Around 558 million years ago, a strange … something dies on the floor of an ancient ocean. Its body, if you could call it that, is a two-inch-long oval with symmetric ribs running from its midline to its fringes. It is quickly buried in sediment, and gradually turns into a fossil.
Despite that almost unimaginable time span, and everything that happened within it, many of the simple molecules that once existed in the oval creature’s cells still persist. Bobrovskiy, a geochemist at Australian National University, has isolated, identified, and measured them. And they provide conclusive evidence that the creature, despite all appearances, is an animal. More specifically, it is the oldest animal ever discovered. It’s called Dickinsonia.
The singer of a popular ’90s band has joined a former Pentagon official to prove that UFOs exist. But is the truth really out there?
‘Scientists’ may not be your best source of good ideas. Here’s a “scientific reconstruction of a cat” using the same techniques we’d use for dinosaurs:
When my kids were younger, I watched any number of dinosaur movies and the most “scientifically accurate” were always clumsy and seemed contrived.
I suspect that aliens will be constrained by their environment the way animals are on Earth. Unless these environments are wildly different, they may look quite a lot like the weird animals we get on earth.
… and so on.
My 2c, Jo.
Postscript. Thanks to everyone who pointed out that, yes, the first image is speculative. That’s why I put “scientific reconstruction of a cat” in inverted commas. The original image is from. The whole point of the book is to challenge conventional ‘reconstructions’ which are also guesswork. One of the authors ( ) is a British vertebrate palaeontologist. The artists are competent palaeoartists. From the introduction:
“What needs to be made clear at this point, then, is that palaeoart of the sort discussed and depicted in this book is firmly grounded in a sceptical, rigorous, evidence-led effort to study and depict anatomy: the approach prompted by Paul, Antón and the like. Several other palaeoartists of the modern era—Jason Brougham, Mark Hallett, Scott Hartman, Bob Nicholls, Emily Willoughby and Mark Witton come to mind—are similarly part of the ‘anatomically rigorous’ movement. Others are not, and it shows.”
[Google images linked toand this was the source link I originally used. Yep, it hypes things a bit, and to a certain extent misses the point. My bad.]
So you don’t like the laws of Physics? Then enact a law to make them illegal. Problem solved.
More and more I like this concept: Deliberate ignorance and stupidity must bear consequences. I hope that some day some typhoon will wash these politicians to the middle of a far away ocean.
PS: People need to make politicians accountable for their ignorance-sponsoring ideologies. The language of the courts seems appropriate.
Ainda não se sabe o que causou as emissões detetadas pelos investigadores
Thoughts on language (and the recent conference held at the Univ. Porto, denying established science that CO2 is a primary contributor do global warming):
Language is a wonderful tool to communicate just about anything that any human may wish to communicate. However, we need to understand that specific words may have different meanings in different contexts. For example, the word “theory” has very different meanings in everyday conversation and in science. When people from different backgrounds communicate, they need to be fully aware of the differences for the communication to be meaningful. These differences are the source of a great deal of confusion and misunderstandings when scientists speak to non-scientists, and even when scientists move from “scientific speech” to everyday conversations.
Another motivation to use well constructed and unambiguous language – in other words, to think before we speak – resides in the fact that when we do it we are stimulating neuron networks that will stimulate the use of clearer language in the future.
A recent conference held at the University of Porto and involving people of mixed backgrounds united by the common ‘hypothesis’ (this is the correct word to use here) that “CO2 is not a very important cause of global warming”, raised my awareness (again!) of the dangers of having people with scientific backgrounds discuss science with people who do not have such backgrounds. There is an obvious mismatch in language and that mismatch is a source of continuous and unfortunate misunderstandings. The responsibility to educate people on the correct word meanings always resides with scientists, of course. Unfortunately too, non-scientists often do not want to be educated on such meanings, as most people prefer to reinforce their current biases to learn new concepts and expand their knowledge. This is especially true nowadays, when reason has become a luxury and critical thinking a rare human characteristic.
A friend of mine working at Oregon State Univ., Indira Rajagopal, summarises the word meanings well:
Theory vs Hypothesis
What “theory” means in ordinary speech: The term “theory” means a very different thing when used in everyday conversation and in science. In our day to day speech, we often use “theory” to mean a guess or unsubstantiated idea about how something works (as in “I have a theory that gremlins are hiding my car keys”).
In science, we would call such a guess a hypothesis, not a theory. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for an observation. In this case, I am proposing that the explanation for why I can’t find my car keys is that gremlins are hiding them.*
The distinction between the words “Theory” and “Hypothesis” is very important because in science “Theory” does not mean “guess”. I repeat, “Theory” does not mean “guess”.
So, what does the word “theory” mean in science? According to the National Academies of Sciences, “some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena”.
People who don’t understand this distinction sometimes dismiss ideas saying “it’s just a theory” (this is very commonly used to suggest that evolution is just speculation, for example). But, when scientists speak of the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution, they don’t mean that these are random untested ideas that someone came up with after too many beers.
