About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

A Dig through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

I’m moving soon, and so I’m riffling through the files I’ve accumulated in my decades as a science writer and chucking those I’ll never (I hope) need. Carrying out this archaeological dig into the strata of my career, I’m struck once again by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.

Nanette Davis stands at the podium during her graduation from Wright State University in 1983, an event that raised hopes that electrical stimulation of muscles would soon help paralyzed people regain control of their limbs. Davis was helped to the podium by engineer Jerrold Petrofsky (right), the designer of her muscle-stimulation system.

I graduated from journalism school in 1983 hoping to celebrate scientific advances, but from the start reality thwarted my intentions. I got a job as a staff writer for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a trade association. One of my first assignments was profiling Jerrold S. Petrofsky, a biomedical engineer at Wright State University trying to help paralyzed patients walk by electrically stimulating their muscles with a computer-controlled device.

Petrofsky was a lavishly honored star of the IEEE, whose research had reportedly enabled Nanette Davis, a paralyzed student at Wright State, to walk on stage and receive her diploma during her June, 1983, graduation ceremony. His work was lauded by major media, including the BBC, TIME, Newsweek, Nova and 60 Minutes. In 1985 CBS produced a television movie, First Steps, starring Judd Hirsch as Petrofsky.

I wrote a puff piece about Petrofsky–based primarily on interviews with him and materials supplied by him and Wright State–published in the November 1983 issue of The Institute, the monthly newspaper of the IEEE. It never occurred to me to question Petrosky’s claims. Who was I, a mere rookie, to second-guess him, Wright State and media like 60 Minutes?

Then other biomedical engineers wrote letters to me complaining that coverage of Petrofsky’s work was raising false hopes among paralyzed patients. At first, I thought these critics were just envious of Petrofsky’s fame, but when I investigated their complaints, they seemed to have substance.

I ended up writing an article, published in The Institute in May 1985, presenting evidence that Petrofsky’s methods for helping paralyzed subjects were less effective than he claimed. My original November 1983 article, which Petrosfsky had approved before publication, stated that Davis, while accompanied by Petrofsky during her graduation ceremony, controlled the stimulation of her own muscles and did not need his assistance.

Actually, Petrofsky held the device that stimulated Davis’s muscles, and he and another professor had to prop Davis up during the ceremony because the device malfunctioned. Davis also told me that before she met Petrofsky, she had trained herself to stand in leg braces for hours. In other words, her graduation feat was less impressive than it appeared. The muscle-stimulation method was also not risk free; Davis broke an ankle during a training session in 1984.

In my 1985 article, I argued that Petrofsky’s work raised questions that went beyond his case: “Has Petrofsky gone too far in seeking publicity for his work, as some of his peers suggest? Or should he be praised for being an effective communicator? In addressing these questions—which are echoed in other fields of research as well—perhaps some answers may be provided to a broader and more important question: What can engineers and scientists do to inform the public about their work, while ensuring that it is not misrepresented?”

This episode also taught me some lessons about science journalism that my subsequent experiences reinforced. First, researchers, when accused of hype, love to blame it on the media. But media hype can usually be traced back to the researchers themselves.

I also learned that critical journalism is much harder, more time-consuming and riskier than celebratory journalism. My 1985 investigation of Petrofsky, which I toiled over for months, made my editor so nervous that he wanted to bury it in the back pages of The Institute; I had to go over his head to persuade the publisher that my article deserved front-page treatment. After the article came out, the IEEE formed a panel to investigate not Petrofsky but me. The panel confirmed the accuracy of my reporting.

Since then, I keep struggling to find the right balance between celebrating and challenging alleged advances in science. After all, I became a science writer because I love science, and so I have tried not to become too cynical and suspicious of researchers. I worry sometimes that I’m becoming a knee-jerk critic. But the lesson I keep learning over and over again is that I am, if anything, not critical enough.

Arguably the biggest meta-story in science over the last few years—and one that caught me by surprise–is that much of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is rotten. A pioneer in exposing this vast problem is the Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, whose blockbuster 2005 paper in PLOS Medicine presented evidence that “most current published research findings are false.”

Discussing his findings in Scientific American two years ago, Ioannidis writes: “False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine.”

In his recent defense of scientism (which I criticized on this blog), Steven Pinker lauds science’s capacity for overcoming bias and other human failings and correcting mistakes. But the work of Ioannidis and others shows that this capacity is greatly overrated.

“Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong,” The Economist states in its recent cover story “How Science Goes Wrong.” “But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.”

So whatever happened to Petrofsky? He reportedly left Wright State in 1987 and ended up at Loma Linda University in California. The only article I could find online that mentions criticism of his work at Wright State is a 1985 New York Times report on the angry reaction of biomedical researchers to the film “First Steps.” As for Nanette Davis, after her famous 1983 graduation “walk” she “returned to her wheelchair,” according to a 2010 report in the Dayton Daily News. She is now a mother and teacher.

