Apr 24 2012

The Paradox Paradox

Paradoxes exist in science for a very good reason. Science is a human-wide effort to understand how the universe works. When functioning properly it is therefore transparent and open. Further, science is describing one reality, and therefore all of the various scientific models for how bits of the universe work must all be compatible with each other. Science needs to all mesh into one big model of reality. Science also follows rules of evidence, logic, and cause and effect. You cannot invoke magic or arbitrarily suspend laws of physics as needed.

When one bit of evidence or scientific model contradicts another (they both cannot be correct at the same time) we have a scientific paradox. Since our models of reality are incomplete (and arguably always will be) scientific paradoxes pop up all the time.

How one responds to a scientific paradox reveals a great deal about how they approach science and knowledge. Those who crave certainty are made uncomfortable by paradoxes because they point to uncertainty. To a scientist, however, paradoxes are nothing less than awesome, the holy grail, the best thing since sliced bread. To a scientist an apparent paradox (really all scientific paradoxes are temporarily “apparent”) is a bright neon sign proclaiming, “This way for discovery!”

Paradoxes do not exist in reality, only in our current models of reality, and so they point the way to flaws in our current models. They therefore also point the way to further research to improve those models, fix errors, or fill in missing pieces. In short, scientists love paradoxes.

There is another group that also love paradoxes but for an entirely different reason. Science deniers love to exploit current paradoxes in order to argue that either all of science is dubious or that an entire area of science is wrong. This is a strategy of denial, not a legitimate attempt to understand the world. This strategy is also largely based on a logical fallacy – confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable. They assume that the paradox is unresolvable, even when it is based upon preliminary models and there are possible solutions that haven’t even been explored yet.

For example, in the 1990s I had a number of discussions with creationists who were very excited about the “solar neutrino problem.” This was a classic scientific paradox – current astrophysical models are that the sun derives its energy from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. The standard model of particle physics indicates that this process should produce neutrinos (nearly massless particles that move near the speed of light and interact very weakly with matter). However, neutrino detectors were only detecting about half the number of neutrinos that the standard model predicts the sun should be producing. Aha – a paradox. Scientists were excited. Is our model of how the sun works wrong? Is the standard model of particle physics wrong? Is the experimental data wrong? Or is there some missing piece to this puzzle? Scientists had several theories.

Further I need to clarify what is meant by “wrong.” No scientist was hypothesizing that the standard model of particle physics or solar astronomy were entirely and completely wrong, but rather wrong in one aspect, or perhaps just incomplete.

This is the ordinary process of science and discovery. Yet creationists treated it as if it were an enduring and unsolvable mystery. Creationism.org still cites the solar neutrino problem as evidence for a young sun:

From a creationist point of view, the results of the neutrino-capture experiments are very exciting, for they indicate that the thermonuclear-fusion theory of solar radiation may be entirely wrong. The sun is not emitting the necessary neutrinos.

This is a great example of how science deniers look at paradoxes. They see it as an opportunity to prove an entire branch of science entirely wrong. They really hoped that this one anomaly would kill the fusion-theory of solar physics. They wanted to kill the fusion theory because it allows the sun to be billions of years old. They preferred other models, like the shrinking sun theory, which would only allow for a sun millions of years old. This reveals much about their pattern of thought and arguments – scientific theories are either entirely correct or entirely wrong. You are either 100% certain or you are wrong. They appear to be unfamiliar with the way in which science actually progresses – by modifying and deepening existing theories, but not necessarily replacing them entirely. Current theories may be wrong in one aspect or incomplete, but that does not mean they are entirely wrong.

Also, exploiting the solar neutrino problem is this manner reveals that their strategy is not understanding, but denial. They are not trying to build a coherent theory themselves, just poke holes and cast doubt on existing science. For example, if the fusion theory of stellar astronomy is wrong, then where are the neutrinos we are detecting coming from? Isn’t that a bigger solar neutrino problem than the fact that were are observing only half the predicted number? They don’t appear to care that their alternate “theory” (it’s not really a scientific theory) is full of paradoxes, because they have no problem waving a magic wand to make them disappear.

Even at the time creationists were first crowing about the solar neutrino problem the solution was also hypothesized. Physicists suspected that perhaps some neutrinos were shifting their type on the way from the sun to the earth, and we were only detecting one type of neutrino. In 2001 the solution was presented:

The smoking gun was discovered. The smoking gun is the difference between the total number of neutrinos and the number of only electron neutrinos. The missing neutrinos were actually present, but in the form of the more difficult to detect muon and tau neutrinos.

This was actually not that big a paradox and didn’t keep scientists up at night. They suspected that something like this was the answer, and they soon verified it. The standard model is safe, and so is the fusion theory of the sun. I notice that creationists, however, have largely not updated their science-denying websites.

There is another sun-based paradox that creationists are currently exploiting in the same way – the faint young sun paradox. I will discuss this paradox in my next post.

55 responses so far