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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Science Often Ignores Counter-Evidence

and damned right it should!

Have you ever heard of Orffyreus's Wheel? In the 1700s, a rather eccentric personage named Johann Bessler was exhibiting a perpetual motion machine in Europe. Several prominent scientists examined it and were unable to determine how it worked. There were allegations of fraud, but the method of fraud supposedly employed would not have been possible if first hand accounts of the wheel's operation were accurate. (Note: it is an historical problem to determine what actually was occurring! Science depends upon history.)

In any case, scientists simply ignored this unsolved problem, and went on as if the belief in the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine had never been challenged. And good for them that they did! For science to proceed forward, contrary observations must often be disregarded. Michael Polanyi notes that a very similar thing happened in the 1920s, when a (this time) serious scientist presented multiple observations confirming the existence of the ether. But, by this time, scientists were fully convinced there was no need for this hypothesized entity, and simply ignored the observations. Again, history has proven that to have been a sound judgment.

How does one know when to pay attention to contrary observations and when to ignore them? Well, making that judgment well is why it takes years of training to become a good scientist. There is no rule or algorithm that can be learned from a high school textbook that can make the judgment for you.

14 comments:

  1. It would have helped had Orffyreus had been open about the workings of his machine. It's like Rossi's E-Cat.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/markgibbs/2012/01/08/the-e-cat-real-or-surreal/

    If some unexplainable/contrary phenomenon was widely reproducible and statistically significant, I doubt scientists would ignore it. Those are the things in which they would be most interested!

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  2. "If some unexplainable/contrary phenomenon was widely reproducible and statistically significant, I doubt scientists would ignore it."

    Well, traumerei, I don't have my copy of Polanyi (who was a world-renowned physical chemist before he was a philosopher) with me, so I can't dig up the name, but the example he gives regarding the ether was reproduced by this respectable physicist many times, and was quite significant, and was ignored.

    And rightly so, say both Polanyi and me.

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  3. And of course I suspect, as did the scientists of the time, that Bessler was a charlatan. My point here was that this was never demonstrated, and scientists didn't care, just went on about their business, *assuming* he was a charlatan.

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  4. Oh, and Feyerabend makes the point that all theories are *born* falsified. There are *always* pieces of contrary and unexplained evidence. So long as the theory mostly seems to work and is intellectually satisfying, scientists plunge ahead.

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  5. Michelson-Morely (against ether) or D.C. Miller (for ether)?

    It might be practical to just use the best model available, but in the face of contrary evidence, surely you would put a big asterisk by it.

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  6. "but in the face of contrary evidence, surely you would put a big asterisk by it."

    Yes, it was Miller. And nope, there was no big asterisk. Physicists just ignored the pro-ether evidence. They assumed it was experimental error. Which today we think it was.

    But this was a respected, PhD scientist who had repeatedly found evidence of ether drift.

    Also see the problems with the orbit of Uranus that did not put an asterisk on Newtonian theory.

    Or best of all, read Feyerabend and Polanyi, who have extensive documentation for this sort of thing.

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  7. If physicists assumed it was experimental error, then they should be able to replicate the experiment as to eliminate (or confirm) the anomaly.

    The bias is to confirmation of commonly held beliefs and avoidance of cognitive dissonance.

    I'm not saying that contrary evidence automatically implies a wholesale rejection of a theory but it does introduce greater uncertainty. There might be a strong normal cultural aversion but I hope we can agree that the ideal scientist will not simply ignore contrary evidence.

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  8. For science to proceed forward, contrary observations must often be disregarded.

    Keep this in mind, Gene, the next time you look at your blog traffic report.

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  9. Bob, I find your comment very funny, despite not knowing what the heck it means!

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  10. Great post. The really hilarious thing is that, as Polanyi pointed out, the Michelson-Morley experiment itself didn't actually get the result predicted by special relativity.

    (I just checked to make sure my memory hadn't failed me. It hadn't—the observation is on page 12 of my copy of Personal Knowledge.)

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  11. "I'm not saying that contrary evidence automatically implies a wholesale rejection of a theory but it does introduce greater uncertainty."

    And since for *every* theory there exists contrary evidence, what is this uncertainty greater than?

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  12. Gene,

    I think what Bob is saying is that much of your blog's followers are among those who are "contrarians" to your particular philosophy (at least regarding political philosophy). IOW, many of your blog's followers are those that you wish to "disregard" with regard to political and economic theory.

    In pub parlance, you owe them a beer.

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  13. Well Gene, if I don't have to explain it, it's not funny.

    What I had in mind is that a lot of time you come up with (at least in your mind) real zingers against methodological individualism, a property rights-based approach to social problems, etc. And those of us "in the field" just nod and move on.

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  14. Bob and Joseph,

    The situation is a little different than you depict it. Those Bob thinks of as "in the field" are the last remaining Ptolemaic astronomers. And rather than ignoring them, Joseph, I'm desperately trying to get them to climb aboard before the Copernican ship leaves the harbor and they are left stranded.

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