Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 31, 2008

Psychic Predictions for 2009

Filed under: astrology,humor,Miscellaneous,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 2:05 pm

Psychic Predictions

I have studied the stars, felt the metaphysical forces that flow through the cosmos, and they have all led me to the following psychic predictions for 2009:

(1) There will be a UFO sighting in or near a major US city during 2009. The government will have no official confirmation of it being a UFO.

(2) Despite a lot of pressure from certain groups (such as MUFON) and the apparent interests of his transition chief, John Podesta, Barack Obama will not do any UFO disclosure once he becomes president.

(3) Assuming the Large Hadron Collider actually becomes operational, there will be a significant earthquake that will cause damage when it does. And within 2 weeks, there will be at least a magnitude 6 earthquake.

(4) Towards the end of March and through the first weeks of April, the sun will swallow an entire planet, though it will miraculously emerge intact by May.

(5) Scientists will still not be able to explain why constants, such as gravity, the speed of light, and the mass of quarks are what they are from first principles, leaving open the possibility that the universe was designed by an intelligent being.

(6) People will continue to believe that the planet Niburu is going to throw Earth out of orbit in 2012, despite those annoying scientists who say otherwise.

(7) On January 7, February 3, March 3, March 30, April 26, June 20, July 17, August 14, September 10, and November 3, the great reflective orb in the heavens will occlude some Sisters from sight.

(8) 2009 will be another year for some amazing new discoveries in astronomy, especially in the fields of extrasolar planet research and large-scale cosmology.

(9) Much fewer sunspots than had been predicted will continue to confuse astronomers, and there will be some people who link it to global temperatures.

Horoscopes

Aries: You will find that anger does not work well in places of employment, except when it is able to accomplish your goals.

Taurus: Your headstrong nature may lead you astray unless you temper it with your more pragmatic side.

Gemini: You found 2008 economically depressing, but if you’re careful and plan wisely, you can recover in 2009.

Cancer: If you pay close attention to your home life, you will find 2009 to be very rewarding domestically.

Leo: 2009 is not the best year for you to strike out on your own. Keep your attention-seeking tendencies in check and you will find your efforts rewarded.

Virgo: This is a year where your ability to help others should flourish.

Libra: Keep trying to be less lazy this year, especially in your procrastination. Doing so will help in all aspects of your life in 2009.

Scorpio: When someone does something you don’t like or disagree with, don’t feel as afraid to speak up. As long as you’re calm and rational about it, your ideas should be met with appreciation.

Sagittarius: Seek out new things in 2009. Find a new hobby, make a new friend, etc., and you will be rewarded for the experience.

Capricorn: Remaining practical and pragmatic in this year of change will help ground you throughout 2009.

Aquarius: Take a chance this year – your originality in the work place may be rewarded.

Pisces: You may find a friend trying to confide in you this year, and if you let your own sensitive, empathic side come through, your friendship will deepen and they will be very appreciative.

December 29, 2008

Answers in Genesis Year-End Review of Astronomy – An Assessment


Introduction

Answers in Genesis (AiG), a young-Earth creationism think tank headed by Ken Ham (the folks that built the creationism “museum” within an hour’s drive of my hometown), has published their Year in Review for 2008, featuring a recap of their biggest headlines.

They address 13 main points, the first four being astronomy related. While they are mostly fairly benign in and of themselves, I thought I’d briefly address them myself and express my own opinions about their take on them.

(1) In Search of the Big Bang

The top of their list is a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that was unfortunately taken off-line until at least next summer due to a helium leak. The purpose of the LHC, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is to conduct four main experiments for the purpose of creating densities and energy levels (in very tiny volumes of space) that approach what physicists think the universe was like soon after the Big Bang.

Possibly because the LHC was never fully functional, this AiG wrap-up really has nothing much to say about it. Rather, the author devoted half the space to an ad hominem, non sequitur attack at something that (by the nature of it being a non sequitur) is not related to the LHC operations nor experiments at all.

(2) Water, Water Everywhere

NASA’s mantra has been “Follow the Water” for several years now, something that I addressed in this blog post. Briefly, the main reasoning is that the search for life is perceived to be “sexy” and something that inspires the public, and then hopefully congressional purse strings. The relation between water and life is that every form of life that we know of requires water in order to be active. Hence, we are most likely – based on our experience here – to find extraterrestrial life where there is extraterrestrial water. And it is much easier to find water than it is to just start searching for life.

With that in mind, AiG’s article then states, “Evolutionists seem to believe that observing the ingredients of life is evidence that those ingredients could self-organize. Taking this logic into the kitchen, couldn’t we say that since we observe flour, sugar, eggs, and the like, cakes are able to mix and bake themselves?”

There are two logical fallacies here, one for each sentence. The first is a straw man. As I have just explained, us “evolutionists” (“evilutionists?”) do not believe that observing ingredients for life is evidence that they could self-organize. We’re simply narrowing the search.

For example, let’s say that you were going shopping for a new shirt. The first thing you would do is to figure out where the stores are that sell clothes. The second would be to then systemmatically go from one to the other until you found one that sells shirts, and then from those you would search for a shirt you liked. That’s what astronomers are doing with the search for life. What you would not do is just go from store to store – be it a video store, grocery store, pet store, etc. – in search of your shirt because there’s no point in looking for a shirt in a store that doesn’t sell clothes.

The second fallacy is a false analogy. Putting out ingredients for a cake on a kitchen counter and then expecting them to assemble into a baked cake is just stupid. And that’s not what we’re saying happened with life. First off, origin of life study is not evolution. But besides that, what the current ideas for origin of life are is that you had molecules (not macroscopic cups of flour and sugar and eggs) that over time (as in not in the hour you leave them on your counter) happened to come together via external forces (as in not doing nothing with the ingredients sitting on your counter) to make a self-contained, self-replicating-capable protocell.

That’s very different from a cake magically assembling and baking itself.

