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The Major Theoretical Blunders That Held Back Progress In Modern Astronomy

samzenpus posted about a month ago | from the more-you-don't-know dept.

Space 129

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The history of astronomy is littered with ideas that once seemed incontrovertibly right and yet later proved to be bizarrely wrong. Not least among these are the ancient ideas that the Earth is flat and at the center of the universe. But there is no shortage of others from the modern era. Now one astronomer has compiled a list of examples of wrong-thinking that have significantly held back progress in astronomy. These include the idea put forward in 1909 that telescopes had reached optimal size and that little would be gained by making them any bigger. Then there was the NASA committee that concluded that an orbiting x-ray telescope would be of little value. This delayed the eventual launch of the first x-ray telescope by half a decade, which went on to discover the first black hole candidate among other things. And perhaps most spectacularly wrong was the idea that other solar systems must be like our own, with Jupiter-like planets orbiting at vast distances from their parent stars. This view probably delayed the discovery of the first exoplanet by 30 years. Indeed, when astronomers did find the first exo-Jupiter, the community failed to recognize it as a planet for six years. As Mark Twain once put it: 'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.'"

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129 comments

who owns the sky never in question (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092127)

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"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (4, Insightful)

jeffb (2.718) (1189693) | about a month ago | (#47092139)

Yes, The Academy laughed at your ideas. They also laughed at The Three Stooges.

Sometimes, reviewers reject radical ideas that turn out to be correct. Far more often, though, they reject radical ideas because they're demonstrably ridiculous. You might be the next unsung genius, with the crazy idea that will make all the pieces fall into place. It's far more likely that you're a crackpot.

Suppose one rejected idea in 1000 is actually a revolution in waiting. (I suspect that ratio is generous at best.) Now, suppose we publish one (or ten) rejected ideas in every issue of our journal. How many of those rejected ideas will turn out to be worthwhile? How long will people put up with the "alternative views" section of our journal before they just start skipping them?

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092159)

This is the same as gun control. I wish to defend myself. You wish to kill me? HillaARY in 14.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (1)

CheezburgerBrown . (3417019) | about a month ago | (#47092241)

NRA in 16

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092239)

It's even worse when you're asked to fund ideas, rather than just publish them. How many radical proposals can you fund before some congress critter looks at the failure rate of federal grants, and concludes scientists are wasting money padding their paychecks with dead end projects (bridges to nowhere in politispeak) and the funding should be eliminated.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (5, Insightful)

pepty (1976012) | about a month ago | (#47092971)

The first idea presented is awfully weak:

In an article on the future of astronomy published in 1908, he wrote: “It is more than doubtful whether a further increase in size is a great advantage.” His argument was that factors other than size had a much bigger influence on astronomical data, factors such as climate. “It seems as if we had nearly reached the limit of size of telescopes, and as if we must hope for the next improvement in some other direction,” he said. Loeb says Pickering’s views had a major impact on observational astronomy on the east coast compared to the west coast of the US. Just as Pickering was publishing his controversial idea, the 60-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, saw first light. And while astronomers in the east were arguing the toss about size, this telescope was gathering the data that would eventually make it one of the most productive in astronomical history. What’s more, at exactly that time, the Mount Wilson observatory received funding to build a 100-inch telescope and this was completed in 1917. And this was in turn superseded by the 200-inch telescope at nearby Mount Palomar in 1947 which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1993.

Pickering was right: a bigger telescope is not the answer when your site has poor climate, due to diminishing returns. Plus, from the article's own evidence, people kept building larger telescopes - they just put them in better places.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (2)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about a month ago | (#47093037)

Reviewers reject radical ideas that are insufficiently supported by evidence. Yes, the more radical the idea, the more evidence it needs to support it.

Contrary to popular belief, "I think ${crazy_idea}" isn't enough to get a paper published. Except in arts journals. And medicine.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093415)

However "I think ${conformist_idea}" is likely to get published with all too little checking

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (2)

blue trane (110704) | about a month ago | (#47095517)

But this is the attitude that led researchers after Millikan to replicate his erroneous results, massaging their more correct results to look more like his, because he was such an authority.

The first reason to listen to new ideas (1)

justthinkit (954982) | about a month ago | (#47093147)

The first reason to listen to new ideas is that our present understanding(s) -- theories -- of the universe are majorly flawed.

Wikipedia's List of the Unsolved Problems in Physics has hundreds of questions -- most of them just the flaws in the most "mainstream" theories.

What is your plan for fixing these broken theories? My plan is here [just-think-it.com] .

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (4, Informative)

phantomfive (622387) | about a month ago | (#47093185)

Suppose one rejected idea in 1000 is actually a revolution in waiting. (I suspect that ratio is generous at best.) Now, suppose we publish one (or ten) rejected ideas in every issue of our journal. How many of those rejected ideas will turn out to be worthwhile? How long will people put up with the "alternative views" section of our journal before they just start skipping them?

