A Little Bit of Knowledge

16 Jul

ist2_5576987-old-microphone-isolatedWhile I was in the garden today I was listening to This American Life episode: 293. The gist of the episode was to uncover the occasions where having just a bit of knowledge was enough to get people in trouble. The first act consisted of Nancy Updike reflecting on things that she and others grew up ‘knowing.’ Things that parents or other figures of authority told them when they were small. Things that were just plain wrong. Yet, these ideas crystalized and remained somehow fixed in their minds even as they grew up to be old enough to know better.

One example was believing that unicorns were real. “Are they endangered or already extinct?” Like many of the anecdotes in this segment, the question was followed by stunned silence by all listeners.

Another take on the pitfalls of having just enough rope to hang yourself came from a story about an electrician, Bob Berenz. During the course of doing some background study in physics to help in realizing a dream of building a superconductor,” he happened upon the biggest idea of his life: A revelation about physics that would disprove Einstein, and Newton.”

Pursuing his new idea that all of modern physics was wrong, Bob has hit roadblock after roadblock, leaving him to with the conclusion that physics in such a closed community that no one else’s ideas are ever given a chance. To help resolve this, the producer of this story, Robert Powell, takes Bob to meet a physics professor and hash out his ideas. 

At this point, something happened that made me sad. This was a perfect moment for the professor, Dr. Brandt Watson, to embrace the teachable moment with Bob, but either he did not – or this was edited out of the story as I heard it. What I wanted to hear was not an argument about the math or confusion of terms (although these are obviously very important), but that the only way we know something (as well as we ever can) is to do experiments designed to falsify our thesis.

From the 1925 Boy Scientist, an illustration of how gravity bends light, in accordance with Einstein's theory

From the 1925 Boy Scientist, an illustration of how gravity bends light, in accordance with Einstein’s theory

I can only assume that Bob’s hypothesis made some sort of testable claim. Einstein, himself, struggled with this for many years before his ideas were put to a test to determine whether massive objects could bend light. The best way to test something – even a poor hypothesis – is to determine what it predicts in key situations and then see if the predictions are accurate.

Alas, poor Bob left Dr. Watson’s office unmoved by Watson’s criticisms. 


Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “A Little Bit of Knowledge

  1. Bob Berenz

    July 22, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I am the “Bob Berenz” who was on NPR and I have found that the faith people have in physics is misplaced. When I first discovered something was amiss with the first lessons in physics, I was naïve in only one way; specifically, I thought that the physics community was on a search to find the true nature of the universe. I thought they would want to know something amazing but I was wrong. The physics community says, when everyone is watching, that they are open to new discoveries but my experiences have shown they are not. If you are not in the community and agree with the status quo, your work is always ignored. The physics community assumes that no new discoveries can be made unless you are part of a large group with great funding even though history is on the side of people like me.

    If you wish to judge me with what you know so far, that is your prerogative. However, if you want to know who really is misguided, I invite you to go my website and get my side of the story. The 15 minutes you heard on NPR was culled from 12 hours during which I asked a specific and key question at least 7 times; the physicist refused to answer it.

    If you know anything about “physics 101” (the real basic stuff), go to “” and check it out. Unlike every introductory physics course on the Planet, I DO NOT ASK for anything to be taken on faith; the evidence I present can be verified easily. If there is anything you don’t believe or know about, check it out; I have nothing to hide or fear.

    Bob Berenz

    • downhousesoftware

      July 22, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to direct me to your website. I just started looking at it, and being a biologist, not a physicist, it’s going to take me some time to go through the material and play with the equations a bit.
      The one thing that I said – or meant to – was that the best way to make headway in your argument is to find a situation where the two hypotheses predict different answers and then do the experiment. I expect you’ve thought about this a lot more than I have, can you think of a situation like that? (remember, I’m working my way through the website, so please forgive me if it’s in there and I haven’t gotten to it yet)

      I agree that it is very hard to get people to think outside of their established framework, but this is totally reasonable as it raises the bar for new hypotheses. In this way the new ideas bear the burden of proof, not because they are wrong, but because established ideas have a greater amount of experimental evidence behind them. I hope that after I look through your material (and review the classical physics experiments you describe) I will understand your claim well enough to get back to you about it.

      One last thing…
      I learned in graduate school (the hard way) that you should not identify yourself with your ideas. i.e. your idea can be right or wrong without meaning anything about you. Also, the best thing you can do is try to find situations that challenge your idea. Each time it succeeds, it may give you greater confidence in it. I would suggest that the next person you meet who tells you that your idea is wrong, ask them to show you why.

      All the best to you, Bob.


      • Bob Berenz

        July 22, 2014 at 7:40 pm

        Dear Jack,

        Thank you for being so civil. I also appreciate your advice regarding experimental evidence however, the theme of my website is that there is no COMPETENT evidence for the equation in question.

        If you go through my site and have questions, feel free to send me a note and I’ll try to help by sending you to someone else’s website (I do not require anyone to take MY word on anything). If you see anything wrong, I’m actually willing to re-examine it. Although the material I present is extremely simple, I hope that you will take time going through it to make sure you understand everything.

        For the record, when the NPR piece aired, I was not actually ready to publish anything; I was looking for help. My friend, Robert Powell, set me up (not in a bad way) to get interviewed. The NPR producer flew 1800 miles to meet me and then looked me in the eye and said that the airing would make me look good. I suspected she was lying and my suspicions were proven correct.



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