Recently I engaged in a scientific debate with engineers over the possibility of neutrinos being related to electrons. Unfortunately the only comments it stirred were that I – apparently as a known nobody – am not able to make any advancements in the field of electricity and that we should all put our faith into the “experts.” The most verbal of them actually told me that we already know everything that we ever will know about electricity. It takes a while for that to soak in. A human being, in full awareness of the history of science and chain of discovery and technology, in fact, a quasi-scientist himself in the role of electrical engineering – believes that we are at the end of our discovery chain – that we already know everything that we ever will know.
But let’s talk about something else for a moment. The bystander effect is a social phenomenon common to the human animal. It is part of group dynamic studies and it purports that groups of people are more likely to sit on their laurels and allow some fictional other person to solve the problem for them. Most of the tests involved people falling in front of single individuals and also groups of individuals. Then time was measured to see how fast anyone responded to help the falling person. When the fall took place in front of individual people the tests showed the mean results as less than 30 seconds. But when the fall took place in front of groups of people the mean results were well over two minutes. Why do groups of people hesitate to help the fallen person?
The theory is that they believe someone else from the group will stand up and help the person. And that makes sense to me since the individual person can see that there is no other help coming, he is more likely to help the fallen person.
And so, as I return to the scientific conversation with engineers, I quickly correlated most of their comments to the bystander effect. Here are some of the comments I’ve heard:(paraphrased)
“Average people can not make advancement in science. It has to be people who are more intelligent.”
“We already know everything we are ever going to know. There is nothing left to discover.”
The correlation is obvious to me. The one gentleman may not understand that Einstein and Tesla were just as average as anyone else until they followed their studies into perfection. And I would add that I’m sure they believed themselves to be average as well.
After some befuddlement and examination I came to a suspicion that these engineers were so certain that others are correct that they have put too much faith in theories, making them facts instead. But there are no facts in the scientific world. And every scientific report is presented in a way that makes this simple reasoning true. Scientific observations are reported as facts. But conclusions on why those facts exist are theories.
Here is an example of a scientific report that follows the general scientific rule. It involves the Moon’s changing north and south magnetic poles. The reason they are believed to be changing is that there are possibly hydrogen atoms accumulated at two different spots for each pole, presumably the current pole and the previous ancient pole. One theory offered by the scientists to explain this phenomenon is that the molten core of the moon shifted significantly during a volcanic eruption.
If you read the story (linked below) please notice that everything is reported as possible, or probable, but not actual fact. (As I presented it in the above paragraph with words like “believed”, “possibly”, “presumably”, and “theory offered.”) There are no “actual facts” in science because science is constantly changing.
So I am beginning to believe that the human psyche is so affected by trust in others that it allows the words “probable” and “possibly” to melt into the word “actual.” And these engineers are so imbibed with this phenomenon that they are arguing well beyond their own areas of expertise to protect their beliefs. On several occasions they resorted to Wikipedia and other online sources to prove that other peoples in fields way outside of their own already have the facts and that we needn’t pursue them ourselves. That is absolute bystander effect.
So what is the lesson? Teachers, encourage your students to break the mold of bystander effect. Teach that all science is fleeting and changing and at best probable. The entire generation of engineers in that conversation have been robbed by the system of ingenuity – and like cancer they continue to sprout the same message: “We already know everything.” But we so don’t.