I don't see this as a call to accept 'alternative views.' IIRC the first discovery of an exoplanet showed up in a scientific journal. The problem wasn't the radicalness of the idea (who doubted there were exoplanets?); the problem was that making unfounded assumptions about exoplanets prevented their discovery for years before the journal article was actually published.

The author's purpose in writing is to point out that when data is scarce, it is a mistake to assume you know the answer. How can you be sure that every solar system is like ours? It is a cognitive bias to assume you know the answer when data is scarce. The author is saying, "hey, look out! When data is scarce pay careful attention to not make assumptions!"

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (3, Interesting)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 2 months ago | (#47095901)

I seem to recall that when I was at HS in the 70's, astronomers were claiming it was physically impossible to ever detect an exoplanet but they were confident that they existed. The reason they thought it was impossible was because of atmospheric distortion, "wobble mirrors" had not been invented. The author has a reasonable point but I think Asimov [tufts.edu] has a much better one based on the same observation that widely held scientific beliefs are often shown to be wrong by future generations. I agree with Asimov that we have the basic mechanics of the universe correct.

I have been interested in astronomy since primary school, back in the 60's the astronomy books in the adult section of the local library were still speculating about canals on Mars and tropical jungles on Venus, black holes were widely viewed as a "mathematical curiosity". Our knowledge about the universe has exploded like no other time in history, Hubble happy snaps are posted on the walls of libraries and the home encyclopedia has been replaced by the home computer. If I want to take an astronomy course from the best universities on the planet I can simply fire up youtube and start watching the lectures, less than a decade ago that was not possible, just finding the right text books was a challenge.

Scientific knowledge has experienced exponential growth in the last half century, I feel privileged to have been born at a time where I can witness scientific discovery unfolding before my eyes on a regular basis. Communication technology is undeniably the major driver of that growth and I'm proud of the small role I've played building that technology.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (2)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 months ago | (#47095979)

I was going to quote the parts you said that I liked, but there were too many so I'm just going to say, "you have some good points."

I hope Asimov is wrong though, because I hope we can discover FTL travel, and I can stand on other worlds. Unfortunately he probably is right.

There have been some areas of science that were wrong in recent memory, but when you look at them, you see a lack of data. Linus Pauling put a lot of effort into proving vitamin C can cure cancer, but if the data had been available, he wouldn't have made that mistake. I think it's useful to judge areas of scientific knowledge based on the amount and quality of the data available. There's a lot of data supporting gravity, for example.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47095133)

How many accepted ideas were revolutions.

Re:"affirmative action for diversity of ideas"? (2)

blue trane (110704) | about a month ago | (#47095533)

Lee Smolin has another view, saying that science progresses by testing every crazy idea before you get on to the right one. I think you're way too concerned with the social aspect of looking like a crackpot, and the social rewards of scapegoating others as crackpots. Science shouldn't care about what is likely based on assumptions. It should try to devise tests for things and see how well models can explain. Bringing emotional words like "ridiculous" into the process is fundamentally unscientific and says more about you than about the scientific method.

Religion (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092157)

nuff said

Re:Religion (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092269)

Yep, you can bet that this paper will be used by some as an argument to justify the need for "diversity" in ideas, in particular ideas about evolution.

Re:Religion (4, Informative)

Dcnjoe60 (682885) | about a month ago | (#47092801)

nuff said

And yet the Vatican is one of the leading private funders of scientific research. Sometimes it is helpful to check facts before spouting bigotry.

Re:Religion (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a month ago | (#47092925)

Perhaps he wasn't commenting about Religion in the Catholic church but the Religion of Science. You know, how almost all areas of science have been held back by beliefs and assumptions made at their very start.

yes, yes, cue all the fanbois, yes, we'll get rid of those beliefs eventually. However, since science is conducted by humans, it will always be affected by belief. Cue, the angry fanbois again.

Re:Religion (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092935)

The Vatican is not private. They are a government.

Intel agencies knew things before Nasa (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092163)

For example Los Alamos scientists figured out gamma ray bursts from stars, from anomalies in their earth watching satellites.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vela_(satellite)#Role_of_Vela_in_discovering_gamma-ray_bursts

Re:Intel agencies knew things before Nasa (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092745)

The vast majority of what goes on involving astronomy and cosmology happens outside of NASA.
 
Too many people around here think that if NASA died tomorrow that we'd be thrust back into some dark age... they're really not as important as what people make them out to be. I've met a number of professional astronomers and I've yet to meet anyone from NASA.

How about all the rah-rah (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092169)

1960s space colonies and orbital manufacturing nonsense? THOSE were blunders!!

Just like they thought the Milky Way was the entire universe in the 1920s, or how they thought there were canals on Mars as signs of an ancient civilization, or how Venus was this lush tropical paradise...

One by one, the juvenile fantasies evaporated in front of the adult realities.

For example, no one needs perfect ball bearings made in free-fall, the ones we make here are all good enough for all the jet engines in the world, and I thought 3D printing was going to be the next big thing, why do you need free-fall when you can position matter atom by atom?

