You won’t believe why scientists like this post

The latest wave of internet click-bait intrigues  me. Apparently there are things ‘scientists’ hate because they can’t explain them.

Pluto, taken with New Horizons' LORRI camera, 13 July 2015. Public domain, NASA/APL/SwRI
You won’t believe that scientists took this photo! Yeah, sure it was by robot – but who built the robot and controlled it? Yah. Pluto, taken with New Horizons’ LORRI camera, 13 July 2015. Public domain, NASA/APL/SwRI

The supposition that ‘scientists’ validate themselves on complete literal knowledge and therefore ‘hate’ what they can’t explain plays on the needs of the credulous. Stupid scientists. It’s so easy to put them in their place. Quite.

The reality for ‘science’ is very different. To me, the term means far more than the vast panoply of endeavours and studies that range from black hole physics to DNA analysis, engineering and so on, all of which have created the technology we rely on to survive today. Science is really a philosophy of thinking, one that complements other philosophies, if we let it. And the unknown and unexplainable merely spurs curiosity.

The funny thing is that a lot of what is presented over ‘the internet’ (aka ‘Facebook’, click-bait sites, etc) as an ‘unexplainable mystery’, in fact, can be very easily explained – the problem is that the people presenting it as a mystery don’t know the science. The logic is ‘I can’t explain it, therefore nobody can’. This mind-set drove a lot of the ‘ancient astronaut’ woo, among much other woo, in the twentieth century.

A friend of mine theorises that it’s a human issue. People like to be able to fit the universe into their heads. Hence the focus on complete literal knowledge. A point tempered, my friend suggests, by the apparent fact that many people have very small heads.

I have to agree.

From the scientific perspective, even ‘something’ that can’t currently be explained doesn’t imply it can’t ever be explained. On the contrary, the essence of science is discovering such things. Sometimes that merely provokes fresh questions: but that’s OK too. And science is also about modifying that understanding if fresh evidence reveals something new.

Back in the seventeenth century, ‘science’ couldn’t explain the transmission of light in vacuum. Did scientists of the day – such as Sir Isaac Newton –  ‘hate’ the question? Of course not. It was there to be answered: and from this emerged the hypothesis of the ‘aether’, an invisible material that permeated everything and allowed light to flow.

Alas, the 1887 experiment by Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley to prove its existence (specifically, the way the aether was ‘dragged’ by the Earth’s movement around the Sun) failed at the first hurdle – because the ‘aether’ didn’t exist. And ‘science’ couldn’t explain why. Um – wooooo? In fact from a scientific perspective this merely meant that a different explanation was needed, and it was found soon enough by George FitzGerald, Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincare and, among others, Albert Einstein. Light – as with all radiation – didn’t need a transmission medium because, as a ‘wavicle’, it transmitted itself.

To me, the way forward is to accept that science is an abstract endeavour, one that’s totally exciting because there’s always something we need to find out. What? How? Let’s go hunting! Does the answer turn out to be another question? Hey – that’s very, very cool.

Maybe the ultimate answer is that we will always be discovering ways of informing our next question.

Actually, that isn’t really a ‘maybe’, given that it’s already been shown – mathematically – that you can’t fully analyse a system of which you are yourself a part.

But that’s OK too. Do we live in a universe which, by nature, drives our sense of wonder? Isn’t that fabulous!


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


20 thoughts on “You won’t believe why scientists like this post

  1. Alas, we have moved on from the age when we knew everything and there was nothing left to learn; an age when the insanity that was Egypt, Greece, and Rome was discarded because it cluttered our minds with thinking; an age when certainty placed Earth at the universe’s center where it belonged; and an age when curiosity came second to knowing your place. Truly, we must leave the desire to know to those who tell us what to know. Alas, the Dark Ages are in our distant past, though many desire them still. (Alas, my sarcasm is running amok. My characters are influencing me.) Excellent post!

    1. Thanks – yes, it’s amazing to think that just 50 years ago, for instance, we were confidently predicting that “all” disease would be conquered by the early 21st century. All? All. Of course that was an artefact of our hopes and the false confidence that we “knew” it all. We didn’t – indeed, the more we learn, the more we find there is to learn.

