Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 31, 2011

Podcast Episode Three Is Up: Young-Earth Creationist Claims About Comets


I wanted to announce that the third episode of my Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast has been posted now to both the website and the RSS feed. It’s my first foray into young-Earth creationism in the podcast … the first of many. But, no one likes the same topic over and over and over and over again in a row, so I’m not going to have the next ten be about the YEC claims. I’m mixing it up a bit.

This podcast episode is also a bit longer than the last two (first was ~13 minutes, second ~15, this one ~25). The actual main content part is somewhat longer because there was more to go over, and it goes until around 16 minutes. The remaining time is spent on the puzzler (solution to last episode and the new one for this episode) and a new segment: Listener feedback! If nothing else, I want to show you that I DO read your feedback even if I don’t respond to everyone.

Oh, and the new logo should be appearing as album art. If you’d like to provide feedback on it, feel free. It was rendered in a fully 3D environment (huzzah for a time-waster!).

August 30, 2011

Richard Hoagland’s Selective Numerology of Comet Elenin


Introduction

Comet Elenin has been in the “alternative” media a lot for the past few months for reasons that I cannot fathom other than to think that the state of mind of most people has regressed several thousand years. I haven’t done any posts on it because there’s simply nothing to “debunk” as there’s nothing marvelous to report about it.

Putting that aside, Coast to Coast AM‘s science advisor, Richard C. Hoagland, was on last night (August 29/30) for two hours espousing more about his hyperbolic geometry and its relation to Comet Elenin. Far from being doomy and gloomy, Hoagland seems to believe that Elenin is actually an advanced spaceship sent from a previous advanced society from Earth to us to help get us out of trouble.

His evidence? Numerology.

The Magical Statistical Thinking of Richard Hoagland

Before I start, I have to say, I am not making this up.

Now that that’s out of the way, Hoagland claims that the chances of Elenin approaching the inner solar system as-is is less than 1 in 230 million. Therefore it has to be artificial. How does he get to that number? This way:

  1. The Russian mathematician, Leonid Elenin, who discovered his now namesake comet, did so when the comet had a magnitude (brightness) of +19.5 (this is actually really faint). Hoagland says the brightest comet observed was in the 1960s and was -17 magnitude, while the faintest is Halley with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and it was at +28.2 magnitude. So with a range of 45.2 magnitudes, the chances of finding it at 19.5 is 1 in 45.2.
     
  2. The odds of Elenin visiting Earth on a particular day, in this case Sept. 10/11, is 1 in 365.
     
  3. The odds of it visiting on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, are 1 in 10.
     
  4. Elenin’s closest approach to Earth will be on a (unimportant to Richard) day but at 19:50 GMT (remember, 19.5 is a magical number to Richard). So that’s a 1 in 1440 chance (60 minutes times 24 hours in a day).

At this point, if we multiply these numbers together, we get a 1:237,571,200 chance. Wow!

Hoagland then makes a big deal about the comet being on a hyperbolic orbit (meaning that the eccentricity is >1.0 (e=0 is a circle, 0<e<1 is an ellipse, e>1 is a hyperbola)). He claims that this is the first comet ever found to be on a hyperbolic orbit.

But there's more that he then goes into:

  1. The comet has an orbital inclination of 1.84° to Earth. He takes the 360 degrees in a circle and divides by 1.84° to get 195 (remember, 19.5 is important to Richard).

Multiply that in and you get odds of 1:46,481,321,739. Wow!

Does Any of That Make Sense?

To put it succinctly, “no.” If you want the long version …

Point 1. Richard has to know with this point that he’s full of it. First, he’s wrong about comet C/1965 S1, AKA Ikeya-Seki. It reached magnitude -10, not -17. Because the magnitude scale is logarithmic, Richard is wrong by a factor of about 1000x in brightness. But besides this, comets are not discovered when they are at their brightest. They are usually discovered when they are around the position of Jupiter in the solar system and are somewhere in the upper teens on the magnitude scale. In the case of Ikeya-Seki, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the comet was “first observed as a faint telescopic object on September 18, 1965.”

In terms of how faint a comet can be and still be visible, Hale-Bopp will pass from visibility in about a decade when it nears +30 magnitude, so Richard is probably right about his +28ish as the faintest. But then, why did he use integers in his math? Why didn’t he say that the chances of it being discovered at 19.5 was one in 452 instead of 45.2? You could really make anything up here.

But regardless, as I said, the majority of comets are detected in the teens of magnitude, so I’ll give this perhaps a generous realistic probability of 1 in 5.

But even then, so what?