Space is empty, space is dead, space is hostile. No one's going anywhere.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (4, Funny)

crdotson (224356) | about a month ago | (#47092223)

> For example, no one needs perfect ball bearings made in free-fall, the ones we make here are all good enough for all the jet engines in the world,
> and I thought 3D printing was going to be the next big thing, why do you need free-fall when you can position matter atom by atom?

And communications satellites! Talk about WORTHLESS!

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092279)

They are all closer to us than the Moon and no one actually needs to be in space for the satellites to work.

So as far as "space" goes, they're in our living room.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi... [wikimedia.org]

And yes, they are an obsolete "big energy" way of doing things.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (2)

crdotson (224356) | about a month ago | (#47092879)

Shockingly, I'm actually aware of the fact that satellites are closer to the Earth than the moon. It turns out that you actually have to launch both satellites AND moon shots out of the Earth's atmosphere. That's "space".

Re:How about all the rah-rah (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093175)

Shockingly, that has nothing to do with your arguments. Space is empty, and mostly useless. Sure, there's a handful of electronics whizzing around our upper atmosphere, but to go from that to the delusions of the 1960s Space Age is not warranted.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a month ago | (#47093461)

Space is empty, and mostly useless.

What a coincidence. You are mostly empty space, and useless.

Sure, there's a handful of electronics whizzing around our upper atmosphere, but to go from that to the delusions of the 1960s Space Age is not warranted.

We could be doing stuff with it by now beyond peering into some of the corners and bouncing signals off some artificial neighbors.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093643)

"We could be doing stuff with it by now beyond peering into some of the corners and bouncing signals off some artificial neighbors."

Sure sure, we "could". Then why aren't we?

Describe this amazing "stuff" we could be doing. Difficulty: with available real technologies and materials.

"What a coincidence. You are mostly empty space, and useless."

Still orders of magnitude more dense than the radiation-blasted sucking void out there.

So, if we're empty space, why don't you go there naked?

Re:How about all the rah-rah (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a month ago | (#47094365)

Describe this amazing "stuff" we could be doing. Difficulty: with available real technologies and materials.

Thin-film solar parasols with off-the-shelf carbon fiber tube struts and ion drives for stationkeeping, all doable with current known and explored manufacturing techniques. Beam the power home. We could be doing this right now. Longer-term, solar smelting of asteroids and moving all heavy manufacturing off of earth... but one step at a time.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (1)

jpellino (202698) | about a month ago | (#47093727)

"Space is empty, and mostly useless" Right, now if we could all just be rid of it and be able to take a ladder to the sun. Energy problem solved!

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093977)

I like the way you think, Pellino! Here's a 3D printer, start that Sun elevator now!

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092229)

why do you need free-fall when you can position matter atom by atom?

One gram of iron contains 10^22 atoms. So it is not a point that mater could be assembled atom by atom, it just only works for extremely small things.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092365)

I was being ironic. The closest we have to moving matter atom by atom is IC lithography.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?f... [youtube.com]

It just shows that we don't need free-fall as some sort of industrial resource. It's all obsolete 1960s "big energy" delirium.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (3, Interesting)

bzipitidoo (647217) | about a month ago | (#47092947)

Speaking of fantasies, how about the flying car? Some people still play with jetpacks. The problem is not just energy, but that controlled flight takes a lot more brains than was appreciated. And our mechanical prowess has never been up to the delicacy required to build light enough wings that flap well enough to actually achieve flight, so we've had to compromise with fixed wing designs.

As to wrong science, one idea from the 19th century was "calorie", a fluid that moved heat. Wikipedia has a nice list of wrong ideas in science [wikipedia.org] that gained some popularity and acceptance.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093167)

The flying car won't work en masse for the same reasons you don't want your neighbor to have a helicopter. Noise and danger.

Go look at your driveway, or a local parking lot. Now imagine every bottle cap, piece of gravel or loose debris being blown around by every lift fan of every flying car "parking" or taking off.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (1)

Jeremy Erwin (2054) | about a month ago | (#47093613)

Interesting. The History of Science is inconsistently taught.

In his paper "Réflexions sur le phlogistique" (1783), Lavoisier argued that phlogiston theory was inconsistent with his experimental results, and proposed a 'subtle fluid' called caloric as the substance of heat.

(wikipedia)

And yet for all this time, I had only heard of phlogiston. Boy was I missing out.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093273)

Actually we can move atoms (or you can if you have a scanning tunneling microscope)
http://ibmresearchnews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/how-to-move-atom.html

Re:How about all the rah-rah (1)

jpellino (202698) | about a month ago | (#47093773)

"how they thought there were canals on Mars as signs of an ancient civilization" "They"? Mostly Percival Lowell and people who didn't know enough to refute him. And science fiction. It wasn't exactly a consensus view.

Re:How about all the rah-rah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094087)

And neither are the delusions about colonizing Mars or Elysium-style orbital habitats...

Interesting facts (5, Informative)

advid.net (595837) | about a month ago | (#47092185)

Thanks for the story

You may also point the the original article (PDF version [arxiv.org] ), there is an handful of examples more.

