Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The scientific method

The recent news that scientists at the CERN European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva might have observed a sub-atomic particle that was capable of travelling at a speed greater than that of light has given some ammunition to those who would attack science, and scientists, in the interests of furthering their claims for religion. For example, Mr. Gregory Shenkman, in a letter to the Financial Times on Saturday Oct 8th 2011, has written:

“…science changes its mind about many things quite frequently. When it does so, it does not admit it was wrong before, it simply hands down a new tablet of stone. However, the current speculation at the facility at Cern as to whether certain subatomic particles can go faster than the speed of light demonstrates the need for science to keep an open mind”.

The discovery of anything that was capable of travelling at greater than the speed of light would, indeed, throw Einstein’s famous Theories of Relativity into disarray.

But theists, such as Mr. Shenkman, are being selective. For a start, they’re conveniently ignoring the fact that it was scientists who made this news public. That shows they do, in fact, have open minds. As for changing its mind, science is in a constant state of flux. In relation to scientific models that are still with us, such as the First and Second laws of Thermodynamics, Darwinian Evolution, The Germ Theory of Disease, and Special and General Relativity, any modifications that have been made since the original discovery was published have been in order to refine the model, never to negate it, and always on the basis of new evidence. One gets weary of hearing claims that “Darwin has been proved wrong” whenever something like punctuated equilibrium, the assertion that evolutionary changes are not constant over time, but occur in bursts, is postulated on the basis of new fossil discoveries. This is adding a new detail, guys, it doesn’t do anything to discredit the original theory.

There are theories we no longer hear about but which were strongly believed in at one time, such as the existence of the “luminiferous ether”, a substance that was supposed by scientists in the 19th century to occupy all of space. It was believed that it must exist, in order to transmit light waves, in the same way that air is needed to transmit sound. Its existence was disproved by the Michelson – Morley experiment in 1887. We now understand that most of the Universe is composed of a true vacuum.

The Michelson Morley experiment was believed at the time to be a failure because it did not detect the ether, which was part of the belief system of many eminent people who had devoted their lives to science. But it was not a failure. It simply gave us more information than we had before.

And the fact that the scientific community was able to come to terms with its results is therefore a triumph for the scientific method and for evidence based, as opposed to faith based, belief.

And so it goes. There might have been something faulty with the CERN experiment. Or perhaps Einstein was wrong. If he was, that fact will be embraced when all the evidence is in.

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