Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 1, 2013

Podcast Episode 94: Error and Uncertainty in Science


Terminology
Episodes. Hopefully not
A boring topic?

Another unconventional episode, this one focuses on terminology and what is meant by “accuracy,” “precision,” “error,” and “uncertainty” in science. And, especially, different sources and types of error.

The episode also – surprisingly given my time constraints right now – has all of the other usual segments: Q&A (about asteroid Apophis), Feedback about the Data Quality Act, and even a Puzzler! (Thanks to Leonard for sending in the puzzler for this episode.) And the obligatory Coast to Coast AM clip.

I also talk a bit about meetup plans in Australia, especially the Launceston Skeptics in the Pub on January 2, 2014, where I’ll be talking about the Lunar Ziggurat saga, not only from a skeptical point of view, but from an astronomical one as well as from a more social science point of view — dealing with “the crazies.” I have not yet started to write the presentation, but I personally think it’s fascinating, how it’s playing out in my head.

October 25, 2013

Planetary Orbits and Terms, 101


Introduction

I’ve been made aware lately that some people who profess certain types of pseudoscientific beliefs, such as Mars’ orbit being ridiculously eccentric (highly elliptical), do not understand basic orbital terminology and geometry.

With that in mind, I thought this would be a good post not only because of that, but also towards a general explanation of terms for people who hear them from time-to-time who may not have known what they meant. I should also probably mention (normally goes without saying) that these are basic terms and definitions and are not unique to me and are not unique to any given field.

Terms! (Vocab Words!!)

Some geometry terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Major Axis: The longest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Minor Axis: The shortest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Foci/Focus(es): All ellipses have two foci, or two “focuses.” The foci have the property (or ellipses have the property) such that if you add the distance between the point and each focus, every point along the ellipse will have the same distance. This leads to the “pins and string” method of drawing an ellipse. In a circle – a special form of an ellipse, the two foci are in the same location, the center.
  • Center: The point exactly between the two foci. And the intersection of both the major and minor axes.
  • Eccentricity of Ellipse: Always between 0 (a perfect circle) and 1 (a line). It is defined as the SQRT(1-(minor/major)^2).

Some astronomy terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Semi-Major Axis: Half the longest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • Semi-Minor Axis: Half the shortest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • (Primary) Focus: In the solar system, the sun is at one focus of the ellipse for all planetary orbits, and there is nothing physical in the second focus. For moons orbiting planets, the “primary” focus is the planet, there is nothing physical at the other focus.
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: Eccentricity of an orbit is typically defined as: (apoapsis – periapsis) / (apoapsis + periapsis).
  • Ellipticity: Rarely used, sometimes confused with eccentricity. Ellipticity is just major/minor axis and is always a value greater than 1 (1 = circle). A value of 2 would mean the major axis is twice as long as the major axis, though in this case the eccentricity would be 0.87.

Some astronomy terms, other parts of an orbit:

  • Peri-: Prefix meaning “closest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your perihelion is the closest approach to the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s perigee, moon is perilune, Jupiter is perijov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “periapsis.” Periapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1-eccentricity).
  • Apo-/Ap-: Prefix meaning “farthest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your aphelion is the farthest approach from the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s apogee, moon is apolune, Jupiter is apojov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “apoapsis.” Apoapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1+eccentricity).

Some perspective terms. These are visual things, as viewed from one object relative to another. Formally as parts of an orbit, for orbital mechanics, they are irrelevant.

  • Conjunction: When one object appears at the same location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Mars, if the moon Phobos appears in front of the sun (so you get an eclipse), then this is a conjunction.
  • Inferior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “in front of” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, a moon creating a solar eclipse (blocking part of the sun) is always in an inferior conjunction with the sun.
  • Superior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “behind” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, when the moon creates a solar eclipse (blocks part of the sun), the sun is in superior conjunction. As another example, when Mars appears to go behind the sun as seen from Earth, and so we can’t get any data back from spacecraft, Mars is in superior conjunction.
  • Opposition: When one object appears in the opposite location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Earth, a full moon is in opposition to the sun, because as the sun sets, the full moon rises, so they are directly opposite each other in the sky.

