242: Unknown Quantities

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Unknown Quantities

Despite the near daily advances made in science, the knowledge we have of the way our world works is staggeringly incomplete. Lauren Admire looks at four phenomena that scientists haven't been able to explain in spite of their best efforts.

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Yes. Space Cthulhu does cause Dark Flow.

Nice discussion of the placebo/nocebo effect. I think I would have referenced the first study by Jon Levine that showed the naloxone/placebo relationship back in 1978. There was another study from the Benedetti group (2001) that shows that post-op pain killers worked significantly better if patients knew they were taking them. Give them the drugs without them knowing, and they didn't work nearly as well. That was pretty cool, relating placebo to something that could be immediately clinically useful.

Despite sounding like a terribly cheaply made video game, Dark Flow sounds terrifying.

Lauren, where on Earth do you find out all these fascinating things? Some of them really get me thinking in a way that random page on Wikipedia just can't match.

Edit: Also, it's really nice to see The Escapist branching out a bit from the usual video game stuff, great work guys and gals.

My brain apparently cannot understand the experiment done to simulate out of body experiences. If the person was watching themselves on camera and a scientist poked them with a pen, how would they believe that they were in a different place? They are looking directly at the scientist that is poking them through the goggle/camera... And swung a hammer where they "thought" they were actually?! Wtf?

Ugh... I am sorry to say, but this article was rather bad from a science perspective.

It sometimes seems as though science is nothing more than an elaborate guessing game. Studies and research don't prove anything, they merely make near approximations, hailed as the newest brick atop a foundation that will always be pretty shaky

Yes, science is a guessing game. What happens is that someone makes an observation, or continues from something that is hitherto known, and makes a model and a theory. What then happens is that you test the model. From this you get a proof that the theory and the model works and predicts what will happen in reality, even when you apply them to something new.

But the scientific community seldom "hails" this as something revolutionary (this is the media's domain). Instead science tends to be almost rediculously cautious in their conclusions, which unfortunately has led to some modern myths not being nipped in the bud, such as claims of electromagnetic hypersensitivity or the claim that cell phones give cancer, claims that have substantially lowered thousands of people's quality of life by causing unncessary fears.

Nor is the foundation shaky. The models that make up the foundation are robust. They must be, or your science is fundamentally flawed. Because here is the catch: even in the advent of new refined science, your old science must still hold up. Science is backwards compatible, or it's not science. Even in the advent of new science, the old science must give the same result, for the same kind of tests, or you have failed.

The caveat "for the same kind of tests" is because new refined measuring can discover that your previous model was indeed wrong. But... your science is still good if you made it as good as you could with the means you had available at the time.

That was for instance the case of the apparent lack of parallax motion of stars on the celestial sphere which made the theory about all stars being fixed on a sphere at near infinat distance stick around a little longer.

Imagine if every discovery in science was treated as an irrefutable truth. We'd still think the Earth was flat, that we were the center planet in the Universe and that the laws of classical physics applied to everything, even subatomic particles.

Two flaws here. First: it was never scientists that claimed the Earth was flat (a notion that was invalidated over 2000 years ago by the way), nor that the Earth was the center of the universe. The geocentric view was a religious notion and it was science that busted this open because the observations in correlation to the "model" that the Earth was the center of the solar system could not be made to match up without some truly convoluted explanations. It was science that said "Sorry... but it makes alot more sense if we model it as the sun as being the center" (for which the church got mighty upset because with that statement, their model got kicked in the crotch).

And second, no scientific discovery is ever treated as "irrefutable truth", because we are still dealing with models and theories. A model is not reality... its a facimilie of reality. A theory is not reality... it's a guess of how reality will behave. Telling it "how it is, end of story", that's religion's domain.

Science instead says "My model, up until now, and as far as we can make out, works in the same way that we have oberved reality to work". That is hardly calling it "irrefutable truth".

In fact, it is a requirement that a scientific claim is refutable, because otherwise it is not science. Without so called falsability, you can't make a scientific claim becuase then you can't test your result. This is why religion is not science because you cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove that something does not exist, which means the claim are untestable.

