They laughed at Galileo

Some of the comments on my last post reminded me of a common bit of science mythology, namely the idea that scientific advances come from lone geniuses who overthrow the existing orthodoxy, after years of ridicule and dismissal by the scientific establishment.  There are two things to remember about this idea:

1. To a truly excellent approximation, this never happens.  It’s just not how science generally works. In the modern era, Wegener and continental drift is about the only example I can think of that might count,  but I know essentially nothing about the history of that subject, so I can’t say. It certainly is not true, for instance, that they laughed at Einstein: his ideas were recognized as important and worthy of serious consideration pretty much right away.

2. Even if it does occasionally happen that lone geniuses who are ridiculed by the establishment have great ideas, the converse doesn’t follow: people who are ridiculed by the establishment aren’t necessarily lone geniuses with great ideas.  As Carl Sagan put it a long time ago, they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at the Wright brothers, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

The history of science has very few crazy ideas that turned out to be right, in comparison with the number of crazy ideas that turned out to be crazy.

Hydrinos on the radio

Update (Nov. 21): Mack in the comments has pointed out that Blacklight Power has an mp3 of the radio story I’m talking about on their web site.  Thanks for letting me know.  I just took a second listen.  It’s just as bad as I remembered.

Our local public radio station ran a piece today on the claims by Blacklight Power to have found a way to extract huge amounts of energy from ordinary hydrogen.  I’m sorry to say this, because I’m a big fan of public radio (yes, I’m a member, and you should be too)  but this was a really lousy piece of journalism.

It’s one of the only things I’ve heard on the station that’s even worse than the Virginia Stock Report: that’s just ludicrously pointless, whereas this report was actually harmful.

The people at Blacklight Power claim that there is another energy level of hydrogen, far below the usual ones, and they have a way of causing hydrogen atoms to drop into this lower state, releasing large amounts of energy.  There is an essentially complete consensus among physicists that this is impossible.  For one thing, the existence of this energy state would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, one of the best-tested laws in modern physics.

The radio report adopts the usual pseudo-balanced tone, noting that “some scientists” are skeptical, but it completely fails to make clear that this is a fringe theory and that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Blacklight people are wrong.  As anyone who pays attention to science and the media knows all too well, this sort of pseudo-balance is exactly the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to creationists.  If you’re a science journalist, and you actually believe in science, don’t do this.

A couple of notes:

1. The Blacklight people say that an independent lab at Rowan University has replicated their results.  But the lab uses samples prepared by Blacklight with unknown properties, and all they see is bursts of energy that they don’t know the cause of.  I’m quite prepared to believe there are bursts of energy, but it’s just some chemical reaction having to do with the way the sample was prepared.

2. I’m definitely not accusing Blacklight of deliberate fraud.  On the contrary, as a New York Times article points out,  the company’s adopting a very poor strategy if that’s their goal.  I think they genuinely believe they’re onto something, and they’re just wrong.

Of course, if they’re right and I’m wrong, then (a) they’ll get rich,  (b) I won’t, (c) they’ll solve the world’s energy problems, and (d) we’ll have a major revolution in physics.  I’ll be thrilled by (c) and (d) and perfectly content with (a), which will be well-deserved.  And I can live with (b), which will happen regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.

But anyway, it’s all irrelevant, because they’re not right.  A century of incredibly rigorously tested science says so.


Since I went after after Gregg Easterbrook for promoting intelligent design, Matt Trawick suggested that I should link to a couple of the good things he’s written about NASA and the space shuttle program. Here are a few examples.

Recently, Easterbrook has explained why plans for a lunar base make no sense. He wrote more broadly about NASA’s misplaced priorities for human space flight. He’s been a big space-shuttle skeptic since at least 1980.

I thought that he was the one who coined the phrase “billion-dollar flagpole sitting” to describe our recent priorities on human space flight, but I can’t find confirmation of that.

Teach the controversy

Matt Trawick’s comments on my earlier post on Gregg Easterbrook and “teaching the controversy” are exactly right.  I’ll just add that the seeming reasonableness of the “teach the controversy” position are precisely what makes it so pernicious.

Some people address this with humor.  I sometimes find this approach very funny, but of course it’s of no value at all for actually convincing people who aren’t already convinced.

