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Friday 3 August 2012

The line between knowledge and theory

There's a hexagon on Saturn's North Pole, and we don't know why.

The northern lights make sounds, and we don't know how.

Ebola is deadly and wildly contagious, but between outbreaks it must be hiding somewhere, and we don't know where.

Something in the middle of our galaxy is emitting a whole bunch of gamma rays, and we don't know what.

There are places around the world where we know there are likely to be big earthquakes, but we don't know when.

Someone may answer each of these questions one day, but right now we don't know who. It may be someone working in the field today, or it might be someone who is just starting school. It's only by making people aware of the questions that remain unanswered that we are inspired to push back these boundaries.

These are all puzzles I've been writing about this week, and for each of them I did the majority of my research online. When looking into the background for each of puzzles, and indeed for all of the research I have done over the course of my internship I have been astounded by the way in which the slightest tentative advances in our understanding are reported as though they are definitive solutions to monumental problems. This is a bias Ed warned me about when I started work at Things We Don't Know but it represents a huge problem with the way in which we are taught about science.

There exists a common misconception that our education in science is all about learning how things work, a series of facts that explain the world around us. What is not conveyed effectively (outside of universities), and I speak from my own experience here, is that science is about building a framework through which we can learn. There are vast numbers of questions which science has not answered yet, but for each of these questions there are often multiple competing theories. If one of these theories, even a leading one, is presented as fact, it suggests a much lower standard of proof than good science actually employs, and often, it's far more interesting to read what it's limitations are too.

One of the greatest things we can teach is that it is ok to have an idea which turns out to be wrong. Research done which disproves one theory often points us in the direction of another; the important thing here is honesty. Some recent furore within the world of science communication has focussed on the failure of a particular writer to retract, or even acknowledge, fundamental inaccuracies in some of his published work. The upshot of which is that science communication ought to be held accountable in the same way that scientific publications are. This is why I have been checking my research with academics throughout my eight weeks working for TWDK. It is also why web-based platforms such as Things We Don't Know are ideal for science communication. Allowing for the easy correction and updating of information.

I have hugely enjoyed my spell working on the website (you can read the previous posts from my internship), and as I said last week, aim to continue to contribute on a voluntary basis. I hope that those of you reading this that have a background in science will take the time to add your favourite mystery to the mix too. Email for more information on how to contribute. For those whose training lies elsewhere, I hope that this piece will lead you to question not only scientific developments, but also those in your own field. Consider for a minute what it takes for you to believe that something is true. Do you simply take the word of someone who “knows better about these things”? Or do you take the time to try things for yourself? As Bertrand Russell once wrote:
“In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

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