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Intelligent falling

August 18th, 2005

Via Chris Mooney, here’s a quick introduction to the latest controversial addition to the science curriculum.

Update A bit more on the history of Intelligent falling and following

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  1. Peter McB.
    August 18th, 2005 at 18:39 | #1

    Seriously, Newton’s theory of gravity was predictive and not explanatory. His critics at the time were quite correct in saying that it did not (and still does not) propose any causal mechanism for gravity. Positing the existence of non-observable entities called “gravitational fields” explains nothing. Whether a predictive, non-causal theory deserves to be called scientific is something one could argue. Certainly, there is lots of room in his theory of gravity for god-botherers-with-slide-rules to propose something as silly as “Intelligent Falling”.

    And Newton himself, deeply religious person that he was, may well have been on their side, unfortunately. He spent a lot of time doing alchemical experiments, reading ancient religious texts for hidden meanings, and may even have been a closet support of the millenerian movement known as the French Prophets which became popular in London in the first decade of the 18th century. His actual beliefs and motivations were so far from the standard scientific picture painted of him as the first rational scientist that one almost suspects a conspiracy by later scientists to reinvent him as one of their own.

  2. fatfingers
    August 18th, 2005 at 18:50 | #2

    This is one of The Onion’s best pieces ever.

  3. August 18th, 2005 at 20:23 | #3

    Not even I would “FALL” for that!

  4. Bill Cushing
    August 18th, 2005 at 22:25 | #4

    Next week: Satan’s Hell refutes ‘laws’ of thermodynamics?

    Trouble is this stuff is not really all that funny. Not some American lunacy we can happily ignore here.

    We just elected some Senate & Reps godbotherers who espouse ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ as science, and we have it being taught here in some of our private schools. In ‘science’ classes.

    Frightening, too, were the recent supportive comments of Education & Science Minister Nelson. I repeat — Science.

    Not just a Christian ‘fundies’ thing, either

    Our Muslim communities share and also teach in their schools these same ‘explanations’–which their more zealous advocates would like to impose on the rest of us.

    ‘Intelligent falling’ (aka Aristotelian physics) not a joke to Galileo, who didn’t get an apology from the Pope until 1992. And at least one Cardinal now seems to be back-pedalling …

  5. observa
    August 19th, 2005 at 01:26 | #5

    Sounds to me like calling Ayers Rock Uluru. Whatever turns you on I guess.

  6. observa
    August 19th, 2005 at 01:39 | #6

    Van Diemens Land-Australia, Cassius Clay-Muhammad Ali, Bombay-Mumbai, Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, Siam-Thailand, Natasha Stott-Natasha Stott Despoja, Ceylon- Sri Lanka, gravity-intelligent falling. Hey, who started all this? It just might catch on.

  7. Homer Paxton
    August 19th, 2005 at 09:45 | #7

    Newton’s theory will never fall apart.
    She’s apples mate.

  8. Katz
    August 19th, 2005 at 10:18 | #8

    This theory of intelligent falling is consistent with tests for witchcraft codified and routinised by James VI of Scotland in his groundbreaking “Daemonologie” which endorsed the ancient practice of dunking for the discovery of witches.

    Witches, being possessed of imps and other aerie spirits, were of course lighter than their non-possessed neighbours. The simple expedient of calibrating the differential water displacement properties of persons enabled the detection of the presence of imps, etc.

    Now, God being all-powerful, could have pushed witches underwater, despite their evil, usually lewd, impish possession, thus confusing the experimental design of witch hunters.

    Yet God did not do that. Why? Because in addition to His ability to impose a regime of Intelligent Falling on the universe, He also enacted a regime of Intelligent Non-Pushing.

    This is indeed proof both of God’s Intelligence and of God’s status as a strict constructionist in relation to witchcraft laws.

    God exists to apply the laws, not to interpret them.

  9. RoD
    August 19th, 2005 at 11:44 | #9

    You’re definitely on to something Katz. In addition to Intelligent Falling and Intelligent Non-Pushing I would propose the following:

    Intelligent Non-Falling: to explain how angels and flaming chariots can ‘hover’ over recipients of messages,
    and,
    Intelligent Pushing: which not only explains how rocks are rolled away from tombs but explains how galaxies are still accelerating away from each other 15 billion years after the Big Bang (which was just God apply His Laws for the first time).

