If, maybe, and know

The Sunflower Galaxy

The Sunflower Galaxy

Do you ever wonder how you know what you know?  Or if what you know is even true anymore?

That’s not a philosophical question so much as a pragmatic one because in our world the body of knowledge for just about every single field you can think of and some you’ve never even heard of is growing exponentially and will likely continue. Never mind the average person’s questions. The world’s universities are pumping out scores of BAs, MAs and PhDs and new minds are turning over old problems with new questions and new ways of looking at things, and generating new knowledge. Or they are creating entirely new channels of enquiry into new fields.

Now in a way, that’s always been the case, but what’s new to the equation is the speed at which this is happening, due in part to a more formalized approach to getting research findings out there.  I heard that once upon a time it took about 40 years to get from the research bench to the average person on the street, and while that seems a bit long, it probably was an indication of the entire process of research  into solid, irrefutable evidence.

We do not stand for the long view. Not anymore.

There are now the fields of research transfer and for the business world knowledge transfer that are offshoots of communications/PR  (heresy, I know) that deal strictly with bundling up research findings into usable bits of data and information and sending it out to trade and public media in some form or another so that we can get a sniff of it.

I’m using the term research findings deliberately.  It would be good if it’s the body of evidence that’s disseminated in digestible bits, together with ideas as to what it all means and how the new evidence meshes or doesn’t with existing practices and beliefs and attitudes. But no. That’s not really happening in spite of the concept, (very big in health and related fields) of evidence into practice.

As fields of endeavour, research and knowledge transfer are basically about gathering the information ‘stuff’ aka, the right information to the right people at the right time and in the right way (MP3 or CD or news release or workshops or face-to-face meetings) so that whatever needs to get out there is released. The notion of transfer is deceptive in this context: it imagines that somehow a bit of information is going to get into my head and not only change my worldview in some way but also change my behaviour.

Tangent alert

One of my areas of interest is the knowing-doing gap. It’s a term used primarily in organizational life and businesses, but in my little mind, it is about people and that three-pound thing called a brain. Knowing-Doing is a complex process and maybe there aren’t gaps so much as obstacles and barriers.  Transfer of research findings or knowledge runs SMACK into the knowing doing gap universe. I am also interested in expanding and contracting universes, but that’s a whole other tangent to this tangent, even if it is related.

Back to main point

I wonder about knowledge and knowing because about five years ago, I was reading an article about dinosaurs and the emerging theories/new knowledge about the relationship between dinosaurs and birds. It struck me that I was reading was totally different than what I had learned in school. Until that point, I was blissfully ignorant of my ignorance.

And then, this week, I ran across an article that after I read it, and thought about it and re-read it I landed on two feelings about it: amazement and troubling.

The article is troubling because it presents research findings from one study. One study’s findings does not meet the burden of proof necessarily to be considered evidence.

It’s troubling because it is speculative, and perhaps we have enough speculative journalism in our world.

It’s amazing because I did not know about the Sunflower galaxy in the shape of a spiral. Did you? No-one I know knew about it.  And so I got to find out about spirals and galaxies all over again and update my knowledge.

And it’s troubling PLUS amazing because if proven true it means, as the article suggests, that dark energy is real, and that what we know about gravity is up for revision.  And while that is SUCH good science, it’s also a major pain in certain body parts.  How do I change knowing what I know???

I have to go wonder about that now.  In the meantime I have included the article for those who might be interested.


ScienceDaily (Oct. 23, 2009) — An international team of astronomers have found an unexpected link between mysterious ‘dark matter’ and the visible stars and gas in galaxies that could revolutionise our current understanding of gravity.

One of the astronomers suggests that an unknown force is acting on dark matter. The findings are published this week in the scientific journal Nature.

Only 4% of the universe is made of known material. Stars and gas in galaxies move so fast that astronomers have speculated that the gravity from a hypothetical invisible halo of dark matter is needed to keep galaxies together. However, a solid understanding of dark matter as well as direct evidence of its existence has remained elusive.

Now the team believes that the interactions between dark and ordinary matter could be more important and more complex than previously thought, and even speculate that dark matter might not exist and that the anomalous motions of stars in galaxies are due to a modification of gravity on extragalactic scales.

Dr. Benoit Famaey (Universities of Bonn and Strasbourg) explains: “The dark matter seems to ‘know’ how the visible matter is distributed. They seem to conspire with each other such that the gravity of the visible matter at the characteristic radius of the dark halo is always the same. This is extremely surprising since one would rather expect the balance between visible and dark matter to strongly depend on the individual history of each galaxy.”

Dr. Zhao at the SUPA Centre of Gravity notes, “The pattern that the data reveal is extremely odd. It’s like finding a zoo of animals of all ages and sizes miraculously having identical, say, weight in their backbones or something. It is possible that a non-gravitational fifth force is ruling the dark matter with an invisible hand, leaving the same fingerprints on all galaxies, irrespective of their ages, shapes and sizes.”

