Sunday, August 2, 2009

Science and Belief Systems

Note: I've been a little occupied with family issues the past few weeks, which has hindered my posts to this blog. I hope to catch up on some posts over the next few weeks before having to take some time for semi-professional travel. More on that as the details get nailed down.

Several comments in other threads of this blog (link) seem to focus not on the accuracy of the science, but on the belief system of the advocate. Some EU advocates say that anyone opposed to creationism (or in favor of atheism) should be opposed to the Big Bang cosmology because Georges Lemaitre, the first proposer of the Big Bang model, was a priest. I get similar comments from some creationists who view the same Big Bang cosmology as an atheistic model and therefore support some version of Electric Universe.

Such beliefs demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of how science works. Successful science makes predictions which agree with observations or experiments. If a given model meshes with someone's philosophical/theological beliefs, that generally has no bearing on the science itself. (A caveat to this is the occasional possibility where the researcher might claim their theory comes from divine inspiration. History has taught the scientific community that such claims are generally suspect.)

Whether a technology works or not depends on how reliably the underlying science has been applied (consciously or unconsciously) by the designer/builder, not on the belief system of the builder or user. Numerous scientists throughout history made significant contributions to science but had other beliefs that today seem, at the very least, inconsistent with their scientific achievements. Johannes Kepler practiced astrology, but that practice did not damage his analysis of the motions of planets on which his Three Laws of planetary motion are based.

I wonder, do EU advocates avoid getting an MRI because Raymond Damadian, one of the developers, was a creationist? I don't. The fact that Damadian might have believed some nonsense outside his area of expertise seemed to have no bearing on his implementation of the science in developing the technology.

In the long run, the science that succeeds is the science that works, regardless of other beliefs of original discoverer. The best demonstration of that is the fact that science makes technologies that work independent of the belief system of the user. Your cell phone or computer works the same whether you are Christian, Muslim, or atheist.

There is a name for science that depends on the belief system of the practitioner - MAGIC.


spacepoint said...

Indeed, it's hard to believe certain things and only science can prove them. this is the case of space exploration, as well.

Anonymous said...

There's a feature of the voluminous public material presented by proponents of plasma cosmology/electric universe (PC/EU) ideas, across dozens of internet discussion fora and over several years, that puzzled me greatly at first: a lack of any research programme.

Scientists just *love* to think and talk about how their ideas can be tested; competition for research funds is fierce, telescope allocation committees receive proposals for time that exceeds that available by a factor of many, ideas on how to do high quality research in innovative ways abound, ...

PC/EU proponents often talk about the primacy of observations, data, empirical experiments, and so on. So it's natural to conclude that they would welcome the opportunity propose research into their fave ideas, research that would test (and presumably show) the validity of PC/EU models, etc.

Well, it seems such a conclusion is quite wrong.

Over quite a period of time, in many fora, I have asked questions like this: suppose you had a free hand with the Hubble Space Telescope, or any other leading astronomical facility (or any combo), to use exclusively for a week (or a month), what would you observe? Alternatively, suppose you could tap the GRID computing resources of a scale comparable to that used by SETI@Home, what would you do with it? The responses have been underwhelming, to say the least! Now OK, few of the PC/EU proponents actually know much about what an astronomical observation *is*, much less how to take data from the back end of a telescope and process it in order to test a hypothesis ... but they show an almost unanimous lack of interest in discussing possible tests at any level at all (one exception, see below).

This same thing can be seen on the 'official' PC/EU websites; lots of vitriol and venom directed at mainstream scientists, but a near total absence of any hint of a research programme to test PC/EU ideas.

(Perhaps a few words about the papers PC/EU proponent do cite later; in a nutshell, there are very few, they are by a tiny handful of scientists, and they are almost all a decade or more old.)

The exception: Rosetta ("the ESA's comet chaser"); I have read several PC/EU proponents say they expect Rosetta will provide many good tests of their ideas concerning comets ("electric comet"). However, AFAIK, no *quantitative* tests have even been proposed, certainly not in the form of a well-formed hypothesis (e.g. one which has a clear statement of the null hypothesis).

Why is this? Why the apparent complete lack of interest in testing? I think it has to do, partly, with ignorance (very few PC/EU proponents actually know anything about astronomy, plasma physics, or research), but mostly I think it has to do with beliefs ... as with creationists, the vocal PC/EU proponents already *know* they are right, and in any case all there is to know about these ideas has already been written (by Birkeland, Alfvén, Peratt, Scott, and Thornhill).

PS should any reader be interested, I'd be happy to provide substantiation for my comments, in the form of primary source materials.
PPS Lerner, Peratt, and Verschuur are partial exceptions to the above; Scott and Thornhill (and Talbott, Tresman, Dave Smith, MG Mirkin, Anaconda, OilIsMastery, ...) are not.

Anonymous said...

While I don't imagine that inspiration is of a divine source, it seems that much creativity and insight may be the result of the way our brain works. Thoughts are formed in a seriously chaotic fashion, sort of a poll among neurons. A little twist in the process can give us something completely new. Einstein, in his most glorious year, must have suffered several such neural hiccups. A century later, much of his thinking has been demonstrated to be as close to truth as we can determine it to be and underlie our entire communications infrastructure. If not divinely inspired, certainly a divine inspiration.