myths, pseudoscience and the water powered car

 

I am perpetually amused by conspiracy theories and pseudoscience for several reasons. Most of it is good for a laugh. A tiny minority of it highlights some legitimate gap in scientific understanding. Also, I think it’s good mental exercise to try to understand a strange world view. Most institutions (scientific, religious) see a lot of danger in allowing yourself to sink into a false mode of thinking. But I take the view of Thomas Jefferson:

“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

There was an interesting narrative in the popular understanding of science: “the myth of the oppressed underdog.”
The notion is that scientists are dogmatic and refuse to tolerate new ideas. The article above does a great job of discussing this narrative and why it is false in most cases, but I would like to highlight one argument: most of the alternative, new ideas postulated by “oppressed underdog” scientists contradict each other. The implication is that ‘establishment’ science is justified in ignoring at least the vast majority of alternative scientists. But just because a theory is disprovable on evidence doesn’t mean it is worthless. It can be an interesting exercise. It can be a teaching tool. But I suppose it may be dangerous for the gullible.

Here’s my favorite example. Take water and electricity. Split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Burn the hydrogen and oxygen. Make water and generate electricity! It’s like an infinite circle. But like Escher’s infinite waterfall, it only works in the imagination. Philip Ball did a great explanation of why this myth keeps popping up.



-Peter