Point 2. This whole thing with the odds of something happening on a particular day really bugs me. It’s the same issue I have with the Global Consciousness Project in terms of what constitutes a “significant event.” In this case, Hoagland is claiming that the odds of its closest approach to the sun on a particular important anniversary in the US are 1 in 365. True. But what about it happening on Christmas? Thanksgiving? V-Day? D-Day? Pearl Harbor Day? A presidential election? Mother’s Day? What about Bastille Day? Guy Fawkes Day? Boxing Day? Cinco de Mayo?

And why just its closest approach to the sun? What about when it crosses Earth’s distance inboud? Outbound? Closest approach to Earth inbound? Outbound? Crosses Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter?

This is the problem with a retrodiction — you can find almost anything significant somewhere in the world when you have a day and/or time as your constraint. I’m giving him even odds on this one, 1 in 1.

Point 3. I should probably combine the whole 10th anniversary thing with the previous point, but suffice to say, this is again nothing significant. If it were the fifth anniversary, he’d claim significance. Second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. And he’d continue to give the 1 in 1, 1 in 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. odds, despite these odds really not meaning anything because you could say, “What are the odds that out of a hundred anniversaries, it would be on the 10th? That’s 1 in 100, not 1 in 10!” So again, I’m giving him even odds on this one that he’d find something significant.

For those of you keeping score, we’re at 1:5, not 1:164,980.

Point 4. Yet again, the 19.5 number. Except, not. 19.5 hours GMT would be at 19:30, not 19:50. And, you could really choose any time zone around the world. So if Richard is allowing a ±20-minute window around 19.5 hours and we can choose any time zone, then this is a 2:3 chance, not 1:1440.

Point 5. There are a few things wrong with this. Well, two. First, 1.84 divided into (not by) 360 is 195.65217… . Rounding, this is 196, not 195. It’s also, well, 196, not 19.6. But besides this, his math is wrong because it “should” be 90/1.84. This is because if the comet were approaching from the “other” direction, it would still have that same angle relative to the plane of the solar system, so we’ve now cut our 360° circle in half to 180°. Second, if it were coming below the plane of the solar system, it would still be listed as having an inclination of 1.84°, so we’ve cut the circle in half again to 90°.

So it’s really a 1 in 48.9 chance that the inclination would be between 0 and 1.84°, a fairly insignificant inclination angle since most objects in the solar system orbit in roughly the same plane. You would have to multiply this into the probability distribution of inclination angles of known long-period comets to actually get the odds, and I’m not going to bother going through that math as I think we can agree at this point that it’s, again, an insignificant number.

So in the end, we have a roughly 1 in 5 chance that Elenin would have the level of significance that Hoagland places on it. Not 1 in 46 billion.

In addition to all this, though, Hoagland is wrong about this being the only comet on a hyperbolic trajectory. In fact, there are 259 known comets with hyperbolic orbits. And, while Elenin had an eccentricity of 1.0000621 early on, it was perturbed into that and is continuing to be perturbed such that when it exits the inner solar system should have an eccentricity of around 0.9991 (source).

Final Thoughts

I’m actually prepping a “bonus” episode of my podcast to come out on Sept. 10/11 to talk a bit about the Comet Elenin foolishness that’s going around the interwebz. But this was just too wrong to ignore as I was listening to Hoagland while doing work this morning. I hope that I’ve shown you that this particular brand of numerology is absolutely wrong and completely made up. Besides being magical thinking — he really just made up some of those numbers, completely ignored basic observational methods in others, and retrofitted to significance the rest.

It’s just wrong!

August 25, 2011

“The Apollo Moon Hoax” Presentation on Saturday

Filed under: apollo moon hoax,conspiracy theories — Stuart Robbins @ 12:30 am
Tags: , ,

Moon Hoax Poster

Moon Hoax Poster

Sorry for the late-late notice, but if anyone who reads my blog is in or around the Colorado Springs, Colorado (USA) area, I will be giving a version of my talk about the Apollo Moon hoax: “The Apollo Moon Hoax: Why We Did Not Not Go to the Moon.”

The presentation will be about an hour including ~10 minutes for questions. It starts at 3PM and will be part of the Colorado Springs SkeptiCamp held at the Gay and Lesbian Fund, 315 East Costilla Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80903. (I personally find it interesting that there is a GLBT center in Colorado Springs considering how creationist the town is — it’s where the Focus on the Family headquarters is.)

In the presentation, I go through many claims put forth by Moon hoax proponents and show quickly and easily why they’re all, well, wrong. As an interesting bit of trivia, an earlier version of this talk was the first ever talk presented in conjunction with any SkeptiCamp. It wasn’t the first actual SkeptiCamp talk, but it was the talk the night before at the pre-party.

