Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 30, 2011

Podcast Episode 6: Astrology Basics and a (Non-?)Changing Sky


Here’s a short post for a long podcast episode on astrology. I’ve discussed astrology several times in this blog before, though I’ve never really gone through to talk about the basics of astrology and some of its inconsistencies.

This episode is (I hope) a natural progression from the basics to talking about observational problems with precession and some inherent contradictions with that and different astrological ages, then getting into the whole “there is no mechanism!” that most astronomers use to “debunk” astrology. I wrap it up with the idea of predictions – that astrologers haven’t ever predicted the existence of astronomical objects, and a little about the anatomy of an astrological horoscope and two statistical studies into its predictive power.

I don’t ever explicitly talk about how the entire astrological system is a logical fallacy (correlation does not imply causation, or cum hoc ergo propter hoc for you Latin folks), but with the tone of the episode I didn’t really think it fit in very well. Maybe if someone sends in feedback I’ll address it during feedback of the next episode (hint: next one is based on … or in … Earth).

This episode is my longest so far coming in at about 32.5 minutes. I know in my first episode I said I’d be doing 10-20 minute episodes and my last few have gotten progressively longer. I’m not entirely sure where this is headed (gimme a break, I’m only on episode 6! (no, not 6-factorial for you math people)), so we’ll see if I’ll adjust my aims over the next few episodes.

I should also note that the episode addresses WESTERN astrology only (though a lot of the information will apply to all types). With that said, go listen!

September 26, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Persecution


Introduction

Continuing my very old series on logical fallacies, this post is on the kind of fallacy that is not usually on most peoples’ top lists, but it’s one that fits in with a lot of the things I talk about on this blog. In general, it’s a form of the non sequitur, meaning that the argument doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual material being discussed; instead, it’s meant to play more on peoples’ emotions. As we all know from Spock on Star Trek emotions are not logical.

Basic Explanation

The argument from persecution is generally of the form, “My views are being persecuted, therefore they are correct.” Sometimes it has the post script, “After all, no one would put in this much effort to denounce my views if there weren’t something to them.” This addendum is effectively a “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” fallacy.

Variant: The Galileo Argument

A special form of this type of fallacy is sometimes given its own name, “The Galileo Argument.” The idea stems from Galileo’s own persecution by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s, and the way it is invoked is often, “Everyone’s saying I’m wrong, but that’s what everyone said about Galileo, too!” The conclusion they want you to draw is that they are correct, just as Galileo was.

A very quick rebuttal to this, besides it being a logical fallacy, is that Galileo actually had solid observational data that anyone could easily employ to see that he was correct.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

A decent, recent example from the YEC front comes from the Creation Ministries International article from September 21, 2011, entitled, “Heavyweights move to ban creation.” With subject headings such as “Desperate to quash dissent,” the CMI article has the general tone of one who is persecuted, though finding a proper, clear example explicitly within the article is somewhat difficult.

Instead, I direct you to the comments, where Patrick states, “Rejoice in persecution… the opposition will increase and the Lord will provide new openings. The enemy will be confounded, but those who seek the Lord will renew their strength.”

Or Victor: “It is indeed disingenuous on the part of BHA to quote “All children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely, and reach their own conclusions about what they believe” when this is exactly what they are suppressing in terms of questioning “Evolution[.]“”

Final Thoughts

This is usually a fairly easy logical fallacy to pick out (though I will admit that my examples above are not as clear as I would like them to be), and many people beyond YECs use it. Another rather large class are UFOlogists, and they’re often the ones who like to add the hasty conclusion / where there’s smoke there’s fire to their claims.

September 24, 2011

Follow-Up on the Dino-Killing Asteroid


Introduction

Last night, after making my post “What’s Going on with the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid?” I contacted the lead author from the original 2007 paper, Bill Bottke (in the interest of full disclosure, I actually collaborate with him and see him about once a week, including yesterday morning).