Addendum: A couple of scientist-bloggers have commented on this post. Psychologist Gary Marcus, who blogs for The New Yorker, agrees with me that scientists “have sometimes promised more than they can deliver” but faults me for not reporting on the “huge, rapidly growing movement to address” the shakiness of the scientific literature. Neurologist Steve Novella of Neurologica also finds me “a bit too negative.” The vast majority of scientists and journalists who write about science—not to mention the legions of flaks working at universities, science-oriented corporations and other institutions–present science in a positive light. My own journalistic shortcomings aside, I believe science has been ill-served by all this positivity.

Photo credit: National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering, Wright State University,

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 49 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. rkipling 4:42 pm 11/2/2013

    I don’t agree with many of your political views, at least from reading your articles. But now that I realize you are a fellow trouble maker, please accept my respect for that attribute. I doubt you would remember any of my critical comments posted to your blog, but I take back at least half of those. If it matters, you can pick which ones to revise and extend.

    That was an interesting retrospective. I don’t remember anything about Petrofsky or First Steps. I usually remember that sort of thing. Don’t beat yourself up too bad over that first story. Even if you had brought an EE computer person with you, there is no guarantee the details would have come out. If you had the opportunity to spent several days observing their work with Davis, it might have been more obvious.

    I can understand why IEEE would want to hire journalists. Engineers are not renowned for their prose. The engineering manager at my first job taught first year engineers how to write reports. We hated monthly reports. It wasn’t unusual to get a report sent back half a dozen times marked in red ink. It was a useful exercise though.

    The point about peer-reviewed publications is really important for people to know. I don’t know if you pay much attention to the environmental blogs on this site, but commenters there peer review each other like The Three Stooges threw cream pies. Each side can find all the peer-reviewed studies it wants to support their positions. They descend on each new topic with essentially the same comments but with new peer-reviewed papers.

    Unfortunately, people trained in science have the same human frailties as everyone else. Given time, the truth comes out. But, yes it can be longer than we would like.

    Good luck on the move. That’s always stressful.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Chryses 5:04 am 11/3/2013

    “…I keep struggling to find the right balance between celebrating and challenging alleged advances in science …”

    You struggle with an intractable problem. As the issue is not OF Science, but rather ABOUT Science, you’ll be better served here by drawing upon the Humanities.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rkipling 11:13 am 11/3/2013


    You gave a pretty good Master Po impression. All you needed was to end your comment with Grasshopper.

    Not everything is necessarily a deep philosophical conundrum. I think I understand what Mr. Horgan is talking about. If I try to put myself in the position of a science writer for a moment, if I learned about some new scientific advance, I would want to write about it to spread the word right away. The last one in on a story is a rotten egg so to speak. The flip side is if you break the story and it’s ultimately wrong, then the egg is on your face.

    The Humanities can be great hobbies. How exactly would the Humanities inform Mr. Horgan’s quandary?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Carlyle 1:22 pm 11/3/2013

    If you want evidence of the fallibility & manipulations in science the Club of Rome with it’s book ‘The Limits to Growth’ is a prime example & the precursor to its love child AGW & the IPCC. The methods employed, using computer simulations are the same. The predictions alarmist & long since discredited by events.
    ‘The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book about the computer modeling of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies.[1] Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation[2] and commissioned by the Club of Rome it was first presented at the St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate[3] of consequence of interactions between the Earth’s and human systems.’

    Link to this
  5. 5. geojellyroll 2:24 pm 11/3/2013

    The issue with most science writing for popular media is focus on 1% of actual science…the sexy, controversial, trendy, etc. 99% of science is never reported. I work in paleontology…dinosaurs get 75% of the press but perhaps only 5% of paleontologists could even recognize a dino fossil. They are doing other research.

    Dinosaurs, Mars, Climate Change, Evolution, Cancer breakthroughs…a gook chunk of the view of science is through these narrow prisms.

    The other principal issue is that science media writers often don’t distinguish science from comments by a scientist. The author here mentions researchers saying ‘whatever’. The media should be looking at the peer reviewed PUBLISHED paper. Instead they will ask some question outside of the paper such as ‘what do you think this means?’ trying to get perspective. A graduate student or researcher giving opinion is NOT the actual science. It’s often throw away speculation that the media person confuses with the actual science that was published. Anything that starts with ‘scientists say’ or ‘experts predict’…blah, blah…is probably not actual science.

    Anyways, this article’s author should not be so sceptical of science (it is a process) but of his own profession not distinguishing between science and comments, news releases, wire stories etc. Good ccience reporting is ‘tumours reduced by 14%’…it’s probably in the published paper…science is not some comment about the paper such as ‘imminent cure for ‘x’ cancer.’

