Breaking News: Mankind is dumb

I’ve always loved science. Partially it is because of the excellent science training I had. [that is a must read link, go read it and come back, I’ll wait here… I mean it.]

That same 9th grade science teacher (you did read the link right?) used to say that the measure of a true scientist was not what they knew but how much they admitted they didn’t know. That is why I take great pleasure is smacking around the global warming kooks and G O O F B A L L “evolution” zealots. (or “oozers” which is more accurate)

Now there is a certain irony in these two topics. There are a whole bunch of people who think the “ooze theory” is gospel but global warming is bunk. Then there is another group who swears global warming is true but thinks the “ooze” theory is bunk.

Me… I think they’re all a bunch of idiots.

Mankind has a long and storied history of being absolutely certain that we know something only to learn we are clueless. It is the ego of man. Every generation thinks their’s is the one with all the answers. As I scientist, I savor every new discovery… But the historian in me keeps me from getting too excited. The only certainty in science is that man will be humbled.

Which brings me to today’s story in New Scientist… 13 things that do not make sense A list of 13 things we think we understand but our observations just don’t fit our theories. It seems a few scientists are learning humility…

1 The placebo effect

DON’T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it’s not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don’t know. …

3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays
FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles – mostly protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei – that travel through the universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still don’t know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the most energetic particles ever seen in nature. But that’s not the real mystery. …

Over the past decade, however, the University of Tokyo’s Akeno Giant Air Shower Array – 111 particle detectors spread out over 100 square kilometres – has detected several cosmic rays above the GZK limit. In theory, they can only have come from within our galaxy, avoiding an energy-sapping journey across the cosmos. However, astronomers can find no source for these cosmic rays in our galaxy. So what is going on?

One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong. His special theory of relativity says that space is the same in all directions, but what if particles found it easier to move in certain directions? Then the cosmic rays could retain more of their energy, allowing them to beat the GZK limit.

4 Belfast homeopathy results
MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These “basophils” release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions – so dilute that they probably didn’t contain a single histamine molecule – worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths’ claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out. [Look, a scientist -ed] …

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. “We are,” Ennis says in her paper, “unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon.” If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry. [yikes -ed]

This list goes on and it it worth reading the whole thing, but you get the idea. Some people think they know everything there is to know about one topic or another. The truth is we aren’t 100% sure we have the basics down yet. No matter how loud my critics pound their chests and no matter how much we think we know… We don’t know jack. ]]>< ![CDATA[

I saw it on slashdot a few days ago but Fla Oyster remined me of it. See Also

The unkindest cut


  1. Robert Crawford March 25, 2005
  2. PZ Myers March 25, 2005
  3. firstbrokenangel March 25, 2005
  4. andy March 25, 2005
  5. -S- March 26, 2005
  6. -S- March 26, 2005
  7. wolfwalker March 26, 2005
  8. Jeff Harrell March 26, 2005
  9. Jeff Harrell March 26, 2005
  10. Paul March 26, 2005
  11. Gabriel Mihalache March 26, 2005
  12. Orac March 26, 2005
  13. Jeff Harrell March 26, 2005
  14. stephen March 26, 2005
  15. Kristjan Wager March 27, 2005
  16. TC March 27, 2005
  17. Improbulus Maximus March 31, 2005
  18. pst314 March 31, 2005