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THE SELF-CONSTRUCTED MODEL
Ron Westrum, 1989

In 1819, Ernst Chladni reflected back on his struggles for the recognition of meteorites. While the Enlightenment, the 18th century intellectual movement that examined accepted doctrines of the time, had brought certain benefits, he felt it also brought with it certain intellectual problems. Now scientists "thought it necessary to throw away or reject as error anything that did not conform to a self-constructed model." The very success of scientific experiment and theory had led to a misplaced confidence that *what was real was already within the circle of science.* What was outside, therefore, what did not conform to scientists' theories, could be dismissed by invoking scientific authority and by ignoring or ridiculing observations not supported by it.

More recently, in 1979, the medical researcher Ludwik Fleck noted in his book "The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact" a very similar trend. He wrote:

"What we are faced with here is not so much simple passivity or mistrust of new ideas as an active approach which can be divided into several stages.

(1) A contradiction to the system appears unthinkable

(2) What does not fit into the system remains unseen;

(3) alternatively, if it is noticed, either it is kept secret, or

(4) laborious efforts are made to explain an exception in terms that do not contradict the system.

(5) Despite the legitimate claims of contradictory views, one only tends to see, describe, or even illustrate those circumstances which corroborate current views and thereby give them substance.

What does not fit the theory is thus excluded. The anomalous event is forced outside the official circle of consciousness into a kind of outlaw existence.

This happened with the unusual luminous phenomenon known as "ball lightning." This form of lightning appears as a luminous ball, usually smaller than a basketball, and is quite short-lived (usually less than a minute.) It has a long history of observation, but for many decades was an outlaw event in meteorology. In the 1930s, W. J. Humphreys, an influential official in the U.S. Weather Bureau, had argued persuasively that ball lightning was probably an optical illusion. There was subsequently little mention of ball lightning in meteorology textbooks, and persons with scientific training who observed ball lightning generally kept quiet about it. When commented upon, it was described as a rare event. One of the reasons that it appeared to be a rare event is shown in anecdotes like the following, which appeared in THE LIGHTNING BOOK by Peter Viemeister.

During the summer of 1937 several technical observers on duty at 500 5th Ave, during the Empire State Building lightning program, saw what might be interpreted as ball lightning, not once but four times. One of the engineers, now the chief technical executive of a large power company, saw a bluish luminescence slowly descend the 38-foot tower of the Empire State Building after four of the ten or eleven strokes that hit the tower that evening. Fearing that his colleagues would regard him as a lightning-ball "quack", he was hesitant to speak about what he had seen, but decided to mention it anyway. Suprisingly several of the others admitted seeing the same things. These observations were omitted from the technical reports since they did not appear on the recording cameras nor on the oscillograph records.

Thus, because there is no *spontaneous reporting* of the anomalous event, scientists may assume that there is no event to be reported. That this might be a self-fulfilling prophecy is hardly considered. Part of the problem, of course, is that no one is *asked* whether they have seen an unclassified phenomenon. When surveys of technical personnel regarding ball lightning *were* done in 1966 at two national laboratories, many meteorologists were surprised to discover that four percent of the potential observers in one laboratory had seen it. This hardly qualifies as a rare event!

The problem with ball lightning is that no one has yet found a satisfactory theory to explain it. It is tempting for physicists to argue, as some in fact have, that since it can't be explained, it probably doesn't exist! (i.e., if it doesn't fit the self-constructed model, it's not real.) So thousands of ball lightning sightings were ruled inadmissible and ignored. In the last decade or so, a much more positive attitude has prevailed, but the phenomenon is still far from completely accepted.

A similar thing happened with "meteor noise"... (see http://www.jse.com/v7n4a1.html journal abstract, meteor noise)

Excerpted from THE BLIND EYE OF SCIENCE, by Ron Westrum, in "Fringes of Reason, a Whole Earth Catalog", 1989, Point Foundation


 





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