I asked Bill if he would be willing to glance over the short post and let me know if I got any of the science outrageously wrong. His reply was a bit more than I had expected of a simple “yes” or “no,” where he instead wrote a more elaborate explanation of what was going on. I asked if I could post his response to my blog as an addendum and instead, he sent a more detailed reply for me to post. Since it was somewhat lengthier than the original post, I figured I’d just make a separate one. What follows is Dr. Bottke’s reply, slightly edited for grammar/spelling as he requested.

Note: You should read my original post before reading Dr. Bottke’s response.

Bottke’s Reaction

First of all, this is science, and not every idea is going to work. One has to do the best one can with the available data, and some models do not survive first contact with new observations.

With that said, let me try to realistically assess where we are and where we are not.

From the dynamical end of things, having a smaller parent body and smaller family members means things can get out of the main belt faster than before. If anything, this moves the impact closer to the peak of the impact spike distribution, which is good for our 2007 model. Moreover, many potential impactors can now get out by being injected directly into the “escape hatch” right on top of the family. We did not model direct injection in detail in 2007 because the K/T hit appeared to be made in the tail of the Baptistina shower — those results would not impact our work. Now that things have changed, we can examine this more closely.

Overall, I find it highly suspicious that K/T occurred in the middle of the Baptistina asteroid shower. Asteroid showers are very rare in solar system history, though coincidences do happen in nature. This makes me think the new results could potentially strengthen our story, not weaken it.

A smaller asteroid means there are fewer large projectiles in the Baptsitina population. This hurts our original model. Interestingly, though, new estimates of Ir (iridium) and Os (osmium) associated with K/T that came out after our paper suggest the impactor may have had a diameter 4-6 km, not 10 km, so this may all be a wash. Impact energy is strongly a function of velocity, and impact velocities on Earth can be very high for asteroids, so there is not necessarily a contradiction here. For those that want to know more, see recent papers by Frank Kyte and Paquay et al. (2008) (“Determining Chondritic Impactor Size from the Marine Osmium Isotope Record” in Science).

The main hit to the 2007 story from the recent WISE work is composition. If Baptistina and its family members turn out to be a different asteroid composition than we suggested in our 2007 paper, we cannot link the family to the limited compositional information we have on the K/T impactor. From Cr (chromium) studies of K/T terrains on Earth, it looks like the impactor was a particular kind of carbonaceous chondrite. A high albedo (reflectivity) for Baptistina could suggest it is not actually this composition. Preliminary spectra for Baptistina family members may also work against it being a carbonaceous chondrite, though most of the family has not been examined from a spectral standpoint. Observers have mainly looked at asteroids near Baptistina, not “in it” as defined by our paper, and interlopers in this part of the main belt are a major pain to deal with. What observers need to do is look at the prominent “clouds” of objects observed for the family, where interlopers are less of an issue. This should be dealt with in the near future.

Note that if Baptistina family members turn out to have a radically different composition than carbonaceous chondrite, it would imply we were strongly misled by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey colors for Baptistina. Nearly 300 objects have been examined, and they have been classified as C/X-types of asteroids, which link to most objects as carbonaceous chondrite-like objects (see Parker et al., 2008).

There is also the surprising and unusual possibility that some asteroids that look like carbonaceous chondrites may have higher albedos that we expect. For example, interesting work on (21) Lutetia, which was recently visited by the Rosetta spacecraft, has a high albedo and a composition that many say looks like a carbonaceous chondrite. For those that know and love asteroid taxonomy, K-types asteroids look like they may be able to produce many kinds of carbonaceous chondrites, yet they are spectrally similar in many ways to those asteroids that may produce ordinary chondrites.

Note that even if composition is knocked away, one could question whether Cr is diagnostic, or whether different parts of the asteroid could have different Cr signatures. However, this strikes me as a desperation ploy, and I will do no more than mention it until new information on Cr comes to the fore.

Final Thoughts

With that response from Bill – more technical than I normally have in my blog but I think important for those who are interested – I’ll close out by reminding readers of what he stated at the beginning and what I have stated many times on this blog: This is how science works. We make observations, gather data, create models, make predictions, and in light of the evidence revise our models or make new ones. Contrast that with the way many creationists, conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, astrologers, etc. work.

September 23, 2011

What’s Going on with the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid?


