Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 21, 2013

Podcast #75: Young-Earth Creationist, David Coppedge, Sues NASA for Discrimination, and He Loses


You’re just a jerk. Don’t
Sue NASA for religious
Discrimination.”

I’ve been wanting to do this episode for three years now, and I finally get to: The case of David Coppedge, who sued NASA for religious discrimination (he was an employee), a case that was trumpeted by the Discovery Institute … and early this year, the judge rejected every single one of his arguments.

The episode is an interview with a legal professional who is going by the name of Harold Ormansky (or “Harry”) – a pseudonym because of various issues with his name being associated with this kind of stuff. But I can vouch for him. And anyone who may recognize his voice due to this person’s other endeavors will agree. But, let’s keep his real name on the “q-t” or “d-l.”

The main interview is about a half hour long, and then I go through a few points of clarification. All of the other normal segments will be back for the next episode.

October 24, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be “Anti-Science?”


Introduction

In my and other skeptically minded blogs, you will often read us either explicitly or by implication state that something we’re arguing against is unscientific, or it is anti-science. In the current political climate, you will often hear the Republican party being referred to as the “Anti-Science Party” by its detractors. Phil Plait has been a good example of that over the past several months with his numerous posts about climate change denial within the crop of Republican presidential candidates.

But what does “anti-science” actually mean? In the latest episode of the ID The Future podcast, the new host David Boze rants discusses for about 16 minutes that “anti-science” is actually a political term meant to stymie detractors of “Darwinian Evolution.”

The Claim

The entire podcast can really be summarized by what David states starting at 15 minutes 28 seconds into the episode: “The anti-science label is clearly a political tool designed to eliminate debate between proponents of intelligent design and proponents of Darwinian evolution. And, since we’ve demonstrated the common use of this label is false, when you hear it being hurled at those who disagree with Darwinian evolution, you can point out it’s unscientific to use the term.”

The Evidence

David spends the 15 minutes before this in a very scripted argument for his case. As his evidence, he focuses on pretty much the single – at least the most outspoken – candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who has called his fellow candidates out as being “anti-science.” This man would be John Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, and a man whom Conservapedia refers to as a “RINO” (Republican in name only).

Huntsman has very publicly stated that he accepts the evidence for evolution and trusts climate scientists that climate change is real, that overall it is warming, and humans are very likely a major contributor to it currently. This is as opposed to the rest of the candidates who, as a whole, deny climate change at all and are mostly biblical creationists (at least the most outspoken ones are).

In his main statements, and especially in the ones that David Boze used for this podcast episode, Huntsman has clearly focused on climate change and evolution. David even states that in the middle of the podcast before saying that, for brevity, he’s going to cut out the comments on global warming.

He then focuses entirely on the evolution parts. And uses that to say that clearly all Huntsman is talking about as “anti-science” is people who don’t fully accept an “atheistic Darwinian evolution.”

David goes into some of the US’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin (since Huntsman did), and laughingly says that Franklin was not an evolutionist (obviously not since Darwin’s theory was not published until 1859). He talks about Abraham Lincoln (since Huntsman brought him up as an example of a non-anti-science Republican), and says that evolution was not high on Lincoln’s domestic policy. Again, obviously not since the theory was published only two years before the civil war. Brings of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (again, since Huntsman did) and points out that clearly a scientific dark age did not happen when any of these men were in the White House (though this is an arguable point with the later Bush), the implication being that they were not strict atheistic evolutionists therefore under Huntsman’s alleged position, they should have brought down Western society.

All this is evidence, according to David Boze, that the term “anti-science” means “doubts Darwin” and is a political label and doesn’t mean anything else.

Can We Say “Cherry Pick” and “Persecution Complex?”

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured out from my tone that David has committed some HUGE leaps in logic that betray his ideology and doom his position. Two very obvious ones are cherry picking and at least a persecution complex if not an outright argument from persecution.

