Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, January 4th, 2015.


The Relativity of Science

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environment, science

We are nearing the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Yes, I know we’re all tingly with anticipation. But I do have a point.

Einstein had published a special theory of relativity in 1906, and both the special and general theories go way over my head, so I will not be explaining them. All I can tell you is that the famous E = mc2 equation came out in 1906.

However, the story goes, Einstein wanted to incorporate gravity into his theory. So he thought and thought, and then he came up with some mathematical equations to show how all this stuff he was thinking about might work. According to Wikipedia, “These equations specify how the geometry of space and time is influenced by whatever matter and radiation are present, and form the core of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” Einstein presented these equations to the Prussian Academy of Science in 1915, and he published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

At that point, it was all arithmetic, using approximation methods, whatever those are. After the equations were published, more physicists studied and elaborated on the equations and came up with other mathematical models to explain stuff like black holes and the Big Bang. Einstein also kept working, and in 1917 he came up with a theory called the cosmological constant that assumed the cosmos is static, which later was shown to be not true. So the cosmological constant theory was tossed. But scientists continued to work on general relativity.

At the time Einstein published his general relativity equations, there was hardly any empirical data to corroborate them. Einstein had thought way outside the box and pushed concepts of the laws of physics way beyond what that had actually been tested or observed. That’s largely because at the time there was no way to test most of it.

As time went on a few things were observed that seemed to fit Einstein’s model, but serious testing of some parts of the theory didn’t begin until the 1950s, at a point technology made testing possible.  Through the years various tests and observations made possible by advances in technology have confirmed that matter and energy and whatnot do behave as Einstein had predicted they would.  And testing continues. In 2013 news stories announced that physicists had observed more stuff in space that provided an “unprecedented” test of Einstein’s predictions, and the predictions held. However,

Scientists know general relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915, isn’t the complete story. While it does very well describing large, massive systems, it’s incompatible with quantum mechanics, which governs the physics of the very small. For something extremely small, yet extremely massive — such as a black hole — the two theories contradict each other, and scientists are left without a physical description. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

So after all this time, gravity partly remains a mystery. Scientists are still not sure in all particulars exactly how gravity works. There’s still a lot about the universe that confounds the models and catches people off guard. Stephen Hawking wrote,

Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. We do not yet have a good theoretical understanding of the observations that the expansion of the universe is accelerating again, after a long period of slowing down. Without such an understanding, we cannot be sure of the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand forever? Is inflation a law of Nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again? New observational results and theoretical advances are coming in rapidly. Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting close to answering the age old questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from?

I think Hawking is overstepping science with the “why” question, but I concede he’s a lot smarter than I am.

Science being what it is, it’s likely someday some physics nerd will publish a theory that shows how the discrepancies between Einstein’s work and quantum mechanics might be resolved, and then they’ll spend a century or so testing it. Science at this level is never settled.

Now on to today’s most contentious science issue — climate change. (I bet you can see where I’m going now.)

A Harvard professor on the history of science named Naomi Oreskes says that scientists today are being way too cautious with their climate change predictions.  “The year just concluded is about to be declared the hottest one on record, and across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted,” she writes.

Of course, in popular media we are perpetually being told that climate change is not happening at all, but let’s go on. Professor Oreskes continues,

Science is conservative, and new claims of knowledge are greeted with high degrees of skepticism. When Copernicus said the Earth orbited the sun, when Wegener said the continents drifted, and when Darwin said species evolved by natural selection, the burden of proof was on them to show that it was so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this conservatism generally took the form of a demand for a large amount of evidence; in the 20th century, it took on the form of a demand for statistical significance.

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence. Typically, scientists apply a 95 percent confidence limit, meaning that they will accept a causal claim only if they can show that the odds of the relationship’s occurring by chance are no more than one in 20. But it also means that if there’s more than even a scant 5 percent possibility that an event occurred by chance, scientists will reject the causal claim. It’s like not gambling in Las Vegas even though you had a nearly 95 percent chance of winning.