Introduction

A NASA press release spawned many, many headlines this week in pretty much all newspapers and online news sites, both major and minor, with variations on the theme of, “The origin of dino-killing rock is back to being a mystery.” If somehow you managed to miss the news, I invite you to read the BBC version, though you could also read the original NASA press release.

So, what’s going on here? Is this another case of the media blowing headlines out their collective … well, mouths? Or is there something to this where we’re no longer sure what may have ended the dinosaurs?

2007 Paper

As may have been obvious from the way I worded the question, the answer is very much the former: Headlines are meant to grab you and to be sensationalist so you’ll read the story. Stretching the story or even missing the point are generally irrelevant.

The actual story goes this way: In 2007, Bill Bottke and two co-authors had a paper in the journal Nature entitled, “An asteroid breakup 160 Myr ago as the probable source of the K/T impactor.” The article was actually much more than that, and an extension from their conclusions was that based upon their modeling, the timing for an asteroid breakup would work dynamically for spawning the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

Yes, the asteroid theory for the destruction of the dinosaurs is still valid, it is still by far the best one out there and the one that fits the most data the best. So let’s get that sensationalist headline grabber out of the way.

Again, the crux of the Bottke et al. article was that they dynamically modeled an asteroid family (a group of asteroids that travel together and likely formed from an original, larger asteroid, that broke up). This particular family is called the Baptistina family. Based on an assumed brightness for the asteroids, they can estimate their mass and subsequent sizes. Based on how spread out the family is, they can model when it broke up, and the mass also factors into this calculations. Based on all these, their results show that the Baptistina family formation event could have spawned the asteroid that we pretty much “know” resulted in the destruction of the dinosaurs.

Edited to Add: I have a follow-up post from the author of the 2007 paper, Bill Bottke.

2011 Paper

This brings us to the press release and subsequent hubbub this week. The new paper talks about a lot of things, but what’s most applicable is that they have a better measurement of the brightness of these asteroids, and it’s around a factor of 5 times brighter than what Bottke et al. assumed (based on some of this paper’s teams own assumptions, though it’s likely a more accurate result).

The result is that there is much less mass and smaller sizes of the asteroids in the Baptistina family. Meaning that it disperses more quickly (so would have broken up more recently). And finally meaning that the likelihood that it was the source of the asteroid that led to the death of the dinosaurs is much smaller.

To Repeat

No, this does not mean that an asteroid didn’t wipe them out. It does not mean it was a comet. It does not mean it was aliens. It does not mean it was volcanoes. It does not mean it was the Earth growing in size so the dinosaurs got crushed under their own weight. It does not mean it was [insert: whatever the person you read before coming here invented].

It means that the likelihood that the impactor is from the formation event of this family of asteroids is now significantly smaller.

Final Thoughts

Really, that’s about it. But “Higher reflectivity of asteroid family means scientists less certain of the source of the asteroid that likely killed the dinosaurs” does not a good headline make. Oh well.

Edited to Add: I have a follow-up post from the author of the 2007 paper, Bill Bottke.

September 15, 2011

Podcast Episode 5 Is Up: Heat and Radiation Claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax


Episode 5 of my podcast is now up. The subject is my first for the podcast on the Apollo Moon Hoax mythos. There’s a lot that can be done with it, just like many of these other topics, but this one is more difficult because at least half of the main “evidence” used by conspiracy hypothesists deal with photographic claims. And, as I’m sure most of you know, visuals don’t work too well on an audio podcast.

So, at least for the first several episodes on it, I will be concentrating on claims that can be talked about without referring to a lot of the pictures (crosshairs, stars, shadows, halos, etc.). This one is no exception.

There’s not too much else to say here on the topic other that, on Monday, a very happy occurrence, well, occurred: Frasier Cain, the publisher of Universe Today, posted about my special episode on Comet Elenin. Universe Today (“UT”) is very popular. It is ranked up there in the 13,000s for the most frequented websites in the world. In comparison, my own domain is around 5 million (it was around 6 million a month ago).

