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We Don't Know What We Don't Know

June 16, 2010 15:16:08.437

This story out of New Scientist about the sun is one of the reasons I get skeptical about anything premised with "the scientific consensus is...". It appears that we don't know what we don't know, at least about the sun:

But for the past two years, the sunspots have mostly been missing. Their absence, the most prolonged for nearly a hundred years, has taken even seasoned sun watchers by surprise. "This is solar behaviour we haven't seen in living memory," says David Hathaway, a physicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The thinking had been that after the (somewhat prolonged) solar minimum, sunspots (and solar storms, which could cause grief for power systems on earth) would be back with a vengeance. However, they aren't, and no one seems to understand why. This part is what should give people pause:

Even with the solar cycle finally under way again, the number of sunspots has so far been well below expectations. Something appears to have changed inside the sun, something the models did not predict. But what?

Models are useful, but they depend on data - the more data, the better the model tends to be. What if you only have partial data? Or worse, what if you aren't even sure what data you still need? In fields like this - solar weather - the models obviously need more data before they can be fully accurate. That's not anyone's fault; it's not as if we know how to send a probe into the sun and have it transmit data. It should give us pause about any scientific field that relies too heavily on models that are derived from partial data though...

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posted by James Robertson


Re: We Don't Know What We Don't Know

[W^L+] June 19, 2010 13:44:02.047

Very true. I also tend to question "scientific consensus" because people like Galileo were condemned for disagreeing with consensus that was eventually disproven. Consensus is another word for we already know how this area works, so don't bother studying it.

Not that the consensus is always wrong, but the intolerance of disagreement and challenges that consensus engenders is dangerous to any form of independent thinking.

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