dyke, has largely dispensed with the kind of inquisitive, creative, well-educated people who used to run the show and replaced them with undistinguished looking mangers in suits, not to mention a number of equally dim-looking women.

To expect these people suddenly to change their ways and, instead of the rubbish currently on offer, to produce plays and documentaries is absurd.

For a start, they would all have to dismiss themselves, and there’s no hope at all of that happening.”

Richard Ingrams, The Observer, 6 March 2005

Business leaders are the kind of people you would willingly cross live rails in damp socks to avoid

“Apparently, in today’s business environment, it is no longer necessary actually to think, or lead, or have an idea. All that is needed is for someone to say repeatedly that they are a thinker, or a leader, or an ideas person, and then heroically fail to understand any aspect of a traditional causal link, in English, between spoken claim and actual prowess. Words mean precisely how loud you shout them.

But management, its transparent duplicity of language and shallowness of soul and thorough lack of wit, is not just disliked today in Britain, it’s quite actively loathed: and television is reflecting this more and more powerfully.

If I were this week whatever a business leader is, watching the dramatisation of my profession and its own portrayal in reality, I would wonder very hard at the emergence of a British population sadly resigned to daily governance by the kind of people whose personality and morals and intellects a staggering majority of the country would, in the real world, willingly flee by crossing live rails in damp socks.”

Euan Ferguson, The Observer, 20 Feb 2005

30 kg plutonium missing from Sellafield nuclear plant

30 kilos of plutonium went missing from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in 2003/4 according to the BBC News this morning. That’s enough to make 7 atom bombs! So where did it go?

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Technology and experience

“Technology is the art of arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it.”

– Martin Heidegger

So, as technology is based on science, and science is based on empiricism, and empiricism is based on the experience of the senses, then the more technology we have, the less we experience the world, the less empirical science we understand and the less new technology we can create.

Or, put it another way:

“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”

– Karl Marx


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