Mr. Boze has chosen ONE example of ONE person using the term “anti-science.” He has cherry-picked that ONE person’s use to focus on ONE topic, despite clearly stating just a few minutes earlier that he had used it in reference to TWO topics. That in and of itself should lead an objective, curious, and interested person to doubt his conclusions.

What Does “Anti-Science” Actually Mean?

The reality of the term is that we use it to mean anyone who disagrees with basic, objective, scientific data and disagrees with established scientific theories (where I use the term “theory” as a scientist). In politics these days, yes, it is mainly used in reference to climate change and evolution. Less frequently in politics, it is also used in regards to health care (especially vaccinations), abortion, energy policy, education policy, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and even basic mathematics.

I tend to use it – again either explicitly or implied – to refer to some people or ideas I discuss on my blog. I do try not to over-use it or paint with too broad a brushstroke. I don’t think that someone like Richard Hoagland, for example, is anti-science; I think he’s just deluded. Same with Andrew Basiago.

I wouldn’t even label most astrologers nor UFOlogists as anti-science except for maybe when they pull the special pleading argument of, “Oh, well you can’t test this because it’s untestable within the current scientific paradigm.” Right. It works until there’s a skeptic in the room and then it magically fails. Have you met my pet invisible dragon?

However, I talk about young-Earth creationism quite a bit here, and I would consider most creationists to be anti-science. They use science only when it can bolster their position, and misinterpret or plain ol’ deny it when it disagrees with their position and beliefs. That’s anti-science.

And yet, I label them as anti-science not because of their position on evolution, but because of their stances on comets, magnetic field data, the moon’s recession rate, basic physics of spiral galaxies, cosmology, and a slew of other topics. I have never actually directly addressed evolution in a post on this blog. I may have talked about it peripherally, such as in this post, but it’s never been the focus.

Surely my use of the term “anti-science” is just as valid as John Huntsman’s, which is surely more valid than the quote-mined version that David used.

Final Thoughts

Anti-science means, in my book, that you refuse to accept basic fundamental scientific methodology and/or results. It can be on a specific, sacred cow topic of yours such as whether or not Earth is hollow. It can be on broad topics based on your framework of biblical literal-ness. Being “anti-science” does not mean that you have to reject everything discovered in the last ~400 years.

And that’s where David Boze’s foray into the topic, I think, fails. He has an ideological persecution complex, sees it used in one way by a politician, focuses on half of that person’s argument, and then claims that anti-science means that you don’t accept atheistic evolution.

Sorry, David, my faith is not strong enough for those leaps.

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.

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!

June 23, 2011

Creationists Complain on Censorship Because Math Apparently Shows GodDidIt


Introduction

“It’s said that, according to the law of aeronautics and the wingspan and circumference of the bumblebee, it is aeronautically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. However, the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, goes ahead and flies anyway.” — Mike Huckabee, 2008

That quote is a fitting opening to this blog post, where after my hiatus I return to my bread-and-butter, batting at the low-hanging fruit offered up by young-Earth creationists (YEC). This post in particular response to the latest Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article by Brian Thomas, “Journal Censors ‘Second Law’ Paper Refuting Evolution”.

In reading up for writing this blog post, the Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design think-tank) has also posted an article about it.

Crux of the ICR Article

The bulk and point of the article is, as usual from the ICR, to complain that evilutionists are so insecure that they can’t stand dissent and that the Truth is in the Bible. That said, let’s look at what’s different in this one.

The crux of this particular article is that a “math professor Granville Sewell of the University of Texas, El Paso showed that notions of nature alone building the complex structures of DNA are as unlikely as nature building a computer [and] either event would violate the second law [of thermodynamics].”

In other words, he’s claiming that, just as Huckabee claimed that Science says bumblebees can’t fly therefore GodDidIt, that Science says DNA can’t arise naturally therefore GodDidIt.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics is “the entropy one.” It can be interpreted to verbally state, “The entropy of an isolated thermodynamic system cannot decrease.” In thermodynamics, entropy is the inability of energy to do work. Unscientifically, “entropy” can be thought of as the chaos in a system.