(3) Earth Versus the Other Worlds

This section is just a massive two-paragraph argument from ignorance (not meant as an insult, but as a formal logical fallacy). This year was impressive in exoplanet research, which included the first real imaging of exoplanetary systems (one from Keck, the other from the Hubble Space Telescope) and the lightest-mass planet yet, one about 5 times Earth’s mass.

One of the many difficulties in finding exoplanets is that our methods work best with massive planets that are very close to their parent stars. And — gasp!! — that’s what we’ve found so far!! We, quite simply, do not have the technology to detect Earth-like planets yet. It’s really as plain as that. Saying that they don’t exist is a conclusion from complete lack of data – an argument from ignorance.

With that in mind, I will simply provide AiG’s section on this and then move on:

Exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) have become one of the hottest topics of late in astronomy, as secular “astrobiologists” search for Earth-like planets among the stars. This year, we covered Super-Earths and the search for Earth’s twin; planets MOA-2007-BLG-192L, WASP-12b, and “Vulcan”; and the first-ever true “sighting” of an exoplanet.

Yet all this time, we’re still learning about how special Earth and our solar system are. As we wrote in July, “[I]n spite of the evidence that Earth is indeed unique and that the existence of life on Earth is no mere accident, evolutionists cling by faith to their worldview,” and (separately), “Everything we learn continues to point to the fact that Earth and its astronomical environment are anything but ordinary—in fact, our planet and solar system are unique.”

(4) Our Friend Phoenix

This is pretty similar to the first news item on the LHC – they’re grasping at straws:

As for most of Phoenix’s discoveries, we said in July that, “though [they don’t] prove the possibility of life, [they don’t] disprove it, either—and thus evolutionists use it as a basis for clinging to the hope that evidence of life may some day be found (and prove an evolutionary origin for life on Mars and elsewhere).”

What do they mean by “clinging to … hope” about finding ET life? Personally, I’m not big on astrobiology. It doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I think it’s a fascinating question, but I also think that influenza is fascinating and I’m glad other people are out there researching it but not me. But Phoenix had as much to do about “finding life” as finding water on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). The instruments on the craft were not designed to detect life, they were designed to look for water (on Phoenix) and do general chemical analysis (on Phoenix and Cassini). I’m still not completely honed in on logical fallacies, but my call on this is pretty much an argument from ignorance wrapped up in a non sequitur.

Wrap-Up

I won’t be doing my own year-end astronomy news review, partly because I just started this blog in September. Personally, I may say that the biggest pseudoastro news would relate to either the conspiracies surrounding the LHC or Edgar Mitchell’s take on UFOs (he’s a former Apollo astronaut, so the UFO community used him as a massive argument from authority to back up their claims).

Consequently, I’m going to just address other folks’ wrap-ups, if they exist. And AiG has provided my first opportunity to do so. They bring up some very important advances in astronomy, but as usual, their interpretation is steeped in fallacies and misunderstandings.

December 24, 2008

There Is No Dark Side of the Moon

Filed under: misconceptions,moon — Stuart Robbins @ 5:59 pm

Introduction

I blame Pink Floyd. But perhaps I shouldn’t, since I’m sure the album title “The Dark Side of the Moon” reflected the very popular misunderstanding that THERE IS NO PERMANENT DARK SIDE of the moon.

I wouldn’t have even thought to write about this except that Time magazine – a journal which I hold a fair amount of respect for in its reporting breadth and accuracy – had an article today commemorating the Apollo 8 astronauts and they make the very same mistake.

Lunar Orbit

The moon orbits Earth. Fairly simple. Earth orbits the sun. Again, fairly straight-forward (unless you’re a Bible literalist, a flat earther, etc.).

While Earth orbits the sun, it also rotates once on its axis per day. The side facing the sun is the day side and the side facing away is the night side. But, since it rotates, all parts of Earth experience both day and night once per day (let’s ignore those poor fools folks in the Arctic Circle).

Now, just as the earth rotates on its axis as it orbits the sun, the moon also rotates on its axis while it orbits Earth.

Tidally Locked

Let’s ignore the mechanics of the vocabulary and simply say that “tidally locked” means that an object always shows the same side to the object that it is locked to. That’s why the moon always shows the same side towards Earth (ignoring nutation and libration). If it weren’t rotating on its axis, then we would always see different sides of the moon, just as the sun would always see the same side of Earth if Earth weren’t rotating.

So now we have a rotating, tidally locked object around Earth. And because it rotates, it has BOTH night and day! Yes … there is a “dark side” to the moon just as there is a dark side to Earth, but that side is always changing because the moon rotates.

Lunar Phases

When we see a new moon (which we can’t see unless its blocking the sun), we are seeing the same side we always do. Except that it’s dark. It’s completely dark because it is now night on that side. When we see a first quarter moon (half full, sets around midnight), the side we see is still the same side we always do, but half of it is lit and half of it is dark – night and day.

When we see a full moon, again, we see the same side we always do, but now the half that’s dark is completely facing away from us, and the entire part that is in day is what is facing us.

Time Magazine’s Error

“Orbital mechanics also demanded that the maneuver occur on the dark side of the moon, entirely out of radio contact with Earth. At 68 hours and 58 minutes into their journey, the crew buckled in and vanished around the moon’s far side.”

The lunar phase during December 21 and December 26, 1968, was between 9-56% full. In other words, the “far side” was not the “dark side,” despite the author of this article, Jeffrey Kluger, using them synonymously.

Final Thoughts

You may wonder why I choose to point this out, apparently quibbling over “small” details. It’s because the title of this blog is “Exposing PseudoAstronomy,” and the purpose is to, well, expose pseudoastronomy. Not understanding that the lunar “dark side” is not a static location on the moon is a very popular misunderstanding. The fact that it’s propagated through into a highly respected news outlet, admittedly, was something I found very annoying. I’d been wanting to address this issue for awhile, and this gave me an opportunity.

Why is it important? Because if you think there’s an actual side of the moon that’s always dark, you don’t understand how the moon orbits Earth. Why there are phases. Why we always see the same side. Why a solar eclipse can ONLY happen when there’s a new moon and why a lunar eclipse can ONLY happen when there’s a full moon. And as someone who has taught college astronomy labs and tried to work with students to dispel these myths, I’m hoping that this post may save at least one future student from believing this common mistake.