  10. August 19th, 2005 at 12:23 | #10

    Have you seen Old Rice and Monkey Nuts’ attack on you in the Hun today? (We’ve commented on it at BoltWatch.)

  11. The Plimsoll line
    August 19th, 2005 at 13:21 | #11

    In response to Peter McB wondering whether a ‘predictive, non-causal theory’ should be considered scientific, I’d argue that yes, it should be. The heart of the scientific method is empiricism – observing what happens and going with that, whether the results fit your theory (ie what you’d like to happen) or not. I don’t think that we should class a descriptive and predictive model as unscientific until we know for sure how it operates – if this were so, we would have to admit that, strictly, nothing is ‘scientific’, since nothing is known absolutely thoroughly, for sure and for all time. Unless we think we live in an era in which knowledge has pretty well finished (a la Fukuyama) and no more relativity/quantum style surprises are in store. Somehow, though, I don’t think we do.
    ‘Scientific’ is not the same thing as ‘absolutely certain’ – in an important sense, it seems to be the opposite, for scientific and rigorous non-scientific thinking always interrogates the obvious, the seemingly certain, the common-sensical – and always, *always* keeps open the possiblity that a theory, however beloved, may tomorrow be overturned by experiment. Fundamentalism, not science, is about absolute certainty, and is anathema to genuine scientific thinking (although history shows that the science world is itself not devoid of blind dogmatism). Science embraces uncertainty, the exception, the counter-intuitive, the unexpected, as these are what drives scientific understanding forward. Reality guiding theory, not received wisdom (authority, convention, rote learning, scripture) guiding reality. ‘Scientific’ may really mean something like ‘always open to evidence-based challenge’ – something that exists quite happily with imperfect explanatory models.

  12. August 19th, 2005 at 14:27 | #12

    MrLefty, what’s the origin of the nickname “old rice and monkey nuts”? I’ve been silent on this for a long time outa fear of being shown up in my ignorance. But, what the hey.

  13. Katz
    August 19th, 2005 at 15:45 | #13

    “But Quiggin’s real mistake is that he didn’t hide the silliness of his idea under a blanket of post-modernist jargon, as do cannier academics.”

    JQ, Warden Blot reckons you’re not smart enough to be a postmodernist.

    So there!

  14. August 19th, 2005 at 16:27 | #14

    I think he meant rat cunning as opposed to intellect, Katz.

  15. Bill Posters
    August 19th, 2005 at 16:37 | #15

    Bolt failed to note that Quiggin’s post is headlined “A Modest Proposal”.

    Has he really never heard of Jonathan Swift?

  16. August 19th, 2005 at 16:42 | #16

    Observa: Van Diemen’s Land is not Australia; it’s Tasmania. I think we should all refer to Tasmanians as Vandemonians…

    Helen: the explanation:

    “Old Rice And Monkey Nuts (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=old+rice+and+monkey+nuts) returns the website of Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt. The phrase is an obscure reference to Tirath Khemlani, a Pakistani commodities trader who was involved in brokering an improbable US$4 billion loan deal to the Australian Government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1974. Khemlani was known derisively by his usual line of trade – rice and monkey nuts. As he was involved in commodities and not financial transactions as a rule, it was believed that Khemlani did not have access to the funds as he claimed but would attempt to obligate the Australian Government of the day to pay a huge commission for arranging the proposed loan. The bomb was perpetrated at the suggestion of Ausculture (http://www.ausculture.com) for reasons unknown.”

  17. August 19th, 2005 at 16:43 | #17

    OR&MN was, apparently a nickname for the gentleman whose name I’ve temporarily forgotten who was involved in the Whitlam-era loan scandal. Khemlani, I think it was. Because he traded in “old rice” and “monkey nuts”.

    How it came to be associated with Bolt. Jess from Ausculture read something about Khemlani mentioning the phrase, and for some reason decided it would be funny if it linked to some absurd character from today. She decided on Bolt. Henceforth it developed as a “google bomb”, whereby people linked to Andrew Bolt as Old Rice and Monkey Nuts. If you search for the expression OR&MN now on Google, it’ll link you to Andrew Bolt’s web site.