    Link to this
  6. 6. geojellyroll 2:31 pm 11/3/2013

    A quick note to add….flip through a copy of Scientific Smerican from 1965. Science was not dumbed down. It was not reduced to bullet points.

    There is nothing wrong with bringing science to the public but much of science does not lend itself to simplistic catch phrases.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rkipling 3:02 pm 11/3/2013


    Paleontology! Way cool! (Clearing throat) I mean that’s very interesting.

    Ah yes 1965, those were the good ol’ days when more of us Smericans could read. I read in a Department of Education study from 2002 that only about 15% of the population can read at an entering college freshman level. Reduce that 15% by the number literate in science, and you get one standard very-small-percentage. So, the choices were to dumb down or perish. At least they haven’t gone to centerfolds yet.

    (Sorry, I know it was a typo. The devil made me do it.)

    Link to this
  8. 8. Carlyle 3:17 pm 11/3/2013

    You are right of course & I regret that in my comment above I tarred all science with the same brush. I recently read an excellent book that covers some remarkable discoveries in your field & in geology. I am sure you & others who admire tenacious, thorough research would appreciate it. I hope you find the opportunity to read it.
    Rock Star: The Story of Reg Sprigg – an Outback Legend
    Kristin Weidenbach
    ISBN 1921037296 9781921037290

    ‘By the age of thirty Reg had discovered the oldest fossils in the world and some of its deepest under-sea canyons. He had worked at Australia’s first two uranium mines and searched for material to construct the world’s first atomic bomb. By the time he was forty he had helped found SANTOS and discovered the great Cooper Basin oil and gas fields’
    By the way, I posted this previously on another article, hoping you would see it. It was deleted.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Andrei Kirilyuk 3:39 pm 11/3/2013

    Everything is rotten in today’s world – and much more in “higher”, not easily controllable activities, such as science. However, if we agree that modern fatal “global” problems can be resolved only by crucial knowledge/intellect development, then those few remaining “genuine” professionals in science and around it should unite for that purpose in a new endeavour.

    Science journalism should be critical AND creative (as well as science itself). It means that it should be very eagerly (but critically!) looking for those “scientific revolutions”, efficient “new paradigms” and real discoveries. Many “empty promises” (typically from “well-established” sources) should be discarded, but in order to finally find (typically in less established sources) that one “true revolution” that can indeed change the world. THIS is the job to do at this very special moment in science journalism (in interaction with scientists), as opposed to usual “writing popular science papers”.

    True science journalism thus helps to realise a scientific discovery/revolution and the related progress (like recognise the subjectively under-estimated and artificially suppressed real novelties). The rotten, dominating science journalism does the contrary and helps the dominating ambitious mediocrity in science to ever increase its destructive power. Apparently, the forthcoming scientific revolution starts inevitably from the journalistic revolution…:)

    Link to this
  10. 10. Carlyle 3:49 pm 11/3/2013

    Recently looking for an article published in SIAM a couple of years ago, I spent a couple of hours clicking through links I had saved. I was dismayed to find how many had been deleted or at least the links were dead. In the end I only found what I was looking for via a newspaper report of the SIAM report. I hope this article does not end up in SIAM’s dust bin.

    Link to this
  11. 11. LarryW 5:13 pm 11/3/2013

    Seems to me the author is and has been engaged in reporting on science and viewing science through the lens of a journalist — who doesn’t know much about science. No scientist will look at published reports and believe the report is the final word on the area. Journalists and the public certainly do. And it matters nil if the report is refereed or not. Why would anyone believe that “if it’s been published, it is right?”, or even if in the particular area it is or will be ultimately important?

    Revolutions and breakthroughs are not the result of normal science. Revolutions and breakthroughs are what you might see from a vantage looking back 30 years, not from today’s reports.

    Link to this
  12. 12. rkipling 6:22 pm 11/3/2013


    If your job is to write about science, I don’t think most editors would wait 30 years for copy. That’s just a speculation. I don’t really know.

    Link to this
  13. 13. cshbar 7:05 pm 11/3/2013

    Your first paragraph tells me a lot about the quality I can expect from this column. It tells me that you’re not qualified to be explaining scientific developments to any audience because you do not know the first thing about what you’re talking about. This purporting to speak authoritatively on something you don’t understand is definitely related to the problems in science communication you’re attempting to address.

    The science press is replete with blogs like that heap scorn on theoretical physics whether its insights are spectacularly confirmed, as in the Higgs boson, or remain speculative and out of reach, as in string theory. Jumping on this bandwagon is a sure sign that you are not able to separate well-grounded expert knowledge from ideologues like Peter Woit, who sling mud at the whole field and reap incredible rewards in the process from people who want their biases confirmed. If you’re not able to learn enough to understand that such people are not experts but hardcore partisans, then quite frankly you have nothing to offer.

