As it has been said many, many times before, science is about the pursuit of truth and the truth is always a threat to someone. How shall this threat manifest in 2019? No this is not about Brexit!
As readers are probably aware, inquiries by the DCMS Select Committee into Fake News and Disinformation and the S&T Select Committee into Quantum Technologies are ongoing. With DCMS releasing an Interim Report and the S&T report on Quantum Technologies was released on the 6th of December 2018. We are still waiting the government's response, now that the Minister Sam Gyimah, MP for East Surrey, honourably resigned. But how are they entangled?
When seeking to discern disinformation from truth, which can be complicated, it is best to ignore the search for intentions, and concentrate on people and their funding sources. i.e. establish trusted sources. The word “science” comes from the Latin word meaning “to know”, but “News” as information or disinformation is, as we all know, subjective. Consequently, what does it require to be a trusted source? Take the topic of Quantum Radar or as it more commonly known in the technical literature, Quantum Illumination, which along with Hypersonic Missile technology made the news headlines globally in November and December.
Consider first that Electronics World is written by engineering industry “experts” for engineers, engineering managers and product specialists; engaged in what I call “catalogue engineering”: whereby we are seeking a system's perspective of other Black Box components and sub-systems, which we can then design-in or assemble into marketable products. We are capable of knowing what these Black Box contents are at the appropriate abstract level, thus Electronics World is a trusted source.
Whereas, the journal Nature is written by post-graduate researchers to be read by post-graduates worldwide. Its product is the latest breakthrough research, hence these papers take time to digest and absorb. Alas the gestation period of the research is also normally of the order of at least a decade and needs to be monitored. Previously, I have brought readers’ attention to what I consider to be key milestone papers; essentially, I have been motivated to break down silos. Thus, Nature is a trusted source.
Now is the magazine New Scientist a trusted source? It appears to me to be written primarily by “technical” journalists for essentially a non-scientific, non-technical (populist?) audience, including very importantly Members of Parliament. And, of course, readers of The Metro. Therefore, a certain level of not only subjective bias but confirmation bias will accrue due to the dumbing-down process.
Of course, a cynic could say that there is nothing “new” in New Scientist, though I shall skip that aspect and instead draw readers attention to their article “Quantum radar can spot stealth planes” by David Hambling from the 17 November issue, I quote: “without being able to take the lid off what has been shown here, we can't be sure if this is an elaborate hoax”. Indeed! Albeit it appears that Hambling attempts to give China Electronics Technology Group Corporation the benefit of the doubt.
However, what mattered to me was that the “trusted sources” sought for comment were from the University of Surrey and the Royal United Services Institute. So, who gave the quote? Step forward Alan Woodward. Readers already know my views on Surrey's William Webb but what about Surrey's science populariser Alan Woodward? I have no objection to DSTL “taking the lid off” any piece of Chinese Technology but is this an appropriate comment, intended humour aside, especially regarding Surrey's involvement with Huawei and of course the current IP conflict between the US and China? How would Surrey's other clients feel about Woodward doing this to their products?
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