    A silly game which sort of stuck.

    We’ve been trying to do the reverse with BoltWatch, such that when one searches for Andrew Bolt they get directed there. (Although it’ll never entirely work, because obviously most people linking to Bolt link to his actual address.)

    Except it appears to have been blacklisted or something, because if you search for Andrew Bolt now, BoltWatch doesn’t come up in the first few pages at all.

  18. Mike Pepperday
    August 19th, 2005 at 17:17 | #18

    Fukuyama did not posit the end of knowledge but the end of history.

    By that he meant that the only viable political system is liberal democracy, that we now know this and that everyone is heading there – Indonesian military, Chinese torturers, Tongan royal family, Rwandan slaughter and Latin American culture notwithstanding.

    I think he’s right.

  19. Peter McB.
    August 19th, 2005 at 20:37 | #19

    Mr/Ms Plimsoll Line, I agree with the overal thrust of what you wrote above.

    My questioning about the scientific nature of merely-predictive theories is this: If I can show a correlation between two variables, then I am able to predict one on the basis of the other (to an extent in accord with the correlation). But what if the correlation is spurious — eg, due to chance, rather than some underlying causal connection between the phenomena represented by the variables?

    Starting with the same data on planetary motion available to Newton, we could develop vastly-better-fitting regression models than his (eg, using a Neural network or other nonlinear model). But would our theory be any better than his? Neither explains the underlying phenomena.

    I am simply asking what it means for a theory to be scientific. I think the true answer is something along the lines you have written. Indeed, in the past I have written that a scientific theory must be all of: (i) contestable (ii) by anyone, anywhere, anytime and (iii) subject to revision. But this definition is not how the word is used in ordinary parlance, or even by most scientists.

  20. August 19th, 2005 at 22:08 | #20

    Peter McB does Isaac a grave injustice.
    He was the outstanding scholar of his day, and one of the great scientific and mathematical minds of all time. He published his hundreds of scientific treatises in Latin, and when conventional mathematics could not solve some of the new scientific puzzles he had unearthed, he invented the stunningly brilliant branch of maths called Calculus, without which no 20th century space journey could ever have taken place. But as he was preoccupied at the time with other matters, he did not bother to inform the world scientific community of this most astonishing achievement for a mere 17 years. Some conspiracy by later scientists !

  21. The Plimsoll line
    August 19th, 2005 at 22:49 | #21

    Hey Peter,
    I see your reservation, but I think your scenario answers your question for you – if the correlation is indeed spurious, it will either fail to hang together as a correlation for long (problem solved), or it will continue to map nicely because some other ‘actual’ causal factor (maybe related to the incorrectly presumed cause, maybe not) is the invisible hand.
    In this case (which, let’s admit it, could be the case for absolutely any phenomenon’s causal theory) I’d argue that it doesn’t matter: a provisional theory of causality is as close to knowledge as we can ever come, because nobody (Bolt and fundamantalists aside) has access to pure certain knowledge.
    So we go ahead successfully predicting outcomes based on our erroneous theory until one day you get some new data that conflicts, or you make a theoretical breakthrough that leads someone to do the right experiment – like gravity bending light, say – and you win the Nobel Prize and science learns something new again.
    Trouble is, how do we then know we’ve arrived at the *real* truth and not another spurious theory? I don’t think we can ever know that for sure.
    So rather than things that could be spurious being un- or non-scientific, I’d argue that this is as close to knowledge as we can ever get. None of our current theories is proof against further refinement. We rely on Ockam’s Razor so we can get on with our lives without losing sleep over Cartesian skeptical anxieties or worrying that we are in Neo’s position, say, but it looks like there’s no way to categorically rule out things being other than they seem. Lacan put it nicely when he said that there is no pre-discursive reality – meaning that we can never see the world as it actually is, but only through our senses, instruments, intellects, theories, etc. It’s not that the real world isn’t out there, it’s just that its objective character is always beyond our reach.
    That’s why it seems to me that good science is never about final truths – only anti-science is actually that confident. For mine, admitting that a theory might yet be revised even though it currently correlates well is a hallmark of science, not the other way around: a strength, not a weakness. I agree that lots of people think that science is about absolute facts and final truths (and some of these are scientists who should know better) but it seems to me that its explanatory success as an intellectual method is due precisely to it not being about that.
    TPL
    p.s. – Mike, I was being lazy and just shorthanding Fukuyama for the “End of” concept, referencing his end of history as an analogy for the (surprisingly widespread) belief that what we know now is how things really are (cf those poor dummies of earlier eras who were totally deceived about the world). But you’re quite right to point out the sloppy citation.