Re:Interesting facts (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092303)

I would stay where I stayed before at the Intercontinental on 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.
It's WALKING distance to, well almost everything.

I even had my nails done there...and lo and behold, all the women in there were Chinese, just like so MANY places.

They may SAY that they are from some other place, but I can always KNOW if they are Chinese or not.

The secret? The Chinese are the only folks on this planet with round nostrils. All others have non-round nostrils. One only has to get the person to "look up."
I sometimes say: "LOOK! UP IN THE SKY!! It's a bird!!! It's a plane!! NO!! It's SUPERMAN!!!

Then, I can see the shape of their nostrils. All the other Asian Orientals have nostrils shaped like everyone else on the planet, sort of oblong.

Re:Interesting facts (3, Insightful)

Sique (173459) | about a month ago | (#47092417)

And the original article does not make the avoidable blunder of including a the concept of a flat earth in the list of avoidable blunders. Because the flat earth concept actually has been avoided from the beginning.

Re:Interesting facts (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094195)

And the original article does not make the avoidable blunder of including a the concept of a flat earth in the list of avoidable blunders. Because the flat earth concept actually has been avoided from the beginning.

It is awful anti-Viking propaganda which would have forced me into going beserk. Some Greek guy had the exact measurement of the Earth a long long time ago the meter is the length it is because more advanced scientists got their measurements wrong.

Re:Interesting facts (2)

Michael Woodhams (112247) | about 2 months ago | (#47095923)

You seem to be under the impression that Eratosthenes measured the size of the Earth more accurately than the 18th century scientists on whose work the metre was based. If so, you are wrong.

We don't know for sure how accurate Eratosthenes measurement was, because we don't know for sure how big the 'stadia' he measured in were, but probably he was out by 16%. His method had systematic errors in it which would prevent a highly accurate measurement.

By contrast, scientists had been able to measure the non-sphericity of the Earth prior to the definition of the metre, which is a 0.5% effect.

From Wikipedia: "The circumference of the Earth through the poles is therefore slightly more than forty million metres (40,007,863 m)"
which indicates a 0.02% error in the original definition of the metre.

The more we learn... (4, Insightful)

QuietLagoon (813062) | about a month ago | (#47092205)

... the more we realize what we do not know.

.
Isn't this what science is about? Discovery, exploration, learning.

Of course mistakes will be made along the way. The fact that we can look back and see those mistakes for what they are is a part of the scientific process.

This is a good thing.

Half a decade? (4, Funny)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about a month ago | (#47092207)

From TFS:

Then there was the NASA committee that concluded that an orbiting x-ray telescope would be of little value. This delayed the eventual launch of the first x-ray telescope by half a decade

Who cares??? We slowed something down by a whole FIVE YEARS! It's not like this encompassed someone's entire career or anything. Or even most of someone's career.

Well, except for the guy who got run over by a truck during the five year delay. His career was pretty much ruined. Of course, being run over by a truck pretty much ruins your career even if there is an X-Ray telescope already in operation....

Re:Half a decade? (4, Funny)

Thanshin (1188877) | about a month ago | (#47092319)

That was also my first reaction.

Beware thee who tries to compile a list of examples of wrong-thinking that have delayed an IT project for five years. For printing this book will consume all paper, all trees, and mean the end of life as we know it.

Re:Half a decade? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092525)

Yeah, seriously, the guy just sounds like a crackpot wanting to claim damages for their own crack-pottery. They had it coming to them if you ask me..

So say we all!

Re:Half a decade? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092545)

We slowed something down by a whole FIVE YEARS

But the first planet thing was ignored for six. Okay not ignored, but wasn't wildly recognized until other planets were found. So, until there was better confirmation. Basically this article is complaining that scientists make careful decisions instead of rushing to conclusions like an internet news website.

Re:Half a decade? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094807)

Who cares??? We slowed something down by a whole FIVE YEARS!

There are things that we wrongly dismissed as unlikely, and investigated five years later than we otherwise might have, finding out that we were wrong. There are things that we wrongly dismissed as unlikely, and never got around to investigating, and never got to find out that we were wrong. The existence of items in the first category is, as you say, not particularly worrying, but it implies the existence of items in the second category - which, by their nature, don't have any examples at which we can point.

just can't wait can you? (-1, Troll)

Lawrence_Bird (67278) | about a month ago | (#47092221)

perfect example of the "must have it now I'm so bored" generation. OMFG the x-ray telescope was delayed 5 years! The horror! Delayed confirmation of other planetary systems by... 30 years. 30 out of.. 14 billion. Can we seriously get over it?

