the advance of scientific knowledge is a process largely characterized by slow, incremental improvements punctuated with bursts of innovation and insight. in many cases, these spikes of activity are paradigm shifts catalyzed by the explanation of nagging exceptional phenomena that don’t fit within the extant framework of understanding, or with the abject failures of existing theories (e.g., the ultraviolet catastrophe).
explaining exceptional phenomena is an important part of scientific progress, and provides insight into the scientific method itself. this process can also lead to apophenia when it comes to resolving other open questions (i.e., people attempt to establish relationships between things when there are none).
john harris has written an illuminating analysis of these ‘unprecedented phenomena‘ and their relationship to scientific progress, using the Oklo fossil reactor as an example.
while i think he’s hit the nail pretty squarely on the head, there are a few things i’d like to add…
unprecedented, or unexplained?
it is a semantic distinction, to be sure, but i wonder whether the term ‘unprecedented’ is the right one…for example, when eric cornell and his team at NIST created the first Bose-Einstein condensate, their creation was surely unprecedented, yet it could be explained perfectly well (assuming one was conversant with this particular branch of statistical physics and quantum mechanics). crop circles, on the other hand, are unexplained, and yet are certainly not without precedent.
my point is that whether or not something has occurred in the past, or whether it occurs again in the future, has no bearing on whether it can be understood within the framework of scientific knowledge. for this reason, i think it is ‘unexplained’ phenomena that often lead to the paradigm shifts to which john refers.
unexplained phenomena and the scientific method
by an odd coincidence, an article was written about unexplained phenomena and the scientific method in the most recent Wired magazine. the article is a fascinating (if abbreviated) account of the quest to unravel the Voynich manuscript, a mysterious document that has perplexed cryptographers and linguists for centuries.
the Wired article describes the efforts of Gordon Rugg, a British computer scientist and psychologist, who has been looking at how scientists come to an understanding of things (or fail to, as the case may be). dr. rugg has devised ‘the verifier approach,’ a method of approaching scientific problems that have evaded solution despite intense efforts. he used the Voynich manuscript as a test case for his ‘enchanced’ scientific method, and came to a very interesting conclusion: the manuscript is a hoax (ha!).
scientists often talk of ‘solution spaces’ (where one can find the solution to problems), and while ‘hoax’ was certainly within the solution space for the Voynich manuscript, it’s not a solution that appears to have been pursued in any depth (after all, where’s the fun in a hoax?). indeed, it appears that a thriving community of Voynichologists have been avidly chasing various theories for years. rugg’s verifier method appears to have pulled the rug out, so to speak.
the implications are….huge? insignificant? unknowable? perhaps large, unexpained problems in science will yield to dr. rugg’s verifier approach. the unfortunate thing is, with many of these problems, there is no way to empirically verify the correctness of the proposed solution. in other words, you could do an analysis of all the scientific literature and come to a conclusion about the origin of life and the universe, but there would be no way to verify your assertion(s).
some things are just better left as mysteries, i suppose.
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