Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pseudoscience and Scientific "Dogma"

One often hears, "Scientists are afraid to investigate [my pet theory] because it goes against their accepted dogma."  Well, yeah -- if by "dogma" is meant that scientific claims should not be accepted without substantial evidence.  That's the true situation, but of course the speaker means that, although he may have barely made it through 9th grade general science, he is one of the few to understand science as it really is meant to be; one of the few souls brave enough to stare unblinking at a reality full of surprises. 

What such a person does is betray himself as not only arrogant, but also profoundly ignorant.  Such a claim is also a loud and clear warning: Look out for pseudoscience!

Let me give just a few examples to show that genuine science, far from fearing to question its basic assumptions and familiar ideas, is in fact continuously revisiting them on an ongoing basis.
  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Just a few days ago there was an announcement adding to experimental evidence that the original derivation of this principle, and part of the way it is often taught, is wrong.  The gist of it is that there are two ways of stating and thinking about the uncertainty principle, and that the original form given by Heisenberg requires potentially important correction terms, but another form, which was presented shortly afterwards and has both a solid mathematical basis and extensive experimental confirmation, remains correct.
  • The isotropy of space.  From at least Newton onward, it has been assumed that there is no preferred direction in space.  This is brought into question, though, by observations of an "Axis of Evil" in the cosmic microwave background.  There's a decent chance that more detailed subsequent observations will resolve the problem, but in the meantime, theorists are playing around with new ideas about such an axis could have come to be.
  • Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.  This has been tested many times, and so far no deviations from its predictions have been observed.  (Even "dark energy", though poorly understood and itself an example of an open-minded responsiveness to good evidence, fits in as a term Einstein first introduced, then removed.)  However, some predicted effects are difficult to test, hence Gravity Probe B.  The result:  general relativity passes again.
  • Newtonian Dynamics.  Even though quantum mechanics replaces Newtonian physics in the realm of the very small and relativity replaces it in the realm of the very fast or wherever gravity is very strong, for many astrophysical calculations Newton's 3 Laws of Dynamics and Law of Gravity work just fine.  Or do they?  The speeds of stars in galaxies appear to follow a different profile than would be expected for Newtonian gravity and dynamics.  The commonly accepted explanation is "dark matter", but an alternative known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics has been proposed that was also hoped to explain the "Pioneer anomaly", although that anomaly now appears to have a mundane explanation in terms of a thermal recoil force.
  • The rest mass of the photon.  If the rest mass is not exactly zero, then light is not really moving at the universal speed limit; like neutrinos, it is just moving so close to that limit (in our frame of reference) as to be practically indistinguishable from it.  Recent observations though, show that "the mass must be one hundred billion of billions times smaller than the present constraint on the neutrino mass, which is about two electron-volts."
All these are examples from physics, with which I am most familiar, but there are plenty of examples from biology and the other sciences.  If biologists were unwilling to accept startling new evidence, we would not have Homo floresiensis as a newly discovered, very recent close relative, nor would we have the Denisovan humans, who were identified by just a handful of bones and the associated genes, just to name two easy examples.  

How then can anyone say that scientists are stuck rigidly refusing to examine our own assumptions?  Pseudoscientists say this because they want to believe it.  It hurts too much to know that your evidence is found lame and unconvincing by people who not only have the appropriate specialized knowledge, but who also are willing to entertain all kinds of crazy ideas, so long as they are supported by sufficient evidence.

Remember, once again, the list of "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience from Gregory N. Derry: 
  • Static or Randomly Changing Ideas
  • Vague Mechanisms to Acquire Understanding 
  • Loosely Connected Thoughts 
  • Lack of Organized Skepticism 
  • Disregard for Established Results 
If one does not follow science closely enough to see that it is not dogmatic, how can he have regard for established results?  He won't even really know what they are!  How can he have organized skepticism -- he doesn't recognize the genuine article, which allows for "crazy" ideas without immediately endorsing them?  How can his thoughts be other than loosely connected, when they lack the familiarity with the field needed to tie them to each other and to established results?  And so forth. 

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