Archive for December, 2016

Another Swipe at “Established Science”

December 26, 2016

One theme of Genesis and Genes is that the public should beware of claims of established science. This means that certain issues are no longer open to discussion, because the evidence is supposedly so solid as to warrant no more doubt. Critics of established science are deemed quacks, obscurantists, anti-science or worse, regardless of how cogent and evidence-based is their criticism.

Claims that certain positions constitute established science are not new. Let me provide one example from astronomy.

For several decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a debate raged among astronomers about whether or not the Milky Way was the sum total of the material universe. Many astronomers believed that there were no stars beyond our galaxy. The galaxy made up everything, and beyond it lay empty space. Others believed that there were other galaxies beyond our own, known at the time as island universes. [Kant and Laplace are credited with developing this view]. The disagreement culminated in the “Great Debate”, a 1920 confrontation between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, in which this issue was discussed.

The pivot around which the debate revolved was the existence of faint, fuzzy patches of light known as nebulae. Were they galaxies that existed very far away from the Milky Way, or were they clouds of gas that existed within (or on the outskirts of) our galaxy? In 1890, Agnes Clerke (1842-1907), an English astronomer and science writer, summed up the prevailing belief about the existence of other galaxies in System of the Stars:

The question of whether the nebulae are external galaxies hardly any longer needs discussion. It has been answered by the progress of discovery. No competent thinker, with the whole of the available evidence before him, can now, it is safe to say, maintain any single nebula to be a star system of co-ordinate rank with the Milky Way. A practical certainty has been attained that the entire contents, stellar and nebular, of the sphere belong to one mighty aggregation…[1]

So you see, it’s settled. There are no galaxies beyond the Milky Way. There is no need for further discussion. If you are a competent thinker, there is nothing more to say (and, of course, if you express doubt, you must be an incompetent thinker).

Needless to say, this established science view turned out to be incorrect. As astronomy progressed it became evident that numerous galaxies exist beside our own. Today, it is believed that there may be 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

&&&

The Big Bang Theory is a paradigmatic example of established science. Practically everyone knows that the universe began some 13.8 billion years ago in a humongous expansion of spacetime (the less informed imagine something very fiery, like the Mother of All Bombs). There is certainly evidence for this view, but there are problems too (which is the case for all scientific theories). Perhaps the chief difficulty with [the Standard Model of] the Big Bang is the horizon problem.

Here is the bare bones on the horizon problem. If we look in one direction into space to a distance of, say, 10 billion light years, and then look in the opposite direction, again to a distance of 10 billion light years, we would be looking at two regions of space that are 20 billion light years from each other. Since the universe is believed to be only about 13.8 billion years old, no light (or anything else) from one of these regions could have “communicated” with the other region. There would not have been any opportunity for these two regions of space to have physical contact which could have led to temperature differences between these regions, for example,  being averaged out. And yet, we find that the entire observable universe is astonishingly similar in its physical properties in all directions (it is isotropic).

Two possible solutions to this conundrum have been proposed. The first is inflationary cosmology, which solves the horizon problem at the expense of gigantic problems of its own. Basically, accepting inflation to solve the horizon problem is like treating an itchy nose by cutting it off: the itch is cured, but the cure comes at a steep price. Problems with the inflationary model have been noted by top-notch scientists like Roger Penrose and Paul Steinhardt.

The second solution has been proposed independently by several teams. One team is led by Professor João Magueijo, whom I briefly introduced in Genesis and Genes:

Magueijo received his doctorate at Cambridge, and was awarded the research fellowship previously held by the physics Nobelists Paul Dirac and Abdus Salam. He has been a faculty member at Princeton and Cambridge, and is currently a professor at Imperial College London. Magueijo is famous in physics circles for his work on VSL cosmology. The acronym stands for Varying Speed of Light. Undertaken in 1998 together with Andreas Albrecht, VSL proposes that the speed of light was much higher in the early universe – some 60 orders of magnitude faster than its present value. The work is an alternative to inflationary cosmology. Magueijo describes his work in his 2003 book, Faster than the Speed of Light.[2]

If Magueijo and others are right, the horizon problem is solved at the expense of a key aspect of contemporary physics: the immutability of the speed of light.

Recently, Sputnik News provided an update about Magueijo’s research.[3] He and his colleagues are collecting evidence to bolster their claim. If they are right, one of the cornerstones of modern physics – that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum – will come crashing down.

Of course, that’s a big if. But my point is relevant regardless. I wrote this in Genesis and Genes:

In contemporary science, the dominant theory often doesn’t dominate – it monopolizes. This means that the public – and scientists – are often not even aware that there are competing theories.

My (educated) guess is that everyone reading this post has heard of the Big Bang Theory. Far fewer people – those more informed than the average member of the public – have heard of inflationary cosmology. And perhaps one person in a million has heard of VSL, the alternative to inflation that posits a varying value for the speed of light. But VSL is there, a real and legitimate research program.

This state of affairs, in which the dominant theory monopolises the news, distorts the public’s ability to assess the claims made by scientists. An illusion is created whereby the dominant theory is perceived by the public as the only theory. The consequence is that it becomes politically and socially difficult to criticise this entrenched position.

