Rescuing Theories from the Evidence

Rescuing Theories from the Evidence

first_imgIf you believed what scientists were saying 5, 10, or 20 years ago about the march of evolution through time, be prepared to reset your clocks or think outside the box.  Things didn’t happen that way, some recent stories claim.  Documentaries based on the old stories may need to be scrapped.  But since we trusted the leading scientists then, can we believe what they are telling us now?  This set proceeds from molecules to man, looking at evolutionary theories in four different branches of science:Cosmology: Imaging cosmic ghosts:  Science Daily reported the “Most Distant Galaxy Candidate Yet Seen: Hubble Sees Farther Back in Time Than Ever Before.”  The new (temporary) record-holder is said to be 13.2 billion light-years away, 150 light-years beyond the previous record-holder.  According to the standard cosmological timeline, it was shining only 450 million years after the big bang.  A co-author of the paper in Nature announcing the find said, “We are thrilled to have discovered this galaxy, but we’re equally surprised to have found only one.”  What does that mean?  “This tells us that the universe was changing very rapidly in early times.”  But if they did not predict the surprising finding, is it legitimate to alter the theory to keep it from being falsified?  The astronomer remarked, “This is an astonishing increase in such a short period, happening in just 1% of the age of the universe.”    This galaxy has a redshift of z=10, but redshifts of 15 or higher are theoretically possible.  In regions beyond this galaxy, theory predicts earlier stars were made of pure hydrogen – so-called Population III stars – before heavy elements had been cooked inside the first generation stars, because only hydrogen and helium atoms emerged from the particle soup of the big bang.  (Population III stars have never been observed.)  “Will we ever glimpse the universe’s first stars?” New Scientist asked.  A probing question; certainly; the answer is that even with the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) the first stars may be undetectable: “The earliest galaxies may be too distant and dim to see with JWST.”  Since science is supposed to be founded on evidence, a follow-up question might be: then how do we know the theoretical entities ever existed?  For all we know, the oldest observable stars are the oldest stars.    Dating stars and galaxies assumes we understand time and clocks.  Space.com rattled reader’s imaginations with the headline, “For Fully Mature Black Holes, Time Stands Still.”  How old, then, is a black hole?  The answer may depend entirely on your observing platform.  Whatever the answer might be, physicists can’t even approach the question: “It is really beyond the physics we know,” Juan Antonio Valiente Kroon [mathematician at Queen Mary, University of London] admitted.  “To understand what happens inside a black hole, we need to invent new physics.”  But if man invents physics, how does he know when he has the ultimate physics?  Newton thought he had it; Einstein thought he had it….Planetary Science: What to do with the body that won’t die:  “Geophysicists expected this little world to be a lump of ice, cold, dead, and uninteresting,” said Dennis Matson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and former project scientist of the Cassini mission.  “Boy, were we surprised!”  He added, later, “This discovery resets our clocks!” in a press release on PhysOrg.  Nevertheless, the astronomers are convinced that this little moon is 4.5 billion years old.  Could it really have been active that long?    There are several ways to rescue this theory in crisis.  One is to play with models.  The Cassini scientists did find salt in the plume particles.  A new model suggests the existence of a fizzy ocean under the icy crust: “The model he and his colleagues propose suggests that gasses dissolved in water deep below the surface form bubbles,” the article explained, contradicting conclusions by Nimmo and Roberts in 2008 (03/25/2008).  Another technique is analogy: “Since the density of the resulting ‘sparkling water’ is less than that of the ice, the liquid ascends quickly up through the ice to the surface.”  Who wouldn’t be tempted by visions of sparkling soda to be attracted to such a model?    We still, however, haven’t heard how Enceladus could be serving sparkling soda for 4.5 billion years.  Larry Esposito recognized this: “Where’s the heat coming from on this tiny body?” he wondered.  So the next strategy is to make contributions: “We think tidal heating could be contributing.”  Unfortunately, the contribution does not appear to be anywhere near sufficient to pay the heating bill (see 08/04/2007, 03/13/2007).    When all else fails, there’s distraction: “It’s clear now that, whatever is producing the heat, Enceladus meets many requirements for life,” Esposito continued (cf. 03/26/2008).  “Whatever” has turned the reader’s attention toward something more sexy.  The brief excursion into astrobiology was followed by the admission, “No one knows for sure what’s going on under the ice, but it seems this little moon has quite a story to tell: erupting jets, an underground ocean, the possibility for life.”    A final point of agreement: “And they thought this place was dull.”  True; watching a theory in crisis being rescued is anything but dull.Paleontology: Twiddling dinosaur extinction:  “University of Alberta researchers determined that a fossilized dinosaur bone found in New Mexico confounds the long established paradigm that the age of dinosaurs ended between 65.5 and 66 million years ago.”  Sounds like trouble.  What happened?  