How Science is Solving the Mysteries of Leaking Roofs

The following was inspired by too much reading of books and papers about autoimmunity:

Quotation: "How do you know she's a witch?" King Arthur

"There are some things that are so serious that you can only joke about them" Niels Bohr (quoted by Victor Weisskopf)

Imagine some people whose house has a small hole in the roof, where rain leaks in.

Suppose that professionals on this subject have four ideas how to solve the problem:
1) Prevent it from ever raining again.
2) Move the house to a desert.
3) Build another roof, or a tent or something, above the whole house, so rain can't reach it.
4) Discover what force attracts raindrops to the part of the roof where the hole is.

Unfortunately, they are unable to accomplish any of these four things. Therefore, they conclude that the problem is much more complicated than they had previously assumed. "Probably no single cure for leaks will ever be possible." they decide, because of this complexity.

The criterion for complexity is whether your hypotheses make correct predictions. What people mean is that they still believe their theory is correct, except for a lot of minor details that prevented the predictions from occurring. (But maybe the truth is very simple, except very different from most people's favorite hypotheses.)

Meanwhile, some people are playing baseball nearby and accidentally hit the ball so that it lands up on the roof, and gets stuck in the hole. Not realizing what has happened, everyone is surprised that the next time it rains, less water leaks through the roof. They try very hard to figure out what this means.

They do experiments to find out whether playing baseball tends to prevent rain. They collect statistics about whether there are fewer rain-storms on days when professional baseball games were scheduled. Although they are disappointed to find that it has frequently rained on days when baseball games were scheduled, they are greatly encouraged to find that snow-storms are negatively correlated with days when baseball games had been planned. This confirms that they are basically on the right track, because it proves that baseballs inhibit snow.

Having proved that baseballs inhibit one form of precipitation, it seems likely that if they change the size and shape of baseballs, and also some of the rules of the game (pitch hitting, the infield fly rule, etc.), they can eventually find a new version of baseball that will reliably prevent rain, thereby fixing roofs.

Their statistics reveal a positive correlation between football games and snow. The chance of snow during a football game turns out to be significantly greater than the average frequency of snow during the year. Owners of ski slopes take notice of this data, and organize systematic kicking of footballs, in order to produce more snow, especially early in the ski season. Results are discouraging, which means the mechanism is more complicated, although basically correct.

Theories are developed about why rain drops penetrate through holes in roofs, but do not penetrate through other parts of roofs, where there are no holes. One theory is that rain drops normally are able to recognize that what they are hitting is a roof, and respond by flowing into the downspouts. Unfortunately, some raindrops are unable to detect roofs, and therefore come down at the location of holes, and continue falling straight down, into the interior of the house. Another theory is that roofs normally recognize raindrops. But how could they do that?

This line of thinking gives people the idea of testing whether baseballs, tennis balls, golf balls, basketballs, and footballs will float in water. It is discovered that basketballs and footballs float better than either tennis balls or baseballs, and float much better than golf balls. The conclusion is that water is able to recognize golf balls, better than it can recognize basketballs. This leads to experiments hitting golf balls up onto roofs which have holes in them. Leakage is often reduced, although you have to hit an awful lot of golf balls up onto the roofs to be sure of an effect, and they tend to clog the downspouts.

After many years of experiments, some clever scientist, building on the brilliance of researchers who had been working so hard for so long, invents the idea of climbing up onto the roof, finding the holes, and stuffing golf-balls into them. This insightful idea came to him one day, while he was up on a roof cleaning accumulated golf balls out of the downspouts. The new approach revolutionizes research in the field, and eventually wins a Nobel Prize for the employer of the guy who made the discovery. Further research reveals that stuffing tennis balls into holes often works as well or better than golf balls, depending on the size of the holes, because they are more flexible. Some leakage continues, but not as much as when nothing is stuck in the holes.

Textbooks eventually credit Abner Doubleday with having invented roofs. Although this is not accurate, Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball, either. But people say he did.

Their evidence is
(1) Baseball became popular after the Civil War.
(2) Doubleday was a Union general.
(3) Doubleday really did invent the San Francisco cable cars.

It's hard to argue with evidence like that.


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