Sunday, November 13, 2011

Is Science Resistant to Novelty? Not Really!

In his recent WSJ column 'Mind and Matter' ('Is That Scientific Heretic a Genius or a Loon?'), p.C2, Nov 12-13, Matt Ridley ponders whether "scientific heretics" have been "persecuted" too often for their "radical ideas". He cites a number of examples including Daniel Schechtman who won a Nobel for the discovery of "quasi-crystals" when he was told earlier (by Linus Pauling) there was no such thing, "only quasi-scientists". Then there was Australian Barry Marshall, who ran a gauntlet of sorts when he hypothesized that bacterial infections caused stomach ulcers.

Then there was Charles Darwin, who postulated evolution by natural selection, and Albert Einstein, who proposed that planets orbit suns not because of a direct pulling action at long range (as Newton had proposed) but because a much larger mass object creates a curvature in space-time about which the smaller mass is constrained to move.

Using all these cases, Ridley then suggests that "science seems strangely resistant to novelty". Well, not really! You see, what an outsider or non-scientist may regard as "strangely resistant to novelty" in fact is the demand for rigor in showing that a new hypothesis is justified in effectively replacing or trumping hundreds of years of established science. Because a replacement of paradigm or model is indeed traumatic, overthrowing the life's work of thousands of dedicated minds, it is not taken lightly.

The issue then is not so much resistance to novelty, as insisting that whatever the "novelty" is it first pass a series of basic tests for falsification and also show how its own predictions enhance our understanding of the aspect of nature under scrutiny.

For example, Darwin early made a number of serious missteps before he was able to forge a coherent and correct theory! The problem was that in some cases, Darwin didn’t logically make the necessary connections that his observations actually disclosed, at the time he made them during his Beagle sojourn to the Galapagos.

Indeed, Darwin was so initially imbued with the creationist perspective that he failed to collect one single species of giant tortoise present in the islands. Fortunately, the occurrence of other species - and their recording- ultimately held away with the assistance of a consummate taxonomic researcher: John Gould - an ornithological expert at the London Zoological Society.

Indeed, had Darwin's mind already been "radicalized" to natural selection, and how adaptations operate within its purview, he'd have easily seen that the variety of beaks displayed among the Galapagos finches was directly traceable to the sort of foods they ate, in the respective islands. In point of fact, four of the fourteen finch species fed on seeds (as finches generally do), and another two species consumed fruits, flesh and flowers of cacti. Seven other finch species were primarily insectivorous, while one fed exclusively on leaves. Thus, from his creationist disadvantage point, it wasn't surprising that Darwin was fooled to the extent of believing some of the birds weren't finches at all.

According to Frank J. Sulloway, in his essay, ‘Why Darwin Rejected Intelligent Design’:

Faced with an absence of critical information to resolve the finches issue, Darwin continued to give a nod to the prevailing creationist assumption that variation within immutable species can lead to new varieties or subspecies that are adapted to local environments

Sulloway goes on to note that:

Darwin returned to England, on October 2, 1836. Three months later, he deposited his Beagle collections of birds with John Gould, the ornithological expert at the London Zoological society.”

He goes on to emphasize it was none other than Gould who “immediately realized the extraordinary nature of Darwin’s Galapagos specimens and analyzed and described them first

In other words, in a real sense, it was Gould who was the original radical thinker here and whose input then radicalized Darwin's!

Based on Gould’s analysis, contained in a full report he published March 1837, Darwin was finally informed that 3 of his 4 mockingbird species were distinct - new to science - and different from all other known mockingbirds. It was at that juncture Darwin found himself confronted by the problem of the origin of species that escaped him while actually in the Galapagos, imbued with his creationist mentality.

It would be no exaggeration to say Darwin was initially stunned by Gould's results. Indeed, if Gould was correct about the mockingbirds it meant that the supposed "barrier" between species had been broken by these birds on a set of isolated islands. Thus, gradual evolution through geographic isolation was the only plausible explanation that fit with the observational record (clarified by Gould, an expert ornithologist)

Darwin was later compelled to write in his Journal of Researches:"Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends."

My point here is that Charles Darwin, contrary to the mythology circulated by those like Ridley, didn't suddenly arise as some instant maverick - like Zeus from Mount Olympus- but he had to be led in that direction by others first, and then re-process his original data to clarify it for himself, that he in fact observed and doumented what he did!

Then there was Albert Einstein, another poor guy who was allegedly initially impeded by the lethargic starched shirts of academe, to hear Ridley tell it. But not so fast! Einstein couldn't even begin to make sense of his own notions until he was able to incorporate non-Euclidean geometry into the picture as well as apply a comprehensive form of advanced mathematics known as tensor analysis (see attached image of Einstein writing one form of a tensor equation, i.e. R_ik - ½Rg_ik= 0 which can be rewritten, R_ik= 0 for the vacuum state, also known as "Ricci flat"). It was only after Einstein expended vast energy in formulating his curvature-tensor equations that HE was able to understand what it was he had accomplished, and could then make it comprehensible to others - including the basis for empirical tests such as the angle of deflection of a star's light passing near the Sun.

