Science is No Better than its Practitioners

Perhaps I am getting grumpy as I age, but I feel that much in science is not right. One place lies in the fallacy ad verecundiam. This is the fallacy of resorting to authority. As the motto of the Royal Society puts it, nullius in verba. Now, nobody expects you to personally check everything, and if someone has measured something and either clearly shows how he/she did it, or it is something that is done reasonably often, then you take their word for it. Thus if I want to know the melting point of benzoic acid I look it up, and know that if the reported value is wrong, someone would have noticed. However, a different problem arises with theory because you cannot measure it. Further, science has got so complicated that any expert is usually an expert in a very narrow field. The net result is that  because things have got so complicated, most scientists find theories too difficult to examine in detail and do defer to experts. In physics, this tends to be because there is a tendency for the theory to descend into obscure mathematics and worse, the proponents seem to believe that mathematics IS the basis of nature. That means there is no need to think of causes. There is another problem, that also drifts over to chemistry, and that is the results of a computer-driven calculation must be right. True, there will be no arithmetical mistake but as was driven into our heads in my early computer lectures: garbage in, garbage out.

This post was sparked by an answer I gave to a chemistry question on Quora. Chemical bonds are usually formed by taking two atoms with a single electron in an orbital. Think of that as a wave that can only have one or two electrons. The reason it can have only two electrons is the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which is a very fundamental principle in physics. If each atom has only one in  such an orbital, they can combine and form a wave with two electrons, and that binds the two atoms. Yes, oversimplified. So the question was, how does phosphorus pentafluoride form. The fluorine atoms have one such unpaired electron each, and the phosphorus has three, and additionally a pair in one wave. Accordingly, you expect phosphorus to form a trifluoride, which it does, but how come the pentafluoride? Without going into too many details, my answer was that the paired electrons are unpaired, one is put into another wave and to make this legitimate, an extra node is placed in the second wave, a process called hybridization. This has been a fairly standard answer in text books.

So, what happened next? I posted that, and also shared it to something called “The Chemistry Space”. A moderator there rejected it, and said he did so because he did not believe it. Computer calculations showed there was no extra node. Eh?? So I replied and asked how this computation got around the Exclusion Principle, then to be additionally annoying I asked how the computation set the constants of integration. If you look at John Pople’s Nobel lecture, you will see he set these constants for hydrocarbons by optimizing the results for 250 different hydrocarbons, but leaving aside the case that simply degenerates into a glorified empirical procedure, for phosphorus pentafluoride there is only one relevant compound. Needless to say, I received no answer, but I find this annoying. Sure, this issue is somewhat trivial, but it highlights the greater problem that some scientists are perfectly happy to hide behind obscure mathematics, or even more obscure computer programming.

It is interesting to consider what a theory should do. First, it should be consistent with what we see. Second, it should encompass as many different types of observation as possible. To show what I mean, in phosphorus pentafluoride example, the method I described can be transferred to other structures of different molecules. That does not make it right, but at least it is not obviously wrong. The problem with a computation is, unless you know the details of how it was carried out, it cannot be applied elsewhere, and interestingly I saw a recent comment in a publication by the Royal Society of Chemistry that computations from a couple of decades ago cannot be checked or used because the details of the code are lost. Oops. A third requirement, in my opinion, is it should assist in understanding what we see, and even lead to a prediction of something new.

Fundamental theories cannot be deduced; the principles have to come from nature. Thus mathematics describes what we see in quantum mechanics, but you could find an alternative mathematical description for anything else nature decided to do, for example, classical mechanics is also fully self-consistent. For relativity, velocities are either additive or they are not, and you can find mathematics either way. The problem then is that if someone draws a wrong premise early, mathematics can be made to fit a lot of other material to it. A major discovery and change of paradigm only occurs if there is a major fault discovered that cannot be papered over.

So, to finish this post in a slightly different way to usual: a challenge. I once wrote a novel, Athene’s Prophecy, in which the main character in the first century was asked by the “Goddess” Athene to prove that the Earth went around the sun. Can you do it, with what could reasonably be seen at the time? The details had already been worked out by Aristarchus of Samos, who also worked out the size and distance of the Moon and Sun, and the huge distances are a possible clue. (Thanks to the limits of his equipment, Aristarchus’ measurements are erroneous, but good enough to show the huge distances.) So there was already a theory that showed it might work. The problem was that the alternative also worked, as shown by Claudius Ptolemy. So you have to show why one is the true one. 

