The heart of science: a tribute to skepticism

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2011 2:00 pm

This is nice: a skeptic in Mexico who goes by the name "EsceptiquísimoMéxico" put together a video that’s a tribute to skepticism:

Cool. Near the end he puts up quick flashes of skeptics, and you’ll probably see some fairly familiar faces there. I like the Carl Sagan section as well. Now I feel like I have to read more about Johannes Kepler…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Skepticism

Comments (33)

  1. Damon

    Skepticism is the “heart of science”? Doesn’t that seem kind of cynical? I thought science was about exploring new frontiers and creating a guideline for the underlying forces of the universe. Not putting others in their place to make yourself feel better. “Skepticism” feels like one of those concepts pious math professors throw around to quell students who dare think outside the box. I for one encourage people around me to use their imagination and express their crazy ideas, even if it goes against what I “know”– it’s all relative, after all, and who am I to judge others in their adult lives? Seems to me Phil needs to get off the skepticism jag, live and let live, and get back to counting stars.

  2. Orlando

    @2 Damon: How can you explore the underlying forces of the universe without disproving those which are not?

    I’ve always thought that cause-effect link is hard-wired in our brains, like a sort of pareidolia of the world that surrounds us. That’s why we have to be skeptic about everything, UNLESS we find solid evidence about the relationship between cause and effect. That’s the reason of scientific method; that’s the reason of popperian falsationism: we tend to find causes even when they’re not.

    That’s why skepticism is the heart of science, in my humble opinion.

  3. zark169

    @Damon:
    You make a very good point, intentionally or not, about how skepticism is viewed as cynical or condescending. However, as I understand it, Phil is using it in the more general definition (borrowed from Wikipedia): generally refers to any questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.

    i.e. skepticism is important in science because it should prevent us from taking anything for granted, and ultimately should encourage people to do as you said, and “use their imagination and express their crazy ideas” when it comes to thinking of new ideas in science, or rethinking what we thought we know to be fact.

  4. Chris A.

    Skepticism IS the heart of science: Without it, Galileo and his contemporaries would never have given us the scientific method. Skepticism was required to challenge the accepted wisdom of Aristotle which had held sway, largely untested, for almost 2000 years.

  5. rick

    Man I really love that Feynman bit about flying saucers

  6. Start with doubt, and you’ll end up with knowledge.

  7. Bob

    Science without skepticism is called faith.

  8. RaginKagin

    You’re a skeptic?

  9. Later in the year I’ll be going to Germany, primarily for a wedding, but I also intend to visit the Kepler Museum (www.kepler-museum.de). Hopefully I will learn a few things there. Maybe I’ll tell you about it in the BAUT forums or something.

  10. “The heart of science: a tribute to skepticism.”

    The meaning of a skeptic has variations.

    A skeptic is:

    “A person who questions or doubts prevailing opinions, or theories.”

    “a person who starts and often maintains a doubting attitude toward assertions of validity in general.”

    “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something believed to be valid or factual by many others.”

    By all of these definitions I consider myself a skeptic. There are only two mainstream theories that I am rather fond of and would bet a thousand dollars to a six pack in their favor; they are natural selection and plate tectonics (even in these there are important missing pieces to the puzzle). Also there are lots of interesting theories in astronomy.

    I believe most of the major theories in today’s physics and cosmology are highly suspect. I would bet against the most well-known of them, $500. to a premium quality six pack :) that they will be replaced by far simpler models in the next quarter century.

  11. KC

    Imagination and expressing “crazy ideas” and skepticism are not mutually exclusive ideas!

  12. Funkopolis

    I think Jacob Bronowski best expressed why skepticism is the heart of science…the opposite is dogma.

    http://youtu.be/0jl2w3xYFHQ

  13. ellie

    Damon the troll:
    Skepticism is the “heart of science”? Doesn’t that seem kind of cynical?
    – No. How is it cynical? “I’m not sure about that, what’s your evidence for [insert hypothesis/crazy claim here]?” is skeptical but not cynical. If you consult a dictionary, it may help clarify the difference for you.

    I thought science was about exploring new frontiers and creating a guideline for the underlying forces of the universe.
    – No again. Science doesn’t create any underlying forces, it describes them based on the best evidence available at any given time.

    Not putting others in their place to make yourself feel better.
    – personal attack based on nothing.

