The anatomy of discovery: a case study

finaglabby David Field

[The invitation for this piece was prompted by the appearance of an article entitled “Huge electric field found in ice-cold laughing gas” in Science Alert]

Is laughing gas laughing at us?

How do scientists discover new phenomena, and, just as important, how do they persuade other scientists that they have discovered something new? First, they must persuade themselves; this can be a long and tortuous process. During its course, they do their very best to prove that their discovery is wrong, perhaps because it contradicts some well-established law. They set out to show that their new phenomenon may, in the polite phraseology of science, be an artifact, or in the more colloquial form, a complete cock-up. They think up every reasonable test, using as many different techniques as possible, throwing at their new phenomenon every tool that they can lay hands on — to make sure that they really have gotten something new. Woe betide them if they do not follow this course of action!

Let us restrict ourselves here to the quite serendipitous, experimental discoveries, those that take place quite unexpectedly. A few examples will clarify what I mean. First, take Fleming’s chance observation of destruction of bacteria by penicillin, which apparently must have flown in through a nearby open window in his untidy laboratory. Or consider Bequerel’s discovery of radioactivity in which the chance juxtaposition, over a weekend, of a photographic plate, a key and pitchblende (uranium ore) created an image of the key, when the photographic plate was developed. Even better perhaps, the “experiment,” that many people would have wished to have been present to see, when Roentgen put his hand between his X-ray tube and the detection screen and saw, to his astonishment, the image of the bones in his hand. It is revealing of the character of discovery that subsequently Roentgen conducted further experiments in private, rather than expose himself to the ridicule of the scientific community if he turned out somehow to be imagining, rather than imaging, things. Fear of failure and doubt of their results are not confined to experimentalists. Both Schrödinger and Dirac have both recorded the same sensations in their respective paths to the discovery of quantum mechanics and anti-matter.

We have obviously no choice but to admit that chance plays an important role in scientific discovery. But there is much more to it than that. How many researchers, prior to Fleming, had glanced at the destruction of bacteria and washed the stuff down the sink, without giving it another thought? Again, the fogging of photographic plates by pitchblende had been seen before. The conclusion that had been drawn was that one should not leave pitchblende near photographic plates; it ruins them. Or take the annoying radio-astronomy hiss that seemed to come from every direction in the universe and proved impossible to suppress. This was certainly observed before Penzias and Wilson took it seriously — having first cleaned the pigeon mess off their radio dish, a good example of removing a possible artifact. So it was that observational cosmology was born, through recording of the cosmic microwave background.

The case study which I seek to illustrate here cannot be classed with these great discoveries of the past, but it is “a small thing but mine own” and, I believe, illustrates features of the nature of discovery. If you take a gas, such as laughing gas, that is, nitrous oxide, and expose it to a cold surface at (say) -40 oC, it then condenses to form a solid film. What my colleagues and I found was that the surface of this film apparently had a positive voltage on it, just as if the positive end of a battery was connected to it. This was indeed serendipitous. We did not set out to find this effect: after all, we did not know that it existed. Rather we were studying the interaction of surfaces with low energy electrons. So our discovery was by chance: but more than that, we thought that it was probably wrong, or so we had to assume. Without going into detail, we observed the passage of a current through a system, as if the surface of the nitrous oxide had a positive voltage on it. We did not expect to see this current and it should not have been present. That is, the machine was electronically incontinent and, unless we could put a nappy on the damn thing, it was useless for any meaningful experiments. This, if you like, was the “eureka” moment, but at the time, despite an inkling of something else, we schooled ourselves to believe that the machine had broken down.

Discovery — or not: rip it apart or press on?

Now we had a choice. We could succumb to our damning observations, rip apart the machine, clean it and pamper it and hope that it would work “correctly” when it was back together again. One might term this the “pitchblende fogs photographic plates: keep them away from each other” or “don’t leave the window open near bacterial cultures, it destroys them” approach. Or we could press on making the provisional assumption that, just maybe, there was something in our rather crazy observation that the surface of a thin film of nitrous oxide was spontaneously at a positive voltage of several volts. Remember that, since the film was very thin, just a few per cent of one millionth of a meter, then several volts suggested enormous electric fields in the film, expressed as volts per meter. Our observations implied that there were electric fields in the film of one hundred million volts per meter. This was about as big as it could be, since it was close to the field that would cause electrical breakdown, like a spark in damp air.

The apparatus in use on the ASTRID synchrotron storage ring at Aarhus University. (From a painting by Catherine).
The apparatus in use on the ASTRID synchrotron storage ring at Aarhus University. (From a painting by Catherine).

So it was that there was a knock on my door in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Aarhus, where this saga took place, and Richard Balog and Peter Cicman, my two postdocs working on the project, entered to tell me that the apparatus was misbehaving. I should mention that the apparatus itself was attached to the ASTRID storage ring synchrotron source and I must acknowledge here the technically outstanding people who built this source and maintain it. Without this resource and these scientists, none of what I describe would have been possible. These same people have recently built another source in the basement of our department. Previously Aarhus Physics and Astronomy was probably the only department in the world to have a synchrotron storage ring in its basement: now we are certainly the only department to have two such sources.

At any rate, Richard and Peter took the brave step of following their instincts and decided to make the assumption that, just maybe, we were on to something. First though, as I said, we needed to persuade each other that we had really discovered a new phenomenon and were not just fooling ourselves. I want to take you through this process — it shows how scientists work, setting ourselves up, perhaps immodestly, as model scientists! Richard and Peter started by showing that the measured voltage on the surface increased exactly in proportion to the thickness of the film. This agreed with the two hundred year old Poisson equation, which is fundamental to the subject known as electrostatics. We had not violated anything basic at this point. So we were on our way.

We then varied the temperature at which the film was condensed. We found that the higher the temperature of condensation of nitrous oxide, the lower the potential measured on the surface, for the same film thickness. For example, for condensation at -213 oC compared to -233 oC, the voltage on the surface was more than two and a half times smaller. This seemed sensible. Higher temperature means that the molecules of nitrous oxide push and shove each other more. You would expect this to create a more disorderly system. A more disorderly system would somehow seem likely to produce a lower voltage on the surface. But now we were confronted with this “somehow.” It is not enough in science just to proclaim the facts of observation, you need also to offer some sort of rationale.

Some dipolar moments

We needed first to address the question: how could there be a spontaneous voltage on the top of films of nitrous oxide? Age old electrostatics tells you that, since you have measured a constant field, there are no free charges, for example electrons, on or in the film. This is not obvious, but I beg you to accept it. Now, while voltages are generally due to the presence of free charges, which we had excluded, the charge does not in fact have to be free to create a voltage, it can be contained within, that is, be intrinsically part of a molecule at the surface. Molecules are overall neutral but can have one end positive and one end negative. Such molecules, and they are the great majority, are said to possess “dipole moments.”

If the positive end of the molecule sticks out of the top of the film, the surface will appear positively charged. Could this be what is happening here, we thought: the positive nitrogen end of nitrous oxide sticks out the surface whilst the negative oxygen end remains buried? This would also explain why higher temperature leads to lower voltages. The amount of voltage on the surface depends on how parallel the molecules are to one another, that is, their degree of orientation. At higher temperatures, they push and shove more and therefore they are less well oriented. Hence, there would be less tendency for positive ends to stick out of the surface.

A schematic illustration of nitrous oxide (light blue) condensed on gold. Observe how there are more positive nitrogen atoms (blue) sticking out of the surface than negative oxygen atoms (red). Courtesy Andrew Cassidy.
A schematic illustration of nitrous oxide (light blue) condensed on gold. Observe how there are more positive nitrogen atoms (blue) sticking out of the surface than negative oxygen atoms (red). Courtesy Andrew Cassidy.

