November 25, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Far-Out Science

The following list of bizarre stories coming from science news outlets is jarring on two fronts: it shows how little scientists understand, and calls into question what counts as science these days.  Some stories illustrate one or the other; some both.

  1. Roar of the aurora aura:  Both Saturn and Mars turned up auroras that are mystifying scientists.  Electromagnetism was pretty much figured out in the 19th century – so they say, but theory did not predict an aurora this large in the area where it was found on Saturn’s north pole.  It didn’t predict the perfect geometric hexagon of cloud formations there either.  On Mars, physicists did not expect the planet’s patchy magnetic field to be strong enough to generate an aurora.
  2. Grape big puzzle:  If the BBC News story is correct, the Cambrian Explosion problem just got worse.  Fossil trackways previously thought to be evidence for Precambrian worms might have been made instead by grape-sized single-celled protozoans moving millimeters per day.  If so, that means there were no bilaterian organisms lighting the fuse for the explosion of life forms to come.
  3. In the beginning, hydrogen:  If atomic hydrogen was the most abundant element coming out of the big bang, why is there so little of it at 11.5 billion light-years?  PhysOrg puzzled over that: “If anything, hydrogen was expected to be more abundant so early in the life of the Universe because it had not yet been consumed by the formation of all the stars and galaxies we know today.”  Was it all plasma back then? the article asked.  If so, what would that do to theories of galaxy evolution?
  4. Wild wild web:  Orb-web spiders go nuts in space, spinning webs in chaotic patterns.  Space.com shows a picture. 
  5. Gut feeling:  There are 10 times more species of micro-organisms in your colon than scientists thought, Science Daily reported.
  6. Secret network:  New Scientist reported on “previously unknown way in which animal cells can communicate with each other.”  A nano-network of tubes apparently provides a path for proteins to move from cell to cell. 
  7. Fuel economy:  Oil may not come from squishing dinosaurs, but from a fungus acting on biomass, reported Live Science about a fungus that is highly efficient at making biofuel directly.  “In fact, it’s so good at turning plant matter into fuel that researchers say their discovery calls into question the whole theory of how crude oil was made by nature in the first place.
  8. Paranoia:  They’re out to get us.  The aliens are everywhere.  The universe is teeming with them.  That was not printed in New Schizophrenic; it was printed in New Scientist.  You don’t even need a habitable zone any more.  Just add water, a little heat, and presto: life.  It doesn’t seem to bother these scientists that there is no empirical evidence for it.
  9. Cool your GW jets:  One of the most forward-looking and futuristic scientists of our age, who has had no trouble imagining life on frozen worlds and aliens able to harvest all the light of their dimming stars in huge spheres, doesn’t buy global warming.  Freeman Dyson, who taught physics for 41 years at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and has received 21 honorary degrees, is unimpressed by the models and methods of the Global Warming consensus, reported Town Topics, a Princeton newsletter.  Dyson thinks the proponents of anthropogenic global warming are “tremendously dogmatic.”  The self-styled rebel warned an audience that “When science gets rich it becomes political.
  10. What’s yanking on my spacetime fabric?  Something’s out there.  We can’t see it and don’t know what it is – but it’s tugging on the universe, said National Geographic News.  The culprits could be anything: “As bizarre as you could imagine—some warped space-time,” the protagonist said.  On the other hand, though, it could be “something dull.”  Whatever it is, finding it was a “great surprise” and would require “explaining the unexplainable.”  There’s hope, though; “Not everyone is ready to rewrite physics just yet.”
  11. An unexpected link?  Are the half-lives of radioactive elements constant?  Science News spent four pages last week examining the possibility that decay rates are influenced by the sun.  The editor even commented on the article; “Maybe radioactivity hasn’t revealed all its mysteries,” he said.  He recounted several instances in the 20th century when consensus views about radioactivity were overthrown.  “To be sure,” Tom Siegfried said, “there’s no reason yet to throw out the nuclear physics textbooks.”  Human error is often the problem – not the laws of physics.  “But you never know.  Radioactivity has a way of revealing some of nature’s best-kept secrets.”
  12. Quantum indeterminism:  Is the whole edifice of quantum physics about to come unglued?  PNAS published a paper by Aage Bohr, the fourth son of Niels Bohr, who with two colleagues is upsetting the atomic world view.  In its place, they offered a geometric world view, “which recognizes the occurrence of events, clicks in counters [as in radioactive decay], coming without a cause, referred to as fortuitous.”  They hastened to explain why this is not the death of science.  But what would a traditional cosmologist or historian of science think of the following:

    Through fortuity, space�time invariance itself thus acquires a hitherto unrecognized role.  Departing from the norms of physical theory, the uncaused click is not a measurement of something, and the reality mirrored in the distributions is the geometry of space time itself, and not a property of an imagined object.  The geometric world view involves only the dimensions of space and time, and the absence of an irreducible dimension of mass is seen as the result of the discovery of new physical phenomena.  Accordingly Planck’s constant has no place in fundamental theory and is seen as a relic of dimensions that have become superfluous.

