Science Corner: What Even Is Real?!?

Photo of octopus

I mean, I get the impulse to conclude this is a space creature. (Photo by Morten Brekkevold )

For folks who believe in an objective reality that can be interrogated with science, these are interesting times. Laurel sounds like Yanny. Octopuses are maybe from space. Sea levels are rising, unless they aren’t, unless they are because of erosion. Some of us aren’t even sure anymore that the earth is a spheroid. All of this uncertainty and confusion can be a little unsettling–or at least that’s how I feel sometimes, and I imagine others might have a similar experience. Can science help here, even with our uncertainty about scientific questions?

One principle to apply here is to remember that correlation does not equal causation. In this case, what I mean is that even though all of these stories are correlated in time, they don’t necessarily have causal relationships or even share common causes. I suppose I have led you down a primrose path by throwing all these headlines at you, but I figured that’s what news and social media do and so it’s worth talking through how to process all that information. And one way to do that is to dive into the details and tackle each in turn rather than automatically fitting them into a wider narrative.

So, Laurel and Yanny. We’ve talked a little bit about how we process sounds into language previously. To summarize, we don’t actually hear words. Instead, we hear a continuous sequence of sounds that our brains/minds parse into distinct words. This is not a trivial task, as anyone who has implemented speech recognition for computers can tell you. Our mental processing likely involves nudging the answer towards known, expected words, and which words are expected depends on context. So there we have part of the answer; a single word is harder to identify without context. Another part of the answer lies in how audio is recorded, compressed, and played back over the Internet; none of these steps guarantee perfect fidelity. Thus we can conclude that a public, common reality exists in which only ‘Laurel’ was spoken, but imprecision in audio reproduction and quirks of our aural language processing prevent 100% accuracy of interpretation for each and every person.

Painting of Archimedes

Archimedes supposedly learned displacement in the bathtub; climate science relies on nonhuman-scale observations. (Painting by Domenico Fetti; image public domain)

OK, how about space cephalopods? Recently, a review article was published discussing the possibilities that life on Earth has an extraterrestrial component. The idea itself is not new, and the paper presented no specific new finding. Rather, prior observations were synthesized to make a case for panspermia, the idea that organic molecules and possibly even viruses and bacteria arrived here from space. Probably the boldest speculation in the paper, but not the most strongly supported, is the idea that octopuses also came from space as frozen eggs or embryos. It’s a curious paper, more exuberantly speculative than a typical peer-reviewed paper and closer to the edges of science than the credentials of its authors and publishing journal might suggest. I think it’s fair to say we can’t totally rule out some form of panspermia, but I wouldn’t say that’s the most likely conclusion from the available evidence. Mostly I find the paper a good reminder that there are always multiple interpretations consistent with the data, but not all are equal in terms of explanatory power or how they set up further research. Ultimately, the most fruitful hypotheses will determine the direction research goes, and in this case terrestrial explanations provide the most opportunities for additional experiments and observations.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the shape of the Earth; if you accept NASA photos as legitimate, the case is pretty simple, and if you don’t, I’m unlikely to persuade you otherwise. Flat-earth beliefs aren’t new, but there was a recent round of articles about their spread and about recent conventions of flat-earthers. In this case, what I find interesting is the simultaneous confidence in empirical evidence to answer the question of whether the Earth is flat, and the complete rejection of observations or interpretations provided by anyone else. So while some might imagine flat-earth belief to be dogmatic and disinterested in evidence, in practice many believe because their own observations and DIY experiments seem to provide evidence of flatness. What’s missing is not measurements and data; what’s missing is the social element of science that combines data and insights into a collective understanding that no one person could ever hope to personally attain.

Finally, you may have seen headlines about the congressman who thinks sea levels are rising because of rocks. In fairness to Representative Brooks, I think those headlines were a little bit reductive. Erosion is a real phenomenon, and does displace water, just not nearly enough to make a difference to the vast oceans. But the vastness of the ocean is hard to really appreciate, while erosion is easy to see and displacement is part of common experience. Erosion is just one topic in the conversation between lawmakers and physicist Philip Duffy, in which there is little agreement about some seemingly straightforward facts. Here I think part of the issue is focusing only on the details. The conclusion that Earth is getting warmer because of human activity is a synthesis from multiple sets of observations on a global scale across several disciplines. It’s easy to lose sight of that whole by only looking at a couple of elements, especially if you imagine the whole to be a house of cards that requires every piece to be just so. A better, but still imperfect, analogy would be a Jenga tower, which can tolerate the loss of a few pieces without compromising the whole.

I know that was a lot to process on a lot of different topics. It would certainly be much easier to throw up one’s hands and not try to make sense of it all, or to latch on to whatever bits are comprehensible or compelling. And therein lies the appeal of skepticism, conspiracy theories, and opting out. So thanks for coming along with me to dig a little deeper.

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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. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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