In Genesis and Genes, I went on to describe another incidence of established science, this time in the context of evolutionary biology:

[Beginning of Quote]

Here is another example of the monopoly phenomenon that is directly relevant to the primary focus of this book. This is the evolution of dinosaurs to birds. This hypothesis is a staple of museum displays, documentaries, biology textbooks and encyclopaedia entries. The standard teaching is that birds evolved from maniraptoran theropod dinosaurs. This, too, is portrayed as something that we know. As is the case with Black Death, even well-informed members of the public have virtually no chance of discovering that there are many competent scientists – committed to the Darwinian worldview, so that they cannot stand accused of religious bias – who strongly disagree with the mainstream view for straightforward technical reasons. Here is one example. Larry Martin is a paleo-ornithologist and the curator for vertebrate palaeontology at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on birds of the Mesozoic era. In an article which appeared in the now-defunct periodical The Sciences (March/April 1998), Martin wrote:

I began to grow disenchanted with the bird-dinosaur link when I compared the eighty-five or so anatomical features seriously proposed as being shared by birds and dinosaurs. To my shock, virtually none of the comparisons held up. For example, the characteristic upward-projecting bone on the inner ankle in dinosaurs lies on the outer ankle in birds. In some cases I even discovered that the supposedly shared features occurred on entirely different bones. That is a bit like saying that you and I are related because my nose resembles your big toe.

The simplest argument against the dominant hypothesis is that the fossil record is incompatible with the dino-to-bird scenario. As Professor John A. Ruben of Oregon State University points out, “For one thing, birds are found earlier in the fossil record than the dinosaurs they are supposed to have descended from. That’s a pretty serious problem, and there are other inconsistencies with the bird-from-dinosaur theories.”[4] What are some of these other inconsistencies? Flying is an extremely energy-intensive activity. When they fly, birds need to produce energy at a furious rate. This means that they need to process oxygen very efficiently. Birds, which are, of course, warm-blooded, need about twenty times more oxygen than cold-blooded reptiles. They have a unique lung structure that allows for a high rate of gas exchange which makes flying possible.

Now, it’s been known for decades that the thigh bone (femur) in birds is largely fixed and makes birds into “knee runners”, unlike virtually all other land animals. In 2009, however, the discovery was made by Oregon State University researchers that it is this fixed position of bird bones and musculature that keeps their air-sac lung from collapsing when the bird inhales. Their unusual thigh complex is what helps support the lung and prevent its collapse. “This is fundamental to bird physiology,” says Devon Quick, an OSU zoologist. “It’s really strange that no one realized this before. The position of the thigh bone and muscles in birds is critical to their lung function, which in turn is what gives them enough lung capacity for flight.” Why is this discovery so pertinent to the issue of evolution? The OSU scientists said that every other animal that has ever walked on land has a moveable thigh bone that is involved in their motion – including humans, elephants, dogs, lizards and – in the ancient past – dinosaurs. The implication, the researchers say, is that birds almost certainly did not descend from dinosaurs. Professor Ruben of OSU continues, “But one of the primary reasons many scientists kept pointing to birds as having descended from dinosaurs was similarities in their lungs.” His conclusion: “However, theropod dinosaurs had a moving femur and therefore could not have had a lung that worked like that in birds. Their abdominal air sac, if they had one, would have collapsed.”

Researchers committed to the dino-to-bird hypothesis typically brush aside this criticism. The main reason for this is, of course, their commitment to the evolutionary story. The Science Daily report from which these quotations are taken continues: “The conclusions [of the Oregon State University researchers] add to other… evidence that may finally force many palaeontologists to reconsider their long-held belief that modern birds are the direct descendants of ancient, meat-eating dinosaurs…” Professor Ruben adds, “But old theories die hard, especially when it comes to some of the most distinctive and romanticized animal species in world history.” He continues, “Frankly, there’s a lot of museum politics involved in this, a lot of careers committed to a particular point of view even if new scientific evidence raises questions.” In some museum displays, he says, the birds-descended-from-dinosaurs evolutionary theory has been portrayed as a largely accepted fact, with an asterisk pointing out in small type that some scientists disagree. [Frankly, I have yet to see such an asterisk. The dino-to-bird model is always presented as established fact; something we know.]

 [End of quote]

Informed consumers of science are aware that the history of science is replete with issues that were once settled, until they were upset by new evidence. The consensus position is not always correct. Especially when it comes to fundamental and controversial issues like the origin of the universe and of life, one should harbour some scepticism even when the majority of scientists proclaim that there is nothing left to say.

[1] Edward Harrison, Darkness at Night, Harvard University Press, 1987, page 114.

[2] Magueijo is also the host of the Science Channel series, Joao Magueijo’s Big Bang, which premiered on May 13, 2008.

[3] https://sputniknews.com/science/201611261047857919-variable-light-speed-theory-universe/

[4] Discovery Raises New Doubts About Dinosaur-bird Links, ScienceDaily (June 9, 2009).