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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Mediocre Predictive Record of Mainstream Science

In the philosophy of science there is something called the miracle argument, which argues that the “predictive success of science” implies that scientific theories must mainly be true, or else this “predictive success” would be a miracle. But is it correct to claim that mainstream science has done very well at predicting discoveries about life, mind, and nature?

How good is the "crystal ball" of mainstream science?

Things Mainstream Scientists Failed to Predict

First, let us look at some important discoveries about life, mind, and nature that mainstream scientists failed to predict. One such thing is the fact that we live in an expanding universe that apparently began in a Big Bang billions of years ago. I have never heard of any materialist scientist who predicted any such thing prior to 1920. Scientists around 1900 preferred to believe in a universe that had existed forever, an idea that removes any problem about how to explain a universe's origin. Even until 1931, Einstein believed that the universe was static. And in 1931 a leading cosmologist named Arthur Eddington stated, “The notion of a beginning of the present order of nature is repugnant to me.”

Another important discovery about the universe is that its laws and fundamental constants seem to be very fine-tuned, having a long set of “coincidences” necessary for the existence of intelligent life. Slowly emerging between the years 1970 and 2000, this discovery was not predicted by any scientist that I am aware of.

Another cosmic discovery was a set of observations showing that ordinary matter and the laws of nature as we understand them are insufficient to account for the behavior of galaxies. This discovery was not anticipated or predicted by any scientist that I know of. Playing “catch up ball,” scientists tried to account for this discovery by introducing the idea of dark matter, and the claim that about 25% of the universe's matter is this mysterious unobserved type of matter. But nobody seems to have predicted dark matter beforehand, and dark matter makes no appearance at all in the standard model of physics. A recent scientific paper has stated the following:

Nothing in the pre-existing model (ca. 1970) pointed toward the need for dark matter or dark energy; the observations that motivated these hypotheses came as a complete surprise. Nor was the mass discrepancy—acceleration relation anticipated before it was established observationally.

Then in the 1990's there came the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. This came as a total surprise to cosmologists, none of which (to my knowledge) had predicted any such thing. To account for this fact, cosmologists came up with the idea that most of the universe's mass-energy was some mysterious thing called dark energy. Such a thing had not been previously predicted by cosmologists. The only relevant prediction that had been made was the prediction of quantum field theory that the vacuum of space should be filled with something like dark energy, but more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 denser than what we observe in our universe. So there was a prediction of “denser-than-steel dark energy everywhere,” something radically different from what we observe, but not any prediction of dark energy like we seem to have.

Scientists did a poor job of predicting that airplanes would be invented. The famous scientist Lord Kelvin said in 1895 that heavier than air machines were impossible. Eight years later the Wright Brothers made their first flight. But even after the Wright Brothers had made quite a few successful test flights of airplanes, Scientific American published a report trying to provoke skepticism about whether the Wright Brothers were really flying. Scientists also did a pretty poor job of predicting space flight. Some mainstream scientists ridiculed the idea that men would one day travel in space, and before World War II very few scientists predicted that manned space travel would happen. 

Years before Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting that nuclear bombs might be created, he stated in the early 1930's that there was “not the slightest indication” that nuclear power would be obtainable. At about the same time the leading nuclear scientist Rutherford said, "Anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine."

Turning to the mind and life, we find some important things that mainstream science failed to predict. During the past 50 years many astonishing cases have been discovered in which minds somehow keep on functioning well despite enormous brain damage. Such cases (sometimes described as cases of brain plasticity or brain resiliency) were not predicted by mainstream scientists. The phenomenon of near-death experiences was not predicted by any mainstream scientist before it was reported.

Exciting discoveries have been made in recent years about the epigenome, suggesting that in rare cases certain acquired characteristics can be inherited through what is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Far from predicting such a thing, mainstream scientists told us countless times in previous decades that the inheritance of acquired characteristics could never occur.

Things Mainstream Scientists Predicted That Didn't Happen

Now let's look at some things that mainstream scientists have long predicted, but which haven't come true.