For example, an unlit match has a fair amount of stored chemical energy. Light the match, and it will produce heat that can do work, but smoke will rise – parts of the match that have burned – and that material will no longer be able to perform any useful work. Thus, entropy has increased.

Entropy should NOT be confused with the opposite of “order.” In fact, the order in a system can increase while entropy also increases. An example I like to use is to say you have a bunch of different sized marbles or rocks that are all mixed together. As they settle, they will sort by size. As they settle and sort by size, potential energy in the material is lost, the overall entropy has increased, but the overall order has also increased (because they are now sorted by size).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Evolution

This has been addressed SO MANY TIMES that I’m not going to do it here. People much smarter than I have shown the absolute rubbish of this claim before, so I will simply refer you to TalkOrigins.org (link 1, link 2).

If you really want a short version of the several ways this is a non sequitur, one is simply that Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system — we are open to space, receive energy from the sun, and radiate energy to space.

A quick-and-dirty second reason is that pockets within a thermodynamic system CAN DECREASE in entropy so long as the system as a whole increases or stays the same.

Going a Bit Deeper Into This Case

The story the articles I linked to in the Introduction tell about are of the math professor in question submitting a paper to a math journal, having it accepted, but then at the last minute having it withdrawn. Hence the “silencing,” “censoring,” and other various claims.

I obviously cannot speak for the journal editor. I don’t know what backdoor dastardly deeds may have gone on. Or may not have gone on. I can, however, look at some of the facts about this professor and what the Intelligent Design people state. Two in particular came up.

First, Prof. Sewell has written intelligent design literature before where “he concludes that there is nothing in the history of life to support Charles Darwin’s idea that natural selection of random variations can explain major evolutionary advances.” An earlier work can be found here. Obviously then, this is a person who has a particular framework in mind from which he operates. That is not a crime, nor is it a bad thing. But it does provide some context.

Second, Prof. Sewell hired a laywer. That in itself says something. An academic hiring a lawyer because his paper was rejected from a journal? I may be new to this whole being a Ph.D. thing, but I’ve been around academia my entire life. I have never heard of someone hiring a lawyer and paying them $10,000 to fight because their paper was rejected from a journal (Andrew Wakefield may be an exception but that’s a different issue – the lawyer came when the paper was retracted over a decade later).

To me, this screams Discovery Institute test case all over it. The DI seems to have more lawyers on staff than “scientists,” and they very frequently try to use the legal system (judicial and legislative branches) to get what they want because they can’t through normal academic channels. Now, this is supposition on my part – I admit that. And then I looked into the law firm, which is decidedly conservative (based on the people and cases) and religious (considering they have references to Genesis 12:3 and Psalm 122 very visibly on their website).

Now, again, being a conservative Christian law firm isn’t bad for purposes here. But what it does is add to this story, strongly indicating there is more to it than just a poor math professor who is upset that his innocent paper was rejected.

Final Thoughts

I have actually skimmed Prof. Sewell’s paper. You can, too. It’s actually an easy read. A lot of it is quotes. It’s four pages long. And it reads a lot like ID and YEC articles I’ve read over the years and it repeats many of the tired, debunked ID/YEC claims.

But, there is a bigger picture here beyond the simple case in point, publishing, and alleged “viewpoint discrimination” (an ID buzzword). That’s why I opened with the Huckabee quote (which also, by the way, is wrong). If we observe something repeatedly, objectively, and clearly (such as a bumblebee flying), but our current scientific understanding of the process cannot account for it, then our science is incomplete. It does not mean GodDidIt. That’s the whole point of science: To figure out how the world works.

We don’t know how the DNA molecule arose. And that’s why scientists are trying to figure it out. Scientists don’t use the God of the Gaps argument, as Brian Thomas, the ICR article author does, and look to the Bible to find out that GodDidit.

February 3, 2011

Follow-Up: David Coppedge Who Sued NASA Is Fired


Introduction

Last April, I wrote about a man named David Coppedge who was suing NASA over religious discrimination. I have tried to keep apprised of what was going on with the suit, but unfortunately, news was lacking.