December 23, 2008

Happy Christmas Eve from the Moon – 40 Years Later

Filed under: apollo moon hoax,flat earth concept,moon — Stuart Robbins @ 7:02 pm

Introduction

The Apollo 8 mission was the first to successfully orbit the moon and the first manned craft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull (as the primary gravitationally attractive object).

The mission was launched on December 21, 1968, and it landed December 27, 1968. On Christmas Eve (UTC), the crew (Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders) saw something that no human had ever seen in -person: Earth rising over the lunar horizon, on December 24, 40 years ago.

Earth rising over the moon as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts.  Photo AS8-14-2383.

Earth rising over the moon as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts. Photo AS8-14-2383.

Why Is This on a PseudoAstronomy Blog?

The purpose of this blog is not to really post news nor pretty pictures nor random religious holiday messages. Rather, a photograph of Earth from the moon is directly relevant to two things I’ve discussed before – the Apollo Moon “Hoax” and the Flat Earth Society.

Both claim that we never actually went to the moon. The first does so through many different, random claims that fail to create any cohesive story as to what “really” happened. The latter do so really out of necessity – when you believe the Earth is flat and that a giant glass dome holds the air in, you kinda have to reject any of this modern space-age stuff (such as going to the moon, weather satellites, or even GPS).

The purpose of this very brief post is not to get into those claims here, but rather to remind my readers that actually do think we’ve been to the moon what those pioneers went through. Imagine being one of those three men, watching that small blue marble rise over the barren lunar landscape, and thinking that all of our history – from dinosaurs to cars, bacteria to your kitchen blender – happened on that small blue globe floating in the inky blackness of space.

And now, 40 years later, there are people who vehemently deny the trip was ever taken.

For further reading, Time magazine has a good article on this.

December 21, 2008

Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 11:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Introduction

I’ve decided to write this post so that I have something to refer to and don’t have to constantly re-define these words: Fact, Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

This may seem silly. “Why,” you may ask, “would you have to define such simple little words?” The reason is that the colloquial use of these words by the general public is very different from their usage by scientists. And let’s really just jump to the chase here: Calling something “Just a Theory” shows both the ignorance of Cobb County, Georgia public school administrators and anyone else who tries to use that phrase to belittle a scientific conclusion.

Colloquial Use

To use math expressions, the general use of these words goes in order of importance as: Fact > Law > Theory > Hypothesis.

“Fact” in Everyday Language: A “fact” is something that is true. Whether you like it or not, “facts are stubborn things” (thank you, John Adams … or, “facts are stupid things” courtesy of Ronald Reagan). In general use, a “fact” is the strongest thing that can be said about, well, anything.

“Law” in Everyday Language: In everyday language, a “law” is generally on the same level as a fact. A law is something that is true, that generally explains or answers lots of different things. However, outside of politics, “law” is rarely used unless actually referring to something scientific.

“Theory” in Everyday Language: This is where the supposed insult to scientists comes in when you call something “just a theory.” Outside of scientific circles, a “theory” is more of a supposition. “I have a theory that my cat will meow when it hears someone at the door.” It may or may not be “true,” but it’s a supposition I have that is probably supported by at least some sort of observation. But it’s really “just a theory” and is just as likely to be shown wrong at any given time as it is to be shown right.

“Hypothesis” in Everyday Language: A “hypothesis” is sort of on the same level as a “theory,” if slightly below. To most people, they can be used interchangeably, though most will just resort to “theory” because “hypothesis” is an extra syllable longer and makes you sound like a nerd.

Scientific Use

In science, the order of importance of these is almost reversed: Theory > Law > Hypothesis > Facts. In addition, each term has a specific, well-defined use.

“Fact” in Science: It may surprise you to know that a “fact” is generally used the same way – it is an observation – but it is very specific. For example, if I drop a ball while holding it in the air above a surface, it is a fact that it will fall to the surface. This term is usually not used, however — we resort to “observations.” For example, I observe that when the wind blows, a flag will flutter.

“Hypothesis” in Science: This is an “idea” that is formulated to explain observations (or our “facts”). In the above to examples, I might hypothesize that there is a force that pulls on the ball, counteracted when I’m holding it. Or that the wind exerts a force on the flag that causes it to flutter. The purpose of a hypothesis is to explain one or more observations in a cogent way. A good hypothesis must be testable – it must be able to make predictions about what would happen in similar situations – otherwise a hypothesis can never be verified nor refuted … and it remains “just a hypothesis.” At present, String “Theory” is really just a hypothesis.

“Law” in Science: Laws are a descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances. For example, Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion are (1) Planets travel in ellipses with one focus being the Sun, (2) planets sweep out equal area in equal time, and (3) a planet’s period-squared is proportional to its semi-major-axis-cubed. Laws are generally made from many facts/observations and are effectively an “elevated” level from a hypothesis. Another example are the Laws of Thermodynamics. Because a Law is just a description of how something behaves and it does not explain why it behaves that way, it is usually considered to be below the level of a theory.

“Theory” in Science: A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law. Examples these days are the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the Germ Theory of Disease, and yes, the Theory of Evolution.

I should note that theories are usually conglomerations of several different hypotheses, laws, facts, inferences, and observations. For example, while the Theory of Evolution is a theory, various mechanisms for it are generally still hypotheses, such as Natural Selection (though some may quibble with me over that).

Another good example of a Theory is the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This describes how fundamental particles and forces interact. It is based upon countless experiments and observations and it rests on solid mathematical framework. It has many different laws in its make-up (such as how particles behave, or how forces interact) as well as many observations (such as the mass of the proton, or the energy of a tau neutrino).

A third example was partially mentioned above – Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. Tycho Brahe and Johannas Kepler made many detailed observations of planetary positions over the course of many years. Kepler formed a hypothesis about how planets moved based upon the data. From the hypothesis, he made predictions on where planets would be later on. When these were confirmed, his hypotheses were elevated to laws. Later, Isaac Newton came along and with his Theory of Gravity was able to provide a physics-based framework for why and how those laws worked.