Then as far as the four "mysteries" in question go:

Placebo/Nocebo: It is well documented that the recipient's attitude clearly affects the measured result. But saying that this is a big mystery is taking it too far.

Martian Methane: Come one... we havn't even been there yet! There could be thousands of explanations. But before we got there and can test it for real we cannot investigate the matter. This is not a matter of mystery or bafflement. We are just prevented from better investigation at the moment.

Dark Matter/Dark Flow: We know very well what "Dark <X>" is... it's a model for a phenonema that we have not been able to find any other theory for so far. Dark <X> is not reality, it's a model. What the real world equivalent that Dark <X> is temping for however... that is indeed a mystery. but again it's a matter of us not being able to go out there and check up on.

Out of body experiences: They are even able to describe exactly what happened to them during the time their heart was stopped. Nuh-uh! Hold the phone here. Without going into detail, let's just say that this matter is still a hot debate as to whether this phenonema is even happening the way it is being portrayed. Science - to the best of my knowledge - does not yet recognize OOBE to the detail you are writing.

My personal list of the top three scientific mysteries would be these:

1) Conciouness and self-awareness. What causes it? How is it that I can think; that I can be aware that I am thinking and think about myself thinking? Will other species, as evolution progresses, evolve the same kind of self-awareness? Are they perhaps even already there?

2) Gravity (or pretty much any of the four fundamantal forces): what causes it? The models are few and pretty vague so far.

3) Time's arrow... what causes it? Why is our perception of time unidirectional? Why can we not willingly move back and forth in time?

/S

Sayvara:

Two flaws here. First: it was never scientists or anyone else that claimed the Earth was flat (a notion that was invalidated over 2000 years ago by the way)

Great overall post but I just had to fix that part ^

The myth that people of the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat entered the popular imagination in the 19th century, thanks largely to the publication of Washington Irving's fantasy The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828.

So in actual fact, no-one actually thought the world was flat, people just thought people thought the world was flat.

Great article! and yeah, the first thought that popped into my head reading about Dark Flow was "terrifying vistas of reality"...

I logged on just to say similar to what sayvara has said, though I think I would have been a little more succinct. One point I want to reiterate is that a theory in science, is not what people usually think. It starts out as an idea that is tested, but after sufficient factual support, it becomes something more substantial. Essentially it retains the title of a theory, only because further refinement to the definition can take place. Core elements will likely never be replaced, evolutionary theory, the theory of relativity are not going to change substantially, they are far more solid than you portray in your article. I don't know if you have something against science, or fundamentally doubt it, but you do it a great disservice by portraying theory the way you do. I don't expect you to know it if you aren't serious about the pursuit of science, but as a journalist I hope you'll listen.

The remainder I'll abandon as someone has already gone into depth on this. But I have to say the opening of your article I found almost offensive and a little destructive. People who aren't studied will read a published article and think it's true pretty often. That isn't to say a given article is or isn't, but science doesn't need vagaries eroding people's confidence any further, which is why I felt it necessary to comment on that part of your article.

The foundations of science aren't shaky. My guess is that 3000 years from now, we'll still be using the same basic periodic table, biology will still be based on cells, genetics, and biochemistry that is very well understood.

As long as space Cthulhu hasn't devoured us by then.

Sayvara:

Placebo/Nocebo: It is well documented that the recipient's attitude clearly affects the measured result. But saying that this is a big mystery is taking it too far.

/S

Very insightful post overall, but I'm only going to spend time to comment on your placebo point. The key finding that is being reported on here is the chemical basis of the placebo effect. That, from a mind/body perspective, is mindblowing. Block one chemical in the brain, and then suddenly, the recipient loses the ability for his/her "attitude to affect the measured result". I agree that it's not "a big mystery", but it is way cool.

Sayvara:
Ugh... I am sorry to say, but this article was rather bad from a science perspective.