Anyway, my webstats update at about 6:30AM PDT. The podcast episode had been up around 60 hours before Frasier posted, and it had 129 downloads. Frasier posted it, and 14 hours later, that episode had 1339 downloads. The next morning, so 38 hours after Frasier posted, it was up to 2938. This morning, we died back down and it was “only” up to 3279 downloads. More telling is that the number of downloads for episode three have jumped by around 250 since Frasier posted. Most telling will be how many downloads I get on this episode because that should indicate new subscribers.

So yes, this is a bit of self-promotion, but it has to do with this podcast and, well, my blog is a bit about self-promotion, isn’t it? I should also note that, as a result of being posted on UT, it’s now listed on Portal to the Universe and just this afternoon I was asked if the ‘cast could be rebroadcast on Astronomy.FM Radio.

So, yeah. If you have ways to help promote my podcast (assuming you like it), please let me know!

September 12, 2011

Completely Arbitrary Milestone Reached: 250,000 Blog Views

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 2:08 pm
Tags: , ,

I launched this blog back on September 3, 2008, for all intents and purposes 3 full years ago (and 9 days for you OCD’ers). It seems fitting, then, that my arbitrary milestone of 250,000 blog views has occurred today.

Just like my 100,000 blog-view milestone back in March, 2010, I missed the tipping point. This time it was because I was baking for a conference as opposed to being at a conference.

It took 18 months to get to 100,000, and it took another 18 months to get to 250,000. You can almost fit a line between those.

I think it’s apropos to take a brief look at some of the stats for the last three years.

  • My busiest day was on June 16, 2010, thanks to Phil Plait when he blogged about my run-in and subsequent threats by the astrologer Terry Nazon. Over 12,000 people visited my blog thanks to Phil, but in that day, it topped at 7,985.
  • I have made 175 posts (this is 176), and there have been 1,798 comments. Obviously the comments are not evenly distributed among the posts.
  • The top link people have clicked on, with 4,452 clicks, is to my image of what the sky looks like on December 21, 2012. The next-top is to the NASA site with images of Apollo from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with 648 clicks.
  • With the top-clicked file in mind, it is perhaps fitting that the top five posts people have read are about Planet X & 2012. The most popular with 15,972 views is on the magnetic pole shift, while the very close second is on proof Earth is not currently undergoing a geographic pole shift.
  • In how people are getting here, obviously the top referrer is from Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog, with the second-highest from 2012 Predictions.net.
  • Also on the topic of referrers, the top two search terms that get people here are “Planet X” with 1,195 clicks, and “Define:Theory in Science” with 1,146.

With all that in mind, I’ll wrap up this short, self-congratulatory post and work towards the next arbitrary milestone of 500,000! Let’s see if we can get there before the world ends, shall we?

September 9, 2011

Podcast Episode 4 Is Up: Comet Elenin Special


With Episode 4 of my podcast, I have introduced the “bonus” episodes. Doing two podcasts a month doesn’t quite allow me the flexibility I wanted in order to address some “late-breaking” things, and so I’ve now put out the first bonus episode. These will be (hopefully) timely episodes about topics de jure. In this case, I put the episode out just before Comet Elenin makes its closest approach to the sun (perihelion).

I’ve avoided discussing Comet Elenin much on this blog because, well, to put it bluntly, it’s stupid. It’s as if the mentality of people has regressed by a few thousand years where they’re starting to fear comets as harbingers of doom again.

It’s difficult to actually put together a cohesive story about what these people believe (as is the case with most things I’ve addressed such as 2012, Planet X, and even the Apollo Moon hoax), so I picked and chose what I thought were some of the main claims out there. The first half is dedicated to those, while the second half is dedicated to my break-down of Richard Hoagland’s numerology about Elenin.

There should still be a regularly scheduled Sept. 16 episode out next week.

Edited to Add: As of 5PM GMT on September, 10, 2011, I have slightly updated the episode and a new version is up. It includes slightly more background information at the beginning and a “bottom-line,” “this is the SCIENCE,” note at the end before the one announcement.