Thereby, Newton's theory of gravitation was more superseded in the context of a host of new uses and tests, as opposed to being "overthrown" by a crazed radical. For example, Newton's theory couldn't account for the bending of starlight near gravitating masses, but Einstein's could. Hence, General Relativity was used in these instances.

Neither could Newton's theory account for the solar oblateness (i.e. difference between polar and equatorial diameters), but Einstein's could to within a very good degree (though the Brans-Dicke theory of gravitation is giving some stiff competition). Finally, Newton's theory could say nothing whatever about gravitational lenses and lensing - now being incorporated into more and more distant, cosmological investigation. Einstein's could account for such lensing on the basis of curvature of space-time near gravitating masses.

Again, we see that the alleged sudden appearance of a "heretic" is nonsense! There is no "sudden appearance" because by the time the final hypothesis or theory was presented, the alleged heretic already had to undergo much difficult inner work and mental testing to make it sensible to himself!

When that doesn't happen, then really absurd embarrassments ensue. For example, Pons and Fleischmann's claim of "cold fusion" some 15 years ago, which was merely the result of them not adequately taking into account systematic errors in their apparatus. No one else was ever able to replicate any actual evolution of heat or energy in a lab at room temperature, under those conditions. Again, this shows the importance of moving very slowly and methodically and testing every step of the way. As the CERN team which claimed superluminal neutrinos already is, and which I predict will uncover extraneous sources of error hitherto unconsidered.

Finally, Ridley brings up another alleged "Heretic" in the person of one Henrik Svensmark. According to Ridley:

"In 1997, he suggested that the Sun's magnetic field affects the Earth's climate by shielding the atmopshere against cosmic rays, which would otherwise create or thicken clouds and thereby cool the surface. So he reasoned, a large part of the natural fluctuations ni the climate over recent millennia might reflect variation in solar activity."

But I already skewered the basis for this nonsense in a previous blog:

Which also showed a critical graph (see attached) , bearing a 2000-year record of C14:C12 ratio deviations as been compiled by P.E. Damon ('The Solar Output and Its Variation', The University of Colorado Press, Boulder, 1977) . As solar physicist John Eddy has pointed out:

The gradual fall from left to right (increasing C14/C12 ratio) is…probably not a solar effect but the result of the known, slow decrease in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic moment.[1] exposing the Earth to ever-increased cosmic ray fluxes and increased radiocarbon production.

The sharp upward spike at the modern end of the curve, representing a marked drop in relative radiocarbon, is generally attributed to anthropogenic causes—the mark of increased population and the Industrial Age"

But evidently the Über-radical Svensmark was in such a heated hurry to establish his heresy he didn't bother to examine the work already done on the solar-cosmic ray- climate nexus by Eddy and Damon!

Ridley then continues his pseudo-heretic promotion:

"Dr. Svensmark is treated as a heretic mainly because his theory is thought to hinder the effort to convince people that recent climate variation is largely manmade, not natural, so there is his bias toward resisting the idea"

Actually, that's largely bollocks and the reason is that one part of his theory ( a slowing magnetic cycle or cooler Sun) has already been proven wrong as the Sun ramps up its activity once again. Meanwhile, Svensmark was one of those who erroneously construed the data in a Nature paper by Dr. Noel Keenlyside et al, i..e. that cooling has been occurring since 1997,. and that doesn't put his statistical acumen in much stead.

In addition, as I showed above, the much longer term studies of Damon and Eddy totally refute Svensmark's hypothesis of a cosmic ray-cloud based natural variant of climate change, in the sense of controverting the anthropogenic warming hypothesis, via CO2 - accepted now by more than 97% of the climate scientists of the planet (Eos Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, Vol. 90, No. 3, p. 22) .

Ridley then refers to the recent CERN (CLOUD) studies on cosmic rays and climate variation, and implies that those will finally bear out the great rebel Svensmark's theories. Even Svensmark appears to agree as he said in one recent online interview:

"I welcome the CLOUD results. They basically confirm our own experimental results since 2006, and does so within a larger variation of parameters. It seems to say that ions are fundamental for the nucleation of new aerosols."

But again, I shot this crap down in another blog:

in which I noted, regarding one of the CLOUD team's results :

"Kirkby and his colleagues were nevertheless cautious on the finding as they also reported that the presence of certain atmospheric pollutants, such as H2So4 (which can incept "acid rain"- which appears when water molecules in the atmosphere react with sulphur dioxide or SO2). In that case, seed formation is repressed by up to 1/1000 of those needed to account for cloud seeding. Worse, it's already known that clouds are very poorly parameterized in climate models as a whole. This has led to an ongoing debate over the past 8 years on whether in fact the sign of albedo change is positive or negative. (See e.g. ‘Can Earth’s Albedo and Surface Temperature Increase Together’ in EOS, Vol. 87, No. 4, Jan. 24, 2006, p. 37).

Ridley wages a column bet that based on his work, Svensmark "may yet prove to be a Schechtman".

I'd say, based on what I've seen, it's more likely he'll prove to be a Pons or Fleischmann!

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