I was just informed today that he has been fired.

Background

For background, read my previous article. Seriously. It goes through Coppedge’s lawsuit that claimed religious discrimination, went through some of Coppedge’s previous young-Earth creationism work, and my thoughts on the subject. I pointed out there that the only news that was really reporting on the suit was the creationists and intelligent designers.

I also found it quite humorous that Coppedge was claiming religious discrimination – and the Discovery Institute was advocating that, as well – when he was accused of handing out Intelligent Design materials even though the Intelligent Design folks fervently deny that it is religion.

Anyway …

Laid Off

The only new development in this suit, as far as I can tell, is that Coppedge was laid off last week “in a round of routine layoffs related to” the budget cuts on the project for which he was a computer administrator, NASA’s Cassini mission at Saturn (read more here). Coppedge – and by extension, the Discovery Institute – is of course claiming that this is retaliation for the lawsuit.

By the way, I love that article’s characterization of the Discovery Institute: “… The Discovery Institute, a conservative lobbying organization with right-wing Christian ties best known for their promotion of intelligent design.”

Continuing Thoughts

I normally end this with “Final Thoughts.” But, since this is still ongoing and has yet to reach a resolution, they are continuing thoughts. Not the least of which is how long does it take to get something heard in court? This thing is going on 9 months now. Anyway, I still have yet to hear any official NASA view on this matter. It is still completely either directly from the ID or YEC side or through the news but based on quotes and press releases from the plaintiff, his lawyer, or the ID or YEC side. So, as before, I have yet to make up my own mind on this issue.

December 2, 2010

NASA’s Announcement of Arsenic Life: A Parody by Creationists, Intelligent Design, and UFO Crowd


Introduction

In this blog, I try to be reasonably respectful to the claims made by other people, meticulously breaking down fantastic claims and showing how they do not fit the science, data, observations, etc.

This post is a bit different. It is meant to parody what I fully expect will be done in the next few days with today’s announcement by NASA of the discovery of life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in cells. I’m not going to get much into that and its implications, since practically every science news source is talking about it.

Instead, I’m going to provide three parodied views that I expect will be taken up almost verbatim in the next few days. If you get offended by parody, are a young-Earth creationist, etc., by further reading you are removing me from liability for the bile that may build up in your gut.

Creationist Response

The discovery of a new form of life by evolutionist NASA researchers today shows just how much our glorious Creator can do that Darwin never thought possible. All life that scientists had known of until now operates with a few basic atoms, and evolutionary researchers had thought that substitution of any one of these would be impossible, especially substitution of the poisonous element arsenic.

But in a lake in California, a research team discovered the inconceivable: A bacterium that survives on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

The response from evolutionists is once again to “rewrite the textbooks,” NASA’s astrobiology website proclaiming, “Get Your Biology Textbook…and an Eraser!” A biogeochemist associated with the research calls it “fantastic.”

But as Christians we know that God can do anything He wants. If evolutionists don’t want to constantly be “erasing” words in their textbook, then they should take up the unchanging and infallible Word of our Lord as written in the Bible. It should not surprise us that discoveries such as this will be made because they are only a further testament to the glory and wonders of our Creator.

Intelligent Design Response

Evolutionists are hailing a new discovery today of a microbe named GFAJ-1 that has the remarkable property of using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its metabolism. All life as known before and described by Darwin uses phosphorus — the six elements essential to life were thought to be carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In fact, in the energy molecule of cells – ATP – the P stands for phosphorus, and the DNA double helix is intelligently designed with a phosphorus molecule.

Arsenic is so poisonous to life because it is easily confused for phosphorus and used in its place by cells, killing them.

Until now. This microbe, of the marine family Halomonadaceae, was placed in a growth medium of arsenate and it thrived, completely baffling darwinists who were studying it.

How could such a system arise with no simpler precursor? The system needed to use arsenic could not have arisen through random evolutionary chance because of the myriad of places in the cell that use phosphorus. The ability to use it in one location in the cell would still be poisonous to another.

