A small but justifiable rant about international computer phone scammers

In these days of cellphones and social media our landline barely rings. Cool. But when it does, nine times out of ten it’s someone with a strong accent, further clipped with VOIP distortion, purporting to be from Microsoft.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medYup, these barely intelligible strangers insist they have detected a virus on my computer. Of course they want to help me fix it. And of course it’s blatantly not Microsoft. The scam’s been around for years. I’m told these con artists use FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to get you to let them totally control your computer. Yup, your bank details, tax records, medical history – whatever you’ve got there. They can also trash anything they want.

Problem is, I am a science geek. This gives me passable knowledge of what computer OS’s and malware actually do. And I hate phones. Bad combination when someone rings up at dinner time trying to dupe me with computer talk. Fools.

The reality is that (a) Microsoft don’t ring people up, (b) yes, your computer’s identifiable via your internet protocol (IP) address. But only your internet service provider (ISP) has both your phone number and IP data, and if they’ve shared that then – under New Zealand law, certainly – your solicitor’s going to turn that ISP into a pile of pulped dog meat. Finally, (c) Windows doesn’t track viruses or report them. Anti-virus (anti-malware) software does – but as far as I’m aware, all of it will tell you there’s problem unless you’ve told it not to. Certainly, nobody rings you out of the blue.

Tactics I’ve used include:

1. Hanging up instantly. This really is the best.

2. Asking when they think I was born, was it yesterday? (One of them said ‘I do not know your birth date, Sir.’)

3. If I’ve got time I’ll string them out and then disingenuously ask whether the ‘Windows’ key is the same as the ‘Apple’ key. Usually they hang up at this point.

4. I’ll say something in Anglo Saxon. The scammers seem to know these words, too. Sometimes they ring back to tell me off for being rude. But my vocabulary of old Anglo Saxon words is always better than theirs.

Have you ever had these scammers ring through? How have you dealt with them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The paradox of Europe’s high-fat, low heart-disease diets

I am always fascinated by the way science occasionally comes up with ‘insoluble questions’ or ‘paradoxes’. After a while, these tricky queries go away because, it turns out, everybody was barking up a tree to which they had been led by an expert whose ideas had captured peer and public attention.

The Rue de Lafayette one night in 2004

Photo I took of the Rue de Lafayette in central Paris. I scoffed as much high-fat French cuisine as I could get down this boulevard. And it was delicious.

The big one, these days, is the link between high cholesterol and heart disease.  This has been dogma for decades. After the Second World War, US scientists theorised that saturated fats contributed to high cholesterol, hence clogged arteries, and therefore caused heart disease. The idea was enshrined in a US Department of Agriculture guideline in 1980.

Low fat, it seemed, was the way ahead – and it was embraced by the food industry in the US, followed by large parts of the rest of the western world.

Except Europe. They didn’t much change – and traditional French, German and Italian cuisine is awash with saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Yet they suffer less heart disease and are less obese than Americans. What’s more, since 1980 obesity has become a major issue in the United States and other countries that have followed the US low-fat lead, such as New Zealand.

A paradox! Something science can’t explain. Or is it?

The problem is that research often tests only what can be funded, something often framed by commercial priorities. This framework is further shaped by one of the philosophical flaws of western rational thinking; the notion that complex questions can be eventually reduced to single-cause questions and answers.

Reality is far less co-operative. The real world isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even shades of grey. It’s filled with mathematically complex systems that can sometimes settle into states of meta-stability, or which appear to present superficial patterns to initial human observation. An observation framed by the innate human tendency to see patterns in the first instance.

For me, from my philosophical perspective, it’s intriguing that recent research suggests that the link between saturated fat and ischemic (blood-flow related) heart disease is more tenuous than thought. Certainly it’s been well accepted – and was, even fifty years ago when the low-fat message was being developed – that types of cholesterol are utterly vital. If you had none at all in your system, you’d die, because it plays a crucial role in human biochemistry on a number of levels. Cholesterol even makes it possible for you to synthesise Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It’s one of the things humans can produce – your liver actually makes it, for these reasons.

As I understand it, recent studies suggest that the effort to diagnose and fix the problem of ‘heart attacks’ based on a simplistic mid-twentieth century premise – something picked up by much of western society as dogma – has been one of the factors implicated in a new epidemic of health problems. There is evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes (especially Type 2) and other diseases is one symptom of the way carbohydrates were substituted for fatty foods a generation ago, and of the way food manufacturers also compensated for a reduction in saturated fats by adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. Use of corn syrup in the US, for example, is up by 198 percent on 1970 figures.

