Reader Feedback – Defending science

I often get long rambling comments on my blog, normally the comments go round-and-round over the same point and I can easily address it with a reply comment. Today I have something a little different, it is a long post, but it is full of good questions. I have decided to give this comment the space it deserves for thorough answers.

This comment was made on my post, Mistaken Authority, in which I address the pseudoscientific claims of Maseru Emoto (who believes that exposing water to different emotions can change the shape of the ice crystals which form when the water is frozen). If you would like to first read the post it is here.

Here is the comment I would like to address, in its entirety:

Good afternoon,

First of all i would like to apologize for any failures of my english.

I dont really understand the skeptic approaches, because, many times, they lack clarity and are always supported by mainstream science, meaning that, mainstream science is, in a lot of situations, nothing more than an agreement between men. I will give you my perpective.
The first example is the placebo effect. I presume that you are familiar with the placebo effect. And my question is, how does science justifie such an effect? How does a sugar pill substitute a drug producing the cure? Science cant yet understand the placebo effect, but, because it is an undiniable effect, widely confirmed i bet skecptics accept it with no questions asked. However, it sounds a lot like pseudoscience; “a sugar pill can cure just because you have a lot of faith in it?!”. Tottaly sounds like pseudoscience (i have a master degree in Psychology and i’ve written essays on that matter, with a lot of research and, from what i have read everywhere, it is an undeniable effect). So this is a question that science cannot prove or disprove, but still true.
Second lets focus on science about the universe, the science thaught in schools, universities and wide spread in channels like national geografic. Let me ask you this: how do scientists prove the existence of dark matter, if no one has ever touched it or seen it? And how does science proves that, in galaxy thousands of light-years away there is a planet with earth-like conditions or that there is a planet with a corrosive atmosphere if no one has ever been able to touch it, see it( or even a space probe)? And about our planet i would ask: how does science states that the inside of our planet is divided into layers with different constitutions and properties(5 of them), if we didnt even drill down until the end of the first layer? And to finish this set of questions( i could keep asking questions like this for hours), i ask you how can science say that the theory of evolution is true if we are yet to find the transitional fossils, or the so called missing links?
Do you want to know the answers to all this questions? Speculation… We take this things for granted and theach this at school, but no one has ever touched or found ways to prove without any doubt that dark matter exists, no one has ever been to other galaxys, no one has found the missing link to say that evolution happened the way it is taught and no one has ever been to center of the earth (beside Jules Verne, of course. Just kidding).
And it is all of this that highlights the intelectual blindness and arrogance of the skeptics when they criticize someone like mr Masaru Emoto, that, most likely, has spent more hours in a laboratory (with years of mastery in laboratory techniques)than you probably ever will;you accept everything that was agreed by the majority whitout questioning(wich shows lack of creativity and lack of legitimacy to counter-argue) but if someone dares to challenge current paradigms, or dares to propose something never before explored, it is ridiculed.
Im going to give a small historical example:it was in ancient Greece, 2500 years ago, which for the first time someone has speculated about the existence of fundamental constituents of matter(not the fundamental, because now scientists speculate about the sub-atomic particles, like quarks), the atom (it was the Greeks who named the particle); however it took almost 2500 years for man to develop technical means to achieve confirmation of this millennial speculation. If we take history as a guide we will readily perceive that any concrete science, before it becomes science it was someone’s speculation: indeed, if there was no speculation about new possibilities the world would be static and we wouldnt invent anything more.
I think that it is much more easy to destroy someones work, than to built something new.

-Paulo

The Placebo Effect

Despite Paulo’s Masters degree in Psychology, he badly misunderstands the placebo effect, its use and how scientific skepticism, and those who practice it, view the subject.

A placebo can be broadly defined as “a substance or procedure… that is objectively without specific activity for the condition being treated.” Following from this, the placebo effect is the psychological effect which treatment with a placebo may have on a patient. The placebo effect probably occurs because the patient expects the treatment or procedure to be effective. Physical conditions do not improve when treated with a placebo, the patient’s condition is not cured (as Paulo mistakenly believes), it is the patient’s perception of an improvement in symptoms which characterise a placebo.

