Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, and other lies of physics

I think it’s time we take a lesson from the history of science. Beauty does not have a good track record as a guide for theory-development. Many beautiful hypotheses were just wrong, like Johannes Kepler’s idea that planetary orbits are stacked in regular polyhedrons known as ‘Platonic solids’, or that atoms are knots in an invisible aether, or that the Universe is in a ‘steady state’ rather than undergoing expansion.

And other theories that were once considered ugly have stood the test of time.

How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia

Below are a few resources that explore the myth of MSG (food additive) being bad for you. This case demonstrates the intersection of various TOK concepts include how we produce knowledge in the natural sciences, the role of intuition in acquiring knowledge, and why we have such a hard time changing our minds once we believe something to be true.

That MSG causes health problems may have thrived on racially charged biases from the outset. Ian Mosby, a food historian, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980” that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty. As Sand put it: “It was the misfortune of Chinese cooks to be caught with the white powder by their stoves when the once-praised flavor enhancer suddenly became a chemical additive.”

This American Life: The Long Fuse (prologue and Part 1)

In this episode, the hosts explore the the MSG myth and in the process also demonstrate the challenges we face when constructing knowledge about the past

Since the ’90s, the FDA has listed MSG as perfectly safe for its intended use, like vinegar, salt, pepper. Today on our show, we have three stories like this one, where people throw words out into the world that take on a totally unexpected life of their own. And in all these stories, the words wreak havoc for years.



Scientific Studies: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

All of the links below speak well to the how knowledge is produced in the natural sciences along with the limitations and pitfalls that come with that process.

John Oliver discusses how and why media outlets so often report untrue or incomplete information as science.

This connects well this article:

“This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study”

I adapted this article into this handout. It all goes well together.

TOK Day 56 This is why you shouldn’t believe that new medical study

This also connects well to the podcast:

“Is the knowledge factory broken”

In Defense of Scientism

In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.” On science, the jury long ago returned a verdict: it is awesome. It has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions. It has increased human flourishing and extended life expectancies. It has put humans on the moon and many fathoms under the ocean’s surface. It has uncovered the forces that guide the crudest motions of matter and those that govern the most exquisite processes of life. In short, it has vastly improved human existence while dramatically increasing our knowledge of the universe.

Despite all this, skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”—or against what they see as science’s hubristic attempt to crowd out other forms of understanding and discourse. In recent years, these arguments have focused on what is called “scientism,”

The version of scientism we will be defending here is the version advocated by Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and Tyson; the simple contention that we, as a society, should use the principles of science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles—to determine, however clumsily and slowly, how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are. If we want to determine the best marginal tax rates, we shouldn’t dredge up some dogma or other or cite the authority of a dead economist. Instead, we should examine and weigh the evidence, compare the merits of competing theories, and then aim for the most reasonable rates.

Celebrating the Eclipse That Let Einstein Shine

On that day in May, two scientific expeditions were finally putting his theory of general relativity to the test. In Sobral, Brazil, and on Príncipe Island, off the western coast of Africa, two teams were viewing a total solar eclipse; in measuring the deflection of starlight by the sun’s gravitational field, they proved Einstein right.

“His equations allowed cosmology to become a science,” John Barrow, the cosmologist, wrote in an email. “Before him, cosmology was like a branch of art history. You could imagine any type, shape or form of universe you liked.”

But Einstein’s equations, he added, “are more sophisticated than any others in science. They describe whole universes. Every solution of Einstein’s equations describes an entire possible universe that is consistent with the laws of physics.” Since 1916, Dr. Barrow noted, Einstein’s equations — matched to astronomical observations — have revealed static universes, expanding universes, accelerating universes, and universes that are rotating, oscillating, cyclic, distorted, irregular, chaotic, inflationary, and eternal.