Thursday, April 28, 2016

Scientific ideas we should forget

     John Brockman, ed. This Idea Must Die (2015) A compilation of answers to the question, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”, posed on in 2014. Brockman arranges the answers, starting with general ones, then roughly by topic, such as quantum physics, neurology, evolution, etc, and ending with math and statistics. Often, a short sequence of essays reads like a dialogue.
     Most answers are directed at a general audience, which of course includes scientists in other fields. The writers try to explicate how the target concept causes mistakes or worse, what a better understanding would look like, and sometimes what concept should replace the target. A handful read like part of an ongoing dispute between the writer and the other specialists in the field.
     I was pleased to see that many of my objections, puzzlements, and exasperations were confirmed or clarified in these essays. One of these is the wave-particle duality interpretation of some experiments in quantum physics, which I think is a holdover from the days when observations and models made a nice clean distinction between things that rippled through, and things that bumped into, each other. QM equations show that this distinction isn’t much use. It’s nonsense to say that entities are both waves and particles. It would be like arguing that because people sometimes exhibit fear and at other times exhibit joy, that human beings are somehow both fearful and joyful all at once.
     Another of my annoyances is Schrödinger’s Cat. I’m glad to see that Freeman Dyson notes that the wave function isn’t a thing, so it doesn’t collapse. It’s statement of probabilities in some specific context. (Or conversely, it’s a context defined by a distribution of probabilities). An observation measures one of the probable states. At another time, another state will be observed. To argue that somehow all probable states exist at once is like arguing that because Jack is sometimes angry and sometimes happy when he goes to a baseball game, that therefore Jack is both angry and happy until he goes to the game.
     I found some of the best entertainment in the essays dealing with psychology. One writer attacks a concept, another assumes that same concept in order to attack another one. So what’s an non-expert to do?
However, the overall effect of reading these essays is the somewhat depressing reminder that we all hold erroneous or misunderstood scientific ideas. They appear in news reports and TV punditry hourly, and many of them have very bad effects on public understanding and thereby on public opinion, which in turn limits politicians’ beliefs about what can and should be done.
     Misunderstanding of basic math is nowhere more obvious than in news about statistics. Case in point: this morning, I heard a report on rising rates of STDs in Alberta, a roughly 40% increase overall in the last ten years, with the highest rate increases among the young and the old, and the lowest among the middle aged. Well, without the actual numbers, rate increases are pretty well meaningless. An increase of say, 10 to 20 per 10,000 young would be a hundred percent increase, while from 100 to 150 per 10,000 middle-aged people would be only a 50% increase. 50% sounds a lot better than 100%, right? But in this example, 50% is worse, since 50 extra cases will cost five times as much as 10 extra cases.
     The final essay, by Paul Saffo, reminds the reader that the more we know, the more unknowns we encounter. Saffo refers to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the sphere of knowledge. As it expands into the unknown, its surface increases, the contact between known and unknown increases. I developed this idea on my own many years ago, when I thought of the known as an expanding circle. 2D instead of 3D, but otherwise the same. Either way, there will never be an end to the questions we can ask. Even better, there will always be more questions to ask than have already been answered.
     Highly recommended, as is the website. ****

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