As a matter of orbital mechanics, an inferior planet (one inside Earth’s orbit) can never be in opposition with the sun. And, as a matter of orbital mechanics, a superior planet (one outside Earth’s orbit) can never be at an inferior conjunction with the sun (appear between Earth and the Sun).

Applying These Terms

Let’s look at Earth’s orbit. Earth’s perihelion is 147 million km, the aphelion is 152 million km. The eccentricity is therefore 0.017 ((152-147)/(152+147) = 0.017). The major axis is aphelion+perihelion = 299 million km. The semi-major axis (what’s often quoted as Earth’s “average distance” from the Sun) is 299/2 ≈150 million km.

Notice that these have nothing to do with conjunction or opposition — by definition, and in practicality, they cannot, because opposition and conjunction requires three objects, not two. Earth and the sun could be in conjunction or opposition from a given third object / vantage point at any time regardless of where Earth is in its orbit.

Applying These Terms to Mars

We have a bit more we can do here if we consider Earth’s vantage point when looking at Mars and the Sun.

As before, we can look at its orbit in isolation, independent of Earth, because looking at it in some other way does not make any sense. Mars’ perihelion is about 207 million km. Mars’ aphelion is about 249 million km. (By the way, these two bits of data are available pretty much anywhere online, but I tend to use the very basic table at NASA’s Planetary Fact Sheet.) With those two numbers, we can calculate others. For example, Mars’ eccentricity is easily calculated to be 0.094: (249-207)/(249+207)=0.09. Much larger than Earth’s, but not as large as Mercury’s (0.21) or Pluto (0.24) or most comets and even Earth-crossing asteroids. We can also calculate its semi-major axis: (249+207)/2 ≈ 228 million km, which is what NASA lists as the distance from the Sun of Mars.

We can also look at the terms opposition and conjunction. Opposition is when Mars appears opposite in the sky relative to the sun. Physically, this happens with Sun-Earth-Mars would appear in a line to someone looking down/across/up towards the solar system. This means Earth can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion) and Mars can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion). It doesn’t matter. However, Earth and Mars, along their orbits, are the closest they will ever get. This means that Mars opposition means Mars will be anywhere from 102 million km from Earth to 55 million km from Earth (a factor of nearly 2 difference!). This is calculated simply by taking Mars’ aphelion minus Earth’s perihelion (249-147=102) and Mars’ perihelion minus Earth’s aphelion (207-152=55). As in, the closest, physically, that Mars can be to Earth is when opposition just happens to coincide with when Mars is at its perihelion and Earth is at its aphelion. The farthest, physically, that Mars can be from Earth during opposition is when opposition happens to coincide with when Earth is at aphelion and Mars is at aphelion.

Conjunction is when Mars appears at the same spot in the sky relative to the sun. Because it’s a superior planet (outside Earth’s orbit), it can only be in superior conjunction (on the opposite side of the sun as from Earth). This means that, during opposition, Mars can be anywhere from 354 million km to 401 million km from Earth. This closest would be when conjunction just happens to coincide with when both Earth and Mars are at perihelion; the farthest is when conjunction happens when both are at aphelion.

With all that in mind, practically speaking, the distance between Earth and Mars during conjunction and opposition varies from event to event. Because each have different years, while perihelion and aphelion tend to happen at the same longitude in their orbit (time of year — as in perihelion for Earth is in January every year, so aphelion is in July every year), the time of year that opposition and conjunction occur vary from event to event.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

This is shown to some extent in this animation from Wikipedia. You can see how oppositions and conjunctions will vary from year-to-year and that the distance will, as well, given Mars’ orbital distance changing much more than Earth’s.

Some may remember back in July 2003 when opposition happened almost exactly when Earth was at aphelion and Mars at perihelion. It was widely reported, such as in this NASA press release, and it’s been widely hoaxed since then. Opposition since 2003 has not been as bright because Mars has not been as close to its perihelion and Earth has not been as close to its aphelion. They won’t line up again like that for roughly 60,000 years.

Application

This has been a lengthy explanation, but I hope that I’ve explained everything clearly by this point. Importantly, one should not confuse opposition with perihelion, and one should not confuse conjunction with aphelion. After all, Mercury and Venus cannot be in in opposition, ever, and yet both have perihelion and aphelion points, by definition.

For those wondering where this is coming from, well, back in 2011, I wrote a lengthy post about some of Mike Bara’s claims, and the last one was his definition of an ellipse. He claimed that Mars has an orbital eccentricity that is very high. Specifically, he wrote, “In fact, Mars’s orbit is so eccentric that its distance from Earth goes from 34 million miles at its closest to 249 million miles at its greatest.” Mike uses this as evidence to support his idea that planets are birthed in pairs, flung off via fission from the sun.

What he was referring to was the average distance between the two during opposition and conjunction. Which, as I’ve just explained (and explained with diagrams in that post), has nothing to do with perihelion and aphelion, which are how you get eccentricity. Opposition and conjunction have nothing to do with aphelion and perihelion. More recently on his blog, he has attacked me while defending his claim that Mars is on a highly eccentric orbit. Note that I never said Mars’ orbit is not eccentric (see 3 paragraphs below: “Except …”). It has the second-highest eccentricity of any planet (since Pluto is not a planet). It’s half as eccentric as Mercury yet around 6 times as eccentric as Earth’s. But, it’s 0.09 because of its min and max distances from the Sun, not its min and max distances from Earth.

Venus has the lowest eccentricity of any planet (0.007), and yet its minimum distance from Earth (its aphelion, our perihelion) is a mere 38 million km, and its farthest distance from Earth (both aphelion) is 261 million km, a factor of almost 7 difference.

But, getting back to what Mike versus I wrote, Mike wrote: “Now, let’s examine your statement that “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric.” Oh really?” Mike then goes on to point out that its orbit is the second-highest eccentricity-wise. And then wrote: “Excluding Pluto, which is no longer considered a planet, Mars orbit is the 2nd most elliptical of all the “planets.” You can see from the graph that it is far more eccentric than Earth’s, exactly as I characterized it. Put another way, Earth’s relative distance to the Sun varies by only about 3.1 million miles in the course of one orbit (year). Mars’ orbit, by contrast, varies by as much as 26.5 million miles over the course of a Martian year. Obviously, Mars’ orbit is more eccentric by an order of magnitude. How Stuart fails to grasp this I do not know. Maybe he’s just stupid.”

Except, what I wrote is quote-mined in that context. What I wrote, if you go to my original post, was this: “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric because it comes as close as about 0.38 A.U. (“astronomical unit” is the distance between the sun and Earth) but goes as far as 2.67 A.U.” Given the diagram that accompanied that text, it was clear those numbers are relative to Earth. I stand by that statement when it’s read in full context. It’s not eccentric because of its distance from Earth during opposition versus conjunction, it’s eccentric because of its distance from the sun during aphelion and perihelion. In fact, when calling me stupid for not grasping Mars’ eccentric orbit, Mike directly quotes the numbers that support what I stated and not what he did.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that if Mike reads this, he will still claim that I am mistaken somehow. It’s odd that he would fight so much over something so trivial instead of just admitting he made a mistake and moving on. After all, he claimed later in his attack that it’s not even important to his overall point.

Why then am I devoting time to pointing out and not moving on from something so trivial? Because I consider this to be the heart of this blog and what I do as education and public outreach: Using a real-life example of where someone goes wrong in their thinking to teach something. In this case, I had the context to get into some basics of orbits and definitions that people don’t often learn or remember if they had learned it. And, with the idea of how NOT to apply these terms, I find that people usually better remember how to use them correctly.