Problems you might encounter are as follows. Aristotle had shown that the Earth cannot rotate. The argument was that if you threw a ball into the air so that when it reached the top of its flight it would be directly above you, when the ball fell to the ground it would be to the east of you. He did it, and it wasn’t, so the Earth does not rotate. (Can you see what is wrong? Hint – the argument implies the conservation of angular momentum, and that is correct.) Further, if the Earth went around the sun, to do so orbital motion involves falling and since heavier things fall faster than light things, the Earth would fall to pieces. Comets may well fall around the Sun. Another point was that since air rises, the cosmos must be full of air, and if the Earth went around the Sun, there would be a continual easterly wind. 

So part of the problem in overturning any theory is first to find out what is wrong with the existing one. Then to assert you are correct, your theory has to do something the other theory cannot do, or show the other theory has something that falsifies it. The point of this challenge is to show by example just how difficult forming a scientific theory actually is, until you hear the answer and then it is easy.

Science Communication and the 2018 Australasian Astrobiology Meeting

Earlier this week I presented a talk at the 2018 Australasian Astrobiology Meeting, with the objective of showing where life might be found elsewhere in the Universe, and as a consequence I shall do a number of posts here to expand on what I thought about this meeting. One presentation that made me think about how to start this series actually came near the end, and the topic included why do scientists write blogs like this for the general public? I thought about this a little, and I think at least part of the answer, at least for me, is to show how science works, and how scientists think. The fact of the matter is that there are a number of topics where the gap between what scientists think and what the general public think is very large. An obvious one is climate change; the presenter came up with a figure that something like 50% of the general public don’t think that carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change while I think the figures she showed were that 98% of scientists are convinced it does. So why is there a difference, and what should be done about it?

In my opinion, there are two major ways to go wrong. The first is to simply take someone else’s word. In these days, you can find someone who will say anything. The problem then is that while it is all very well to say look at the evidence, most of the time the evidence is inaccessible, and even if you overcome that, the average person cannot make head or tail of it. Accordingly, you have to trust someone to interpret it for you. The second way to go wrong is to get swamped with information. The data can be confusing, but the key is to find critical data. This means that when making a decision as to what causes what, you put aside facts that can mean a lot of different things, and concentrate on those that have, at best, one explanation. Now the average person cannot recognize that, but they can recognize whether the “expert” recognizes it. As an example of a critical fact, back to climate change. The fact that I regard as critical is that there was a long-term series of measurements that showed the world’s oceans were receiving a net power input of 0.6 watt per square meter. That may not sound like much, but multiply it over the earth’s ocean area, and it is a rather awful lot of heat.

Another difficulty is that for any given piece of information, either there may be several interpretations for what caused it, or there may be issues assigning significance. As a specific example from the conference, try to answer the question, “Are we alone”? The answer from Seth Shostak, from SETI, is, so far, yes, at least to the extent we have no evidence to the contrary, but of course if you were looking for radio transmissions, Earth would have failed to show signs until about a hundred years ago. There were a number of other reasons given, but one of the points Seth made was a civilization at a modest distance would have to devote a few hundred MW power to send us a signal. Why would they do that? This reminds me of what I wrote in one of my SF novels. The exercise is a waste of time because everyone is listening; listening is cheap but nobody is sending, and simple economics kills the scheme.

As Seth showed, there are an awful lot of reasons why SETI is not finding anything, and that proves nothing. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but merely evidence that you haven’t hit the magic button yet. Which gets me back to scientific arguments. You will hear people say science cannot prove anything. That is rubbish. The second law of thermodynamics proves conclusively that if you put your dinner on the table it won’t spontaneously drop a couple of degrees in temperature as it shoots upwards and smears itself over the ceiling.

As an example of the problems involved with conveying such information, consider what it takes to get a proof? Basically, a theory starts with a statement. There are several forms of this, but the one I prefer is you say, “If theory A is correct, and I do a set of experiments B, under conditions C, and if B and C are very large sets, then theory A will predict a set of results R. You do the experiments and collect a large set of observations O. Now, if there is no element of O that is not an element of R, then your theory is plausible. If the sets are large enough, they are very plausible, but you still have to be careful you have an adequate range of conditions. Thus Newtonian mechanics are correct within a useful range of conditions, but expand that enough and you need either relativity or quantum mechanics. You can, however, prove a theory if you replace “if” in the above with “if and only if”.

Of course, that could be said more simply. You could say a theory is plausible if every time you use it, what you see complies with your theory’s predictions, and you can prove a theory if you can show there is no alternative, although that is usually very difficult. So why do scientists not write in the simpler form? The answer is precision. The example I used above is general so it can be reduced to a simpler form, but sometimes the statements only apply under very special circumstances, and now the qualifiers can make for very turgid prose. The takeaway message now is, while a scientist likes to write in a way that is more precise, if you want to have notice taken, you have to be somewhat less formal. What do you think? Is that right?

