You Can Trust Science! (to Reverse Itself)
Hardly a week goes by without a press release announcing that a common scientific belief is wrong. What does this imply?
The triumphalist view of science is that (1) it is the best method in the world of finding truth, and (2) it is progressive, always getting closer and closer to explaining reality. Look at these news reports and compare the triumphalist view with a realistic view.
Gravity: “We might have been getting it wrong this whole time,” Phys.org writes, about one of the most observable and sensible phenomena everybody experiences on a daily basis. The ones getting it wrong, though, are not people with common sense, but physicists who think they have reality all figured out. “Scientific progress is serendipitous,” says one of the eggheads, in a comment reminiscent of Young’s Law of scientific progress: “All great discoveries are made by mistake.” A corollary adds, “The greater the funding, the longer it takes to make the mistake.”
Cosmology: “New evidence shows that the key assumption made in the discovery of dark energy is in error,” reports Phys.org in another admission of wrongness. Measurements of dark energy depended on type 1A supernovas, with the “assumption that the corrected luminosity of SN Ia through the empirical standardization would not evolve with redshift.” So much for that assumption. How big is this error?
Commenting on the result, Prof. Young-Wook Lee (Yonsei Univ., Seoul), who led the project said, “Quoting Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but I am not sure we have such extraordinary evidence for dark energy. Our result illustrates that dark energy from SN cosmology, which led to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, might be an artifact of a fragile and false assumption.“
Health: “Everything we think we know about drinking water may be wrong,” announces Medical Xpress. Remember the endless appeals to drink water all day, even when you are not thirsty? Now, Dr. Mitchell Rosner at the University of Virginia Department of Medicine claims “there is no evidence that a little bit of dehydration affects anybody’s performance.” Drinking too much water can even be dangerous, he warns.
Pollution: “I have to admit that I was surprised myself with these results,” says an atmospheric scientist in an article on Phys.org about “Red Sea huge source of air pollution, greenhouse gases.” The results were unexpected. “Hydrocarbon gases bubbling from the bottom of the Red Sea are polluting the atmosphere at a rate equivalent to the emissions of some large fossil fuel exporting countries, researchers said Tuesday.” Has anybody gone back to the climate activists with this finding? Greta, did you hear that?
Soil: Another oversight in climate models was announced in Nature Communications. Fatichi et al. say, “Soil structure is an important omission in Earth System Models.” Earth System Models are computer simulations that show how the climate responds to different inputs. Nobody thought till now how soil structure affects the models. Whoops.
Brain size: Evolutionary anthropologists and paleontologists after Darwin routinely compared the intelligence of people groups and supposed human ancestors based on skull capacity. The scientific racism that followed led to discrimination and even genocide in places. Now, Roger Seymour at The Conversation offers a different answer: “How smart were our ancestors? Turns out the answer isn’t in brain size, but blood flow.” Researchers have often assumed increases in intelligence in human ancestors (hominins) occurred as brains grew larger, Seymour says. According to his analysis, as hominid skull size increased, blood flow into the brain increased faster. That, he says, appears to correlate with tool use, fire use and other markers of intelligence. But has Seymour replaced one myth with another myth? What does blood flow have to do with the emergence of abstract reasoning like mathematics, or musical ability, or religious inclinations? If his idea were right, scientists should be able to increase blood flow to rat brains and watch the rats start playing fiddles and solving differential equations.
Brain size: On the same topic, scientists at Michigan State are asking, “Are bigger brains better?” and answering ‘not necessarily.’ Medical Xpress quotes neuroscientists who find that “a larger hippocampus, a curved, seahorse-shaped structure embedded deep in the brain, does not always reliably predict learning and memory abilities in older adults.” And if that is not a big enough shocker, read about the rat with almost no brain that was able to still see, hear, smell and feel. Scientists at Northeastern University were incredulous, reports another news item in Medical Xpress, by rat #R222, “one of nature’s miracles.” This lab rat lived for two years (the equivalent of 70 human years) with remnants of a brain that had collapsed into a pancake-shaped mass on one side of the skull. And yet it sensed its surroundings and ran a maze just like the other rats. When the team lead “looked at the screen,” he said, “what I saw, basically, was a rat without a brain.” What would Paul Broca, who had classified people groups by skull size as a proxy for intelligence, say about these findings?
Overpopulation: Most leftist scientists blame overpopulation for the world’s climate crisis, food shortages and other ills. Heather Alberro doesn’t. At The Conversation, she explains “Why we should be wary of blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis.” Noting that big-name scientists at the recent Davos convention assumed that a climate catastrophe is upon us because there are too many humans on the planet, Alberro reminds readers that the “Population Bomb” of the 1960s never materialized (see the tragic results of that bad idea in the 26 April 2019 entry by Jerry Bergman). But does Alberro get it right this time? She trades one myth for another: capitalism is to blame for inequality and global warming.
On reality: “We don’t know when it began, how big it is, where it came from and where it is going, and we certainly have no clue why it exists.” —New Scientist
Reality: Science doesn’t even know what reality is, according to three writers at New Scientist. Reality, after all, is supposed to be science’s quest, “But the closer we get, the further away it seems,” they moan. “Can we ever get to grips with the true nature of reality?”
It seems so solid and yet, when we examine it closely, it melts away like a mirage. We don’t know when it began, how big it is, where it came from and where it is going, and we certainly have no clue why it exists.
Even the “standard model” of physics “is nowhere near a complete answer.” A natural follow-up question would be: Why trust experts who don’t know how they got here, what exists, why they are here, and where they are going?
Comeback: Those mean ol’ science deniers: At New Scientist, Michael Marshall complains that “Problems in social science are being used to discredit climate science.” He knows that psychology and social science have lost credibility due to the “reproducibility crisis,” but he whimpers that climate scientists don’t deserve to have their reputations tarnished by laymen concluding that science is unreliable. The failed theories reported above, though, do not come from social science, but from the so-called hard sciences. So, if the shoe fits, the saying goes… wear it.
It would be unwarranted to assume that science never makes progress. We know much, much more about genetics and astronomy, for instance, than we did 100 years ago. Most of that progress, though, comes from better tools for observing and collecting data. The assumptions that feed reasoning about explanations for things often comes unraveled by newer observations. And some fields in science do a better job of building reliable explanations than others. Among the worst violators are the Darwinians and origin-of-life circus clowns.
We have no guarantee that another scientific revolution is not around the corner, ready to upset big applecarts. Even the pinnacle of 18th-century triumphalism—Newtonian mechanics—was undermined by Einstein, and is still questioned at cosmic scales where the theory is supposed to provide adequate explanatory power. Even today, cosmologists, befuddled by their own confusing observations, are considering “new physics” or “modified Newtonian mechanics” to account for the phenomena. Meantime, they readily invoke occult forces like dark matter and dark energy, which serve only as placeholders for ignorance.
Perhaps the best thing to expect from science is practical help. Don’t expect explanatory power and truth with a capital T, but if the findings of science can bring us cures to disease, electric power and internet (largely through the work of Joule, Faraday, Maxwell and Kelvin, who were all Christians), be content. Don’t look to scientists for ultimate meaning.
Common sense is not always right, but sometimes it is no worse than expert opinion. Any conclusion that depends on fallible humans must be taken with a grain of salt. That includes science, law, politics, ethics, history, teaching and even preaching. Good ideas are known by their fruits —So taught the one who knows more about science than anybody in the universe.