Sometimes, It’s the “Deniers” Who Are Right!

Nobel Laureate Dr. Daniel Shechtman
(click for credit)

Nearly six years ago, I wrote about Dr. Daniel Shechtman. He had recently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and I wanted to highlight him because had the term been popular in his day, he would have been called a chemistry denier. His own research demonstrated the existence of quasicrystals, despite the fact that the science of the day said (quite conclusively) that they couldn’t possibly exist. He faced a lot of opposition from his fellow scientists, even though all he was doing was following the data.

Although the term “denier” wasn’t fashionable at the time, two-time Nobel Laureate Dr. Linus Pauling famously said:

There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.

Despite the fact that the head of his own research group asked him to leave because of “bringing disgrace” to the team, Dr. Shechtman persevered, and he was eventually vindicated. Even though science conclusively said that quasicrystals don’t exist, Dr. Schechtman showed that they did.

I recently learned from one of my chemistry colleagues that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote an article about Dr. Schechtman’s story. It is called Crystals of Golden Proportion, and if you have any interest in chemistry, you might find it worth the read. I certainly did.

The article discusses the ridicule Dr. Schechtman received from his fellow scientists, and then it makes this statement:

Dan Shechtman’s story is by no means unique. Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions…Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character trait.

I have said the same things many times. Unfortunately, this obvious truth is lost on most people, including most scientists. If a scientist dares to question established truth, he or she is immediately labeled a “denier.” If you point out the uncertainty in our understanding of global climate, you are a “climate change denier.” If you question the “accepted” age of the earth, or flagellate-to-philosopher evolution, you are a “science denier.” As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences admits, however, the “deniers” are right in many cases, and established scientific “truths” are sometimes just incorrect assumptions.

Science would be better served if more people (including more scientists) understood this.

13 Comments

  1. Francesco says:

    Dr. Wile,
    When I was younger, I always underestimated the psychological pain caused by ostracism and ridicule. Not fun at all to go through that.

    As a scientist who minored in philosophy, you may be uniquely suited to tackle a question about causation in philosophy and science.

    Does the Aristotelian concept of cause and effect still make sense today? I’ve read scientists that scoff at this concept because they understand cause and effect as interactive processes, and the assignment of cause to one thing and effect to another as arbitrary; in other words, they see reality as a complex, interactive system of mutual causation, and thus refuse the Aristotelian hierarchy that pushes back to a divine first cause (the Unmoved Mover).

    They also refuse the concepts of essential series vs accidental series, stating that every series is accidental.

    How do you see the issue and also the deterministic view of today’s science in its denial of real free will for both God and man? If the Aristotelian view of causation is wrong, and time is a dimension of our universe, how could God think outside of time, if the process of thinking is understood to be a sequence of thoughts in time?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I am not sure I understand all of the aspects of your question, Fransesco. I would say that cause and effect are still relevant in science, but like many aspects of science, it isn’t exactly black and white. Relativity, for example, allows cause to precede effect in some reference frames. Nevertheless, the concept is still relevant. In addition, “cause” is sometimes hard to determine. For example, we know the virtual photons can spontaneously arise in empty space. The Casimir effect demonstrates this. In this case, what is the “cause” of these virtual photons? Some would say there is no cause. I would say that the “cause” is the underlying principles of quantum mechanics.

      There are certainly two camps when it comes to determinism. Some say that the physical laws make everything deterministic. Others say that the Newtonian universe is definitely deterministic, but we don’t live in a Newtonian universe. Instead, we live in a universe whose basic foundation is quantum mechanics. Since quantum mechanics can only address probabilities and not definitive outcomes, then there is no way the universe can be deterministic. I personally am more of a Cartesian dualist, so I say that every person has a spiritual nature that determines his or her conscious choices. As a result, there is free will, because will is part of the spiritual realm, not the physical realm.

      1. Francesco says:

        Thank you. How would you best defend Cartesian dualism to a materialist scientist or philosopher like Owen Flanagan, author of The Problem of the Soul?