I’m not a medical doctor. And from the scientific perspective all this demands testing. But the intellectual mechanisms behind this picture seem obvious to me from the principles of logic and philosophy – I learned the latter, incidentally, at post-grad level from Peter Munz, one of only two students of both Karl Popper (the inventor of modern scientific method) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who theorised that language distorts understanding). I am in no doubt that language alone cannot convey pure concept; and I think the onus is on us to extend our understanding through careful reason – which includes being reasonable.

What am I getting at? Start with a premise and an if-then chain of reasoning, and you can build a compelling argument that is watertight of itself – but it doesn’t mean the answer is right. Data may be incomplete; or the interplay of possibilities may not be fully considered.

What follows? A human failing – self-evident smugness, pride in the ‘discovery’, followed by over-compensation that reverses the old thinking without properly considering the lateral issues. Why? Because very few people are equipped to think ‘sideways’, and scientists aren’t exceptions.

Which would be fine if it was confined to academic papers. But it isn’t. Is it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.

According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.

Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to  merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.

I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.

What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’

Quite right, too.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Flying saucers and other aerial crockery

A UFO was caught over the South Island the other week by an Australian film crew. By “UFO” I mean “unidentified object” which was “flying”. We don’t know what it was – and the objects could have been an artefact of the video.

Jupiter rising over Io - a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Needless to say, I am certain they weren’t alien spacecraft, any more than any other UFO is.

I can hear the howling. ‘But the universe is big, surely other planets must have life?’

Sure. Space is enormous.  No doubt life’s emerged elsewhere. But – again – it doesn’t follow that the aliens have developed civilisation, jumped into spacecraft, and flown here. It particularly doesn’t follow that they’ve done so merely to lurk mysteriously on the edge of our vision, violating cows, revealing themselves to lone witnesses on dark country roads, and so on. Or that they’d be big-headed, big-eyed, child-bodied versions of us with an ethical view that fixes the faults of western society.

The fact that lay-people presented with partial evidence can’t explain an observed phenomenon doesn’t prove it’s an alien spaceship. The fact that science can’t explain it from partial data doesn’t, either. That’s false-premise logic.

I’ve seen plenty of weird aerial stuff myself. The best was over Wellington in April 1986, when I spotted a slow-moving fireball parallel to the southern horizon, shedding sparks. I knew what it was. The thing was moving in the direction I’d expect from the usual orbital paths, the only ‘unidentified’ part was whether it was US or Soviet.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

To me the phenomenon of ‘space aliens’ is a product of the way western culture is conditioned to think. The trigger was the mid-twentieth century assumption that Earth was archetypal and that every world capable of supporting life would bear one intelligent species, probably a bipedal hominid. In due course, this would become civilised, space-faring and visit other worlds. Just like Europe’s explorers during the age of exploration.

It is no coincidence that we decided aliens were visiting just as we began to take spaceflight credibly. The idea emerged in June 1947 when US pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine boomerang-shaped objects paralleling his aircraft near Mount Rainier. A journalist misquoted that as ‘saucers’, which promptly became the shape of the interlopers thereafter. The origin of that shape as a journalists’ misquote was rather lost amid the flood of blurred photographs of aerial lampshades that fringe enthusiasts were subsequently able to provide as proof of their own encounters.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. NASA/JPL, public domain.

These 1950s-era aliens came from Mars or Venus and looked like us, only with handy super-powers such as telepathy. Alas, the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s revealed Venus was a runaway greenhouse oven – and Mars was a cold, cratered world without breathable air. Luckily it turned out, after that discovery, that the aliens really came from well-known stars on the school science curriculum, like Aldebaran. Then in 1978 Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the cinema, and the current alien trope followed.

You get the picture.

My take? We have had civilisation for an eye-blink against the age of the Earth. It may only last another eye-blink, by that scale. Who says aliens have the same capability at the same time? They might have flourished and gone a billion years ago. Or their time might be a billion years in the future.

