Science is a broad, global topic. It has to do with figuring out how and why things work or why they do what they do. Objective facts are not nationalistic, politically partisan, gender-based or in any other way biased one way or the other. You can use facts in a partisan fashion or spin them to support your views when they really don’t, but that’s on you, not the people who actually do the observation or discovery work.
One great definition of science I found is this: the concerted human effort to understand, or understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena and/or experimentation that tries to stimulate natural processes under controlled conditions.
Now because science, like every other thing we do, is carried out by us fallible human beings, it is fraught with errors and mistakes. But that doens’t mean the process itself is bad or corrupt or evil. It means we are. And that means that when we talk about the problems with someone’s faulty science, we should be talking about that specific person or fault, not generalize it all into “science is bad.”
When we get a sweater with a loose thread, we don’t blame the entire subject of knitting or sewing and say it’s stupid and wrong and inherently corrupt and no one who does stiching knows what they are doing. We just know that someone screwed up and we fix the sweater. It’s no different with science.
Now we’re gonna dive in to some science and knowledge stuff that I think you guys are going to find interesting. I got some help from a friend and supporter of the show on this week’s episode. He pointed out some things and gave me some great direction on talking about science knowledge and I wanted to share this with you.
When Alexander, king of Macedon, was young and wasn’t yet called The Great, he had a tutor named Aristotle. For those of you who saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you’ll remember Socrates, aka Socrates, who lived back in the fifth century BC and who famously died drinking the hemlock because he annoyed one-too-many Athenians for corrupting the youth with his crazy religious and polticial ideas. In those days, you didn’t just get a bad review on Yelp if people didn’t like you.
Socrates is remembered for a lot of things, one of them being that he felt that we were born with all of knowledge actually already within us and we only needed to be reminded of it to remember it, mainly by asking us questions that would lead us by their answers down a trail of logic to an inevitable conclusion of truth. This is why asking people questions to get them to see something rather than telling them directly is called the Socratic method.
Plato was Socrates’ most famous student. He split up reality into ultimate reality and phenomena, or the manifestions of the ideal which we can see and hear and sense. So while there might be an ultimate ideal of a triangle which is perfect and unchanging and never flawed, there are manifestations of this ideal in our day-to-day world which could be a little crooked or the angles not quite right or that somehow are not quite as perfect as that ideal. Plato was the first I know of who spoke about this philosophy of knowledge, of how to describe the world around us and to say that there were standards or rules for things which exist outside of our day-to-day experience of them.
Plato also put forward the interesting idea that the physical world strives to be ideal, including all of us. Our souls, according to Plato, are drawn to do good and what is reasonable, which of course is limited only by our knowledge and understanding of things. If we do a bad thing, it is only out of ignorance and requires education, not punishment.
And now getting to Aristotle, he was Plato’s most famous student and he also served the grandfather of Alexander the Great. He tutored young Alexander for four years before going back to Athens and establishing a school of philosophy and pretty much inventing our modern system of logic.
There’s a legend that one day, Aristotle and Alexander went for a walk. As they were strolling through the palace gardens, Alexander asked, “Teacher, your knowledge is so much greater than mine, yet you are unsure about things more often than I am. Why?” Aristotle stopped and drew two concentric circles in the sand with his staff. “The inner circle is your knowledge; the outer circle is mine. It’s easy to see that I have a longer line of contact with the unknown.”
This, of course, is a legend. Diagrams featuring concentric circles, however, are still in wide use today. I’d like to mention one of them. In 1978, James Trefil, a physics professor and an author of popular science books, put forward a useful device for understanding the accumulation of scientific knowledge. His was slightly more complicated than Aristotle’s; it had three concentric circles.
The innermost circle is the core. Core ideas of science have been extensively tested in the past, repeatedly found workable, and thus are not under active scrutiny at present. In natural sciences, for example, core ideas include Newtonian mechanics (three laws of motion and the law of gravity), atomic theory, conservation of energy/matter, and theory of electromagnetism. Core ideas are usually taught in schools and bachelor programs as basics of science.
Now it’s really important to understand that core ideas don’t necessarily remain core forever. They are still open for challenge on the basis of new evidence. Nothing in science is sacred or forever. New discoveries can always influence or even replaced old ones. Some core ideas change shape over time. For example, electricity and magnetism used to be considered separate phenomena until James Clerk Maxwell unified them in 1861. Conservation of matter and conservation of energy also used to be considered separately until Albert Einstein came up with his iconic formula, E = mc2. Other core ideas get challenged, disproved, and thrown out altogether. A well-known example of this is the geocentric model of the universe where people accepted for centuries that the Earth was the center of not just our solar system but the whole universe. Yeah – sounds silly now but only because scientists actually used math and science to disprove that idea so thoroughly that it the geocentric model had to be thrown out.
This is also an important point about our nature. We cling to ideas that don’t necessarily make sense for all kinds of reasons and we are usually very slow to give them up. The progress of ideas over time is almost always a battle and sometimes even a bloody one. It would be great if we were fully logical and rational in our thinking and didn’t let our emotions get in the way, but we do. All of us do and this includes scientists and those who fight against scientists. It’s a part of our nature we can’t really change but we can at least try to recognize that our emotions can get in our way and try to compensate for that.
If you move outwards to the middle circle in our three rings, this represents the frontier of science. This is where modern science happens. Various hypotheses are proposed and tested. The process is discussed at conferences and research seminars and documented in peer-reviewed publications. Two things can happen to a frontier idea. It can either gain acceptance and become part of the core or it can be rejected as incompatible with evidence. Accepted ideas eventually find their way into high school and undergraduate textbooks, but this doesn’t happen overnight; the typical time frame here is measured in decades.