In celebrating this, evolutionists are glossing over the fact that it shows yet again how improbably Darwin’s theory really is.

UFO Response

It seems like it’s from an episode of the Twilight Zone, a bacteria that survives on poison. All life from planet Earth uses six essential atoms, but scientists from the space agency NASA today announced the discovery of a strange form that substitutes one of those – phosphorus – with arsenic.

The scientists are claiming that this has huge implications for the field of astrobiology, or at least the civilian one. Of course they completely ignore all the hundreds of thousands of UFO sighting reports, cattle mutilations, crop circles, government coverups, crashes like Roswell and Bentwaters, and abduction stories that we know prove alien life already exists.

But at least this is a first step. The “red rain” from India was apparently not convincing enough, but now the scientists are embracing the idea that this is unlike any life they have discovered before. This is just a small step in the road to full disclosure.

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. I hope you at least laughed a little. If not, I apologize for my unrefined parody-ing skilz. And, by the way, if you do find any print reports from any of the crowds I identified above in the next few days about this event, feel free to post links in the Comments section. I’d be interested to see how well I did. Though I will note that I purposely went a bit overboard on all of them, or at least tried to.

October 9, 2010

“Scientists Don’t Like New Surprises” People Haven’t Met My Thesis Committee


This is going to be a quick post so I’m going to dispense with my normal subject headings. This idea that scientists don’t like surprises, or don’t like new things that challenge their sacred beliefs floats around the internet and popular culture a lot. The media delights in headlines that read, “Scientists are …” and insert any of the following: Baffled, Surprised, Astounded, Shocked, Clueless, Bewildered, Befuddled, Amazed. And many other adjectives that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

That’s the general media. Creationist folks and the intelligent designers also adore this because their literature tends along the “if scientists can’t explain this it’s proof that God did it.” You might be thinking, “Hey! That’s a straw man,” or “That’s not a fair characterization!” For you folks, I direct you to some recent postings:

From The Bible Is the Other Side blog:

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft made a starling discovery, there are active geysers at the south pole of little moon Enceladus! It had astronomers shaking their heads, how could a small dead moon be still be geologically active after 4.5 billion years? It should have been frozen out billions of years ago because of lack of bulk, they say. … It’s truly amazing on what has been discovered! While the Cassini mission has thrown secular theories a loop, it has provided a wealth of great information on confirming the Bible!

From The Institute for Creation Research:

Mosasaurs were marine reptiles with large jaws and big teeth. Their fossils have been found on every continent, including Antarctica. They grew longer than 40 feet, and although they had fearsome jaws that marked them as a formidable predator, scientists had until now assumed that they were only mediocre swimmers. … However, an in-depth study of the world’s best-preserved mosasaur–which contains soft tissues such as skin, external scales, branching bronchial tubes, intestinal contents, decayed hemoglobin, and retinal soft tissues–demonstrated that the evolution-inspired weak-swimmer idea was all wrong. Instead, mosasaurs had all the necessary “adaptations” for a “fully aquatic existence.” … It has now been determined that mosasaurs swam quite well. Their remains show no evidence of having transitioned from any kind of land reptile, and at least one of them contains still-soft tissues. They therefore look like they were created recently, in accordance with Genesis history.

From The Discovery Institute:

A new paper in Nature magazine again shows that what was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. … What was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. Which paradigm would have predicted this finding: unguided neo-Darwinian evolution, or intelligent design?

The reason I bring this up is that I recently had a meeting with my thesis committee. Five Ph.D. scientists, all tenured except one who is tenure-track, two having been in the field as faculty researchers for over four decades. One of them did what I un-derisively and respectfully refer to as a more primitive version of my thesis work for her own thesis in the late 1980s.