There was something rather strange here, however. This model may have explained our observations, but it carried with it some rather unfortunate baggage. The model required that the plus end of one molecule tends to associate with the plus end of another, and the same with the minus ends. But plus repels plus and minus, minus, so why should the system configure itself in this way spontaneously? It should find its most favorable state, with plus to minus, just as you sink most comfortably into an armchair. But let us sweep this under the carpet for the present.

With our experimental evidence and despite our reservations about our understanding of the cause of what we had observed, we felt prepared to publish our findings [1]. Yet, there were a lot more experimental questions to answer, quite apart from the theoretical one which we have just swept out of sight. Does it make any difference on what surface you condense the nitrous oxide? Is nitrous oxide the only molecule to show this effect? Have we observed a truly general effect or is it just special to one system? If it were special, it would still be interesting, but it would be much more interesting if it were a general phenomenon. And if you heat a film, would the effect go away?

Physics or stamp collecting?

Let us answer these questions one by one, without going into too much detail. The nature of the surface, upon which you condense the nitrous oxide, makes no difference to our observations. For example, you can condense nitrous oxide on films of condensed atoms of xenon and you see no change in the surface voltage. In answer to the second question, nitrous oxide is by no means the only molecule to show this effect. Taking note of Rutherford’s famous injunction against stamp collecting, we tried nine chemically diverse materials, but all with dipole moments, of which eight showed the same effect as nitrous oxide. Some, however, had a negative voltage on their surface: presumably they had the negative end of the molecule sticking out of the surface. The effect is general. If you heat a film, then, yes, the effect does disappear and it does so rather abruptly over a small range of temperature. For example, a film of isoprene composed of 300 layers of molecules and condensed at -233 oC has a surface potential of about nine volts. Warming this layer to -201 oC causes the potential to disappear, reaching zero at -197 oC. This was one more clear step towards showing that we were beginning to understand the physical basis for the phenomena that we were observing. Also, since we now felt that the phenomenon was general, we gave it a name: the “spontelectric” effect.

However, no physicist can sleep at night unless he or she has some mathematical model to describe quantitatively what they observe. So armed with all these experiments, I began, with help from Hans Fogeby and Axel Svane in our Department, to write down a couple of equations based upon the model of oriented dipoles mentioned above. This was found to fit the observations of electric field versus deposition temperature for nitrous oxide very well. The theoretical model provided one more piece of evidence that we were on the right track. At this stage, chance intervened once again. I had an astronomer working with me, Cécile Favre, interested in the radio-astronomy of methyl formate in Orion. She wanted to know the temperature at which methyl formate sublimes and we decided to measure this on our machine. This was nothing to do with spontelectrics, at first. But since we had methyl formate in the system, we decided to look and see if this was spontelectric too.

The International Brigade: Fate intervenes

At this point, enter Oksana, Ukrainian by birth, with a Russian father, Ukrainian mother, educated in Armenia, working previously at the Synchrotron Laboratory in Trieste in Italy. Enter also Andrew Cassidy, from Ireland who speaks some Irish Gaelic, if pushed, but probably more importantly, he is a chemist with a PhD from Cambridge (England). By the way, Peter Cicman, with two PhDs, one from Japan and one from Austria, and Richard Balog, with a PhD from Berlin, were both Slovak by birth. I mention the lineage of my co-workers to emphasize how international European science has become in the last decade or so. Scientific research makes for good international relations.

As well as performing more experiments on nitrous oxide, Oksana showed that methyl formate was indeed spontelectric. This became quite an epic adventure, as Oksana tried higher and higher temperatures of deposition, sixteen in all. She found that at above -193 oC the electric field in films of methyl formate started sharply to increase, instead of decreasing. Dismay! Everything that we thought that we had understood was wrong — or was it? Oksana found that at -188 oC, the field was the same as it had been at -233 oC and then went more than 50% higher again before collapsing at -183 oC. In fact the spontelectric field at -233 oC deposition temperature was twenty-eight million volts per meter, whereas at -185 oC, it was forty million volts per meter. This was an odd intervention of fate, more than odd, in fact. It appeared to cut through all our understanding of spontelectrics which we had so carefully built up around data for nitrous oxide and other molecules. Surely more pushing and shoving causes less dipole orientation and less field, not more!

And what about the lovely theory which worked so well for nitrous oxide? Was it flawed? I had surely put nothing in the equations that could show the behavior of methyl formate. What was missing? Nothing, as it turned out, to my continuing surprise. Using my two equations, the rate of variation of electric field with temperature of film condensation can be written as a fraction, that is, something divided by something. If the second something is zero, then this expression becomes infinity. On one side of the infinity, that is, at lower temperature, the rate of variation of electric field with temperature is negative, as we expected and observed in nitrous oxide and in methyl formate, below -193 oC. On the other side, it is positive. This latter is the anomalous behavior which we observe in methyl formate above -193 oC, and indeed what one predicts, if, in my equations, one uses the parameters for methyl formate derived from fitting lower temperature spontelectric data for this molecule. Spontelectrics just became curiouser and curiouser. We could reproduce our observations, but we could not be said to understand them physically.

Nature’s Switchback

At this stage we needed to sit back and take a deep breath. Spontelectrics had turned out to be something of a rollercoaster. What did we therefore do? We wrote a review of the whole topic as we understood it in early 2013 [2]. But on a rollercoaster, one moment you think that you are safe and the next you are hurtling down some endless slope, having left your stomach somewhere behind you. For there is still more curious behavior to consider — which we knew about already but had quietly ignored in order to preserve our sanity.

If you lay down a film of toluene at -198 oC, it is not spontelectric for the first one hundred monolayers, where a monolayer is a single layer of molecules. Put down a bit more, and the surface potential takes off and the film becomes spontelectric. The same thing happens with isoprene at -203 oC, except that the spontelectric effect comes in after 50 to 75 monolayers have been laid down. Apparently, the molecules like to get head-to-head and tail-to-tail, plus to plus, minus to minus, only when the film has achieved a certain thickness. Somehow, toluene layer number 101 knows that it is number 101 and decides to “go spontelectric.” In other words, the molecules know about each other’s presence: they communicate with one another. Apparently there has to be a certain number of molecules of toluene or isoprene before the films switches into a spontelectric state.

What we observed showed that every part of the system depends on every other part. Communication extends right across the film, over macroscopic distances for which pair-wise interaction between molecules is completely negligible. This leads one to appreciate that spontelectrics have properties which are much more than just the sum of pairwise interactions between molecules, or even three-, four- or five-wise, but many thousand-wise in the case of toluene laid down at -198 oC. Such systems are called “non-local.”

So spontelectrics have two crazy properties: the effect can get greater at higher temperature of deposition, as in methyl formate, and the effect seems to require that all the molecules in the film talk, or feed back, to one another. If we are going to claim to understand spontelectrics, we are going to need to understand these two fundamental aspects. This is where I make my escape: no nice explanation is forthcoming. Simple reasoning based on cause and effect, in a system dominated by feedback, is difficult because the first system, one molecule of toluene, say, influences the second, and the third, the fourth, the fifth etc. and in turn each of these influences each of the others. If you could model a film as a repeating unit of a cube of ten by ten by ten molecules, you would have to consider 499,500 pairwise interactions, some very weak and every one dependent on every other. This might allow you to show that a film would settle into some stable spontelectric state, through mutual agreement between the molecules.