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Obviously, a materialist is not going to agree with Cartesian dualism. However, I would probably argue using mathematics. Mathematical symbols represent something. Are the things they represent real? I don’t see how you could argue they aren’t real. Nevertheless, they are not material in any way. Thus, I would say that there are some real things that aren’t material, which is the basis of Cartesian dualism.

  2. Charles Rhett says:

    It is funny how often I come across those that blame religion as suppressing inquiry and discovery. Great story and I look forward to reading more about Dr. Daniel. In college, I always like Barbara McClintock’s story.

    The ridicule is what is ridiculous and ironic coming from these people that “know the truth” and are proven wrong later by someone who denied the scientific norm, took the abuse, and pushed on. However, it is sad to think of all the times the community beliefs won and ousted a great scientist who decided to retire to the mountains and fly fish.

  3. cjl says:

    Dr. Jay
    Keep up the good work! You’re blog is a blessing!

  4. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    I watched an interview of his on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZRTzOMHQ4s

    He was asked what life lesson he learned from his experience, and his reply was “If you’re a scientist and you believe in your results, then fight for them. Fight for what you believe in.”

    I wonder if Dr. Shechtman himself will ever realize the value of young earth creationism…

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I had not seen that. Thanks for posting it!

  5. Francesco says:

    Hi Dr. Wile,
    I came across this article on Wired about matter and energy being reducible to information, or “it from bit,” with its theological implications.
    https://www.wired.com/2002/12/holytech/

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      It took me a while to have the time to read the article, Francesco. I would say that this is putting way too much emphasis on the importance of information. Information is a way of ordering matter. I don’t think it’s a property of matter itself. If I have a chunk of coal, I would say there is very little information in it. The arrangement of the carbon atoms and the impurities in the crystal might be used to CODE some information, but there is little (if any) inherent information in the chuck of coal. However, if I use the coal to write on a piece of paper, I am now arranging that matter to produce information.

      I read Tipler’s book quite some time ago, and in my opinion, he misuses quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics applies to the atomic world. It’s concepts are very micro. When you try to apply it to the macroscopic world, you get into some serious problems. Most likely, this is caused by the fact that quantum mechanics is incomplete. As we learn more, we might figure out how to apply it to the macroscopic world, but right now, we really can’t.

      1. Francesco says:

        Thank you. That’s very insightful.

        In our view, which between energy, matter, and information is fundamental, and how do they relate to the Creator?

        In other words, which came first? Did God us information (laws of nature) to create energy and matter, which are again interrelated through laws (E=MC^2)? Or is energy eternal (laws of thermodynamics) and God applied information to order energy and matter?

        Thank you.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I am not sure I can answer that question. We know the knowledge came first, because God is all-knowing. I suppose that assumes the existence of information, but perhaps God has a way of knowing things that isn’t dependent on information. I have no idea how God created or what came first.

  6. g says:

    i get interested in the creation-evolution debate for years and i have some interesting points about the topic

    what if we will see a self replicating robot ( lets say even with dna)on a far planet?. do we need to conclude design or a natural process in this case? remember that according to evolution if its made from organic components and have a self replicating system we need to conclude a natural process. but we know that evne a self replicating robot is evidence for design. so the burdon of proof is on the evolution side in this case

    evolutionists claiming that small steps in milions of years will create a big steps. but according to this a lots of small steps in self replicat car (with dna) will change into an airplan.

    but there is no step wise from car into an airplane. so its impossible actually to change one kind into another.

    evolutionist claim that common similarity is evidence for common descent. but according to this if we will see 2 similar (self replicating or not) cars we will need to conclude that they evolved from each other and not made by a designer. but we know that this similarity is evidence for a shared designer and not a shared descent

    about order in fossils record- we can make order in cars. for exmaple: a car–> a jeep–> a truck. but its not prove that they evolve from each ohter, even if they were self replicating.