Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Sorry, Professor Cox, science is a belief system

I just heard Brian Cox getting himself in a real twist, arguing with Billy Bragg whether science was a belief system on Radio 4's Infinite Monkey Cage, coming from Glastonbury festival.

I think our Brian's mistake was that he was arguing on a false premise. He could never win the argument because science is a belief system. But it is one that operates on totally different rules to a religious belief.

When evidence comes up that counters a scientific belief (or theory as we call them), that belief is changed to match the evidence. Scientific beliefs are kept in line with our best information about the universe. By contrast, many religious beliefs are unchanging in the face of contrary evidence. So, for example, many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims believe that the Earth was created within the last 10,000 years. There are vast swathes of evidence to the contrary, but they just ignore the evidence and continue with their beliefs unchanged.

I think Brian Cox would have done much better to accept that science is a belief system, but a particularly effective kind of belief system that is self-correcting in a way that a religion that takes rigid attitudes to ancient texts never can be.

18 comments:

  1. Yes, I guess you have a point there. Sometimes I can believe light is a wave, sometimes a particle, sometimes there are more dimensions, that everything is composed of strings, and that they flit from this place to another, and one day something like the Hadron collider will reveal them, that everything started in a big bang, and that everything is drifting apart for ever and ever and ever...except for each of us it will one day stop, and then, maybe, we will start believing, or wished we believed in something else.

    All that and it's not even 11am. I knew it was bad for me to visit twitter.

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  2. Bragg has also written some better songs than D-REAM, although that's splitting hairs!

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  3. I think part of the problem is that the word "belief" has been hijacked to mean "religious belief" rather than "what we accept given what we currently know and what we currently do not know."

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  4. I think you are right, Jim, but the danger with simply denying that science is a belief system, as Brian Cox tried to do is that you end up as tongue-tied as he did.

    It worries me when scientists start believing (?!) that science is about absolute facts, where it is in fact our best guess at what's happening given the data we have, but may always have to be modified in the future. Religious fanatics think they've got the absolute truth - scientists should know that they don't.

    Part of the problem is in popularization of science it is clumsy to always be saying 'this is our best theory at the moment, but there are others that also fit the data', so instead there's a tendency to state current best theory as fact. E.g. Big Bang is without doubt the best supported theory at the moment, and fits the data well, but there are alternatives like the ekpyrotic theory.

    Science has to be a belief system, apart from anything else because none of us can go out and check it all from scratch. We have to take a lot on trust. But as I mentioned above those beliefs have to always be capable of being modified whenever the data contradicts an earlier belief.

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  5. http://www.lucypepper.com/wdpr/?p=529

    i'm with you, brian (clegg, not cox).

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  6. You have to be called Brian to write about science well. It's an old charter or something...

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  7. Do follow Lucy's link for very interesting post.

    I think we ought to remember the words of one of the greatest physicists ever, Richard Feynman, talking about quantum physics.

    'It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does... The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is - absurd.'

    I would say that Feynman is talking about the kind of scientific belief system I describe. It has to agree fully with experiment. But there are some things you have to take on trust, because we don't understand why they should possibly be that way. And as I've already mentioned, all theories are subject to change given new data.

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  8. Andrew, thank you for your comment. I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'How is that there are quantum waves?' - Quantum effectively means in a discontinuous particle form. Waves are continuous. Quantum particles like photons exhibit wave-like properties, but in a literal sense 'quantum waves' is an oximoron.

    However the probability of a quantum particle being in a particular location is dependent on a probability distribution in wave form - the Schrodinger wave function - which is perhaps what you mean?

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  9. Andrew, thank you for your comment. I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'How is that there are quantum waves?' - Quantum effectively means in a discontinuous particle form. Waves are continuous. Quantum particles like photons exhibit wave-like properties, but in a literal sense 'quantum waves' i,s an oximoron.

    However the probability of a quantum particle being in a particular location is dependent on a probability distribution in wave form - the Schrodinger wave function - which is perhaps what you mean?

    No, actually.

