Science Corner: The Speed of Knowledge

taste bud photo

If I showed you a picture of the incorrect taste map, I’d probably just reinforce your memory of the wrong idea. (Photo by Eric Herot )

Physics tells us that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. And because someone always brings it up, yes, that includes quantum entanglement, which makes it possible for a measurement on one particle to instantaneously have an effect on an entangled particle no matter how far apart they are, but which cannot actually transmit a message without additional elements bound by light speed. These days we can push information transfer right up to that limit, but knowledge seems to take quite a bit longer. Ideas are sticky; we hold onto them even in the face of revisions or contradictions. So once an idea does spread, it can take a long time to update it. For example, we’ve had 400 years to spread the story of Galileo and the Catholic Church. So when the Vatican recently had a cosmology conference in honor of George Lemaitre, Galileo was the only reference point some could muster for how the church handles science.

Take for example the coverage on Slashdot. Granted, Slashdot is a news aggregator providing user-submitted summaries, but it is popular in science and tech communities and its choice of stories to cover and links to refer to creates an editorial voice. So when they start their coverage with the 2014 quote from Pope Francis about God not being a magician and imply that was the first time the Catholic church acknowledged Big Bang cosmology or evolutionary biology, and then go on to link to a story with the headline “Pope Francis invites scientists to the Vatican after Catholic Church realises the Big Bang is real,” they reinforce an uninformed historical understanding. Even more disappointing, all the facts are readily available and even appear in the linked stories, albeit towards the bottom. Yes, we acknowledge that the Big Bang theory is hardly news to the pope or the Vatican, not least because Lemaitre, a Jesuit priest, first proposed its core ideas. And yes, the Catholic church’s official position on evolutionary biology is not one of opposition. But we know Christians and other religious believers have idiosyncratic ideas about science, and that idea is hard to unstick.

Of course, public perception of religion’s relationship to science is of particular interest to me, but there are plenty of things we know that are contradicted by facts which are widely accessible and have been for decades. One of my favorites is the taste map, a diagram of the tongue which locates different tastes in different zones, such as sweet on the tip. I still remember experimenting with this concept by letting my communion bread sit on the tip of my tongue until salivary amylase broke down the complex carbohydrates into simple sugars that would register as sweet to my taste buds. In reality, sweet taste buds are all over your tongue, as are the other flavors of taste bud. Not to mention that the map leaves out umami. So why are we all taught something else?

The slow pace of spreading knowledge could be discouraging, but I choose to use it as a motivation. I write these blog posts every week even when I feel like I’ve said everything that needs to be said to remind myself that just because something was written once doesn’t mean everyone has read it. And just because someone has read something once doesn’t mean it was clear or memorable. So as long as there are folks who still think religious believers are all allergic to modern science, I’ll keep plugging away.

What are your favorite misconceptions about your field? What is your approach to addressing them, if you do? How do you handle situations where even the textbooks are out of date?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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