Compare/contrast to the infamous “one percent doctrine” of Dick Cheney — if there is even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction the United States must act as if this were a certainty.  So we just need 1 percent proof to launch a war, but the Right now demands 100 percent proof before lifting a finger to address climate change.

Oreskes argues that scientists have been so well trained to avoid jumping to conclusions that practically no amount of empirical proof is good enough to dispel the qualifiers and the caution. In other words, in the world of science, nothing is ever settled. No scientific theory, even stuff that’s been accepted for generations and observed and tested to within an inch of its life, is ever placed beyond all doubt.

And the absolute worst sin, the thing that will get one booted out of the Science Club, is being thought of as too credulous. So no matter how many tons of empirical evidence one may collect to support one’s theories, lectures and published papers are always embroidered in language that gives the scientist an escape hatch if part of it is challenged by new data.

And then when powerful monied factions, such as the fossil fuel industry, find science inconvenient, the simplest way to discredit it is to point to the qualifiers and the caution. Scientists aren’t certain yet, so it’s too soon to act.

But scientists are never certain. They might be certain of a particular fact, like the boiling point of water, but on the level of theory they are never certain. There’s always something more that could be learned, on some level. That’s the catch.

It’s also the case that theories are big, complicated beasts that could be partly right and partly wrong, like Einstein’s General Relativity probably is mostly right except on a quantum physics level, where it seems to be missing something. So if data come in showing that some parts of a projection are not working as anticipated, this doesn’t necessarily mean the entire model is wrong. If several scientists independently come up with different projections that don’t match in all particulars, that doesn’t mean they have no idea what they’re doing and we should just ignore them.

As I understand it, climate change theory really didn’t get off the ground until the 1970s, which makes it relatively new. Data collected by satellites and such have provided scientists with huge amounts of information about the Earth’s climate and what affects it that wasn’t available before, and so even as they collect data and formulate predictions they’re still facing a huge learning curve. So it’s no wonder they don’t speak in absolutes, but with some caution.

At the same time, the denialists seize on every uncertainty and wave it around as “proof” that climate change science is entirely debunked. For example, although the earth keeps breaking heat records every year, for the past 16 years atmospheric temperatures have not changed. As far as the denialists  (I refuse to call them “skeptics”; skeptics are people who doubt and question, and denialism is just knee-jerk dogma) are concerned, this is “proof” all models showing climate change are just a hoax. Scientists actually have several explanations for why atmospheric temperatures are stable and expect the “hiatus” to reverse itself, possibly soon.

I started this post by talking about Einstein. Recently I had an exchange with a denialist who told me that science is “black and white” and based on empirical evidence,  and (he said) there is no empirical evidence for climate change. Actually there’s tons of empirical evidence; the challenge isn’t getting the evidence, but interpreting it. Unlike Einstein’s theory, which began as ideas expressed in mathematical equations that mostly weren’t tested with any thoroughness until after the great genius had died, and which still haven’t been completely proved after a century, climate change science grew out of the empirical evidence.

But when I brought up gravity as something that still isn’t understood in any “black and white” way, this individual claimed Einstein’s theories were entirely empirical, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. I even explained the testing history of the Theory of General Relativity and provided a dictionary definition of “empirical” — based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic. He wouldn’t budge. Because Einstein’s theories have been proved correct today, he said, they were “empirical” all along.

And, you know, when someone is sunk that deeply into pure illogic, there’s not a whole lot one can do to change his mind. But while it’s futile to discuss any of this with the dogmatic denialists, I think it’s important to keep talking about this, because there are people out there who are not dogmatic denialists but just haven’t heard all the facts who might be persuaded.

BTW, this year might be the Year the Pope Stopped Being Catholic, as far as the Right is concerned. His Holiness Pope Francis is expected to issue either an edict or an encyclical, according to various news sources that probably don’t know the difference between an edict and an encyclical either, that climate change is a moral imperative that Catholics must address. Already Fox News has declared that Pope Francis has aligned himself with “environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth distribution.” I project sooner or later they will declare the Pope is a God-hating liberal. With righties, either you’re with ’em, or you’re the enemy.

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