SIGNIFICANT delays? (4, Insightful)

CharlieG (34950) | about a month ago | (#47092257)

Gee, the telescope size limit. Guy proposes that they shouldn't be bigger - everyone on the west coast ignores him, build bigger. It may have held back a small group of astronomers, but...
X ray Observatory. It delayed things 5 WHOLE YEARS! GASP. Yes, I realize that the /. crowd is heavily biased to young males, but guys, it is to the point the average college student doesn't graduate in 5 years. I've got bottles of booze that I haven't had a drink out of older than that, and projects sitting on my workbench longer than that. One of my dad's HOBBY projects took 3 hours a night, every night for 8 years.. The only one I'd call at ALL significant is the 30 years

It's all a matter of perspective. (4, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a month ago | (#47092775)

It delayed things 5 WHOLE YEARS! GASP. Yes, I realize that the /. crowd is heavily biased to young males, but guys, it is to the point the average college student doesn't graduate in 5 years.

It's not so much that it's biased towards young males, it's that it's heavily biased towards people who have the attention span of the MTV generation and who don't really grasp delayed gratification. They grew up with instant availability of anything digital via the internet, and if it's a physical thing it's available quickly because two day shipping is now the norm.
 
That's a generalization of course, and there are exceptions... But I'm fifty and many people that I've met that are under about thirty five or so don't readily grasp timescales longer than a week or two. They know that such things exist, but they don't really think on that timescale.
 

I've got bottles of booze that I haven't had a drink out of older than that, and projects sitting on my workbench longer than that. One of my dad's HOBBY projects took 3 hours a night, every night for 8 years..

Indeed. I just made tentative travel plans for 2015 (high school reunion) and solid plans for 2016 (SSBN crew reunion)... Some of us from high school are already pondering as far out as 2021 (our 40th anniversary). I'm halfway through my six year plan to re-make my workshop. I just started a five year long project experimenting aging vodka with toasted and charred chips of various woods, and I just set down a batch of my custom whisky blend aimed at being ready for for the holiday season. Etc... etc...
 

The only one I'd call at ALL significant is the 30 years

Set against the scale of human history, thirty years is nothing. Five years is less than nothing.

Re:It's all a matter of perspective. (1)

CharlieG (34950) | about a month ago | (#47093575)

Ah, you're a bubblehead, eh? Thanks for your service! I worked on the Mk48 ADCAP for a while (civilian)

Re:SIGNIFICANT delays? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092787)

You don't understand, this is Slashdot. With our infinite hindsight everything is obvious, every misstep is the product of gross incompetence and we would have never have had made those kind of mistakes. Most here have never made a notable contribution to anything yet we continue to sit on high and make judgements over others like some kind of gather of the wise and learned.

the cohen debunks earth bound deceptions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092273)

as it should be http://youtu.be/i5TzsPioXQA on our way again in a positive life extending direction

more current events (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092333)

sing along http://youtu.be/fNosqpC2Br8 cohen & friends http://youtu.be/0wbDSd17uzE

scientific consensus! (3, Insightful)

stenvar (2789879) | about a month ago | (#47092277)

It turns out that the history of astronomy is littered with ideas that once seemed incontrovertibly right and yet later proved to be bizarrely wrong.

Yes. In different words, there was "scientific consensus" on them. Remember that next time people throw that phrase around to convince you of the correctness of some idea.

“Because Jupiter is considerably farther out from the center of the solar system, time allocation committees on major telescopes declined proposals to search for close-in Jupiters for years based on the argument that such systems would deviate dramatically from the architecture of the solar system and hence are unlikely to exist.”

And this is why it takes so long to overturn false scientific consensus. Scientific "conspiracies" aren't conspiracies of evil masterminds, they are merely mobbing using peer reviews and grant committees.

Re:scientific consensus! (2, Interesting)

geekoid (135745) | about a month ago | (#47092451)

Another person who doesn't understand science, or what scientific consensus means, posts attack on scientific consensus.

Stultus.

"Yes. In different words, there was "scientific consensus" on them."
no.
" with ideas that once seemed incontrovertibly right "
not scientific consensus, they where untested ideas. Don't be changing the meaning to fit you incorrect world view.

And what the post says about Jupiter isn't true at all. A small set of astronomers decide it wasn't worth funding, meanwhile on the west cost they where being built.

Re:scientific consensus! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093057)

The credibility of someone who cannot spell "were" or "your", or who confuses the issue of exoplanets with that of telescope size is rather low.

Re:scientific consensus! (1)

jpellino (202698) | about a month ago | (#47094009)

Right. Grammar + spelling x composition = scientific validity. Got it.

Re:scientific consensus! (1, Insightful)

mpe (36238) | about a month ago | (#47092657)

Yes. In different words, there was "scientific consensus" on them. Remember that next time people throw that phrase around to convince you of the correctness of some idea.

There are some people who just won't get that "scientific consensus" is an oxymoron. Sometimes in general other times in quite spoecific cases.

And this is why it takes so long to overturn false scientific consensus. Scientific "conspiracies" aren't conspiracies of evil masterminds, they are merely mobbing using peer reviews and grant committees.

Often they arn't even any kind of "conspiracy" at all. More of a belief of "everyone knows X to be the case" with some logical fallacies (and egos) to prop things up.

