Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Strength of Science

Sometimes scientists get things wrong. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Science is a process of discovery, analogous to the exploration of new lands by fifteenth-century sailors. Christopher Columbus originally thought he had discovered the East Indies when he landed in the New World.

So when science gets it wrong, that sometimes means the process has to start over or change directions. But that seeming weakness in the scientific process is actually one of its biggest strengths. Science is self-correcting.

Detractors of science, such as those who insist that evolution cannot be true since the theory has been riddled with hoaxes and wrong conclusions, are quick to conclude that these past mistakes have polluted the process, so that most if not all of the conclusions reached by the theory of evolution must be treated with suspicion.

They point to Piltdown man, which was a hoax, and Nebraska man, once thought to be a new species of early human, to justify their argument that all fossil evidence indicating a change from one species to another over time must be erroneous.

But the fact that scientists sometimes draw the wrong conclusions should in no way tarnish the valid scientific conclusions that have withstood the test of time and have been useful in furthering the understanding of how nature works. Everybody makes mistakes. The real test is whether or not those mistakes are eventually recognized and corrected. In science, they always are.

Take Nebraska man as an example. The story is often told that a fossil tooth was found by a farmer in Nebraska who sent it to the American Museum of Natural History. There, a paleontologist identified it as a species of early human. According to the story, it became widely accepted by scientists that this find represented a new species of human being.

In actuality, the paleontologist, Henry Osborn, first identified the tooth as possibly belonging to an ape. It actually turned out to be the tooth of a peccary, a type of wild pig. Other scientists were always skeptical of the claim that it was an ape, much less an early human. Peccary teeth are similar to human teeth, so the mistake was an honest one. But the fact that other scientists did not automatically accept Osborn’s conclusion and then went on to prove he was mistaken shows that although individual scientists might occasionally misinterpret the evidence, the scientific community requires much more validation before accepting that evidence as factual.

It is also true that sometimes scientists, when they believe they have discovered something important, grow fond of their hypotheses. Occasionally, there is even enough data and evidence in support of a hypothesis to actually call it a theory, even if it later has to be modified. In science, a theory is an explanation of a natural phenomenon that is supported by much evidence and has been verified by many scientists.

Take the Superstring Theory, for example. It is the theory in physics that says, in a nutshell, that all the particles in nature that make up the structure of matter can be thought of as tiny vibrating loops or strings of energy. The harmonics of these vibrations determine the type of particle it will be.

Superstring Theory grew out of attempts, which started with Einstein, to merge the two great theories of physics together into a “theory of everything.” Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity dealt very nicely with cosmic phenomena, such as galaxies and black holes. The Quantum Theory was equally adept at describing the very tiny, such as subatomic particles. But they were incompatible with each other.

So scientists worked for decades, trying to merge the two theories. They thought they had succeeded with Superstring Theory. The theory required a 10-dimensional universe and was described using complex mathematics. The problem was that, instead of a single equation, there were at least five equations that worked equally well at describing the universe. This was not an elegant situation. Five equations are too many when you’re looking for one.

A less popular competing theory added an eleventh dimension. But attempts by the small group of scientists supporting this 11-dimensional universe were ignored by the string theorists for more than a decade.

Finally, in a desperate attempt to save their theory, the superstring theorists added an eleventh dimension to their math. Not only did this work, it actually proved that the five earlier equations representing Superstring Theory were actually not separate mathematical descriptions for the universe, but were merely components of the larger eleventh dimension. Mathematically it all fit and has been dubbed Membrane Theory, or M-Theory for short. The one-dimensional strings were stretched into two-dimensional membranes.

It’s all quite esoteric, but the complex mathematics work perfectly well to combine Relativity Theory with Quantum Mechanics. It took more than a decade, but science once again corrected itself to come up with a better explanation of the universe.

This scenario is in stark contrast to those who claim that evolution and the Big Bang didn’t happen because the universe was created in less than a week by a supernatural creator. Called Intelligent Design, their proposal is not a theory because it was not developed using any part of the scientific method. It started with a conclusion, that everything was specially created. And that conclusion can never be modified, regardless of competing evidence.

Think about what would happen if science worked that way. What if Nebraska man had been accepted on face value by all scientists as being true? And what if, even in spite of additional evidence to the contrary, scientists continued to support the notion that Nebraska man was a human ancestor, even to this day? The truth would never be known. If science worked this way, there would be no such thing as new technologies. The world would fall back into the Dark Ages, or would never have emerged from them in the first place.

But science isn’t like that. It is self-correcting and dynamic. That is not a flaw that should be used to prove a weakness in science. Indeed, it is science’s greatest strength.

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