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Do These Make Sense?

I am currently reading a book (or, more accurately, listening to an audiobook) called “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by science writer, Michael Brooks (the book has quite a lot of overlap with a list made by New Scientist which I blogged about in 2006). As the title suggests, it discusses several phenomena which don’t seem to fit in with the current scientific understanding and I agree with his conclusions to varying degrees.

The author’s overall tone seems to suggest that he thinks that science is too conservative and too reluctant to accept new ideas and therefore is missing out on a lot of potential new discoveries, and that there is a conscious effort to repress new ideas which don’t fit in with the scientific orthodoxy.

But is he right?

Well those points do have a certain amount of truth to them but I think he significantly overstates one side of the argument, either because he just wants to make the cases he chose to cover in his book more interesting, or because he really doesn’t understand the scientific process that well.

There is also the fact that when criticising science we need to say exactly what it is we are talking about. There is no accepted definition of what science is, for a start, and even if there was, all pure science is contaminated by politics, management, and commerce. Do we criticise science the way it should be or the way it is?

Since I criticise religion, democracy, and capitalism for what they are rather than what they should be in some idealised world, I really should apply the same rules to science. So yes, there are huge problems in the way that science is actually done and I’m sure that if it was allowed to progress in a “pure” form the world would be a much better place. But that is about as likely as religion or anything else proceeding in a pure form – approximately zero – so I will discuss what is, not what should be.

All of these points aside, the book (at least so far, because I am less than half way through) does over-state scientific resistance to change just to make its point. One subject, for example – the Pioneer Anomaly – has since been perfectly explained in simple, conventional terms which the book rejected or at least minimised. Note that the book was published 2008, and the anomaly was explained 2012.

That doesn’t mean that the other phenomena will also be explained without making major changes to current scientific theories and it doesn’t mean that science isn’t too resistant to new ideas either, but it does mean that we shouldn’t try to explain something caused by something simple by creating a new fundamental theory (in this case conventional thermal effects were the explanation and a new theory of gravity was unnecessary).

Conservatism is part of science because it’s more effective to only change theories when the evidence is really strong rather than to pursue potentially false lines of evidence and then have to backtrack if that doesn’t work out.

So that’s the big picture. To finish this post I will quickly discuss some of the other things which “don’t make sense” and how seriously I take them…

The missing universe (dark matter and dark energy). Well yes, it is a well-known source of embarrassment that science doesn’t really understand the nature of over 95% of the mass/energy of the universe. But at least the issue is being investigated and several possible explanations are available.

There’s nothing that really “doesn’t make sense” here – it’s more a matter of which of several possible answers is correct (if any because maybe there’s another one not considered yet, although that is unlikely).

Varying constants. The author makes it seem like scientists are so ideologically opposed to varying constants and/or physical laws that they won’t even contemplate the possibility. This is far from the truth. The idea is openly discussed by many physicists and the evidence is taken quite seriously (especially when considering the fine-structure constant).

But I do agree that constants (which as the name suggests are supposed to stay the same) changing over time or space does significantly change our approach to cosmology (in particular).

Cold fusion. This is a fascinating subject because it is such a mix of science, engineering, politics, and reporting. The original experimenters were forced by their university to release their findings in an unnecessarily sensational way. Many attempts at replication failed but others seemed to show positive results. Science politics intervened and generally discredited the whole field. Research has continued since and we still only have negative and inconsistent positive results.

I do have to say that it would be great if cold fusion was real but generally in these situations (when consistent results aren’t produced from apparently identical scientific setups) there is some anomaly or error in the experiment. That is far from certain though and I think further research is quite justified, especially considering the slow progress with hot fusion!

The other topics on the book’s list are: life, the Viking experiments, the Wow! signal, a giant virus, death, sex, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy.

It’s certainly a fascinating mix and I look forward to hearing the rest. Looking at the list I predict there is nothing too extraordinary in many of them but I will reserve judgement until I hear the arguments. I think another blog post will be called for at that time!

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