August 24, 2011

Eroding Continents, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, and Young-Earth Creationism


Introduction

Recently, I’ve done a lot of posts on young-Earth creationism (YEC), and the majority of those have been based on the Institute for Creation Research’s daily “science” updates (or as the Eye on ICR blog calls them, “daily pseudoscience updates” or “DpSU”). As such, when yet another geology-related one came out this week, I was going to ignore it. Especially because said Eye on ICR blog already covered it (don’t you have homework, Peter?).

But then I read this particular “DpSU” again, entitled “Continents Should Have Eroded Long Ago,” and I decided that, actually, there was something I wanted to cover from it.

The Obligatory Summary and Wrongness of the ICR Article

I do have to briefly summarize these points before I get to the larger issue I wanted to address. Basically, in said article, the “science” writer Brian Thomas talks about a recent paper that estimates the rate of erosion of continental crust material. The paper, by Eric Portenga and Paul Bierman, is freely available for anyone to read and it is in a legitimate publication (as in it’s not something like the “Answers Research Journal” or “Creation Science” or “Origins”).

The paper itself is actually somewhat interesting. It’s about 7 pages long, has big pretty full-color images, and may be somewhat understandable to someone without any background in the field (I do apologize, but even though I swore I never would, I do lose track of how much background the general public has in these areas). I should also note that this paper is a metanalysis of previously published data, so the authors themselves did not go into the field but rather pulled a lot (1599) numbers from the literature. The paper was really comparing two different erosion rates, that of rock outcrops to those of basins. To quote the very first page, they found “Drainage basin and outcrop erosion rates both vary by climate zone, rock type, and tectonic setting.”

But, they calculated an average erosion rate of 12±1.3 meters per million years (or 12±1.3 micrometers per year) though the median was 5.4 µm/yr. This large difference of a factor of ~2x between the average and median (median is the middle number of a sorted list) indicates that the data are highly skewed towards lower erosion rates. They found erosion rates within drainage basins to be about a factor of 20x larger with a 218±35 meters per million years (218±35 µm/yr) average, or 54 µm/yr for the median (again indicating a skew towards slower rates). They then discuss variations in different locations, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and have more discussion in the paper than I want to put here.

So, that’s what the authors of the paper found.

Where Mr. Thomas comes in is the following: “According to the study, the average erosion rate for outcrops was 40 feet every one million years. The average thickness of continental crust above sea level can be estimated at about 623 meters, or 2,044 feet. To erode 2,000 feet of crust at 40 feet per one million years would require only 50 million years. So, if the earth is billions of years old, why is its surface not completely flat?” He does the same with basins and claims that this puts a limit at 3 million years.

He then shoots down the idea that geologic uplift is happening with a 1986 paper by a creationist in a creationist publication and then states, “The fact that mountains and even continents still exist is testimony to the young age of the earth. It looks as though the continents cannot be billions of years old, because they would all have eroded in a fraction of that time. And yet they still stand tall.”

Well, one problem with this is simply that, even if we assume everything he wrote is true, we could still easily have a million-year-old planet, no problem, not a 10,000-year-old one.

Another problem is simply that he’s wrong wrong wrong. Did I mention he’s wrong? He ignores things like isostasy where regions of continents are still moving upwards from the last ice age. He ignores volcanism and how volcanoes build mountains (do I really have to cite a source for that?). He ignores that fact that non-volcanic mountain ranges are still growing, where, for example, the Himalayans are growing at a rate of about 6 cm/yr (2.4 inches/year). For those who are really really bad at math, 6 cm/yr is much larger than 5 µm/yr — larger by a factor of 12,000. More than enough to keep up with erosion.

Now, I really don’t think I have to go much further in showing the sheer willful ignorance of Mr. Thomas on this topic. But this feeds into a much larger one that is near and dear to every YEC’s God-given heart.

Uniformitarianism versus Catastrophism

I can almost guarantee that you will never hear the terms “uniformitarianism” nor “catastrophism” unless you pay attention to creationist writings or you delve very deep into the history of philosophy of science or, specifically, geology.

Over-simplified, uniformitarianism is the notion that all processes that exist now are the same as they have been. Creationists assume this when they say the Moon cannot have formed 4.5 billion years ago because it is currently moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1 inch per year and if you run the numbers backwards (assuming uniformitarianism), then it crashes into Earth way before 4.5 billion years ago.

In contrast, catastrophism is the opposite, where rates of change will change, sometimes being faster and sometimes slower.

What I find fascinating is that YECs will use catastrophism to explain practically everything in their view of natural history. God stretched out the heavens so we get away from the “distant starlight problem.” God made the world and all that stuff in a day or two so we don’t have to deal with formation times of the solar system. The flood explains the Grand Canyon, sedimentary rock layers, Earth’s magnetic field reversals, and lots of other things. All fall under catastrophism.