    Seriously, if you can’t understand why discovering the Higgs was an incredible step in our scientific understanding, when experimental data finally fully caught up to our most complete theoretical understanding, then your opinion is too worthless to deserve an audience from anybody. If you can’t understand the basic role and basic purpose of string theory, which is to solve inconsistencies in the established physical frameworks that are mostly well beyond the range that can currently be directly probed anyway, it indicates the same thing. If you think theoretical physicists, whose job is to obtain and refine the most complete and consistent physical description, ideally with the fewest number of independent assumptions possible, are not interested in those resolutions we now know about, your opinion isn’t worth a damn. If you think theorists and other physicists are frauds, and the field is failing, all because the measured value of the Planckian energy scale happens to be far beyond what humans can easily look at, your opinion is seriously not worth a damn.

    Really nothing is more irritating to me than to have someone like yourself who so clearly does not understand this subject at all, tell me that “young physicists” like myself are not going to be interested in what are obviously by far the most interesting developments in physics or in science generally. I have sympathy for people like you who just can’t grasp theoretical physics, but I have a request for you: if thats the case, stop pretending you have an informed opinion to share. You don’t.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Carlyle 8:40 pm 11/3/2013

    I am not a mathematician, particle physicist or an expert in the fields you seem so passionate about, however I have rather sensitive antenna able to detect a ruffled ego. Shakespeare had a quote that went something like ‘Methinks he protestuth too loudly’. It seems to me your gripe with Peter Woit is rather personal. Shutting down debate will not validate anything.

    Link to this
  15. 15. 8:56 pm 11/3/2013

    A dissappointingly poor article smacking of journalism and hype, rather than a useful contribution to science. A little research (wikipedia) reveals the following exert on the Ioannidis paper you laud so much.

    Statisticians Goodman and Greenland agreed that “many medical research findings are less definitive than readers suspect” but found major flaws in Ioannidis’s methods, noting that Ioannidis (who did not collaborate with any statisticians on the article) appeared to have confused alpha level with p value and also built the assumption that most findings are likely to be false into his reasoning, thereby making his logic circular. Therefore Goodman and Greenland rejected Ioannidis’ claim as unsupportable by the methods used.

    In a world still steeped in supersiticion, where over half the population still believe the work is <10000yrs old, what value does this approach bring ?

    Link to this
  16. 16. Chryses 9:16 pm 11/3/2013

    rkipling (3),

    “… Not everything is necessarily a deep philosophical conundrum …”

    True, but some are, and this is one.

    “… The Humanities can be great hobbies. How exactly would the Humanities inform Mr. Horgan’s quandary?”

    The Philosophy of Science comes to mind as a Humanities tool he might use to assess what to emphasize and what to deemphasize in this reporting of Science.

    Link to this
  17. 17. rkipling 10:20 pm 11/3/2013


    You are welcome to your opinion. Your comment seems lacking in content to me. But no need for further argument.

    Link to this
  18. 18. rhawdon 4:40 am 11/4/2013

    Yes, this whole debate is intriguing and extends the general controversy. The thing about sophisticated science is that in most cases it takes a huge amount of re-experiment and re-research to verify. But as Darwin famously said, “It is only those who know little, and not those who know much, who declare that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
    (Funny how one always comes back to him –

    Link to this
  19. 19. Chryses 5:41 am 11/4/2013

    rkipling (17),

    “You are welcome to your opinion …”

    Thank you. That’s very kind of you.

    “… Your comment seems lacking in content to me …”

    You did, however, ask me to give it to you. You’re welcome.

    “… But no need for further argument.”

    Sounds like a plan!

    Link to this
  20. 20. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:30 am 11/4/2013

    That scientists don’t believe scientific publications is something new for me. However, you are right – most landmark papers in cancer science, for example, are irreproductible.

    But why this outrage across SciAm blogs that large parts of American society don’t believe scientists either?

    Link to this
  21. 21. rkipling 10:13 am 11/4/2013

    This is a discussion folks. Why take comments personally? Can’t we disagree without one of us necessarily being a ring-tailed jackenapes. It’s a mere coincidence that I sorta resemble one myself. I’m pretty sure a check of my DNA would show I’m mostly human.

    Link to this
  22. 22. rshoff2 11:41 am 11/4/2013

    It’s interesting to see how our interpretations, views, and expectations change, perhaps evolve over time as we share information, insight, and even gossip. It’s also interesting to see the human limitation of living in the ‘now’. Most of what seems rational and accurate now, right now, does not usually stand the test of time. Some of it does, those we call truths.

    I mirror rkiplings sentiment. I hope John’s move is a good one and wish him continued success. Be it in a new office, a new focus, or a new direction.

    His role as an intelligent and thought provoking science journalist is very important and very much appreciated, and hopefully he understands that.