It sometimes seems as though science is nothing more than an elaborate guessing game. Studies and research don't prove anything, they merely make near approximations, hailed as the newest brick atop a foundation that will always be pretty shaky

Yes, science is a guessing game. What happens is that someone makes an observation, or continues from something that is hitherto known, and makes a model and a theory. What then happens is that you test the model. From this you get a proof that the theory and the model works and predicts what will happen in reality, even when you apply them to something new.

You make some decent points, but I will defend the author on one point, science can't actually prove. To prove something, you have to show that it is correct in all possible conditions. Since an infinite number of conditions exist, it is impossible to test anything under all conditions. The most we can do is to gather evidence that support hypotheses and theories, or disprove them by finding conditions in which they don't work.

As a scientist, I'm tempted to go through and refute claims willy-nilly, but since others have already done that, I'll just nitpick... You aren't exactly declared dead when you flatline. You might be declared "clinically dead", which means that under normal circumstances the doctors are going to spend the next 30 minutes trying to revive you. Additionally there are machines used in surgery and other procedures that will actually keep your blood flowing while your heart is stopped (so that it can be more easily operated on), meaning that for all intents and purposes you're flatlined but very much alive. The only way you'll be declared legally dead on heart failure is if you have a DNR, otherwise all bets are off.

I chose to do a PhD for exactly the reason that there is so much we don't actually know yet, its part of what makes the universe so interesting.

We're arguing semantics here, mostly of what "proof" and "Fact" and "knowledge" and "truth" mean, but Lauren is more or less right in the statement that nothing can be ascertained via the scientific method. All scientific experiments are evaluated using the null/alternative hypothesis testing method. The null is always that no effect exists, and the alternate is that SOME effect exists.

A test statistic is calculated, a function of desired variance and error variance, and if the ratio of "good" to "bad" variance is acceptable based on a (usually arbitrary) predetermined critical value (usually equivalent to a 5% chance of exceeding such a difference value in the absence of the phenomenon in question) then we "reject" the null as being implausible at the percent confidence in question. We never say "the alternative hypothesis is true," we speak in terms of "there is less than a 5% chance that a difference this extreme or more extreme would be detected in a representative, properly obtained sample this size, given that no effect were actually in existence." That 5%? Completely arbitrary. Nothing magical happens at a 5% likelihood. It doesn't represent much of anything except (yes, really) the likelihood of a bunch of tea-drinking fops sipping chamomile in an English garden in the 1920s guessing wrong as to whether their tea was poured into milk, or vice versa.

On top of this, recent ventures into the study of power analysis has proven that a disturbing proportion of tests lack statistical power (defined as 1-the likelihood of failing to detect an present effect) to back up the conclusions they purport to have reached. The (equally arbitrary) cutoff of acceptably low power is .8, and the average study had a power around .3, even if the study turned out to be statistically significant. Sample size is often anemically low such as to render meaningless seminal findings published in respected journals.

Any book on statistics or research methodology STRONGLY advises against using any such words as "proven" to describe any scientific study, and encourages theory-driven repeated testing of any phenomenon, with adequate sample size appropriately taken from the population in question (as opposed to a bunch of college freshmen who happen to be in the same class), before any strong conclusions can be reached.

In a publish-or-perish world, these technicalities are often overlooked at the expense of getting articles published, but we are right to question the validity and "truthiness" of any of a number of scientific claims, even those purported to have been conducted under strict, rigid experimental control.

Of course dark flow is caused by Space Cthulu. Duh.

Something not mentioned in the placebo effect section was that it's not just pain that gets cured: it can be ear infections (most ear infection medication is a placebo), ulcers, baldness, even obesity. That's right, you can fool yourself into losing weight and growing more hair.

That pesky Cthulhu, stealing my galaxies. He must be stopped!

I also have to say that 'serpentinization' is a cool word, I'm going to have to start using it out of context now.

Good article! Perhaps not wholly scientifically and stuff, but really interesting for a layman.