September 4, 2011

Creationists/IDers Attack the Person, Scientists/Skeptics Attack the Claims


Introduction

This is going to be a short post and is more a musing based on observations I’ve made over the past few years. Of course, I should give a standard disclaimer that I’m not a psychologist/psychiatrist nor schooled in etymology. That said, let’s look into how some people argue.

Creationist and Intelligent Design Argument Structure

Okay, I’m not actually going to go into the detailed structure here, though I actually talked a bit about this in my “Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science” post. That’s the most frequent method these days — trying to show the evolution can’t be true rather than their model is true.

A less frequent though still often-used argument is to attack the founder of the field they are attacking. Most often this is Charles Darwin. He thought dark-skinned people were evolutionarily inferior, he was an atheist, he studied with bad people, etc. etc. It also can extend to other “founders” of the field of evolution, such as Charles Lyell. And I suppose it’s worth mentioning that many “amatuer scientists” these days who claim to have faster-than-light travel will frequently say that it was Einstein who was wrong.

Why Talk About This?

I think it’s interesting, and I blog about what I think is interesting within the subject of my blog. :)

Why do I think it’s interesting? I think it’s interesting because scientists do not generally attack the people who make the claim, rather they attack the claims that people make (and “attack” here really is more strong of a word than I should probably be using). For example, people do research into general relativity. They don’t do research into Einstein. Similarly, when writing papers on evolution, people will cite/reference papers that found similar/different results and discuss why they agree/disagree with those results. In fact, in one case I actually was attacked directly after reviewing a paper, where the author attacked my research instead of the (valid) points that I had made about her paper. I notified the editor of the journal and after profusely apologizing, she told the author that her paper was not welcome to be resubmitted to the journal.

So, to put it succinctly, in science, we go by the data, not the people making the claims.

Contrast that with Christianity, which in its very name is founded upon a single principle figure, Jesus (“Christ”). (This is probably why so many young-Earth creationists and IDers refer to evolution as “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism.” No, it is evolution. We do not follow a dogma set forth by our Lord Founder.)

What I infer from this is what we all pretty much already knew, that religion (and ID) is based upon a dogma stemming from a single person. If someone were to attack the personage of Jesus, his sayings/teachings/actions or even whether he actually existed, then their entire worldview is shaken.

This is very different from science, where I really couldn’t care less if Newton was an alchemist, Darwin a racist, or [make up what you want about] Einstein. The person doesn’t matter. It’s the claims, the data to back them up, and whether it is repeatable and testable that matters.

Final Thoughts

This can also be extended to other pseudosciences, or at least individuals within them, such as UFOlogy or astrology. Even when I have taken great pains to make it clear I’m debunking the claims of certain people, I still get accused of calling them a “liar.” Not true. While that may be the conclusion you draw when I say, “The claims [this person or field] makes in [this area] therefore do not fit with the available evidence,” that is not the same thing as calling them a liar.

Branches of science may be founded by an individual or small group of researchers, but the science itself is wholly independent of them. I am not a “Lemaîtreist” if I accept the Big Bang. I’m not a “Huygensist” if I agree that Saturn’s rings are made of individual particles. However, it seems that the more dogmatic Christians do not understand this, for it is not what they know. They frequently attack the person who founded the field instead of the science itself, and that is why they will forever be relegated to dogmatic religion and nothing else.

September 1, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Authority versus the Scientific Consensus


Introduction

I haven’t done a post in almost two years to add to my very incomplete series on logical fallacies and fallacious argument techniques. However, due to recent posts – especially in the comments section – on my blog, I thought this would be a good time to re-visit the specific and very common logical fallacy of the “argument from authority,” and I want to then contrast that against the “scientific consensus.” They are not the same thing.

In actuality, I have addressed this difference before, albeit it was in the very early days of my blog and I want to pull out more specific examples and be more explicit this time.

The Argument from Authority

The argument from authority is really a very simple logical fallacy to spot: Person A has seeming authority in some subject, therefore Person B needs to believe what they say.

