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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction


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Creationists are wrong. Science is actually concerned with the truth.

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


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The truth is really out there, and science can find it (Image: Spacepub).

In January 1939, the physicist Luis Alvarez was sitting in a barber’s chair in Berkeley, California, reading the paper and getting a haircut. It was then that he read something astonishing; scientists in Germany had bombarded uranium with neutrons and had actually observed it splitting into two light elements, releasing further neutrons and a disturbingly intense pulse of energy. It was exactly the kind of experiment that Alvarez and his student Philip Abelson had been trying to do. Unconcerned about his incomplete haircut, Alvarez leapt from his chair and went to see the reigning American theoretical physicist of his time, Robert Oppenheimer. Upon hearing what had happened, Oppenheimer quickly gave Alvarez a complicated theoretical explanation for why fission could never occur. Exasperated, Alvarez led Oppenheimer to his laboratory where he and Abelson had rigged up their own experiment. With a little manipulation he could show Oppenheimer the ionization spikes that fission fragments produce on an oscilloscope. Theory trumped by hard experiment, Oppenheimer quickly realized that fission was real.

Those ionization pulses that Oppenheimer and Alvarez saw that day were the “truth”. The fact that uranium fissions when bombarded by neutrons is the “truth”. The atomic nucleus is “real”.

Why am I narrating the story of the reality of fission? Because there are still those who want to disown science because, in their apparently considered opinion, all science can do is to produce doubt. One of those who get the essence of science wrong is Yahoo columnist Virginia Heffernan. Much has been written about her piece on Yahoo in which she declares herself to be a creationist, and I cannot add to the existing excellent takedowns by people who wasted their precious time trying to bridge the intellectual chasm in Heffernan’s head. Her column is uninspired, intellectually lazy, rambling and does not even make a pretense at addressing what science actually is. It sounds like it was written by someone who suddenly found 30 minutes on their Friday evening calendar cleared up and wanted to make a quick, uninformed and unlettered surgical strike at those awful scientists just before they left to join their friends for dinner and a movie. The column is so lazily written that even creationists should feel embarrassed.

In any case, almost nothing in the piece sounds like the author actually thought about it, but there was one aspect of the rant that deserves a little more attention, if only because it seems to have received less attention from Heffernan’s critics. One of Heffernan’s gripes about scientists is that they are “super-skeptical” types who cannot seem to agree on anything. She selectively points to fields like evolutionary psychology – a field that is still in its infancy and which is seeing its wheat separated from the chaff in a customary process of brutal trial-by-fire – as an example of science’s ever-changing and never-certain landscape. She thinks that compared to scientists who just can’t seem to decide, religion at least offers some answers.

Now let’s discount for a moment that the “answers” that religion offers are completely subjective – what a Christian believes is dismissed as fiction by a Buddhist – but Heffernan’s take on scientific doubt is at best woefully incomplete and in reality just plain wrong. Let’s understand one thing loud and clear; science is concerned with the truth. It really is.

Those who refuted Heffernan affirmed her words about doubt and skepticism and held them up as glowing tributes to science. There is no doubt that skepticism is at the heart of scientific inquiry, that any scientist worth his or her salt should live and die by the Royal Society’s motto “Nullius in Verba”, or “Nobody’s word is final”. All of us are fond of quoting Richard Feynman: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong”. Heffernan’s critics are absolutely right that the doubt which she abhors is the oxygen which science thrives on, but it’s really important to understand that there is in reality a shining galaxy of truths uncovered by science, truths whose veracity has been established beyond any reasonable doubt. While it is indeed endlessly interesting to live not knowing, there is actually a hell of a lot of stuff that we know, and that we know is true.

The fact that DNA is a double helix is a truth. The fact that organisms evolve through natural selection is a truth. The fact that a massive body causes spacetime to bend around it is a truth. There are other timeless truths; the atomic nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons, the earth goes around the sun, water consists of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen, mercury become superconducting below a certain temperature, gravity obeys an inverse square law, the universe is expanding, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Every single one of these facts is a truth which is known with enough certainty to be carved in stone. These truths not only provide science with a concrete direction for progress, but they provide solace in the world of politics and human affairs which is actually uncertain; it is no surprise that scientists growing up in fascist regimes, like the ones thriving in the 1920s, turned toward science precisely because it offered the kind of certainty that the volatile world around them did not.

