Known Unknowns

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Well, this post is a bit of a stretch, I know, but all I can say is that there is a direct and negative relationship between the amount of work I have and the quality of my posting. Still and all, I think this article at New Scientist is interesting enough to point to: "13 Things That Do Not Make Sense."

Of particular fascination to me was the last one, on the question of cold fusion:

AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

Also fascinating, though, are the questions that remain not just "out there", but about the basic functions of the human body:

In her most recent paper, [MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast] describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

My point? Well, mostly that I find this stuff amazing. But also to point out that, amid all the talk about the effects of economics becoming a field that looks more and more like applied math, that even those truly "hard" sciences are still facing plenty of issues for which they simply do not have a good answer, despite libraries full of incredibly hard formulas and institutes full of million dollar experiments. The lack of a perfect answer, I tend to think, isn't indictment of a method. But surely there is room for more than one. At least, that's my hope as I spend my evenings trying to catch up to, well, what feels like most 8th graders in the hopes of soon moving into more rigorous economic study...

2 Comments

You have stumbeled upon the "tyrrany of science".

Just because something is not provable by the strict scientific method does not mean that it is not true. We can still learn valuable information outside of the scientific method (i.e. experiments of the kind that, say, proved the homeopathic effect of histamine).

On the flip side, just because something is proven in economics with math does not mean that it is true. There are many assumptions made in order to boil down economic phenomenon into mathematical formulas. These assumptions may or may not be true.

Engineers design and build things all the time without understanding the scientific basis for some of the phenomenon that they exploit. For example, there are many metalurgical things going on in steel alloys that aren't fully understood on the molecular level, but we use those steel alloys nonetheless. A lot of the math in engineering is similar to economics in that there are a lot of simplifying assumptions. It's a gross simplification of reality, but it works. Building stand up to huricanes and earthquakes, for example, even though the simplified math was used to model the buildings structure.

Does anyone know the experimental method used by Ms. MADELEINE Ennis? In particular, did she use a double blind with a control?

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This page contains a single entry by published on March 17, 2005 11:43 AM.

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