Finally, it should also be noted that nothing in science is “forever.” It is always subject to further tests and observations. In many cases, people really do try to do this since that’s how you make a name for yourself. If you’re the scientist who has verified for the 123,194th time that a ball and a feather fall at the same rate in a vacuum, so what? But, if you’re the scientist that has found evidence that gravity itself is not a force emitted by an object but rather a bending of the fabric of space itself, then, well, you’d be Einstein – a household name.

(I make this note because a common argument you’ll see from creationists is that they say materialists always want to uphold the status quo.)

Final Thoughts

That’s really about all I wanted to do with this post – clarify these terms and what they actually mean in science. I’m not naïve enough to think that now suddenly this’ll clear everything up and no one will ever say something’s “just a theory” again, but at least now I’ve gone through all these terms step-by-step so that I can refer back to them when need-be.

Edited to Add: I think my post on “the final epsilon” is a relevant follow-up to this one. If you’re interested in the concept of how classical mechanics can still be a theory even though it disagrees at some level with the theory of relativity, I recommend reading it.

Creationist Claim: Spiral Galaxies “Wind Up” Too Fast for an Old Universe


Introduction

In preparation for a few public lectures I’ll be doing in the next 6 months, I wanted to address another one of the three main (that I’ve see) straight-forward young-earth Creationist claims about astronomy that “prove” we live in a young universe: Spiral galaxies “wind themselves up too fast.”

This is actually the #1 claim in Russ Humphrey’s treatise on “Evidence for a Young World” that you can find on sites such as Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research (e.g., this link).

Note that the #2 reason presented is that comets would disintegrate too quickly (which I’ve addressed here) and the #5 claim (#3 astronomy claim) is that the Earth’s magnetic field is decaying too quickly, which I will address in a future blog post.

About Spiral Galaxies

Spiral galaxies, such as the one above (M101), are generally medium- to large-sized congregations of stars. They have either a bulge in the center or a bar in the center. The bulk of the galaxy is a disk (much wider than it is thick) that contains spiral arms. For more basic information on galaxies, see this link.

The feature in question in creationist circles is these subjectively beautiful spiral arms themselves. The trick is that these arms are not “solid.” It is not the case that stars either always exist within a spiral arm or they always exist outside of an arm. Rather, the arms are constantly picking up stars and losing others. What the arms represent are just density waves.

The common analogy to think of is cars on a highway. You may be driving along with many dozens or hundreds of meters between you and the car in front of you. Then, for no apparent reason, you start to get much closer to the car in front of you. And then, for the next several kilometers, there are only maybe five to ten meters between you and the car ahead of you. Afterwards, traffic seems to thin out again and there’s a large distance between you and the next car.

What you have just experienced is a density wave. You are a star, traveling the road that is an orbit around the galaxy, and every now-and-then you find yourself in a density wave where you have to slow down.

The mechanism that perpetuates the density waves – why they don’t just dissipate – is that as a star approaches a density wave, it will speed up slightly due to the gravity of the stars there. And as a star is about to leave a density wave, it will slow down a little, again because of the higher gravity there. So they won’t just smooth out over time.

How did the spiral arms get there in the first place? The main idea here is that all you need is a disk of stars. Stars closest to the center of the disk will need to rotate around it faster than those near the edge, just like planets in our solar system (Mercury’s velocity around the sun is much faster than Earth’s). This can easily set up the initial differential rotation needed to start them.

In addition to this, stars do not orbit on circular paths, rather on elliptical ones (Kepler’s first law). When farthest from the center, their velocity will be at its slowest (Kepler’s second law). When you have just a few extra stars traveling a little slower in some parts of a differentially rotating disk, then you will get spiral patterns.

The Creationist Claim

To quote from a source other than Russ Humphreys: “Stars closer to the center of a spiral galaxy orbit the galaxy faster than stars farther away. Over many millions of years, the difference in orbital rates should wind the spiral tighter and tighter. We do not see any evidence for this in galaxies of different ages.” (This is from the Creation Wiki website.)

Problems with the Creationist Claim

The problem with this is that it rests upon the unstated major premise that density waves are physical parts of galaxies that contain a set of stars that is unchanging. That way, the differential rotation will cause them to “wind up” into a featureless disk. As I have already explained above, this is simply not the case. Galaxies are not like figure skaters.

Another problem is a timescale here. Russ Humphreys may be correct when he places a maximum age of “a few hundred million years” on his fallacious understanding of the theory of spiral galaxies. However, many others, including the one quoted above, will say “many millions of years,” or even “thousands of years.”

Those time scales are way too short. The sun takes about 250 million years to orbit around the galaxy once (as anyone who watches Monty Python knows). There is no way that – even given their faulty understanding of the model – galaxies would “wind up” within less than 1% the time it takes a star half-way from the center (about where we are) to complete a single orbit. This is actually a fairly good example (like comets) about how creationists often don’t understand the timescales involved with astronomical phenomena.

Creationist Refutes of the “Naturalistic” Refutes

(1) To quote again from the Creation Wiki website, the very first response to the explanation I have given is, “First of all this is a theory not a proven fact.” This is, to put it nicely, a bogus argument. As I have stated many times on this blog, a scientific theory is when a hypothesis has withstood all attempts to falsify it, and all data are explained by it. So even them saying it’s a theory is an admission of that. However, “theory” is often used in a derogatory manner by creationists because the colloquial definition is more along the lines of, “a vague idea.”

(2) The next response is, “Furthermore, it does not come from first principles, but is simply the latest in a series of theories designed to save the long age theoretical system from reality.” Well, yes it does come from first principles. Try running a computer model of spiral galaxies, and you’ll see it work pretty darn well after only plugging in “first principles” like gravity.

The next part of that, “series of theories,” is not as derogatory as they intend. Science progresses. If one theory has explained all the data to-date but then the next piece it can’t explain, then a new theory needs to be developed. This, of course, is in contrast to creationism where evidence that refutes their “theory” is simply tossed out the door.

