imagination

Imagination Without Knowledge Is Ignorance Waiting to Happen

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My feelings on people who think that imagination is more important than knowledge is well-known. These people simply are parroting Einstein’s phrase without understanding the context and implications.To prove that, I will cite two specific examples that I’ve encountered personally. These either came to me via direct contact with the person who made such claims, or via one of the many e-mail that I’ve received through the years. None of these were made up, even though I am relying on my recollection of the events.

Case 1: Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics

This was brought to my attention by someone I met at a dinner party once he found out that I was a physicist. I’ve tackled this many times here on PF, but here it is again.

The argument comes from the apparent “understanding” of two things: (i) life beings are “ordered” structure and (ii) 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reflects an increase in entropy or, to put it crudely, disorder.

Now, I will not go into detail on why to equate entropy with disorder is inaccurate (that will be saved for another time). So let’s assume that both (i) and (ii) are correct. ID advocates point to the fact that if Evolution did happen, it implies a trend towards order of our Earth system. Random distribution of atoms and molecules in primovial Earth somehow form ordered and more sophisticated conglomeration that eventually form life forms. Thus, the earth went from disorder to order. This clearly violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and thus, is not very likely. So evolution cannot be the explanation for life.

Again, such an argument is being made without an understanding of the 2nd Law, or even basic thermodynamics in the first place. The 2nd Law clearly states that in an ISOLATED SYSTEM (no energy or any kind going in and out), entropy cannot decrease. The earth is certainly NOT an isolated system. In fact, the earth DEPENDS predominantely on one source of external energy – the sun! So even if we consider the most simplified system, we have to consider the sun and the earth as the complete isolated system, not just the earth alone. Within this system, there is nothing to prevent one part of the system to have a lower entropy with time (example: carnot cycle). Thus, even if the earth does really have a lowering of entropy, this certainly does not violate Thermodynamics’ 2nd Law.

One would be surprised that, even when this is already explained in several articles and books, that there are still numerous websites supporting creationism/ID that still carry this argument (do a google search if you don’t believe me). Either the authors are not aware of how ridiculous such an argument is, or they are hoping that the readers are not aware of it, or not good in simple thermodynamics. This isn’t a stretch of imagination because the general public do not have any significant understanding of basic thermodynamics principles and thus, can easily be fooled into thinking that physics has made evolution impossible! It costs nothing to perpetuate the lie.

Case 2: Anti-gravity effects of heat.

Having been on the ‘net for a very long time, I get asked often to look at some rather outrageous claims being made by a lot people, many of them in need of serious psychiatric help. This one is a doozy from quite a few years ago.

A guy had a coil of wire stuffed into a cylinder (I think a brass cylinder). The two ends of the wire stuck out on the opposite ends of the cylinder. The cylinder was suspended from the ceiling by some cables. He then connected a heating element to the end of the wire at the bottom of the cylinder. The moment he turned on the heating element, he started time. He has a thermocouple of some kind monitoring the temperature at the other end of the wire. As soon as the temperature had risen by 50 C (I don’t quite remember the exact number so I made this up), he stopped time. Call this Time A.

Next, he connected the heating element to the top end of the wire. He repeated the experiment, this time monitoring the temperature of the bottom end of the wire till the temperature has changed by 50 C also. Call this Time B.

He noticed that Time A is shorter than Time B. He said that this means that the heat in the conductor can travel faster upwards than downwards. His conclusion was that he has discovered an anti-gravity effect, and that there was an anti-gravity component to heat. [Honest! This is what was said! You can’t make up idiotic statements like this!]

This is where having just a little knowledge can result in something hysterical. Anyone who has studied physics can immediately see two very obvious problems (there may be more) with this interpretation:

1. Convection. The inside of the cylinder is at atmospheric pressure and not in some level of a decent vacuum. So by heating from below, a heat convention can easily carry some of the heat upwards, thus heating the top end faster.

2. Cooling gradient. This is the more important aspect. I asked this person (yeah, I actually made contact with him) if he waiting for the wire to cool down back to room temperature before he did the 2nd part of the experiment. He said, no, he continued right on. This means that he had no clue that the rate of heat loss depends on the temperature gradient of an object with its surrounding. Heating an object in air from 20 C to 70 C is not the same as heating it from 50C to 100 C, even though the temperature change is identical. As the temperature of the object increases, the temperature difference between it and the surrounding also increases, and so will the rate of heat loss. This is straight-forward law of cooling. So of course he would take longer to heat the 2nd part since he is starting off at a higher temperature!

