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From Issue Three, October 2010 « Previous Article

A Tale of Two Sciences: Memoirs of a Dissident Scientist

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The meaning of “science" has changed over the years. The word is derived from the Latin scientia, which has as its primary meaning “knowing“ or “knowledge“ – and so is very broad in scope. However, the definition of “science“ in a current dictionary of the English language (Webster’s) is “knowledge obtained by study and by practice, or a department of systematized knowledge, or a branch of study concerned with observation and facts, especially with the establishment of verifiable general laws, chiefly by induction and hypotheses,“ which is much more restrictive. Science now suggests a very sophisticated and detailed form of knowledge that one learns, typically at a university, over a period of years.

In the process of becoming professionalized, science has become compartmentalized. It is now organized into many disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, behavioral science, etc., each with its own subdisciplines. That is all well and good – except that some topics may not fit neatly into these prescribed boxes. There’s the rub. Should one ignore those topics, or should one try to modify the boxes? I advocate the latter. I would like to see a less restrictive, and more flexible, interpretation of the word “science“ – one that will include unconventional topics as well as the conventional ones.

Malcolm Longair, a distinguished astrophysicist, warns that “it is difficult to be taken very seriously as a scientist if you mix up real science with quasi-scientific pursuits such as parapsychology, UFOs, extrasensory perception, etc.“ (Longair, 1984.) To the orthodox scientific community, “real science“ is “PC“ (politically correct), and topics such as those just mentioned are “non-PC “ (not politically correct). However, my goal [in this book] is to argue that no topic is (or is not) intrinsically “scientific“ – it is the research on the topic that may or may not so qualify.

The scientific community can, if it wishes, take the “quasi“ out of “quasi-scientific.“ This may be worthwhile, since a professional response to such challenges may pay unforeseen dividends, possibly leading to new scientific techniques applicable to other areas of research or to a new scientific perspective that is broader than our current one. For any such topic, there are three possible outcomes: (a) a consensus that the purported phenomenon has no reality; (b) a conclusion that the phenomenon is real and, on close inspection, is found to be explicable in terms of current scientific theory; or (c) a conclusion that the phenomenon is real, but it is an anomaly in the sense that it does not conform to current scientific theory. Any one of these conclusions (especially the third) would represent an advance in human knowledge.

The word “anomaly,“ according to Webster, is derived from the Greek an  [meaning “not“] and homalos  [meaning “even“] and signifies a “deviation from the common rule,“ or “something out of keeping, especially with accepted notions of fitness or order.“ In referring to an anomaly in science, we think first of the former, manifestly intellectual, definition – a result in scientific research that does not conform to expectations based on the prevalent theory. However, many readers will be aware that anomalies also have a sociological import;  they may be “out of keeping with accepted notions of fitness or order.“ An anomaly will primarily present an intellectual challenge, but it may secondarily comprise a political challenge, since the advocate of an anomaly is challenging the authority of those advocating the relevant orthodoxy. However, “Many times in the history of human thought, a belief once heretical has become a universally accepted truth“ (Mallone, 1959).

Anomalies should be the lifeblood of science. Niels Bohr once said that “progress in science is impossible without a paradox,“ and Richard Feynman (1956) has remarked that “the thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting.“

The crucial point to note about anomaly is that it is a relative concept, not an absolute concept. A result is an anomaly only with respect to a given theory or hypothesis. In scientific research, it would typically be an experimental or observational result that is not in accord with current theory. Therein lies its importance: An anomaly provides a test of a theory. As Feynman’s remark implies, it is much more important to search for facts that do not agree with current theory than to find further facts that do agree with that theory. If a certain fact, which is incompatible with a given theory, can be firmly established, then that theory must be modified or abandoned. . . .

Different anomalies evoke very different responses from the scientific community. I suggest that we distinguish three categories, which we may refer to as “OK Anomalies,“ “Not-OK Anomalies,“ and “Sleeping Anomalies.“

  • An “OK Anomaly“ is one that has been discovered by an established scientist, preferably using expensive equipment, and that appears to be an anomaly that scientists can cope with.
  • A “Not-OK Anomaly“ is one that is not obviously resolvable and presents an unwelcome challenge to established scientists, possibly (but not necessarily) because it has been discovered by a nonscientist.
  • A “Sleeping Anomaly“ is one that has not yet been generally recognized as an anomaly.

A list of current Not-OK Anomalies would contain many topics that are generally dismissed as bogus by the scientific community [as Malcolm Longair explained above]. Young scientists aspiring to tenure, tread cautiously – and inconspicuously! . . .

Of course, facing the unknown is nothing new in science, and “to deny the existence of what cannot be explained would leave very little to work with“ (Birch, 1973). Those who think about science do not regard our current scientific knowledge as absolute and immutable. Witness the following remarks:

Carl Sagan (1973): I would like to return to the question of possible new or alternative laws of physics. [Maybe] there are new laws of nature to be found even under familiar circumstances. I think it is a kind of intellectual chauvinism to assume that all the laws of physics have been discovered by the year of our meeting.

Vladimir Ginzburg (1973): Science of course never ends. There will always be new laws and clarifications. When we say some law of physics is valid, we always bear in mind that it is true within certain limits of applicability.

Edgar Mitchell (1993): There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural . . . We should strive to fill those gaps of ignorance.

What lies beyond the blue horizon may be just more of our familiar and comfortable terrain, but, on the other hand, it may not. It may be something new. Even so, what may be a new model of reality in the twenty-first century may in turn become the old model of reality in the twenty-second century.


The preceding was excerpted from A Tale of Two Sciences: Memoirs of a Dissident Scientist (Copyright @2009) by Peter Sturrock, with permission from the author.


Notes

M. S. Longhair, Theoretical Concepts in Physics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 23.

S. H. Mallone, S.H., the article “Heresy” (1959) in Encyclopedia Britannica.

R. Feynman, The Relation of Science and Religion, Lecture Series on Engineering and Science XIX, June 1956.

F. Birch, Address on the Award of The Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1973), The Observatory 93, 218.

C. Sagan, Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, ed. C. Sagan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975) p. 206.

V. L. Ginzburg, ibid, p. 208.

E. Mitchell, Publication of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, November 14, 1993.

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