As a consequence of this embrace, they deride us evilutionists for assuming uniformitarianism. Hence uniformitarianism is assumed with the speed of light, universal constants, radiometric dating, continental drift, etc.

And yet, when given the opportunity to take a bit of modern science and twist it to their own agenda (as in the case of this paper), they assume uniformitarianism! Thomas’ assumption that the basins would be flat within 3 million years is based on the currently observed rates. Same with the continents. And same with several other topics I’ve addressed in this blog over the past three years.

Final Thoughts

I realize that those of you who are not YECs are going to read the above section and think, “What do you expect? Creationists are never consistent with the facts, they distort them to suit their argument-of-the-minute.”

Fair enough. But, I find it enlightening and, yes, even slightly exciting to find yet another inconsistency in their arguments. Granted, the argument in the particular article of this post is completely wrong based on very basic geology that I think most third graders have learned (if you know about volcanoes, you know his argument is wrong). But, it also exposes this inconsistency.

When it suits them, the catastrophic Flood explains everything we can throw. But when it suits them, they take a modern scientific measurement, assume a dramatically flat uniformitarian extrapolation, and hence show that Earth can’t be as old as it is.

Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve pointed out formal logical fallacies, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are two basic ones here. The first is a reductio ad absurdum where he’s reduced the study’s results far beyond what the authors intended. The second would be a basic straw man where, as a consequence of reducing the study to something stupid, they’re extrapolating it to argue a point that is obviously false but was never intended to be made.

Edited to Add …

I can’t believe I left this out, that that plucky guy over at Eye on ICR pointed it out quite well: The paper that Mr. Thomas is pulling the latest erosion estimates from relied upon 10Be-based ages. It’s not important to go into the mechanics for this particular method here, suffice to say this is a radiometric-based age. But, wait a sec, creationists – including Mr. Thomas – very frequently argue against radiometric ages because they seem to think they don’t work! (Check out, for example, “Radiometric Dating: Making Sense of the Patterns” from AiG, “Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth” from AiG, “Feedback: Dating Techniques” from AiG, “Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable” from ICR, “The Sun Alters Radioactive Decay Rates” from ICR, “Dating in conflict: Which ‘age’ will you trust?” from CMI, or “Nuclear physicist embraces biblical creation” from CMI, if you don’t happen to believe me.)

So yeah, I guess we can believe radiometric dates when they support creationism, but otherwise they’re wrong and full of flaws. Hmm. This is actually something that I often point out when I give a public lecture on these kinds of topics, and one that I’ll be doing when I give my Apollo Moon Hoax talk in a few days: Science presents a cohesive story. Pseudoscience does not. You either have these flaws in radiometric dating that doom it (as creationists almost always argue), or you can trust the scientists to know what they’re doing and take the results from that (as Thomas is doing in this one instance). You really can’t have it both ways.

August 22, 2011

New Comments Policy

Filed under: introduction,Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 4:20 pm

This is a short announcement: Recent events have caused me to decide I need a formal comments policy. It can be found here.

August 20, 2011

New Interview on “The Conspiracy Skeptic” Podcast


I was interviewed yet again by Canadian (but he’s still a good guy!) Karl Mamer, the self-annointed “Conspiracy Skeptic.” The episode is about an hour long, though unfortunately it was recorded 5 days before my new microphone arrived. Oh well.

This particular episode is a miscellany of topics, though it can be roughly summarized into three main ones: Physics for Skeptics, more talk about Michael Horn (the Billy Meier “media representative” in America), and other miscellaneous topics.

For the first item I gave a bit of a run-down of a talk I gave in Boulder for the 2011 Denver SkeptiCamp where I talked about a few things in modern physics that new-agers have used to promote their ideas, but that really don’t support their ideas. The middle topic is in response to a few recent blog posts Michael Horn made (and I’m sure he’s going to post a lot here in the comments to this post – so just FYI ahead of time, I will not be responding). And the miscellaneous items are a bunch of random things about me, what I’ve been doing, what I’m up to, and a quick rehash of a recent blogpost on 2012.

So, sit back, close your eyes, and listen. Or, don’t close your eyes if you’re driving.

And one more thing. I was negligent back last November and didn’t mention on here that I had been interviewed on The Conspiracy Skeptic again (second item on this page). That one is a more focused 75 minutes where I delved into the many different claims of Richard C. Hoagland (the guy who made his name with the “Face on Mars”). If you don’t subscribe to The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast but you enjoy listening to me ramble on it, then you should check out that episode, as well.