    Link to this
  23. 23. rshoff2 11:56 am 11/4/2013

    oh my CSHbar, although you are definitely far superior in knowledge of physics -most of which I assume you acquired based on works from predecessors and not your own superior mind- what you have to offer is questionable. What exactly will you be providing to humanity or the universe? Your knowledge of physics does nothing for the universe. You appear to operate in a physics silo. Of what good is that acquired knowledge to humanity if you cannot apply those principals to something, anything, practical? Are you able to use that acquired knowledge as a foundation? The first step is humility, the second step is humanities, (which is John’s point exactly). Once you’ve entered into the human race, perhaps your absolute knowledge will actually mean something.

    Link to this
  24. 24. rshoff2 12:07 pm 11/4/2013

    btw, a particle happened to be given the name the ‘higgs’ particle, by some excitable physicists and their students. From where does it come? The Higgs field? Isn’t the Higgs field still theoretical?

    So, you found a new particle. Let’s check back in 30 years. It’s a really big Universe out there and our knowledge is nothing. In the scheme of things, our knowledge could not be differentiated from that of an ant.

    Link to this
  25. 25. rshoff2 12:25 pm 11/4/2013

    But Jerzy, most of us DO believe scientists. We’ve just become skeptical and disappointed that science has over promised solutions. For a society to support science as a great big puzzle to be enjoyed by those that speak its language is wasteful. A scientist also has a moral obligation to the society that pays for his/her education and research. In other words, they should get out of their ivory tower and start finding ways to apply science.

    Right now, there is a crevasse. The private sector is not applying science unless there is a large profit to be had. All the while the human race is drowning in its own waste while scientist sit it out only to declare an intellectual superiority.

    THAT is what people are disillusioned about. We DO believe scientist, we simply recent their lack of concern about the world around them.

    Link to this
  26. 26. rshoff2 1:35 pm 11/4/2013

    oops, sorry rkipling…. I went there. I’m not sure that my DNA would show me to be mostly human! Hamster would be okay, donkey I would hope not.

    Link to this
  27. 27. rkipling 3:07 pm 11/4/2013


    It’s okay. I was just trying to tell everyone that I don’t mean my comments to be taken as personal slights. As long as you are not offended then I’m good.

    Link to this
  28. 28. rshoff2 1:09 pm 11/5/2013

    rkipling – I’ve never been offended by any of your comments. You are very much on topic, sincere, and your comments read very well. If anything you write ever rubs the wrong way, it will be time for me to do a self-assessment!

    Link to this
  29. 29. rshoff2 1:10 pm 11/5/2013

    er…. ‘another’ self-assessment!

    Link to this
  30. 30. rkipling 1:41 pm 11/5/2013

    This is another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

    Now I have to live up to being on topic, sincere and making sure my syntax is good.

    Link to this
  31. 31. rshoff2 3:46 pm 11/5/2013

    Well, you don’t ‘have’ to, but I’m not sure you would be capable of commenting in any other manner…. We are all predictable, are we not? So don’t worry about maintaining standards, they are hardwired no doubt.

    Besides, to ‘read well’ is not only syntax, but includes a positive and pleasant nature. Perhaps that is my inference as opposed to your intent.

    But it doesn’t matter… you are ultimately free to think and communicate in any manner you choose without fear of being held to your own previous standards. No limitations or arbitrary rules. But as useless and ignorant (true sense of the word) as my comments are, if sciam ever bothered to identify my mac address they would surely block it!

    Link to this
  32. 32. rkipling 4:40 pm 11/5/2013

    Okay, so now we battle to see who can be the most self-deprecating?

    “How about those Bears?” Planes, Trains, & Automobiles.

    Link to this
  33. 33. rshoff2 5:20 pm 11/5/2013

    “Hell of a game, Hell of a game.”

    Link to this
  34. 34. brodix 10:23 pm 11/5/2013

    I’ll put myself out there as one of those physics cranks, who do think there are serious problems in the field and I will go right to the heart of the matter.
    Ask yourself, Does the earth travel/exist along the fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, or does tomorrow become yesterday because the earth rotates?
    If you answer the second, you have rejected the premise of spacetime. Rather than time being part of some eternal four dimensional geometry, it is an effect of action, similar to temperature. Time is to temperature what frequency is to amplitude.
    It is just that as individuals, we experience change as a particular sequence of events and rather than stand back and look at this larger dynamic, physics reduces time to measures of duration and equates them to measures of distance. As a measurement process, they are quite similar, whether the space between two waves, or the rate they pass a mark might seem the same, but space is the basis for action and time is an effect of it.
    If time were really a vector from past to future, the faster clock would move into the future more rapidly, but the opposite it true; It ages/ burns/processes quicker and so fades into the past more rapidly.
    Sorry scifi fans, there is no time traveling wormholes through that spacetime matrix. It is the changing configuration of what exists, that coalesces potential into actual and then residual. The conservation of energy precludes blocktime.
    As for expanding space, if it were truly relativistic, then why doesn’t the propagation rate of light/clock rate increase proportionally, in order for the speed of light to remain constant to this expanded space? When it’s being denominated in lightyears, that’s the ruler, dammit. The expansion is only the numerator. That makes it just increasing distance.
    Eventually we will come to our senses and find redshift is an optical effect, not a doppler effect. We may not be at the center of the universe, but we are at the center of our optical perspective of it and that’s why everything is redshifted directly away from us, proportional to distance.
    The background radiation is the light of ever more distant sources that has been shifted off the visible spectrum.
    Don’t take my word for any of this though, obviously the people now talking about multiverses must know of which they speak. The media says so.

