Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Let's talk about paradigm shifts.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember an occasional feature known as the Insanity Parade. I think the last edition, way back in the day, focused on a popular little movie. I have mostly stopped doing Insanity Parade episodes not because they weren't fun, but because I'm lazy.

Nevertheless my old Insanity Parades still net the occasional comment and we're going to discuss one of those comments today, as well as what it means. In a previous edition I wrote about a man named Greg Buell and his brilliant new invention: the electric windmill car. For those who haven't run into this before, the idea behind the electric windmill car is simple. It is an electric car that is festooned with windmills, each of which drives an electric generator. As the car drives forward the motion of the car creates airflow. The airflow drives the windmills which recharge the car's batteries and- voila- the car never needs to recharge. It can drive forever on its initial electric charge, thereby saving the environment.

That's Greg's idea, anyway. The unfortunate truth is that the electric windmill car is nothing more or less than a perpetual motion machine. These are, of course, impossible since friction will unavoidably waste some amount of the energy in a system and, given the law of Conservation of Energy, you must refuel it somehow with energy coming from outside the system. In the case of the electric windmill car, the wind resistance introduced by the windmills would force the electric motor to work harder to move the car and, as a consequence, the amount of juice returned to the batteries would be far less than the amount expended. See my original post for more. In short, then, Greg's idea is essentially impossible. Okay, not impossible- you could certainly engineer the car he envisions- it would just not work as he claims it would.

Yet, this has not stopped the occasional denizen of the interwebs from dropping by to tell me to quit raining on Greg's parade. The most recent such individual is named "Thomas Fox" and runs the blog with the catchy title, "Natural Depression Treatment Research." In any case, he has this to say about my thoughts on Greg:

in defense of those that you refer to as crazy or nuts, I would like to say that Mr. Buell is better off than you are, mentally speaking. What is wrong with the idea of a windmill driven car? Or, what is wrong with you? Are you stupid or something? It is a great idea. And so what, the law of physics may be in conflict... at least at this time. A suggestion to your self-imposing arrogance: Read The Philosophy of Science by Alex Rosenberg. Science is not at all without variables. I would suggest that you think a little out of the box, but then again, that suggestion won't work with you. What may not be possible today may be possible tomorrow.
Best Wishes
Thomas Fox


Like anyone else, I truly love engaging in debates with folks whose command of the English language rivals that of Lithuanian circus performers, so I find it needful to respond to this. First, allow me to answer the direct questions.

Question: What is wrong with the idea of a windmill driven car?

Answer: So long as the windmills are not strapped onto aforementioned car, absolutely nothing. As Mr. Buell envisions it, however, such a car would be an enormous waste of energy.

Question: What is wrong with you?

Answer: Many, many things. Still, I don't think my numerous genetic abnormalities are relevant here. Along similar lines, ad hominem really can't defeat simple physics.

Question: Are you stupid or something?

Answer: "Something." Definitely, "something."

With that out of the way, let's turn to the more interesting part of Mr. Fox's remarks. Specifically this:

And so what, the law of physics may be in conflict... at least at this time. A suggestion to your self-imposing arrogance: Read The Philosophy of Science by Alex Rosenberg. Science is not at all without variables. I would suggest that you think a little out of the box, but then again, that suggestion won't work with you. What may not be possible today may be possible tomorrow. [emphasis added]


Okay, now here's the thing: Fox is invoking the idea that, from time to time, science radically alters its understanding of the world. This is true and has been referred to by Thomas Kuhn as a paradigm shift. The idea* is that observations are typically interpreted in light of a prevailing understanding of how the world works. As time goes by, however, observations that don't fit this understanding accumulate until, eventually, our understandings are forced to undergo a radical change. This change is a paradigm shift. So, we went along happy as clams for quite a while with Newtonian physics only to have them supplanted by relativistic physics. This was, in essence, a paradigm shift.

Now, Fox is right that from time to time science goes all wonky as we work out a new paradigm but unfortunately he's committing a common mistake: he's assuming that a paradigm shift somehow overrules everything that came before. The truth is that while paradigm shifts can be very dramatic, they are in many ways highly constrained. What do I mean by that? Well, simply this: any new theory that intends to supplant a predecessor must account not only for what the current theory includes, but also additional material. Put another way, it must explain all the observations the current theory explains as well as some number of additional observations that are, at present, unexplained. Critically, this means that the earlier paradigm wasn't so much "totally wrong" as it was "only partly right." In the earlier example of Newtonian and relativistic physics, the problem is that while Newtonian physics are a very good approximation of reality for our day-to-day lives, they are inadequate to deal with high energies, high speeds, and great distances. As such, the shift from one to the other didn't cause us to chuck Newton overboard, it just caused us to understand his limitations.

In principle, this is similar to watching a crime drama like CSI on television. Initially, the police find a few pieces of evidence and build a theory about what has happened. Perhaps initially they find a person dead in their bathtub at home. There's a suicide note and the door is locked. The theory is that the death was a suicide. Then, they discover signs of struggle- bruises on the wrists from a wrestling match. Perhaps fingerprints that do not belong to the victim or their family. A new theory emerges: murder. Yet, there are problems: the room was locked. How did the murderer leave? However this conundrum is resolved, the final solution will have to account for all of the observed facts- it won't ignore that the victim died of drowning, nor that the room was locked, but instead must cover everything. As such, even when crime "paradigms" change, the data that fed into one will continue on as data utilized by the next. Likewise, when scientific paradigms change the observations that supported the predecessor will have to be accomodated by the successor.

What does this have to do with Thomas Fox? Simply this: it is reasonable to wonder what modern science will produce but whatever it is, it will not somehow negate highly reliable laws we know today. There may well be a way to circumvent the law of conservation of energy** but "circumvent" doesn't mean "ignore." Besides which, Buell didn't propose a way to circumvent that law, he simply ignored its existence in the first place. And, for better or for worse, it's quite irrelevant whether you believe in the laws of physics because they will do their thing regardless.

Change occurs and paradigms shift but expecting those shifts to alter the very bedrock of reality... well... that's just a shade childish.


* Please keep in mind that this is, at best, a thumbnail sketch of the idea.

** Sure. Right. And maybe I'll be elected President of the World.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll vote for you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 3:37:00 AM  

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