According to Science Daily, a hadrosaur bone was dated at 64.8 million years old.  That seems old, but not old enough.  “That means this particular plant eater was alive about 700,000 years after the mass extinction event many paleontologists believe wiped all non-avian dinosaurs off the face of earth, forever.”  (Avian dinosaurs are, in current taxonomic parlance, the birds.)    The good news was that uranium-lead dating appeared to confirm the general time period for the strata in which the femur was embedded.  The bad news was this problem of dinosaurs surviving a wipeout.  Believers in the dinosaur dating story may have not been aware of these problems stated in the article:Currently, paleontologists date dinosaur fossils using a technique called relative chronology.  Where possible, a fossil’s age is estimated relative to the known depositional age of a layer of sediment in which it was found or constrained by the known depositional ages of layers above and below the fossil-bearing horizon.  However, obtaining accurate depositional ages for sedimentary rocks is very difficult and as a consequence the depositional age of most fossil horizons is poorly constrained.That paragraph went on to say that fossils can drift from their original positions in the sediments and give false impressions of their age (called reworking).  The U of Alberta researchers feel that their direct radiometric dating increased confidence in the timeline: “The researchers say their direct-dating method precludes the reworking process.”    Whether accurate or not, the date raises this problem of dinosaurs surviving a global extinction event at the K-T boundary (Cretaceous-Tertiary), whatever caused it.  “It’s commonly believed debris from a giant meteorite impact blocked out the Sun, causing extreme climate conditions and killing vegetation worldwide.”  Enough vegetation must have survived, though, to keep mammals, birds, worms, butterflies, and many more delicate creatures carrying on as if nothing happened.    The press release offered a theory-rescuing device: “it’s possible that in some areas the vegetation wasn’t wiped out and a number of the hadrosaur species survived.”  But if so, wouldn’t they have survived to the present, along with all the mammals and butterflies?  Does another ad hoc rescue device, a second extinction just for these hadrosaurs, have to be added?  Don’t reset the clock just yet.  The article ended, “Heaman and his colleagues believe if their new uranium-lead dating technique bears out on more fossil samples then the KT extinction paradigm and the end of the dinosaurs will have to be revised.”  Bottom line: stay tuned for the next paradigm shift.Paleoanthropology: Out of “Out of Africa”:  Read this MSNBC report on another paradigm shift: the story of early man’s alleged migration “Out of Africa” has been shaken up – again (12/29/2010, 10/28/2010, 06/03/2009 bullet 3, 11/24/2006, 09/01/2006, 01/24/2006).  Stone tools found in Arabia are said to be up to twice as old (100,000 to 125,000 years) as earlier claims about when humans were thought to have moved north out of their African Eden (60,000 years ago; 10/28/2010).    But several other curiosities are evident in the article: (a) the people (hominids? Neanderthals? modern humans?) who migrated would have had to build boats to cross the 0.5 to 2.5 mile channel at the south end of the Red Sea.  (b) The tools look “primitive,” in conflict with the technological needs of boat-building.  (b) Arabia was not what we know today: “Because of the different climate at the time, Arabia was moister and would have been a grassland with plenty of animals for prey.”  Let’s hope stone tools did not lead to anthropogenic global warming.  (c) No evidence was claimed of human occupation in Arabia from such an ancient time to the present.  (d) Would not humans intelligent enough to build boats have left numerous artifacts, and migrated around the world, in a period representing well over 10 times recorded history, in which their offspring reached the moon?    PhysOrg’s coverage claims that anatomically modern humans “had evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.”  If so, they sure stayed in one place for a long time.  Another theory-rescue device was evident in the PhysOrg article, claiming the migrants were simultaneously smart and stupid: “This toolkit includes relatively primitive hand-axes along with a variety of scrapers and perforators, and its contents imply that technological innovation was not necessary for early humans to migrate onto the Arabian Peninsula.”  But would not anatomically modern humans, or even Neanderthals, spurred on by wanderlust, have wandered to the ends of the earth long ago?  “Our findings should stimulate a re-evaluation of the means by which we modern humans became a global species.”  Have legs; will travel; have ships, will sail.    The upsetting find hinges on the validity of the optically stimulated fluorescence dating method used on the artifacts.  While the paleontologists are struggling to keep this discovery within the old paradigm – e.g., to decide if Neanderthals or modern humans made the tools, and what route they might have taken – it might be appropriate to ask how many theory-rescue devices are permitted before a scientific revolution is in order.  Meantime, someone should tell the team that Cretans appear to have been sailing much earlier (01/06/2011), maybe 700,000 years ago.  How did they get there out of Africa?According to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, paradigms permit the “guild” of scientists to work in harmony on common questions, using shared assumptions.  Anomalies accumulate until the paradigm can no longer accommodate the growing weight of anomalies.  