Re:scientific consensus! (4, Insightful)

thrich81 (1357561) | about a month ago | (#47092953)

Here's the deal on 'scientific consensus' -- it's not always right, but it is the best guess at the time, supported by the majority of the evidence by smart people who know the subject. Anything else is more likely, not certainly, but more likely, to be wrong. You place your bets, you take your chances. If I need treatment for my cancer or degenerative disease, I'm going with the scientific consensus. If I'm designing a bridge or airplane that will carry passengers, I'm going with the scientific consensus. If I'm making a long term investment (in land in Florida as a random example), I'm going the scientific consensus. If I'm writing my own crackpot blog or political screed or investment scam newsletter, then maybe I don't go with the scientific consensus ...

Re:scientific consensus! (1)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | about a month ago | (#47094705)

Here's the deal on 'scientific consensus' -- it's not always right, but it is the best guess at the time, supported by the majority of the evidence by smart people who know the subject.

You're right, and I agree that it's generally a safe bet to go with the "scientific consensus."

The issue is that a lot of people (including around here) seem to subscribe to what I'd say is a relatively naive form of logical positivism [wikipedia.org] , otherwise known as that sitcom hit "Everybody Loves Popper." I love Popper [wikipedia.org] too, but Popper's mechanisms to explain scientific progress are a little muddy. According to the naive idea of falsifiability, all scientific theories have to "falsifiable" and theoretically all open to be disproved by superior evidence at any time. The problem with this idea of science is that it doesn't specify how one actually progresses -- how do we choose our research from an infinite number of possible falsifiable statements?

The reality of scientific progress is that real science doesn't always work that way, and in fact no real philosophers of science today tend to think it does. Just to rehash the bits that happened 50 years ago, you have Kuhn's ideas [wikipedia.org] of "scientific revolutions" caused by shifts in research "paradigms," and responses by intelligent philosophers of science, such as Imre Lakatos's cool idea of "research programs [wikipedia.org] .

The point is, the real trajectory of scientific progress is "bumpy," and it needs to be. If everyone were ready to throw out every fundamental theory of science immediately when the slightest bit of new evidence comes along, we'd never be focused enough to do research on specific questions and make further progress. That's where most of science happens -- in fleshing out details of larger theories that are assumed to be true.

Anything else is more likely, not certainly, but more likely, to be wrong.

Yes -- and the times when the "scientific consensus" is actually less likely to be right can uncover some interesting elements about how science works, and can lead to some reasonable critiques. There were long stretches of time historically when the "scientific consensus" was actually "more likely to be wrong" on specific questions by a modern evaluation of the evidence, even assuming the knowledge of the day. But many of these times of disagreement pushed researchers on the other side to pursue evidence of the new theories even more strongly -- thus, arguably, leading to a stronger new scientific consensus on more firm ground once the "paradigm shift" occurred.

People tend to get very nervous when confronted with a "scientific consensus" that was proven wrong, particularly ones that hung around for decades (or, in a few cases, for centuries) even in the face of contrary evidence. But this is a necessary part of the messiness that forms the process of discovery.

It's kind of like having a debate without defining the fundamental terms under discussion. Until those are defined, meaningful debate can't happen. But in the process of debate, we sometimes might come to the conclusion that our initial definitions were inaccurate, or even that perhaps the disagreement can only be resolved by choosing new or different terms. That doesn't mean that the process of debate is necessarily flawed -- if we never started out with our initial terms, we'd never have been able to start making the kinds of distinctions that allowed progress to happen.

Re:scientific consensus! (2)

forand (530402) | about a month ago | (#47093347)

What is described in both the summary and article are not scientific consensus. Scientific consensus is NOT the "merely mobbing using peer reviews and grant committees." Scientific consensus is just that, you look at what researchers are concluding in their studies and you see if there is a mountain of evidence pointing to a similar conclusion: e.g. virtually everyone who throws up something sees it fall back down points to gravity. But there is almost always someone who sees something really odd: e.g. one person threw up something that floated away and never saw it again like a helium balloon. We, as scientists, do not conclude that gravity has a problem from this but that perhaps helium balloons are special. My point is that scientific consensus is an emergent phenomena: it appears when conditions are right from apparent randomness (like statistical mechanics). Peer reviewers do not get to kill papers because they don't like them, in fact they DO NOT GET TO KILL PAPERS. They get to criticize the work and ask for more evidence and clarification and the authors get to respond. So if your work is rejected it is generally for one of two reason: not good enough to warrant publication in the journal you chose (not everything is published in Science) or you failed to make your work compelling enough in the face of criticism.

Re:scientific consensus! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093707)

How politically incorrect of you. On any science of importance to the state, "The debate is over!"

Just like other things (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092329)

Doubt without evidence; what could be more harmful to progress?

Earth is flat? (4, Informative)

BradMajors (995624) | about a month ago | (#47092355)

The scientific community never believed the earth was flat.

Re:Earth is flat? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092481)

No but the president assigns that viewpoint to people he can't debate factually against.