We teach physics majors all the things that are known and can already be explained, NOT because we want them to be able to mimic and repeat all of them when they become physicists. We teach them those things so that they will KNOW when they encounter something new and unexplained. You cannot know what you are observing or discovering is new if you don’t already have a clear idea of what are known and can already be explained! This person that I just described lacked the knowledge to know that what he thought was “new” can, in fact, be explained quite simply based on existing ideas. He certainly had a vivid imagination, but it is nothing more than mere ignorance of the knowledge he did not have.

Moral of the stories: Many members on here often complain about our strict PF policy, especially on our prohibition against simply spewing out one’s “theory” or idea without first learning about basic stuff. The most popular argument given is that we don’t know where the next important “discovery” will be made, and that we must cater to such possibilities from these amateurs. This is, of course, wishful thinking since that hasn’t happened in a 100 years of physics. What I’ve done is show two specific, actual examples on why many (if not all) of such “discoveries” are really nonsensical and really aren’t new. They are based on misunderstanding, lack of understanding, pure laziness, and lack of knowledge. When these are combined with a vivid imagination, things go wild and wrong very quickly and easily.

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PhD Physics

Accelerator physics, photocathodes, field-enhancement. tunneling spectroscopy, superconductivity

15 replies
  1. DavidLloydJones
    DavidLloydJones says:

    Zapper,You're going to a lot of unnecessary trouble here.  Evolution doesn't compete with the Second Law.  This is simply because the Second Law is about closed systems, or about the Uni/Multiverse as a whole, while evolution always takes place in systems with external energy sources.Heat has anti-gravity effects, as does any other source of energy, if it is harnessed in a direction opposed to gravity.  What's the question?On imagination and knowledge the point is that both are heterogeneous.  All knowledge is approximate.   I.e. some of what we think is knowledge is wrong.  Duh!As a general proposition, my imagination and knowledge are both excellent, yours are not bad, but those fools can't get anything right with either.  As above, this is obvious. Shurely?-dlj.

  2. Josh Meyer
    Josh Meyer says:

    I've watched several Christopher Hitchens debates recently and the entropy argument comes up all the time from creationists (pretty sure William Lane Craig is a repeat offender). Seeing how popular scientific arguments have fared with the general public, this type of adoption has been popping up more and more. The current trend is for creationists to start with a scientific theory (like the 2nd law, or evolution, or the big bang, etc…) and then "show" why these theories do not conflict with creationism. This puts a scientific-sounding mask on their frequent leaps of faith and logic, and puts the scientist on defense to clean up the mess. It's a shame, but also a brilliant technique of persuasion in a debate setting.The first website I thought of after reading your article was LinkedIn. Most of the groups on LinkedIn are completely unusable because of people spouting off their own personal physics theories. Some of them are just pages and pages long after making incorrect assumptions in the first few sentences. So the message you presented here is an important one for folks to hear.

  3. stevendaryl
    stevendaryl says:

    "Evolution doesn't compete with the Second Law.  This is simply because the Second Law is about closed systems, or about the Uni/Multiverse as a whole, while evolution always takes place in systems with external energy sources."Uh, isn't that what  ZapperZ said? He said: " The 2nd Law clearly states that in an ISOLATED SYSTEM (no energy or any kind going in and out), entropy cannot decrease. The earth is certainly NOT an isolated system."

  4. Borek
    Borek says:

    What I always find funny about the first argument is the fact that it is used without a second thought (not that I am surprised). If it is not possible to come out with an ordered structure how was your car built? Or your house? How come you grew up to the moment you can ask stupid questions?

  5. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    Zapper,

    You’re going to a lot of unnecessary trouble here. Evolution doesn’t compete with the Second Law. This is simply because the Second Law is about closed systems, or about the Uni/Multiverse as a whole, while evolution always takes place in systems with external energy sources.

    Unnecessary trouble? This type of argument has been made, and continue to be made by those who have no clue why it is wrong. And they are still made to the ignorant masses.

    Heat has anti-gravity effects, as does any other source of energy, if it is harnessed in a direction opposed to gravity. What’s the question?

    Sorry, but this has nothing to do with the example that I gave. This is not “convection”!

    On imagination and knowledge the point is that both are heterogeneous. All knowledge is approximate. I.e. some of what we think is knowledge is wrong. Duh!

