Michio Kaku is a co-founder of String Theory and currently the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York of City University of New York. He has written a large number of books on a range of topics and has garnered the attention of the public as well as the media for his ease in explaining complex scientific work to the layperson. He is often called upon for media interviews on many matters scientific.
However, in recent weeks I have become a bit disappointed by Kaku’s performance. Due to the recent devastating 9.2 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he has been seen in numerous interviews on TV. Recently he was even on the David Letterman Show. Kaku has attempted to explain the process of earthquakes and tsunami’s, and has weighed in on the continuing crisis with Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis.
What bothers me is how much information he puts out there that just isn’t quite right. It’s not that he’s outright wrong in his explanations, but he just seems to be winging it for the most part, as if he’s not quite sure of what he’s talking about. And it shows. Some of his statements are less than accurate. For example, he compares the Fukushima nuclear plants to Chernobyl, when in fact the two are practically apples & oranges. They are different designs, and failed for different reasons. Chernobyl was a badly designed reactor and the operators did stupid things with it. Fukushima is a well designed system with quakes and tsunami in mind. Unfortunately, no one foresaw an event like what happened on March 11th. How could anyone? It was practically unprecedented in Japan’s recorded history.
There is a well known logical fallacy known as the “appeal to authority“, which basically states that people will tend to trust the words of an authority even when they are not discussing their topic of expertise. Just because someone is an expert in one or even several regimes does not make them an authority on everything else. In this specific case we have a theoretical physicist weighing in on seismology and nuclear technology. Unfortunately, Kaku appears not to have all his facts straight.
There have been previous scientists who have brought science to the masses, notably Carl Sagan. I grew up watching his TV show Cosmos and credit him for getting me interested in all aspects of astronomy as well as science in general. I have had many years to learn science and never have I discovered that anything Sagan said was in error. No, Sagan was not an expert in all things, but he apparently did his homework.
We need more scientific outreach. We need to get people more interested in what science is and what it can do for the public at large. The United States in particular is falling way behind in the sciences due in large part, in my opinion, to a complete misunderstanding of what science *is*. Pseudoscience is taking hold in our classrooms and in the sensationalistic media.
Although it is great to see an accomplished scientist talking to the public on their level, I am left wondering if he’s helping or hurting science. Surely this is an example of scientific outreach which gets people paying attention, yet what good does it do if the information presented isn’t correct?