Why Science Should Act as Reality Check (even for bogus ideas)

“When one of us does a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They can still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be.”
Dukhat and Delenn in Babylon 5: “Atonement”

I’m following most of Thunderf00t’s videos, as his style is not only informative but also entertaining. Recently he did a video why the “Solar Roadways” project bugs him so much. And yup, I totally agree with one of his stated reasons: Science should be on record saying that this idea was bogus from the very beginning. Yes, ideas like these will fail, but they can do damage beyond the wasted money and effort of the project itself. As Thunderf00t points out, they can cause additional damage in the future if they are used to discredit science as a whole. And for this they should be criticized — publicly.

I sometimes wonder whether it makes sense to debate idiotic ideas, esp. those that take of themselves. I mean, seriously, why waste time and effort on it. But … yup, he has a point. As long as you criticize bad ideas, not the people, that is. After all, the proponents might change and then you stand around like an idiot. Even more important, if you attack a person and not the idea, this person cannot distance him- or herself from this idea.

But as for the ideas — yup, as much as I love creativity — I love it in it’s positive form: Deliberately creating something that is new and useful “for positive purposes”. And you cannot create much from fundamentally flawed ideas.

So, in this sense, it’s good that science does take a stand against bogus science, quacks, and the like. Whether it’s about physics, engineering, psychology, or any other domain. And that takes not only effort and a working knowledge of science, it also takes guts. After all, you could be wrong.

But then again, there are these two good replies to it (also from Thunderf00t’s videos):

“The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
Carl Sagan

And probably more importantly, the issue is not to destroy people’s imagination, or their creativity, by clipping wings. Or to humiliate inventors or stifle innovation. Quite the opposite. The goal is to provide a necessary feedback function to prevent one of two cases:

  1. charlatans rip off hard-earned money for personal gain, and/or
  2. misdirected believers sinking a lot of money/causing damage.

Providing this feedback function ensures that science keeps its reputation and that innovation is not stifled by these negative examples. After all, why would people invest in better ideas if ideas like these — which sound so good — did not work.

And if this idea really works?

There’s also a good answer to that question (also in Thunderf00t’s videos):

One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.
Wernher von Braun

And that’s the nice thing about Thunderf00t’s videos — he does not resort to calling himself an expert. He demonstrates. That sets the stage for the proponents of the idea to refute the counter-arguments to their idea. And the answer should not be “we will solve that problem”, or “but look at these nice images of what could be”, but showing that it works.

And that’s the standard any good idea that evolved into a project should be able to do.