It was predicted in the nineteenth century by scientists that innumerable transitional fossils would be discovered, showing the evolution of one species to another. The number of such fossils that have been discovered is a matter of debate, but it seems that there have been far fewer such fossils found than predicted – so few that it is often claimed that very few transitional fossils have been found. The same scientists predicted that we would find a tree of life showing a tree-like progression from the simplest forms to modern forms. But current attempts to map such a tree run into great difficulties, and the latest versions of attempts to create this “tree of life” show some weird shape that does not resemble a tree.

It was predicted by scientists that fruit fly experiments covering hundreds of generations would show evidence of a new species emerging, or at least evidence of some kind of evolutionary improvement. Despite all kinds of artificial help to increase the likelihood of something dramatic emerging, such experiments have not shown any new species emerging. One scientific study covered 600 fruit-fly generations, and reported nothing more dramatic than a 20% shorter gestation period, which isn't even an improvement. The study's abstract concludes by stating “unconditionally advantageous alleles rarely arise, are associated with small net fitness gains or cannot fix because selection coefficients change over time,” all of which is disappointing for someone hoping to find good evidence for Darwinian assumptions.

It was predicted repeatedly by biologists that most of human DNA would be found to be worthless “junk DNA.” But contrary to such a prediction, the ENCODE project found that at least 80% of human DNA has some functional purpose.

For decades astronomers made it sound as if radio communication with extraterrestrials would succeed by our time. In the 1960's and 1970's scientists such as Carl Sagan were making it sound as if we could expect that radio contact with extraterrestrials would occur within a few decades. It's now 2017, and no such radio contact has been made.

For at least 60 years, scientists have been speaking as if solving the problem of the origin of life was just around the corner. It's now 2017, and it now seems more difficult than ever to explain how life originated.

Mainstream physicists predicted that the Large Hadron Collider would produce evidence for the popular physics theory known as supersymmetry. But the results from the Large Hadron Collider have done no such thing. Mainstream physicists also predicted around 1980 that evidence for grand-unification theories (GUT theories) would be produced in a few decades. Such evidence has not turned up.

Mainstream scientists also repeatedly predicted that the Human Genome Project would produce a huge bonanza for medicine. As the project was going on in the 1990's, we were told countless times that the project would produce enormous progress in fighting diseases and cancer. Such a prediction followed from the reductionist assumption that DNA is not just one secret of life, but the secret of life, and that our biology can be almost entirely explained in terms of DNA. But such assumptions are wrong, and the predictions of a gigantic medical bonanza did not come true. The medical benefits from the Human Genome Project have been surprisingly slim.

Scientists predicted that the Human Genome Project would identify about 100,000 genes in the human genome. But the actual number of genes found was only about 20,000.

Another wrong prediction repeatedly made by mainstream scientists is the prediction that computers would become as smart as humans by about the year 2000 or 2020. Page 12 of the paper here gives a graph showing that 8 experts predicted that computers would have human level intelligence by about the year 2000, and that 8 other experts predicted that computers would have human level intelligence by the year 2020 (something incredibly unlikely to happen in the next few years).

These failed predictions are due to mistaken materialist assumptions about the mind-body relationship. If you mistakenly believe that the human mind is merely the product of chemistry and electricity, you may make absurdly overoptimistic claims that a mechanical system can reproduce something like human mentality. The paper cited above has an example of an absurdly wrong prediction made under such assumptions. A committee in 1956 predicted that 10 men working for 2 months could produce major progress in mechanically reproducing human mentality, something that the entire global community has made little progress on in the subsequent 70 years. Here was what the committee said:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

Conclusion

Mainstream science is good at making small-scope predictions, such as the prediction that a particular asteroid will pass a certain number of kilometers from Earth on a particular day, or the prediction that a certain biological or chemical reaction will occur if a person ingests a particular substance. Mainstream science is also fairly good at predicting future outcomes when there is a known trend such as global warming which can be simply extrapolated into the future. But when it comes to predicting what new discoveries about nature are down the road, it seems that mainstream science is not particularly good. The crystal ball of mainstream science seems very cloudy indeed.

In the philosophy of science there is something called the miracle argument, which argues that the “predictive success of science” implies that scientific theories must mainly be true, or else this “predictive success” would be a miracle. This argument is invalid, because the predictive success level of mainstream science isn't particularly good, and mainstream science has merely been mediocre in predicting novel phenomena.