No, it’s not a region in France. Provenance is a thing’s origin or source, and the history of its subsequent owners. It’s important when, for example, selling works of fine art. If you find a long lost Picasso in your granny’s attic you might have trouble convincing the experts it’s real, even if it looks real. If it’s very good, you might be able to sell it for a decent amount of cash, but doubt about its origin will mean you only get a fraction of what a verified Picasso would fetch. But if your granny could prove she worked as, say, Picasso’s housekeeper during the period he produced that type of work, you might get a lot more. The quality of its provenance would make it more likely the work was genuine. Provenance is a necessary factor in the valuation of art – to determine that it is (a) genuine and (b) legally owned.
Provenance is also useful in determining the validity of scientific claims. If the claim is based on earlier sound science – backed by quality evidence – it is more likely to be true. Not certain to be true, of course. But it will at least have scientific plausibility. But if the claim is based on something that was just made up, then it seems much less likely it would be true.
An example of a scientific discovery with provenance would be radio waves. First, a little background. James Clerk Maxwell was the first person to make color photographs from three black and white images. Maxwell developed his ideas about color photography from those of Thomas Young, who had theorized that color vision resulted from only three primary color receptors in the human eye. Using this information, Maxwell took three black and white photographs of the same object, each through a different primary color (red, blue or green) filter. That way, each photographic plate, although only appearing in black and white, would actually contain only the information from one primary color - that of the filter used. (Because a blue filter, for example, only transmits blue light). Maxwell’s technique was to project each of these three plates simultaneously onto a screen, but with each image projected back through a filter of the same color used when taking the original photograph. When all three images were projected in the exact same position, a full color picture was reproduced (see below). It must have seemed miraculous at the time. Of course, we know now that the three primary colors are all electromagnetic radiation, but just with slightly different wavelengths.
Maxwell’s main work was to investigate electricity and magnetism. His first paper on the subject built on Faraday’s earlier discoveries, and in 1862 Maxwell discovered that that the forces of electricity and magnetism were transmitted at the speed of light. Eventually, via experiment, Maxwell developed a set of four equations that could solve every mathematical query to do with electricity and magnetism. Possibly the most interesting aspect of these equations was that a constant in the equations – the equations used to describe electricity and magnetism – was “c”, the speed of light. Clearly, visible light was made of the same stuff as other electromagnetic radiation. And here’s the thing: Maxwell predicted from this that there would be other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves that were actually not discovered until 20 years later, by Heinrich Hertz.
The discovery of radio waves can be traced from the work done by Newton (who split white light with a prism), through Young, Huygens, Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and beyond. Hertz didn’t just wake up one day and say, “let’s see if I can generate radio waves”, his ideas were based on what had gone before. This meant that radio waves, although not yet proven to exist, were not as extraordinary a claim as they would have been but for the work done by Maxwell and the others. So the evidence for their existence perhaps didn’t have to be that extraordinary. None the less, solid evidence was presented, and is replicated every day by anyone who listens to the radio or watches TV.
Lack of Provenance for Woo
Now, compare the provenance of radio waves – the history of gradual increases in knowledge, backed by experiment – with, say, homeopathy. When Hahnemann first dreamed up homeopathy, there was no body of earlier work that showed that like might cure like, or that diluting things might make the good effects stronger (while making the bad effects weaker). On the contrary, Hahnemann really did wake up one day and say “I’ll bet like cures like”, or something very similar (and in German, probably). And when people got sick from taking his remedies (which was quite often), he really did dilute them and just say “diluting makes them stronger”. I’m not referring to the fact that he never tested these ideas by rigorous experiment (although he clearly didn’t). I’m referring to the fact that there was no body of work he was drawing on to reach his conclusions. I’m referring to the fact that he really did just make it up on the fly. While that does not, in and of itself, mean homeopathy is nonsense, its lack of scientific provenance does make it an extraordinary claim. And as I have written before, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. At the very least, this means that we require better evidence than we would demand for things that do have provenance – things that are based on earlier discoveries. But with homeopathy, we are always asked to accept lesser evidence – anecdotes, clinical notes from homeopaths, poorly designed tests.
The same is true with astrology. In my astrology challenge, I explained how Galileo discovered that the planets orbited the Sun and not the Earth - the provenance of our knowledge. I then asked for the similar information about astrology. I asked several leading astrologers actually, and they couldn’t tell me. Astrology has no scientific provenance, it was just made up. (And it doesn’t do what it claims.)
Likewise with psychic phenomena – psi. In pretty soon I gave a brief history of psychical research. But current parapsychology doesn’t depend on a history of earlier successful parapsychological experiments, each one building upon the knowledge gained from an earlier experimenter. On the contrary, the history of parapsychological research of the last 125 years is of experiments failed, psychics or experimenters found to have cheated, avenues of experiment abandoned and new experiments with weaker controls implemented instead. I suppose that’s a provenance of sorts – a failed provenance. Compare Hertz’s successful discovery of radio waves, building on the work of Maxwell, Faraday and Newton, with the dopes on Larry King two weeks ago, insisting that the dreams and “shadows” seen by some imaginative children are actually evidence of contact with people who have died. Claims based on nothing at all – in fact, claims belied by the consistent failure in over 125 years to build anything even remotely resembling a body of knowledge backed by solid experimental evidence.
When examining claims, it’s always good to examine the evidence for them, but it’s also instructive to examine the provenance of those claims. Whether it’s homeopathy, astrology, acupuncture, psychics, religion… woos can never demonstrate the provenance of their claims the way scientists can explain how, for example, radio waves were discovered. In fact, the really remarkable thing about most woo claims is not the total lack of evidence for them, or even the evidence against them, although that is obviously remarkable. What’s really worth noting is that virtually all woo claims were not derived by experiment, but were just made up.
Perhaps it’s not that surprising – if woo claims had to be derived by experiment, there wouldn’t be any woo claims.