PDA

View Full Version : So you think you've figured out the Universe



Fraser
2003-Sep-17, 05:28 PM
I get several emails a week from various people who believe they've figured out some clever solution the problems that have eluded cosmologists for decades. It'll often contain some jumble of word salad and math that frankly eludes me. (I finally received my first warp drive design a few years ago.) I know you guys see this kind of thing here at the BA boards too.

My instinct is generally to ignore these emails. There isn't much that I can really do to validate or invalidate their theories. It either takes extremely specialized knowledge or precise astronomical equipment and years of observations.

I just assume that anything theoretical that hasn't gone through the scientific review process hasn't been adequately thought through enough for me to mention it. Yet, if something comes out of NASA's research, I'll publish an article without a second glance.

So, people with theories against the mainstream are up against all kinds of bias. I probably use the same methods of judging legitimacy as any other science journalist. If it came from a university, observatory, or space agency, it's legitimate. If it comes from an enthusiastic individual, it's probably woowoo science.

But, let's say that someone out there has a truly inspirational idea with some potential and they'd like to pass it along to the scientific community for consideration. Other than dropping everything to take 12 years of university education, what methods could they take to get their ideas seriously considered instead of laughed at?

Can an individual write a research document and have it considered for peer review or will they not even give it the benefit of the doubt without credentials?

I think the other problem here is that inspired amateurs tend not to follow the scientific method to follow up their ideas. The come up with it intuitively and then defend it vigorously without seriously trying to see how they could be wrong.

I was thinking someone (Phil?) could write a webpage that gives amateurs a reasonable strategy they could follow to get their ideas seriously considered by the scientific community. Then we could all just refer to it when someone tries to contact the media directly to promote their ideas.

What do you think?

wedgebert
2003-Sep-17, 06:37 PM
Just have them post it to this forum, we'll determine if it's a fake pretty quickly.

If it passes our test that means it's either
A: A valid new theory
B: Has reached a new level of ** that even **-experts such as us can't tell.

parejkoj
2003-Sep-17, 06:58 PM
I was thinking someone (Phil?) could write a webpage that gives amateurs a reasonable strategy they could follow to get their ideas seriously considered by the scientific community. Then we could all just refer to it when someone tries to contact the media directly to promote their ideas.


That sounds like a decent idea. I know that most math departments use their new faculty as the dumping grounds for the crackpot proofs that come through (squaring the circle is probably the most popular, Fermat's "proof" is also a big one). Often it is a way of "breaking in" the new professor and giving them practice working through bad proofs, which they'll certainly see a lot of when teaching. Usually a reply of some sort is sent to the individual, along with a description of where and why they are wrong.

I think some physics/astronomy departments also do this. I know when I brought strange things I'd read (well, strange to someone who already could weed out most of the chaff) up to my professors, they would usually try to figure out what was wrong, instead of just dismissing it immediately. So the local math/physcis/astronomy department is often a good place to go with such things.

Someone who actually has a revolutionary idea will usually get heard out, but it might take a while (sometimes after they are gone!). I personally think this is generally a good thing. But there are usually people out there (this forum included) who can shake the theory out and find the flaws. And there are always flaws which must be addressed in any new theory, mainstream or not (this includes you, Mr. Wolfram!).

dgruss23
2003-Sep-17, 11:51 PM
Universe Today wrote: But, let's say that someone out there has a truly inspirational idea with some potential and they'd like to pass it along to the scientific community for consideration. Other than dropping everything to take 12 years of university education, what methods could they take to get their ideas seriously considered instead of laughed at?

Can an individual write a research document and have it considered for peer review or will they not even give it the benefit of the doubt without credentials?

From experience I can say the answer is yes. I've done it and had the article published in a major journal. But in order for this to happen you have to read journal articles - lots of them. The Nasa Astrophysics Data System (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html) provides references no matter what area of astronomy/cosmology you're interested in exploring. I don't know how often others have done what I've done, but an "outsider" has little chance of success without diving headfirst into the journal articles.

Anonymous
2003-Sep-27, 04:58 PM
Quote from Universe Today;


“Other than dropping everything to take 12 years of university education, what methods could they take to get their ideas seriously considered instead of laughed at?”


A few years ago I came across an article which provided general advice, including a list of “several questions that should be asked of the author of any article or study”.


“How do you know that what you say is true?

Is the published data preliminary or final?

Do other experts in the field concur?

Is their concurrence general or highly specific?

What is the information based on?

Have the assertions been validated in a formal study or experiment?

Was the study designed according to generally accepted scientific standards?

Who funded the work?

What stake do you have in the outcome (reputation, money, promotion potential)?

Who disagrees with the conclusions and why?

How sure are you of the conclusions?

Are the conclusions backed up by statistical evidence?

Have the studies been replicated by others? What were the results?

Were the results reasonably consistent from one study to the next?

Are other explanations for the observations possible?

Who else in the field has seen the work?

Was it peer reviewed?

What methodology was employed?

What are the study’s weak points?

What criticism has been received and from whom?

Do you agree with the advocates conclusions drawn from your study? Was the work fairly used?

Would competent experts in the field be surprised by the result? If so, would they find the interpretation novel and bizarre?”



Amateurs may benefit by knowing what experts demand of other experts. OTOH, crackpots may use such info to give their ‘work’ a veneer of apparent legitimacy. That is, crackpots using other crackpots as references.


This battery of questions is excerpted from;

“Communications Quarterly – Fall 1997”

Article title; “Is salt water taffy being distributed? (Ferreting out the truth in scientific studies)” pg 16

Joseph J. Carr.