An example from the Apollo Moon Hoax lexicon is that David Groves, Ph.D. (the authority) showed in a study that the radiation experienced by astronauts would have rendered their photographic film damaged beyond repair (exposed) so they could not have possibly taken the pictures that NASA claims. He has a Ph.D., therefore he’s right. Except, not. His study did not use the same camera, film, nor shielding that NASA did. He exposed the film to 1000 times the strength of radiation for 100x as long (effectively). Not exactly a valid experiment to demonstrate what is claimed.

Another example, courtesy of Answers in Genesis, is that they have a Ph.D. astrophysicist on staff, “Dr. Jason Lisle, Ph.D.” Yes, his Ph.D. is valid, was in the actual science field, and he graduated a year before I entered grad school from the same department I got my degree in. Does that make his creationist writings any more valid than a guy ranting on the street? No. Does that make his claims that the fact we can argue with logic means the Bible is true (yes, he does claim that)? No.

Or, to use a contrived example from my first post on this subject, I could make the claim that Dr. Crusher is an expert on human anatomy. The fallacy then goes that if I were to say to my friends that Dr. Crusher says the neck bone is connected to the foot bone, then it must be true because she’s an expert in that field. But, obviously this is not true. In other words, the validity of the claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.

Other Examples of Argument from Authority

Isaac Newton: One of my favorite examples of the argument from authority is that of Isaac Newton. By pretty much any account and all measures, Newton was the founder of modern physics and mathematics. He didn’t just codify calculus, gravity, and motion, but also optics. He truly is one of the most important people and most authoritative people in modern science. If anyone is an authority, he is.

But then, Newton was a fervent believer in alchemy. He thought that you could turn ordinary, cheap metals (for example) into more valuable ones like gold if you combined them with the right chemicals. He pursued this as much as he pursued figuring out why we have tides.

If Newton were alive today, I would likely believe anything he said about physics (at least classical physics). But alchemy? No. I’d call him out on that pseudoscience just as much as I call out Terry Nazon on her made-up astrology. It doesn’t matter if he is revered and respected — individual arguments from authority are a logical fallacy for a reason, and citing an individual who claims one thing that does not make sense given what we know about the universe is as bad an argument as “’cause I said so, that’s why!”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. from NASA: First reported widely on FOX news in early March, 2011, Dr. Richard B. Hoover, “an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,” found life on a meteorite. He published his findings in the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology. This was very quickly torn apart by most scientists in the field and in related fields where we (yes, I participated) pointed out that he was seeing pareidolia shapes in rocks, his findings were not verified nor replicable by his peers in the field, and that the Journal of Cosmology is one of the crackpot “journals” in astronomy.

JoC is a fringe journal at best. To quote PZ Myers, “it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.” In response to Hoover’s paper, it contacted the editors of Science and Nature to put together a panel of experts to evaluate the claims. Then it stated, “any refusal to cooperate, no matter what the excuse [will be] vindication for the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper, and an acknowledgment that the editorial policies of the Journal of Cosmology are beyond reproach.” With that, they clearly cross into the tactics used by many pseudoscientists whereby either (a) they wear out the critics to the point the critics just don’t care anymore, or (b) the critics never cared enough in the first place to dignify the original challenge because it was so fringe to begin with.

With that said, the JoC’s editorial board is made of seven Ph.D.s, one who is the director of the center for astrobiology at Cardiff, one from NASA JPL, one who is the senior research scientist in the science directorate at NASA Langley, and another who is the head of the department of computer science at Oklahoma State University. Seems “highly qualified.” But, this is another example of a few who put together a journal being an argument from authority. I actually looked up one of the Ph.D.s because he is in my former department here at CU-Boulder. Looking further into him, there’s really nothing to find other than he’s emeritus faculty — basically retired but still hangs around. His personal website was last updated in 2001.

So we have another case where all because someone is a NASA scientist, all because someone is a department chair, all because someone is a center director, it does not mean that all of their claims can be taken as true.

Similarly, if you can convince a NASA scientist, an imaging professional, someone at the CDC, someone who runs the computers for a major NASA mission, or someone who builds spacecraft that your particular claim is true, that does not mean that everyone else needs to believe it.