Considering what scientists have told us is true about some of these things before, how can anyone trust what they are telling us now?  Scientific truth ain’t what it used to be, and maybe science isn’t, either.  If the mission statement of science ever was to follow the evidence where it leads, without bias, toward gaining understanding of the workings of nature, what happened?
    A new book on the history of science reviewed by Thomas F. Gieryn, a sociologist at Indiana University, in Science, 1 may provide insight.  The book is The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation by Steven Shapin (University of Chicago Press, 2008).  Shapin examined the difference between academic science (going on in the research universities) and corporate science (out to make a profit).  Both groups distrust each other; Shapin “is impatient with cultural commentators and academic social theorists who align virtue only with a ‘pure science’ ideal and university-based inquiry and who often treat industrial and entrepreneurial science (or science done in big teams at state facilities) as corruptions of what makes science and scientists ‘good.’”
    The idealized vision of the pure scientist is largely gone, most philosophers of science admit these days.  The ivory tower vs the greed-motivated entrepreneur is too simplistic; “surely reality is somewhere in between,” Gieryn said, agreeing with Shapin.  For instance, university scientists are subject to some of the same pressures and selfish motivations of the corporate researcher, such as being “distracted by teaching and endless committees and where the need to refresh one’s grants speeds up the treadmill as it forces research agendas to align themselves with mandates of funding agencies.”
    What sets a good scientist apart, then?  Shapin called his book a “moral history” of science for a reason.  A prerequisite for good science, regardless of venue, is personal character and morality:

What makes Shapin’s attention to industrial and entrepreneurial research so compelling is how different today’s technoscience looks when contrasted with histories in which pure science in universities becomes the gold standard.  In these other sites of science, Shapin finds the paradox that gives the book its spring.  Research managers at Bell Labs or General Electric judge scientists not only on their impressive credentials and technical skills but also by their personal dispositions for working well in large, variegated, transient, and loosely organized teams.  Venture capitalists must, in the face of massive uncertainties about whether an invention will yield profits, rely on character judgments about the personal trustworthiness and dedication of this particular scientist or engineer, who may differ little from a thousand others in terms of bench skills or academic achievements.  The Scientific Life provokes us to discard worn-out understandings that science outside universities is necessarily aberrant and that the credibility of scientific knowledge no longer depends upon moral judgments about the experts who make reality claims.  In that task, the book succeeds masterfully.

In other words, character counts.


1.  Thomas F. Gieryn, “History of Science: Who Scientists Are Now,” Science, 21 November 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5905, pp. 1189-1190, DOI: 10.1126/science.1166262.

Last month we saw Dyche Mullins say that what sets a good scientist apart is intuition – trusting one’s instincts (10/21/2008).  And then we asked why that makes science any more special than football coaching or prosecuting a case or hunting.  Notice that Gieryn just referred to “experts who make reality claims” (i.e., scientists), but are you convinced by the reality claims in the 12 stories above?  Some of these scientists wouldn’t know reality from Reality TV.  If asked to define reality philosophically, it is doubtful they could defend what they believe as being really real.  They couldn’t tell us where their presuppositions stop and their empiricism begins.  If what they told us yesterday was scientific fact is now obsolete, how are we to trust what they are telling us now?
    A common tactic of the leftist secularist Darwin-worshiping crowd is to call their critics “anti-science.”  That mud won’t stick.  If by science they mean its original intent of “knowledge” gained by honest pursuit of the truth, following the evidence where it leads, then no one could be more pro-science than the Darwin doubters.  They are willing to risk reputation and even livelihood for standing up to dogma masquerading as scientific knowledge.  But if by science the Darwinists are talking about the institutions of ivory-tower elitists who enforce consensus with punishment, then any honest citizen should be anti-that.  Michael Crichton, the best-selling author who died this month, bravely told a group of scientists in 2003 what one of their own would be afraid to say: “There is no such thing as consensus science.  If it’s consensus, it isn’t science.  If it’s science, it isn’t consensus.  Period.”  This lecture, available from Stephen Schneider at Stanford, was a refreshing break from the herd mentality of the academic environment.
    Gieryn and Shapin did not describe good science in terms of its methods, its institutions and its libraries.  They boiled it down to character: personal trustworthiness, honesty, and the ability to make moral judgments.  Doesn’t that apply to every scholarly endeavor?  The same character requirement should apply to the historian, the lawyer (don’t laugh; there are some honest lawyers), the philosopher, the theologian, the architect, the teacher – indeed, to everyone.  Each of us makes truth claims sometimes.  By definition, one cannot pursue truth without honesty.  Did you ever find honesty mentioned in the scientific method?
    Science’s claim to privilege is supposed to depend on its way of acquiring knowledge of the natural world.  As we have seen, though, the word “natural” is slippery and ill-defined (11/09/2008).  Science overlaps with many other fields of inquiry.  The word is broadly applied in areas where it probably does not belong.  The institutions that encapsulate science encapsulate other things, not all of them savory, and some true science occurs outside the capsule.  For instance, when you find a scientist positing entities that cannot be detected even in principle, or punishing a colleague who doesn’t go along with the consensus, or appealing to the Stuff Happens Law to explain something, is that person doing better science than a citizen researcher, just because he or she wears the scientist label or has a degree in science?  A dishonest scientist does not deserve any more respect than a devious lawyer or a shaman.  To be really pro-science, you must be pro-honesty.  Since honesty does not emerge from matter in motion, that rules out many scientists-so-called who have excluded the Source of honesty from their world view.

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