The final part of that sentence, “series of theories designed to save the long age theoretical system from reality,” is simply an attempt to paint what I’ve presented as an Argument from Final Consequences (logical fallacy) when it simply is not.

(3) The final claims, that observations of M51 have shown that the arms in the center don’t fit with this theory – is a misreading of the technical literature. The reference given (Zaritsky et al. (1993), “Inner spiral structure of the galaxy M51,” Nature, 364) clearly states:

The coherence of the arms over this large radial range challenges current theories of spiral structure. We suggest that a combination of several mechanisms, such as the interaction of M51 with the neighboring galaxy NGC5195, forcing by the central ‘bar’, or distortions from density waves, is required to generate the observed structure.

No where does it “[call] into serious question [the spiral density wave theory] by the
Hubble Space Telescope’s discovery of very detailed spiral structure
in the central hub of the ‘Whirlpool’ galaxy, M51,” to quote Humphreys. Rather, it states that just using a simple model that I laid out that you would get in an introductory astronomy class does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot of it. But you do need other information in order to explain every detail of the observations.

Final Thoughts

I think that with this post, I’ve fairly tidily explained why creationist arguments for a young universe based on spiral galaxies are fallacious, generally falling subject to a gross misunderstanding of the theories involved, the technical literature, and various other, smaller, factors.

I also want readers to remember that I am not trying to undermine religion. Faith in a divine creator is a completely separate issue. It is only when people use that faith as a starting point to make testable, scientific claims that I will explore them and refute them if fallacious enough.

December 19, 2008

Record and Unusual Snows and Cold – Proof Against Global Warming?


Introduction

It seems as though every winter now for the past few years, there’s some report of record snowfall or cold temperatures. Last year it was snow in Baghdad for the first time in a century. This year it just snowed in Las Vegas, NV and we have record cold in New England.

And, for the past few years, whenever this has happened we have had global warming deniers clamoring to say that this is proof that not only is man-made (anthropogenic) global warming not true, but global warming period is not true. And predictably, this has happened in the last few days.

I haven’t yet written a post focusing on global warming in this blog, and I don’t really intend to concentrate on it – this is more of an astronomy blog. However, as an astronomer/geophysicist as well as someone sharpening my teeth on instances of bad logic, I wanted to address this issue at least once.

Logical Fallacies

There are two main logical flaws here that I want to address – correlation without causation, and anomaly hunting.

The basic idea behind confusing a correlation (or association) with causation is that because two or more things seem to fit together (they look alike, they happen at the same time, etc.), then they must be related. For example, under this fallacy I would assume that if I turn on my computer and the doorbell rings, then me turing on my computer caused the doorbell to ring.

It should be noted that things that are correlated sometimes really are due to a cause and effect. In that above example, if I turn on my computer and I hear the Apple start-up chime come from my computer’s speakers, then those two correlated events really are causally connected.

The point of the fallacy is that you cannot – and should not – always assume that just because things are associated then they are connected.

The other fallacy is anomaly hunting, where you search for anything that will support your cause out of a vast array of information that doesn’t support your cause, and then use that as proof that your cause is correct. This is very often used in conspiracy theories – such as the Apollo Moon Hoax or even the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – and since the anti-global warming movement has by this point adopted many of the tactics of conspiracy theorists, it is no wonder that this fallacy abounds in their arguments.

What Global Warming Actually Is

The theory of global warming is that, over time, and on average, Earth’s temperature increases. Pretty darn simple. This is also referred to as “climate change.” And this terminology is key: When I took an intro weather geology class in undergrad, I was hammered on two vocabulary words that are often used interchangeably but really mean very different things: Weather and Climate.

Weather is the condition of Earth’s atmosphere at a given time and place, including such things as density, pressure, humidity, and temperature. Climate is the weather patterns over a long period of time. I hope by this point you can see where this post is headed — tying together three threads: Correlation is not causation, anomaly hunting, and weather is not climate.

Now the question is – what would happen if the overall temperature of Earth went up by just a few degrees? Well, the obvious answer is that things would be warmer. But this is NOT the only consequence. A result of areas becoming warmer is that weather patterns can change. Regions of Earth that once got plenty of rainfall could see that diminish, and vice versa. In addition, the overall warming can lead to more extreme weather patterns, including colder weather in some places during the winter. Just a few small changes in the jet stream over North America can easily bring cold air from over Canada down into the lower 48 states.

Why An Abnormally Cold Winter Does Not Sound the Death Knell for Global Warming

Let’s go in reverse order. First, these nay-sayers are focusing on weather events and are not looking at overall climate. Overall climate does show a trend of increased temperatures tightly correlated with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the last few decades.

Second, they are assuming, effectively, an anti-correlation here, saying that this abnormally cold weather is the effect of global cooling, far from global warming.

And third, they are anomaly hunting, searching for the few events of cold weather or snowfall amidst an incredibly large amount of data that show evidence of global warming, such as the afore-mentioned actual temperature tracking, shrinking glaciers, and longer term temperature tracking from ice core samples and tree rings.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this post has fairly clearly shown that snow in Baghdad does not prove that global warming is a vast conspiracy propagated by leftist media and liberal scientists. I have no desire, here, to get into the politics of global warming nor really consequences — I simply want to show that the cold weather that global warming deniers use as evidence against it are really missing the point in three main ways.

December 18, 2008

Sizes of Solar System Objects


Introduction

Often in astronomy, the term “think big” is under-thought by the general public. Most people don’t realize the HUGE distances and sizes involved in understanding something even as small as the solar system. This is epitomized by science fiction writers who almost always under-estimate the distances between objects.

For example, I was just watching an episode of Star Trek Voyager when someone mentioned that an object was relatively close, about 3 million km away. It was some anomaly in space. Now, this is a show where the ship is stranded on the other side of the galaxy, and they typically are traveling at speeds far in excess of light. 3 million km away is 2% the distance between Earth and the sun, and it takes light only 10 seconds to travel that distance. In other words, this object would be there and gone well before anyone could reasonably react, relay the information, make a command decision, and then have that decision implemented … the writers dramatically under-estimated the distances here.