Paulo asks  “how does a sugar pill substitute a drug producing the cure?” It doesn’t. If a sugar pill is given to a patient as a placebo, that patient may perceive a reduction in her symptoms, but there has been no cure. A doctor cannot prescribe a placebo to a patient where there is an effective drug to treat a condition, it would be unethical to do so.

Furthermore, scientists and skeptics don’t just accept the placebo effect unquestioningly. There is, undeniably, a measurable effect and it is constantly being studied. The placebo is not just about the pills (or drops, or spoons-full-of-medicine), it is about the cultural meaning of the treatment. In his superb book, Bad Science, Ben Goldacre explains it beautifully;

Pills don’t simply manifest themselves in your stomach, they are given in particular ways, they take varying forms, and they are swallowed with expectations, all of which have an impact on a person’s beliefs about their own health, and in turn, on outcome.

Paulo, you may have read a lot about the placebo effect, but it is clear to me that you do not understand it at all.

“Science about the Universe”

I’m so glad that you are asking these questions, Paulo, because astronomy is one of my greatest interests. I will do the best I can to answer your questions as accurately as I can.

1. How do scientists prove the existence of dark matter if no one has ever touched it or seen it?

The short answer here is, we don’t. Dark matter is matter that is inferred to exist from gravitational effects on visible matter and background radiation, but is undetectable by emitted or scattered electromagnetic radiation. Simply put, we can’t see it but we can measure its effects on the universe around us.

Dark matter was postulated by Fritz Zwicky in 1934 to account for evidence of “missing mass” in the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters. Subsequently, other observations have indicated the presence of dark matter in the universe; these observations include the rotational speeds of galaxies, gravitational lensing of background objects by galaxy clusters such as the Bullet Cluster, and the temperature distribution of hot gas in galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Although we can observe the effects of dark matter on the universe, we have no direct evidence of its existence, and alternative theories, involving modified gravitational laws, have been proposed to explain the effects which dark matter has been used to account for. Personally, I am a dark matter skeptic, I am not entirely convinced that it exists, but because I am not an expert in the matter I defer to the scientific consensus that it exists and can account for the gravitational anomalies we detect.

How does science proves that, in galaxy thousands of light-years away there is a planet with earth-like conditions or that there is a planet with a corrosive atmosphere if no one has ever been able to touch it, see it( or even a space probe)?

As far as I am aware, there has not been a single claim of an extrasolar planet being found in any galaxy other than the Milky Way. The only planets we have found are in our own galaxy.

There are a variety of methods which scientists use for finding these planets, including measuring tiny wobbles in the star as a planet orbits it, measuring fluctuations in the light emitted by the star as a planet passes in front of it, and direct imaging (taking a photo of the planet).

Direct image of exoplanets around the star HR8799 using a vortex coronograph on a 1.5m portion of the Hale telescope

Spectroscopic measurements can be used to determine the composition of a planet’s atmosphere. This is done by analysing the light which the star emits before an orbiting exoplanet passes in front of it, and during that planet’s transit. Any chemicals which are present during the transit (which are not there when the planet is not between Earth and its parent star) can reasonably be assumed to be present in the planets atmosphere.

How does science states that the inside of our planet is divided into layers with different constitutions and properties(5 of them), if we didnt even drill down until the end of the first layer?

(I am going to borrow from Wikipedia to answer this question, I believe that this is suitable because the question about the composition of the Earth is not a controversial one.)

The average density of Earth is 5,515 kg/m3. Since the average density of surface material is only around 3,000 kg/m3, we must conclude that denser materials exist within Earth’s core. Further evidence for the high density core comes from the study of seismology.