There were two main things I came away from my thesis committee meeting with other than fighting the urge to cry (okay, not really, but it was not a pleasant experience). The first was that I needed to better focus and define the project, which is only a little disconcerting being ostensibly 7 months from defending. The second was a major emphasis from my committee members on the need for me to point out what is NEW with my work and has not been done before. Direct questions from my committee were: “What are the new results?” “How is your database different?” “What papers will you be comparing to?” “What papers’ hypotheses will you be testing and refuting?” And again, “What are the new results?”

Here are five people who between them have been in their field for about 150 years, who are established Ph.D. scientists in the ivory tower of a Research I institution (except one who I think is Research II), and according to popular ideas should be wanting me to prove that everything they’ve done in the past is right.

Instead, almost all they wanted to know was what am I doing that’s different and new and will “shake up” the field.

Amazing how people who have never actually been in the field they talk about end up characterizing it as the opposite.

Edited to Add:

After going to sleep after writing this post, I wanted to mention two more quick things that are related but obviously weren’t mentioned by my thesis committee. First, in order to publish in science, you pretty much always have to have something new. A paper review I got back a few months ago complained that it shouldn’t be published because it “presents little that is new.” Academia is pretty much publish or perish.

Second, the same thing goes for funding. While duplication of previous results, or duplication to place more stringent constraints on older results is important, funding committees have strong reservations in funding pure duplication research. This will vary significantly across disciplines, however, so it is a somewhat weaker argument to counter those who think “Scientists Hate Surprises.” For example, in the medical field, duplication is very important, especially clinically and in the pharmaceutical industry. But in my own field, you almost cannot get a grant if even a little of what you propose is duplication. Again from my own experience, I had a grant proposal in 2 years ago where about 5-10% of what I was going to do was duplication. Part of the reason it was rejected was they latched on that and said if someone else is already doing it, they’re not going to pay for it twice.

September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking, God, and Design, and the Universe


Introduction

I know I haven’t written for awhile, and unfortunately, you can expect more of the same sporadic posts probably for the next several months. I apologize. Just keep this in your RSS reader and you’ll get ‘em when they come out. Blog’s not dead, just me. :)

Anyway, if you had to pick one topic this week that’s in the news other than politics, it would probably be Stephen Hawking and the conjecture that the universe does not need a god to have come about or be as it is. I know folks are probably tired about this, but I thought I would give a few brief observations, hopefully ones that aren’t actually in most news outlets.

My Thoughts

First, I agree. I do not think there’s any hard, scientific evidence that you need a god to create the universe or to have it turn out as it is. You’ll note I wrote “think,” not “believe.” This particular word choice is one that I’ll hopefully address in another short, future post.

Anyway, what really brought on this post was I was yet again listening to an episode of Coast to Coast AM where the host, George Noory, brought on a theologian to react. Only, in a very C2C twist, this particular theologian, Dr. Barry Downing, thinks that the Bible is the inspired word of space aliens who talked to Moses through maybe some sort of hologram of the burning bush.

Moving on … George stated effectively, “I don’t see how you can look at the universe and all that it contains and think that there wasn’t some sort of designer or planner or plan.”

That got me thinking: Well, what would a universe look like if it hadn’t been planned? How would we know? What would the difference(s) be?

I think what George and many people forget is that we have a sample size of 1. If you think the universe did not have a creator nor planner nor plan, then this is what it looks like without one and hence we don’t need one to explain it. If you believe that the universe did have a creator or planner or plan, then this is what it looks like with one and hence we do need one to explain it.

Very circular reasoning here. Perhaps an argument from ignorance, perhaps a tautology. Or begging the question / unstated major premise. So many logical fallacies to choose from!

Final Thoughts

I the end, I think this debate is a bit silly. I think the reactions of condemnation from world religious leaders was a “necessary” response to a statement by someone as famous as Stephen Hawking. And Hawking does have a book he’s trying to sell.

I think this is a fairly futile argument because neither side is going to be able to convince the other for the simple reasons I stated above: Those who believe this universe’s form could only arise from a guiding hand or noodly appendage are always going to cling to that design argument. Those who think this arises from random chance or underlying physical laws that we do not yet know will continue to think that.