Now of course the scientific method demands that in principle every one of the above truths be provisional, that every one of them should continue to be subjected to the most unsparing scrutiny, subject to change in the face of definitive evidence to the contrary. And science makes no claim to addressing every single issue confronting humanity, such as questions of morality. But no scientist believes that any of the above hallowed facts that science has discovered will be proven fundamentally wrong. The real beauty of it all though is that we arrived at all these truths through the vehicle of doubt. No other system of human inquiry goes about discovering truth through the medium of doubt the way science does.

It would of course be right up the alley of creationists like Heffernan to belabor that old chestnut; that because there is debate about the details or subtleties of a theory or scientific framework, that must mean that the entire edifice is crumbling. It’s a stale old tactic and there’s absolutely nothing new about it. Are scientists still having debates about the rate of evolution? Do they still argue about the relative importance of natural selection vs random genetic drift? That must mean all of evolution must be wrong. Whatever political agenda creationists are serving by touting these falsehoods, their words always demonstrate a fundamental ignorance of science and an even greater ignorance of the bare facts about the universe that science has discovered.

So no, Virginia Heffernan and other creationists, you are wrong that all that science offers is doubt. Doubt is only a medium – and a spectacularly successful one at that – to get to the truth. Unlike religion whose truths differ for every person, science actually offers universal truths that can be tested, repeated and verified by anyone who cares to do so. I would rather live exploring the hard road to these timeless truths which are all too real rather than bask in the false glow of ones whose reality can never be demonstrated.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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





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  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 1:53 pm 07/19/2013

    Hmmmm? I’ve been in the sciences for over 40 years. Never has the word ‘truth’ been used in a peer reviewed paper in an accepted science publication in my field. Science is about knowledge…not truth. Existence in whatever field is explained through observing evidence via an accepted methodology.

    Science that comes up with the wrong answer can still be good science. It’s about the process and not the findings. Newtonian physics used for centuries was good science despite being off the mark. To repeat, I’ve never had a colleague speak about seeking ‘the truth’ but rather advancing knowledge that will be advanced even further in future by proper methodology.

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 2:06 pm 07/19/2013

    I suspect the words “wonder” and “elegance” are also not used in peer-reviewed publications but these words also mean something in science. Scientists are skittish, conservatives folks – and for good reason – but sometimes I think they should give themselves more credit than what they do. They have discovered some truly solid and astounding facts about life and the universe in the last four hundred years and they should be unabashedly proud of this fact. Science is indeed about acquiring knowledge, but that does not mean some knowledge (like the second law of thermodynamics) cannot aspire to the status of truth. I won’t use the word myself in a technical scientific paper about molecules, yet I am certain about the reality and truth of the molecules I am studying. For me it’s about the process as well as the findings.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 3:25 pm 07/19/2013

    Thanks for this post Ash. I, like you, think that science really is concerned with truth and I have been troubled with the critique of Heffernan’s column by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries on 7/12/13. Johnson flatly stated, “Science is not concerned with truth, it is concerned with doubt.” If science is not about arriving at truth and all science can do is limit doubt, it seems to me that it could not present a truly compelling story. But, as your examples illustrate, some truths can be “carved in stone.” The doubt is nonexistent or so infinitesimally small, and the certainty so unequivocal, they will not be “proven fundamentally wrong.” That has always been the great appeal of science for me. It is not just the story of what is known it is also the story of how we have achieved our understanding of the Universe. I like the way you put it, “The real beauty of it all though is that we arrived at all these truths through the vehicle of doubt. No other system of human inquiry goes about discovering truth through the medium of doubt the way science does.”

