Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Need for [un]Common Sense (Part 1)... What the case of Einstein and Eddington tell us about the power of science

Image: Albert Einstein in... Nikes?
Albert Einstein in... Nikes? (Flicker)

Observation--not Einstein's Rock-Star Status--Proves General Relativity: What does that tell you about science and scientists?

Albert Einstein was widely regarded as the sharpest scientific in the world when he published his General Theory of Relativity" in 1916. And yet, the theory was not immediately accepted.

Why? It was not verified.

General Theory, which reworked highly classical physics in the light of Einstein's verified Special Relativity, made some bold predictions. One was that the sun's gravity would displace weightless photons traveling from distant starts to earth. How could gravity effect something that is mass-less? According to the theory, massive objects actually "warped the space-time continuum."  Tough to swallow. Also, near impossible to test due to the sun's brightness.

In 1919, Arthur Eddington took advantage of a solar eclipse to measure the location of  stars, with known locations, whose light would pass near the sun. These meticulous observations confirmed Einstein's hypothesis.

As this and more evidence were collected and weighed against General Relativity's predictions, it became evident that General Relativity was an accurate model of the universe.

So what makes scientists different than most of us? 

Most of us believe what we believe, regardless of the facts. Or we tend towards "selection bias," and interpret data in a way that colors our perceptions.

Most telling is how many people cling to their beliefs all the more tenaciously after facts question their beleifs. In fact, they frequently dig in their heels, and maintain those beliefs even harder. This is a phenomena that Social Psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance (see my prior article on the subject, Following Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance and why behavior change is sticky ).

For a recent example, one only need remember Karl Rove's refusal to call Ohio for Obama on election night 2012. Rove had so much invested in the campaign that he refused to appreciate that the facts are the facts. And you can choose to believe them or not.

Scientists, on the other hand, take a hard look at reality. And expose their ideas to scrutiny of other people through the brutal peer review process. And they also continue gathering experimental evidence of their own. And if that evidence, or the preponderance of their peer's interpretation of that evidence, refutes their theory, most scientists will abandon their beliefs.

That transitory nature of truth is what makes science so powerful.

Back to Einstein 

So, we come full circle. In Einstein's time, most people's understanding of gravity took its root in Newtonian physics. There was an absolute space that was uniform and Euclidean.

General Relativity, combined with verifiable, repeatable observation caused people to revamp that understanding. And realize that gravity caused space to "warp." Sort of how a 50 pound weight will cause a mattress to sag. And rolling marbles from nearly anywhere on the bed will draw them into that warp.

This is a much more accurate description of gravity the Newton's. It explains more. But it is not complete. It is just another in the long line of better scientific explanations. That help us understand the observable, external world better.

And that is power.

Some of my favorite resources on the scientific method


For some reason, Piliucci's Nonsense on Stilts in my favorite debunking book. The author is a philosopher of science, and does an excellent job debunking a lot of nonsense. But goes a step further, adn lays out a nice method for determining whether a person posing as an expert actuall is.
Goldacre is one on my new favorite debumkers. Though he focuses on medical science and a lot of flim-flam coming from the agribusiness/ supplement industry, he also takes aim at big pharma. See a link to a Ted talk of his below.  
Carl Sagan. What can you say about him, except that he will be missed. And, in a career of excellent books, The Demon-Haunted World may be his absolute best. Because it is rife with a scientist's plea for honesty at all costs. And facing the truth, regradless.
Though trained scientifically, I was pretty un-hip to how social sciences actually applied the sceintific method until I picked up this book. And then I realized that most of what poses as "psychology" in the self-help world is tripe. This book is very mind-opening. Highly reommended.
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Some videos about the scientific method from Ted.com

A talk by epidemiologist Ben Goldacre describing how misinformation about our health gets percolated through the system. Brief, informative and funny.

When the co-host of a popular TV program, Mythbusters. has a better grasp on science than many of our policy makers, you know we're in trouble! A super short (7:32) video on using experiment and observation to describe reality.

For more from this Series...

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