But it does make for headlines and gives people something to talk about other than the latest Paris Hilton snafu.

July 17, 2010

Should the Public Be Able to Choose What Science to Believe?


Introduction

This blog post is about a statement made by Dr. Caroline Crocker on the ID The Future podcast episode from July 12, 2010, entitled, “Setting the Record Straight with Caroline Crocker.”

Got that straight? This is NOT about the Intelligent Design movement, it is NOT about evolution versus creationism versus ID, it is NOT about the movie Expelled, nor is it about Caroline Crocker.

Setting Up the Question

In the podcast episode, Dr. Crocker made an off-hand remark (starting about 7 min 15 sec into the episode):

“I also believe that freedom, which is foundational in our society, requires people to have choices. And if people are not given options – that is they’re not told the whole scientific truth in as much as they can understand it and most people I find can understand if you just explain – then they don’t have any choice! And I think it’s very important that people are given complete explanations, and that’s actually one reason I set up the American Institute for Technology and Science Education, so that people would have an opportunity to hear scientific options and to have a choice.”

That’s a long paragraph, about 30 seconds of speech, but what it really boils down to is this: Dr. Crocker thinks (based upon my understanding of what she stated) that people should be told the entire body of science behind something (i.e., she obviously is talking about evolution, but it would extend to any science). Once they are told this, which she believes they can understand, then they should be allowed to make their own choice about what they want to believe.

Hence the title of this blog post: Should the public be able to choose what science to believe?

An Example

I have perhaps written the title in a confrontational manner, more-so than need-be. I’m not trying to set up a post where I say that scientists from on high should pass down edicts of what is Truth and those must be followed without question. What I am asking, rather, is if the lay, non-scientifically trained public are in a position where they can make an educated opinion on a technical subject after being explained the basics for a few minutes.

Let’s have an example, and since this is an astronomy blog, we’ll take an example from astronomy. Let’s take Earth’s moon and how it may have formed.

Decades ago, the original theory (yes, I’m using that word correctly) was Earth’s moon formed the same way Earth did, in Earth’s orbit, from the solar nebula. But that had problems with it (like it couldn’t explain the composition differences). The second theory was it got captured, as we think Mars’ moons were captured and many of the giant planets’ moons were captured asteroids. But that has problems because there’s no good way to get rid of the extra velocity. The third one, this time I’d classify as a hypothesis, was the “fission” idea where Earth was spinning really quickly and it basically spun off the moon out of the Pacific ocean. This, however, required a ridiculously high spin rate and didn’t take into account plate tectonics.

Finally now we have the fourth theory that is pretty well established and has been nick-named, “The Big Splash.” This is where a Mars-sized impactor hit Earth early on, nearly destroying Earth, but throwing up a debris cloud that formed the moon in Earth orbit. This explains almost all the characteristics we observe of the moon.

But last year another hypothesis was proposed, one that some people have termed, “The Big Burp” (yeah, astronomers are real creative … everything is the “Big” something). The idea here is that, deep inside Earth’s mantle, a buildup of radioactive material suddenly went critical and there was a spontaneous nuclear reaction, blowing out a chunk of Earth that formed the moon. Kinda similar to the fission idea, but a different mechanism for the moon’s ejection.

As anyone who reads my blog semi-regularly knows, I just finished teaching an introductory astronomy class for non-majors. This was a solar system class, and we discussed the formation of Earth’s moon in about a third of a class period. I briefly went through the historic ideas and the problems with them in order to show why we think the “Big Splash” is the best model. I didn’t go into the “Big Burp” at all because (a) it is a very new proposal, and (b) it was published in a low-review journal after being rejected from mainstream ones.

When discussing all these different formation models, I didn’t go very deep into them. I explained them in about as much detail as I did above, with basically a one-sentence description. Then I went over some of the pros and cons for each. And when we got to the Big Splash, I said that this is the one that happened, this is THE way the moon formed, and they all scribbled it down, stared blankly, were dozing on their desks, or trying to hide that they were txting on their cell phones.

