While 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.
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.