Space is also immense. Who says they’d find us anyway? Or that we could be important? To give that a sense of proportion, our sun’s invisible, without telescopes, from just under 60 light years.* I’ve heard it argued that ‘they’ could hear our transmissions – TV, radio, radar and so on. Actually, we’re just as invisible that way too. In theory I Love Lucy – which began transmission in 1951 – has just reached the planet we photographed, orbiting Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away. Actually our broadcasts, even high-frequency radars, don’t get that far because of the inverse square law, coupled with natural background radio noise. Our stuff’s lost in the static. Yet our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Feel small? You should. And if aliens did arrive, would we recognise them as life? Or be able to communicate? They’re alien, remember. Maybe they’d be too busy talking to their own kind – you know, other algae.

Put another way – sure, we see stuff in the sky we can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicable. Or that ‘aliens’ are among us.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


* Geek time. Muahahahaha. Stellar brightness is measured by magnitude, an inverse scale in which lower is brighter. The true magnitude of a star is its absolute magnitude. But this fades with distance (inverse square law), so its visual magnitude, the brightness we see from a distance, is less. This is known as the apparent magnitude. Any star of apparent magnitude greater than about 6 is invisible to the average naked eye. The distance where the apparent magnitude (m) fades to invisibility can be calculated from the absolute magnitude (M) using the distance modulus equation r = 10<exp>((m-M)/5+1) where r is the distance in parsecs. If you apply that to the Sun, absolute magnitude 4.83, you discover it fades to apparent magnitude 6 at about 57 light years, which is about 0.057 percent the diameter of the galaxy.



The ethics of copying authors’ stuff online

It’s too easy these days to duplicate online material created by somebody else – and which is their intellectual property.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

“Someone whispered to someone else who had a grudge over that issue of your splashing mud on their boots that you were a witch, therefore you are guilty without defence and will burn.”

Corporates have responded by lobbying western governments into making copying a crime that, certainly under New Zealand law, works on a ‘guilt by accusation’ basis, breaking one of the key precepts of western justice in the process. Cases so far brought before the New Zealand Copyright Tribunal have all reflected music copying. Some have been fair cop. But the concern from the ethical viewpoint is that there have been repeated instances where innocent parties were brought before the Tribunal, including a soldier who was in Afghanistan on combat duties when the alleged infringements occurred, back in New Zealand. As another case report shows, if you are wrongly accused, you cannot prove your innocence. It is this situation that is the concern from the ethical viewpoint. We are back, in short, to the moral compass of the Salem witch trials.

Authors’ online material doesn’t seem to get copied in quite the same way. But it raises a slightly different issue, because in this age of self-publishing, authors often post their own material for sale – and copying it without buying is, in effect, stealing directly and personally from them.

Part of my list.

I took this picture of the spines of some of my books. It’s been duplicated by others across the internet, but the copyright is still mine.

Sometimes the author’s stuff is provided free, but even then I find there are misconceptions about the way that works. In my own case, the stuff I post on this blog is provided gratis for people to read and enjoy, providing it is not plagiarised or somebody copies it without crediting me – see the license terms down at the bottom right. I post photos I’ve taken with copyright notice. Some of those images earn income for me elsewhere.

What I am NOT giving away is copyright. Or the right to be associated with my intellectual work. I’ve had my published work occasionally infringed, but so far, my online stuff hasn’t been – shall we say ‘re-purposed’ – by others. It’s been copied, re-pinned, re-blogged and so forth, but politely with credit according to the stated terms.

What I have discovered is that some people who copy stuff have no idea what ‘copyright’ actually means. I often see disclaimers such as ‘No infringement intended, copyright remains with the owners’. Recently, someone pinched 38 of my commercial photos in one go and republished them without asking. I issued a take-down notice. They complied, but told me ‘I just copied them, I didn’t take your copyrights’. Actually, copyright gives the holder of that right power to act when the material is infringed. The infringement is the act of copying without permission (license). So by duplicating and re-posting without license, you’ve infringed.

I’ve also seen occasional infantile ‘holier than thou’ remarks like: ‘I will only accept your criticism for my copying, if you can claim you have never done it yourself’.

I assume the people doing this are twelve year olds who haven’t yet learned another fundamental precept of western society in which it is assumed people can learn from past mistakes, accept they were wrong – and reform. It’s how the western justice system works – and if we lose that principle, as a society, we’re doomed. Is this really where the ‘me’ generation wants to take us?