Alias42:
Good article! Perhaps not wholly scientifically and stuff, but really interesting for a layman.

That is the point of scientific journalism =P

Well, it looks like this from my neck of the woods.
The universe/multiverse/spacetime is infinite, it is scalar and fractal, with infinite dimensions.
Quantum mechanics happens at warp speed, ie infinite speed, which means synchonicity/simultaneity.
Gravity is the aggregation of a large number of Planck sized quanta, and every dimension has its own gravity.
At infinite speed, quanta are everywhere at the same time. Time is everywhere simultaneous.
Everything is happening everywhere simultaneously in infinite dimensions.
Dark Matter is the soup, the jelly our local universe floats in, the effect of an aggregation of Planck quanta in many dimensions.
Ordinary Matter is the condensing of one dimension of DM sensitive to photons at the local level.
(memo to self, need to integrate T=D/S with E=MC2 where D, S and C are infinite, dimensions are infinite, and T is synchronous and simultaneous.

STOP PICKING ON LAUREN GUYS

Seriously, though, the idea is that science, as opposed to, say, religion or folklore, is not based on irrefutable dogma. This, to a layman, may sound as a point against science - why would I want to believe in something if even the people who live out of it don't do? But she defends that this lack of irrefutable belief is exactly what makes science trustworthy.

Her examples of scientific theories that were abandoned may have been poor, (and indeed, thousands of years ago mankind already had the sailing technology that was advanced enough that not taking into account the earth curvature might land you in a Lost episode) but there are plenty of good examples. I think it was Aristotles who, not long after essentially creating the prototype of what we call the scientific method, went on to declare that living things were born out of nothing, showing as proof the fact that alligators would 'spawn' out of the mud on the Nile. It looks laughable now, but it was only some two hundred years ago that it was definitively ruled out as a theory, and it took some insane experiments to do so. A similar thing happened to the theory of the aether, which is lumped with hollow earth theories now but was only proven wrong in the early 20th century.

Her example of placebo may have been concise, but keep in mind that placebo is one of the weirdest things in medicine right now. Some other fun facts about placebo: it is much more effective if it's a double-blind test, i.e. the doctors/nurses don't know if they're giving placebo or real medicine. (So a placebo would be more likely to be effective on you if the person giving it to you thought it was real medicine... without any input from yourself.) And I remember a major study that essentially discovered the effectivity of placebo knee surgery is not that much lower that actual knee surgery. If you think that a few centuries ago medicine was still thinking the best way to treat the ill was to remove their blood and replace it with mercury, what might that say about modern medicine?

Martian Methane and Dark Flow more or less speak of how amazing are things we know so little about. About the latter, I'm not the first to make a connection between megastructures such as galaxies and microstructures such as atoms.

OoBE are one of those interesting things in which no scientific progress can be made because scientists say it's bullshit and believers think scientists are evil people who are trying to disguise the TRUTH from the public. The general theory is that people can remember what happened while they were still conscious and their brain 'retcons' it so that they think it happened while they were clinically dead. I remember a scientist's experiment suggestion, that in a hospital they had a TV screen that displayed a different image, changing every minute. This way, if a pacient could relate what the screen was showing during a time period in which his brain shouldn't be able to receive input, it would certainly be an unexplained phenomenum. If not, case closed.

Lauren

Lauren

I still Admire you

A brilliant and insightful look into the scientific process.
Of course, however, all our knowledge is rendered moot when confronted with Space Cuthulhu.

Now, in the dark flow part, when they say "structures" they mean...nebulas? Solid objects? Some space-time thing we can't comprehend? ...Cthulhu?

Exceedingly interesting and informative article. :)

I enjoyed reading it. I hope to learn more about the dark rift/space Kthulu stuff in my career but alas that will have to wait until I'm farther than a Freshman in college.

Fun article.

