September 25, 2011

Everything You Know Is Wrong (Maybe)

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Imagine for a moment that you’re living in England in the early 17th century. Let’s say that you’re fairly well-heeled and well-educated, and that you studied at Cambridge in your youth. You would probably have been taught, among other things, a version of physics — one based heavily on the writings of Aristotle. You would have learned that all objects are composed of the four classical elements, and that objects move because they have natural tendencies towards rest or motion. You would have felt confident that the world around you was explained in a rational, harmonious way by the wisdom of the ancients.Then, you begin to hear about a newly published book, one that’s setting the world of science (or, as you would have called it, natural philosophy) on fire. It’s called the Principia Mathematica by someone named Isaac Newton, and it elegantly describes a completely new way of thinking about the world. In other words, it shows that everything you had learned about physics up until then was wrong. What you had learned as immutable facts were in fact completely false.This isn’t the only time an intellectual revolution such as this has happened. A few hundred years later, Einstein came along and threw into question the entire Newtonian conception of physics with his theories of relativity. And now, with CERN’s possible discovery of a neutrino that can move faster than the speed of light, Einstein’s theories are being reevaluated as well.The progress of science can be incredibly demoralizing. Even with a scientific theory that has been thoroughly experimentally verified and tested, there remains a small sliver of doubt that some new piece of evidence will come along to cast it into uncertainty. Furthermore, if the theory in question forms part of the bedrock of our understanding of the world — like the theories of relativity — casting doubt upon it also casts doubt upon all our conceptions of the world.It’s hard, therefore, to admit doubt when it comes to such basic scientific principles. Yet doubt is an integral part of the scientific mindset. Without doubt, science becomes dogmatic and ossified. Real progress becomes impossible if we hold too closely to our established theories. A resistance to doubt is what led to the suppression Galileo’s and Kepler’s theories, after all. To complicate matters further, however, we must also remember that skepticism goes hand in hand with doubt. Scientists need to thoroughly evaluate each new piece of data that comes along and avoid rashly throwing out established knowledge. It’s quite possible that the faster-than-light neutrino found at CERN could have resulted from an error in machinery rather than an actual physical phenomenon, and tests are still being run to determine the accuracy of the results, so jumping to conclusions and throwing out Einstein’s theories would be premature. This tightrope  between doubt and skepticism is one scientists have to balance on every day.One solution to this conundrum is to look at science as whole from a different vantage point. Often, when people debate scientific theories, they speak of them in almost religious language — they say they “believe” in relativity the same way one “believes” in the Buddha or Virgin Mary. Yet it’s erroneous to take a theory on faith without examining all of the evidence both for and against it. Theories should be believed as long as they explain the workings of the universe, yet if strong data comes along against a theory this data should not be ignored. If there’s one thing in science to believe in, it’s the process of science itself: experimentation, hypothesis, repeated testing and, perhaps most importantly, doubt. The mindset that observes facts about the world can be used to explain the things around and inside of us — that’s what we should believe in.Therefore, thinking scientifically does not mean blindly adhering to scientific theories, but rather subscribing to a scientific pattern of thought. This is a pattern of thought that admits the possibility that the theories and principles you subscribe to are all falsehoods. But the beauty of scientific thought is that even if everything you know turns out to be wrong, you have the tools to deal with it. Instead of being completely lost when your ideas about the world are disproved, you have the ability to reshape your conceptions and adapt to new data by making fresh observations and predictions. Living with the uncertainty that all of one’s knowledge could be false is an unsettling feeling, but I’d far prefer it to a hidebound adherence to theory at the expense of truth.

Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner