Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts


A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

April 25, 2012

Argument from Authority Strikes Again at Creation Ministries International


Just a short post here – it always amazes me when people use such an obvious argument from authority to try to bolster their position. I mean, it’s not as if we don’t do it, either, or people don’t do it every day. Any time the local news brings on their talking-head expert to talk about something, that’s an argument from authority. If that expert is effectively reciting the consensus, then it’s not an argument from authority as much, that talking head was just a mouthpiece for the consensus (see my post on argument from authority vs. the scientific consensus).

But then we get into stuff that’s a controversy – either real or manufactured. Young-Earth creationism is definitely a controversy versus the scientific establishment, though I would consider it in the realm of the “manufactured” type because almost none who objectively examine observable evidence will come to the YEC side — by its nature, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog before, YEC relies on ignoring evidence to make its case.

Anyway, in my nightly perusal of creationist websites, I came across the latest posting Creation Ministries International (CMI): “Archaeologist confirms creation and the Bible.”

I’m not really sure how you could get around the idea that the title of the article (and its content if you bother to read it) is 100% an argument from authority. It’s literally a, “Look, we have this archaeologist we can trot forward (or actually not anymore ’cause he died on April 4), and our expert who’s in this real science field says young-Earth creationism is real!”

Okay, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer, I say young-Earth creationism is fake, and the universe is 13.7 billion years old. Unfortunately, if he and I were to both testify in front of Congress, I have a feeling that Congress would conclude that the Universe is 6.850003 billion years old (the average of the two).

This post was brought to you by the logical fallacies Argument from Authority, False Balance, and Middle Ground.

November 2, 2011

The Many Stars of the Heavens … Are Young?


Introduction

In my unofficial rivalry with a high school student, it looks like I’m finally getting a post up before him about the latest from Brian Thomas and the Institute for Creation Research’s “Daily Science Updates.” Though it’s really an unfair challenge because he’s in a land Down Under and wakes up about the same time that these suckers go up on the ICR’s website. I’m supposed to be in bed.

This post today is about the IRC’s post, “New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth.”

About Stars

Stars are important. Perhaps that much should be obvious to everyone. In the current epoch of the universe, stars are what provide energy to allow some minor things like, say, life to exist. Stars are formed generally with a set amount of gases, and the vast majority of this gas is hydrogen. In the core of stars – roughly the inner 10% in a sun-like star – temperatures and pressures are high enough for fusion to occur which is what provides energy.

It also prevents the stars from collapsing. Stars are a balancing between outward pressure from heat and energy versus the collapsing force of gravity. Gravity compresses the gas until fusion begins and counters it. In small stars, there is less force of gravity, and so the pressures and temperatures are lower and fusion goes on more slowly. In large stars, there is a larger force from gravity, the pressures and temperatures are much higher, and fusion goes on at a much faster rate and over a larger portion of the star in order to prevent collapse.

This means that even though smaller stars – say, red dwarfs – are significantly lighter than the sun, they will be able to continue to fuse hydrogen for roughly 10 trillion years as opposed to the sun which has an estimated lifetime of 10 billion years.

Contrast that with the gigantic stars – blue supergiants – which are generally up to about 50 times the mass of the sun, and these will go through their nuclear fuel in roughly 10 million years. In each of these (red dwarfs, yellow dwarfs like the sun, blue supergiants), we’re dealing with a factor of one thousand difference in expected lifetime because of the different pace of fusion.

Blue Stragglers

Surrounding our galaxy, there are roughly 175 known groups of stars called globular clusters. These are tight groupings of many hundreds of thousands to millions of stars that generally all formed at once (astronomically speaking) and lack any interstellar material from which to form new stars. There are different ideas for how these originated – some think they were just clouds of gas that collapsed into dense clusters of stars, similar to open clusters, while others think they may be the cores of small dwarf galaxies that were consumed by our galaxy.

What’s known is that effectively every globular cluster surrounding our galaxy is very old, on the order of 10 billion years. In fact, before we had good models of stellar evolution, there was a disconnect in cosmology where we thought globular clusters were older than the universe (obviously that could not be true). It’s important to note in a post about this particular subject that these have since been reconciled both by better estimates for the universe’s age and better stellar models.

The point is that globulars around our galaxy are old (many around Andromeda are young, but this post is not about them). The problem is that most globular clusters contain a few blue supergiant stars known as “blue stragglers.” These are, well, blue supergiant stars. Given what I said above, these should not exist in an old star cluster because they should have exploded 10 billion minus 10 million years ago.