Have you had problems with your material being infringed? What have you done about it? Or been able to do about it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Helping some guy who was having a heart attack – and thoughts on our duty of care

Last Sunday my wife and I were out for a walk along the Hutt river, which flows into Wellington harbour. It was a pleasant autumn morning. And then we found someone lying at the bottom of the stop-bank.

He looked derelict. He might have been sleeping, or maybe drunk or something. But he didn’t look right, so I ran down the slope and called to him.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.

The Hutt river and its stop banks.

He stuck his head up and for a moment there was nobody in his eyes. He had, he said, just been discharged from hospital. He was on his way home, though the suburb he named was in the opposite direction. Then I saw he still had ECG leads on his chest.

‘I’m going to call an ambulance,’ I said. He didn’t like that.

‘I don’t want to go back,’ he wheezed. ‘Want to help me? Gimme ten bucks and I’ll get a taxi home.’

‘No, you need medical help.’

He didn’t want medical help. After a bit of debate I finally said:

‘Look, I can’t not help you!’

He didn’t look cyanotic, but he was agitated and incoherent, obviously having a cardiac episode. I went back to my wife, told her what was happening, and we called an ambulance. They arrived within five minutes and took him back to hospital. I hope he was OK.

The moment got me thinking about ethics and morality and that sort of thing. We were infringing on his right to be left alone if he demanded it – and he was demanding it. He was pretty aggro about it too, which may have been symptomatic of having a heart attack. Or maybe in his own mind he was tired of life. I don’t know. Certainly, I am sure, he was tired of being in hospital.

But it wasn’t a moral dilemma for me. He was in serious trouble. He was in pain, his life was possibly on the line. There was no decision to make. He had to be helped, and the best way wasn’t to call a taxi and send him home – it was to get medical support. Fast.

These things are not optional.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Of moral compass and our human duty of care

Even after nearly twenty years, I have not quite forgiven the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for a sequence filmed in the Savage Memorial above Auckland harbour: ‘The Wedding of Alcemene’, involving a cheesy 1990s-era CGI monster named Perfidia.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage was arguably New Zealand’s greatest Prime Minister. His government came to power in November 1935, when New Zealand morale stood at its nadir in wake of the Great Depression. New Zealand had already recovered from the direct effects of the downturn. The coalition finance minister of 1933-35, Gordon Coates had engineered it.

But Savage offered something Coates did not – underscored by the first gesture of Savage’s administration. There was a little money left in the government account. Savage and his cabinet promptly distributed the lot to the needy.

That small gesture – bringing Christmas cheer to New Zealand households for the first time in years – was never forgotten by people still demoralised, hungry and desperate. Savage followed it with other initiatives to make sure everyday New Zealanders were fed, clothed and housed – that they did not suffer when beset with misfortune not of their own making.

When challenged over his policies in Parliament – told they were ‘applied madness’ – Savage retorted at once. They were ‘applied Christianity’. And that was how they were received. There were reasons why his picture hung in many households during the late 1930s, alongside that of Christ.

When Savage died in early 1940, the outpouring of national grief was unparallelled.

In the political context his approach was associated with the left; it stood against much of the thinking of the day.

But if we separate Savage’s sentiment from way it was framed politically, we find humanity behind his approach, which stood apart from political considerations. At this level, Savage – and others in his cabinet – were genuinely concerned for the welfare of others.

As a species, we have an unerring ability to intellectualise ourselves into loss of moral compass. History is riddled with it. I see it in universities where – on my experience – bullying has been intellectualised and acculturated to the point where it is integral to academic life, certainly in New Zealand. I see it in attitudes people take to others on the street. I see it in attitudes by commentators. I see it, subtly and insidiously, in TV shows.

We live in the age of the ‘me’ generation, and it seems that all too often our moral compass is led astray by selfishness, unthinking conviction, demanded behaviours, worries over status, ambitions, and by ‘us and them’ thinking in all its forms. Our needs and wants, our insecurities, our greed, our western cult, since the 1980s particularly, of self-centredness.

All these things, and more, blind us to the basic human values of care and kindness. Values that Savage brought to the people of New Zealand when they most needed them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

My hypothesis that English is a loose language

I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.

This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule –  6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.

If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count,  because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.

Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked – creating his theory of gravity.

Neptune. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation (cool, free science software).

Neptune. Discovered by mathematics, thanks to Newton’s theories. A picture I made with Celestia (cool, free science software).

One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.

So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.

And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410