If you want actual evidence, there’s this survey of biology department heads, which found that essentially none thought that there was a controvery.  I found this at the National Center for Science Education,  which has a lot of resources promoting the teaching of evolution.

Biggest error ever

This New York Times column contains what is no doubt the biggest (in magnitude, if not in importance) numerical error ever to appear in print, and it’s in a quote by a physicist:

For instance, if all the molecules of air in the room where you're sitting would suddenly cross to one side, you would not have any air to breathe. This probability is not zero. It is in the 10 to the minus-25 range.

10-25? It’s more like 10-1000000000000000000000000000 (unless you’re in a room that contains only about 80 air molecules, in which case you’re in trouble anyway). I wonder if a number in a reputable publication has ever been wrong by this large a factor before.

All of physics is wrong!

I’m a couple of weeks behind on my podcasts, so I just got around to listening to the episode of This American Life about a guy who’s convinced that Einstein had it all wrong and that his new theory will revolutionize physics.  The segment contains a brief interview with my friend John Baez, who is among many other things the author of the Crackpot Index, a (joking) way of assessing the purveyors of radical alternative theories like this.

By the way, if you’re interested in physics and math at all, you really need to poke around John’s web page.  He loves explaining math and physics to people, and he’s really good at it.   I first got to know him (electronically) when we were both involved in various physics newsgroups back in the ’90’s.  For quite a while, we were both moderators of the group sci.physics.research.  (He probably gets tired of people mentioning this, but he’s also Joan Baez’s cousin.)

The phenomenon of people thinking they have a revolutionary new theory that will overturn all of 20th-century physics is pretty common.  All physicists who work in any area related to relativity know this: we all get self-published articles and books propounding these theories in the mail on a regular basis.  I actually just got one in my mailbox today.

I thought that the piece on This American Life was pretty good.  I’d be interested to know what non-physicists ended up thinking of the various people involved.  I suspect that the physicists interviewed came off as arrogant and intolerant of new ideas.  The problem is that these theories really are invariably complete nonsense, and it’s hard to respond to nonsense in a remotely honest way without sounding like a bit of a jerk.  (Of course, some physicists really are arrogant and intolerant as well, although not John Baez and not, as far as I know, the other physicist interviewed in the piece.)

It’s interesting to note that these theories almost always involve overthrowing relativity, as opposed to other parts of physics.  I think that a big part of the reason for this is the cult of Einstein.  He’s a uniquely mythic figure in physics, and so I guess maybe it’s natural that people want to take him down.

Does data mining supersede science?

A friend of mine asked me what I thought of this article in Wired, which argues that the existence of extremely large data sets is fundamentally changing our approach to data. The thesis is roughly that we no longer need to worry about constructing models or distinguishing between correlation and causation: with the ability to gather and mine ultralarge data sets, we can just measure correlations and be done with it.

This article is certainly entertaining, but fundamentally it’s deeply silly. There’s a nugget of truth in it, which is that large data sets allow people to do data mining – that is, searching for patterns and correlations in data without really knowing what they’re looking for. That’s an approach to data that used to be very rare and is now very common, and it certainly is changing some areas of science. But it’s certainly not the case this somehow replaces the idea of a model or blurs the distinction between correlation and causation. On the contrary, the reason that this sort of thing has been important to science is that it’s a great tool for constructing and refining models, which can then be tested in the usual way.

Two of the specific cases the article cites are actually examples of precisely this process. As I understand it, Google’s search algorithm started in more or less the way it’s described in the article, but over time they refined it by means of a process of old-fashioned model-building. Google doesn’t rank pages by simply counting the number of incoming links; that’s one ingredient in a complicated algorithm (most of which is secret, of course) that is continually refined based on tests performed on the data. Craig Venter’s an even better example: sure, his approach is based on gathering and mining large data sets, but the reason scientists care about those data sets is precisely so that they can use them to construct old-fashioned models and testable hypotheses.

The case of fundamental particle physics, which is also discussed in the article, is quite different. In fact, it’s totally unclear what it has to do with anything else in the article. Fundamental particle physics has arguably been stuck for a couple of decades now because of a lack of data, not an excess of data. There’s not even the remotest connection between the woes of particle physics and the phenomenon of mining large data sets.

Here’s another way to think about the whole business. The distinction between correlation and causation was always a distinction in principle, not a mere practicality. It’s not affected by the quality and quantity of the data.