WPS | Web Picks Sceptique for September 29, 2011

Archimedes Thoughtful

Image via Wikipedia

WPS is a selection of links to blogs, news outlets, and cool little sites on the Web that relate to science, reason, skepticism, atheism, the fringes and borderlands of science, memes relating to science or skepticism, and anything that catches my eye or which I’m deluded enough to think might arouse the interest of you, my perspicacious readers. WPS is published weekly each Thursday on the Call.


Had to fix the links to Stephanie Zvan’s post and the one on millipedes.

…Science said X was Impossible!!!

Photograph of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.

Image via Wikipedia

The above claim is part of an argument I’ve heard many times, with such examples of it’s truth offered frequently being the impossibility of heavier than air flight claimed by Lord Kelvin and the mistaken but popular notion, and never seriously entertained by the scientific community itself, that the flight of bumblebees was scientifically impossible.

It was not that bumblebee flight was thought to be literally impossible, but that it was not fully understood exactly how exactly it worked prior to research on the aerodynamics of bumblebee flight in the 1990s.

Note: Science has never claimed that any known phenomenon commonly observed and fully documented at the time is impossible.

This line of argument is often used as an example of how scientists have been proven wrong before in stating something to be impossible, to support the claim that therefore nothing is impossible, and that it necessarily follows that all such statements of impossibility have been or will inevitably be shown wrong.

It implies that whatever we want to be possible, whatever we imagine, merely in the imagining of it, trumps any and all past, present and future limits imposed by science on the possible and the plausible. It implies we can be godlike merely by wishing hard enough, or that even if the wishing doesn’t literally make it so, that it means it’s so.

Perhaps a better formulation of this entry’s title would be “(A) scientist (s) said X was impossible!” and it would probably be a better context to argue from than condemning the whole of science on whatever claim is being advocated.

Lord Kelvin was right about quite a bit, and made invaluable contributions to physics, but he was fatally incorrect in his calculations that to him showed the impossibility of heavier-than-air flight (birds, bats, insects, (and long ago, pterosaurs,) do (and did) it all the time), and his ignorance of radioactivity (then undiscovered) led him to conclude that the Earth could only be millions of years old, not the billions that it is.

This is why the authority of any given scientist must be always open to fair questioning and open criticism by others in the field, why a community of researchers are more likely to be correct than any one individual no matter how imminent, and why even then, science as a whole must always be scrupulously self-critical and open to correction.

No one researcher speaks for science as a whole with unquestioned authority despite any significance of their contributions.

The cold, hard truth is that scientists are human, and are permitted the right to be wrong by any reasonable person because of this. Being wrong, and being shown wrong by other scientists is simply how science moves forward, getting closer than before to the truth.

Because you cannot find out what is true unless you can also tell what is not…

…and in this, having inbuilt mechanisms for error-detection, science is unlike any other human social enterprise ever invented, which is why I find it among the very greatest of our ideas, the best of our various claims to ways of knowing.

Science can be and has been wrong, often grossly wrong, but step by step it leads us further toward what is more true than less, to a better understanding of what really is when it is allowed to work properly and unshackled by ideology.

Science does not discard findings that are useful, that repeatedly continue to be verified, that consistently withstand attempts to falsify them, findings that are enhanced, deepened, elaborated on by new knowledge, and which continue to make valid predictions of the world in their domain of operation.

We are bound principally by the laws of physics, and limited by our understanding of them, so those who understand them professionally have a good deal to justifiably say on what we can know to be impossible — pending further and better knowledge.

Expert critics of paranormal and fringe claims are expert critics, not because of a lack of understanding, or unfamiliarity with the subject they critique, but precisely because they understand their subject so well that they know exactly how and where proponents of these ideas go wrong in making their claims, knowing full well how they go astray in both data and theory.

One does not have to have a string of PhD.s in nonsense after one’s name to know why and how it is nonsense, but knowing the subject is essential to fair and objective criticism.

Science shows us our limits, our limits as human beings, and the limits of nature itself. It shows us our horizons, but it also opens up new and fantastic worlds to explore — fantastic all the more, because what it shows us is real — not merely the product of our imaginings and wishful impositions upon the universe. Knowing our limits and the limits of the world is good, not restrictive, because only by admitting these exist and addressing them may we overcome them.