Not so grand Finale

From that last example of 499,500 interactions, you can see why I need to quit the footlights and exit by the stage door. There are other aspects of spontelectrics too: for example, how you can build different spontelectrics on top of each other and make any geometrical form of electric field you wish, work which we did in collaboration with Jack Dunger, a very talented young post-graduate from Cambridge (England) [3]. There are also some lovely experiments carried out by Andrew Cassidy which show what happens when nitrous oxide is diluted in xenon [4], giving us additional insight into the non-local, non-linear nature of spontelectrics. Furthermore, in the spirit of throwing as many techniques as possible at the subject, Jerome Lasne, Alexander Rosu-Finsen and Martin McCoustra at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, have recently been performing some experiments on how spontelectrics absorb light. Their independent data also reveal the presence of the spontelectric field. This helped to allay some of the last traces of skepticism which remained in a corner of my mind [5].

To return to a possible explanation of how spontelectrics may form: nature provides you with an accomplished fact, the spontelectric film is there in front of you. I am hesitating by the stage door and I am about to make a run for it because I have no explanation, save conjecture, of how a film gets itself into the spontelectric structure. How do the molecules move about as they make the film, condensing from the gas phase, and why do they spontaneously choose an apparently unfavorable structure, with plus to plus and minus to minus? This is the problem which we swept under the carpet above, but that we need to face. Unfortunately, we do not know how to do this. However, I will allow myself the luxury of speculation, without thinking about 499,500 interactions, before I finally do make my exit.

Our current speculation goes something like this [4]. Fluctuating movements of the molecules at the surface locally create, by chance, some fleeting orientation of the molecules, with plus to plus and minus to minus. This in turn creates an electric field opposing this orientation. The electric field will also be found in a region outside the fluctuation that caused it. There, the field creates a dipole orientation in the opposite sense to that of the fluctuation and this propagates throughout the film, locking the dipole orientation into position and creating the spontelectric state. We cannot say how much truth there is in this hand-waiving — maybe not too much. There is something called chemical dynamics which may, using mighty computers, give us the answer. The doors of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University are open for anyone who would like to join us in this search for greater understanding.

At all events, at the very start I asked how scientists discover things, and how they convince first themselves and then other scientists that they have discovered something new. In this case study, I have described how a quite unexpected discovery was made in solid state physics, where counter-intuitive stacking of molecules leads to properties never before observed in solids. I have tried to sketch the thought processes which accompanied the verification of this discovery: first denial and doubt, then testing to destruction, and ultimately some degree of confidence. My hope is that this short account has provided some insight into how discoveries in general are made and eventually validated.


David Field is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University in Denmark. He has published over 175 papers, is on the editorial board of Astrobiology, and has played a key role in the discovery of spontelectrics.

[1] Balog R., Cicman P., Jones N.C., and Field D. (2009) Spontaneous Dipole Alignment in Films of N2O. Phys. Rev. Lett., 102, 073003.

[2] Field D., Plekan O., Cassidy A., Balog R., Jones N.C., and Dunger J. (2013) Spontaneous Electric Fields in solid Films: Spontelectrics. Int. Rev. Phys. Chem., 32, 345.

[3] Cassidy A., Plekan O., Balog R., Dunger J. and Field D. (2014) Electric Field Structures in thin Films: Formation and Properties. J. Phys. Chem. A 118, 6615.

[4] Cassidy A., Plekan O, Dunger J., Balog R., and Jones N.C. (2014) Investigations into the Nature of Spontelectrics: Nitrous Oxide diluted in Xenon. Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 16, 23843.

[5] Lasne J., Rosu-Finsen A., Cassidy A., McCoustra M. R. S., and Field D.  (2015) Spontaneously electrical solids in a new light. Submitted for publication.

56 thoughts on “The anatomy of discovery: a case study

  1. So how do these fit in with the interfacial and permanent dipoles that the people designing organic transistors etc try and maximize in their thin insulating layers? Is it just that they only concentrated on what was happening in the metallic or semiconductor substrate? And I noticed the paper by Drobyshev et al (Low Temperature Physics 39, 460) who suggest there might be different N20 isomers – would that explanation work at all for the other molecular films where you’ve seen the same behaviour?


  2. I love this article. So much of what is written about today for the educated but non-technical public in the so-called hard sciences is so soft, i.e., postempirical. There are many examples: string theory, many-worlds interpretation, M-theory, cosmic inflation, multiverse, are only some of the best known.

    The spontelectric effect actually comes out of laboratory experience and then experiments. What a crazy idea. Let me get this straight: first there is anomalous data, then it is doubted and worried about, next a conceptual solution is proposed to account for the anomaly and finally some math is created (or discovered) to try and formalize the concepts. It’s a philosopher of sciences’ wet dream!

    I’m reminded of Feyerabend’s dictum that a theory should be “empirically adequate” and “emotionally satisfying”. The emotional satisfaction is grounded in the empirical adequacy not used as a faith-based “substance of things hoped for” conjecture. A lot of the popular science available to non-specialists is empirically vacuous and emotionally satisfying (like the multiverse to solve the fine tuning problem) and that sounds a lot more like metaphysics than physics.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very interesting. Could one philosophize about whether spontelectrics was discovered or invented? Does it occur, is it observed, or sought for, in nature, outside the lab? Seems to have been described and to have generated an hypothesis, but not explained. What kind of thing is spontelectrics, a fact, a potential, a rarity, a field of study?

    I like the idea that molecules must have knowledge. I’m sure it’s intended metaphorically, still it begs to be unpacked. Is it some sort of the panpsychism that’s going around, or just shorthand for ‘we don’t know’?


  4. I agree it’s a beautiful and beautifully described case study, though I’d like to have a better understanding of what is what is this electric field is and even maybe what if anything might one do with it. It is also nice to be reminded of all those other classic eureka moments. Also contains a (just coincidental I guess) tip of the hat to Massimo’s early excitement about planetary atmospheres.

    I hope David Field and others don’t take it personally if I use it to illustrate my own obsession about what is missing. Massimo speaks of the “Galileo effect”, and I think one reason for it is that science historical and other writing stresses the single well defined discovery, of a very specific clear to state phenomenon, convinces her or himself that it can be reproduced on demand, maps it out somewhat, and sells it to the world (and in our favorite bits of scientific folklore, the world is hostile to the idea of such a new phenomenon). The study contradicts this mythos to the extent that it shows very clear cooperation and teamwork however.

    Count Rutherford has also been somewhat unhelpful, having failed to realize that if one collects enough stamps, they can often be cashed in for a brand new shiny *fundamental principal*. What is more stamp collector like than the way Darwin joined the hordes of gentlemen scientists who signed up for passage on some leaky wooden ship bound for islands where new specimens of flora and fauna can be found. And yet now some people rank evolution in the broadest sense with the 2nd law of thermodynamics as a fundamental principle of reality.

    What I’m suggesting is that for the sake of democracy and the prerequisite educated public, we look for what has fundamental principles we have failed to convey about how science works. One reason we love our Galilean set pieces built on a compactly stated new principle and a knockdown argument/demonstration that it is real is that it is really difficult to do the other thing, whatever it is.

    Examples of what it is include S.J. Gould’s essays in Natural History, showing one little piece in the long long sorting out of what evolution is about. There is respect for ideas eventually proven wrong as opposed to the caricature of the maverick scientist vs the blockheads clinging to the old ideas.

    Another example I can’t recommend too highly is Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten in which the 19c “element collectors” are held up as heroes along with the big names like Dalton and Mendeleev, and perhaps the real hero is the gradual discernible order of chemical elements and how they combine, emerging from the swirling facts and near facts, and principles that aren’t quite right, based on those damned non-integral atomic weights – not to mention the jury-rigged methods for hopefully establishing that such a thing as atomic weight exists, and trying to measure it for different elements.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Given this is a philosophy of science forum, I tried to use the vignette in question to argue against the mathematical universe hypothesis, but it didn’t pass the censors, so I’m trying to state it more simply;

    Are the physical processes being examined here emergent from some underlaying mathematical structure, or is that structure abstracted from these processes?

