Tag Archives: Science

Keep science irrational

By Michael Strevens – Modern science has a whole lot going for it that Ancient Greek or Chinese science did not: advanced technologies for observation and measurement, fast and efficient communication, and well-funded and dedicated institutions for research. It also has, many thinkers have supposed, a superior (if not always flawlessly implemented) ideology, manifested in a concern for objectivity, openness to criticism, and a preference for regimented techniques for discovery, such as randomized, controlled experimentation. I want to add one more item to that list, the innovation that made modern science truly scientific: a certain, highly strategic irrationality.

‘Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth”,’ declared the physicist Richard Feynman in 1963. ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements,’ said Stephen Hawking in 1994. And dipping back a little further in time, we find the 19th-century polymath John Herschel expressing the same thought: ‘To experience we refer, as the only ground of all physical enquiry.’ These are not just personal opinions or propaganda; the principle that only empirical evidence carries weight in scientific argument is widely enforced across the scientific disciplines by scholarly journals, the principal organs of scientific communication. Indeed, it is widely agreed, both in thought and in practice, that science’s exclusive focus on empirical evidence is its greatest strength.

et there is more than a whiff of dogmatism about this exclusivity. Feynman, Hawking, Herschel all insist on it: ‘the sole judge’; ‘all I’m concerned with’; ‘the only ground’. Are they, perhaps, protesting too much? What about other considerations widely considered relevant to assessing scientific hypotheses: theoretical elegance, unity, or even philosophical coherence? Except insofar as such qualities make themselves useful in the prediction and explanation of observable phenomena, they are ruled out of scientific debate, declared unpublishable. It is that unpublishability, that censorship, that makes scientific argument unreasonably narrow. It is what constitutes the irrationality of modern science – and yet also what accounts for its unprecedented success. more>

Universe in a bubble

Maybe we don’t have to speculate about what life is like inside a bubble. It might be the only cosmic reality we know.
By J Richard Gott – The explanation for the accelerating cosmic expansion, surprising as it was at first, was readily available from the theoretical toolbox of physicists. It traced back to an idea from Albert Einstein, called the cosmological constant. Einstein invented it in 1917, as part of a failed attempt to produce a static Universe based on his general theory of relativity. At that time, the data seemed to support such a model.

In 1922, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann showed that relativity in its simplest form, without the cosmological constant, seemed to imply an expanding or contracting Universe. When Hubble’s observations showed conclusively that the Universe was expanding, Einstein abandoned the cosmological constant, but the possibility that it existed never went away.

Then the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître showed that the cosmological constant could be interpreted in a physical way as the vacuum of empty space possessing a finite energy density accompanied by a negative pressure. That idea might sound rather bizarre at first. We are accustomed, after all, to thinking that the vacuum of empty space should have a zero energy density, since it has no matter in it. But suppose empty space had a finite but small energy density – there’s no inherent reason why such a thing could not be possible.

Negative pressure has a repulsive gravitational effect, but at the same time the energy itself has an attractive gravitational effect, since energy is equivalent to mass. (This is the relationship described by E=mc2, another implication of special relativity.) Operating in three directions – left-right, front-back, and up-down – the negative pressure creates repulsive effects three times as potent as the attractive effects of the vacuum energy, making the overall effect repulsive. We call this vacuum energy dark energy, because it produces no light. Dark energy is the widely accepted explanation for why the expansion rate of the Universe is speeding up.

Distant galaxies will flee from us because of the stretching of space between us and them. After a sufficient number of doublings, the space between them and us will be stretching so fast that their light will no longer be able to cross this ever-widening gap to reach us. Distant galaxies will fade from view and we will find ourselves seemingly alone in the visible Universe. more>

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not politics

By Bastiaan T Rutjens – Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science.

How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population?

Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven.

Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. more>

Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it

BOOK REVIEW

The Territories of Science and Religion, Author: Peter Harrison.
Narratives of Secularization, Editor: Peter Harrison.
The Future of Christianity, Author: David Martin.

By Peter Harrison – Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularization – that science would be a secularizing force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods.

The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies.

As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularization is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularization, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularization theory failed at both description and prediction.

The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. more> https://goo.gl/ZjLZJx

The new astrology

BOOK REVIEW

The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, Author: lan Jay Levinovitz.
Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth, Author: Paul Romer.
The Rhetoric of Economics, Author: Deirdre N McCloskey.
Economics as Religion, Author: Robert H Nelson.
Astral Science in Early Imperial China, Author: Daniel P Morgan.
Book of Documents, Author: king Yao.

By lan Jay Levinovitz – Unlike engineers and chemists, economists cannot point to concrete objects – cell phones, plastic – to justify the high valuation of their discipline. Nor, in the case of financial economics and macroeconomics, can they point to the predictive power of their theories.

In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.

The notion that an entire culture – not just a few eccentric financiers – could be bewitched by empty, extravagant theories might seem absurd. How could all those people, all that math, be mistaken?