Edited to Add: For those of you who actually are interested in critical thinking – and for those of you who think I haven’t looked into Meier’s claims – I detailed a single study into Michael Horn’s claims of Meier’s “prophecies” about the asteroid Apophis in this blog post. Horn has yet to provide any additional information specific to that claim to show that Apophis was actually predicted in any way. Horn is happy to challenge me to look at other material. I’ve looked at this material and multiple times challenged him to provide actual evidence of prophecy in that case that he claimed. Still waiting.

August 17, 2011

The Science that Should Never Have Been So Politicized: Global Climate Change


Introduction

This is actually going to be a fairly short post, and it occurred to me to write it after seeing this headline, “In New Hampshire, Perry Calls Global Warming ‘A Scientific Theory That Has Not Been Proven.'”

Climate Change

I’ll start with the obvious: Global climate change is about as real as it gets, and the change is a general warming trend. It is the state of the science. Well over 95% of scientists who actually study climate science agree that global climate change is happening, and they agree that humans are helping it along a lot more than would be happening via any natural processes. For what it’s worth, even George Noory, the host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, agrees that global warming is real (though he doesn’t think humans are the main cause).

What I’ve just very briefly summarized is the science. As in the vast overwhelming majority of the evidence and models and data point to this. Science is neutral politically. Unfortunately, politicians have made it not.

Politicization

This is actually something that I don’t quite understand. It seems as though the general theme in American politics is that Democrats are on the “side” of science while Republicans tend to be “against” science. This has been evidenced throughout the past several decades via the positions and votes of politicians on both sides of the aisle, and I think that most people who follow this in any way would agree, regardless of their political leanings. (I will admit that I generally vote on the liberal side of issues, but I don’t think that that should matter for the sake of this post.)

Where this has really come to the fore probably more-so than almost any other topic (bar, perhaps, the EPA), is on global warming: Democrats say it’s real, Republicans vehemently deny it.

As an aside, I can understand fully if Republicans were to accept that the science shows global warming is real, but that it would be cost-prohibitive to do something about it. I may disagree with that stance, but that would be political and something for the politicians perhaps to figure out. More likely the economists, but anyway, it’s a consequence of the science that they disagree with, not the basic, fundamental science for which they have no background with which they can evaluate it (I think last I heard that there were three physicists in Congress? and even a physicist is not a climatologist despite the fact many like to think they know everything).

Rick Perry

Enter the latest Republican science denier, Rick Perry. For those who have been deaf to news in the last few months, Rick Perry is the current, third-term governor of Texas. He is also, by many accounts, a young-Earth creationist, having stacked the state Board of Education with young-Earth creationists, and having recently held an evangelical Christian rally called “The Response” to effectively pray away America’s problems. Enough background …

The ABS blog story I linked to above starts out with, “At his first stop in the first primary state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry questioned the validity of scientific claims of global warming.” I would like to know when Rick Perry did his graduate work on climate science or any related field. Any.

The quote from Perry, specifically, is:

“I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their — to their projects. And I think we’re seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climate’s changed, they’ve been changing ever since the Earth was formed. … I don’t think from my perspective that I want America to be engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more being put into question.”

Perry fails to realize three things. First, scientists are generally not like politicians: We don’t change our views to pander to people to make them happy or to get money from them. Second, the scientists who are “coming forward and questioning … man made global warming” are generally not climate scientists. They’re engineers or weathermen or physicists, not climate scientists. It’s like the Discovery Institute (Intelligent Design -central) and their “Dissent from Darwinism” list that contains the name of scientists who “doubt darwinism” when <1% of the people on that list are actually biologists. Finally, Perry obviously has not read my post about what scientists mean by the term “theory.” (Hint: It doesn’t mean “some idea I came up with while channeling Jeshuah and can throw away just as easily.”

Final Thoughts

I expect that this post isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about anything. People who already accept science will continue to accept it. People who don’t will continue to not. And the political machine will continue to distort, ignore, stifle, or try to destroy science when it suits their particular message of the hour.

But, I’ve now said what I wanted to on this for the moment, and I haven’t done a global warming post in awhile.

August 15, 2011

Podcast Episode Two Is Up: You Can’t Know the Distance, Size, and Speed of UFOs

Filed under: podcast,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 7:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wanted to announce that the second episode of my Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast has been posted now to both the website and the RSS feed. The episode is a bit different than my last one (the dark side of the moon), as I’m now getting into the more “interesting” (read: “controversial”) topics.

I have addressed this one before on the blog, but this episode is an example where a podcast really works much better than a blog since I can include audio of people actually making the claims (and I’m an educator and claim fair use for those who want to cry copyright issues).

I got a new microphone, hopefully it sounds better this time, less tin-y, and I give you the solution to the first episode’s puzzler. Give it a listen and please give me any feedback you want, either here, on the website for the podcast, the SGU message board thread I set up, or to podcast at sjrdesign.net.