Quote from dgruss23;


“From experience I can say the answer is yes. I've done it and had the article published in a major journal.”


I am green with envy. Any chance I can get a look at that article?

TrAI
2003-Sep-28, 01:04 AM
...squaring the circle is probably the most popular...

Why anyone would want a square circle eludes me, I mean, if you want a square, go with a rectangle with equal width and height. It won't do too have square circles on the market, think of the trouble one would have if one ordered 100000 circles, and found out to late that it was square circles? Or if some people out to save money sold square circles as round circles, and one would have substandard circles installed for critical applications? The balance between order and chaos would be in jeopardy! :wink:

But over to the subject at hand.
Yes Universe Today, It might be a good idea to have some place for people who wish to submit their ideas, but i guess it would be a lot of strange hypotheses people would submit, and many of the people with the strangest ideas seems completly unable to see the errors in them, even if it were to jump out of the screen and tap dance over the keyboard wearing a tinfoil hat...
If the people running such a place were to point out the errors(now jumping up and down on the top of the monitor and chanting "I am an error, a silly mistake, i am an error, you are a fruit cake" :P :wink:) they would just invoke the usual conspiracy talk and go on pushing their ideas... The people reading all this stuff might even be too used to all the woowoo claims after a while to recognize the possibility of an idea being right, its quite easy to fall in to this trap some times... But still, some pointers might be a good idea... :)

zrice03
2003-Sep-28, 01:24 AM
Personally, I would love to have a place to go to so I could get advice on developing scientifically accurate ideas. Since I am only a college freshman, I don't really know yet how to go about publicizing my ideas and would really not appreciate being drummed out of the scientific community before i could even be in(which is why I keep quiet for the time being).

Fraser
2003-Sep-29, 02:58 AM
I'm just reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything", and he's got story after story of scientists with pivotal theories who got laughed at - nobody would publish the first paper describing the process of plate tectonics.

So, radical, paradigm-changing theories are out there, and you'd think that scientists would appreciate clever new ideas. Especially for the places they're grasping at straws about. But, amateurs need to follow some process to show they respect the time, knowledge and methodologies of the scientific community.

Betenoire
2003-Sep-29, 01:33 PM
Good book, eh?

Scientists don't like to do new ideas because they make work. A scientist faced with a new idea has to re-analyze everything he's doing and done in light of this new input. He'd rather be enjoying his tenure, skiing, and letting his TAs teach his class, but now he has to actually go tell his students things have changed, maybe even hunting for a text book that includes this stuff. It's all a lot of trouble for a guy who thought he was as good as getting a paid retirement.

Eta C
2003-Sep-29, 01:49 PM
Good book, eh?

Scientists don't like to do new ideas because they make work. A scientist faced with a new idea has to re-analyze everything he's doing and done in light of this new input. He'd rather be enjoying his tenure, skiing, and letting his TAs teach his class, but now he has to actually go tell his students things have changed, maybe even hunting for a text book that includes this stuff. It's all a lot of trouble for a guy who thought he was as good as getting a paid retirement.

Please, this is such a blanket stereotype that it's really unworthy of further comment. :evil: Still, I have to rant a bit. If you'd ever worked in an academic department you'd know differently. Yes, there are lazy people there, but no more than you'd find in your typical office. The vast majority of faculty are concerned with both teaching and research.

As to being averse to new ideas, again you're wrong. There's often nothing better than a new idea that shakes things up. All of modern physics from QM on was a major revolution.

As to plate tectonics, it was rejected at first because there was

A: no evidence for it at the time aside from the suggestions made by the continents appearing to fit together. The discovery of mid ocean ridges and trenches didn't occur until the 50's and 60's.
B: no mechanism for how it would work.

Without these, there was nothing to make PT preferable to the existing models and theories. It was hardly self-evident at the time. As discoveries and evidence accumulated, scientists began to accept the model. The real clincher was the alternating bands of magnetization on either side of the mid-ocean ridges. Once the model was accepted, geologists came up with mechanisms for how it worked, and eventually PT becam the mainstream model of geographic processes.

Anonymous
2003-Sep-29, 03:52 PM
Eta C wrote;


“It was hardly self-evident at the time.”

“The real clincher was the alternating bands of magnetization on either side of the mid-ocean ridges.”


Yep. Although I had heard of the model in the late 60’s, the model still took time to percolate into the mainstream. (Textbooks)


It’s easy to forget how much hard work is represented by really cool graphics such as this;


http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/image/crustageposter.jpg

parejkoj
2003-Sep-29, 04:01 PM
...squaring the circle is probably the most popular...

Why anyone would want a square circle eludes me, I mean, if you want a square, go with a rectangle with equal width and height....

Pbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbth!

So there! Phooey. :P

And on the subject of changing paradigms: I really liked the way they tought physics at Carleton. I hope most other schools do it this way, but I don't know if they do.

We'd spend 80-90% of a class talking about such and such a theory (Newtonian mechanics, Lagrangian mechanics, early atomic theory, etc...) and then in the last week or so we would be introduced to the experiments that proved it was incorrect. We'd then have a few days to see the correct formulation (which usually made a lot of sense, since we'd figured out the almost-correct version by that point) and it would serve as a perfect introduction to the next class in the sequence. "And that is how it really works. For more details, take advanced E&M next term..." It was kinda nifty, and the historical development was really neat, since we could see why it made sense to do it "the old way" and why the idea changed into what it was now (or what it was then: sometimes this would happen several times during a term! :) ).