  2. I watched the Planets again last week, the BBC’s documentary series from 1999. It was updated for 2005, but even a decade on it seems out of touch with advances. It was pretty darned awesome to see how the Voyager took in the giants, though, during the ’70s and those first images of Jupiter are breathtaking. Having watched the series, all I know is I know nothing, although Carolyn Porco’s TED talk is has made me feel more clued in.

    1. It’s amazing how much we’ve learned of late, thanks to Cassino, Galileo and the other probes, and the fantastic outreach programmes from JPL and the rest. And yet the Voyager information is still the latest we have on Uranus and Neptune – something that won’t be updated, if current planning is anything to go by, any time soon. Sigh…

      1. That’s what amazes me, Neptune has only been visited once – back in ’89! Scientists seem pretty convinced there may be life under Europa so, once they’ve drilled through the icy surface there, I expect Earth will be overrun by a horde of rampaging aliens. Not that I’m one for wild assumptions, or anything.

  3. Sometimes the general public’s attitude towards scientists really irks me. If something doesn’t work, go hang a scientist. If a scientist doesn’t know why something happens…yet, then some suggest it’s proof of magic. If scientists say were heading for bad times and it’s our fault for all the carbon emissions, then scientists are accused of a worldwide conspiracy. Honestly, anyone who know more than one scientist would know they couldn’t agree on the shape of the table to plan a conspiracy, much less agree on a conspiracy. I don’t know why scientists aren’t revered as the people who brought us our relatively easy and comfortable life.

    1. Funny, scientists sound just like historians when it comes to ‘agreeing’ on something… 🙂 True, though. I’ve worked with scientists, professionally, at various times – no question about the debates (I was working on a climate change project, funnily enough – I was digging into historical data to fuel the argument… and this was in the 1980s). You’re absolutely right – our modern comforts (and especially antibiotics and the web) were all the result of science. Nobody seems to notice, much.

      1. I can’t speak for historians but I will say that there’s a clue to why scientists so often disagree in what they are disagreeing about: it’s nearly always what’s one step beyond what is known. That’s what scientists are interested in. They don’t talk much about what is established.

        Unfortunately, the peddlers of woo exploit and misrepresent scientific debates, citing them as evidence that science is not agreed. There’s a difference between ‘science’, a method of enquiry that depends on debate to establish the facts and ‘science’, the body of knowledge assembled by scientific enquiry. The peddlers are experts at exploiting the semantic confusion.

        I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting anyone here suffers from that confusion, and the blogpost summarises one of my pet hates. Do you mind if I reblog it?

    1. Of course! And it’s in the ‘how it works’ that a lot of woo emerges… but try to convince what Patrick Moore once called an ‘Independent Thinker’ of the point… 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more about that “not completely explained, therefore fake or magic” attitude. Apart from being annoying, it becomes plain dangerous when it comes to things like climate change.
    EagleAye above is completely right: scientists can never fully agree on anything specifically because they are scientists, because there are always unanswered questions and other theories to explore. That’s what drives science. I guess it also sometimes makes science sound less credible to general public, which prefers final answers given in an authoritative voice.

    1. That dissonance between the reality of science and the expectation of finalised empirical knowledge is how woo gets traction. The fact that research might only produce more questions – and that this is also valid – doesn’t seem to enter the popular mind.

  5. Science is about questions, yes, about informed scepticism, which is why on the other hand it annoys me to no end when certain “scientists” go around making absolute claims about things there is no way to prove or disprove yet. These scientists claim to have the answer, while the right question hasn’t even been asked yet. This is as harmful to good science, if not more harmful, than people peddling woo out of ignorance, don’t you think?

    1. Yes – absolutely. Part of the problem, I think, is that scientists have egoes just like everybody else and not all can step back a bit and abstract the subject. I’ve met a few like that. But I’ve also met a few who would probably make a pretty good emulation of Spock – whose sense of abstraction, as a character, was deliberately written but also a marvellous rendition of how people ‘should’ behave towards the subject – ie: don’t get emotionally involved, step back and look at it as it stands. I think if scientists do that, they don’t run so much risk of having to promote what they are doing as a certainty.

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