    I have no trouble distinguishing where science is still in its infancy but Heffernan apparently does. I have met others like her and lazy is an excellent way to describe them. But she is also lazy in her professed ‘creationist’ beliefs. There is not just one kind of creationist belief and she did not feel the need to elaborate further. If her bio is to be believed she has a PhD from Harvard in English Literature. You might expect that she would know that the Bible has a history, creationist thought has a history, and they both present more questions than answers.

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  4. 4. Asteroid Miner 4:36 pm 07/19/2013

    Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person's head isn't public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or with another instrument.]
    We build confidence by repeating experiments.

    “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul, 1980, University of California Press.

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  5. 5. sunspot 5:43 pm 07/19/2013

    Ash,
    Your title is just wrong. Even if Heffernan claimed to speak for all creationists, her critics should be skeptical of that claim. Did you merely assume that she speaks for others? You don’t present any evidence for this assumption. Similar assumptions corrupt your entire thesis and they may even invalidate your conclusions.

    For example, if you want to delineate the difference between “a truth” and “the Truth”, read the last chapter of the little book “ON TRUTH” By Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton). It may give you pause to judge all religious scientists, or even all creationists, on the word of one admittedly ranting individual.

    Your own article might be interpreted as a rant as well, since your implication that science is the only valid source of true statements sounds much like the preacher claiming that the bible is the only valid source of truth. These are beliefs, not provable statements. Any claim to absolute certainty should be avoided in science.

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  6. 6. Satya Narayan Tiwary 5:51 pm 07/19/2013

    Science always searches truth. It proves theoretically and experimentally. Nature supports. Laws of science are laws of nature. It describes nature in true sense.

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  7. 7. rock johny 6:23 pm 07/19/2013

    I appreciate that at least the author isn’t arrogant. As one who believes in creation, i have to agree that her article was a jumbled mess.
    Creation was a eons-long process though that Genesis’ creative ‘days’ don’t contradict. The bible alludes in Proverbs chp 8 that God had a ‘master worker’ alluded to as wisdom itself who worked beside him during the creative process and as some believe was the ‘only begotten Son’ who later took on the mission of Christ (which also reveals who he was talking to when He said, “Let US create man in our image”). The reference in chp. 8 does shed light on creation as being a quite fun endeavor for all involved – even angels who observed it’s progress; the pre-human Christ (then known as Michael) being “glad before him all the time”.
    I’d ask scientists to allow at least a smidgen of room to look at evolution from a creation standpoint. That this synergy between God himself and his Son (the only one directly created by God – all others created with the consultation? assistance? of this “Son”…whatever the collab was, it was teamwork) was itself an evolutionary process – their designs got more sophisticated over time and like any artist, later works borrowed from earlier works.
    Throw out the ‘literal days’ view as Genesis doesn’t bound creation to any time limits – that’s a massive error on the part of “creationISTS”. Why would God observe a 24 hour day for the entire universe when that’s only a rule for day/night here on earth? It’s NUTS to think that way and has made creationists a laughing stock to anyone with a sane mind.

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  8. 8. Bill_Crofut 7:26 pm 07/19/2013

    Re: “The fact that organisms evolve through natural selection is a truth.”

    Prof. Sir James Gray was apparently unaware of such “truth”:

    “…[N]atural selection…is the only theory we have; but when judged as a working hypothesis it is disappointing to find so little advance in a hundred years….No amount of argument, or clever epigram, can disguise the inherent improbability of orthodox theory; but most biologists feel it is better to think in terms of improbable events than not to think at all.”

    [1954. The Case for Natural Selection. NATURE, 6 February, p. 227]

    What has happened in the past 6 decades to transform Gray’s disappointment into “truth?”

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  9. 9. bwana 9:01 pm 07/19/2013

    “Unlike religion whose truths differ for every person, science actually offers universal truths that can be tested, …”

    I do believe the 1st truths in the above quote should be “truths”!? There are NO truths in religion, only faith in a great unknown! A horrible way to live life; forever believing in a fairy tale.