And yes, I do plan on doing mini-posts here to announce when new episodes are up.

August 11, 2011

Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science


This post is more of a conversation with my reader(s), you. I was listening to an episode of the ID: The Future podcast (a pro-“Intelligent” Design production) today. The episode that was put out today is entitled, “Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features.” While listening to the podcast, it was the standard: Casey Luskin (one of their lawyers and the most common host of the ‘cast) was complaining that, yet again, evolution somehow couldn’t answer a question he had; in this case, it was with bird feathers.

While listening to the ‘cast while drawing squiggly lines around craters in what qualifies as “work” for me these days, I found myself thinking, “Sigh, another episode bashing evolution.” (For those of you wondering, yes, I really do speak the word “sigh” to myself sometimes.)

And that got me thinking – and became the subject of this post: Many of the Cristian-style arguments I dissect on this blog (ID or YEC — that’s Intelligent Design or young-Earth creationism for those of you just joining) are simply arguments against science, and usually aimed at being against evolution even though they rarely have anything to do with evolution.

For example, here are the ten most recent original episodes from the ID: The Future podcast (least recent to most recent):

  • Discussing the New Exoplanet With Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez
  • ID Scientist Douglas Axe Responds to His Critics
  • Evolutionary Biologist Richard Sternberg discusses modern genomics and junk DNA
  • Scientific Reasons to Reject an Atheistic Worldview
  • Discussion and commentary on publisher Failing to comply with Texas science standards
  • Recent articles confirm the thesis of Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA
  • Anders Behring Breivik Shows That Ideas Really Do Have Consequences
  • Threatening the Pharyngula–The Debate With PZ Myers on Evidence from Embryology
  • Pseudogenes Shrink Gaps for Theistic Darwinian Evolutionists Collins & Giberson
  • Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features

First, I must say that if you look at the ‘cast episode list in iTunes or wherever, you will see other episodes. But, they are ALL repeats of earlier episodes from 1-4 years ago that I have weeded out of the list. I mean, come on, are they that lazy? They’ve had 10 original episodes since May and yet they post 3 episodes a week? But I digress …

Looking at the titles for these episodes, I see one episode that is pro-ID, one that is pseudo-legal, and eight that are anti-evolution (where “evolution” here is defined as they do, so I’m counting the astronomy episode because in it they argue Earth and the solar system and universe are ID’ed). In other words, the preponderance of the episodes are not advancing their cause, they are arguing against someone else’s. In this case, that “someone” else is the vast majority of the world’s scientists.

Let’s take a look at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR)’s last 10 news articles:

  • Evolutionary Paradox: Embryos Resist Tinkering
  • Laetoli Footprints Out of Step with Evolution
  • Evolution Delays Discovery of Dolphin Sensory Ability
  • More Evidence Neandertals Were Human
  • Did Natural Gas Take Millions of Years to Form?
  • Early Bird Gets the Boot: Researchers Reclassify Archaeopteryx
  • Origin of Cells Study Uses Bad Science
  • Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology
  • Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable
  • Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique

By my count, we have only one post that promotes Christianity or creationism directly (and I talked about that one here in my post on “A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space”). All of them are anti-science.

Now, to be fair, some sources do have a slightly more “pro”-creationism bent than these two. Answers in Genesis is one of them (guess where they look for their answers to questions) where the last 10 articles are about half promoting their worldview, the other half arguing against the secular one. And, when I listen to the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, it is almost all promoting of their view rather than anti-promoting science, though the guests will often spend maybe 5-10% of their time taking digs at the establishment (especially “Big Pharma,” scientists in their “Ivory Towers,” peer review, and those pesky things called “logic” and “evidence”).

But this got me to thinking that these other groups — the two I pointed out being the Discovery Institute and ICR — really don’t actually promote their worldview. They just try to dismantle science. In doing so, they seem to be hoping that you, the reader/listener, will accept their false dichotomy, accept their premise that science is wrong, and therefore embrace a god of the gaps and think that their view that they haven’t actually promoted in that article/’cast is true.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t actually think I’m doing the same thing, even though the majority of my posts on this blog are anti-their anti-arguments. In my posts, I try to explain what the relevant science is, provide you with logic and evidence, and while I usually do tell you what you “should” take as the “truth” (even though science is never after and cannot give you Truth with a capital “T”), I will often tell you not to take my word for it but to do your own investigation by using independent evidence and logic. ♩Take a look, ♬it’s in a book, a ♪ … but I digress again.

