Naturalists Are Inherently Uncertain

January 3, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

This is another post based on a comment by our online frenemy, Karl K. He said,

“So naturalists get to have their certainty and be skeptics at the same time and never be at risk of being proven in error because their certainty is based on something that cannot be directly observed. Very convenient.”

But the study of nature has no absolutes. The conclusions, like the law of gravity or the photoelectric effect, are tentative. They are correct only in that they have never been shown to be wrong and fit a consistent mathematical model. A naturalist expects dropped toast to land on the floor with greater certitude than that it will be butter down. (They actually did experiments to prove that it will be butter side down given the correct parameters of table height, bread size,  and horizontal velocity. Those just happen to match the typical breakfast situation.)

Naturalists, or scientists if you prefer, know no absolutes. Everything that is “known” is based on a solid model, every part of which could be — yet no part of which has been — proven false. We know that electrons tunnel through potential barriers in much the same way that we know that apples will fall downward.

But no one has ever directly observed an electron. We just know how they behave by the effects they have on other things. We know that they are neither solid objects, nor continuous waves. But they affect other things in both of these ways. As a result, we now use devices every day that rely on predictable quantum tunneling. In fact, these devices test this theory over 2,000,000,000 times a second in 2,000,000,000 simultaneous locations. And that’s just the device you’re using to read this (2GHz CPU by 2GB RAM). If it was slightly wrong only once in every 4,000,000,000,000,000,000 times, your machine would crash every second.

But the electron is just a theory. Still, Karl disrespects the confidence that Naturalists have in their methodology.

Likewise, no one has directly observed more obscure particles such as quarks. Yet their behavior is as well documented as that of electrons. We understand nuclear decay fairly well. Yet no one has directly observed a down quark become an up quark (neutron decay, beta emission). But it has been carefully studied for almost a century, and the behavior is well known. Anyone wishing to find a flaw in the theory is welcome to try, and claim a Nobel Prize in the process. That neutrino flux may affect weak-interaction decay rates on Earth on the order of a percent is a recent and still unconfirmed observation. Exciting news that may help us better calibrate instruments based on the theory.

Meanwhile, radiological dating gets more and more corroboration between methods and among other methods. Carbon-14 dating is mostly useful and well calibrated over the span of human history (about 10,000 years). It correlates well with historical records, dendrochronology, thermoluminescence, amino acid racimization, magneto-orientation, and other methods that overlap with it and extend the range.

If the theory behind any dating technique is wrong, it will be discovered. That is the article of faith Naturalists hold as true. As a corollary, any change to the theory is likely to be incremental rather than revolutionary; given the vast store of evidence currently supporting it.

As with changes to all scientific theories, Mathematician Piet Hein said it best:

The Road to Wisdom?
Well, it’s Plain And Simple to Express:
and err
and err again,
But less
and less
and less.


Category: ignorance, nature, Religion, Science, Technology

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (6)

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  1. Karl says:

    These comments were from a rewording of another DI writer who was commenting upon my beliefs in catastrophism. I was using the same comments to show that the same mentality used against unprovable recorded human history us used to favor the work of naturalist's extrapolations that are based upon long term steady state invariability.

    Both macroevolution and historical geology are used by naturalists to point to useful and assumed true facts. Facts others must try to tear down because they have insolated them from falsification.

    I was stating how this type of science assumes it is correct even though it is philosophy based, and not strictly scientifically based. Radioactive dating has been shown to be wrong in many ways. Its interesting how Dan runs and starts new blogs when an existing one would serve just fine.

  2. Karl says:

    Can radioctive dating techniques take any rock from any location (assuming no contamination and fooling with its chemistry) and give you a hard and fast date for how old it is? Can the technique somehow roll back the hands of time to tell you both the manner and time of its deposition?

    Why must someone tell the rock location and either presumed or actual known history before the technique yields useful results? You know as well as I do that the technique cherry picks the data it likes and discards the rest as explanable errors that will one day all be documented and not a problem.

    Why then are so many articles written with certainty about anything that radioactive dating tries to claim?

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Data is not "cherry picked". Data that doesn't match a theory is not discarded. Anyone caught concealing unfavorable data without properly explaining what was wrong with it would be chastised, and then ignored. No reputable scientist in the last several generations would risk doing that.

    "Bad" data has led to confirming some surprising new theories. Like general relativity. But it has to be on the books for the process to work.

    Our understanding of geology is getting pretty good. Dating a rock depends on the type of rock, and what you are dating. A lava flow is freshly regurgitated stone. Parts of it are recycled older rocks. Therefore, one needs to know the geological case to determine what sort of radiological (or other) dating methods to use.

    A rock from a neolithic camp fire may give the age of the last campfire, and possibly also of the time the rock formed. Sedimentary rocks cannot be accurately dated using isotopes, unless fossils or certain types of crystals are present. Igneous rocks get reset each time they are melted.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    And what is this "macroevolution" thing? A process exists, such as a train ride. Most people will recognize that a train can take you downtown: Microtransportation.

    But why then argue that it is inconceivable that the same sort of system might take you cross country? Because it would take longer? I believe that Macrotransportation is not only possible, but real. In part because the tracks are there for anyone to see.

    Microevolution concedes that evolution has happened, and is happening, as directly observed in the wild, in labs, in genomes, etc.

    Macroevolution says that the exact same thing happens over longer periods, as observed in the wild, in the fossil record, and in the genomes.

    I don't get it.

    (<sub>Spam word: calming</sub>)

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I tracked down the buttered toast experiment.

    Of almost 10,000 trials, toast landed butter-side down 62 per cent of the time – far more often than the 50 per cent predicted by skeptical scientists. Based on so broad a study, the probability of achieving so big a difference by chance alone is vanishingly small.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Actually, I was referring to the December 1995 Scientific American Mathematical Recreations column entitled "Murphy's Law demystified: Why toast falls butter-side down."

    They did a mathematical analysis (gravity, lateral velocity, initial orientation, angular momentum, and air resistance) and ran some tests to confirm it from the typical conditions out to the margins of the theory.

    I doubt they did as many trials as the London Telegraph. But they had a rigorous model to test, not just an observation to confirm.

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