In Tim Blair’s latest column he takes a swing at scientists:
I did, however, turn up an intriguing claim, in a non-specialist journal — possibly an old encyclopaedia. There it was stated that cricket balls do not — could not — swing or swerve en route from bowler to batsman.
This did not tally with my own experience, in which balls regularly swung past the bat, striking either the stumps or me … Scientists, according to that half-remembered item, believed what I saw as swing was an optical illusion. …
Yet in the US, a similar science-based belief – that baseballs don’t curve – persisted decades longer.
Ten years ago physics professor Peter J. Brancazio, of Brooklyn College in New York, dealt with the matter in a Popular Mechanics article: “For years, many scientists believed that the curveball was an optical illusion. As we shall see, this is not true.” There followed much science talk demonstrating what any baseballer could tell you — that curveballs do, in fact, curve.
Which was a little different from what you might have heard from schoolteachers in decades prior. As science journalist Jennifer Ouellette wrote last year: “Heck, some of us are old enough to remember teachers who would swear the curve ball was just an optical illusion.”
The non-swinging cricket ball, the non-curving curveball . . . to argue against these claims back then would have been to argue against the consensus.
Well, no. Immediately after the sentences Blair quotes Brancazio writes:
In fact, physicists have long been aware of the fact that a spinning ball curves in flight, going back to Isaac Newton, who wrote a paper on the subject in 1671. In 1852, the German physicist Gustav Magnus revived the topic when he demonstrated in an experiment that when a spinning object moves through a fluid it experiences a sideways force. This phenomenon, now known as the Magnus Effect, is the fundamental principle behind the curved flight of any spinning ball.
It seems pretty clear that no right-minded physicist would ever argue that a curveball is an illusion.
So the scientific consensus has been that spinning balls curve and its been that way since 1852. There are some skeptics (that’s the term the Popular Mechanics article uses) who don’t (or didn’t) accept the consensus, but according to Brancazio the skeptics are not expert in physics. Kind of like the way people who won’t accept the scientific consensus on global warming tend to be those without expertise in climate science.
Far from curve balls being a case where the consensus was wrong, it’s another case where the consensus was right and the skeptics were wrong. And there was conclusive proof back in 1959:
For the better part of the 20th century, the curve ball was a hotly debated topic among fans and players. Many dismissed the ball’s sideward movement as an illusion. But Dizzy Dean, the legendary St. Louis Cardinal pitching ace during the 1930s, knew better. “Ball can’t curve?” countered Dean, leader of the Cards’ famed Gashouse Gang. “Shucks, get behind a tree and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”
In 1959, renowned scientist Lyman Briggs, who served as the third director of today’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, vindicated Dean and other masters of the mound. He did it with the aid of several Washington Senator pitchers and a wind tunnel he built in 1918 for pioneering research on aviation aerodynamics. Four decades later, the then-retired Briggs demonstrated that a thrown ball can curve up to 17 1/2 inches over the 60 feet 6 inches that separate pitcher and batter. The unraveling of the mystery of the curve–the ball’s spin, rather than speed, causes it to break–captured national interest and was reported in papers from coast to coast. For posterity, Briggs published the results of his work in the American Journal of Physics.
Blair’s next example of scientists getting things wrong so therefore they must be wrong about global warming involves me:
I sometimes correspond with a computer scientist who fancies himself an expert on statistics and such. In 2004 he actually bet me $50 that Democrat candidate John Kerry would win that year’s US election. Imagine — a bright, scientific-minded fellow, presumably aware Kerry needed to win at least one southern state to claim the presidency, betting real money on a Democrat victory.
I must confess that I was not aware that Kerry had to win at least one southern state to claim the presidency. In my universe Kerry would have won if he won Ohio. Perhaps that’s a southern state in Blair’s universe. More to the point, I didn’t claim that there was a scientific consensus that Kerry would win, so this isn’t relevant.
Blair then tells us:
Global warming, on the other hand, is merely predicted.
No, it has happened and more is predicted. Just like scientists predict that a spinning ball will curve tomorrow.
And not particularly accurately. British newspapers earlier this year were excited by the prospect of a searingly hot summer, thus proving global warming was on course to destroy us all. A few weeks later — and to bring this column full-circle to a cricketing conclusion — England defeated the West Indies in the second Test at Headingley on a day the BBC reported was the coldest on record for a Test match in the UK; the last Windies wicket fell as temperatures dropped to 7.4c.
Err, one cold day in spring does not prove that the summer won’t be hot. And the scientists aren’t predicting that there will be no more cold days as a result of global warming, just that there will be less of them.