13 Things That Don't Make Sense
The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
2008, BeavertonLib 500 BRO
The fewer the data points, the more the hypotheses. One weak data point tests no hypotheses, and certainly doesn't prove them. There are billions of hypotheses that "don't make sense"; we all have a few. What makes most of these hypotheses special is that some scientists blabber and some journalists listen, then encourage other scientists to blabber the same way.
- 1) Missing Mass - too much speculation, not enough observation. This puzzle won't be solved without new kinds of observatories, most likely very large and beyond the Kuiper belt. It is amazing what we can see with electromagnetic radiation through an atmosphere, but there's an awful lot that isn't EM.
- 2) Pioneer anomaly - already explained; anisotropic thermal IR from the radioisotope generator.
- 3) Varying constants - or noisy measurement compounded with selection bias? Show me 2 decimal place single sample anomalies, and I'll buy it.
- 4) Cold fusion - noisy measurement.
- 5) Life - single data point. If we find something very different Out There, or make something very different Down Here, we will start to know enough to define categories.
- 6) Viking, life on Mars? - some of the anomalies may be explained by highly reactive UV-generated molecules, such as the highly lethal perchlorates we are learning about now. All that eats is not edible.
- 7) The Wow! Signal - single data point. If that data point helped us design equipment or experiments to find more data points, there might be a story here.
8) A Giant Virus - Timothy Rowbotham's Bradford coccus, aka Mamavirus. This is interesting, and replicable science. Like most interesting things, it tends to weaken the boundaries of rigid categories. Mamavirus has been observed in multiple labs, along with the Sputnik virophage which hijacks Mamavirus.
- 9) Death - replicable, of course, but nothing (not even universes) last forever. The "mystery of death" may be like the "mystery of life"; confusing because both are many different phenomena lumped into one category.
- 10) Sex - replicable, ditto. IMHO, if DNA retroviruses can insert their genome into living cell chromosomes, the cells can use something like Meosis 1 crossover with similar chromosomes from a different parent (actually, different grandparent), to break apart the viruses and replace a portion of them with healthy chromosome gene. This is less effective if both parents share a grandparent and a common source of retrovirus.
- 11) Free will - I know it when I see it, because I want to see it :-). There are vastly many examples of non-free will, repetitive behaviors copied from the past or copied from contemporaries. The exceptions stand out, but they aren't always the same exceptions. The more heterogeneous the exceptions, the harder it is to lump them under one explanation.
12) The placebo effect - another granfalloon. There are many different placebo effects. They become more "important" but less explainable when lumped together.
- 13) Homeopathy - ditto.
Often, what "don't make sense" is lumping disparate phenomena and behaviors under one label. Are they even the same phenomena, if experienced subjectively by very different people? Free will, placebo effect, homeopathy ... if we had larger brains or more experience or more patience, each could be hundreds of labels, more consistent and explainable in themselves, but only applicable specific individuals.
I was born with brown hair, now it is white; am I a brunette, or a blond? No, I'm me, with genes for brown hair that aren't expressed any more. Oversimplification is for simpletons; we should only categorize if the categories lead to helpful outcomes. Otherwise, there are may better ways to use our precious time.
The Secret Anarchy of Science
2011, BeavertonLib 500 BRO
p16 Stewart Brand 1965 "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?"
p85 "I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 3, page 9. Attributing this attitude to Wilde himself is a stretch.
p121 "The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge" -- Daniel Boorstin, January 1984 Washington Post interview. antecedent quotes
p248 "Even the fights, the injuries, and the injustices have their purpose. If you want to rise to the top, you and your scientific insight have to be bomb-proof. Any big new idea and its proponent both have to survive so much violence, and unseat such strongly rooted predecessors, that, if they make it through to widespread acceptance, we can be as sure as possible that they are correct. Most of us the unwitting beneficiaries of this gladiatorial process. That is why we unhesitatingly board aeroplanes or take aspirin: science is trustworthy. But few of us are aware of the cost at which that trust is achieved. ..."
That paragraph's last sentence is "The strange thing is that the scientists would rather you remained in the dark." Which is pseudo-mindreading bullshit, marring the rest of the paragraph. One-on-one, most scientists are forthcoming about the competitive process with non-journalists (like me). Brooks is a journalist, and could ruin a scientist's career by widely exposing a particular scientist's professional disputes and gladiatorial strategies.