    Do those molecules follow some master plan, or is it just feedback and whatever pattern emerges is a consequence?

    Hope that is basic enough.


  6. Some questions that arise from this story of discovery: There are the instruments — the devices that measure phenomena and output data — and the modeling languages — PDEs, etc. that express models. How much do both constrained discovery? How incomplete are they? Are there ambiguities (alternative models for the same data)? Is automated discovery (automatically generating models from data) possible?


  7. I thought the article was very interesting and well written but like Aravis don’t see much in the way of philosophical implications or fodder for further conversation.

    I guess a few questions occur to me which may or may not be interesting to answer with further experiment:

    1) You have described how the effect varies with thickness of the film. Does it vary with area?
    2) How does molecular weight affect the magnitude of the effect? Would it be possible to compare different isotopes of the same chemical?
    3) How about the speed of cooling? Do we see a different effect if the chemical is cooled rapidly or slowly?

    Are there any other questions of these sort you are currently investigating?

    Hi Brodix,

    If you want to debate the MUH, you can contact me via my blog any time.

    But, very briefly:

    > Are the physical processes being examined here emergent from some underlaying mathematical structure, or is that structure abstracted from these processes?

    I think it can be both. I think there is an underlying mathematical structure, and higher level patterns emerge and can be abstracted from what results. For instance, there is nothing explicit in the rules of Conway’s life about gliders, but gilders emerge from the underlying mathematical structure of that. Similarly, I think the voltage found by David Field and colleagues is an indirect emergent consequence of the underlying laws of physics. What he has observed is a repeatable pattern and so amenable to abstraction as a new phenomenon known to physics.


  8. A well written, readily accessible article.

    So basically, an accident happens; and it happens again and again, until someone notices and says, ‘y’know, I don’t think this is an accident.’ Then experiments are set up to measure the event, until an adequate description can be made, followed by hypotheses for possible explanation and further experimentation to test the hypotheses, until an adequate explanation holds up (pending an improved explanation, or another unexpected ‘accident’).

    If someone wonders how the principle of abduction (first, or at least best, noticed by Peirce) fits into the methodologies of science, this is a good beginning point for understanding. Induction is an adequate reasoning applied to recurrent regularities; but one has to notice the recurrence to begin with, and then develop an explanation for it. I think this suggests (admittedly only suggests, of course) that there is a complex of scientific methodologies, which interact in interestingly complicated ways, depending on the nature of the research.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I must say, I find it interesting that a number of people complain that there isn’t enough science on this site, but when we publish a science piece it turns out that there isn’t much philosophy to discuss about it…

    A statement, by the way, with which I disagree. There are a number of issues implicitly raised by the piece about the role of serendipity in scientific discovery, the existence and nature of the so-called scientific method, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Massimo,

    > There are a number of issues implicitly raised by the piece about the role of serendipity in scientific discovery, the existence and nature of the so-called scientific method, etc.

    Sure, it raises them, but it doesn’t strike me that there is all that much to say about them without going off into mostly-irrelevant tangents (or at least nothing strikes me right now). All you have done yourself is to note that the article raises these issues. I don’t think that anybody would doubt that serendipity plays a role in scientific discovery, and there are no real claims being made about the existence or nature of the scientific method per se.

    If you want to get some good conversation going without simply describing or reiterating the article, say something controversial!


  11. DM,
    I’m certainly willing to discuss it at your blog, though I would say I’m also in the “both” camp, as I see it as a dichotomy of form and energy, but I’ll leave it at that, since I seem to be in censor purgatory.


    “the role of serendipity in scientific discovery,”

    I tried to raise that point in the original post, that the ways we explore nature are reflective of how it functions, i.e., fundamentally bottom up and creating form out of the circumstance of interaction. Then as patterns evolve and stabilize, they come to be foundational for further exploration. So to does nature start out expressing basic dynamics which build form and then grow more complex, not due to some ideal pattern being followed, but simply consistency and feedback. Which also goes to the point that the past is being generated by the present, as form is created and then recedes, while the dynamic state of being generates more form.

    Hopefully this doesn’t get censored, as I’m really not trying to divert the topic, but do think this relationship between process and formulation is descriptive of the scientific method, as well as the nature being examined.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I must say, I find it interesting that a number of people complain that there isn’t enough science on this site, but when we publish a science piece it turns out that there isn’t much philosophy to discuss about it…


    Who’s complaining? I certainly wasn’t. I was simply explaining why I couldn’t do more than praise the piece as providing an excellent description of a certain kind of scientific discovery.

    I actually don’t see a single complaint in this thread.


  13. Actually the results have been replicated by an independent team of U.S. Government researchers using a Thermalium Techno 47 electron microscope. It revealed that the Nitrous Oxide molecules do not directly adhere to the surface but actually are offset by what appear as a tiny pair of stiff legs which they affectionately dubbed :”Nonadherence on Stilts”

    So Massimo; did you take me up on the Good Friday Matinee suggestion, The Bride of Frankenstein?

    Note in the mill scene the appearance of the owl which is also the symbol of philosophy.

    Also note at the 14:00 minute mark we meet Dr Prestorius who was “Doctor of Philosophy at the university” but “booted for knowing too much” and “was also a medical doctor” or a man with a background in the life sciences.

    In the woods scene, the monster enters the cabin of the blind man who teaches him the moral imperative. “No No Fire is our friend…gooooood”.


  14. Indeed, the truly interesting thing is the role of serendipity.
    Our golfing icon, Gary Player, hit a hole in one. One of the reporters remarked(provocatively) that it was a lucky shot. His famous reply – luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.

    That simple thing called ‘serendipity’ is in a reality a complex meeting between fleeting chance and a well prepared person who has sensitive antennas to detect opportunity. Serendipity is

    1. Preparedness. It is more than technical preparedness. It is also experience, but most of all, it is an emotional preparedness that is most often associated with playfulness, a spirit of fun. It is a willingness to see things in unusual ways.

    2. An openness to recognise opportunity. It is an absence of dogma, an absence of rigid thinking. It is a burning curiosity that is always asking ‘what if?’, ‘what does this mean?’, ‘how did that happen?’

    3. A willingness to seize opportunity. This is a risk taking mentality that looks for reasons to do things while the rest look for reasons not to do things. It is a willingness to make mistakes and start again.

    4. A determination to explore the opportunity. There is commitment and follow through, a determined persistence, otherwise the opportunity is wasted.

    Gary Player scored 18 holes in one during official tournaments and a total of 29 holes in one. Some serendipity!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I can think of a few philosophical issues, the existence and/or nature of the scientific method, as suggested by Massimo, is a good one.

    Another is suggested to me by my previous post, and my initial impression that this article might not be serious. It is a good thing that I am not in charge of funding decisions at Dr Field’s University.

    And I can still enjoy the article and understand the point about the nature of discovery without understanding how he detected the electric field.

    But at some level I do have influence on the funding level of science and the philosophical issue is one of epistemology. How can I say that I, as a layman, am informed by science when I don’t understand most of it? And how do I discharge my responsibility to ensure that science is looked after properly as a voter in a democratic country?

    Take me back about a century and tell me that a certain equation was invented as a kludge to rescue the concept of ether from dramatic counter evidence and that it was now being used by a young physicist in a different context, but that his argument in favour of it made no sense, implying that lines of force could travel faster than the speed of light, the very thing he was saying was impossible.

    I might have been tempted to suggest he would be happier and more productive back at the patents office.

    But, for all that my knowledge of science is woeful, it is probably better than 90-95% of non scientists even in an educated country like Australia. Most people could probably not say what Newton’s laws of motion are, or state his law of gravity.

