Scientific grumpfiness and open-mindedness

Some days I wonder if I’ve just turned into a grumpf.

OK, it’s pretty obvious I’ve been a grumpf for years. However, some days I feel as though much of my best writing is in response to science stories that were of exaggerated importance. Something about someone being Wrong on the Internet inspires me, and sometimes that seems wrong, like I mainly critique and tear down when it comes to new ideas in physics and astronomy. For example, see my critique of the “warp drive”, my critique of alternatives to dark matter, my critiques of people making every story about Einstein, etc. Even my most recent article in Slate is a reaction to some reporting on an unpublished theory about the origin of the Universe.

I try to include as much positive science in these stories as possible: it’s important to emphasize what we know and how we know it. After all, there’s a reason every new theory doesn’t end up overthrowing the Big Bang or relativity or quantum physics: they are successful explanations of the data from observations and experiments. However, that can seem unfair sometimes, like rooting for the bully over the bullied, the powerful over the weak. Some people have even said that I’ve ruined their dreams by saying warp drives probably aren’t possible or that wormholes like in Deep Space Nine likely don’t exist.

To be honest, I do worry about being primarily reactive and rejecting. However, I don’t think I’ll change soon. The reason for that is because open-mindedness in the realm of science isn’t quite the same as in the realm of human interactions. Standing up for those who are afflicted is a good thing in life; in science, theories must stand on evidence. However, there’s a kind of democracy even in that: every theory, old or new, comprehensive or of limited scope, famous or obscure must stand or fall on the same principles.

You can be an Einstein or a Hawking and be wrong on your new theory, even after a long track record of successful science. That doesn’t mean you as a person aren’t deserving of respect; it just means that idea you had doesn’t correspond to reality. Now if you continue to promote this idea in the face of contrary evidence, that’s another problem, of course: it may paint you as unreliable as a scientist.

In fact, that’s what true closed-mindedness in science looks like: rejection of evidence when it contradicts the way you want the world to behave. Probing new theories and ideas to see if they have any explanatory value is how science works. It’s not closed-mindedness to approach new theories with skepticism, it’s being appropriately cautious. Maybe it can also be grumpfy, but it’s necessary all the same.

Cookie Monster with a Newton's cradle, because how do you illustrate a blog post like this?
Cookie Monster with a Newton’s cradle, because how do you illustrate a blog post like this?
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