The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), the world’s largest scientific society, has this explanation of what scientists mean when they use the word “theory”: “A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world.”
Because of this crucial difference in meaning, we should always use the word “hypothesis” whenever we referring to a speculation or guess about how something works.
* Note, that unfortunately, my hypothesis about gremlins is not useful in science, since it is notoriously difficult to detect gremlins. A hypothesis that cannot be shown to be wrong is of no use in science.
Proof vs. Evidence
Another word that is commonly misused (sadly, sometimes even by scientists, who should know better) is “proof”.
What “proof” means in everyday speech: In casual conversations, most people use the word “proof” when they mean that there is indisputable evidence that supports an idea.
Scientists should be wary of using the term “proof”. Science does not “prove” things. Science can and does provide evidence in favor of, or against, a particular idea. In science, proofs are possible only in the highly abstract world of mathematics.
What should scientists say instead of “proof”? Scientists should use the term “evidence” instead of the word “proof”. When we test our hypotheses, we obtain evidence that supports or rejects the hypotheses. We do not “prove” our hypotheses.
While this may seem like a subtle difference, the words we use can subconsciously color our thinking. “Proof” suggests that a matter is completely settled, that we have had the last word on something.
In science, we are constantly adding to and refining our knowledge. When we have a sufficiently large body of evidence supporting an idea, we accept that idea. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”
For example, we accept that DNA is copied into mRNA which directs the synthesis of protein, because many studies have provided evidence that this is the case, and no studies have shown this idea to be wrong. So, we have a very high degree of confidence that this idea is correct. However, we remain open to the possibility that we may (and probably will) find, at some point, that there is more to the story than we understand at this moment.
Scientists are generally careful not to claim more than their evidence supports. That point was clearly made in Feynman’s quote where he emphasises the need to teach science in a way that makes clear what we know, how we know it, how well we know it, and what we don’t understand. This in no way suggests that science is unsure or unreliable, but it reminds us that our current understanding is not the last word on the subject. Practicing scientists know this very well, but the general public is less clear on this concept, mainly because they do not understand clearly how science works. This is made worse when newspaper articles say things like “scientists have proved that…..” which suggests that there is nothing more to be said about the subject.
As people trained in science, I think it is important for us to choose our words carefully, so we do not misrepresent the nature of science. Many non-scientists think that science has figured out all the answers (at least about the natural world). People who are not trained in science don’t realize that answers in science may change with time, not necessarily because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete descriptions of reality and new evidence requires fine-tuning of an existing answer. For this reason, we should all be mindful of using the term evidence rather than proof.
Applying these ideas to the conference held in Porto, I would say:
– None of the participants have “proved” anything.
– A few participants have raised several hypotheses.
– The only way to accept or reject any of the hypotheses raised is to obtain evidence to support their correctness, i.e, their matching to the way Nature works. It is the responsibility of their proponents to secure evidence support for their hypotheses. Only then can established scientific theory be improved with their contributions.
– In my view as scientist, the immense body of evidence in existence today firmly supports that CO2 is a primary contributor to global warming, thus supporting measures to reduce Co2 concentration in the atmosphere. As such, the evidence suggests that the main hypothesis driving the conference should be rejected.
– Views that conflict with established science, or theory, do not constitute an alternative theory but are mere hypotheses. As such, progress is not ensured by considering them on equal footing – established science or scientific theory vs. hypotheses – but by requiring that the hypotheses be confirmed by firm evidence.
– Any discussion between any scientist supporting any established science (including the scientific theory that CO2 is a major contributor to global warming) and people having alternative views must be settled through the scientific method: The people having alternative view need to secure firm evidence that supports their views and subject such evidence to international debate.
– In any discussion of science vs pseudo-science, we need to apply Feynman’s or Sagan’s rules to distinguish between them.
In conclusion: The conference held at the University of Porto failed to position itself as a meeting with scientific credibility, of people holding alternative views, putting forward several hypotheses while holding credible evidence to support them. It came across as a meeting of “cast aways” being treated unfairly by the scientific community for not allowing their “theory” to challenge “established theory”. But they do not have any theory, they only have hypotheses for which there is not credible evidence, at least until now. Furthermore, the organiser (prof. Maria Assunção Araújo) positioned herself as defending a belief, not science. That is unacceptable for any university professor. In a local interview, she said that she is paid to present her ideas to students; well, that is false as she is paid to teach science.
The idea that the Earth is ‘Flat’ is, in fact, a relatively new theory. In fact, before anyone came up with the idea we live on a flat plane, people knew very well the Earth was round. Even though there are countless images of our planet, and numerous videos which have been recorded from space, there are still some who argue the Earth is in fact flat.
Nearly a century after its founding, physicists and philosophers still don’t know—but they’re working on it
The beauty of Science.
Every day we are learning more about us and about the Universe. That’s part of the beauty of Science.
Again, thinking about the meaning of ‘time’.