One small quible. The scientific method is amazing precicly because it can itself be tested by the method.
Thus, no faith is really required. The scientific method continiues to produce great results (look at the amount of understanding of the universe we have gained the last 150 years compared to all the rest of history), and thus continiues to prove itself correct.
If it was to fail us, for instance by giving us 10000 years of scientific stagnation (as most other faith based methods has indeed done), we would naturally have to discard the methodology for a modified version.

deejus:
We're arguing semantics here, mostly of what "proof" and "Fact" and "knowledge" and "truth" mean, but Lauren is more or less right in the statement that nothing can be ascertained via the scientific method. All scientific experiments are evaluated using the null/alternative hypothesis testing method. The null is always that no effect exists, and the alternate is that SOME effect exists.

A test statistic is calculated, a function of desired variance and error variance, and if the ratio of "good" to "bad" variance is acceptable based on a (usually arbitrary) predetermined critical value (usually equivalent to a 5% chance of exceeding such a difference value in the absence of the phenomenon in question) then we "reject" the null as being implausible at the percent confidence in question. We never say "the alternative hypothesis is true," we speak in terms of "there is less than a 5% chance that a difference this extreme or more extreme would be detected in a representative, properly obtained sample this size, given that no effect were actually in existence." That 5%? Completely arbitrary. Nothing magical happens at a 5% likelihood. It doesn't represent much of anything except (yes, really) the likelihood of a bunch of tea-drinking fops sipping chamomile in an English garden in the 1920s guessing wrong as to whether their tea was poured into milk, or vice versa.

On top of this, recent ventures into the study of power analysis has proven that a disturbing proportion of tests lack statistical power (defined as 1-the likelihood of failing to detect an present effect) to back up the conclusions they purport to have reached. The (equally arbitrary) cutoff of acceptably low power is .8, and the average study had a power around .3, even if the study turned out to be statistically significant. Sample size is often anemically low such as to render meaningless seminal findings published in respected journals.

Any book on statistics or research methodology STRONGLY advises against using any such words as "proven" to describe any scientific study, and encourages theory-driven repeated testing of any phenomenon, with adequate sample size appropriately taken from the population in question (as opposed to a bunch of college freshmen who happen to be in the same class), before any strong conclusions can be reached.

In a publish-or-perish world, these technicalities are often overlooked at the expense of getting articles published, but we are right to question the validity and "truthiness" of any of a number of scientific claims, even those purported to have been conducted under strict, rigid experimental control.

I was going to say something similar. Science can in some cases be a bit fragile, especially if researchers build on each others' work without really checking it. However, I'd say most of the well-known theories are fairly robust, because they have been tested very often.

Anyway, I enjoyed the article. I would like to add the quest to understand what makes us intelligent (and perhaps replicate it) to the list.

Also, I was wondering about the part of the article that mentions that we cannot see X far into space, because light hasn't traveled there yet. Now bear in mind that I only know some high school physics, but isn't that inconsistent with the Big Bang Theory and/or the idea that nothing can travel faster than light? I mean, if everything originated in the same place, than how can some structures (for instance the ones supposedly causing Dark Flow) outrun light?

Jordi:

deejus:
We're arguing semantics here, mostly of what "proof" and "Fact" and "knowledge" and "truth" mean, but Lauren is more or less right in the statement that nothing can be ascertained via the scientific method. All scientific experiments are evaluated using the null/alternative hypothesis testing method. The null is always that no effect exists, and the alternate is that SOME effect exists.

A test statistic is calculated, a function of desired variance and error variance, and if the ratio of "good" to "bad" variance is acceptable based on a (usually arbitrary) predetermined critical value (usually equivalent to a 5% chance of exceeding such a difference value in the absence of the phenomenon in question) then we "reject" the null as being implausible at the percent confidence in question. We never say "the alternative hypothesis is true," we speak in terms of "there is less than a 5% chance that a difference this extreme or more extreme would be detected in a representative, properly obtained sample this size, given that no effect were actually in existence." That 5%? Completely arbitrary. Nothing magical happens at a 5% likelihood. It doesn't represent much of anything except (yes, really) the likelihood of a bunch of tea-drinking fops sipping chamomile in an English garden in the 1920s guessing wrong as to whether their tea was poured into milk, or vice versa.