    I'm suggesting that a sufficient explanation of how there are quantum waves would provide a cause and effect account in enough detail of how, for example, the observable result of this kind of experiment is possible.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ- s

    So, in particular, there is the Copenhagan-type or standard model interpretaton of quantum mechanics that describes somethng called a "superpositon of states" that quantum objects are said to possess while in motion and before they are observed or measured in any experiment.

    But then there is the Louis de Brogie or DAvid Bohm's "pilot wave" interpretation that shows, in mathematicanil detail, how electrons and photons could be both particles with definite ttaecories and laterally extended waves while in motion and unobserved. And no exeriment has been carried out to refutes this kind of interpretation of quantum experiments.

    BUt, in case, one has to point out that there's no observable or measurable evidence of quantum objects in motion that demonstrates that or how what can be called quantum wave diffraction or interference patterns are observed.

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  10. (Um,sorry about the youtube URL in my last post. You can type electron interference experiment in youtube search and you can look at either a straghtforward running commentary of the electron experiment or "Dr Quantum" with his "superpositon of states" Copenhagen Interpretation, or both.)

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  11. Well, that's definitely odd. I've just had a second look at one of the *Dr. Quantum" cartoons on electron interference and now it cuts off abrubtly before he gets to the superposition of states bit at the end.

    Then there's another of the same video that cuts off to a video of a spaceship taking off.

    Could all be due to people who've caught the "quantum weirdness" bug, I suppose...

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  12. Definitely sounds like quantum interference...

    On a more serious note, I've never found de Broglie's pilot wave idea convincing. Bohm's development is more interesting, but in the end Feynman was something of a hero to my and I can't see anything wrong with his picture of light really being particles that happen to have some strange properties that make it wavelike and (because of the spread of the probability wave equation) enable it to be in more than one place at a time.

    In a way we are being quite parochial if we expect quantum particles to behave the same way as the macro world.

    So my interpretation of quantum theory is the Feynmanian 'lay back and enjoy the weirdness.'

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  13. But suppose one could find that behind the quantum weirdness is a whole new way of understanding the universe that includes life on Earth?

    So there's not just the quantum wave property but the mystery of quantum entanglement - or what you've call the God effrect - and the problem of quantum nonlocality or inseparability.

    Thus both quantum mechanics and the experimental evidence has indicated that two entangled particles could be separated to any distance, be it from here to the Andromeda galaxy or beyond, and the measurement that one makes for one component particle should instanteously and invariably affect the measurement one makes on the other.

    So one could ask: are physicists being parochial in thinking that there would be no nonlocal effect that could apply on the galactic or larger scale?

    As it would act upon stars and galaxies such an effect would not, of course, be like that of entangled quantum particles.

    But one could wonder whether the problems with explaining galaxy rotation and the behaviour of galaxies in clusters that has led to the introducion of the yet to be directly detected "dark matter" could actually be the result of nonlocal causation acting in addition to gravity.

    And then one might consider that there's the whole problem of the natural organisation of matter into the atoms and molecules of the elements and their compounds and the species of living organisms, and that there only seems to be the hugely powerful electromagetic force acting between electrons and atomic nuclei as a cause to explain all this...

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  14. Indeed - there are a lot of possibilities other than dark matter (including Modified Newtonian Dynamics) and it is quite possible that Bohm's view could do with a revisit. For that matter, I never wholly gave up on the steady state theory - Hoyle came out with a modified steady state circa 2000 that dealt with all the observations including CMB - but no one was interested in looking at it.

    I think the thing is that science almost has to work on what's fashion, because it's too big to do everything, but over time, if another theory has merit it will eventually be re-introduced or got to. It's just frustrating if you happen to be in favour of an alternative. Look at all the effort that has gone into string theory, which may well prove to be a dead end.

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  15. Well, having read both Peter Woit's Not even wrong and Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics I think one has to admit that they present pretty good insiders' arguments for saying that string theory is dead in the water.