    “Skepticism” feels like one of those concepts pious math professors throw around to quell students who dare think outside the box.
    – I think someone flunked math! skepticism should’t *feel* like anything, nor should it be in quotation marks, because it is an actual word and concept (again, really get a dictonary.) The attempt to paint people who have professionally excelled in math as pious (generally a religious term, and one that should stay in that demented arena) is right out of a well-known and over-used playbook. Booorrring.

    I for one encourage people around me to use their imagination and express their crazy ideas, even if it goes against what I “know”– it’s all relative, after all, and who am I to judge others in their adult lives?
    – so if I tell you to pour peanut butter in your gas tank, you’ll give it a shot, right?! Because my psychic/alien friend/bigfoot/astrologer told me that you’ll get 200m/gal if you do that. it’s outside the box, and, hey, who are you to judge?!

    Seems to me Phil needs to get off the skepticism jag, live and let live, and get back to counting stars.
    -Hmm… what was that thing you said earlier? “Not putting others in their place to make yourself feel better.” Pot, meet kettle. Talk about condescending. Expressing opinions is no infringement on anyone’s ability to live. For example, you expressed yours (laughably transparent though it may be) and Phil is still here.

    If Phil’s postings of his or others’ opinions about anything offend your worldview or any of your favorite wittle pseudoscience pet ideas – too bad. Life’s rough, wear a helmet.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    Damon (2) said:

    Skepticism is the “heart of science”?

    Yup. The Royal Society’s motto (roughly) translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

    In other words, evidence trumps received wisdom every time.

    Doesn’t that seem kind of cynical?

    How so?

    How is “don’t tell me, show me” cynical?

    I thought science was about exploring new frontiers and creating a guideline for the underlying forces of the universe.

    Yes. In what way do you imagine this to be incompatible with scepticism?

    Not putting others in their place to make yourself feel better.

    Well, putting others in their place to make oneself feel better is not what science is about. And neither is it what scepticism is about.

    If you feel that having a person point out flaws in your arguments or assumptions is “putting you in your place”, or if you feel that sceptics point out flaws in arguments or assumptions to make themselves feel superior, then you have missed the point entirely.

    “Skepticism” feels like one of those concepts pious math professors throw around to quell students who dare think outside the box.

    How so?

    I for one encourage people around me to use their imagination and express their crazy ideas, even if it goes against what I “know”–

    It’s not a question of what any person knows. Crazy ideas should be expressed, but if they go against what the universe “knows”, then they should remain in the realm of art or entertainment, because they would not be science. Crazy ideas have succeeded in science where they have been confirmed by experiment or observation.

    Look at quantum mechanics, for example. Ideas don’t – on the face of it – get much crazier than such things as the lack of localisation of particles, or wave / particle duality; yet these ideas have been experimentally confirmed many times over.

    it’s all relative, after all, and who am I to judge others in their adult lives?

    Not all knowledge is relative.

    Some knowledge is absolute.

    For example, tris(hydroxymethyl)-aminomethane has a pKa of about 8.3 no matter what I (or anyone else) think it should be.

    Thus, if someone expounds an idea that is contradicted by known facts, then they should be made aware of the conflict. If they then continue to expound said idea, we get to point and laugh at them. Until they get elected to high office, anyway.

    Seems to me Phil needs to get off the skepticism jag, live and let live, and get back to counting stars.

    How sad for you that you do not understand what critical thinking is about.

    It might help to think of it this way:

    If someone is trying to sell you a car, would you take them at their word regarding its fuel economy or engine power? Or would you seek independent verification of such details? Would you expect to test drive it to find out for yourself how comfortable is the ride, how sharp the cornering, and how convenient the aircon controls?

    Analogously, why would you ever “buy into” an idea without a comparable regime of testing?

  15. Nigel Depledge

    Forrest Noble (11) said:

    I believe most of the major theories in today’s physics and cosmology are highly suspect. I would bet against the most well-known of them, $500. to a premium quality six pack that they will be replaced by far simpler models in the next quarter century.

    This would come down to semantics.

    The Standard Model of particle physics, and Big Bang Theory have been confirmed to a large extent by experimental observation. We know them to be incomplete, but we also know that they are not grossly wrong.

    So, just as Newtonian gravitational theory turned out to be a special case of General Relativity, I suspect that our current theories of particle physics and cosmology will turn out to be special cases of broader theories.

    So, if my suspicion is correct, our current theories are not – in any meaningful sense – wrong, and you would lose your bet.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    Adrian Morgan (10) said:

    Later in the year I’ll be going to Germany, primarily for a wedding, but I also intend to visit the Kepler Museum (www.kepler-museum.de). Hopefully I will learn a few things there. Maybe I’ll tell you about it in the BAUT forums or something.