    If someone came to me doubting the theory of evolution I could probably give a good account for why it is true and point them to a couple of good books to back this up. If someone worried that MMR might cause autism I could give a good account for why this is almost certainly not the case. I have encountered a number of people who regard themselves as more scientifically informed than me, who could not give this account but would be happy instead just to label that person as ‘stupid’ and have done with it. That is adding the the problem, not helping with the solution.

    On the other hand I would be hopeless at defending anthropogenic global warming and am at least wise enough to leave this to others. Unfortunately this is not the case with some people. I read a defence of AGW in the Guardian where the writer describes the rate of ocean warming in units of “Hiroshima detonations per second”. If anybody else thinks this is a smart tactic then think again. Meaningless scare units only make it sound like you are selling a pup.

    So I would be interested in the views of others. How are we informed by science that we may never understand?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I would disagree with DM when he says that there is no doubt about the existence of a “The Scientific Method”. There are certainly a number of methods which can be deemed scientific when used properly, but allusions to some definable thing which is “The Scientific Method” seems to be something of a furphy.

    In fact this it is often misleading to talk of “The Scientific Method” as if there was any agreement upon what it is because sometimes people will imply that something is true just because a scientist has said it or because there is a peer reviewed article in a journal that says it (or has been interpreted to say so). If you suggest that said fact may not be so you are told about “The Scientific Method” and as though that answered everything.

    But it is inherent in the nature of science that an interim conclusion reached using genuinely scientific methods is quite likely to be wrong (since getting things wrong before you get them right is part of a properly scientific method). It is also an accepted part of scientific methodology to factor in the fallibility of individual scientists.

    So someone saying “Science says X” because a scientist or group of scientist say X or because they have read a paper in a scientific journal that says X is not being scientific.

    But there is no stone tablet (nor should there be) so arguments like this just end up in an “is so, is not” impasse.

    So I think there is a need for discussion about what are properly scientific methods and what constitutes proper scientific evidence.

    Here is also an interesting link in which David Wolpert discusses the status of the Scientific Method in light of the way one of his theorems was misused by the intelligent design lobby.

    Let me note also the reference to Bride of Frankenstein. Although I regard it as a work of art rivalling “The Last Supper” or “Guernica”, I don’t think it has any lessons in philosophy 🙂

    Here’s to Gods and Monsters!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Robin,

    How can I say that I, as a layman, am informed by science when I don’t understand most of it?

    Trust people who do understand it. Or invest time and effort to learn it yourself. Or choose to remain agnostic (i.e. uninformed).

    And how do I discharge my responsibility to ensure that science is looked after properly as a voter in a democratic country?

    In a democratic country, you cannot really ensure anything. What you can do is to delegate this responsibility — vote for some particular party and trust them to ensure this for you. In my experience, any such trust is usually misplaced.

    In an autocratic country, you can in principle do it, if you are the autocrat. 🙂


  18. Hi Marko,

    Trust people who do understand it.

    I see that you have not yet appreciated the nature of the problem.

    An Official tests Abraham Adams’ claim to understand Latin by asking him to translate some words and phrases. He cannot translate and the crowd laugh at the erudite official’s exposure of the priests pretence.

    But they know no Latin and are simply trusting the person who they assume understands it. But does he or the priest understand Latin?

    For the most part I think I can trust the consensus of mainstream academic science. But again suppose someone says “X is the consensus of scientists in this area”. How do I know that for any specific instance? I followed up one such claim and found that the source of this was a survey quoted in a paper in a particular journal. So am I trusting the consensus? Or am I trusting this one paper which has claimed that there is a consensus?

    An evolutionary biologist once called me ‘arrogant’ for saying that I was confident that Daryl Bem was not describing any real effect in his ‘Feeling the Future’ experiments. He said that only someone with expertise in experimental psychology could possibly be qualified to make that call, this being a peer reviewed paper in a mainstream scientific journal.

    Now I probably have more expertise and experience than most to make that call, (in fact some “expert” critiques of Bem’s work simply got the stats wrong), but even if I didn’t, I think my conclusion would have been pretty safe. But there are many people like Bem who have proper qualifications and are working as academics in mainstream institutions. And yet I confidently go against the consensus of people working in the paranormal field. I don’t admit it as science at all although the practitioners meet the criteria to be writing articles at Scientia Salon where I do not.

    Or invest time and effort to learn it yourself.

    You are talking of a project that is uncompletable for any one human being. For most people even beginning it is practically impossible. I picked up a book “Quantum Physics for Dummies” and straight away the book assumes that “dummies” will be familiar with Hilbert Spaces and differential equations. I had to refresh my memory to get through chapter 2 even though I was already familiar with that maths.

    Or choose to remain agnostic (i.e. uninformed).

    Not a choice. No one knows everything. I have already given the example of two eminent physicists who get an easily checkable fact about Aristotle completely wrong. Neither of them nor any of their editors nor proofreaders had even the sketchy knowledge of Aristotle that I have that they could say ‘that doesn’t sound right, maybe we had better check’.

    You can only do what you can, but for the rest the only choice is that you can admit you don’t know or pretend that you do.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Robin Herbert,

    You are asking interesting questions, albeit somewhat beyond the scope of the article. Nonetheless, let’s consider these questions in relation to the article.

    Why do I trust Dr. Fields report? I’m not a scientist, and, as the article progressed, I could think through most of it, but not at the level of complete understanding; so I only have a general sense of what ‘spontelectrics’ means and its wider implications. Yet early in the article comes a crucial, general, easily grasped statement: ” If you take a gas, such as laughing gas, that is, nitrous oxide, and expose it to a cold surface at (say) -40 oC, it then condenses to form a solid film. What my colleagues and I found was that the surface of this film apparently had a positive voltage on it, just as if the positive end of a battery was connected to it.” Gas forms a film at low temperatures which has an electric charge. Fine; that I get. We’re not talking about telekinesis or Scientology here. This is a topic that falls within even the basic physics I know.

    The statement has the benefit of being rhetorically inclusive; it doesn’t use very technical terminology, it’s clearly addressed to an educated audience, it’s intended to be informative, rather than argumentative. Dr. Fields accepts that I know something about what he is discussing, even if I am unfamiliar with the technical jargon and maths; he is not writing condescendingly. So I feel comfortable learning from some one in a field in which I’m untrained.

    Then the article as a whole is presented as a narrative. Dr. Fields is not just slamming facts at us, but telling us a story. It involves mystery, cooperation with others, humor; it describes activities and thought processes which, if we were trained in physics, we’d not only be familiar with, but would be practicing.

    Finally, it admits its own limitations; the article begins by admitting that without a chance observation, none of the research would be possible, and ends it by admitting that the problems raised are not yet fully resolved. Having included us in the story rhetorically, Fields then joins us by confessing that mystery remains, despite the training of those involved.

    Trust in any field is won largely through the rhetoric used by the practitioners of the field in public address. That sounds trivial, even suspect. We want some gold standard of reasoning to determine trust in an a-social and impersonal way. Unfortunately such ‘gold standards’ change field to field, from culture to culture; frequently discovered tarnished, or simply fools gold. When somebody tells us that some sacred text assures the truth, or that ‘nature tells us so,’ or that loyalty to class or ‘race’ demand such and such, they are really making a ‘gold standard’ play – ‘if you trust the book, you will trust us,’ they say; which also tells others their questions and reasoning don’t matter.

    I can think for myself. I trust those acknowledging this.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Robin Herbert,

    As follow up: I completely agree with you, there is no one ‘scientific method,’ a point I raised in a previous comment. Peirce, who I referenced, thought there was, but the odd trajectory of his writing was that, though he was an avowed Realist, his writings tended toward a moderate Nominalism. That means that we are pretty much on our own in determining the trust-worthiness of our observations and conclusions.

