Pathological Skepticism

“All great truths began as blasphemies” – George Bernard Shaw

  • In the 1800’s, the scientific community viewed reports of rocks falling from the sky as “pseudoscience” and those who reported them as “crackpots,” only because it didn’t fit in with the prevailing view of the universe. Today, of course, we recognize that these rocks could be meteorites and such reports are now properly investigated.
  • In 1827, Georg Ohm’s initial publication of what became “Ohm’s Law” met with ridicule, dismissal, and was called “a web of naked fantasies.” The German Minister of Education proclaimed that “a professor who preached such heresies was unworthy to teach science.” 20 yrs passed before scientists began to recognize its importance.
  • Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs was called “ridiculous fiction” by Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse in1872.
  • Spanish researcher Marcelino de Sautuola discovered cave art in Altamira cave (northern Spain), which he recognized as stone age and published a paper about it in 1880.  His integrity was violently attacked by the archaeological community, and he died disillusioned and broken.  Yet he was vindicated 10 years after death.
  • Lord Haldane, the Minister of War in Britain, said that “the aeroplane will never fly” in 1907.  Ironically, this was four years after the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  After Kitty Hawk, the Wrights flew in open fields next to a busy rail line in Dayton OH for almost an entire year. US authorities refused to come to the demos, while Scientific American published stories about “The Lying Brothers.”
  • In 1964, physicist George Zweig proposed the existence of quarks.  As a result of this theory, he was rejected for position at major university and considered a “charlatan.”  Today, of course, it is an accepted part of standard nuclear model.

Note that these aren’t just passive disagreements.  The skeptics use active and angry language, with words like “charlatan,” “ridiculous,” lying,” “crackpot,” and “pseudoscience.”

This is partly due to a natural psychological effect, known as “fear of the unknown” or “fear of change.”  Psychologists who have studied human behavior have more academic sounding names for it, such as the “Mere Exposure Effect”, “Familiarity Principle”, or Neophobia (something that might have served Agent Smith well).  Ultimately, this may be an artifact of evolution.  Hunter-gatherers did not pass on their genes if they had a habit of eating weird berries, venturing too close to the saber-toothed cats, or other unconventional activities.  But we are no longer hunter-gatherers.  For the most part, we shouldn’t fear the unknown.  We should feel empowered to challenge assumptions.  The scientific method can weed out any undesirable ideas naturally.

But, have you also noticed how the agitation ratchets up the more you enter the realm of the “expert?”

“The expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” – Mahatma Gandhi

This is because the expert may have a lot to lose if they stray too far from the status quo.  Their research funding, tenure, jobs, reputations are all at stake.  This is unfortunate, because it feeds this unhealthy behavior.

So I thought I would do my part to remind experts and non-experts alike that breakthroughs only occur when we challenge conventional thinking, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them.

The world is full of scared “experts”, but nobody will ever hear of them.  But they will hear about the brave ones, who didn’t fear to challenge the status quo.  People like Copernicus, Einstein, Georg Ohm, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

And it isn’t like we are so enlightened today that such pathological skepticism no longer occurs.

Remember Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann?  Respected electrochemists, ridiculed out of their jobs and their country by skeptics.  Even “experts” violently contradicted each other:

  • “It’s pathological science,” said physicist Douglas Morrison, formerly of CERN. “The results are impossible.”
  • “There’s very strong evidence that low-energy nuclear reactions do occur” said George Miley (who received Edward Teller medal for research in hot fusion.). “Numerous experiments have shown definitive results – as do my own.”

Some long-held assumptions are being overturned as we speak.  Like LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions; the new, less provocative name for cold fusion.

And maybe the speed of light as an ultimate speed limit.

These are exciting times for science and technology.  Let’s stay open minded enough to keep them moving.

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