  22. Peter McB.
    August 20th, 2005 at 02:23 | #22

    To V3 –

    1. Certainly, there were many other scientists in Newton’s time who could (and did) justifiably claim to be the outstanding scientist of his day — Hooke and Leibniz, to name two.

    2. Leibniz also invented the Calculus, at roughly the same time as Newton, so perhaps it was an idea whose time had arrived. (What’s the old joke in physics: A brilliant idea is one published a year before it becomes inevitable.)

    3. Re the conspiracy theory: Newton’s motivations would have been unrecognizable to a modern scientist. He was not trying to discover truth or the “laws of nature” in any sense of these words which a scientist of today would understand. He was trying to find the laws of God. He spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money scouring ancient religious texts for clues about the religious principles underlying the Universe, he undertook alchemical experiments, he threw horoscopes, he interpreted biblical (and other religious) texts for hidden meanings and prophecies, he even asked his friends for detailed reports of the talking-in-tongues events which swept London in the early 1700s. One of his friends (and a co-Fellow of the Royal Society) acted as a transcriber of these events, at great personal cost. Many of these activities were illegal in the orthodox religious state which England was at the time, which is no doubt why he kept quiet about them.

    Later scientists have described him as the first modern scientist, but this is a completely inaccurate description of his beliefs and motivations.

    4. The injustice I am doing is not to Isaac Newton, but to the false historical picture most of us have of him. As I said above, a conspiracy theorist would ask WHY we have a false historical picture of him.

  23. Ian Gould
    August 20th, 2005 at 19:14 | #23

    >I think he’s right.

    I think he’s mistaken – because I beleive that political systems are like hypotheses in the physical sciences, they’re never perfect and will in time be succeeded by a superior model.

    I don’t know what will eventually succeed liberal democracy and I suspect that as in the physical sciences it’ll most likely be an evolution from the current state of the art rather than a radical departure. But I seriously doubt we’ve achieved perfection.

  24. August 20th, 2005 at 23:34 | #24

    IG, many political changes are based on a synthesis that includes old elements, only not as they really were but rather as they were understood to have been. Hence 18th century republicanism in Europe (harking back to the classical world), and 17th century changes in Britain (looking back to “ancient [i.e. former] liberties”).

  25. A Person
    August 21st, 2005 at 12:34 | #25

    Next thing you know we are going to see a bunch of conservitive right christians forming the “Anti-Gravity leage”. You degrade Science! Shame!!! Shame!!!
    You embarrass the christian community.

  26. Peter
    August 22nd, 2005 at 08:07 | #26

    I can’t see how it would be possible to embarrass the christian community, given their beliefs in virgin births, resurrections, angel visitations, transubstantiation, ad hoc Red Sea dam walls, and the literal reading of two-thousand-year-old lunatic scribbles by desert nomads.

  27. AV
    August 23rd, 2005 at 11:44 | #27

    (off topic)

    Australian talkback radio tackles ID:

    From ABC Radio National:
    “Monday to Friday at 6pm (4pm in WA), repeated at 3am

    Should Intelligent Design Be Taught In Our Schools
    Tuesday 23 August 2005

    The theory of intelligent design has reignited debate about evolution by challenging Darwin’s theory. US President George Bush wants it taught in schools. And here it’s won the qualified backing of education minister Dr Brendan Nelson. Should intelligent design be taught in our schools?”
    (http://tinyurl.com/bpgnv)

    If you are interested in contributing, the contact details are:
    Fax: 07-3377-5171
    Toll-free phone: 1300 22 55 76 – 1300 CALL RN

  28. August 29th, 2005 at 06:11 | #28

    You can sign a petition to teach intelligent falling as an alternative to gravity at
    http://www.intelligent-falling.org

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