    Link to this
  35. 35. rshoff2 1:21 pm 11/6/2013

    While I wouldn’t write off many of the facts that have been uncovered over the millennium of human inquisitiveness, perhaps we do need to shake things up a little bit and be more skeptical. For example, the red shift of the doppler effect seems pretty concrete to me. I’m not going to bother to argue it simply because we cannot argue over every historically accepted piece of information. If something as straightforward as that is incorrect, then there’s no reason to contemplate science at all. Besides, it took centuries for scientists and mathematicians from many fields to accumulate this knowledge. There’s no way one skeptic can reproduce, prove, or disprove all accepted scientific facts within our lifetime or any imaginable period of time. So we have to prioritize our skeptical list.

    As far as time being an action, I agree that that is a fascinating subject. Perhaps instead of being an action, the action is carried out by a calibrated tool (be it a human drinking coffee or a falling rock) that demonstrates or measures the effect of time. But not time itself. It’s funny, it seems we can all talk about measuring time, but no one can actually define it. I read that a hidden culture had/has a language that doesn’t even have a word for time. The concept doesn’t exist in their language. My memory fails me as to the name of the language or the people. Anyway, ‘time’ is a subject way beyond my capabilities and I enjoy reading what educated, knowledge, experts think. Because they can think about it much better than I.

    So then, what should we be skeptical about? I dunno. One, I get skeptical when new information or a discovery is reported as a leap forward. We don’t leap. We crawl at best. Two, I get skeptical when individuals, no matter how educated and intelligent, have an absolute belief in their findings. Or when overly educated individuals (educated beyond their actual intelligence) start adamantly defending someone else’s work as though it was of their own creation. I also engage skepticism when it just doesn’t make sense. This is where we really have to be careful. We are used to a physical world behaving as our brain interprets it from our senses. When we start using tools and calculations to view the world around us, common sense has a way of fooling us. Intuition and common sense can provide good perspective and healthy skepticism, but it simply cannot actually answer the questions.

    I’m also skeptical because our capitalistic economic system does not encourage the private sector to fund science for the sake of learning. It funds specific research with the goal to make money on their investment. Even government funds are linked to special interests and lobbying.

    The biggest flag to me for skepticism is when the media represents theory as fact. When they extrapolate a fact from a possibility. Isn’t that how the dietary supplement and herbal remedy market makes billions of dollars a year? e.g. the implied promise from parts of the supplement industry that we will stay young forever if we take resveratrol and eat buckets of onions daily.

    What kinds of things make other people skeptical?

    Although it’s not all about skepticism. I am completely and utterly awed by the advancements and discoveries science makes. Along with the disappointment I speak of, I am thrilled with the science that has made it into to our daily lives.

    My problem is the religious nature that science take on and how it is beholden to capitalist, religious, and government interests. I’m disappointed physicists, scientists, mathematicians, et al want to spend lifetimes probing increasingly abstracts ideas with no concern about application while people are dying in filth and ignorance.

    It’s obvious that no one, or even group, of scientists can actually fill every role including education, research, discovery, publication, AND get involved in application of science. We could have a better science to street infrastructure where all involved value their role and whole heartily participate. Not solely for money, but because doing the right thing is as core to our nature as asking questions.

    Link to this
  36. 36. brodix 6:17 pm 11/6/2013

    On the subject of redshift, an interesting paper;

    1. Introduction

    The propagation of waves in linear dissipative systems is well studied but most of the investigations are concerned with the propagation of a single-frequency wave. On the other hand, in any of the practical situations, one is faced actually with a wavepacket, albeit with a very narrow spread around the central frequency. This means that one should take a special care to separate the effects of dispersion and dissipation on the propagation of the wavepacket from the similar effects on a single frequency signal.

    “5. Conclusions

    In the present work, the effect of attenuation and dissipation on propagation of waves governed by the Jeffrey equation is addressed. When packets of small but finite breadth are considered the presence of dissipation changes the central wave number of the packet. The distribution of the wave length around the central length is assumed to be Gaussian which is the most frequently encountered case in cosmology when hot stars are observed. Dispersion relation for the damped wave equation is derived and the evolution of the packet density is investigated in time(or space). It is shown that the attenuation acts merely to decrease the amplitude of the shifts packed, while the dissipation damps the higher frequencies stronger than the lower frequencies and shifts the maximal frequency of the packet to lower frequencies (longer wavelengths), i.e., the packet appears redshifted upon its arrival. For Gaussian wavepackets, this kind of redshift is linearly proportional to the time passed or the distance traveled. The coefficient of proportionality contains the ratio of the dissipation coefficient and the initial width of the distribution which means that the thicker packets are redshifted more than the narrower ones for the same distance or for the same time. We call this liner relationship ‘‘Hubble Law’’ for redshifting of wavepackets.”

