Sunday, February 21, 2010

Crank Science: Worse than Wrong

There is a popular quote that summarizes the philosophy of scientific modeling:

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” - George E. P. Box (Wikiquote)

One characteristic of pseudo-science is that it tries to focus on the first part when attacking mainstream models while blatantly ignoring the second part of this quote when presenting their own.

What it means in the scientific sense
Models are a key product of scientific research. A model is basically a 'recipe' for other researchers to apply, test, and extend the work. A model also simplifies the task of implementing new science into technologies.  The best models are presented in a mathematical form, as mathematics provides an independent set of rules which can be used for exploring other consequences of a scientific model.

An example of a useful model would certainly be Schrodinger’s equation (Wikipedia).  This equation became important because other researchers could apply, test, and extend this work, using it to understand the structure of atoms and of matter itself.  Initially, much of the work was applied in understanding the spectra of atoms and molecules, a capability that has provided a powerful diagnostic of conditions in the distant universe. But this same equation made semiconductor electronics and lasers possible today. In that sense, Schrodinger's equation built our modern world of microelectronics.

But models are not absolute.

Consider the example of the THEORY of Gravity (and it IS just a theory).
  • Galileo's theory of gravity: All objects fall with the same acceleration, is useful for constructing things close to the Earth's surface, but it becomes measurably wrong at higher altitudes, and speeds. It is wrong for launching an orbiting satellite.
  • Newton's theory of gravity: This revision to Galileo's theory can generate Galileo's theory of gravity close to the Earth's surface, but has the additional advantage that it is useful for computing the behavior of objects much further away, such as orbiting satellites and predicting motions of the planets as well as stars in our galaxy.
  • Einstein's theory of gravity (General Relativity): In the case of weak gravitational fields, such as those created around large masses like the planets and Sun, it generates results identical to Newton's theory, unless you use very precise instruments. The difference between Newton and Einstein's theory gets larger, with larger values of the mass/radius of the object.
Notice that as we move from Galileo's theory of gravity to Einstein's, the theories not only apply to a wider range of conditions, but they also contain the results of the previous, less precise theory. Theories are subject to refinement as our knowledge grows. For another slightly different perspective on this, see Bob Grumbine's “Successive Approximations”.
What it tells us about how and why crank science fails
Crank models are often worse than wrong. They are useless. The advocates of these models are the only ones who can obtain the ‘desired’ results, as they will rely on ad hoc physical assumptions and/or invalid mathematical manipulations. This creates the 'priesthood' mentality of many pseudosciences, where the 'Truth' of a given claim can only come from specific individuals. Such priesthoods are only overthrown by political means. Consider the example of the recent falling out between Answers in Genesis (AiG) and it's Australian counterpart, Creation Ministries International (CMI) (NCSE: Trouble in Paradise) .

In scientific circles, the type of 'priesthood' might appear to exist, and some individuals may intentionally or unintentionally encourage this image. The difference is that in scientific circles, successful models and experiments can overturn that apparent priesthood and the knowledge base is generally available (with effort) for others to develop the expertise.
Crank science emphasizes the problems with mainstream models while ignoring where those mainstream models work.  Meanwhile, crank science ignores cases where their models fail entirely.
Crank science models, in the rare cases when they present one in a form that others can actually use, often have severe problems in cases where we have lots of experimental data. Consider two examples that I have explored:
  • Look at Barry Setterfield's (latest) failed attempt to fix the problems with his model for a changing speed of light. As I note in “Setterfield & c-Decay: “Data and Creation: The ZPE-Plasma Model”, Mr. Setterfield concentrates on his model 'predicting' the value of the speed of light in the past and far from Earth, yet doesn't talk about this model's predictions today, near the Earth, where we can easily test it.  Near the Earth, we see that it predicts a value for the speed of light almost 2,000,000 times larger than the value we actually measure! Why would anyone else use Mr. Setterfield's theory when it clearly generates nonsensical predictions?!
  • The Electric Sun (ES) model claims there are streams of electrons inbound towards the Sun, sufficient to explain the total energy output of the Sun. Yet the ES models don't explain anything about the fluxes and energies of electrons & protons this model requires. We've flown satellites with plasma detectors in this region for over 40 years (see "Video: Sentinels of the Heliosphere"), but have yet to detect inbound particle flows with sufficient energy to power the Sun.  Storms from the Sun, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, threaten the integrity of electrical grids on the Earth, satellites in space, as well as the lives of astronauts in space. However, no one uses the ES model for dealing with these issues since the ES models are incapable of making the necessary predictions on the conditions of such solar storms. Why should anyone use the ES model when the ES supporters themselves try to evade this experimental requirement?
Why would anyone use such models? They tell us nothing about how the universe actually works in even an approximate level, and in that regard, they are totally USELESS.

Galileo's theory of gravity was wrong, yet we still use it for designing structures near the surface of the Earth. Newton's theory of gravity was wrong, yet it is still accurate enough for us to launch and navigate most missions in space.

What can you call a theory that generates NO useful information?

Worse than wrong!


Mr said...

"The Electric Sun (ES) model claims there are streams of electrons inbound towards the Sun, sufficient to explain the total energy output of the Sun. [..] We've flown satellites with plasma detectors in this region for over 40 years, but have yet to detect inbound particle flows with sufficient energy to power the Sun."

Drift current are very difficult to detect, just like electric fields in space.

Consider a hydroelectric power plant, which is "powered" by rainwater falling onto a lake. A water current flow meter submerged in the lake would measure nothing, but might measure other local currents.

This is not to say that this supports the EU model, only that the criticism does not necessarily disprove it.

Mr said...

We've flown satellite for 40 years, and only in 2007, did the Themis satellite "found evidence of magnetic ropes connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the sun". ie. detection is difficult. It took 65 years to confirm Kristian Birkeland's field aligned currents.

The point being that if the surface of the heliosphere acts as a collector for a drift current, it would be almost impossible to detect. A bit like trying to detect the rain falling into a lake that powers a hydroelectric power generator, by placing a current detector in the lake.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

Neither magnetic field lines connecting between the Earth's upper atmosphere and the Sun nor the existence of Birkeland current is evidence that the Sun is powered by external electric currents.

As for drift currents, remember that satellites are always in motion relative to those currents. Like a boat moving through a fluid, charge will build up on the leading edge and be depleted on the trailing edge which can generate a net field.

Satellites are not perfect conductors, so the fields produced by the ambient charges will be non-uniform. Satellite charging has been an issue since the dawn of the space age. Spacecraft charging results from the SCATHA Satellite

Magically undetectable 'drift currents' is not evidence of an externally, electrically-powered Sun.