We don’t know!

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov via last.fm

I like the quote from Isaac Asimov which goes something like:

“The most exhilarating statement in science is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘Hmm, that’s funny’!”

Every researcher knows the feeling. When our experiments or observations produce the result we didn’t expect. That conflicts with our hypothesis – or even better conflicts with current theory.

Because we know this means progress. We have found something we can’t explain and that gives us a chance to discover something new.

Good scientists are not afraid to say “I don’t know!” Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. However, we should not be satisfied with it. So scientists usually add “Let’s find out!”

That’s why it is galling to hear opponents of science claim that we are an arrogant lot. That we claim to know everything. Or that we claim we can, eventually, know everything.

I confronted these sort of arguments recently in a discussion with some religious apologists (see Science and Religion: Theism and Explanatory Idleness). They were criticising scientific arrogance. Claiming that many scientists had a “science of the gaps” approach – assuming everything could eventually be explained by science alone.  I challenged the claim – asking for evidence of any scientist advancing the argument. And was told to google Dawkins!

Ah, the Dawkins who doesn’t exist but has been invented as an apologist voodoo doll (see The Dawkins Delusions).

Mysteries of the universe

Anyway – this brings me to an excellent series of podcasts that are worth subscribing to – Astronomy Cast. In these astronomer Dr Pamela Gray discusses a different topic each week with Fraser Cain. Its always interesting and informative.

Their “mission statement” is usually to tell the listener what we know about astronomy and how we know it. But recently they devoted  six podcasts to things we can’t explain. Things we can’t explain yet, or may never be able to explain. Questions for which our answer is, unashamedly, “we don’t know!” Even – “we may never know!”

I especially liked  Ep. 178: Mysteries of the Universe, Part 1 and recommend it to readers. It really discredits the charges of scientific arrogance and “science of the gaps”.

See also:

Ep. 174: Mysteries of the Solar System, Part 1
Ep. 175: Mysteries of the Solar System, Part 2
Ep. 176: Mysteries of the Milky Way, Part 1
Ep. 177: Mysteries of the Milky Way, Part 2
Ep. 178: Mysteries of the Universe, Part 1
Ep. 179: Mysteries of the Universe, Part 2

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10 responses to “We don’t know!

  1. My comment about “science of the gaps” as I explained there – and will explain again here since you still don’t get it was (i) geared at the bad philosophy done by some scientists, not at their scientific work (ii) was responding to a specific comment which was in the original post on that blog. If you can’t be bothered to explain the context, then of course any quote will sound ridiculous… misquoting and cherry picking is something you are well aware of in other people, but sometimes not in yourself.

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  2. Matt – my post relates to this problem in general – not just your example of it. (The only things specific to you were the naming of the phenomenon – not sure I have heard that before – and your eventual attribution of it to Dawkins, after going through,”many”, “some scientists”, and “scientists I have heard.”

    I appreciate the name (it seems to describe the charge well) but think it’s useful to provide some examples of the actual attitude scientists have to the unknown.

    Have a listen to one or two of the Astrocast podcasts. They do actually represent the common scientific attitude. And it is a philosophical attitude.

    Max – you must realise that scientific philosophy is very much integrated with scientific work. The way scientists approach their work demonstrates a philosophical attitude – even though the individual may think they have no philosophical bone in their body.

    As for the “bad philosophy done by some scientists” – well provide the examples. Where have you picked up this idea?

    All the books I have read on the philosophy of science, written by scientists or scientist/philosophers, demonstrate the exact opposite to your claim. I may have disagreements with some of their claims – but that isn’t one of them.

    So let me know where you have picked up that idea – which I am sure is mistaken.

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  3. FWIW, That particular Asimov quotation used to be my email signature line many years ago. It’s great, eh?

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  4. Ken: Try to listen! I did not say “scientific philosophy,” I said “philosophy done by some scientists.” It is often the philosophy of religion and ethics, not the philosophy of science which is done badly by scientists who turn their hand to some armchair philosophy.

    I hope this difference is clear now.

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  5. Max, you will have to be specific. General charges like this tend to be prejudices which are discredited when actual avidence is considered.

    One person who you may be referring to is Massimo Pigliucci who was employed as an evolutionary biologist but now has a position as a philosopher. I think his recent book “Nonsense on Stilts” is excellent. No doubt some will criticise him for his treatment of religion and ethics. In fact although only just released he has already received a very critical review from someone who appears to be a creationist.

    But, let’s face it, theology and religion are hardly uniform subjects. Theology, and to some extent philosophy, is not even reality based. So plenty of room for disagreements among the practioners, let alone picking on outsiders.

    I have some of my own criticisms of Pigliucci’s treatment of religion, and indeed of scientific philosophy. But this sort if disagreement is normal in science and can be handled by discission and considering evidence. I won’t be making vague accusations of him doing bad philosophy or ethics.

    Such criticisms are worthless.

    Sent from my iPod

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  6. Ken: I was not intending to get into a long winded debate about this or that philosopher which is something better done in person…. I merely wanted to point out that your comments were out of context. That stated I have nothing further to say really.

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  7. Grant – yes a great quote – because it does relate to the real feelings researchers have when confronted with something they can’t explain.

    Max – there is a bit of a pattern here with you making general charges but being unprepared to provide real examples. Perhaps you are stereotyping.

    Sent from my iPod

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  8. Ken,

    Same reason I like it.

    It reminds me of first realising that there was distinct positions of variability in the proteins I studied in my Ph.D. thesis, it was a real “Hmm, that’s funny” moment. I later realised that these signified the positions that were involved in the function of the proteins. (I believe this was the first case of determining functional residues through variation in orthologs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been credited for it by those who have come later. It’s a long story and a bit boring for others…)

    Incidentally this same variation amongst orthologs that “powers” Theobald’s testing of a single origin of life that I wrote about a couple of days ago (linked on my name). I wanted for years to try phylogenetics on a similar basis (but without the model selection theory that is the absolutely vital bit of Theobald’s work), but I’ve never been able to convince the grant committees in this country of much…

    Bit surprised so few creationists are “reporting” this paper, as it’s a rather clean demonstration of a universal common ancestry, rather than separate “makings” of the different forms of life.

    (Sciblogs seems to be temporary down again so if readers are looking for it, wait up for a bit.)

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  9. “Max – there is a bit of a pattern here with you making general charges but being unprepared to provide real examples. Perhaps you are stereotyping. ”

    How did I know I would get this exact response… please READ what I said! Please! Just try it once!

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  10. I think his recent book “Nonsense on Stilts” is excellent.

    Bought it last week.
    Excellent read.

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