Science has replaced religion as the "don't question this" thing government uses to oppress the people now. It used to be the pope would declare something as good in return for bribes from monarchs who wanted to do something unethical. Today governments give grant money to scientists to falisify data (such as at England's CRU) in order to attempt to pass massive tax increases and laws to oppress people based on false research.

Re:Earth is flat? (1)

funwithBSD (245349) | about a month ago | (#47092573)

Well, it is still religion.

Gaia is the god this time.

Re:Earth is flat? (1, Offtopic)

lgw (121541) | about a month ago | (#47093039)

Goddess, surely. Repent ye sins of carbon emission lest she beat thee with a hockey stick!

Re:Earth is flat? (1)

budgenator (254554) | about a month ago | (#47095657)

Well, it is still religion.

Gaia is the god this time.

Are you referring to catastropharians of the Zombie apocalypse order or the Thermageddon order?

Re:Earth is flat? (0)

cusco (717999) | about a month ago | (#47092555)

Of course not, there wasn't anything like a "scientific community" until the mid-19th century. Prior to that pretty much all scientific work was done by or for wealthy hobbyists, or engineers actually hired to do something else (like Leonardo da Vinci). Our current culture and level of technology is a direct result of that change.

Re:Earth is flat? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093505)

Of course not, there wasn't anything like a "scientific community" until the mid-19th century.

o_O

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E... [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G... [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org] .....

Re:Earth is flat? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093567)

There was a scientific community before the mid-19th century. Who do you think the Royal Society was writing to?
As to it being open to the wealthy when you consider how funding works that's still largely true today.

Re:Earth is flat? (1)

hankwang (413283) | about a month ago | (#47094001)

OK, replace "scientific community" by "anyone literate and educated".

There are well known midieval symbols for a sperical earth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

The notion of a spherical earth dates from around 400 B.C.

Re:Earth is flat? (1)

zeugma-amp (139862) | about a month ago | (#47095473)

The notion of a spherical earth dates from around 400 B.C.

Indeed.

Eratosthenes (276 BCâ" 195 BC) did a pretty good job of calculating the actual size of the Earth. The wikipedia article on this [wikipedia.org] is pretty well done. Given the tech he had at his disposal, I think his assumptions and calculations are pretty amazing.

Re:Earth is flat? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094173)

"...there wasn't anything like a "scientific community" until the mid-19th century...."

Er... not true. Scientific investigators have ALWAYS communicated amongst themselves, in ALL ages and cultures. Roger Bacon, for instance, in 1250 one of the earliest European scientists, rated Peter of Maricourt and John of London as two top mathematicians, with Campanus of Novara and Master Nicholas in second place. He worked in a tradition including Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, Henry of Ghent, Albert Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham.

I can't see how you can ignore that as a 'scientific community'...

This Just In (5, Funny)

tinytim (25110) | about a month ago | (#47092477)

Is this author saying that when scientists have to prioritize limited personel, time, and money based on incomplete information they sometimes arrive at a suboptimal solution? Shameful.

They should probably wait until they know everything about what they'd like to study before they start studying it - that would really speed things up.

Error in first example (3, Informative)

calidoscope (312571) | about a month ago | (#47092513)

TFA had the 200 inch Hale telescope on a fictional geogrphical location, Mt. Palomar. The real name is Palomar Mountain. A minor detail, and very common error, but it is the same kind of error the author was complaining about.

Re:Error in first example (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093595)

That isn't a scientific 'fact' and may be different in different places.

Except for Climate Science. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092547)

It's a good thing this can't happen in climate science.

Re:Except for Climate Science. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093247)

To be fair, the consensus is driven by the evidence and the physics. Were there any compelling evidence or physics put forward that would suggest something different, then we can look at competing theories instead of evidence and physics on one side, and the counter arguments on the other side being basically "nuh-uh".

To be fair on that geocentric point of view (5, Informative)

NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) | about a month ago | (#47092583)

Tycho Brahe considered the idea that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe and actually moved. However when he tried to measure stellar parallax he found he couldn't. So given the evidence he had he either had to go with the Earth doesn't move or the stars are really far away.(Apparently he considered the simpler explanation to be the Earth doesn't move.)

Re:To be fair on that geocentric point of view (4, Interesting)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | about a month ago | (#47094859)

Tycho Brahe considered the idea that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe and actually moved. However when he tried to measure stellar parallax he found he couldn't. So given the evidence he had he either had to go with the Earth doesn't move or the stars are really far away.(Apparently he considered the simpler explanation to be the Earth doesn't move.)

Yep -- and scientists of his day didn't just make this decision arbitrarily. Parallax wasn't measured accurately until the 1800s, after over two centuries of looking for it. Other evidence that pointed to a stationary earth:

(1) A rotating earth should have Coriolis forces influencing trajectory of projectiles -- but they were not observed. (Again, not observed until the 1800s.)

(2) Stellar diameters appeared to be fixed. If the stars were just beyond the planets in distance (as they were assumed to be), they should appear to change diameter as the earth gets closer or farther from them. (Again, not explained properly until the 1800s.)