    I strongly suggest Susan Haack’s “Defending Science – Within Reason.” Even if one’s disagrees with her, I think she asks many of the relevant questions.

    Physics especially has a problem being brought to the general public. I’m thinking here of books I’ve read by Lawrence Krauss and by Lee Smolin, two very different physicists, although they are both suspicious of the esoteric turn towards string theory. Yet mid-way through both their books, I found myself unable to follow their arguments into the maths upon which they were founded. I think physicists need to consider this issue; I think this article is a good example of where they might go if they are convinced it worthwhile to address non-specialists.

    Without such public edification, there is a very real danger that the public will simply lose faith in physics; or (which is just as bad) lose interest in it.

    On a side note, I must say that I think “Bride of Frankenstein” actually does have relevance to the philosophy of its day – and perhaps of ours as well. “We belong dead,” the monster’s final judgment on the ontological status of himself and his ‘bride,’ still sends a shiver down my spine – and still speaks to the problem of being a creature with death as its only ontological certainty.

    Marko Vojinovic,

    “Or choose to remain agnostic (i.e. uninformed).”

    I confess that I remain agnostic on quite a number of issues, in the sense of suspending final judgment. But I do accept knowledge that is locally useful – but only tentatively, as long as it works. I suspect most of us do – I know the route to my site of employment, but after all, they might be tearing up the road tomorrow, and I will need to find a different route. That’s just the nature of being human. We know what we know – but tomorrow we may know something different.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Big scientific discoveries don’t work at all like small ones. Spontelectrics is a very small discovery. The rise of these counter-fields has been known since Faraday (who looked at them first). Spontelectrics is just a particular case.

    They are actually better understood than the electrostatic effect arising from rubbing some materials. That require quantum mechanics in ways not understood (yet).

    Small discoveries in science do not necessitate to break paradigms, so they require very little philosophy. Besides the facets of philosophy typical of guesswork.

    The fact that everyday science requires little philosophy while revolutionary science is fueled by it is important. I gave some examples in my censored comment. Sad.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Interesting article, seen from the point of view of an electrical engineer, curious about how the world is functioning, and how we can learn more about it!
    I assume that the experiments were conducted in ‘vacuum’ or at least without the presence of atmospheric air.
    This brings me to think that this effect might occur naturally in space, if the right conditions are present – in our solar system or further away. (Of course the experimenters have thought of this aspect as well, I assume.)


  23. Robin asked a fascinating question:
    How can I say that I, as a layman, am informed by science?

    How do we know what we know?
    EJ gave a rather good reply. Let me see if I can build on that.

    First, we ‘really‘ know very little. That is because our direct, experiential knowledge of the world accounts for less that 1% of our total knowledge. The remaining 99% plus we accept on trust as it is transmitted to us through the social web. This is something we do implicitly. It is necessary because there is no other way to do it, but it also contains within it the seeds of disaster.

    Acquiring knowledge is a social process. We are embedded in a social web that is vibrating with information. We are continually assessing information transmitted to us through the web and passing it on. The agglomerate effect is to create a useful consensus of what we think we know.That is because the vibrating social web tends towards a synchronised state in order to minimise epistemic discontinuities.

    It has the following elements:

    1. Trust(authority figures and trusted peers).
    We are trained from childhood to accept information on trust from authority figures, whether that be the teacher, textbook, science authority or media article. We form impressions of our peers and their reliability. Trusted peers supplement and reinforce this information.

    2. Reinforcement(repetition and enhancement).
    Trusted information tends to get repeated and amplified. We tend to give more credence to this information.

    3. Neigbourhood sensitivity.
    We are acutely sensitive to information and values passed on by our neighbours in the social web.

    4. Alignment.
    We tend to align with our neighbours in the social web to minimise epistemic discontinuities.

    5. Drift.
    While the social web naturally tends to create alignment and synchronism, it is also subject to local drift because of isolation of local patches of the social web, and/or the influence of local leadership figures.

    6. Distortion.
    Information vibration in the social web introduces noise and distortion.

    7. Value laden.
    Attitudes also transmit through the social web and attitudinal consensus forms. We tend to filter information accordingly because attitudinal consensus is paramount in the social web.

    8. Believability.
    We look for subtle social cues that we associate with believability. We look for honesty, consistency, transparency, absence of an agenda, and freedom from bias. One of the delightful things about David Field’s article was the number of social cues that made his account believable.

    9. Narration.
    We evolved over a period of about 60,000 years with oral narratives as the main mains of preserving and transmitting information. Consequently we both need and value narratives. This is why fiction is so popular and it is also why the news media are so popular. David Field presented his account as a charming narrative which gave it more impact.

    10. Anchored in experience(it works).
    The social web has, in our experience, local anchors that give us trust in the entire web.

    See Coherentism, and

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Re: What is “The Scientific Method”?

    Perhaps this is a collection of heuristics (“rough-and-ready procedures used by scientists to construct models, design experiments, interpret evidence, etc. that have been adopted”) and meta-heuristics (“guidelines to the kinds of problems for which a heuristic is well- or ill-suited”).

    Meta-heuristic Strategies in Scientific Judgment


  25. Robin,

    The arguments you make regarding trust are completely general — they apply not only to trusting scientists, but to any possible non-personal information gathering. I like to think of building trust in a source as a dynamical process: collect information from a certain source over some time, compare to other sources, compare to future data, compare to your own experience, compare to your own reasoning and prior knowledge, etc., and then grade the source based on all those comparisons. As the source gets higher and higher grades over time, you can trust it more and more, and vice versa. That is how trust in a particular source of information can be enhanced or suppressed.

    As for the appeal to consensus across various sources, I am not really sure that it is always such a good idea. It is sometimes hard to distinguish consensus from groupthink, and a priori one can imagine a lot of sources being misinformed in the same way (due to some systematic bias), leading to a consensus about a completely wrong piece of information. A nontrivial portion of my scientific career (so far) was all about fighting against prior consensus among peer scientists, and forcing them to reevaluate things that were considered established only because everyone else believed they were (maybe I’ll write an essay for SS about that at some point, time permitting).

    Regarding the effort to learn some science yourself — it is certainly not impossible, scientists themselves are a counterexample. Nobody was born with the knowledge of math, quantum mechanics, etc. You can learn it in the same way everybody else did. It is of course not easy, it requires a lot of effort, time, dedication and personal sacrifice. But still very far from impossible.

    Regarding agnosticism — I wasn’t talking about knowledge of “everything”. Of course no single person can know everything simultaneously. But regarding any particular piece of information, you always have a choice to (a) trust the source, (b) learn and verify it yourself, or (c) remain agnostic. Since (a) and (b) do not imply (c), remaining agnostic is certainly a choice, not a necessity.


    I really liked your 1-10 description of acquiring knowledge as a social process. 🙂 The only thing that I was somewhat puzzled with was the notion of “epistemic discontinuities” (what are they exactly?) and the overall background idea that they are, or ought to be, minimized (for what purpose?).

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Re: ‘scientific method’. I had thought that Feyerabend’s 1975 Against Method was the first strong attack on the concept, but recently came across this in the introduction to Nagel’s 1954 Sovereign Reason: “What is loosely called ‘scientific method’ is usually a habit of workmanship acquired by engaging in successful inquiry, rather than a codified set of principles to which scientists explicitly subscribe.” The widespread use of the term as a cornerstone of the definition of science is blissful circular and should be eliminated, and sharply criticized whenever it appears.


  27. The article was very interesting and well-written in my opinion. The possibility that spontelectrics will give new insight into star formation seems to be its most interesting aspect. But who knows about eventual practical applications back here among humans. It would be surprising if that did not eventually occur, given that these results are replicable, as they surely are (done already??).