Such a force might solve an even bigger mystery, known as ‘dark energy’, which is ruling the accelerated expansion of the Universe. A more radical solution is a revision of the laws of gravity first developed by Isaac Newton in 1687 and refined by Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in 1916. Einstein never fully decided whether his equation should add an omnipresent constant source, now called dark energy.

Dr Famaey added, “If we account for our observations with a modified law of gravity, it makes perfect sense to replace the effective action of hypothetical dark matter with a force closely related to the distribution of visible matter.”

The implications of the new research could change some of the most widely held scientific theories about the history and expansion of the universe.

Lead researcher Dr. Gianfranco Gentile at the University of Ghent concludes, “Understanding this puzzling conspiracy is probably the key to unlock the formation of galaxies and their structures.”

Journal reference:

  1. Gianfranco Gentile, Benoit Famaey, HongSheng Zhao, Paolo Salucci. Universality of galactic surface densities within one dark halo scale-lengthNature, 2009; 461 (7264): 627 DOI: 10.1038/nature08437

About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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6 Responses to If, maybe, and know

  1. letempspasse says:

    Hello again ! 😀
    Shall we keep a list of future conversation topics then?
    I have to admit to not being 100% certain of the meaning of “tongue in cheek”. You are being ironic, when you say ‘evidence-based’ anything, right? At least that’s how I understood it (and happen to agree, with by the way).
    Perhaps my resistance to the term ‘evidence-based’ lies in the difference in meaning of the word ‘évidence’ in French (which means obvious) and its meaning in English. It just sounds too absolute for me, too definitive. Maybe too self-serving even? But maybe it’s just me. My warped interpretation.
    ‘Consensus-based’ medicine would already sound better to me, if it wasn’t for the fact that, a lot of financial, academic, or corporate interests seem to influence how the consensus moves in one direction or another. It’s tough to figure out who’s trustworthy.
    That too could be another subject to talk about… Are you keep the list? or shall I?

    • FS says:

      Yes, you understood how I meant it. 🙂 Thank you.

      Hmmm the nuances of language certainly apply, and how things get warped in translation. Obvious — as a concept — has its own issues. Depends on who’s looking. When someone says obvious, I have this weird reaction with my right eyebrow: it goes up of its own accord.

      I agree consensus based to some degree sounds better, but I am uneasy with consensus for the reasons you describe. Trust. Consensus is better that dictate I suppose.
      But it’s curious to me: the answer is always dependent on what questions are being asked, and as we know, questions can be leading.

      lists? As in organized? how cool is that? Okay, so the act of blogging, writing, the rise of evidence based medicine, research transfer, and consensus…and figuring out who’s trustworthy and anonymity. Have I missed any?

      • letempspasse says:

        Yes, I can see you will be a good list keeper! 😀
        Can we add dog stories to the list? (lighter fare…. just in case I have a glass a wine or two, and can’t find my sophisticated vocabulary anymore….)

        We might want to create a backup list, in case we need an alternate. What if it’s really cold and snowy outside ?!? Always good to have a warm plan B. For starters, we could put on it…. Let’s see…. How about Friendship? Love? Do you believe in Soulmates? Destiny? Free Will?

        Sweet Dreams my anonymous friend !

      • FS says:

        Ok: I shall add all of those things to the list.

  2. letempspasse says:

    Permit me a riff on “evidence-based medicine”?
    The term annoys me. Some “council of the wise and influential ” must have coined this term to consecrate its own importance. As if any evidence, however convincing and supported by (expensive to obtain) data, was ever going to be absolute. Medicine is just that: medicine. If we must add an epithet to characterize it, I would prefer the terms “educated” or “informed”, which would emphasize that the actions are based on the strongest and most current information. However current and supported, today’s evidence-based knowledge, may be tomorrow’s obsolete joke.
    I’ve always felt that what I was doing was highly educated guessing. We gather information. The information adds up. The knowledge changes. We assimilate, investigate, ask questions, examine with our eyes, our ears, our nose, we listen to our intuition. We keep that which seems relevant and makes sense at the time, put aside the rest (for now). And then, we guess. What IS the best guess scenario?
    Acting in the best interest of someone else is certainly not easy. But I think it’s more about intuition and integration of information than actual knowledge.
    Ok, I’m done. 😉

    • FS says:

      Yes!!! Please riff. Evidence based anything is right up there (for me) with best practices.

      and just so you know…even though I use the term ‘evidence-based’ anything, it is with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Medicine is science and art, or art and science, and using the current knowledge base, and consensus, etc., etc., and some people are better at taking the presenting issues and gathering histories and then weighing in/accounting for the unseen/unsaid, AND the unique characteristics of the person presenting… so oh my goodness: another topic of conversation.

      We could talk about academia and book learning and research another time 😉

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