This was my own feeling as I began investigating mathiness and the shaky foundations of modern economic science. Yet, as a scholar of Chinese religion, it struck me that I’d seen this kind of mistake before, in ancient Chinese attitudes towards the astral sciences.

Back then, governments invested incredible amounts of money in mathematical models of the stars. more> https://goo.gl/tYDpbv

Must science be testable?

BOOK REVIEW

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, Author: Massimo Pigliucci.
Conjectures and Refutations, Author: Karl Popper.

By Massimo Pigliucci – The general theory of relativity is sound science; ‘theories’ of psychoanalysis, as well as Marxist accounts of the unfolding of historical events, are pseudoscience. This was the conclusion reached a number of decades ago by Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science. Popper was interested in what he called the ‘demarcation problem’, or how to make sense of the difference between science and non-science, and in particular science and pseudoscience.

You might have heard of string theory. It’s something that the fundamental physics community has been playing around with for a few decades now, in their pursuit of what Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg grandly called ‘a theory of everything.’

It isn’t really a theory of everything, and in fact, technically, string theory isn’t even a theory, not if by that name one means mature conceptual constructions, such as the theory of evolution, or that of continental drift.

In fact, string theory is better described as a general framework – the most mathematically sophisticated one available at the moment – to resolve a fundamental problem in modern physics: general relativity and quantum mechanics are highly successful scientific theories, and yet, when they are applied to certain problems, like the physics of black holes, or that of the singularity that gave origin to the universe, they give us sharply contrasting predictions. more> http://goo.gl/DAJ33Q

The mind isn’t locked in the brain but extends far beyond it

BOOK REVIEw

Kinds of Minds, Author: Daniel Dennett.

By Keith Frankish – Where is your mind? Where does your thinking occur? Where are your beliefs?

The brainbound view pictures the brain as a powerful executive, planning every aspect of behavior and sending detailed instructions to the muscles.

But, as work in robotics has illustrated, there are more efficient ways of doing things, which nature almost certainly employs.

The more biologically realistic robots perform basic patterns of movement naturally, in virtue of their passive dynamics, without the use of motors and controllers. Intelligent, powered control is then achieved by continuously monitoring and tweaking these bodily processes, sharing the control task between brain and body.

Language is a particularly powerful means of extension and enhancement, serving, in Andy Clark‘s phrase, as scaffolding that allows the biological brain to achieve things it could not do on its own. Linguistic symbols provide new focuses of attention, enabling us to track features of the world we would otherwise have missed, and structured sentences highlight logical and semantic relations, allowing us to develop new, more abstract reasoning procedures (as in long division).

With pen or laptop, we can construct extended patterns of thought and reasoning that we could never formulate with our bare brains. In writing, we are not simply recording our thinking but doing the thinking. (As the physicist Richard Feynman [2] once observed: ‘I actually did the work on the paper.’)

You might want to ask why we should think of minds extending into bodies and artifacts, rather than merely interacting with them. more> https://goo.gl/lFTD3P

After a Century of Searching, We Finally Detected Gravitational Waves

By Liz Kruesi – At the root of gravitational waves is Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, which says that anything with mass warps the very fabric of space-time. When massive objects move, they create distortions in the cosmic fabric, generating gravitational waves. These waves ripple through the universe like sound waves pulsing through the air.

The hunt for gravitational waves began a century ago, with the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

In the mid-1970s, physicists Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. captured extremely convincing evidence that these ripples exist. They measured the time it took for two dense neutron stars—the crushed cores of once-massive stars—to orbit each other. more> http://goo.gl/l2WVRl

Related>

Fluid mechanics suggests alternative to quantum orthodoxy

ScienceDaily – The system by Yves Couder and Emmanuel Fort consists of a bath of fluid vibrating at a rate just below the threshold at which waves would start to form on its surface. A droplet of the same fluid is released above the bath; where it strikes the surface, it causes waves to radiate outward. The droplet then begins moving across the bath, propelled by the very waves it creates.

“This system is undoubtedly quantitatively different from quantum mechanics,” John Bush says.

“It’s also qualitatively different: There are some features of quantum mechanics that we can’t capture, some features of this system that we know aren’t present in quantum mechanics. But are they philosophically distinct?” more> http://tinyurl.com/o4kcmpf

From Galileo to Google: How Big Data Illuminates Human Culture

BOOK REVIEW

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, Authors: Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel.

By Maria Popova – Big data doesn’t comply with the basic premise of the scientific method — rather than eventuating causal relationships borne out of pre-existing hypotheses, it presents a seemingly bottomless pit of correlations awaiting discovery, often through the combination of doggedness and serendipity, an approach diametrically opposed to hypothesis-driven research.

But that, arguably, is exactly what makes big data so alluring — as Stuart Firestein has argued in his fantastic case for why ignorance rather than certitude drives science, modern science could use what the scientific establishment so readily dismisses as “curiosity-driven research” — exploratory, hypothesis-free investigations of processes, relationships, and phenomena. more> http://tinyurl.com/mb2ghss