    Missing one little detail can throw everything out of whack.

    Link to this
  37. 37. z34aa 8:53 pm 11/6/2013

    rshoff2, it would great if more scientist spent their time on science that would help people now, but the thing is we can’t just count scientist as a unit, throw X number of scientist at the hunger problem, X number at education. Scientist are people, and they have interests and goals of their own. Their are some scientist who have as their mission to help the poor and unfortunate of the world but you have others who have different passions.

    It would be kind of like taking a skilled musician who loves the art of music and having him run a tractor on a farm so we could feed the poor. That musician will never be happy, never work to his best potential and in the mean time we would be missing out on his true skill. In the same way having scientist who probe increasingly abstracts ideas instead work on practical problems would be a miss use of their skill and passion.

    And while it may seem now that the work they are doing will have no benefit to society, in the future it might not turn out to be so useless. It might take a hundred years before it’s practical application will become apparent, but if the work is not done now, you will not have the pay off then. If scientist of the practical are the ones teaching a man to fish in that old saying about how to feed a man, then scientist of the abstract are putting tiny minnows in the ocean that might one day grow into large fish that can feed a village.

    Link to this
  38. 38. rshoff2 12:09 pm 11/7/2013

    I agree with you z34aa. Truly there are many faucets to the issues. No one person should be prevented from working on what inspires them.

    How about if I come part way and agree that you’re correct that it’s not really the burden of the individual scientists to make things right. And I will also agree that the things that are discovered today may not have an immediate application, but will help in the long run, somewhere down the road.

    I’ll even leave the concept of personal responsibility off the table. Who would decide what those personal responsibilities are anyway. It’s subjective.

    But what I would like to point out is that the current science-to-street infrastructure does not work as well as it should. The entities that prioritize and pay for the work of the scientists (the entire science machine) is the government and the private business sector. And the funding and interpretation of outcomes are heavily censured by the religions.

    Full circle back to what I think is one of John’s premises. Scientist (engineers, mathematicians, etc) need to incorporate humanities into their world view and their studies. It may not be ‘fun’ for them, but perhaps it’s a core competency. They would be able to draw upon humanities not only in communication and application (scientists do sit in on strategy meetings), but I believe it would promote brain function that helps them connect the dots as they work on their projects on a day to day basis. It’s not all about the grey matter. The white matter supports a lot of processing too.

    Thank you so much for your comment and allowing me to participate in a conversation! Sometimes people’s perspectives mostly overlap. Sometimes it’s perplexing when they have no commonality at all.

    Can you accept part of my observation as valid, if not redundant and over emphasized?

    “My heart is full.” ~as said by Joanne Woodward in Man in the Moon Marigolds.

    Link to this
  39. 39. rshoff2 12:57 pm 11/7/2013

    “It would be kind of like taking a skilled musician who loves the art of music and having him run a tractor on a farm so we could feed the poor.”

    I understand your point, but this isn’t a great example. A better way to put it in my view would be asking trained musicians to be aware and concerned about their audience and matching their skills and passions to music that the audience would value.

    To highlight my perspective, look at the opposite. A musician that plays rock at the opera. Did that musician ever consider the that the audience paid for, and expected, a symphony?

    Being musical is a well honed talent. But to march to their own drummer is not an effective way to participate in civilization or even society. It can be usury if the musician leads followers down the wrong path out of selfish pleasure.

    Link to this
  40. 40. rshoff2 1:02 pm 11/7/2013

    And when I say this: “asking trained musicians to be aware and concerned about their audience ” I suggest that we support an infrastructure that encourages scientists to match their skills and passions with meaningful research and to work within their business to prioritize projects and implement the outcomes in meaningful ways.

    I guess I would like us as a society to encourage a more meaning infrastructure and individual mindfulness.

    Link to this
  41. 41. rshoff2 1:50 pm 11/7/2013

    And I was specific to choose the words ‘society’ and ‘encourage’.

    Link to this
  42. 42. z34aa 2:25 pm 11/7/2013

    I see nothing wrong with that. (not that anyone needs or doesn’t need my approval) I think we would probably find that a good many scientist would work on problems that have direct benefits if more funding went that way. Many scientist become such because they want to contribute meaningfully to society. But scientist are human too and have to go where the money is, and do the work that the money funds. Of course, I think the best option would be to put even more money into science so we can fund all the kinds of research we can think of.