Brave new scientists, usually of the younger generation, propose a new paradigm.  A scientific revolution occurs, and the new paradigm becomes the new comfort zone.  It is very difficult for guild scientists to see themselves within a paradigm.  To them, the paradigm is intuitively obvious.  It takes courage to ask new questions and think outside the box.  Sometimes it risks ridicule and ostracism.    We know of cases where the maverick eventually won against the consensus: e.g., J Harlan Bretz (04/30/2009, 07/25/2008), and Benoit Mandelbrot (11/12/2010).  Those cases might support the opinion that science is ultimately progressive and self-correcting, given enough time.  What we don’t know are the cases when the mavericks died in vain, asking questions that nobody else asked, seeking alternative explanations that might have proved fruitful had anyone listened.  For those sad cases, a whole civilization could persist down a wrong path till it collapses, never having asked the right questions.  Such a fate cannot be ruled out by the scientific method.  It’s not a question of science.  It’s a question of philosophy about science.This is an important entry on philosophy of science illustrated with recent, real-world examples.  The scientists involved are not being intentionally deceptive or lazy in their thinking.  Most scientists are hard working, highly intelligent, and personable.  There are just some things nobody could ever know.  There’s also a big difference between scientific discovery and scientific explanation.  With the scientists’ skill at observation, and with expensive equipment they helped design, they discovered the geysers of Enceladus.  Explaining how Enceladus could be active for 4.5 billion years is an entirely separate matter.  How could one know how old they are, or how long they’ve been erupting, without having watched them throughout their history?  Same for discovering a dinosaur bone in New Mexico, a human femur in Arabia, or a faint galaxy.  The “surprise factor” in the discovery should tell us something about the validity of the explanation given.    In their defense, it could be said that these scientists are doing the best they can with limited information, albeit with the advantage of expensive tools, specialized training, and a vast corpus of accumulated data.  It’s only human to speculate beyond the data and try to understand it.  Remember, though, that scientists are granted a high level of credibility in our culture.  They can proclaim things to the media that are rarely criticized or questioned.  Moreover, they hang out with their own, in somewhat insular environments, where criticisms from their peers are usually limited to questions within the paradigm, not outside of it.  They are not immune from social pressure to stay within their thought collectives; it could mean the difference between publishing and perishing.    Many science reporters have inherited a sense of awe for the opinions of the scientific priesthood (those with presumptive authority to mediate between Nature and the people).  They see their job not as critics, but as translators, taking the abstruse mutterings of the journals and delivering them in easily digested form to the masses.  Science reporters tend to be scientific realists, trained in the triumphalist tradition of science as a march of progress toward understanding reality.  But while discoveries may be cumulative, explanations are not necessarily so.  It appears many reporters are oblivious to the hard questions philosophers of science would pose.    Pay attention to the questions embedded in the text.  They are questions the snooze media never ask.  They can’t ask them, because they’re asleep.  As we all know from experience, dreams can seem very realistic.    Maybe we are all dreaming.  That’s an extreme view a solipsist might propose.  How would you know the one shaking you, shouting at you to wake up, is not part of the dream?  How do we know our senses give a true picture of the world?  After all, the world would seem very different to a deep-sea fish living in the dark punctuated by bioluminescent glows.  Such a fish, if it had a mind, might not even be cognizant of the watery medium in which lives, and define darkness as light.  Consider that we’ve only known of the vast field of electromagnetic radiation outside visible light for a tiny fraction of human history.  What else are we missing? (Consider Young’s Law, right sidebar.)    One cannot escape faith.  It takes faith to believe that our perceptions correspond to reality.  Assumptions are assumed; axioms are axiomatic; but without them, one cannot reason.  Only the Biblical world view provides the grounds for the faith that makes reason reasonable.  All scientists depend on that world view, intentionally or not.  Why?  One cannot evolve truth and reality from a materialistic world view made up of particles and forces without begging the question whether truth is true and reality is really real.  The laws of logic are concepts, not particles; to use them, one must assume that they are universal, timeless, and certain.  And one must believe that communication in the conceptual realm, to be intelligible, must derive from a communicating Mind that is universal, timeless, and certain.  One must, in short, be a theist.  A corollary is that atheists are de facto theists in spite of themselves.    Start with the Biblical world view – creation by a purposeful, designing intelligence – and the legitimacy (if not the reliability) of the quest for scientific knowledge logically follows.  Only then can one hope to ask the right questions.(Visited 14 times, 1 visits today)FacebookTwitterPinterestSave分享0last_img

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