The same can be said about some open clusters in our galaxy, except that open clusters are usually young and they contain fewer members. Open clusters usually form within the plane of the galaxy, and over the course of a few hundred thousand to hundred million years, the member stars disperse due to interactions with other stars. So, most are young and most happily contain blue supergiant stars that are no problem for stellar evolution models.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is discussed in the article that’s the subject of this post.

NGC 188 is well above the plane of the galaxy, so it has managed to stay together for about 7 billion years. All the members formed at about the same time, except that it contains some of those blue stragglers. So again, we have a question that needs answering: How do you get stars that are supposed to have lifetimes at 10 million years in a cluster that’s 7 billion years old?

Enter Brian Thomas and the Young-Earth Creationists to the Rescue!

Mr. Thomas’ article is responding to a recent Nature paper entitled, “A mass transfer origin for blue stragglers in NGC 188 as revealed by half-solar-mass companions.” With the wonders of the internet, you can read the paper yourself for free here (it’s short, but it’s pretty technical).

Now, to start off with, when I was an undergraduate just a very very few short years ago, because I’m not old, we were taught that the likely explanation for blue stragglers was that they were a second generation of stars within open clusters. These days, it appears as though the most promising explanations are either a collision between two stars that produces a massive enough result to make a blue supergiant, and/or a star in a close binary system that siphons off material from a companion to give it enough mass to turn into a blue supergiant.

This paper, in particular, that Thomas references was looking at the latter explanation. Through their observations, they have statistically ruled out the merger as the likely explanation and settle on mass transfer as the more likely of the two. They end their paper by saying mergers of triplets may happen, though. Remember: Clusters are dense and so binary and trinary systems are not uncommon.

The problem with this, according to Thomas, is:

“Nothing explains the many blue stragglers that are not binary stars and yet exist near and far throughout the universe. Could they have received recent “youthfulness” through collisions with other stars?”

I’m not actually sure where Thomas is coming from here. By definition, blue stragglers kinda need to be a member of a cluster of stars because otherwise they wouldn’t be blue stragglers. The reason we know they “shouldn’t” be so young is that we need a cluster that all formed at the same time from which to say, “Oh, every star in here formed at the same time, the bulk age is 5 billion years, therefore giant massive blue stars are out of place.” Perhaps Peter can provide context for this.

Moving forward to the next-to-last paragraph of the ICR article:

“So, isolated blue stars could not have received their young looks from a binary system, since by definition they have no binary from which to siphon fuel. They probably didn’t receive their youthful appearance from collisions, either, according to these results. And though the binary blue stragglers may have siphoned fuel from nearby partners, the idea that 12 of 16 only did so recently—after an imagined 7-billion-year wait—defies reasonable odds.”

At some point in skepticism and debunking, we simply have to ask, “Show your work/math.” Brian, show your math here. How did you calculate what are “reasonable odds?” We’re talking about a cluster with over 10,000 stars in a tightly confined space. Brian is presenting a specific, statistical claim. He needs to back it up with data before it’s even worth going into further.

It’s like me saying it’s mathematically impossible for 100 billion trees to exist on this planet. Okay, fine, but before anyone should accept that or take my word for it, they should demand to see evidence.

But, at least in that article (I see no link to “further math” nor “supplemental material”), he does not. Rather, the next sentence is “goddidit.” Err, sorry, it’s: “Thus, the best explanation is still the most straightforward one—blue straggler stars look young because they are young.” Yeah — what I said: “Goddidit.”

Edited to Add: Solstation.com has a nice illustration showing the two different models:

Missing the Forrest for the Tree

I find it interesting when young-Earth creationists use star ages to argue for a creation only a few thousand years ago. The whole “problem” with blue stragglers is that they are in a system that is otherwise dated to be several billion years old. And yet creationists don’t address that big, glaring contradiction to their “model.” Or in discussing supernovae and why there appear to be “too few” of them for the age of the galaxy (let alone universe), they miss the entire fact that supernovae occur at the end of a massive star’s death which takes at least 10 million (not thousand) years to happen.

Or that there exist neutron stars and black holes, which are the remnants from these explosions which would have again taken at least 10 million years to happen.

Or that there exist white dwarfs, which are the remnants from a sun-like star at the end of its life, and yet that takes several billion years to form.

At that point, for creationists, they must simply revert to God as Loki, the Norse trickster god. God made everything with the appearance of age to trick us. That’s not the kind of god that I think deserves to be worshiped. Nor, actually, do I quite understand why an omnipotent being has such a personality insecurity and low self-esteem to need to be worshiped. But I digress from astronomy here.

Final Thoughts

Why and how blue stragglers exist is an open question in modern astrophysics. It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that may not have a single answer. The latest paper seems to indicate that at least in this cluster, binary collisions are not the likely formation mechanism. It may be elsewhere. It could be trinary. It could be mass siphoning. We don’t know. But never should we revert to and replace “we don’t know” with “goddidit.” That simply stops science in its tracks and leaves willful ignorance in its wake.

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 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.

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.

June 12, 2011

I Welcome My Argument from Authority and Location in My Ivory Tower


Hello all. I know I haven’t posted in awhile – I think twice in the last five months or so. As stated back in January, I was working on graduating. As the title for this very short post suggests, I did. I’m now in that ~5% of people in the world that has a Ph.D. Actually, a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. And we all know what those stand for (since this is a PG-rated blog, I won’t go into that, but you can look it up).

And so, I am now able to use the argument from authority, “I have a Ph.D. I’m right, you’re wrong.” And I can be content living in my Ivory Tower of academia, isolated in my own field without any consideration for others, thinking deep thoughts and adding to the elitist knowledge that the Illuminati and Bilderberg Group use to run the world behind the scenes.

Or — wait. Maybe not. I have two half-time postdocs, one continuing my previous work, one being project and science lead of the citizen science project Moon Zoo, and yet other than a small salary increase, nothing has changed. I still work most of the time from my apartment and I still drive the same budget car. I’m still studying craters, though I’ve expanded from Mars and am obviously also now looking at the Moon. I still have to tie my findings into the bigger picture since nothing in science exists in isolation, and I’m still just as fallible as I was before. Or maybe that’s just what I want you to think.

Anyway, now that I’m done with my degree and starting to figure out how to get my motivation back in gear, you can start to expect more regular blog posts. I’m still working on my 2012 Astronomy eBook/PDF doc, and — shhh! don’t tell anyone! — I’m tossing around the idea of a podcast based upon this blog (if the Dumbass can do it, so can I). As far as I can tell, other than Phil Plait’s defunct but still-available-on-iTunes podcast, no one actually has a “bad astronomy” podcast out there (if I’m wrong – which I can’t be because I have a Ph.D. now – please post a link to it in the comments). The format would be short and sweet, I’m thinking of bi-monthly and a 15-20 minute format.

November 23, 2010

Please, Don’t Appeal to Quantum Mechanics to Propagate Your Pseudoscience


Introduction

There is no formal logical fallacy that I know of called “Appeal to Quantum Mechanics,” but I think it should be on the books. It is a frequently utilized term by purveyors of New Age beliefs and other ideas to try to make their ideas seem more sciencey when, in fact, to anyone who actually knows quantum mechanics and slaved away for tens of hours a week on QM homework, it just makes them sound stupid.

This post is another about Andrew D. Basiago, in particular his interview on the Coast to Coast AM radio show from November 11, 2010. In it, he discussed his supposed involvement in “Project Pegasus,” alleged the early time travel work done by the U.S. government. For those of you who have a very good memory, you may recall I have discussed Andrew Basiago before in the context of his pareidolia-fueled claims of discovering alien life on Mars and demanding that National Geographic publish what he found after blowing up images 5000%, stretching them, and then wildly extrapolating.

Statements by Andrew Basiago

The following are direct quotes from Basiago, mostly from hour 3 of the broadcast:

“In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”

“I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”

“So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”

“Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”

George Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”

What Is Quantum Mechanics?

Without going through math and a lot of explanation that is not the focus of this blog post, quantum mechanics is basically the physics of the very small. We’re talking about what happens on atomic scales, what happens with electrons (sub-atomic particles), and light. We are not talking about time, space-time, nor any object on the macro-scopic scale, where “macroscopic” means in this context objects that are about the size of a cell or larger (collections of millions of atoms).

Quantum mechanics is weird. In fact, it almost fits the very definition of “weird” since many of the observations at atomic scales defies our concept of how objects “should” act. I think this is why a lot of purveyors of modern pseudoscience rely on an appeal to quantum mechanics to describe how their ideas work: Since most people don’t understand quantum mechanics beyond the “things get weird” part, people are more willing to accept a “quantum mechanics says this can happen” claim and just trust it.

But quantum mechanics is not magic. You cannot use quantum mechanics to argue that psychic powers work. Or that time travel is possible. Or even that information (which also has a very specific definition) can be transmitted instantaneously.