Then again, one reason I started this blog is because I do like to spread edjumication around, and I think that one of the best ways to actually learn and remember something is by seeing where others get it wrong in an odd way. So for example, in my last post, I talked at length about Earth’s presently decaying magnetic field and how YECs use that to argue for a recently created world. I could have just written a short blog post about geomagnetic reversals, flux, and excursions, but Wikipedia has kinda already done that for me. Or, I could do what I did, which is present the basics of the science, show how people have used it incorrectly, and then you may find it a more interesting way of learning the information and remembering it a bit longer.

And thus, this is a conversation with you: What do you think? Do you think that this kind of writing that I do is the same as the anti-propaganda that the IDers and YECs use? Or is it different? Is either a valid argument? Let me know what you think in the Comments section!

August 9, 2011

Does Earth’s Decaying Magnetic Field Mean it Was Created 6000 Years Ago?


Introduction

I took a look through my blog posts for the last nearly three years and was actually surprised to find that I have not yet addressed one of the main young-Earth Christian creationist (YEC) claims for why at least Earth supposedly cannot be more than 6000 years old: Earth’s decaying magnetic field.

A recent Creation.com article by Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M., reminded me of this. Let’s take a look.

The Background Science Observations

People discovered magnetism centuries ago, and it was really explored and formalized by – what I fondly refer to – as the Old Dead White Guys between about the 1700s and 1800s. (Yes, I realize that women and non-white people have made significant contributions to science and continue to do so, and that the Arab world kept science going while Europe was in the dark ages. But, let’s be objective: Most of the basic fundamentals of science today were figured out by white European men between the 1600s and early 1900s. We’re talking Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Gauss, Kelvin, Maxwell, Einstein, and Schrödinger here.)

Moving on, ship captains used Earth’s global magnetic field to navigate, but even in the 1700s, they realized that Earth’s magnetic field changes from year-to-year. In fact, they had to purchase new maps to correct for magnetic pointings to actually know where they were. Without a correct and current map, they could be off by tens or hundreds of miles — something significant when that reef is coming up.

Around the turn of 1900, scientists were able to start to accurately measure the global magnetic field strength. They have continued to measure it over the past century. What has been found is that the field strength is decreasing. Between 1900 and 2000, the field strength has decreased by very roughly 6%. Based on crustal rocks, we have been able to tell that the decline is about 35% from what it was about 2000 years ago, and it seems to have accelerated a little bit over the past few years.

Another interesting tidbit of information is that in the 1920s, geologists noticed that some volcanic rocks were magnetized in the opposite direction to the current magnetic field. When more and more like that were found, and when they were dated, it was discovered that Earth’s magnetic field seems to have gone through many reversals throughout its history. (If this at all sounds familiar, it’s possibly because my most popular post of all time with 10s of thousands of views, “Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Magnetic) Explained and Debunked,” talks about geomagnetic field reversals, too.)

We also know that the current magnetic north pole is moving, traveling towards Russia at something like 50 km per year, while the south magnetic pole is moving somewhat more slowly these days, but it moved more quickly in the early 1900s.

What this does is paint a picture of a dynamic process that creates a global magnetic field that changes with time, the change being to its strength, specific pole locations, and even overall orientation.

Enter the young-Earth creationists.

Creationist Scenario 1

There are actually two scenarios proposed by different YECs to use this to promote their worldview. The first is one that I could not find anyone who still believes it other than “Dr.” Kent Hovind, a YEC who calls magnetic reversals “just a bunch of baloney … this is a lie talking about ‘magnetic reversals'” (from “Creation Science Evangelism” Series, DVD 6.1).

Anyway, the scenario is summarized by this paragraph:

“In the 1970s, the creationist physics professor Dr Thomas Barnes noted that measurements since 1835 have shown that the field is decaying at 5% per century (also, archaeological measurements show that the field was 40% stronger in AD 1000 than today). Barnes, the author of a well-regarded electromagnetism textbook, proposed that the earth’s magnetic field was caused by a decaying electric current in the earth’s metallic core … . Barnes calculated that the current could not have been decaying for more than 10,000 years, or else its original strength would have been large enough to melt the earth. So the earth must be younger than that.”

That quote is actually from the article in question for this blog post, “The earth’s magnetic field: evidence that the earth is young” by “Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.” As a side note, I find it interesting that he feels the need to flout his degrees. It’s like me calling myself “Dr. Stuart J. Robbins B.S., M.S., Ph.D., Th.D. (Hon.)” (yes, I have an honorary doctorate in theology from Thunderwood College).

So the basic idea is that if you trace the field strength back in time, based on its current trend, then you reach a point before 10,000 years ago when the field would have been too strong to (a) be physically possible or (b) to allow life to exist.

Seems plausible, except we have that pesky thing of magnetic reversals. And that thing about extrapolating past trends for 100x the length we observe the current trend for something that’s as dynamic as a magnetic field is pretty stupid.

