Black Holes and Truth in Science

Blackness of space with black marked as centre of donut of orange and red gasesDirect image of a supermassive black hole at the core of Messier 87

Two days ago I wrote a post about “the recent discussion that black holes might not exist.” I was careful to use the word “might,” because I knew that preliminary scientific ideas are typically sensationalized in the media. As it turns out I was right. While news reports made this out to be a definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.

As the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Assistant Professor for High Energy Physics at The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm wrote yesterday:

… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that it has been shown black holes don’t exist.

As I pointed out in my post, many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and are particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist—very unlikely—but for now, rational persons should align their view with that of the vast majority of physicists who unequivocally affirm the existence of black holes. And if there is no scientific consensus about some matter in physics, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

Other Areas of Science

Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance, that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar, oil, and trans fats are bad. And of course, there is much we don’t yet know.  Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.

Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say it’s warming.” Of course, scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact, a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories are mistaken. Radical changes in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare. Scientific advancement is best understood as evolutionary, not revolutionary.

So the next time you hear that vitamin C will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while scientific investigation is a slow and challenging process.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist, a world-class researcher, and an authority on lupus.  After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil, he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by spending decades earning a Ph.D., doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He helped bring about scientific advancement through the careful employment of the scientific method. Anyone can proclaim the truth; actually searching for it is much harder.

My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits, and athletes combined. We should all thank him and the many dedicated scientists through the years that have made our lives better. If you are alive and happy today, remember that about half of all children born throughout history died before the age of two in the long centuries before vaccines.

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2 thoughts on “Black Holes and Truth in Science

  1. “Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.”

    Of course, only dumb people say this. My sister (who always loved me and whom I love) some weeks ago told me she met an ALCHEMIST. I said nothing as I learned from ancient philosophers that it is a waste of time to argue with stupid people, it doesn’t matter how your argument is backed up with facts and how powerful and persuasive it is. She had already said silly things before, for example how the field of medicine hasn’t developed for the last 80 years and how there’s so much to discover in herbal “remedies”.

    My simple question is, if anything works, why do the scientist seem not to care about it? I don’t think one has to be a genius to be able to ask these questions. But some people seem truly to have a disabled sense of logic, like people who are mute who cannot speak. It truly is a mystery to me, but I don’t have time for it, I have to learn other things that are more important to me.

    “My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits and athletes combined. We should all thank him.”

    Well said. I truly believe that, too. Not to mention the fact that these so called faith healers or even politicians have actually done more harm than good.

    I am considering buying Hossenfelder’s new book, “Existential Physics” , the title of course is extremely appealing, AND the author is a scientist. No snake oil ;).

    Lastly, science really simplifies life: if something has no scientific basis, I just don’t bother with it. How much time it is saved!

    Thank you!

    Luigi

  2. Naturally, I agree with everything you say, Luigi. Your last line reminds me of Hume’s famous quote,

    “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

    As for Hossenfelder, she is so smart and I watch her youtube channel. I’m going to take a look at the book. Thanks for reminding me of it. JGM

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