On top of this, recent ventures into the study of power analysis has proven that a disturbing proportion of tests lack statistical power (defined as 1-the likelihood of failing to detect an present effect) to back up the conclusions they purport to have reached. The (equally arbitrary) cutoff of acceptably low power is .8, and the average study had a power around .3, even if the study turned out to be statistically significant. Sample size is often anemically low such as to render meaningless seminal findings published in respected journals.

Any book on statistics or research methodology STRONGLY advises against using any such words as "proven" to describe any scientific study, and encourages theory-driven repeated testing of any phenomenon, with adequate sample size appropriately taken from the population in question (as opposed to a bunch of college freshmen who happen to be in the same class), before any strong conclusions can be reached.

In a publish-or-perish world, these technicalities are often overlooked at the expense of getting articles published, but we are right to question the validity and "truthiness" of any of a number of scientific claims, even those purported to have been conducted under strict, rigid experimental control.

I was going to say something similar. Science can in some cases be a bit fragile, especially if researchers build on each others' work without really checking it. However, I'd say most of the well-known theories are fairly robust, because they have been tested very often.

Anyway, I enjoyed the article. I would like to add the quest to understand what makes us intelligent (and perhaps replicate it) to the list.

Also, I was wondering about the part of the article that mentions that we cannot see X far into space, because light hasn't traveled there yet. Now bear in mind that I only know some high school physics, but isn't that inconsistent with the Big Bang Theory and/or the idea that nothing can travel faster than light? I mean, if everything originated in the same place, than how can some structures (for instance the ones supposedly causing Dark Flow) outrun light?

Well someone can definitely offer a better explanation to this than I can as I too am still in secondary school and am not even doing physics = P. But while light may have reached those darkest depths of the universe it still has to return to us. Light has been there, (un-less for some reason I don't know the universe can expand faster than light) but it still has to travel the billions of light years back to earth.

Nothing new for me, but still a nice read.

Crimson_Dragoon:
You make some decent points, but I will defend the author on one point, science can't actually prove. To prove something, you have to show that it is correct in all possible conditions. Since an infinite number of conditions exist, it is impossible to test anything under all conditions. The most we can do is to gather evidence that support hypotheses and theories, or disprove them by finding conditions in which they don't work.

Oh I'll go even further than what you are saying and claim that nothing can be proved, ever, because tomorrow, for unknown reasons, all conditions may change.

Much of our science relies on the laws of nature being constant and unchanging. This is an assumption that cannot be validated as true for the future, because we havn't been there to look yet (as far as we know).

Ponder hyopthetically that we live in a The Matrix like simulation of things. then things such as the constant of gravity is but a couple of clicks away. Just go to "Control Panel" -> "Physical constants" -> "Gravity" and punch in a new value.

But as James Randi points out in his lectures: arguing like that pretty much moot because we have to draw a line somewhere and accept some assumption, or it becomes impossible to live your life, or do research for that matter.

So science doesn't say "this is verified as correct"... it says "Under the following conditions... the theory has been verified".

I should add one thing... that science does indeed make predictions about what will happen when we try something under new conditions. That is what science is all about. Noone knows for sure how long it will take for my cell phone to fall to the floor once I drop it from my desk. But the scientific theory about gravity makes a prediction, to name a simple example.

/S

If you think about it. There is so much about our own world we don't understand it's scary at times...

Dont be silly about space Ct'hulhu
everyone knows that the galactic nuclear terror is actually Azathoth...
(anyway, dead ct'thulhu waits at rl'yeh dreaming, not in space :P)

Ct'hulhu Fta'ghn everyone :P

Okay so Placebo effects are mind over matter (your mind plays tricks on you) and out of body experiences? More like very real dreams and hallucinations

Friggin awesome stuff. News about dark matter is so much fun.

I think Mass Effect 3 should have something to do with those massive superstructures that are (thearetically)pulling matter to them :p

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