    As a general proposition, my imagination and knowledge are both excellent, yours are not bad, but those fools can’t get anything right with either. As above, this is obvious. Shurely?

    -dlj.

    No, it is not not obvious. The fact that there are still people making such claims and the fact that I was giving you actual examples are proof that to some people, it is not obvious. And you got it all wrong on the purpose of all this. It isn’t to argue about the nature of knowledge or the nature of imagination, or that they are unnecessary. It is to argue that people who simply use their imagination without any foundation in knowledge are more susceptible to making erroneous conclusions, simply because they don’t already know what has already been established. This may be obvious to a lot of people here, but to many others, it is not. And worse still, they do not see anything wrong with making conclusions without any solid knowledge of what they are talking about.

    Zz.

  6. Andrew Mason
    Andrew Mason says:

    “My feelings on people who think that imagination is more important than knowledge is well-known. These people simply are parroting Einstein’s phrase without understanding the context and implications.”

    Perhaps we should have an article about this “quote” of Einstein’s.

    The quote attributed to Einstein was first published in 1929 in an article in Saturday Evening Post by George Sylvester Viereck based on an interview conducted with Einstein at his home in Germany (“[URL=’http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf’]What Life Means to Einstein”, Sat. Evg. Post, Oct. 26, 1929[/URL]). Here is the quote that was attributed to him:
    [B]
    “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”[/B]

    First of all, one should point out that Mr. Viereck may not have made an accurate quote. He was not recording it, obviously. And he was not even taking very good notes. It appears that the author relied on his memory:

    “I tried to secure an explanation of the fifth dimension. I regret to say that I do not remember the answer clearly. Einstein said something about a ball being thrown, which could disappear in one of two holes. One of these holes was the fifth, the other the sixth dimension.”

    The author, Viereck, also quoted Einstein as saying:

    ”No man,” as Einstein said to me, sitting comfortably on the couch of the sitting room of his Berlin home, “can visualize four dimensions, except mathematically. We cannot visualize even three dimensions.”

    I am betting that there was something lost in the translation of that last sentence.

    Since Einstein was interviewed while he was living in Germany he probably never saw a copy of the article. He may never have seen the quote that had been attributed to him. The article was published in the same week as the stock market crashed (which began Oct 24, 1929) so there may have been some distractions.

    If Einstein did say something like the words that were attributed to him, what could he have been saying?

    If he was using the word “knowledge” in the sense of physical facts or experimental data, and “imagination” in the sense of theory, then his statement is a bit bewildering. Both are important and he certainly knew that. Theory has to fit the experimental data. Experimental data can destroy a theory. How can an imaginative but wrong theory be more important than real physical data?

    The only sense that I can make of a general statement that imagination is more important than knowledge would be the distinction between knowing facts and understanding what they mean. Example: as Feynman noted, the Mayans had amassed a great deal of very accurate data tracking the positions of Venus in the morning and night skies and could relate the time between those appearances to the length of a year. They could predict the appearance of Venus with this data. But they did not understand why these events occurred. They had no idea that Venus and Earth are planets orbiting the sun with Venus having an orbital periods roughly 5/8th that of the earth.

    If it is accurate (and it likely is not), it is possible that Einstein wanted to say that understanding of the physical world is more important than just knowing facts about the physical world. If so he chose a poor way to express himself.

    AM

  7. Chronos
    Chronos says:

    Einstein was not condemning knowledge, merely pointing out that knowledge without imagnination lacks relevance. Without those ‘what if?’ moments knowledge has little more utility than a map without coordinates or a compass.

  8. Drakkith
    Drakkith says:

    This is the worst comment system I’ve ever used.

    I think there’s a problem with the comments part of the PF Insights page that Greg’s working on. For now, any replies should be posted via the forum thread. For convenience, here it is: [URL]https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/imagination-without-knowledge-is-ignorance-waiting-to-happen-comments.831090/[/URL]

  9. Andrew Mason
    Andrew Mason says:

    …maybe we should also consider contemporary philosophers like Rumsfeld and his unknown unknowns. But at the end of the day, the truth is just not a very high priority for many.

    It didn’t seem to be for Rumsfeld.

    One should be careful not to equate “knowledge” and “truth”, however. We have a lot of very useful scientific knowledge based on theories or laws that have already been disproved or that may yet be disproved. Knowledge is practical. Truth is more of an elusive an ideal.

    AM

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