Thursday, September 25, 2014

What's the use of a child?

The importance of basic research

The secretary of the Royal Society of Sciences stood up and said:
“Mr. Faraday has the floor.”
“In today’s lecture, rather than speaking about a scientific subject, I’ll perform an experiment before your eyes. But first, allow me a short historical introduction. As you know, Oersted, Ampère and Arago proved that an electric current can give rise to magnetic phenomena. If you set a magnetic needle near an inactive copper wire, the needle points North. If a current passes through the wire, the needle deflects. If the wire is coiled and a current goes through it, the coil behaves as a magnet with two poles, North and South, the same as a typical ordinary magnet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scientists and religion

In 1914, psychologist James Henry Leuba surveyed 1,000 randomly selected scientists in the United States, asking them if they believed in a personal God, defined in this way: a God in intellectual and affective communication with man... to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. Among those who answered the survey, 41.8% answered the question affirmatively, 41.5% negatively, the remainder did not know or refused to answer. From these data, Leuba drew the conclusion that faith in God would decrease with the advance of science, and predicted that by the late twentieth century virtually all scientists would be atheists.
In 1996, Larson and Witham repeated Leuba's survey using exactly the same question, so that the results were comparable. They found that 39.3% answered affirmatively, while 45.3% answered negatively. These numbers were therefore approximately the same as eighty years earlier. As the authors say in their paper, if in 1914 the high number of atheists was surprising, what was surprising in 1996 was the high number of believers.
These two surveys present a problem: Leuba and his followers consider atheists those who answered their question negatively. But who would answer negatively such a question? Not just atheists, also agnostics and indifferent, plus those who believe in a non-personal God.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


In a paper (Visions for all) published in its April 7th 2012 issue, Science News summarizes the work of Tanya Luhrmann about the God experiences that many people claim to have felt. After four years of research, the anthropologist believes that she has proved the surprising conclusion that normal people can have hallucinations. But since hallucinations are common in diseases like schizophrenia and psychosis, she predicts that people who have many of these experiences are likely to end up psychotic. In particular, the article says, it is possible that Joan of Arc would have become psychotic if the British had not burned her.

This argumentation has a hidden premise. If we make it explicit, the associated reasoning can be summarized as follows:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The precariousness of scientific theories

It is better to keep a certain skepticism about scientific theories,. Not only because these theories are always simple approximations tuned by further advances, as in the case of Newtonian gravitation and Einstein’s general relativity, quoted in a previous article. It may also be the case that a scientific theory, after decades, centuries or even millennia of total domination, turns out to be simply wrong. This has happened many times in all the sciences, as will be seen with a sample of a few selected cases.
·         In astronomy, Aristotle’s theory of quintessence, arguing that the heavenly bodies are not made of the same stuff as the Earth, was the standard theory for nearly two thousand years.
·         In mathematics, the problem of squaring the circle with ruler and compass wasted efforts for centuries until it was shown to have no solution. Although amateurs keep trying, at least professionals no longer have to waste their time with the alleged demonstration they regularly receive.
·         In chemistry, the phlogiston theory, which dominated for nearly a century, tried to solve the problem of combustion assuming that a burning body loses a part of its substance (the mysterious phlogiston). The real process turned out to be precisely the opposite. Rather than losing phlogiston, burning bodies absorb oxygen, as Lavoisier showed in the late eighteenth century.
·         In physics, for almost half a century in the late nineteenth century, no one doubted the existence of the ether, a mysterious substance with strange properties, which should provide support for the movement of electromagnetic waves. In the early twentieth century it was concluded that the ether does not exist.