Back to the conference, in the case of SETI. Seth will not be proven wrong, ever, because the hypothesis that there are civilizations out there but they are not broadcasting to us in a way we can detect cannot be faulted. So for the next few weeks I shall look more at what I gathered from this conference.

Science and the afterlife.

Science is not about a collection of facts, but rather it is a way of analyzing what we observe. The concept is, if you have a good theory it will predict things, then you can go out, do experiments, and see if you are right. Of course, in general it is not so easy to form a theory without resorting to nature, which means that most theories largely explain what is known. Nevertheless, the objective is to make a limited number of predictions of what we do not know. Someone then goes out and carries out the experiments, tests or whatever and if the theory is correct, the observations are just what the theory predicted. That is great news for the theoretician.

That is all very well, but what happens when there is a phenomenon that cannot be the subject of an experiment. In a previous post (http://wp.me/p2IwTC-6q ) I remarked that my Guidance Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics permitted, but by no means required, life after death. This cannot be experimented on and reported, however there are a number of reports of people who claim to have “almost died” or momentarily died and who have been revived and then given quite strange and explicit stories. What can science say about them?

One comes from a book I was given to read. Written by a pastor Todd Burpo, it tells of what his son, who was just short of four years old at the time, reported after he had nearly died in hospital. The son made several statements, all of which entailed an “out of body experience” and most involved a short visit to heaven to sit on Jesus’ lap. However, two of the descriptions were of more interest to me, because they described how the “out of body” boy saw his parents, each in a different room, and described what they did. In principle, there is no way he could have this information. The story also has a very frustrating element. The boy described the marks on Jesus’ hands, from the crucifixion. The pastor took that as clear evidence, because how would the boy know where the marks were? The most obvious reply is, he lived in a religious house and there probably were images around. Further, and this is the frustrating part, the standard Roman crucifixion did not have nails through the hands, so the boy was wrong, right? The problem is, Jesus did not have a standard crucifixion. What usually happened was that the victim was left on the cross until the flesh had more or less rotted away or had been picked by the crows, then the residue was disposed of, but not given a burial. To cut the body down and give it for burial was never done, except this time. Accordingly, if it were non-standard, it may have been the soldiers put the nails where it would be easier to get them out later. In short the killer evidence essentially ends up as useless. There is then the added complication that if true, Jesus may have given the image the pastor wanted.

The second is also interesting. Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander was in a coma for several days caused by severe bacterial meningitis. During his coma, he too had a vivid journey, first into other rooms, from which he described people’s actions that he had no possibility of knowing about through his physical body, and then into what he knew to be the afterlife. Now he had previously been a skeptic about this, and considered such accounts to be hallucinations, but in his own case his neocortex was non-functional during his coma, and furthermore, he gives nine different scientific reasons why what he experienced cannot be due to such hallucinogens or imagination. Since I am not an expert in brain function, I cannot comment usefully on his analysis. On one hand he is a prominent neurosurgeon, and should be an expert on brain function, so his analysis should be taken seriously, nevertheless, as Richard Feynman remarked about science, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Perhaps the most spectacular accounts have been presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, a psychiatrist. She had noted that if children have this experience, they always see their mother and father if the parent is dead, but never if they are still alive. Christian children often see Jesus; Jewish ones never do. One particularly unusual account came from a woman who described what people were doing trying to resuscitate her after an accident. She claimed to have had this out of body experience and had watched everything. What is unusual about this is the woman was blind; the out of body “her” could see everything, but when she was resuscitated, she reverted to being blind. Another unusual report was from someone who met one of his parents in this “afterlife”, who confirmed being dead. This parent had died only one hour previously, five hundred miles or so away.

At this point we should look at the structure of a scientific proposition. There are two conditional forms for a statement that apply to a proposition under a given set of conditions:
(a) If the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
(b) If and only if the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
The difference lies here. In (a) there may be a multiplicity of different hypotheses that could lead to the observation, such as a hallucination, or a memory dump. This would apply to observations that the person could have recalled or imagined. In (b) there is only one explanation possible, therefore the hypothesis must be correct. Obviously, it is difficult to assert there is only one possible explanation, nevertheless, seeing something in another room when nearly dead seems to only being explained by part of the person (the soul, say) travelling out of the body into the other room.

So, where does this leave us? Essentially, in the position that there can be no proof until you die. Before that it is all a matter of faith. Nevertheless, as I argued, my guidance wave interpretation of quantum mechanics at least makes this possible within the realms of physics, but it does not require it. Accordingly, you either believe or you do not. The one clear fact though, is that if you do believe, it will almost certainly make dying easier, and that in itself is no bad thing.