Scientific Ignorance Becomes Apparent
Two reports indicate that what we know we don’t know vastly exceeds what we think we know.
Isaac Newton once said of his monumental scientific work, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Some scientists today err on the pride side, using the oft-repeated phrase “Now we know” this or that. Two recent reports prefer Newton’s assessment.
What creatures inhabit our planet? There are billions of people on this globe, living almost everywhere, even in Antarctica. Humans have driven submarines to the deepest ocean trenches, and sampled the upper atmosphere. They have sampled every portion of every continent. One would think they’ve seen everything by now. Not so; in an article entitled, “What We Know and Don’t Know About Earth’s Missing Biodiversity,” Science Daily said,
Most of the world’s species are still unknown to science although many researchers grappled to address the question of how many species there are on Earth over the recent decades. Estimates of non-microbial diversity on Earth provided by researchers range from 2 million to over 50 million species, with great uncertainties in numbers of insects, fungi, nematodes, and deep-sea organisms.
…and that’s just living species. The fossil record hints of far greater biodiversity in the past, multiplying our ignorance about life on Earth. When we don’t know what is alive today, we can’t know what medicines they might be able to provide (consider, for example, that penicillin was discovered in a fungus). One researcher remarked, “The problem is how one protects an animal that has never been seen.”
What makes the cosmos work? We’ve reported several times that most cosmologists believe that 95% of the universe is composed mysterious, unknown stuff called dark matter and dark energy. But that’s just the unseen unknowns. More profoundly, most of the stuff shining right into our telescopes remains unknown. Another Science Daily article explained,
Our day-to-day lives exist in what physicists would call an electrically neutral environment. Desks, books, chairs and bodies don’t generally carry electricity and they don’t stick to magnets. But life on Earth is substantially different from, well, almost everywhere else. Beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere and extending all the way through interplanetary space, electrified particles dominate the scene. Indeed, 99% of the universe is made of this electrified gas, known as plasma.
This implies that most of what science busies itself with represents 1% of visible reality. Astronomers certainly know about electromagnetic forces, but except for those working in a few specialized fields (such as stellar and planetary magnetospheres), they are wont to talk about the atoms, subatomic particles and gravity (i.e., the other three fundamental forces) of stars and galaxies, ignoring the electromagnetic properties of plasma that are possibly more critical to explaining their nature. Many questions remain about the plasma of our local star, the sun, and the electrical environment around our own planet Earth:
Scientists want to understand not only the origins of electrified particles — possibly from the solar wind constantly streaming off the sun; possibly from an area of Earth’s own outer atmosphere, the ionosphere — but also what mechanisms gives the particles their extreme speed and energy.
The universe at large, however, is filled with extremely energetic processes like supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and black holes, where plasma predominates. A new NASA mission called Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) to be launched in August will try to answer some of the local questions described in the Science Daily article. It’s only a stepping stone to that great ocean of truth that lays undiscovered before us:
While the most immediate practical need for studying the radiation belts is to understand the space weather system near Earth and to protect humans and precious electronics in space from geomagnetic storms, there is another reason scientists are interested in this area. It is the closest place to study the material, plasma, that pervades the entire universe. Understanding this environment so foreign to our own is crucial to understanding the make up of every star and galaxy in outer space.
Embedded within that paragraph is an admission of how little is understood by scientists today about that foreign environment that makes up 99% of visible reality.
Speaking about that leftover 1%, how much of that is really understood? Consider how much remains to be explained about epigenetics, archaeology, health and medicine, cell biology, geology, paleontology – you name it – every field of science within our non-representative, electrically-neutral bubble is riddled with further questions. Then consider the time dimension, both past and future: we have limited access to our past, and no “scientific” access to the future except for educated guesses based on induction (a philosophically vexed kind of logic). Pile on top of that our complete ignorance of the “unknown unknowns” and the “unknowable unknowns” (see Evolution News & Views). It is easy to conclude that scientists know very little at all.
Scientists discover many things that are useful for the present. In terms of understanding reality, though, science is a pacifier that grants false assurance that everything is OK. Those big people behind the glass have things under control. Now suck on your pacifier and stop worrying about it.