I wanted to directly address this with a post comparing the sizes of objects in the solar system: Sun, Jupiter, Earth, and Moon.

Length, Area, and Volume

Forgive me if this seems like a trivial section, but often people do not realize how these three things are related and how they scale:

Length is the distance between two points. It is 1-dimensional.

Area is a region covered by an object in 2 dimensions. The area of an object is related to length2. It has units of length2.

Volume is how much 3-dimensional “area” an object covers. The volume of an object is related to length3. It has units of length3.

Ratios

Rather than get into exact numbers in this post, I thought I’d spare you all some math and use nice, round numbers in a ratio form. In this exercise, Sun = 1:

Length/Radius/Diameter:

  • Sun: 1
  • Jupiter: 0.1
  • Earth: 0.01
  • Moon: 0.0025

In other words, it would only take 10 Jupiters to fit across the sun. This is probably considerably less than you thought – length-wise, the sun really isn’t too much larger than Jupiter … or even Earth, where 100 Earths would fit across the sun.

Area:

  • Sun: 1
  • Jupiter: 0.01
  • Earth: 0.0001
  • Moon: 0.000006

Now we’re getting to something that probably makes more intuitive sense with what you may have been taught. Area-wise, there seems to be a much larger difference between these solar system objects. It would take 100 Jupiters tiled across the sun to block it out. This actually has direct application to discovering extra-solar planets:

With the transit method of finding exoplanets, a planet passes in front of its host star as seen from Earth. This dims the light from the star (since the exoplanet blocks it) and hence we can measure this dimming. If a Jupiter-like planet passes in front of a sun-like star, then it dims the light by 1%. This actually allows us to directly measure the diameter of the transiting planet AND hence calculate its density.

Volume:

  • Sun: 1
  • Jupiter: 0.0001
  • Earth: 0.0000001
  • Moon: 0.00000002

This is probably more like what you learned in school: The sun is “so big” that it would take 1 million Earths to fill it up. Which is true – it would take 100^3 (length-cubed) Earths to do this. Volume is also a measure of material – the sun has over 99.9% of the material in the solar system. And this is often quoted (actually I think the number that’s more often quoted is “over 99.98%”). This is why people think the sun is so large compared with what we think of in our every-day lives.

The Point

My point in going through this is that there was a post in a skeptics forum today by someone claiming that he came across the “myth” that the moon is “only” 400x smaller than the sun (or the sun “only” 400x larger than the moon). He thought that this was false, when in fact it wasn’t.

A probable reason as to why he thought it was false is that we generally think of volume when we think of the sizes of solar system objects, and, volumetrically, the moon is vastly smaller than the sun. But, length-wise, the moon really is only 400x smaller than the sun.

December 17, 2008

The Milky Way’s Black Hole Verified – Creationists Still Work Around It with Non Sequiturs


Introduction

About a week ago, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) sent out a press release about a very long 16-year study that tracked the positions of several stars in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. By watching the stars move, they can infer the gravitational force that affect their orbits, and hence the mass in the center of the galaxy. The result was verifying the presence – and shrinking the error bars on the mass of – the black hole that resides in the center of the Milky Way.

I didn’t realize that this was in any way related to young-Earth creationism, and yet, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) today (Dec. 17) published an article by Brian Thomas entitled “Fast-Orbiting Stars Puzzle Astronomers” that somehow connects this research to imply support for their creation “model.” It is made of five distinct inferences and conjectures that I address below.

Claim 1: This Shows Stars and Planets Can’t Form in Stable Orbits Naturally

To quote from the article:

An ESO news release stated, “The mystery still remains as to how these young stars came to be in the orbits they are observed to be in today.” Given a purely naturalistic origin scenario such as that offered in the Big Bang theory, one wonders how so many stars and planets came to be in orbits at all, rather than swirling off into space.

This is a non sequitur (“doesn’t follow”) logical fallacy. The mystery is how these stars seem to be on quasi-stable orbits around the black hole since the requisite velocity of the stars to not fall into the black hole is fairly high and, given what we know of galaxy formation, it is unlikely that these stars formed in that location with that velocity.

This has nothing to do with solar system formation. The prevailing model of solar system formation is that a giant nebula of swirling gas and dust will collapse and have a net rotation. As the cloud collapses, the center of it will accumulate the most material and form the star. Other parts of it – that are rotating – will also collapse and form planets. It is actually thought that many would-be planets do get ejected from the system due to interactions with any massive planets (like Jupiter).

Objects get ejected when they are given too much energy – a velocity boost. If the mass of the system is no longer large enough to overcome that velocity, then the object will escape. If the object is gravitationally bound, then by definition, it will be in orbit. And ultimately, that’s pretty much how we measure the mass of all objects in the universe – how fast objects that are gravitationally bound to them are moving.

It’s really hard to see how the ESO quote honestly has anything to do with why planets “came to be in orbits” — it’s just a complete non sequitur.

Claim 2: How Could Stars Share Orbits?

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel.

I’m not sure if this is a logical fallacy or not: Mis-reading the press release (I’ll assume an honest mistake). Contrast the ICR article statement of “astronomers … observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital parttern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel,” with the actual statement from the researchers:

“The stars in the innermost region are in random orbits, like a swarm of bees,” says [Stefan] Gillessen. “However, further out, six of the 28 stars orbit the black hole in a disc. In this respect the new study has also confirmed explicitly earlier work in which the disc had been found, but only in a statistical sense. Ordered motion outside the central light-month, randomly oriented orbits inside – that’s how the dynamics of the young stars in the Galactic Centre are best described.”

I read the ICR statement 3 times and each time got the impression that they are reading the article as saying that these six stars are on the same orbit – hence the Ferris wheel analogy. A better analogy would be the six cars being on a race track contrasted with a swarm of bees. The six stars orbit in the same plane like the planets in the solar system, but they don’t “share” the same orbit. The stars that are closer to the black hole orbit in more random orbits, like bees, or to extend the solar system analogy, more like comets.