Quantum mechanics has a very specific set of rules and governing equations that have been verified to be correct to within measurement capabilities. (Hence it is also a “theory” in the scientific sense.)

Because quantum mechanics does not make sense to many people in our every-day world, physicists have come up with some analogies that are used to describe some of the consequences of the field. For example …

Schrödinger’s Cat: One of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that a particle‘s state will not be known until it is observed. I remind you that in this field, “particle” and “observed” have very specific definitions and cannot be extrapolated to, for example, “person calling the telephone” and “picking up the phone” (yes, people do make that extrapolation). In fact, the consequences of this had three different interpretations in the early days of the field, where the Copenhägen interpretation was that the particle actually exists in all states until it is observed. This turns out to be the actual way it works (experimentally determined a few decades ago), but in the early days there were two competing ideas, one being that it exists in a particular state, we just don’t know what it is until it is measured. This is where the famous Einstein quote comes from: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

In order to think of this from a more familiar scenario rather than an electron’s energy level, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat is used, where Schrödinger is effectively the founder of quantum mechanics: A cat is placed in a sealed box from which no information can escape. A piece of radioactive material is placed in there before it’s sealed, where the release of the poison is a purely random process (governed by quantum mechanics). After the box is sealed, an outsider cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead because they do not know if the poison has killed the cat. Therefore, for mathematical purposes, the cat is described as both alive and dead. It is only after the box is opened and you make the observation that you know which is the case.

Definition of “Quantum:” In physics, quantum does not mean “magic” nor “[fill in the blank with something].” It has a very specific definition: A discrete quantity, usually of energy. In fact, the whole field of quantum mechanics is based around the idea that energy cannot come in a pure spectrum of intervals, but it can only happen in discrete – albeit very small – packets. This was a very novel idea 100 years ago and it still surprises many people. But, that’s what “quantum” means, no more, and no less. Putting it in front of another word does not make that other word suddenly mean something different. In fact, as it is normally applied, it makes the other word meaningless.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: Again, this has a very specific definition – and a mathematical one at that: Δx·Δpħ/2. What this means in words is that the change in position times the change in momentum must be greater than or equal to half of h-bar, where h-bar is h/(2·π), where h is Planck’s constant (a very small number). Unless you’re a physicist or have really studied the field, you are probably thinking some combination of, “huh?” and/or “what the heck does that mean?” In plainer English, the consequence of this is that when we measure a particle’s position or momentum, the more precise we measure that value, the less precisely we can know the other. This is not because of our measuring equipment, rather it seems to be a general rule of the universe, that the particle’s other quantity really, literally, becomes less defined and knowable.

Let’s Apply This to That

Now that you have taken a crash course in quantum mechanics, let’s take another look at some of Basiago’s comments:

Basiago: “In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”
Analysis: Sticking “quantum” in front of “displacement” makes it next to meaningless. If anything, a “quantum displacement” would mean that he has physically moved less than the width of an atom.

Basiago: “I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”
Analysis: Again, sticking “quantum” this time in front of “tunnel” still makes this a meaningless phrase. “Quantum” does not have anything to do with, effectively, the fabric of the universe, and wormholes are more of an application of General Relativity, something very different from quantum mechanics.

Basiago: “So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”
Analysis: Now that you know what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is – you cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle to arbitrarily high precision – you can see that the idea of time travel paradoxes has nothing to do with it. This is an appeal to a scientific term and equation that has zero bearing on the claim, showing (a) his lack of understanding of quantum mechanics, and (b) fairly good evidence (if you didn’t have it already) that his claims are made up.

Basiago: “Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”
Analysis: This is very much like the above example where Basiago made a conjecture from his story and then inserted a thought exercise from quantum mechanics to try to make it sound more believable, when in actuality the insertion shows again he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”
Analysis: This is another example of the first two where Basiago has inserted the word “quantum” into his sentence in the apparent hope to make it sound more sciencey and hence believable when, again, it makes the phrase even more meaningless than it would be without it.

Final Thoughts

Please, whenever anyone uses any form of appeal to quantum mechanics to explain their fringe claim, do a little bit of research to figure out what the term actually means and whether it applies to that situation. I have tried in this post to point out the three most commonly used quantum mechanics terms that have been borrowed by today’s pseudoscience in the hope that you are now armed with some of the information necessary to critically analyze various claims.

And for those of you who are prone to make these kinds of claims, a few words of advice: Stop using quantum mechanics. It does not mean, “Anything you can dream up, I can do.”

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