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  10. 10. Scienceisnotagenda 9:41 pm 07/19/2013

    I agree with Richard Dawkins. We can only experience existence through our senses. What we observe is a veneer over existence. Particle physics, the quantum, multi universe theory,etc. suggests a reality ( or realities ) way beyond what we perceive as absolutes (truths). Some observation on natural selection, gravity or whatever is at a macro level far removed from underlying first principles of existence. Quantum particles, forces upon them, potential ‘other’ realities (multi universe theory) are where fundamentals may …not at our level today of scratching the surface.

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  11. 11. curiouswavefunction 10:00 pm 07/19/2013

    “Science is the only valid source of true statements sounds much like the preacher claiming that the bible is the only valid source of truth”

    Is there another valid source for true statements about the structure of the atomic nucleus other than science?

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  12. 12. DrKrishnaKumariChalla 11:05 pm 07/19/2013

    Science is getting closer to truth even if it is not absolute truth. This is making the followers of various religions uncomfortable. Hence the rants. People say We need not follow them. But it is important to raise your voice too to let people know what you think too in a democracy.Maintaining Silence by scientists will make these rants look like ‘truths’.
    Truth is like fire. No matter how much people try to cover it, it will burn the things that come in its way and come out! So don’t worry!
    People say science cannot solve all the problems and doesn’t answer all the questions human minds pose. True! But think about this: This universe started with a Big Bang ( according to one theory) some 14 Billion years ago. But science is just a few hundred years old. It is still in its infancy. It has to learn a lot, study a lot, think a lot, experiment a lot and then only it can come up with all the answers we are seeking right now. How can you expect a child to solve all the problems of his ancestors? And answer the questions posed by his great, great, great, great grand fathers? Is it appropriate to even expect such a thing? I don’t think so. We should be amazed at how we have been able to get so far in understanding the things in this universe despite our inadequacies! Science is doing its best with the limited resources it has to both answer the questions and solve the problems. As the time goes by, I am pretty sure, it will succeed more and more. Please have patience!

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  13. 13. Bill_Crofut 9:48 am 07/20/2013

    More than one prominent evolutionist has written about religion; here’s one example:

    “Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safeguarding of divinity…and seeks contact and communion with what is regarded as divine. A humanist evolution-centred religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God.”

    [Prof. Sir Julian Huxley. 1964. Essays of a Humanist. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, p. 223]

    What has he really told us about evolution “science?”

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  14. 14. Big Mama Roneck 12:19 pm 07/20/2013

    Truth, doubt, scepticism? I could have sworn science was about discovery. I recently had a chat with a Seventh Day Adventist who assured me the world was 7,000 years old. For him he had no ‘doubt’ that was the ‘truth’ and he was sceptical about science and so-called scientific fact. He just got his pilots licence and he burns billion year old fossil fuel to keep his airplane airborne. And I was too bored to ask him how old he thought the bauxite was from which his plane was mostly made.
    bmr

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  15. 15. Chryses 3:46 pm 07/20/2013

    If a claim cannot be tested, the claim does not lie within the domain of Science. That doesn’t make it wrong; it may well be true, but it isn’t Science.

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  16. 16. rkipling 12:02 am 07/21/2013

    Of course creationists are wrong. But to whom exactly is this post targeted? Creationists can’t be moved with reason. Isn’t this just preaching to the choir?

    A picture of Agent Scully would have added to the presentation.

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  17. 17. bailiff 11:30 am 07/21/2013

    “If a claim cannot be tested, the claim does not lie within the domain of Science.”

    So String Theory is …

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  18. 18. sunspot 4:27 pm 07/22/2013

    Ash,
    (Reply to comment 11) “Is there another valid source for true statements about the structure of the atomic nucleus other than science?”

    Thanks for your reply. I should clarify two points. 1. You and Heffernan refer to biblical literalism, which Heffernan mistakenly conflates with creationism. She ignores the most widely understood definition: “The doctrine that God immediately creates out of nothing a new human soul for each individual born.” In that sense, your title is wrong, because science cannot address the truth of a belief in spirit which transcends time and space. Science writers (even SciAm bloggers) should strive for precision so as not to mislead the reader who assumes a certain professionalism here.