Claim 3: The Stars Should Be Shredded … Much Less Be on Similar Orbits

The next claim is the sentence following Claim 2 (repeated for context):

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel. The question is complicated by the likely effects of the violent “forces of the black hole” that would rip stars apart, not place them on a galactic train track.

This is a case of quote-mining. When the press release talks about “forces of the black hole” (in this case, tidal forces which occur when the gravity pulls more on one side of an object than another causing it to stretch), it does so in the context of it’s hard to get our current models to actually form stars near the black hole … it has NOTHING to do with the stars’ orbits.

\And that – what the press release says – is interesting science: Researchers want their theories to be tested and if they can’t explain something, that’s good because it forces them to revise their theories. If we already knew everything, there’d be no point in doing science.

Claim 4: Somehow Tying in SETI Makes Creationism Real

When I read the next paragraph, I honestly had to read it twice to see if there was any natural progression from the quote from the ESO press release to their claims about SETI. It may be there, but it’s extraordinarily tenuous:

The ESO also stated, “Excitingly, future observations are already being planned to test several theoretical models that try to solve this riddle.” These models will certainly not include one that involves an outside intelligence having placed the stars in their orbits, even though other cosmologists have dedicated themselves to the search for alien intelligence, which some believe may have even seeded life on earth.

Let’s analyze this:

(1) ESO is saying that more research needs to be done and that it is planned to be done to answer the question of how stars could either form close to the black hole or could migrate there fast enough (since they’re young stars). … Okay …

(2) ICR says that us secular scientists will no doubt NOT include models that say “God Did It.” … Okay …

(3) We won’t do this despite people who are dedicated to looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life. … Non sequitur …

(4) Some people believe in pamspermia – the idea that it was extraterrestrial life that originally seeded life on Earth. … Okay …

So the problem here really centers along that same non sequitur logical fallacy: Somehow, because the astronomers are looking for a natural means to get these stars here as opposed to an omnipotent being, that’s bad because other astronomers are actively searching for extraterrestrial life (effectively, SETI). It really is just that, a non sequitur; it’s hard to actually explain why because the two have NOTHING to do with each other.

Claim 5: Universal Fine-Tuning

The precise construction parameters of cosmic structures like these stars and the rules that govern them will only be intelligible as products of a supernatural Creator.

Rather than drag this post on any longer, I will refer you to my post where I directly address the issue of fine-tuning of cosmological parameters (basically a god of the gaps logical fallacy): Why the Universe’s Fine-Tuning Is NOT Evidence of Intelligent Design.

Final Thoughts

I really don’t have much else to say about this one. The only way Brian Thomas’ article makes sense is to completely ignore the non sequiturs – ignore any sense of logical progression from one claim to another, and simply take – on faith – that he’s tied it all together for you.

December 12, 2008

Casey Luskin’s Rant on an ET Life Library Book – He Just Doesn’t Get It


Introduction

I’ve been looking for a way to fit in another post about Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute, that has something to do with astronomy, and maybe have an opportunity to point out why Casey Luskin‘s rants on their podcast are really incredibly ignorant.

And today’s “ID the Future” podcast on “Materialist Science Fiction at a Public Library” provides me with just that opportunity. Oh, and it also gives me the opportunity to somewhat defend libraries, since I used to work at one I know something about them.

The Claims – An Overview

The paragraph description for this episode of ID the Future is:

On this episode of ID the Future, Casey Luskin examines the lame materialist science fiction being promoted to students at a local public library. With wild speculations on the existence of life outside our planet based on the idea that life just takes a “bing” and some interstellar chemicals, this book should be not on reference shelves, but in the science fiction section. Listen in as Luskin lays a Dewey decimal smackdown on Life on Other Planets.

Right off the bat, you can tell that this episode is not going to a nice, unbiased review of a book, given the language “Dewey decimal smackdown” as well as “lame materialist science.” Having worked at a library before AND being an astronomer, though, I was somewhat interested to see how these folks were going to formulate their complaints. So I listened to the ~5-minute episode.

The bulk of the episode focuses on numerous ad hominem attacks (attacks based on denegrating someone or something’s character in order to get you to be adverse to believing them) against the book in question, Life on Other Planets. The actual meat of Luskin’s arguments focus on his belief (yes, belief) that information cannot be naturally created inside a cell, that an external intelligence must have put it there. I’m not actually going to address that claim, though, since I am not a biologist.

I will address his claims about extra-terrestrial life and the SETI project.

But, before I get there, I would like to resort to my own little ad hominem attack …

Casey Luskin Doesn’t Know What a Childrens’ Book Is

In the podcast, about 40 seconds in, Luskin gives his own little overview of the book. He states, “The title page featured little green men with big alien bug-eyes, the kind of pictures you might see on some nutty UFO website.”

Okay, I looked at the book. You can view it for yourself on Amazon (it’s “Look Inside!” feature). Luskin plainly doesn’t know the difference between a Title Page (the page inside most books that has the – you guessed it – title!) from the Table of Contents (the page or pages inside most books that have the … contents!). In fact, that picture of aliens is quite clearly ON the page labeled, “Contents.”

But I digress.

Casey then states, “The book and its display were clearly aimed at students, perhaps junior high or high school aged.”

Perhaps it’s been a few years since he was in grade school. Perhaps he doesn’t remember quite what age-appropriate literature would be. Or perhaps he went to a school system that separated grades differently. Where I went to school, “junior high” was grades 6-8, and “high school” was grades 9-12. That would be ages 12-18.

The book is fairly clearly for a younger audience. You can tell that simply from the print size, the spacing between words, and the spacing between lines. In addition, Amazon fairly clearly states on their website: “Reading level: Ages 9-12.” Casey, that would be elementary school.

Besides this, if you look at the copyright page (that would be the page with the copyright information, Casey), the Library of Congress cataloging information clearly states, “Juvenile literature.” Not “Young adult” literature (the new term for that junior and high school level of reading).