    Well, I hope you have a good time.

    Another one worth visiting is the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, where – among other things – they have the objective lens through which Galileo first observed Jupiter, and (weirdly) the middle finger of Galileo’s right hand. Said finger is displayed in a – erm – defiant gesture.

  17. Gary

    Skepticism is the conscience of science, keeping it balanced in the struggle against confirmation bias.

  18. Mike

    Anyone happen to know what the music was? I can’t even place the composer, but I want that on my mp3 player. (Yes, I loved the video’s content as well, but that music was stunning!)

  19. “I think Jacob Bronowski best expressed why skepticism is the heart of science…the opposite is dogma.”

    Mrs. Premise: How would Dr. Bronowski know?
    Mrs. Conclusion: He knows everything.
    Mrs. Premise: Oh, I wouldn’t like that. It would take all the mystery out of life.

  20. @ Mike:

    The music is a version of Palladio by Karl Jenkins. It’s from an album by the techno group, Escala.

  21. What is the heart of science is that we are willing to question the good story, the one that appeals to us, for the sake of the good facts, even when that result disappoints us. It isn’t that we lack faith in things beyond what we can see, necessarily. I have my belief in God. But if it comes to a belief in God, I will let that faith stand on its own, and not try to prove it all over the place by looking for miraculous explanations where simple scientific ones are possible.

    And it’s not about being arrogant or elitist, really, but about humility, humility in the face of both God, and our own capacity for ignorance. We understand neither God, nor the world in full, it is futile and arrogant to impose supernatural explanation when the laws and workings of nature are yet unclear to us, and the supernatural so much further beyond our understanding.

    As a Christian, my sensibility is that we are better suited to understanding the natural world than the supernatural, and rather than pose explanations that require forces that are beyond our ability to properly comprehend, we should stick with doing our best to explain the world around us by what we can understand.

  22. @Nigel Depledge, #18

    “The Standard Model of particle physics, and Big Bang Theory have been confirmed to a large extent by experimental observation. We know them to be incomplete, but we also know that they are not grossly wrong.”

    One hundred and twenty years ago physicists thought they had the whole thing figured out and that there was little left but to fill in the details. Soon thereafter in the twentieth century, physics took many new turns drastically changing the physics of the time in fundamental ways. Being a skeptic I think that we still think we have most of it figured out correctly, but I believe we are no better off now in our fundamental understandings of reality than we were 120 years ago, in some ways I think we are even farther from the truth. Certainly we have a lot more cool information to decipher reality, but information misinterpreted generally does not lead in the right direction.

    As to the standard model particle theory, I believe in a string theory model of particles as being the underpinnings of reality, a model much simpler than any known string theory (no extra dimensions) that is also much simpler than the standard model. In this model there are no point particles and most of the zoo of present particles would be generally meaningless as to the mechanics of reality, also accordingly particles and anti-particles would not be physically symmetrical to each other.

    The Big Bang model entirely hinges on an expanding universe which is the keystone of the model. In my own model the universe of galaxies (or space) are not expanding from each other. There is a different explanation for the observed redshifts, therefore if correct the BB model would accordingly be wrong in almost every way.

    “…just as Newtonian gravitational theory turned out to be a special case of General Relativity, I suspect that our current theories of particle physics and cosmology will turn out to be special cases of broader theories.”

    I agree on this statement of yours above totally and have said so in my theoretical writings concerning General Relativity, however accordingly the warped space idea will turn out to be incorrect. Special Relativity on the other hand is entirely based upon no preferred reference frame such as an aether. If preferred reference frames do exist then SR will quickly be replaced by Lorenz Transforms but the mathematics are the same. I believe, and explain theoretically, that the Zero Point Field (ZPF) consists of particles that have kinship to dark matter, Higg’s particles, gravitons, quantum foam, etc. that will be the preferred reference frame of the future that will be the undoing of S.R.

    Quantum Mechanics is another example. It is entirely a mathematical/ statistical model to explain the quantum world. Its predictive system is the best that we have. If in time we realize that nearly everything in Quantum Theory is wrong and that the explanations of the quantum world will turn out to be far different and simpler, such a drastic change in Quantum Theory will generally leave the formulations of Quantum Mechanics in tact and generally unchanged. Buy everything explained and written about QM will change.

    If you or anyone is interested :) in my published technical papers, theories, and book that are all online free, contact me at my personal e-mail forrest_forrest@netzero.net and I will direct you to the URL’s where they can be found.

    best regards, Forrest

  23. John Sandlin

    Every time I see or hear a bit by Richard Feynman I like him more.