But, I don’t expect Mike to agree. Why? Well, his latest is that he’s promoting his new book, “Ancient Aliens on Mars” (there, Mike, I gave you a plug). He has put up a Picasa album with, I presume, images from the book (considering that’s the title of the album). In the second set of five images, he goes over ellipses. With specific notes to me. And, makes the same, fundamental mistakes. Including one figure labeled “”Perihelion” or Opposition” with the caption “Explanation of Mars Opposition, for Stuart Robbins.” And, there is another image showing “Aphelion” which just shows conjunction, and it has been captioned “Pay attention Stuart.”

Yup, I paid attention, and Mike, you’re still wrong in your terms and definitions. And I have been much more polite about it than you.

April 3, 2013

Is the Scientific Method a Part of Science?


Introduction

You probably all remember it, and I can almost guarantee that you were all taught it if you went through any sort of standard American education system (with full recognition for my non-USAian readers). It’s called the Scientific Method.

That thing where you start with a question, form a hypothesis, do an experiment, see if it supports or refutes your hypothesis, iterate, etc. This thing:

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

The question is, does anyone outside of Middle and High School science class actually use it?

A Science Fair Question

I recently judged a middle and high school science fair here in Boulder, CO (USA). The difference in what you see between the two, at least at this science fair, is dramatic: High schoolers are doing undergraduate-level (college) work and often-times novel research while middle schoolers are doing things like, “Does recycled paper hold more weight than non-recycled?” High schoolers are presenting their work on colorful posters with data and graphs and ongoing research questions, while middle schoolers have a board labeled with “Hypothesis,” “Method,” “Data,” and “Conclusions.”

I was asked by a member of the public, after I had finished judging, why that was. He wanted to know why the high school students seemed to have forsaken the entire process and methodology of science, not having those steps clearly laid out.

My answer at the time – very spur-of-the-moment because he was stuttering and I had to catch a bus – was that it IS there in the high school work, but it was more implicit than explicit. That often in research, we have an idea of something and then go about gathering data for it and see what happens: It’s more of an exploration into what the data may show rather than setting out on some narrow path.

That was about a month ago, and I haven’t thought much more about it. But, the Wired article today made me think this would be a good topic for a blog post where I could wax philosophical a bit and see where my own thoughts lay.

Field-Specific?

A disclaimer up-front (in-middle?) is that I’m an astronomer (planetary geophysicist?). This might be field-specific. The Wired article even mentions astronomy in its list of obvious cases where the Scientific Method is usually not used:

Look at just about any astronomy “experiment”. Most of the cool things in astronomy are also discovered and then a model is created. So, the question comes second. How do you do a traditional experiment on star formation? I guess you could start with some hydrogen and let it go – right? Well, that might take a while.

That said, I’m sure that other fields have the same issues, and it’s really just a big grey area. What I’m going to talk about, that is. Some fields may be more towards one end of the greyscale than the other.

A Recent Paper I Co-Authored

I recently was a co-author on a paper entitled, “ Distribution of Early, Middle, and Late Noachian cratered surfaces in the Martian highlands: Implications for resurfacing events and processes.” The paper was probably the only professional paper I have ever been an author on that explicitly laid out Hypotheses, tests for those hypotheses, what the conclusion would be depending on the results, then the Data, then the Conclusions. And it was a really good way to write THAT paper. But not necessarily other papers.

A Recent Paper I Wrote

I had a paper that was recently accepted (too recently to supply a link). The paper was about estimating and modeling the ages of the largest craters on Mars. There was an Introduction, Methods, Data, and Conclusions. There was no Hypothesis. It was effectively a, “Here is something we can explore with this database, let’s do it and put these numbers out there and then OTHER people may be able to do something with those numbers (or we can) in future work.” There really was no hypothesis to investigate. Trying to make one up to suit the Scientific Method would have been contrived.

This is also something the Wired article mentions:

… often the results of a scientific study are often presented in the format of the scientific method (even though it might not have been carried out in that way). This makes it seem like just about all research in science follows the scientific method.

This is especially the case in medical journals, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Change the “Scientific Method?”

