Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On Strangeness: Extraordinary Claims and Evidence

Carl Sagan popularized the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." A good rule of thumb, and one which the scientific community generally adheres to. The extraordinariness of a claim has something to do with its strangeness (which is, of course, a subjective matter). Thus the strange, counter intuitive theory of Quantum Mechanics was developed only when faced with mounting, extraordinary (laboratory) evidence. Or take Hubble's strange notion that the universe must be expanding in every direction.

But not all strange theories and propositions arise from new ground breaking observations. Special Relativity, for example, which theorized a revolutionary relationship between hitherto independents, space and time, was arguably grounded in puzzling laboratory evidence from some 20 years before it (the Michelson-Morley experiment). In fact, neither Special- nor General Relativity is anchored on much "evidence". No, both these theories are actually extraordinary intellectual achievements anchored on but 2 propositions (the constancy of the speed of light, and the equivalence principle). Einstein conceived them both from thought experiments he had entertained since childhood. There was hardly any "extraordinary" evidence involved. Yet, his theoretical conclusions, strange as they were, were still acceptable (even welcome!) when first presented because, well.. physicists just love this sort of thing, the unyielding grind of (mathematical) logic leading to the delight of the unexpected: a new view of the old landscape, holes patched, loose ends tied, summoning (experimentally) verifiable predictions.

Curiosity Craves Strangeness

We covet the rule breaker, the extraordinary, the unconventional, the strange. Both experimentalist and theoretician seek strangeness. That's what keeps the game interesting. We absorb the strange, interpret it, and un-strange it. The theoretician's dream is to hold up a problem (a strangeness) and show if you see it from the angle they propose, it all looks simpler or makes better sense. If the angle itself is strange, then all the more fun with the insights the new vantage offers.

But there are limits to strangeness a consensus can tolerate. In all cases, a claim's introduction bumps into these limits when it broaches a reflection of ourselves. Over the years, the centuries, the scientific method has surely pushed back these limits. If we're aware of our anthropocentric blind spot (we have a name for it), the limits still remain. For though we know its nature, we don't know exactly where it lies.

The delightful tolerance for outlandish postulates and ideas in physics and cosmology is hard not to notice. There you can talk of multiverses, wormholes, even time travel--and still keep your job. Hell, you can even postulate alien megastructures engulfing a star on much less evidence and still be taken semi-seriously.

And you notice that SETI too is serious (experimental) science. Here we know not what strange we should look for, but we're fairly certain that it should be very, very far away. I find that certainty strange, and stranger still, that it's not properly tested. But even admitting it in some circles is akin to offering oneself for admittance to the asylum. So I don't. Or haven't much. (More on this topic in a subsequent post.)

Now I'll admit I have a taste for the crazy. I love nothing more than a chain of plausible arguments, thought experiments, leading one down a rabbit hole they didn't expect to find themselves in. But it's a taste for the crazy strange, not the crazy crazy.