(3) Perhaps most importantly, the motion of the earth required propulsion, according to the physics of the time. The planets and the sun and moon were assumed to be in perpetual motion because of some "aetherial" matter property that was special to celestial bodies. Normal terrestrial matter, since the time of Aristotle, was observed to come to a natural state of rest (Newton's first law was not yet known). Forces acting at a distance, as was later postulated by Newton's theory of universal gravitation -- were considered mystical, "occult," and non-scientific. So there was really no easy mechanism to explain how the earth stayed in continous motion, according to the physics of the time.

So yeah, according to the science of the time, the simpler explanation was that the earth doesn't move.

(By the way, these were critical elements that later came up during the debates that Galileo had with other scientists of the day. He didn't really have good explanations for most of them, and it wasn't until really Newton's theory of gravity that the theoretical apparatus was really present to make the truth of heliocentrism viable within contemporary physics.)

Re:To be fair on that geocentric point of view (2)

ClickOnThis (137803) | about 2 months ago | (#47095963)

Mod parent up. Excellent post.

I'd add only one point: Tycho Brahe did not observe with a telescope. (He died before the telescope was invented and used for astronomy.) He used a quadrant, a device with a viewing sight (with no optics) attached to a pair of calibrated circular arcs that allowed him to measure the polar and azimuthal angular direction of the sight. Tycho Brahe was an outstanding observer, but he could not achieve the accuracy required to view the proper motion of the stars due to the motion of the earth around the sun.

Re:To be fair on that geocentric point of view (1)

ClickOnThis (137803) | about 2 months ago | (#47095981)

Whoops, make that parallax, not proper motion.

Which astronomers believed in a flat earth (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092645)

I am curious about which astronomers espoused a flat earth considering that around 2,200 years ago the Greek scientist Eratosthenes not only espoused a spherical earth but calculated both the circumference and the axial tilt with great accuracy for his day. Certainly well before Eratosthenes it was realized that as a ship approached an island or a headland that the mountains, hills, etc. appeared before buildings in the harbor, etc. and that s a ship approached land the top of the mast would be seen first then more of it and then the ship itself. They also noticed that the moon appeared spherical and the earth's shadow on the moon during an eclipse appeared to be a shadow of a sphere.

The notion that learned people in the late 1490's thought that earth was flat was popularized by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem "Columbus".

So again, can anyone name an astronomer who thought the earth was flat?

Which astronomers believed in a flat earth (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094189)

"So again, can anyone name an astronomer who thought the earth was flat?"

Your mother!

Re:Which astronomers believed in a flat earth (3, Informative)

evilviper (135110) | about a month ago | (#47094303)

"In ancient China, the prevailing belief was that the Earth was flat and square, while the heavens were round, an assumption virtually unquestioned until the introduction of European astronomy in the 17th century."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

Wait a second... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47092747)

science makes progress BECAUSE of 'blunders' not despite them.

After 1975, Mount Palomar wasn't the biggest (1)

arobatino (46791) | about a month ago | (#47092943)

And this was in turn superseded by the 200-inch telescope at nearby Mount Palomar in 1947 which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1993.

Not true - in 1975, BTA-6 [wikipedia.org] in the Soviet Union became the biggest at 236 inches, though it never worked properly.

Re:After 1975, Mount Palomar wasn't the biggest (1)

arobatino (46791) | about a month ago | (#47093019)

Oops - as pointed out above, the correct name of the site is Palomar Mountain, not Mount Palomar. Sorry about that.

It ain't who you quote that gets you into trouble (0)

mypalmike (454265) | about a month ago | (#47093063)

"It's when your quote just ain't so." - Oscar Wilde

http://wellnowbob.blogspot.com... [blogspot.com]

incorrect quote (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47093171)

too bad Samuel Clemens never said that. you must be a fan of Al Gore who also misquoted him.

Mark Twain didn't say that! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47094689)

Mark Twain didn't say that, although it was often attributed to him. It was actually said by "Josh Billings" (Henry Wheeler Shaw) (1818-1885).

Isn't this just called "scientific progress"? (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about a month ago | (#47094913)

Isn't this just called "scientific progress"? When you have little evidence, you won't be able to make brilliant predictions. Gather more evidence, and you can make better predictions. For example:

But instead of rubber stamping the idea, the panel made a monumental error. It concluded that most sources of x-rays would be flaring stars and that consequently, the scientific motivation for an X-ray telescope was weak.

On the basis of the limited evidence available at the time, weren't they right to conclude that an X-ray telescope probably wasn't worth the cost? It's all very well looking back now and shaking our fists at our incompetent ancestors, but weren't they just doing the best they could?

That Newton was such an idiot because he didn't know about general relativity...

global warming alarmists: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47095779)

call your office

The Major Theoretical Blunders That Held Back Prog (1)

danielpauldavis (1142767) | about 2 months ago | (#47095983)

My favorite was the Kantian notion that the universe is infinte, and therefore allows for all the space and all the time for life-by-incremental-changes to occur. A. Einstein had to point out the obvious: all things moving away from a point = a beginning = a beginner.
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