18 Mar 2005 titus   » (Journeyer)

Violating laws of physics: bad

I just don't understand. OK, so it's a moderately cool article about some of the strange stuff that goes on in science. But it's riddled with nonsensical statements and exhibits a flawed understanding of the scientific method.

For example, on dark matter: "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she [Vera Rubin] says. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle."

Err, first of all, you might want to talk about modifying the gravitational theory of the 20th century rather than the gravitational theory of the 19th century. General relativity, anyone?

update: fzort points out the MOdified Newtonian Dynamics pages, which look pretty reasonable. (IANAP, though.) Still... my point about Occam's razor stands ;).

Second of all, anyone who thinks that modifying the laws of nature is more desirable than discovering a new slot in the current paradigm doesn't understand Occam's Razor.

(These are almost certainly misquotes; I'm sure Vera Rubin is a good scientist who understands what she's doing.)

But the article really takes the pot with its mention of cold fusion and homeopathy. Here's a hint: if your theory requires a change to prevailing paradigms, the burden of proof is on you. This is a point that needs to be emphasized, because it's a simple way to distinguish crackpots from scientists. Crackpots make a few measurements, assert that they've discovered a new paradigm, and then argue about it for the rest of their lives. Scientists make a lot of measurements, assert that there's nothing new but that they still need to explain a few things. Then, at some point, enough different scientists find a hole that there's a general belief in the need for a new theory. Read up on Einstein and the photoelectric effect if you want to see how quantum mechanics went through this process.

Conspiracy theorists point to a few standard tropes as evidence that scientists are part of some gigantic cabal: general acceptance of global warming, general rejection of cold fusion, homeopathy, and creationism. What do all of these things have in common? One commonality -- I've said this before -- is that these areas aren't generating testable hypotheses. In the case of climatology, this is because climate prediction is really effin' hard. In the case of cold fusion, it's because the true believers in cold fusion won't open up their methods to be tested. In the case of creationism, there simply aren't any testable hypotheses. And in the case of homeopathy, negative results simply aren't noticed by the true believers.

I find it almost amusing that people believe scientists are part of some gigantic cabal. The only thing most scientists are united in is the belief in the scientific method. Everything else is up for grabs & hence is the source for unending arguments.

For the proper way to deal with something like cold fusion, check out this article on cavitation and table-top fusion. Yeah, that's right -- the authors actually published their work and are looking for other people to confirm it. It's called "science", folks...

fumingly yours,

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