    Link to this
  43. 43. gs_chandy 1:17 pm 11/8/2013

    A fair number (not all by any means) of the issues and problems identified in both Mr Horgan’s article and in the comments thereto would be quite happily resolved if only both scientists and laypeople were to develop an adequate understanding of ‘systems’. It is clear from the article that we need to look much more carefully at the “system(s) of science” – as well as the “system(s) of explaining science to laypeople”.

    By systems I do NOT mean what often passes for for that discipline or field conventionally. An *effective* understanding of systems became possible for us all (scientists as well as laypeople) through the seminal contributions of the late John N. Warfield.

    Warfield showed quite definitively, for example, that the ‘conventional language’ we use – the prose used right here in this discussion group, for example; or in Scientific American articles, for that matter – is not at ALL adequate to enable us to understand and then to cope with the complexities of systems within which we live and work and play. In order to understand systems, we need a language that can enable us effectively to perceive the relationships between the factors of the systems. As we are discussing these matters in ‘pure prose’ (and we lack the facilities here to show anything else), I will only state that we really need a minor extension to prose, which I call ‘prose + structural graphics’ (p+sg), in order to discuss complex systems *effectively*. The ‘structural graphics’ make it possible for us to understand – *effectively* and with clarity – the complex relationships that inhere between the factors of every complex system. Warfield also developed the fundamentals of the ‘language’ that can enable us to develop a usable understanding of complex systems. More information about Warfield’s contributions to systems science is available at and from the “John N. Warfield Collection”, held at the library of George Mason University (Fairfax, VA-USA), where he was Professor Emeritus – see;query=; .

    Some further developments from Warfield’s work now enable any individual or group at any level (high-school up) to construct rigorous, *effective* and *usable* models of systems to enable accomplishment of any chosen ‘Mission’.

    Scientists may wish to apply these processes to tackle Missions like, for example, “To overcome the current failings of the peer review process in science”. From the remarks in Mr Horgan’s piece as well as in the comments on it, this is evidently an issue of quite serious concern to science.

    Mr Horgan himself may like to apply these tools to help himself “Regain his faith in science journalism” – I seem to perceive some disillusionment on his part.


    Link to this
  44. 44. gs_chandy 9:42 pm 11/8/2013

    Mr Horgan:

    When you say “I’m moving soon…”, do you mean that you are leaving your SciAm blog? If so, where will you be moving your blog to? Would be most grateful if you’d let me know.


    Link to this
  45. 45. gs_chandy 9:46 pm 11/8/2013

    Sorry. The following comment seems to have gone to the wrong place:

    Mr Horgan:

    When you say “I’m moving soon…”, do you mean that you are leaving your SciAm blog? If so, where will you be moving your blog to? Would be most grateful if you’d let me know.

    My regrets.


    Link to this
  46. 46. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 7:35 am 11/9/2013

    I’m only moving in the physical world, not in this virtual one. Thanks for caring.

    Link to this
  47. 47. rkipling 12:59 pm 11/9/2013

    All of us can relate to the situation.

    Link to this
  48. 48. gs_chandy 10:13 am 11/10/2013

    @cshbar (No. 13, dt.11/3/2013, 7:05 pm):

    I’m afraid your entire post shows precisely the lack of ‘quality thinking’ that you accuse John Horgan’s first paragraph of lacking.

    Mr Horgan had not attacked ‘theoretical physics’ especially or unfairly – he had just identified some grave deficiencies in ‘the enterprise of science’ as a whole, and he’d pointed to a couple instances from ‘big physics’. Though I do not concur with all the details of Horgan’s argument, he does make a number of most valid points, and science as a whole would do well to try to address these concerns effectively. Thus far, it has seriously failed to do so.

    I observe that rshoff2 (No. 23, dt. 11/4/2013,11:56 am) has quite adequately responded to your somewhat ridiculous comment.

    (By the way, I am not unqualified in the subjects you claim to critique Horgan in: first as an engineer; then research into pure mathematics for several years during which time I spent a good bit of my investigating theoretical physics. Later [because I found the methods and processes of maths, engineering, theoretical physics not leading to progress on societal issues], I took up the study and applications of ‘systems science’ in the particular context of issues and problems arising in our ‘societal systems’ of various kinds. In this I found my background in engineering, math and physics to be most useful and indeed ‘necessary’ – but not ‘sufficient’, alas. I’ve posted a few thoughts on these concerns at No. 43, dt. 11/8/2013, 1:17 pm).


    Link to this
  49. 49. bucketofsquid 4:33 pm 11/18/2013

    Part of the problem is that reporting is and has always been very subjective. I went back to some of the old SciAm magazines at the local library. It wasn’t surprising to me to find that while many of the articles had a bit more math and used a few big words, they were remarkably similar to what the current articles are like.

    What is different now is the blog posts which are not actual articles and shouldn’t be like the actual articles.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article