    And actually Woit's blog, itself called 'Not Even Wrong', currently has his own report on the 2011 String Conference, and it seems like most string theorists are themselves at least in the process of giving up the idea.

    Actually I personally don't have a problem with Big Bang theory but only with cosmic inflation in particular, and especially its idea that the expansion of the early universe could accelerate to faster than the speed of light.

    There's supposed to be an argument that relativity doesn't apply to a universe that's creating spacetime as it expands. But I reckon if Einstein was still around he'd object to faster-than-light universal expansion more strongly and effectively than he did to the Bohr/Heisenberg/Pauli/Born interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    And Sir Roger Penrose has been steadfastly against inflation if only because the second law of thermodymics says it wouldn't work in producing a universally uniform overall distrubution of matter/energy.

    And then there's the problem with the WMAP measurement of the overall preferred direction in the CMB, the significance of which inflation theorists have been trying hard to minimise.

    I personally have been attempting to work on a sufficiently covincing argument for nonlocally caused Big Bang theory. This requires the representation of such a cause acting from at least two real large scale and unifying extra dimensions of space.

    I find I can produce clear diagrmams representing that action of such an extra-dimensional cause and give a quite detailed account of the evolution of structure on the galactic and larger scales. Although I'm afraid I lack the skills to back it up mathematically.

    But I can cite both the WMAP findings and the close relationship between Milgrom's Law in MOND and the measured acceleration rate of the expansion of the universe as a whole (see Ch.13 of The Trouble with Physics and my own blog) as support for my argument.

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  16. Well, having read both Peter Woit's Not even wrong and Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics I think one has to admit that they present pretty good insiders' arguments for saying that string theory is dead in the water.

    And actually Woit's blog, itself called 'Not Even Wrong', currently has his own report on the 2011 String Conference, and it seems like most string theorists are themselves at least in the process of giving up the idea.

    Actually I personally don't have a problem with Big Bang theory but only with cosmic inflation in particular, and especially its idea that the expansion of the early universe could accelerate to faster than the speed of light.

    There's supposed to be an argument that relativity doesn't apply to a universe that's creating spacetime as it expands. But I reckon if Einstein was still around he'd object to faster-than-light universal expansion more strongly and effectively than he did to the Bohr/Heisenberg/Pauli/Born interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    And Sir Roger Penrose has been steadfastly against inflation if only because the second law of thermodymics says it wouldn't work in producing a universally uniform overall distrubution of matter/energy.

    And then there's the problem with the WMAP measurement of the overall preferred direction in the CMB, the significance of which inflation theorists have been trying hard to minimise.

    I personally have been attempting to work on a sufficiently covincing argument for nonlocally caused Big Bang theory. This requires the representation of such a cause acting from at least two real large scale and unifying extra dimensions of space.

    I find I can produce clear diagrmams representing that action of such an extra-dimensional cause and give a quite detailed account of the evolution of structure on the galactic and larger scales. Although I'm afraid I lack the skills to back it up mathematically.

    But I can cite both the WMAP findings and the close relationship between Milgrom's Law in MOND and the measured acceleration rate of the expansion of the universe as a whole (see Ch.13 of The Trouble with Physics and my own blog) as support for my argument.

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  17. Oops! Sorry about the double posting, I've only just noticed it.

    Theorists these days also have to contend with the growing evidence of the very early formation of galaxies and quasars.

    http://esciencenews.com/articles/2010/01/05/astronomers.detect.earliest.galaxies

    http://www.dawn.com/2011/06/30/scientists-discover-brightest-earliest-quasar.html

    I find this evidence is consistent with a nonlocal and extradimensiomal causation that reduces in strength as the universe expands.

    Such a cause would act as a universal template for galaxy formation and, as such, would have acted most strongly immediately after the universe became atomic.

    Also, because the causation can be regarded as an extradimensional reflection of the early and very early universe, it would have acted most strongly towards the centre of protogalaxies. This would mean that in the largest of the earliest formed protogalaxies could have quickly evolved central black holes.

    Then, later on, the rate of evolution of galaxies could have been more sedate.

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