Posted by: Jeremy Fox | February 26, 2012

More on changing your mind in science

A while back I asked what was the biggest scientific claim that you had changed your mind about? At the time, I wasn’t aware that hundreds of very prominent scientists had already answered a slightly broader version of this question in 2008 for the Edge website. I highly recommend browsing through the answers (warning: you can easily end up spending hours!)

For instance, here’s part of astrophysicist Piet Hut’s answer. He no longer sees simple analogies as an effective tool for explaining complicated concepts, because the same analogies also can be used for quite different (and even incorrect) concepts:

I still think I was right in thinking that any type of insight can be summarized to some degree, in what is clearly a correct first approximation when judged by someone who shares in the insight. For a long time my mistake was that I had not realized how totally wrong this first approximation can come across for someone who does not share the original insight…So for each insight there is at least some explanation possible, but the same explanation may then be given for radically different insights. There is nothing that cannot be explained, but there are wrong insights that can lead to explanations that are identical to the explanation for a correct but rather subtle insight.

I think this is a big part of why zombie ideas about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis are so hard to kill. You can summarize zombie ideas about disturbance, and correct ideas about disturbance, using the same words. Indeed, that’s precisely what many of our undergraduate ecology textbooks do. Which makes it very difficult for those who rely on the summaries to distinguish zombies from non-zombies.

The Edge posts a different question every year and then compiles the responses it receives. This year’s question–“What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”–should be a fun one. Although, as I’ve pointed out before, while the truth may be beautiful, the beautiful isn’t necessarily true. Which, to their credit, some of the respondents so far, like science writer Carl Zimmer, recognize. Zimmer’s favorite elegant explanation is Kelvin’s calculation of the age of the Earth based on the rate at which an initially-molten Earth would cool down to its current temperature. The calculation is remarkably simple and elegant–and way off base, because Kelvin didn’t know about radioactivity, and because he treated the Earth as a solid ball of rock rather than a solid outer shell surrounding a turbulent liquid mantle. The truth is much messier, more complicated, and harder to understand than Kelvin’s calculation–but it’s still the truth.


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