    As for serendipity, a famous case of this apparently happening was Penzias and Wilson finding the microwave background (MWB), though the story varies. Some think phoning Dicke at Princeton was needed for them to realize what they had was not just a mysterious problem with the antenna. (They knew it wasn’t bird-poop, anyway!) Perhaps they had the opportunity but only Dicke & colleagues had the preparedness, but were a touch late on constructing a device for the opportunity. Anyway, here theory was ahead of, not behind, experiment.

    The next question not having been asked here by Coel or Marko, I must (despite an earlier ascetic vow!) enquire about
    “cosmic inflation…… popular science ……empirically vacuous ”
    I think this broken quote is a not unfair summary of the main point from a response, #4, of Occam…
    Knowledge of the homogeneity of the early universe (e.g. MWB) seems to me to be empirical. Is it not?
    That extraordinary homogeneity is approximately to one part in 10,000. Theories of inflation have the property of explaining that homogeneity (as well as explaining flatness and non-detection of magnetic monopoles). Is there any other theory which does this? Not yet, if ever, AFAIK, other than ‘god did it’.
    In the unlikely event that the person above quoted has such an alternative scientific theory, and if it becomes widely accepted in science while he is still around, I am confident that he will be awarded a Nobel. If he hasn’t (and in any case), hopefully the assertions about “soft, i.e., postempirical” and “faith-based ‘substance of things hoped for’ conjecture” could be justified by him in more detail.


  28. While I’m at it, perhaps senility is striking me badly, and again the eminent biologist(s?) here not having asked, could another responder, #8, Hal M…., asserting
    “…Darwin joined the hordes of gentlemen scientists who signed up for passage on some leaky wooden ship…”,
    name even one other gentleman in this “horde..of..scientists” (on the Beagle I expect—or perhaps, despite Darwin’s ongoing illness and that ‘fact’ not appearing in biographies of him, he was actually out there sailing the ocean at later times).
    But my memory has it as a rather minuscule horde of one only. That would be one less occurrence favouring #8’s unhappiness with really fundamental scientific advances very often being made by a single individual. But I’m just as negative as he is about silly hero-worship, especially in science.
    And I would give v. Humboldt a lot of credit for at the very least motivating Darwin in the South American direction, quite apart from himself having discovered many new species, climbed higher on a mountain than any previous human, and having falsified a popular theory about volcanoes. He was a gentleman, and easily alive still (hope I live that long!) at the time Beagle sailed, but stayed in Paris IIRC.

    Re both responses above, surely it’s not only for the science-trained to expect at least minimal fact-checking, whether about Darwin or about the empirical (but fairly indirect so far) evidence for inflation. But it seems that being unready to even respond or explain, when clearly factually incorrect, is just a human foible. Symptomatic of this was the much earlier logic and history buff here strongly and incorrectly disputing the fact that Kant asserted and never retracted there to be no logic beyond syllogisms.

    Those two questions just above are just as much about the article itself as were the #4 and #8 responses, so presumably do not run afoul of the new and welcome constraints here on responses. In a perfect, but clearly impractical, world, our hard working ‘referees’ would be able to flag responses in which some supposedly factual content is evidently incorrect.


  29. Ptolemy and Copernicus both explained the solar system and both were about as predictively accurate but Kepler, using Tycho’s data, was able to decisively nail it. I still think we need the holy Datum.


  30. One would think there would be a mathematical model for the scientific method by now, but it still seems to be a process of trial and error. Aka; feedback and consistency, ie. similar cause yields similar effect.


    One possible consideration for that cosmic homogeneity would be a phase transition of some sort. If the grand top down explanations come up short, try the bottom up feedback ones.


  31. Kierkegaard said, “If we think we can answer the big questions, we have simply failed to understand the nature of the questions themselves.”

    Picasso when asked what should painters learn from Cezanne answered: anxiety.

    I think this is the proper lesson to be learned from the study of epistemology, not to mention psychology with all of its cognitive biases. There is no cure for confirmation bias and the Academy is responsible for this insight and its potential implication: epistemic humility. But this is good news and one of the reasons that science works. It’s not because scientists are so smart and creative, although they are, but because they work in an environment in which they know that whatever they produce will be evaluated and criticized – at least eventually. It’s one big mess with amazing results.

    As a non-specialist, even for academics outside of their specialty, it is a much more faith-based endeavor. I, a fallible individual teeming with biases, must trust the authority of another biased indivudual. If you don’t like the word “faith”, call it “one mind averse to cognitive dissonance believing another mind averse to cognitive dissonance”. This should result in a general attitude of provisionality but in reality the opposite reaction, certainty, is the norm. I like the way some philosophers say they are “defending” a certain view rather than that they “are” a physicalist or realist, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Reading Hal Morris charitably, which I know is not the habit of certain critics, I believe that in his remark on Darwin, he was referring to the trend of European gentlemen naturalists who sought voyages across seas to further their inquiries (well known among those who have read history); it was the age of exploration, after all. Just culling from the initial ‘A’ from Wikipedia, the list of naturalist-explorers at the time of Darwin include Adams, Adanson, Agassiz, Allamand, Angas, Audebert, and de Azara. (Audabon wanted to, but suffered from seasickness.)

    Per remarks by Occam’s Beard, the inflationary model still has its critics, including Roger Penrose: And it has alternatives claimants; among these certain strands of string theory are included. The question about where the line can be drawn between empirical physics and metaphysics in cosmology remains open, although I more than favor a cosmology with empirical evidence grounding it.

    Since the article involves the problem of empirical blindness enlightened through consideration of serendipitous events, remarking on this, and carrying the matter further into other scientific investigations, as Hal and Occam do, does not seem to me too far away from the general background on the article.

    But of course I didn’t come here to pass judgment on others and find nits to pick in order to accomplish this. I assume the referees will do their best they can, in the most charitable manner possible.

    I do happen to know that Kant’s interest and influence on logic extends beyond syllogistic, as can even be gleaned from the brief review of the matter in Remarkable, the things one picks up when keeping an open mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Marko,

    I was somewhat puzzled with was the notion of “epistemic discontinuities” (what are they exactly?) and the overall background idea that they are, or ought to be, minimized (for what purpose?).

    I use the term epistemic discontinuity to mean a disjunction between beliefs in neighbouring patches of the social web(you are free to quarrel with my terminology :). Society tends to repair these disjunctions by harmonising the beliefs and/or punishing dissenting beliefs. Harmonised beliefs are necessary for cohesion which of course has important survival value. Friction between disharmonic beliefs reduces cohesion and increases conflict. One can think of it as a wasteful dissipation of energy in the social web. The social web will tend to settle in the lowest energy state.

    Dissenting beliefs are punished in many ways, such as bullying, silencing and ostracism. There are of course even more punitive ways of doing this. As you know, I was recently a victim of just such a bullying tactic.

    In today’s thread there is a nice example of this happening at just the right time to illustrate my point that people seek harmony by bullying dissenters. I promptly went and upvoted the unfortunate target’s comments to show my sympathy and support 🙂

    Nicholas Rescher, in his book, Cognitive Harmony; The Role of Systemic Harmony in the Constitution of Knowledge makes the more general point that we seek systemic harmony of knowledge. He asks: ‘Where does primacy lie – is systemic harmony essentially an epistemic desideratum for our knowledge regarding nature or an ontologically descriptive feature of nature itself?‘.

    He makes the point that for us cognitive orientation is itself a practical need: cognitive disorientation is stressful and distressing. Epistemic discontinuities introduce cognitive disorientation.


  34. I doubt any of us would embark on a rocket to Mars or even the moon based somehow purely on Kepler. The word ‘explain’ is much more germane in science than just the word ‘predict’. And Newton did the adequate (for that journey) explanation here, as we all know. But of course he depended on the wonderful work of Kepler and Copernicus. Is anyone ready to call Ptolemy’s system as good an explanation as Copernicus’, despite that latter’s predictions being worse if anything than the former’s?


