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Emergence and Environment: Science and Religion in 2014, San Diego, CA

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Episode 9 "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth"
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5/5/2014 at 1:03:59 PM GMT
Posts: 130
Episode 9 "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth"
This topic is devoted to episode 9 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey


Last edited Sunday, May 11, 2014
5/6/2014 at 7:17:12 PM GMT
Posts: 23
A couple key moments grabbed my attention in this episode.

One (and I can't find it again so I'll depend on memory) was Tyson's observation that we get ourselves into trouble because we are not faithful to the core values of science (or words to this effect.) I believe he said this after discussing the trouble even mainstream scientists have had accepting new ideas like continental drift. It provokes me to wonder if there is ever a situation where science benefits from somebody refusing to adhere to the usually agreed upon core values. Scientists are stubborn humans like any of us, but the only difference it would seem between them being vilified for their bull-headedness versus being glorified for it hinges on whether they were right or wrong.

Another comment I noted was when Tyson referred to the stability of the earth as just an illusion springing from the relative brevity of our lives. Seen over vast eons of time, even the continents are seen to be constantly moving. It's a great observation. I wonder, though, why we should automatically privilege the broadest perspective. It is a scientific reflex to strive for the highest degree of generalization, making a theory apply over the widest set of circumstances --yes. We do constantly try to "zoom out" so that, for example, Einstein's relativity is seen to engulf (rather than replace) the Newtonian mechanics that function as a specific instance within it. But if in our own life time scales the stars are immobile in the sky, and we refer to them in just those terms, why should our practical knowledge and everyday observations be held hostage (or be evicted) on the observation that just a few decimal places over on the time-line the stars are flying all over the place? As scientific thinkers we privilege the latter truth as the only truth. But to me it isn't clear why that should be, other than that the scientist stamps her/his foot and declares (most religiously) that it is the only truth worth considering. And yet I'm not sure that the scientific thinker is wrong in saying this. I'm only sure that they are no longer being scientific when they say it -- that much is certain.


5/8/2014 at 6:00:50 PM GMT
Posts: 130
Good points and good questions, Merv. I'm not quite sure what it means to ask "where science benefits from somebody refusing to adhere to the usually agreed upon core values." If by core values, one means honesty and integrity in the practice of science, then I doubt if there is such an example, though it is possible that through dishonesty, someone might stumble on a good observation. If by core values, one means good processes in collecting data, careful observations, and logical reasoning, then again I don't see how violating the values would be beneficial. Core values do NOT mean clinging to established opinion. But it does mean that challenging such opinions requires careful documentation.

You also make some good points about our perspective and ask which perspective is entitled to be "privileged." It seems that we value a perspective based on our anthropocentric situation. It all depends on how it affects us and how we perceive it.

The story of plate tectonics is a great one. I felt as if this episode didn't do justice to it, though he did touch on the main points and I did learn some history.


5/9/2014 at 3:57:52 AM GMT
Posts: 23
The main core value I had in mind with my question was: "follow the evidence wherever it leads". And a possible example of somebody not doing that very well would have been Galileo. He ignored lots of solid science establishing that the earth does not move, and worse yet rejected hard data (two tides per day) that didn't fit with his pet theory. And yet if he had heeded all such evidence he might have been discouraged and never gambled on what turned out to be the right horse.

I just wonder how often departures from "textbook science" help lead to revolutionary breakthroughs.




5/9/2014 at 5:52:37 PM GMT
Posts: 23
... I know ... I should read Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and see how it already a well-developed theme that departure from seemingly well-established theory can lead in all sorts of productive directions as well as the myriad of unproductive possibilities. And that this drawn-out process is now assimilated into what we would call "textbook science" today.

But it is far from apparent to contemporaries of great thinkers whether history will vindicate their bull-headedness or condemn it.


5/12/2014 at 12:37:56 AM GMT
Posts: 130
Merv, the scientific process just isn't that neat and clean. Scientists get ideas and insight from so many different ways. I'm only objecting to your original use of the term "core values" because I don't think that rejecting what scientists consider to be core values leads to any meaningful result. Sure, there might be a serendipitous discovery when following some ill-advised path but I don't know of any and the small percentage of such success wouldn't justify any such "departure."
Science is a lot messier than Kuhn would have us believe and while he makes a lot of good points, it's not written on tablets. It's still the case that new ideas come from many different sources. Creativity does involve thinking along non-traditional lines and that happens in many different ways.
You were right in your original post, when you said that ultimately scientists get judged by whether they were right or wrong. Most, if not all, scientists have been wrong on one aspect or another. Being "bull-headed" as you put it is not in itself a problem but it gets glorified only if they turn out to be wrong. Where "bull-headedness" is a real problem is when their solution has already been shown to be wrong but they refuse to acknowledge it.


5/12/2014 at 4:29:48 PM GMT
Posts: 23
Randy wrote: Where "bull-headedness" is a real problem is when their solution has already been shown to be wrong but they refuse to acknowledge it.

Response:
I suggest that "bull-headedness" by definition equates to at least a certain amount of rejection of contrary evidence. Whether or not something has been sufficiently shown to be wrong may be a matter of [at least some] opinion. The 99% of scientists may agree that it has been solidly falsified. But the 1% disagree and are holding out for new evidence to back them up. And this (99% / 1% split) probably isn't hyperbole in Galileo's case. In that case many knew that the evidence was solidly against Galileo, and his own "evidence" in his favor failed miserably even in his own day, and yet he refused to admit it. If that isn't bull-headedness I'm not sure what would be.

And yet he (the less than 1%) prevailed in the end on the accident of his being right.


5/12/2014 at 4:32:18 PM GMT
Posts: 23
Granted ... I don't know of more recent examples though maybe those exist on smaller and less dramatic issues.

So your point about the small percentages of any accidental success not generally justifying "such departure" is well taken.