An Example of the Problem of Scientism in Scientific Reporting


#1

There exists a largely undiscussed problem in how science is discussed and reported on online, and it's having a huge, negative effect upon the way in which science is professionally practiced. The problem is that of "scientism" -- which, in short, is the widespread failure of people to at least conceptually understand that which they nevertheless believe.

I wanted to point out a very important example which follows a general pattern that has been observable to many who are paying attention for quite some time now. If a person peeks around the various forums online on the subject of "The Electric Universe", they will run into a lot of objections which generally fail to actually engage the claims of the theory. It would seem that faith in conventional theories is so great that many people have simply decided to not pay attention to the routine successes of some alternative theories. The Electric Universe (EU) is an excellent case in point.

Let me explain one very simple example, which I think can definitively make this point.

The conventional notion of our universe is that gravity is the dominant force, and that although we can see electricity and magnetism heavily sprinkled throughout, that those are in fact disconnected, localized and secondary side-effects of the more fundamental force, gravity. This is a foundational assumption in science that, when questioned, is typically treated as a hostile personal attack. It's a peculiar assumption insofar as gravity is actually the weakest force we know of.

The problem for those who accept this assumption as though its a holy fact, without carefully looking into it, is that the evidence seems to increasingly be pointing the other way.

Consider this: In a universe dominated by gravity, we would generally expect that the charged particles we would observe outside of the Sun's "atmosphere" -- its heliosphere -- would generally be quite random. In fact, of the numerous (35?) predictions for what the Voyager probe would see as it left our solar system, there was a perfect consensus on this single point since it follows necessarily from the premise of a gravity-dominated universe.

And yet, that's not at all what is being observed. See the Wired Magazine article at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/06/voyager-unexpected-region/ ...

Researchers know that Voyager 1 entered the edge of the solar wind in
2003, when the spacecraft’s instruments indicated that particles
around it were moving subsonically, having slowed down after traveling
far from the sun. Then, about a year ago, everything got really quiet
around the probe. Voyager 1’s instruments indicated at the solar wind
suddenly dropped by a factor of 1,000, to the point where it was
virtually undetectable. This transition happened extremely fast,
taking roughly a few days.

At the same time, the measurements of galactic cosmic rays increased
significantly, which would be “just as we expected if we were outside
the solar wind,” said physicist Ed Stone of Caltech, Voyager’s project
scientist and lead author of one of the Science papers. It looked
almost as if Voyager 1 had left the sun’s influence.

So what’s the problem? Well, if the solar wind was completely gone,
galactic cosmic rays should be streaming in from all directions.
Instead, Voyager found them coming preferentially from one direction.

Many of you out there will perhaps shrug your shoulders at this point. Who cares, right?

You should care ... And a lot. Let's get real here: The collective movement of charged particles is generally called an electric current. What Voyager is witnessing is that our solar system appears to be connected to a flow of electric current.

The Wired article goes on to conclude that researchers have basically given up trying to predict what Voyager will see next, because none of the models they initially proposed ended up working.

But, the truth is that there is one person who has been predicting that an electric current would be observed feeding into our solar system for some time now. His name is Wal Thornhill, and he's affiliated with the Thunderbolts group, which publishes -- yes, in peer reviewed journals like IEEE's Transactions on Plasma Science -- on the topic of the Electric Universe. They have countless videos on YouTube, countless articles on their websites (thunderbolts.info and holoscience.com) and -- many critics fail to realize -- the support of the world's largest scientific institution, the IEEE.

Look at Wal's prediction for the flow of charged particles into our solar system:

http://www.holoscience.com/wp/electric-sun-verified/

Scroll down to the image titled "The Sun's Environment".

What I want to stress with this simple example is that there is a price to be paid when we refuse to learn competing theories which appear to be making successful predictions. The Internet is completely littered with an incredible amount of noise on this particular paradigm (yes, it's a paradigm -- not just a theory). It's really quite sad to see, because there is a lot at stake here. Our conception of the universe and our place within it is the foundation for much of our thought and discourse. If we see the potential for error at this level, we have to treat this very seriously and we must force ourselves to examine it with an open mind -- even if our initial desire is to disbelieve that such a large mistake could even exist. We are obligated to care if we are concerned with the accuracy of our beliefs in science.

I urge the people of BoingBoing to please part ways with the ways in which other forums have dealt with this EU issue. Stop placing faith in the conventional views, and just try to learn this controversy with an open mind. Keep in mind that much of the basis for these ideas come from a Nobel laureate, Hannes Alfven, who used his 1970 acceptance speech to distance himself from the way in which conventional astrophysicists were using the theory he invented (!). This new view of the universe is very, very real, and it's not going away. Please, please, please:

Learn the theory before you decide to critique it.

I also want to kindly ask Maggie and Cory to at least privately start getting up to speed on what is being claimed by these theorists. I fully understand the pressures which exist in scientific reporting. If you want to maintain your contacts, you can't stray too far into the fringes of scientific discourse. Your reputation is on the line. But, realize that there is also a danger for society at large if all of the scientific reporters continue to completely avoid this story because there is a risk that science can become a self-serving system of belief -- instead of a methodology for identifying truth. This topic can be reported on in a way which appeases professional scientists. The trick is to simply take the time required to please learn the theory at the level of the concepts.


#2

Thank you for posting this, I am really enjoying reading up on this subject. But I was a little bit confused by your use of the word "scientism" in the opening paragraph. I take scientism to mean "relying on empirical evidence." Like, for instance, the example you gave about the Voyager probe. Empiricism in science (and science journalism) is a good thing, is it not?


#3

Certain disciplines -- like cosmology and quantum physics -- are empirically-challenged. They exist within a cloud of uncertainty by their very nature. For instance, parallax only works to 1% the diameter of the Milky Way, and there is much we cannot actually see in the quantum domain. We should make sure to never close our minds to alternative ideas for this very reason.

Scientists are forced to look to the theory to make the actual observations in the more speculative disciplines. At a certain point, it becomes a stack of interlinking conjectures. This is rarely explained in the press releases. The task that a critical thinker faces is to understand the reasoning behind each proposition in those press releases. What I'm trying to say is if all of the assumptions and interdependencies were explicitly explained in the press releases, the claims being made would look more like a delicate house of cards.

(Engineers get paid to make things work; scientists have the much harder job of explaining why. Technologies do not necessarily prove inferences. The sort of thing that will stop a scientist in his tracks might lead an engineer to simply experiment through trial and error until it works. Just because the math can be made to work does not mean that scientists understand the physical mechanism at play.)


#5

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