Saturday, December 30, 2006

Evidence: Contradiction

How, oh how, do we cope with information that contradicts theory, faith, paradigm, worldview? How do we cope with what is ultimately cognitive dissonance of some sort?

We'll ignore the emotional component for now. It is, I would think, quite obvious that we can feel enraged, depressed, threatened, etc. by the assertion of an idea or fact that calls our fundamental assumptions into question.

What I wish to examine here is our capacity to find triumph in the resolution of the contradiction. Perhaps this will lead to some understanding as to why some will readily ignore contradictory information and others will abandon belief at the first sign of contradiction. You know whom I'm talking about... the people we love to attack for the ability to maintain prior beliefs despite contradictory evidence or those who bend to every wind that blows, changing their views at the faintest hint of contradiction. (The accusations we make against this "sort" of person seems more and more to me as merely an assertion that those we are attacking are as human as we cannot admit we are.)

I present two stories from science. In both, contradictory information challenged a paradigm. In one, preserving theory led to a great discovery. In another, abandoning theory led to revolution.

You must imagine a time when there were only seven known planets. The seventh, Uranus, was believed to be the outer limit of our solar system. Unfortunately, Uranus was behaving a bit oddly. It's strange orbit contradicted the laws of Kepler and Newton. Yet, no one seriously considered the possibility that the laws of classical physics were wrong; at least, no one comes to mind.

Some astronomers attempted to explain the perturbations of Uranus' orbit mathematically, assuming the validity of classical physics, and declared that there must be an eigth planet. Some other astronomers thought they were a bit off and refused to take them seriously.

In 1821, Alexis Bouvard became the first to hypothesize that some extra body was disturbing Uranus' orbit. In 1843, Bouvard would be joined by John Couch Adams, who calculated the hypothetical orbit of a then hypothetical eighth planet. In 1846, Urbain le Verrier independently arrived at the same conclusion that Adams had before him. For 25 years, three astronomers argued that there was an eighth planet and provided the calculations to demonstrate it, but were ignored by the mainstream scientific community.

Finally, in 1846, John Herschel jumped on the bandwagon and convinced James Challis to look for the eight planet. Challis reluctantly agreed. Meanwhile, Le Verrier had convinced Johann Gottfried Galle to search. A student at the Berlin Observatory, Heinrich D'Arrest, suggested comparing a recently drawn chart of the sky with the current sky and Neptune was discovered. It was September 23, 1846.

It took 25 years before anyone took Bouvard, Adams, and Le Verrier seriously enough to even look! The point: Bouvard, Adams, and Le Verrier held to the validity of classical physics in the presence of contradictory evidence, insisted that there MUST be an eighth planet, and they were right!

The second story is more well known, so I'll keep it brief. At the end of the nineteenth century, the scientific community had declared that it was very close to understanding and explaining EVERYTHING! Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations had boxed the universe in quite nicely, thank you very much. What more was there to know?

In the 1890's, science encountered contradictory information in the form of "the ultraviolet catastrophe." A graph of black body radiation contradicted the predictions of Newton and Maxwell! In fact, it contradicted the long-held theory (demonstrated by experiment) that light travelled as a wave. Black body radiation could only be explained by light traveling as particles.

In 1900, Max Planck made this very point and a revolution was born. As the twentieth century wore on, physicist after physicist would question the applicability of classical physics to the very small, the very large, and the very fast. From their work, quantum and Einsteinian physics were born.

So, we have two stories from science with two different reactions to contradictory information. In one, astronomers refusing to abandon Kepler and Newton found a planet. In another, physicists abandoning not only Newton and Maxwell, but the whole of classical physics, transformed science as we know it forever.

In both cases, many in their fields refused to take them seriously. In fact, the early works of quantum and Einsteinian physics sparked tremendous controversy. (So much so that Einstein's Nobel Prize was granted for his far less important work on the electrostatic effect rather than for his world-changing theory of special relativity.) In the cases of Max Planck and Albert Einstein, they themselves rued the revolutionary implications of their work.

It is so innately human to attempt to preserve what we hold dear in the face of contradiction. It is also innately human to embrace the new when the old no longer serves our purposes. Deciding when and how to resolve contradiction by preservation or abandonment of prior beliefs is extraordinarily difficult, even for the best of us. Even the greatest minds in the history of science mourned for the world they had to leave behind despite the tremendous beauty and impact of the worlds they created.

Is it any wonder that we mere humans so often err in preserving something best abandoned or in abandoning or rejecting something that would serve us far better that what we hold dear? Is it any wonder that we don't have the foggiest idea when to hold on and when to let go?

Is attacking a person's response to "contradictory evidence" so easy only because we fail to see how similar their responses are to our own? Are we that afraid of being human?


Anonymous dan from said...

I don't know about that. Although I'm certainly the last one to accuse humans of being rational, there is some reason to what they choose. Whether one sticks with faith or embraces new knowledge is not completely arbitrary.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Dan, I don't think it's completely arbitrary. But, sometimes, I think the decision is far more intuitive and nonrational than rational.

8:11 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home