You may think that I’m nit-picking here. Perhaps I am. But I am sure that I am not alone that when I think of “high school” material I think of reasonably in-depth information, and lots of good science. But when I think of “elementary school” material, I think of big print, lots of pretty pictures, and simpler prose to try to get children interested in science. The science should still be there and it should be accurate, but it can – and should – take on a different form for that age level.

Moving Along … A Problem with “Bing!”

This is where the age-appropriate language really comes into play and where Casey makes much ado about nothing. At 2 min 20 sec into the podcast, Casey is quoting from the book: “‘Put some common interstellar chemicals in a cold chamber with no air, zap it with radiation, and bing! you’ve got a protocell.'” (I don’t know the exact punctuation because Amazon doesn’t happen to have that page available for online viewing.)

From 2 min 25 sec through the next 10 seconds, and then for an additional 10 seconds later on, Casey harps on the “bing” language. That’s about 20 seconds. In a podcast with 5 minutes of material, that’s at least 6% of the time devoted to one word.

And I agree. “Bing!” should not be used in literature for high schoolers. They would roll their eyes and no longer pay any attention to it. But for children in grades 3-5, that language is fully appropriate, and inserting fun words like that can help keep them interested. Again, this is why Luskin’s inability to properly judge the target age of the book is an important part of his argument, and why I feel the need to point it out.

The Crux of the SETI Claims

Casey makes a rather large deal (at about 3 min 45 sec) about SETI’s purpose, and that, “SETI researchers are trying to find signals that imply an intelligent source.”

I’m not really surprised that he discusses this for awhile because that’s really what Discovery Institute researchers supposedly do: They try to look at biological systems and say that they could not have been constructed naturally so they must have been constructed by an intelligence. That’s where they stop. They don’t try to find out how those systems may have arisen naturally. In fact, they purposefully ignore studies that have shown how they evolve naturally, such as their bread and butter, the bacterial flagellum (which is a straw man since there isn’t “the” bacterial flagellum, there are many different kinds) or the mammalian eye.

SETI scientists, however, do look for signals that astronomers think (not believe) could not have been made from a natural source. And if they were found, there would be hundreds if not thousands of scientists debating the claims and trying to figure out a way that they could have been made naturally. And in the true nature of science, a consensus would eventually come out that would determine, in light of the evidence, whether that signal is made by artificial or natural means.

For example … in the 1960s, detectors were built and, when they were turned on, a very regular, very fast pulsing signal was discovered. This signal was found in other locations in the sky, with different pulsing rates and different intensities. But each time, it was incredibly regular, and often times incredibly rapid (such as over 1000 times per second). It was believed that this signal was artificial in nature because people couldn’t figure out how it could be made naturally. In fact, they were given the nickname of “LGM,” short for “Little Green Men.” Astronomers did not publically conclude that these were actually aliens. Even those that thought they were aliens tried to poke holes at the idea and really figure out what else they could be. And they certainly didn’t try to get it put into science text books that these were alien signals.

We now call these objects “pulsars,” which are collapsed, dead, massive stars about the diameter of Manhattan island, that rotate very quickly and beam radiation into space at the frequency that they rotate. If we had just stopped at, “It’s little green men, let’s try to communicate with them” instead of trying to figure out what else they could be, then we may not have ever really discovered this important – and useful – class of astronomical objects.

The same thing would happen if SETI found a signal that it believed was artificial. And we may discover a new class of natural object, but we may also have found ET life. For example, if it finds a signal that pulses the Fibonacci Sequence at us up to 100 (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89) or prime numbers up to 100, then it would be fairly difficult to conceive of a natural object that could do this.

Defending Libraries: Casey Luskin’s Ignorance of Classification

Luskin spends his last 40 seconds in the podcast in what I would literally consider a rant:

Perhaps the folks at this library could have used a little prodding from Conan [the Librarian]. Despite the patent over-statements and blatently false over-simplifications of Origin of Life Research in this book, the Dewey Decimal call number for Life on Other Planets was 576.8, or Life Sciences – Genetics & Evolution. In my view, if you’re going to market these kinds of false speculations to kids, better forewarn them by classifying the book in the 800s, Fiction.

There are two (main) things wrong with this:

(1) Libraries Don’t Really Choose the Dewey Number: Casey has a false premise here that individual library systems can just go around choosing their own Dewey number for books. That is false. In all books, at least those printed in the US, on the Copyright page there will be Library of Congress Cataloging Information. It will specify all of the information required for cataloging the book by libraries, and it will give a Library of Congress -assigned Dewey number. This book’s is 576.8’39, the ‘ meaning that numbers after it are only used in MASSIVE library systems that require further categorization. It also has the Library of Congress catalog system classification, QB54.D66 2003 for this book. That’s where the book will appear in any and pretty much all libraries.

(2) 800s are NOT for Fiction: Even in Casey’s rant and his attempt at a joke, he messes up. The Dewey system does not catalog works of fiction. Those are found in any library by subject (such as Mysteries, Science Fiction, Poetry, etc.). The Dewey 800s are used for Literature. In other words, famous and important, historical or contextual work that has something more to offer than just a good story. For example, Shakespeare has a Dewey number (822.33). Or Edgar Allen Poe (811.3). You will find William Shatner’s latest Star Trek fan fiction in the Fiction section, not under a Dewey number.

Wrap-Up

Alright, this post is a lot longer than I originally intended it to be. I apologize for that, but it was good to get it out of my system. I’ve listened to ID The Future podcast for so long that it’s nice to finally be able to do a blog post on Casey Luskin’s factual errors, ignorance, and distortion of the truth:

(1) He doesn’t realize the age level for this book, leading to skewed interpretations of age-appropriate language.

(2) He doesn’t know the difference between a Title page and a Contents page.

(3) He doesn’t know how library books are cataloged by Dewey number.

(4) He doesn’t know where Fiction goes in a library.

(5) He doesn’t realize how the scientific process works in terms of SETI’s search for a “signal that contains information.”

(6) He rants about how a childrens’ science book doesn’t claim that an intelligence is required to create life.

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