Science versus Science!

One of the things that’s long struck me about astronomy is how, now that we send out space probes and get a close look, the objects in our solar system often turns out to be wildly different than astronomers imagined. The thing to be learned here is that astronomers do a lot of speculating – they have some observations and a toolbox of theories, and they just can’t resist the urge to build. What gets built ends up not matching what further observations reveal. Therefore:

CAUTION! The Objects in This Science! Paper May Be Less Certain Than They Appear!

So, over at the highly recommended Chaos Manner, Dr. Pournelle gives a bit of a mid-book review of  The Static Universe, in which are described astronomical observations and measurements that do not jibe with the Big Bang. His esteemed correspondents chip in. An edifying collection of thoughts – read it!

My only claims to scientific achievement consist in having turned over a small Catholic grade school’s library of Time-Life science books, having read decades worth of Scientific Americans cover to cover, and having cleared the lab and sent a number of students to the infirmary during college chemistry.  (Note: if you’ve used a Bunsen burned to boil off all the liquid in a sample, Do Not immediately add a  nasty chemical  solution to the still very hot crucible. Just FYI.)  Also, read a lot of science history source materials, and studied philosophy and classics. So, of course, I know almost everything!

Therefore, I speculate on cosmology with nary a hint of hubris. At the Chaos Manner linked above,  gentleman named Jean-Louis Beaufils makes a comment I heartily approve of:

Despite it’s name, astrophysics is barely a science, or more accurately, very little of it has the same reliability as physics.

The core problem is the dearth of direct observation and the small size of the observation database.

Therefore Astrophysicists have to:

1) rely on a lot of second-hand data

2) assume that conditions which apply in the Solar system also apply everywhere else.

2) is further compounded by the scarcity of direct observation even within the Solar system.

So most of what’s presented as knowledge about the universe is actually but speculation, not groundless speculation but speculation still.

Almost every time we send a probe to a new part of the Solar system, we discover that things there are different, sometimes dramatically, from what was until then the accepted truth.

If Earth-based observation gives such unreliable results for objects that are only a few AU’s away from us, how can we assume that our hypotheses about objects that are even a few parsecs away actually describe what’s there?

In high school, back when VW Bugs ruled the earth, I remember realizing that the Big Bang rested on, essentially, 2 things: the red shift, and the presence of the predicted background radiation. (I wasn’t smart enough to know that it also falls out of relativity under some understandings.)  I though: you know, that’s a little thin. Are we really comfortable with the idea that the Doppler Effect accounted for 100%, or nearly 100% of the observed red shift? Really? The light we’re seeing has spent sometimes billions of years getting to us over unimaginable distances – how confident are we that nothing else is going on that could shift the spectra red?  Gravity is pretty mysterious – we’ve got some well tested formula that seem to hold very well over interstellar distances – but what about over intergalactic distances? All those red-shifted photons traversed an awful lot of twisted up space – to no effect?

Anyway, what do I know?  Here, unlike a lot of scientific overreach, there doesn’t seem to be much life or death level stuff at stake. It would be enlightening if scientist – science popularizers, more specifically – spent as much effort drawing attention to the specific and general limits of scientific knowledge as they do cheer-leading and patting each other on the back.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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