Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Science Got It Wrong - And So Made Progress

Ripples from dawn of creation vanish in a puff of dust - physics-math - 22 September 2014 - New Scientist

Okay, so scientists got one wrong.

They thought they had found solid evidence of the ripples in the background microwave radiation predicted by the inflation model of the Big Bang and so confirmed the inflation hypothesis. Now it seems the result could have been due to cosmic dust.

The story goes back to last March when the BICEP2 collaboration published a draft paper claiming with a high degree of confidence to have found evidence of changes in the polarization of light consistent with it passing through these ripples. Their confidence was based in part on the belief that they had looked at an area of space mostly clean of dust which introduces noise into the system masking any underlying statistically significant data.

Doubts then began to emerge as the team delayed publication of a paper detailing possible sources of error ahead of formal publication in a peer-reviewed journal, although they had submitted their finding for peer review and other researchers began to question their assumptions about the amount of cosmic dust

Finally, this morning the team have admitted they got it wrong, saying it is very likely that BICEP2's signal was just down to dust. This is far from being evidence against inflation itself which, as a hypothesis, is exactly where it was before last March - a hypothesis which explains the observable evidence but for which there is as yet no direct evidence - no smoking gun. No doubt though anti-science campaigners for religion will claim it a evidence again the Big Bang.

Here is where we see the major difference between science and religion. Consider the current hypothesis (to be generous) that a god created the Universe. This is based on certain assumptions such as the assumption that the Universe had a cause, or even a beginning so far as that makes any sense in a Universe where time and space also started at the Big Bang so there could have been no time and no space in which to create a Universe and nothing to create it from. It's also based on the assumption that the hypothecated god actually exists.

Be that as it may, however, what the religious view of creation lacks is the smoking gun. There is no evidence that a god exists and the entire edifice is based on the circular argument that the god must exist otherwise it couldn't have created the Universe therefore the Universe is evidence itself of a creator god. The same logic could be used to prove that a peanut butter sandwich created the Universe of course. It must have done so otherwise the Universe wouldn't be here... blah, blah, blah...

But which apologist for any religion, most of whom use the same circular argument to 'prove' that their creation myth is the right one, is ever going to publish a paper in a journal of theology or even publish a brief communication admitting that what they thought was evidence for their own creator god was no such thing after all, that there is still no verified evidence that the hypothesis was in fact true and they still have no actual evidence that the creator ever existed?

To admit that would be to admit that the sacred dogma on which their religion is based is moot and has no basis in fact.

It is this ability; this built in doubt and review, that makes science the self-correcting and, in the long term, dependable, tool for discovering the truth. No serious scientist would claim a hypothesis such as the inflation model for the first few microseconds in the life of the Universe is evidence in itself for its own truth, no matter how convincingly it fits the observable data. It's also why science converges on a single truth whilst religions, by contrast, diversify and fragment as one evidence-free hypothesis after another is held up as self-validating and requiring no more evidence than the hypothesis itself. In other words, truth by fiat, the triumph of dogma over evidence and the appeal of the easy answer with a low regard for truth.

This openness and willingness to admit errors built into the fundamentals of the scientific method, and deeply embedded in the scientific culture, enables science to learn not only from its successes but also, and often just as usefully, from it's mistakes. People working in the field of cosmology now know they have to be much more critical of their own methodology and allow for the fact that there may be few if any areas of space sufficiently free from background noise to detect ripples in the background microwave radiation, at least from Earth with the amount of data currently available.

The mistaken claim to have discovered compelling evidence to validate the inflation hypothesis might have been a temporary failure of methodology on the part of the BICEP2 collaboration but its review, reevaluation and withdrawal is a triumph for science and the scientific method.

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  1. "It is this ability; this built in doubt and review, that makes science the self-correcting and, in the long term, dependable, tool for discovering the truth."

    The key words there are "in the long term".

    Funny thing about that... scientists and their fans don't ever bother to wait for the long term before proclaiming they've solved whatever problem.

    This makes science appear to be a structure that, at any current moment, is run by a band of idiots no smarter than the local priest.

    It doesn't exactly build confidence.

    1. Until you look at what science has achieved.

    2. Agreed! So plain to see unless one has a one track narrow-mind full of ulterior motives.

    3. And what in the long term of religious hyperbole was ever anything other than debunked nonsense. When reading bibles and gospels one can only wonder how such a ridiculous notion was ever able to fool the world. Of course, as believers love to purport. Bibles were examples rather than absolute truths.

  2. An appropriate and relevant quote from Sherlock Holmes: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

    Unfortunately Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't follow this good advice in his own life.

  3. BTW, here's a very good article about how to tell science from pseudoscience - or, if you like, how to recognize apologetic and/or fundamentalistic bullshit reasoning: http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/anti-gmo-bad-science-checklist/ .


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