Seismic measurements show that the core is divided into two parts, a solid inner core and a liquid outer core extending beyond it. The solid inner core was discovered in 1936 by Inge Lehmann and is generally believed to be composed primarily of iron and some nickel. In early stages of Earth’s formation about 4.5 billion (4.5×109) years ago, melting would have caused denser substances to sink toward the center in a process called planetary differentiation, while less-dense materials would have migrated to the crust. The core is thus believed to largely be composed of iron (80%), along with nickel and one or more light elements, whereas other dense elements, such as lead and uranium, either are too rare to be significant or tend to bind to lighter elements and thus remain in the crust.

 I ask you how can science say that the theory of evolution is true if we are yet to find the transitional fossils, or the so called missing links?

The entire notion of a “missing link” should be thrown out. There is no such thing as a missing link, and this argument has been made popular by creationists who are trying to shoe-horn their religious views into the scientific understanding of the evolution of species through natural selection. Every single fossil can be considered to be in transition in some way. And every time someone says “huh! There’s no fossil linking fossil X and fossil Y!”, we find one!

This has happened over and over again – with whales, turtles, bats – the list is longer than my arm. The fossil record is not complete, because of the nature of how fossilisation occurs, because of the way that the Earth recycles rock in subduction zones, pulling the surface of the Earth down into the mantle to be melted and become part of the liquid magma.

In an interesting twist, every time we find a fossil which seems to fill a gap, another two gaps form. Trying to confuse the theory of evolution by pointing out apparent gaps in the fossil record betrays nothing more than the pointer’s lack of understanding of the theory he is trying to confuse.

* * *

The remainder of Paulo’s comment is a fallacious attack on the body of scientific knowledge and the scientific process itself. The problem is that Paulo has built this attack on an incomplete knowledge of the very questions he has tried to use in order to shoot down the single most productive endeavour in human history.

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2 responses to “Reader Feedback – Defending science

  1. As devoted practioner of the scientific method I agree with Paulo. And I see you abuse his generalizations in an absurd way. For one thing as Paulo starts his conversation he kindly reminds of his English level, which is noticeable throughout the text.(I cannot belive your word play with “cure”, just mention he should have used the word “improve” ) What he is trying to express about placebo effect is; it is an easily observable phenomenon but we lack the theory to explain it. By observing the history of science one would expect a future theory to explain it, probably a theory that would have been considered extraordinary, unacceptable and absurd.

    As with the questions he asked the answers are not important. If you look it from the point of evolution, the pioneer of that thought were not just ridiculed but manhunted. But later the number of evidence supporting that theory crushed other possibilities. The layers within the earth and dark matter, I would also agree with you that they are facts and that they are there. But they were speculation in the beginning. Maybe I could ask a better question than Paulo;
    In nowadays physics there is a strange buzzword; “string theory”. Its practioners are well respected academicians,it a sophisticated theory, it removes many problems of physics, it could be called in the future as the fundamental theory of physics (or universe), but it fails to satisfy a fundamental requirement of physics; Verification by experiments. So how do we know it is the answer to the ultimate question of physics. How do we know the parallel universes exist. For the time we don’t, we just SPECULATE. And I dont like speculation, but it is the first step in science.

    Paulo is just trying to state that, to be able to dismiss any idea you have to use the scientific method, hence experimentation. Any idea is just speculation until it is proven or disproven by experiments. As with the string theory, we dont just throw it away because of lack of proof and scientist keep speculating about it because of lack of counterproof. (One of the worst things about string theory it kind of makes itself unprovable by tiny little mini dimensions in the first place)

    I remember reading Larry Nivens Ringworld. One of the fascinating aspects of the book was that a superior species to humans were experimenting on humans about luck. When a human commented about it the more intelligent allien replied “you dont have the scientific means to explain luck yet” or something like that. It was fascinating because I just accepted that some people are lucky, but I never looked for anything behind it. (I will ignore anything unless it is proven by experiment)
    The fact that we cannot even think about it doesnt mean that there is no consistent and mathematically modellable mechanism behind phenomenon. If you ask like what, How come that 5% percent of humans are left handed without any regards to genetics, race, gender or geography?

  2. Excellent and concise responses to all of Paulo’s questions. I hope that Paulo returns to read these responses and continues to reply to work towards rational discussion.

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