Language and the art of scepticism

Slashdot recently recognised the interesting possibilities that could be found in an article from The Guardian entitled Fuel's paradise? Power source that turns physics on its head.

The basic premise of the article is that some person who is not a physicist has made a discovery that appears to break the laws of physics. It's important to realise that the person involved may truly have discovered something big and that he has, in fact, managed to trounce the laws of physics. Not being a formally trained economist means that my own economic theories are subject to crankery - but then, they could be right.

Nevertheless, it is important to read beyond the mere words of the Guardian article. When you do that you'll discover that is said paints a rather biased picture. For example:

"Physicists are quite conservative. It's not easy to convince them to change a theory that is accepted for 50 to 60 years. I don't think [Mills's] theory should be supported," said Jan Naudts, a theoretical physicist at the University of Antwerp.

So the first piece of information we gather from the article is that Physicists are "conservative". That is, they don't like change... or does it mean that they are judicial in their analysis? The text makes it clear that it is all about change and resistance to it. There is nothing there about peer review, the scientific method, or anything else. All it seems to say is that Physicists are boring old farts who won't change their minds.

According to Dr Mills, there can be only one explanation: quantum mechanics must be wrong. "We've done a lot of testing. We've got 50 independent validation reports, we've got 65 peer-reviewed journal articles," he said. "We ran into this theoretical resistance and there are some vested interests here. People are very strong and fervent protectors of this [quantum] theory that they use."

Ah! Now we seem to be getting somewhere. Numbers aplenty with 50 somethings and 65 something elses. they even use the phrase "peer reviewed journal articles" without mentioning what these articles are. But then what happens? Something called "theoretical resistance" from "people (who) are very strong and fervent protectors of (the) quantum theory they use." So what do we have here? The scientific establishment appears to be against Dr. Mills. Why? Because what Dr. Mills proposes is bad science? Or is it because they have shadowy vested interests? So the scientific establishment suddenly becomes this massive conspiracy that threatens to derail the march of progress because of their own shortcomings and addictions to power?

But Prof Maas and Randy Booker, a UNC physicist, left under no doubt about Dr Mill's claims. "All of us who are not quantum physicists are looking at Dr Mills's data and we find it very compelling," said Prof Maas. "Dr Booker and I have both put our professional reputations on the line as far as that goes."

Maas and Booker are the enemies in this article. You can tell. "All of us who are not quantum physicists... find (Dr Mills's data) very compelling." In other words, Maas and Booker, experts in quantum physics, are not fooled. But then they say something about professional reputations being put on the line. In the world of science such a statement is quite strong, but in the context of the article it simply appears as though they are protecting their own backs. After all, they need to be protected since they, too, are part of the faceless scientific establishment.

Dr Mills's theory, known as classical quantum mechanics and published in the journal Physics Essays in 2003, has been criticised most publicly by Andreas Rathke of the European Space Agency. In a damning critique published recently in the New Journal of Physics, he argued that Dr Mills's theory was the result of mathematical mistakes.

Dr Mills argues that there are plenty of flaws in Dr Rathke's critique. "His paper's riddled with mistakes. We've had other physicists contact him and say this is embarrassing to the journal and [Dr Rathke] won't respond," said Dr Mills.

One person - an important person who works with the the ESA - thinks its all bunkum. But notice what Dr. Mills says - that this ESA scientist is "embarrassing". Under the guise of being nice and civil, Mills is essentially painting his adversary as the crank. Instead of Mills and his crackpot theory coming under scrutiny, the establishment comes under scrutiny.

My take on this is simple. I am no scientist, but I can analyse language, and the article is full of implicit praise for Dr Mills's brave effort to discover the truth in the face of a conservative, self-interested scientific hegemon. The problem is that, in depicting the establishment as "the enemy", and then depicting Dr Mills as a hero, the article itself is written in a biased and, to be frank, anti-scientific way. Why didn't the article attempt a refutation of Dr Mills's position? The reason was that it was too complex. If the article writer had done a good job at writing such a refutation, the eyes of the readers would nevertheless glaze over as they started reading about which equation is which and why if x=y then y is > z and suddenly the article on the other side of the page becomes more interesting.

Radical new discoveries in Science are rare, but when they do happen, they are rarely dismissed off-hand by the establishment. In geology, the theory of Plate Tectonics was not held generally until the late 1960s, when someone's research proved beyond doubt that previous theories were totally wrong. Within a few years almost every geology department in every respectable university around the world was teaching Plate Tectonics to its students. There was no conspiracy theory then, so why would there be now?

Ah, some might say, what about Galileo? Didn't his discoveries cause consternation and censure? Wasn't his research quashed by those in power? Yes - all of that is true. But you have to remember that the people who acted to correct Galileo's teachings were not scientists, but church leaders, who mistakenly believed that his theories were contrary to the will of God.

Everything about this article screams "crank". I have no idea about physics apart from the belief that the computer I am currently typing into would not exist without the centuries of scientific thought that preceded it. While science is not perfect, you can at least trust that scientists - as a body - respect objectivity, research and understanding another point of view. This means that their opinions have more weight, since their opinions have been formed more on the basis of critical thought than upon mere opinion.

And that, really, is how we should all think. Maybe this is one of God's greatest gifts from the enlightenment - the ability to doubt oneself, do the research, and change one's mind when presented with evidence to the contrary. Imagine if politicians did that - we'd probably be much better off than we are now.

From the Department of Wha' happnin?

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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1 comment:

Dave Lankshear said...

Neil, Neil,
When you cover energy you should always speak to Uncle Dave first. ;-)

A peaknik mate has written a piece, “Do you believe in Fairies?”

It basically agrees with what you are saying. However I have to take issue with the following:-

While science is not perfect, you can at least trust that scientists - as a body - respect objectivity, research and understanding another point of view. This means that their opinions have more weight, since their opinions have been formed more on the basis of critical thought than upon mere opinion.

The excellent book Unnatural Enemies by Dr Kirsten Birkett details the history and philosophy of science, and why science and Christianity are not enemies. One point she makes is that scientists are people just like us, prone to spite, jealously, “old boys clubs” and politics.

Now while science aims to be the objective body that you discuss above, sometimes the truth would be arrived at a lot earlier if there was not so much politics involved. The average scientist might be able to engage a slightly more objective conversation than your average Joe Bloe, but I don’t think it’s helpful to present the scientific community as a beacon of objectivity and rational behaviour.

They are people, just like you and me. They may be people with similar data and training, but come to vastly different conclusions, just like you and me on the Iraq thing. We are both committed evangelical Christians with a background in humanities & arts — yet you wrote “Have evangelicals got blood on their hands” and I responded quite heatedly, thinking that you had upped the ante by making our old political discussion into a gospel issue.

This is the same with scientists. There is an establishment. There are perspective differences that very quickly turn into personal attacks. Just look at the heated peak oil debate between retired oil geologists sounding the alarm about peak oil, and the younger generation working for government departments like the USGS. These are quite scholarly people, but some of the accusations flying around are not. And this is just one example, I can’t remember the examples Dr Birkett quoted.

Ultimately scientific truth will become apparent if a problem is worked on for long enough. Yet because science is made up of people, science can be objective but often the scientists are not.

By far the most interesting item in that article was the last line.

A wave farm just a few hundred metres across could power 62,000 homes.

Really? Wow. Where, and by whom? I thought wave power was far more diffuse than that. If you ever get an informed response, please let me know.