    Science. It works.

    jbs

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Forrest Noble (26) said:

    The Big Bang model entirely hinges on an expanding universe which is the keystone of the model. In my own model the universe of galaxies (or space) are not expanding from each other. There is a different explanation for the observed redshifts, therefore if correct the BB model would accordingly be wrong in almost every way.

    But BBT also explains:
    The existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB);
    The spectrum of the CMB;
    The temperature of the CMB;
    The universal abundance ratios of H to He and Li;
    The smoothness of the universe at large scales;
    The clumpiness of the universe at smaller scales;
    Olber’s Paradox.

    Any proposed alternative theory must do a better job than BBT at explaining one or more of the facts that led to the formulation of BBT in the first place. And at least as good a job as BBT at all the others. Focussing on cosmic red-shift is not enough.

    And, BTW, what is this alternative explanation for red-shifts to which you allude?

  25. Nigel Depledge

    Forrest Noble (26) said:

    If in time we realize that nearly everything in Quantum Theory is wrong and that the explanations of the quantum world will turn out to be far different and simpler, such a drastic change in Quantum Theory will generally leave the formulations of Quantum Mechanics in tact and generally unchanged. Buy everything explained and written about QM will change.

    But if the maths of QM would be unchanged by such a discovery, i.e. the new theory makes identical predictions to QM, how would we make the discovery in the first place?

  26. @Nigel Depledge #28

    “Any proposed alternative theory must do a better job than BBT at explaining one or more of the facts that led to the formulation of BBT in the first place. And at least as good a job as BBT at all the others. Focusing on cosmic red-shift is not enough.”

    I agree with your statement totally and believe that the model that I have proposed does this. In this model the observable universe does not expand, dark matter and dark energy are not needed. If interested in the details, contact me and I will direct you to the on-line details if you wish. The more criticism by knowledgeable readers the better.

    “And, BTW, what is this alternative explanation for red-shifts to which you allude?”

    The model proposes that all matter particles slowly unwind/ rewind causing them to become smaller by about 1/1000 part every 5 million years. This explains the observed redshift of galaxies (i. e. rather than space expanding matter becomes relatively smaller). The primary evidence for this process that I propose, other than the observed galactic redshifts, is the innate particle spin (angular momentum) of fermions which is otherwise unexplained. The model is generally a steady state model for the observable universe but proposes that matter, space, and time are finite but that the universe is much older than the BB model could allow. The model proposes that the beginning was tranquil and no different from particle spin today. The math of the model differs from the standard BB model but could be considered similar for the most part.

  27. @Nigel Depledge #29

    “But if the maths of QM would be unchanged by such a discovery, i.e. the new theory makes identical predictions to QM, how would we make the discovery in the first place?

    I believe this is an excellent question. I of course cannot know how this discovery will be made but suspect that it will be based upon the discovery of background field material, the long held idea of “hidden variables” proposed by Einstein and others. This might be realized concerning a number of possible discoveries in the Zero Point Field such as dark matter, Higg’s particles, gravitons, quantum foam, etc. My own proposal concerns strings of particles many times smaller than any of the possibilities named above which accordingly would be the sole cause of mass and gravity. I believe the evidence for them has been seen in collider cloud-chamber analysis which are presently called “quark jets” but accordingly they are not quarks.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Forrest Noble (30) said:

    If interested in the details, contact me and I will direct you to the on-line details if you wish. The more criticism by knowledgeable readers the better.

    Sadly, I am a mere amateur at cosmology and QM and so on. My field of expertise is biochemistry and protein science. I have neither sufficient depth of knowledge nor the maths skills to make a detailed assessment of new ideas in the areas of cosmology etc. And the devil is always in the detail.

    I think the appropriate forum to test your ideas is the physics literature.

  29. Thanks Nigel,

    “…And the devil is always in the detail.”

    This is true in most cases but if I am right, more than just the details are wrong with the BB model.

    Dozens have indicated that they had the ability to criticize my material on-line but only a couple were actually willing to do so concerning in-depth material, and both of these people helped clarify the material.

    Peer reviewed journals seem to be the best way to go, but even in those there are few valid criticisms, but granted, some criticisms have been very helpful. It has now been more than 50 years since I first developed the theory generally in the same form as it now exists, but with much detail added. It is called the Pan Theory which can be found on any search engine.

    All of your questions indicate that your understandings of cosmology have more than a simple depth to them :)

    best regards, Forrest

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