Creationist Scenario 2

The second scenario was done by Dr. Russell Humphreys, a person that, if you are familiar with YEC “science”-based claims, you likely have run into before. From the Creation.com article I referenced before:

“The physicist Dr Russell Humphreys believed that Dr Barnes had the right idea, and he also accepted that the reversals were real. He modified Barnes’ model to account for special effects of a liquid conductor, like the molten metal of the earth’s outer core. … Now, as discussed in Creation 19(3), 1997, Dr John Baumgardner proposes that the plunging of tectonic plates was a cause of the Genesis Flood. Dr Humphreys says these plates would have sharply cooled the outer parts of the core, driving the convection. This means that most of the reversals occurred in the Flood year, every week or two. And after the Flood, there would be large fluctuations due to residual motion. But the reversals and fluctuations could not halt the overall decay pattern — rather, the total field energy would decay even faster (see graph above).”

The graph referred to is something that I have recreated as a vector graphic and used before in a presentation. I show it below:

Magnetic Field During the Flood (Young-Earth Creationist Model)

Magnetic Field During the Flood (Young-Earth Creationist Model)

When I’ve done talks on this, I explain it as, “Supposedly, we started at a high field intensity during creation, it decayed, then dropped to zero at the beginning of the flood, reversed a lot really quickly, started to climb back up to reach a relative high around the time of Jesus – I guess he had a magnetic personality [pause for laughs] – and then continued to decay as before like nothing happened.”

I’m reminded of the disclaimer during the South Park episode about Scientology that stated, “YES, SCIENTOLOGISTS REALLY BELIEVE THIS!” Yes, YECs really believe this, at least some of them. I’m really not sure what else to say here — it’s just kinda laughable; it makes no sense, and it’s pretty much 100% up to the creationists to provide any evidence for it.

I should also note that the evidence shows there have been dozens if not hundreds of these reversals throughout time. Now, my understanding was the Judeo-Christian biblical flood lasted 40 days. And then roughly a year before they went away (um, where?). So you’d need to flip that field something like once every three days for that to work out, just FYI.

A Test for Scenario 2?

I’m impressed that the Creation.com article actually does propose a test:

Dr Humphreys also proposed a test for his model: magnetic reversals should be found in rocks known to have cooled in days or weeks. For example, in a thin lava flow, the outside would cool first, and record earth’s magnetic field in one direction; the inside would cool later, and record the field in another direction.

The article then claims that two researchers, Robert Coe and Michel Prévot, found just such examples where lava that must have cooled within 15 days had a full reversal within the layer: “Three years after this prediction, leading researchers Robert Coe and Michel Prévot found a thin lava layer that must have cooled within 15 days, and had 90° of reversal recorded continuously in it.”

Their work was done in 1989, and actually published in a reputable journal (one that I just got two co-authored papers accepted in, if I may add). With the wonders of the internet, and people posting their papers on their personal websites, you can view it yourself. IF you’re a close reader, you can quickly see that the Creation.com article does misstate their research, for their paper clearly states they found evidence of a change of 3°/day, which means it would be 60 days for a full 180° flip.

I actually contacted Dr. Coe, who is a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. I explained the situation and asked him for his “side” of the story. (I forgot to ask him permission to post his response — if he gets back to me and says no, I’ll remove it.)

“In both our papers proposing a rapid field change hypothesis it was for episodes during a reversal. We explicitly stated that there was no evidence suggesting that the reversal occurred in less than the several thousand years duration typical for polarity changes. We have recently been working more on that same reversal, and our paper should be published this month (Jarboe et al., Geophysical Journal International). In it we show that the second directional jump is almost certainly due to a temporal gap in the lava-flow succession rather than rapid field motion. [emphasis mine]

“I wish you well in your campaign against creationism.”

I think if the main author of the paper the YECs cite says that they have misinterpreted his work, we can lay this to rest, despite the article’s claim: “This was staggering news to them and the rest of the evolutionary community, but strong support for Humphreys’ model.”

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure why it took me so long to do a post on the creationist claim of a decaying magnetic field being evidence for recent creation. Oh well.

Anyway, I hope that if you have some creationist leanings and have thought that this claim held charge, that you have at least begun to re-examine it and will dig deeper. DON’T take my word for it, but use this as a starting point to inquire further.

If you are someone on the fence, I hope this will push you over onto the side of real science and not the side of making things up.

And if you were already science-minded and didn’t believe the YEC side, but you didn’t know exactly how to refute this particular argument, I hope that I have helped arm you for the future.

P.S. Based on the Creation.com article number, I don’t actually think that it is very recent, but it was at least (re-)posted in the last few days of writing this.

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