23 October 2017

Science, the liberal conspiracy


Recently the news broke about how LIGO detected gravitational waves from a collision of the two neutron stars, followed by the detection of the gamma burst that offered another source of information.
The event was fruitful, offered the confirmation about the value of Hubble constant, confirmed the hypothesis that elements heavier than iron are created in collisions, and a bunch of other little goodies.
The plethora of results was seen significant enough to appear in several different news outlets, not just boring scientific ones. And although one of the reporting journalists gushed how this finding might be a Nobel prize worthy, I have to admit I’m not so sure.
As an astrophysicist, I like the result. I think it is awesome, and I applaud the LIGO team on the new breakthrough. I sincerely hope they will have much more discoveries to come.
There is another reason why I think that the Nobel prize is not likely. Results have to be really groundbreaking to be nominated for such a prestigious award. So groundbreaking that no one can claim there is something way better. And there were some impressive results in other fields of physics this year. Moreover, the fact is, astrophysics rarely is considered as a field with revolutionary results.
I got my B.S. From general physics, not astrophysics. During my education, I listened to various professors telling the stories and criticizing every possible branch of physics that is not theirs. Of course, Astrophysics was often declared not to be a real physics at all, because astrophysicists did observations instead of experiments. Theoretical physicists laughed at experimental ones saying experimental physics is severely limited. While experimental physicists declared theoretical physicists science fiction writers with good knowledge of math.
When I enrolled in a grad program, I thought that kind of attitude is something I’ll leave behind. Something that was just characteristic of the country where I grew up. It was not.
My first taste of the scientific environment came during the obligatory monthly introductory speeches of grad students and their projects. I was not in the first batch. I was supposed to go later. That first event left me flabbergasted by the pure meanness of the audience. The audience barraged the students with the questions that sometimes bordered on pure nitpicking over the language. I could not understand why. Aren’t we all here to do research? Who cares if that poor student used a synonym instead of a precise term?
Later I learned that’s a norm in every single scientific discussion. And afterward, I learned that precise terms and severe limiting of the statements are the norm. When the new research result is given to the scientific community, it is shredded to pieces, in search of the mistakes. Partly because of the innate inertia of the science, and partly because a mistake might mean funding of scientist in error will become available for someone else down the line.
That’s why I always laugh when layman starts talking about a scientific conspiracy. No, there cannot be a conspiracy among scientists. Making scientists agree about how to do something is almost as herding cats. Nope, everyone will try to do things differently, in the hope of either having a breakthrough or just proving the other scientist wrong. And conspiracy requires a bunch of scientists to do the exact same thing. Nope, it cannot be done. Herding cats is easier...
There is another point that makes me shake my head in wonder. The fact that science is declared a liberal by the conservatives in the USA. The science itself is the most conservative thing I ever encountered on this planet. To introduce the new result, a scientist has to fight tooth and nail every step of the way. And everything in the research has to be up to the scientific method. The only then result is accepted, and a boundary of the knowledge is pushed forward. The change is slow, reluctantly accepted, and mercilessly questioned.
Granted, sometimes the wrong result sneaks through, but sooner or later other scientists rise up and show it is wrong, and that’s a good thing. Because this conservativeness of science gives strong reliability to the results that are widely accepted by the scientific community as true. As a scientist, I can tell you that questioning the opinion of one scientist is fine. You might be correct. But questioning something accepted by the majority of the scientific community is folly. When the result comes to that level of acceptance in the scientific community, that result is correct.
So, to sum up, scientists are humans, full of all the same faults you can find in average dolt that pisses you off. But the very process of the science, with all its critical thinking, questioning, competitiveness, and reluctance to accept the change is what makes science the best method we humans have to discover the truth.

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