What's belief got to do with it anyway?
Someone asked me: Why do beliefs matter, reflections on the nature of science?
To put it another way, “When it comes to science, why do beliefs matter, isn’t it all hard evidence?” Well then, I’m sorry to say, that belief is everything. What people believe always has, and probably always will, play a huge role in what evidence is collected, what research is done, and how the results are treated.
Let me show you a small the telling example. Here is a European patent specification by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, for a “Nuclide transmutation device and nuclide transmutation method.” This method, among other things, includes “technologies that generate rare earth elements from abundant elements found in the natural world,” and this is done on a “relatively small-scale device compared to the large-scale devices such as accelerators and nuclear reactors.”
Ok. Wait…What? Transmutation of elements? The holy grail of medieval alchemists? According the physics I learned in college, and everything I’ve read before and since, with the exception of radioactive elements, one element changing into another can only happen inside a nuclear reactor, or accelerator, nuclear bomb, the interior of the sun, or some other extremely harsh place where there are the colossal energies needed to overcome the natural repulsive forces inside an atom. Yet this patent says that reactors and accelerators are not used. And since we can probably assume that they are not exploding nuclear bombs in their laboratories, what gives?
Don’t believe me, look it up. I got time.
If you did your research, you should now know that what they are proposing here is completely impossible, according to currently accepted physics, so, why isn’t the world going nuts at the mind-boggling implications and possibilities of this technology? Because nobody believes it.
Ever hear of Ignaz Semmelweis? Probably not, unless you’re a history buff. This is the guy that realized that if doctors washed their hands before medical procedures, the numbers infections and deaths dropped significantly. He championed this idea, and, for his pains, he was ridiculed and is ideas treaded with contempt. He died relatively young, in a mental asylum. Doctors and other “educated” people simply refused to believe him, despite his demonstrated success in reducing infections. His ideas didn’t gain a foothold until well after his death.
Getting back to the patent, what gives? Is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries just a group of wacko nuts, who like to waste millions of dollars researching impossible, far-out, ideas? Or have they discovered something, something potentially lucrative enough that they are willing to show their hand by revealing the direction of the research? Why isn’t the very possibility of this enough to generate worldwide interest, if only to disprove it? This is a Nobel Prize, Get-Your-Name-In-The-History-Books type of discovery, which, if commercialized, would generate mega-fortunes, why is nobody interested? Because they don’t believe it. It can’t be what is sounds like, because, well, because “I know physics and physics doesn’t do that!” (That is an actual quote from the 80s, an actual college professor physicist. I remember reading and the commentary around it, but I haven’t been able to locate it recently. Perhaps it’s been retracted because of embarrassment.)
You are probably too young to remember the “Cold Fusion” brew-ha-ha from the 80’s. The popular narrative is that two nitty chemists tried to pull a fast one on the scientific community, but were found out and their careers ruined in the process. But, if you dig a little deeper (and if you can trust the US Navy), the fact is that Pons and Fleischmann did discover something entirely new, something nobody could explain and was difficult to reproduce, and, rather than acknowledge that, the scientific community of the day conducted a scorched earth campaign to erase these offensive results from the face of the earth. Their cardinal sin appears to be that they called it “cold fusion,” when it clearly isn’t fusion, at least as we know it. (This wasn’t even their idea. Pons and Fleishmann really didn’t like that name, but it was forced on them by some marketing wanker in the MIT publicity department. This has since been jumped on by debunkers to say that, because it doesn’t show the characteristics of “hot” fusion, there’s nothing there at all.) Regardless of their actual motives, the critics succeeded in making the subject so radioactive that no legitimate scientists or research institutions could so much as look at this effect. But they did anyway.
Research continues today, despite the hard-liner’s monomaniacal obsession to stamp it out wherever it occurs. Despite the fact that there is still no widely accepted theory to explain what is going on, commercial applications are starting to appear, as the Mitsubishi patent shows. We don’t need to have a theory of combustion to BBQ a steak. This discovery promises a world-changing technology, yet Science won’t touch it because of Beliefs.
Belief is everything. Don’t ever underestimate the power of belief in every field of human endeavor. Science is no exception. The miracle of Science isn’t about discoveries and technology, it’s the fact that science has worked, as well as it has, to build a self-consistent and useful body of knowledge, despite the egos, the political, economic, and religious influences, and the endless turf wars and power struggles of those who put their personal beliefs and ambitions well before “truth” or even accuracy.
Academics and researchers can be as petty, childish and vindictive as the worst high school mean girls, waving the twin swords of “belief” and “reputation” around with gleeful abandon, until these “highly educated professionals” realize, to their horror, that all swords have two edges. Evidence doesn’t become evidence until it’s believed, and whole books could be written about the incredible number of times “learned” men pissed on the facts in front of them because “they just couldn’t be true.” And this also applies to all the ideas, throughout the history of science, that were once vigorously defended, but are now known to be utter bunk.
Best of luck to you!
As always, comments and respectful discussions are welcome.