    2. You probably know that the doctrine that considers science to be the only source of valid truth is called naturalism. Many scientists object to naturalism on the grounds that it ultimately leads to contradiction. Others protest that naturalists wear blinders, claiming that they are unwilling to consider other ways of knowing. (As I said, see Frankfurt’s light-hearted, yet poignant last chapter for other ways of knowing “The Truth”.)

    Assuming your sincerity, and no snarkiness in your science question, I must answer that any scientific statement is only as true as the assumptions supporting it. Current atomic theory assumes many characteristics about space and time that are currently being hotly debated. (EG. Lee Smolin’s book “Time reborn”.) Ernst Mach, Einstein’s mentor, abhorred atomic theory as “psychological physics”. Today, many respected scientists view quantum mechanics and string theory in the same way.

    I assume that you are truly interested in the philosophy of science, so I encourage you to read respected works of those who disagree with naturalism.

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  19. 19. curiouswavefunction 10:52 am 07/23/2013

    No, I am not claiming that the only valid truths are those that are discovered by science. What I am simply saying is that science can undoubtedly discover several (not all) valid truths. There’s a difference.

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  20. 20. rkipling 5:29 pm 07/23/2013

    sunspot,

    To paraphrase Short Round, “Hey! You call him Dr. Jogalekar!”

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  21. 21. JeanAngel 8:13 am 10/10/2013

    You can play with words but scientific facts are scientific facts and for anyone to constantly interject their philosophy by slandering facts about scientific evidence is just really pathetic and they should not be commenting on new scientific findings because really they only do harm to science. It’s a shame that this is like a game that these slanderers convince people to buy into their philosophical view points instead of excepting new scientific data. Scientists today are far more advanced in knowledge and technology than Darwinism ever was. So to keep slandering scientists and new far advanced scientific evidence by labeling them as “creationists” or “religious” and throwing all that technology out the window is frankly just stupid. It would be better to recognize your philosophical beliefs and limited intellect when it comes to new discoveries in science and you should keep quiet because it is really not helping science advance. Science is not philosophy so please keep your philosophical beliefs to yourselves.

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  22. 22. GeorgePapadopoulos 11:37 pm 02/3/2014

    “Unlike religion whose truths differ for every person, science actually offers universal truths that can be tested, repeated and verified by anyone who cares to do so” –

    First, science is not used under the correct context here. Science is applied in religion through theology for example (I mean, what else is theology?) so it is not accurate to compare the two.
    Then, even if we assume “physics” was meant here instead of science then it still relies on untested truths, called axioms. In religion axioms are based on personal beliefs (or faith), a combination of logic and emotions among other aspects, where in physics it is based on our senses.

    So let me attempt to rephrase: physics is based on universal beliefs, religion is based on personal beliefs. But is the really true? No. If you look at religion they are only a few main ones, they have variations but are based on the same self-evident beliefs. They might not be universal but they cannot be claimed to be personal either. The same way as historical truths are not as universal as mathematical truths. It is typically unlikely to doubt a mathematical truth yet very common to doubt a historical one.

    What really makes the difference is the testing part. Beliefs in physics are based on senses which are the same for all humans. So using a common scientific method will be expected to lead to the same result. Religion beliefs are based on a lot more aspects of a human being, emotions being one of them. Since you don’t expect emotions to be the same you shouldn’t expect religion to be the same for everyone. Yet religious people will typically claim their religion as being the universal “truth”. This is just ignorance, a mathematician will know to use phrases like “based on”, “assuming that”, “if we define this”. With religion you need to start by saying “assuming you follow the same religion” for the same reasons. In physics you don’t have to, you know we all have the same senses, that we are viewing the same world. By definition the truth is a universal truth.

    Lastly, truths in religion are actually more repeatable than in physics. Religion tends not to change at all and when it does it usually is considered a new branch. You do expect a scientist saying “Einstein got it wrong”, hearing “Jesus got it wrong” from a religion person is really less likely…

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