My 8th Grade Science Teacher: We started out 8th grade science with going around the room and saying what our parents did for a living. The teacher then told us that he used to work in the local hospital. For some reason, that seemed to convey some authority at the time. In hindsight, I think he was trying to make himself feel good.

That authority quickly vanished during our astronomy unit when he explained to us that the moon was three times farther away from Earth than the sun, a kilometer is longer than a mile, and that to stop a space ship in space you shut off the engines and wait for it to wander near a planet and have the planet’s gravity slow you down. After some checking, his job at the local hospital turned out to be in security. Obviously, this was a case where a stated authority (working at a hospital) and a presumed authority (being the teacher) could not mask gross incompetence.

Scientific Consensus: NOT An Argument from Authority

In contrast, the scientific consensus is not an argument from authority. There are a couple of ways to think about this. The most basic and concise is that the scientific consensus is not based on an individual’s or small group’s credibility.

A more lengthy way to think about this is that the scientific community is convinced by evidence, not by individual charisma nor authority. I’ve said it many, many times before in this blog, and I’ve written at least a whole post on it, that contrary to seemingly popular opinion, scientists want to create new paradigms. They want to be able to convince their colleagues and detractors that they are correct. Upholding the status quo means you are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, the only way you are going to convince everyone that you are correct is to provide them with overwhelmingly convincing evidence and to show that your new model/idea explains all of the evidence that the previous one did at least as well, if not better.

Once this is done, the people who are experts in the field will be convinced. They can then go out and convince others in related fields that this is the actual way things work. Again — it’s not an authority, they are convincing people by the evidence. This process continues to trickle throughout the scientific community until there is a broad consensus on that issue.

By that point, what is a lay person to do? Should they trust Dr. Linus Pauling, a twice Nobel Laureate who claimed that high doses of Vitamin C basically prevented almost all illnesses and cured many diseases, including cancer? Or should they trust the scientific consensus – a group of tens of thousands of medical professionals who have read and been convinced by the research – that Pauling was deluded?

I’m not saying that you should trust the consensus view blindly. Try to understand it. Understand why the consensus is what it is. What is the evidence that has convinced everyone? At that point, if you still think they may be wrong, then figure out why the consensus view is not convinced by the evidence that you are. It is highly likely that you are misunderstanding something, not thousands of people who have spent their lives studying the issue.

The Scientific Consensus is Not Infallible

That all being said, scientists will usually be the first (as in, not the last) to admit that the consensus is fallible and that their views can be changed by the evidence. That is how new paradigms happen. Plate tectonic theory was laughed at for about two decades before overwhelming evidence for it was presented that changed the entire consensus opinion within just a few years. The same was true with the death of the dinosaurs — there were many different hypotheses out there but when the iridium layer was found at the K/T boundary and the crater was finally discovered off the Yucatan peninsula, the scientific consensus changed very rapidly in light of the evidence.

Certain scientific paradigms/consensuses (according to spell-check, that is the plural of “consensus” even though it sounds wrong, but who am I to argue with spell-check?) that we hold now could very likely change in the future. What is unlikely, though, is for them to change to something for which there is currently very convincing evidence that it is not the case. An example of this would be astrology – there is absolutely no mechanism for it to work, and all statistically robust studies show that it fails to produce results better than chance.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the argument from authority is quite an easy logical fallacy to spot. Differentiating it from the scientific consensus is not as easy, and understanding the difference between the fallacious argument from authority and the non-fallacious scientific consensus is even harder. Steve Novella has a post on this topic from about a year ago, and I recommend reading it if you’re still a bit confused about the difference.

What should also be re-emphasized is that you should never take anything on blind faith/authority. If you hear an argument from authority, investigate the claim. If you hear a scientific consensus that you disagree with, first understand the evidence that convinced the scientists, and then figure out why you disagree. If you think you have solid evidence to the contrary, it has not been shown to be wrong, and your model can explain all of the data that the currently accepted model does at least as well, then present it and try to convince them. But also be humble enough to realize that the evidence that convinces you, when it may be pointed out by people within that scientific community that it’s wrong, actually is probably wrong. At the very least, you should admit that people disagree with you and find faults because of [insert reason].

That’s what scientists do, too.

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