Ars Technica has a very good article on the role of placeholders in science:
The comments appear like clockwork every time there’s a discussion of the Universe’s dark side, for both dark matter and dark energy. At least some readers seem positively incensed by the idea that scientists can happily accept the existence of a particle (or particles) that have never been observed and a mysterious repulsive force. “They’re just there to make the equations work!” goes a typical complaint.
It’s a somewhat odd complaint. Physics has a long history of particles that were predicted based on the math and not detected for years, sometimes decades. But it’s not simply physics. Other areas of science have produced evidence that suggests something must be present, but haven’t hinted as to what that something must be. These situations, where scientists insert a placeholder for a something they don’t understand yet, have sometimes led scientists down the wrong path—phlogiston and aether spring to mind.
But these erroneous placeholders carry the seeds of their own destruction, since they make predictions that the natural world can’t fulfill. And, possibly more often, the placeholders turn out to be right, and an understanding of the phenomena behind them revolutionizes our knowledge of the natural world. In this feature, we’ll take a look at some of the most successful placeholders in the history of science, and then consider how even a placeholder that has gone wrong can help advance a field anyway.
Worth a read to understand that the use of placeholders is how we make progress in science.
Lemley gives example after example of this trend. Broadcasters opposed those rogue cable operators when they first appeared; now they demand carriage. The VCR, opposed as a “Boston strangler” of the movie industry, became a huge cash cow, one milked for decades by that same industry. Radio’s free broadcasts would destroy recorded gramophone music; except that the radio actually became one of recorded music’s most important publicity machines.
Lemley isn’t trying to sell anyone false comfort. Things might not be all right for many established businesses. But creativity carries on.
The content industry “has a Chicken Little problem,” he says. “It may, in fact, be the case that the sky is falling. But, if you claim that the sky is falling whenever a new technology threatens an existing business model, the rest of the world can be forgiven for not believeing you when you claim that this time around it’s going to be different than all of the other times. Now, let’s be clear, each one of these technologies changed the business model of the industry. They caused certain revenue streams to decline. But they also opened up new ones.”
The whole Ars article is great, and it plays into my personal Munroe rule, which is any presentation of that includes an xkcd comic is a winner.
From Ars Technica:
White Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that kills bats by interfering with their hibernation cycle, was first spotted in a cave in New York in 2006. In just four years, it has spread over 1,200 km through the US and Canada, reaching from Quebec to Missouri, and killing off as many as 90 percent of the bats in infected areas. Those precipitous declines would seem to be unsustainable, and a new study in Science indicates that they are indeed: even in many scenarios where the virulence of the disease tails off, a common species of bat appears headed for regional extinction, perhaps in as little as 15 years.
This has even managed to get a decent amount of mainstream reporting over the last 2 years. The focus has been on the little brown bat, because we’ve got population numbers going back 30 years, so you can chart trends. Other species of bat also appear to be affected, though there isn’t enough historical data to show exactly what’s happening there.
White Nose Syndrome is not really understood, so it’s still not clear what is actually killing off the bats.
I finally have the answer as to whether I would pay for news on the web, and the answer is yes. Last night after reading the 5th zero content vapid gadget news story that was front page content on wired.com, I realized how much I really appreciate the quality bar that’s been set over at Ars Technica.
While most web outlets seem to be degrading in the content they put out there, Ars seems to just be getting better. They have some quite in depth writing on most of the science and tech space, and aren’t afraid to dive deep into subjects with original research, not just falling back on the lazy opinion model that most others have. I also realized that while not having wired around would mean nothing to me, loosing Ars would be something I’d actually really miss.
Ars’s pay model is simple. If you by a premier account ($50 / year, so roughly magazine cost), you stop being presented with ads on their site, you get access to stories slightly ahead of the public site, and you get personalized rss feeds which provide full stories (their free rss gives you just the first 2 or 3 paragraphs). There are some other benefits, but the full rss and just knowing I’m helping to keep Ars around is what I care about.
That second point is key. If the news industry wants people to actually pay for things, they need to stop racing to the bottom on cost, and start racing to the top on quality.
News reports of the failed attempt to contain the oil-spewing equipment on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico have referred obliquely to things like “ice crystals” or an “icy slush” clogging the hardware that was intended to cap the leak. Anyone who is paying attention would recognize that there’s a bit of a problem here, in that, even at the temperatures and pressures of the ocean at the site, the water there is very much in its liquid phase, as are the hydrocarbons that are spewing through the leak. The methane that caused the original explosion remains gaseous down to -161°C. The “ice” that’s forming is actually a solidified mixture of methane and water called a clathrate. Clathrates have also been in the news because of a potential role in climate change, so it seems like an opportune time to explain what they are.
Ars Technica goes on to explain the chemistry of these Clathrates, and how they can exist at the bottom of the ocean.
And, on the subject of the oil breach, it’s a damn shame that it’s going to take the destruction of most of the marine industries in the Gulf, and large parts of the ecosystem, for people to realize off shore drilling, in both safety and trade offs, is a more complicated issue then “drill, baby, drill.”
Sometimes, even as a person pisses you off, they make a point that you can’t ignore. In a recent forum discussion that I was involved in, scientists were accused of making pronouncements from on high. The argument was that scientists jump to a conclusion that seems desirable to them, and then treat it as an infallible truth.
Of course, my initial reaction was to pronounce that I, as a practicing scientist, never make pronouncements. But, looking at my articles from the perspective of someone who really knows absolutely nothing about science—as a practice or as a body of knowledge—I can see how one could see little beyond a list of assertions. The truth is more complicated, of course, but it’s a truth that science writers find challenging to convey. Science is impossibly broad, and the leading edge sits, precariously balanced, on a huge, solid, and above all, old body of knowledge. To illustrate this problem, I am going to tell you the story about how the speed of light came to be the ultimate speed limit for the entire universe.
Thus begins Ars’s latest article on Science, and how something becomes a scientific fact. This meshes quite nicely with my blog post from last week.
Ars Technica does an incredible job providing a climate change primer
trying to get back to some basics. After the sensationalism around the
leaked CRU emails the last couple of weeks, it’s nice to have a piece
that explains some basic facts of what we know and how we know it, in a
very digestible form.
Update: I had the wrong link in my copy buffer, fixed now.