Thursday, August 03, 2006

Scientific Methods

A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent, unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no one wants to believe. It is guilty, until found effective. ~Edward Teller

Since I started this blog, it seems that many of things I’ve reading lately are pronouncements claiming to overturn or at least mess up existing theories, particularly, but not limited to Einstein’s theories. To wit:

A claim that physical constants have changed over time, and

String theorists’ search for all of those 11 dimensions here and here.

Those are the ones about which I’ve written. There have been more. In fact, a new one just came down the pipe which says the theories involving quasars and black holes are all whack. Instead of black holes, quasars contain – are you ready for this one? – a magnetospheric eternally collapsing object or MECO.

Wasn’t he some guy who did electronic disco music back in the ‘70’s?

Seriously, though a scientist name Rudolph Schild, based on a sample of a set of observations of one, count ‘em, one quasar, has determined that, “The structure of the quasar is not at all what had been theorized.” Further down in the article, some semblance of reason prevails when another scientist notes that other effects could easily cause the effects observed by Schild. Chris Reynolds told the New Scientist, “Especially if you're looking with an optical telescope, which is how these observations were made, you wouldn't see that gas at all.”

This is why making multiple observations or the ability to repeat an experiment independently is so important. It may be that Schild is onto something. Quasars are a long way off, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that astrophysicists have really begun to get any sort of handle on how they work. But, this announcement smacks of a rush to publish.

Scientists, particularly those in university environments, are always under pressure to publish results. Getting grants is very important to any research institution; the more results the institution publishes, the more successful they appear. The more successful they appear, the
more money that comes in.

There is also the precedence issue. Discovering extrasolar planets is now common as dirt. I expect any day to hear about some 12-year-old with a CCD camera reporting finding an entire solar system revolving around some M-class star I’ve never heard of. But, at the outset, before techniques were refined, there were a lot of theories, but no certainty about whether the observations could be made that would be definitive enough to make the claim of planetary discovery stand up.

The story is well-known about a group of U.S. astronomers who were pursuing such a project. They thought they might have something but were taking more observations to try to be sure. In the meantime, a Swiss group trumped them by announcing the first such discovery (around 51 Peg, as I recall). When the U.S. group went back and looked at their data, they saw that, in fact, they had indications in their many readings that verified the Swiss information. The U.S. group had been more cautious, but the Swiss were now being toasted. To their credit, the U.S. planet hunters didn’t go into a sulk. They have since discovered many more planets on their own.

It’s one thing to be premature in releasing a theory, but it’s another to be as nihilistic as scientists seem to have become. One set of data that doesn’t fit General Relativity is touted as evidence of its invalidity, yet no mention is made of the hundreds of experiments and physical observations that have upheld it. When one is taking data at the limits of the observable universe, one should not be quick to make pronouncements until corroboration can be made.

Yet these scientists are rushing to tilt at the Einsteinian windmill.

Recently, the Science Channel showed a program about a recent discover of a theropod skeleton. It was an interesting show because the find was either a juvenile T-rex or, better yet, only the second example of a possible other T-rex species, Nanotyrannis (I hope I have the
spelling right), the only other example of which is a skull. The program’s science was good; many different experts weighed in, with opinions based on the facts available to them. In the end, no clear consensus was achieved, although the votes seemed to favor the juvenile T-rex. Given that very few of those have been found, that would make the discovery just as important as discovering a new species. It was a good program, but it was the advertising that irritated me, with statements about “questioning scientific methods.” In fact, the program showed good scientific technique at work; the experts, including Bob Bakker and Rob Horner, among others, looked at the facts before them and made judgments based on those facts. Their interpretations varied, but that is part of the nature of science. Why? Because they didn’t have enough data, and they recognized that more data was needed.

Similarly, Otto Schaden the discoverer of KV-63 refused to be drawn into idle speculation, despite the best efforts of reporters from all over, including that of the Discovery Channel, which hyped the possibility of discovering the body of King Tut’s mother (I will not say “mummy”) even though news reports had already announced that nothing of the sort had been discovered.

Schaden and the paleontologists showed what good science is about. Apparently, physicists, astrophysicists, and astronomers are getting a little shaky on the concept.

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