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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Guest Post: The Value of Science

Hey readers.  This week we have another guest post from a fellow phycisist.  My notes (mostly added links) are in bold.

As I said to Zaqvhk* earlier in the week, I have something to get off of my chest, and dammit I’m gonna make somebody listen to me while I do it! Now, please grab hold of your chairs and find your earplugs. It’s rant time.

The Value of Science

Written by Dan Barnak
Assistant Researcher at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics**
Fusion Science Center
Rochester, NY

I’ve had many people, both atheists and theists alike, tell me that “Science doesn’t have all the answers and it never will be able to discern the truth blah blah blah.” I don’t usually remember or even want to remember all of the things people tell me about this, but I do have an answer to this that they like to ignore.

I’m going to try and focus on the specific problem about science not being able to determine the objective truth of reality. Yes, I do think there is an objective reality out there. No, I’m not addressing this idea with respect to morality. Fat chance I’ll touch that can of worms. I am going to try and stay away from people who are ignorant of what I mean when I say “scientific theory”, perverse science like the Creationists like to use, and other flaws in the scientific process that get immediately debunked like Exxon-funded research about how global warming is a fairy tale.

In fact, I’ll give in and say that, because science is a manmade school of thought, it has a lot of flaws. Many times science predicts something and it turns out completely wrong. The best example of this still has to be the Michelson-Morley experiment. I’m not going into detail here, so learn how to use Google and Wikipedia.  (Behold!  The great Zaq has done your Googling for you!)  Now I’m going to negate this concession by stating that even though Michelson and Morley made a prediction that was completely off, they still managed to conclude that there was no ether. They wanted to find the speed of the ether so badly, yet no ether was to be found and they were forced to conclude that it didn’t exist. Now did Michelson and Morley realize that they had stumbled across a fundamental inner working of the universe and then went on to write the paper on Special Relativity? Nope, they sure didn’t. This brings me to my next point.

Often times in science, we aren’t playing with a full deck of cards. In fact we rarely are. I’d be hard pressed to think of a theory we know absolutely everything about. The closest would probably be Electricity and Magnetism, but even that boils down to quantum mechanics at the microscopic level. Let’s face facts; we know absolutely jack shit about how stuff works at the quantum level. We have a great mathematical understanding of the quantum world, but that’s about it. I could quote Feynman, but again I encourage you to Google yourself to a better education.

Here’s where people like to try and punch holes in science in order to say that we don’t know anything about anything and can’t know everything about anything ever. I’ll admit it is going to take a long time to unravel this messy celestial ejaculation we call a universe, but science can still get us there eventually. Also, using the fact that we don’t know everything to say that we don’t know anything is a logical fallacy. I forget which one, but maybe Zacghqrt* can help me out. It certainly isn’t modus pollens when it comes to how strong this argument against science is.

Can't be of much help here.  Typically no argument is even used, and if you tried to turn what these people are driving at into an actual argument you'd find that there is at least one key but unspoken premise.  I'm not sure if there's a technical term for such arguments.

Let me jump right in to an example. The electron is one of my favorite particles so I’ll use it as an example. I know, sometimes they like to preheat fusion targets and muck up my experiments, but I still love them. Long ago, in the age of Benny Franklin, we had no idea what the hell an electron was. It didn’t come until JJ Thompson’s plum pudding model of the atom. Then the charge to mass ratio was determined, we tried smashing them to bits, we figured out their wavefunctions in the hydrogen atom, etc. Do you know how much we know about the electron? Still not much. Some string theorists say it is a vibrating loop of energy, others say it’s a particle with wavelike properties called a quanton, and some people like to believe that they are still divisible to this very day (I don’t talk to those people anymore). The electron is a good example of something we know a lot about, but we don’t know everything.

The electron is a conundrum that we are still working on. I feel as though we aren’t even close to understanding what that thing is. Looking back on all we have done and all we have figured out about it, we still know quite a bit. Ok, I’m getting a little contradictory here. The point is that we know many things about the nature of the electrons existence that we can’t refute even if there are new facts that we find in the future. We know enough about the behavior of the electron in solids to build advanced semiconductors so that I can type this rant digitally rather than ratatatatating out on a typewriter. We even know enough about it to make accurate predictions in future experiments and to design new technologies around it (I have one word: “memristor”).

Let’s recap, because this is more of an unstructured rant than it is a point.  Science has determined many things about reality and nature that we can consider to be solid immutable fact, like the charge of an electron. Just because we don’t know what exactly an electron is doesn’t make this fact refutable. Science as a process of discovery is a highly flawed thing, but it has the ability to find the truth even when we are looking for it in the wrong places. This is the value of science and why many people including myself consider science to be the most powerful and useful process imagined by humans.

Deep breath.  I feel better now.

*Dan never could figure out how to spell my name :P
**The views expressed in the above post are not sanctioned by the LLE or any of its partners and do not reflect the views of the LLE at all.
If you would like to send in a guest post, feel free to email: Remember to put the words “Guest Post” in the subject line.

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