The outermost ring is the fringe. It’s a very strange place populated by ideas that cannot be convincingly proved or disproved. This could happen for a variety of reasons. Some ideas are formulated in a way that makes them hard to test. Others are simply hunches not supported by evidence while others are viewed as implausible because of their perceived incompatibility with the core ideas.
It is important to understand that not all fringe ideas are bad. A fringe idea can be reformulated in a way that allows to test it. Evidence not available today may become available tomorrow. The incompatibility with the core ideas can be perceived rather than actual. Simply put, a fringe idea can develop into a frontier idea. It can even be catapulted straight into the core if it makes non-trivial predictions that are later confirmed.
One of the best known fringe ideas of all time is the Big Bang. Even its name comes from its initially fringe status. The name was coined by the British astrophysicist (and occasional science fiction writer) Fred Hoyle, who detested the idea and wanted to give it a funny name to make it easier to ridicule.
The idea of the Big Bang was born out of disagreement some physicists had with Albert Einstein. Einstein had a preconceived notion of a stationary universe. When he derived a set of equations to describe the state of the universe, he stopped looking for solutions after he found one that describes exactly the state of the universe he envisioned. Other physicists found other solutions implying an expanding universe, but for a while, Einstein was unmoved. A part of the problem was that Einstein’s detractors didn’t have the same stature he did. Alexander Friedmann was a government official from, of all places, Soviet Russia. Georges Lemaître was a part-time lecturer in physics (and a Catholic priest) from Belgium. Einstein corresponded with both, but remained unconvinced. In a face-to-face conversation with Lemaître, Einstein said simply, “Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable”.
Why was Einstein so obstinate? Simply because at the time, there was no observational data that could prove him right or wrong. As long as this remained the case, every physicist was free to subscribe to any mathematically feasible solution of Einstein’s equations.
So what did it take to convince Einstein? Not much, really; only the biggest telescope in the world, the 100-inch Hooker telescope perched on top of Mount Wilson in California. No other instrument in the world had the necessary precision. Also helpful was the fact that the man in charge of the telescope was none other than Edwin Hubble (if the name sounds familiar, it should, but that’s a story for another time). Anyway, as soon as the observational data was in, Einstein changed his mind immediately, and so did most other prominent doubters (Hoyle, however, never accepted it). The Big Bang quickly moved from the fringe to the core.
Now every now and then, strange things happen. Some fringe ideas remain so nebulous that it’s not clear how, or indeed if, they can be tested; others get tested and rejected. But rather than retreat into oblivion, those ideas continue to roam the fringe like zombies, neither dead nor alive. One reason those “zombie ideas” are able to stumble around for ages is the following they enjoy among non-experts. Sometimes, there’s also a formally qualified proponent (an individual or even a group) with a connection to a funding source.
Here’s one example of how a zombie idea survives. Back in mid-1980s, a group of Soviet physicists led by Anatoly Akimov and Gennady Shipov proposed a “torsion field theory”. According to the proponents, the implications of this theory for technological progress could be enormous. At the very least, they said, it was possible to significantly reduce power transmission losses. They also claimed the possibility of faster-than-light travel and communication, anti-gravity, and rejuvenation of human beings. Exactly which Soviet government official they have convinced to fund their efforts is probably forever lost to time, but even a simple chronicle of events would make your head spin. Initially, torsion field research was classified. That was reversed in 1989, and the research program continued in a declassified mode. In 1991, the whole thing was exposed as waste of government funds. Embezzlement charges were a possibility, but fortuitously, the Soviet Union fell apart just in the nick of time. Suddenly, everyone had more important things to do and embezzlement charges never materialized. But corrupt bureaucracies seem to outlive empires, and in 1992, torsion field research began to receive government funding again, this time from the newly formed Russian Ministry of Science. In 1996, the funding source shifted to Russian Ministry of Defense, and in 1997, the whole thing was classified again. After that, it gets a little difficult to trace the happenings, but some time in the 2000s, the effort found a new home in Thailand, where it supposedly operates two research institutes under an umbrella of a private foundation. The exact extent of the effort is unclear, but the idea lives on…
I wanted to throw this stuff out there because I was curious what kind of zombie ideas you guys see still wandering aimlessly around on social media platforms and on the History channel. Believe me, these zombie’s are really hard to kill, kind of like rumors that Corona Beer is actually piss water or that when you buy any products from Proctor and Gamble, you are actually supporting Satan worship. A lot of what we call woo – in other words, bad science or pseudoscience that is used mostly to sell things – falls into the zombie camp.
For example, homeopathy is a totally bullshit alternative medicine practice invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann which promotes that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms when provided in larger doses to healthy people. In other words, let’s say you are going to treat a pollen allergy. You take a tiny bit of pollen and you put it into water and then you dilute with more water to such an extent that you can’t even detect the pollen in the water anymore. I’m talking about a ratio of like one bit of pollen in a lake. Then you have people drink that water and tell them that it will cure their pollen allergy.
This has been disproven over and over and over again to the point that finally in November of this year, the Federal Trade Commission finally had to demand that homeopathic treatment producers put labels on their products stating that there is no scientific evidence that they work. This may or may not result in beheading that particular zombie, but I’m not holding my breath.
I hope this episode was informative and interesting for you. Let me know your feedback in the comments on YouTube or on my sensiblyspeaking.com website. And remember, tis the season to show some love to your favorite podcasts, so check out my Critical Thinking merchandise or join me in my Patreon campaign to support this show and my channel. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next week.