If Dr. Crocker’s position is to be carried to this, and I believe whole-heartedly this is what she is arguing, then I did my students a disservice. I should have gone into equal detail for each proposal. I should have explained thoroughly the pros and cons for each. I should definitely have included the Big Burp. And when all was said and done, after spending 45 minutes going through these, I should have said, “Now you have the information, it is up to you to make up your own minds as to what happened and how the moon formed.”

That’s right. Without any of the theoretical backing, without an understanding for three-body dynamical systems (problem with Theory #2), without an understanding of chemistry and mineralogy (problem with #1, #3), without an understanding of basic Newtonian mechanics and material strength (problem with #3), or nuclear forces and the structure of Earth (problem with #5), after explaining to the students the basics of each I am supposed to let them make up their own minds.

My Thoughts

I think if you have much perceptive ability you can tell what I think the answer should be to my rhetorical question based upon my last two paragraphs. Scientists in any given field of study will reach conclusions about their field based upon an thorough understanding of the data, an understanding that pretty much can ONLY come with studying it for years and years. No research field exists in a vacuum (despite what some “amateur scientists” will claim), and you have to have a lot of background information from a broad base before you can actually understand a problem.

As a planetary scientist, I have a broad, 10-year background in physics, geology, and astronomy, and that background allows me to make an informed conclusion about the state of the science and which lunar formation proposal is the most likely to represent what really happened. If it were almost any other field, I wouldn’t even go into the historical ideas, I would just jump in and say, “The ‘Big Splash’ is how the moon formed” and then explain what that means (teaching astronomy is rather unique in the sciences because we do A LOT of history of the field). But, if we were to extend Dr. Crocker’s thoughts to a field other than evolution (which is obviously what she is talking about), then I would be infringing upon my students’ right to make up their own mind without my influencing their decision.

Okay, a Teensy Bit of Ridicule

I was trying to be fairly objective and ignore evolution etc. in this, but I think I really should at least mention the whole larger context for this and the obvious case to what Dr. Crocker wants this to apply. Dr. Crocker appears to be an avid advocate for the whole “Teach the Controversy” when it comes to teaching evolution. She thinks that students should be presented with evolutionary theory at the basic level that they already are, but then also taught the problems with it that are normally not talked about until you get to a graduate level of study. The reason for the normal delay in teaching the problems is that they are minor problems on the more fine layers of evolutionary theory. For example, we know that the large cake of evolution is perfectly fine and holds its own, it’s a question then of if there are ripples in the icing on top that can’t be smoothed away yet. Anyway … besides teaching evolution and its problems, the whole other side to “Teach the Controversy” is that there should also be an equivalent amount of time devoted to intelligent design and creationism since they also have something to say about how different species came about. And then the students should be able to decide themselves what to believe.

It would be the same as with my moon example: I explain each hypothesis and also throw in that on the third day God created the moon by magic (Genesis 1:16). And then let them decide, and on the test when I ask them, not count any response wrong.

I gotta say, I think that’s silly. And it’s irresponsible. And it does the students a disservice because it makes them think that all ideas are equal, when in fact they’re not. The reason the majority of scientists who study this think that the moon formed in the “Big Splash” is because it best explains the observational evidence without resorting to something supernatural/alien/whatever.

Final Thoughts

So, does it make sense that the public should have all sides explained to them equally, assumed they understand them and all the background, and then allowed to make up their own mind and have it be just as valid a conclusion as anyone else’s? I think when you actually look at the issue in this way, fully exploring the consequences of the proposal, then the answer is reasonably obvious, and it is a resounding, “No.”

But when simply phrased in a, “let’s give people options because that’s what a free society does,” it seems so deceptively simple. Until you follow through with what it actually would mean.

I think I’ll close with a statement my former officemate made that I have repeated several times on this blog: Science is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy. Only the best ideas survive because they become the most widely accepted because they convince people who know how to understand the idea through their ability to explain the observational evidence.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,290 other followers