  35. “One would think there would be a mathematical model for the scientific method by now …”

    What there is though is the field of “automatic scientific discovery” programming:

    Towards Robot Scientists for autonomous scientific discovery
    Automating Scientific Discovery
    Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t


  36. W.r.t phoffman56:

    > #8, Hal M…., asserting
    > “…Darwin joined the hordes of gentlemen scientists who signed up for passage on some leaky wooden ship…”,
    > name even one other gentleman in this “horde..of..scientists” (on the Beagle I expect—or perhaps, despite Darwin’s ongoing illness and that ‘fact’ not appearing in biographies of him, he was actually out > there sailing the ocean at later times).
    > But my memory has it as a rather minuscule horde of one only. That would be one less occurrence > > favouring #8’s unhappiness with really fundamental scientific advances very often being made by a single individual.

    I don’t know why that irritated you so, but it is a strong general impression I have based on very wide reading. I think Stephen Jay Gould’s Natural History essays give much evidence of this sort of activity, and a reading of Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 1794-1874 series
    would provide scores of examples. While this is fiction, I take it as no accident that Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels feature a Sea Captain, a sort of roving privateer during the Napoleonic wars, and just such a roving naturalist.

    As for “#8’s unhappiness with really fundamental scientific advances very often being made by a single individual”, to the extent that that is true, I’m not at all unhappy about it, only unhappy that much of the public idolizes this sort of cowboy/Dirty Harry individual in any genre of narrative including history of science. I think it has a strong relevance to the attraction of contrarians with usually tangential knowledge of the field, seemingly angered by the very assertion that there is a consensus about human caused global warming. Maybe a decade before that, it was being said undefensively and matter of factly; a decade before that, I don’t think the “C” word was being used although I think there was a strong sense of probability. A decade or so before that, it was treated as an important speculation.

    I am old enough to remember the “ice age warnings” and it looked to me just as Massimo said, like journalists whipping up drama because they found a couple of scientists promoting this idea. I don’t think I ever heard the “C” word used.

    Liked by 2 people

  37. W.r.t. Robin Hansen’s raising the very important point that he raises, the Latin example is funny and illustrates the point well, and the responses disappointing.

    At the end of the Ivory Tower/Main Street discussion, I wrote a couple of things, but the discussion was winding down so they may have gone unnoticed.

    “The philosopher Miriam Solomon’s book Social Empiricism gives a case study of how the consensus on continental drift came about, noting how various disciplines from paleantology to geology to paleomagnetism to oceanography came to validate the idea at different times. I treated this, and the analogy to global warming, at some length in

    It seems to me the most natural way of humans forming their picture of the world is by going about bathed in and sometimes participating in a stream of observations. We seem reasonably competent at weighing these bits and pieces, knowing this person has good judgement and/or is well informed while another spreads rumors indiscriminately, as long as people are following their natural tendency to share information and nobody is being crafty.

    So I maintained that “there is a marked epistemic value to an environment in which people generally pick up information, whether 1st, 2nd and 3rd hand, and pass it on out of a sincere tendency to want to exchange information *versus* an environment where people are paid to generate stories, with various bases for believability for the purpose of achieving specific political goals. That is the situation to varying degrees in right/libertarian think tanks.”

    “There is further epistemic value to a set of people all studying some facet of the world where there *is* some fact of the matter (whether or not it is tractable with the current state of knowledge and technology), *with* in addition an ethos that rewards anyone who can show that a current theory has a flaw that their theory can correct.”

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  38. I suspect that research programs (Lakatos) or systems of “normal science” (Kuhn) are a reflection of a certain tractable domain. Real contact with the domain and a solid grasp of what it is shapes the method. “Scientific method” cannot make a science out of just anything.


    “A tractable domain means one has a good sense of the thing that is under study – and this leads to techniques of study specific to the domain or object of study, unlikely to make sense in any other domain.

    “I really suspect it is a sign that a science has not yet gotten much traction when you hear so much about a (one size fits all) “scientific method”

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  39. Philip,

    ” it generates hypotheses from a computer model of the domain, designs experiments to test these hypotheses, runs the physical experiments using robotic systems, analyses and interprets the resulting data, and repeats the cycle.”

    “teaching machines to run experiments, make inferences from the data, and use the results to perform new experiments. In essence, they wish to automate the scientific process.”

    It would seem to be a cycle of expansion of observation, collection of information, seeking consistencies, connections and other forms of order, then repeating and building on that.

    How much of this is an inherent process of both nature and the larger society, as large amounts of available energy, effort, resources, etc. go into generating select amounts of structure to distill and define that larger state, while generating large amounts of waste, excess, radiated energy, etc. This structure then becomes the foundation of succeeding efforts.

    I made the point in the prior discussion that if we go back to the earliest Greeks, Egyptians and other ancients, at the dawn of recorded history, the seeds of science and religion were the description and explanation of natural order. Then the description side kept expanding and incorporating ever more information and revising its foundations to suit. While the explanation side went the other direction and sought information to validate its prior conclusions. (Though the process of further consolidation continued, as polytheism coalesced into monotheism, resulting in the communal straitjacket many of the more conservative cultures treat it as.)

    Unfortunately this leaves the impression that science has weak and transitional foundations, while religion goes so far as to provide society with a foundation, seemingly based on a primitive natural order.

    This dichotomy could also be used to give a basic analysis of the relation between liberalism and conservatism and why one is more about social expansion and the other is more about cultural and civil consolidation.

    Better not appear to wander too far off topic, but sometimes the laws are more in the generalizations, than the details and how the same patterns and dynamics prevail across broad areas of consideration.


  40. phoffman
    You said:
    “I wasn’t suggesting that Ptolemy and Copernicus are to be taken as equally good explanations today. Only that it was the empirical data that Kepler had access to that enabled him to decisively describe the orbits as ellipses and so eliminate the doubt that persisted that Copernicus had the sun and earth in the right places. “Epicycles versus ellipses give different eclipses”.”

    You said:
    “Nicholas Rescher, in his book, Cognitive Harmony; The Role of Systemic Harmony in the Constitution of Knowledge makes the more general point that we seek systemic harmony of knowledge. He asks: ‘Where does primacy lie – is systemic harmony essentially an epistemic desideratum for our knowledge regarding nature or an ontologically descriptive feature of nature itself?‘.”

    I like your term epistemic discontinuity. Paul Feyerabend said, “Every truth is created by our love for it, not by its existence in the real world”. “Our love for it” might be equivalent to the epistemic desideratum Rescher talks about in the quote above. We seek harmony because we love it and we are averse to epistemic discontinuity so even though harmony is not a “descriptive feature of nature itself” we are driven to create abstractions that give us an unearned (nonempirical) sense of it. David Sloan Wilson calls it an adaptive fiction (in relation to religion but it could be any metaphysical system that harmonizes the unharmonizable).

    You said:
    “As for the appeal to consensus across various sources, I am not really sure that it is always such a good idea. It is sometimes hard to distinguish consensus from groupthink, and a priori one can imagine a lot of sources being misinformed in the same way (due to some systematic bias), leading to a consensus about a completely wrong piece of information. A nontrivial portion of my scientific career (so far) was all about fighting against prior consensus among peer scientists, and forcing them to reevaluate things that were considered established only because everyone else believed they were (maybe I’ll write an essay for SS about that at some point, time permitting).”

    This is such an important point and I have read about many scientists who have had the same experience as you. It is just human nature (if it’s not a blank slate) for the majority to go along with the consensus and many dominant personalities in science have a way of creating a cult-like atmosphere. I have read of string theory and its various advocates falling into such a rut. Hence the saying, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

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