The Wired article offers this as the “new” method:

New Scientific Method (via Wired)

Here’s the accompanying justification:

There are a lot of key elements, but I think I could boil it down to this: make models of stuff. Really, that is what we do in science. We try to make equations or conceptual ideas or computer programs that can agree with real life and predict future events in real life. That is science.

I will preface this next part by saying I am NOT up-to-date on the latest pedagogy of teaching and I am NOT trained in teaching methods (other than 50+ hours of Graduate Teacher Program certification during grad school plus teaching several classes, including two as instructor of record).

That in mind, I think that this is a good idea in later years of grade school education. In the early years, I think that the methodology of the Scientific Method helps get across the basic idea and concepts of how science works, while later on you can get to how it practically works.

Let me explain with an example: In third grade, I was taught about the planets in the solar system plus the sun, plus there are asteroids, plus there are random comets. In eighth grade, I was taught a bit more astronomy and the solar system was a bit messier, but still we had those nine planets (this was pre-2006) and the sun and comets and asteroids plus moons and rings.

Then you get into undergrad and grad school, and you learn about streaming particles coming from the sun, that we can be thought of as being in the sun’s outer-most atmosphere. You get taught about magnetic fields and plasmas. Zodiacal light. The Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, asteroid resonances, water is everywhere and not just on Earth, and all sorts of other complications that get into how things really work.

To me, that’s how I think the scientific method should be taught. You start with the rigid formality early on, and I think that’s important because at that level you are really duplicating things that are already well known (e.g. Hypothesis: A ping pong ball will fall at the same rate as a bowling ball) and you can follow that straight-forward methodology of designing an experiment, collecting data, and confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. Let’s put it bluntly: You don’t do cutting-edge science in middle school.

In high school — in a high school with good science education — you actually do start to learn more about the details of different ideas and concepts and solid answers are no longer necessarily known. You want to find out, so you might design an experiment after seeing something weird, and then gather data to try to figure out what’s going on.

That’s how science usually works in the real world, and I think it’s a natural progression from the basic process, and I still think that basic process is implicit, if not explicit, in how science is usually done.

I just got back from a major science conference two weeks ago, and I sat through several dozen talks and viewed several hundred poster presentations. I honestly can’t remember a single one that was designed like a middle school science fair with those key steps from the Scientific Method.

Of course, another aspect is that if we get rid of it, we can’t make comics like this that show how it’s “really” done (sorry, I forget where I found this):

How the Scientific Method Really Works

How the Scientific Method Really Works
(click to embiggen)

Final Thoughts

That said, this has been a ~1400-word essay on what I think about this subject. I don’t expect much to change in the near future, especially since – as the Wired article points out – this is firmly entrenched in the textbooks and in Middle School Science Fair How-To guides.

But, I’m curious as to what you think. Do you think the Scientific Method is useful, useless, or somewhere in-between? Do you think it should be taught and/or used in schools? Do you think it should be used in science fairs? Do you think professional scientists should use it more explicitly more often?

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?

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.

June 29, 2011

Are Creationists Winning Some Parts of the “Culture War?”


This is a quick post so I’m going to forego my normal subject headings.

Last year, I wrote a post entitled, “Do Scientists Believe?” where I discussed the use of the two words “believe” and “think” as they are used in our American English language (I would also assume British/Canadian/Australian/etc. English, but I don’t know for sure).

Feedback seemed somewhat mixed as to whether the terms are interchangeable or whether people should be more precise in using “believe” when there is something you are taking without evidence versus “think” where you have evidence to back it up. Personally, I agree it’s a bit of semantics and didn’t really have much sway.

That is, until I read the latest Institute for Creation Research article entitled, “Miss USA ‘Believes’ in Evolution. I figured it would be a standard ICR pice about how she should be more God-fearing and whatnot. Instead, the article discusses the very issue I brought up last September in my post: “Oftentimes the respondents, including Ms. Campanella, spoke of evolution as a belief system. More often than not, the women supported presenting students with as much information as possible so that they could decide for themselves what would be best to ‘believe.’”

In other words, the ICR is using the innocent imprecision with which people use English to claim that evolution requires belief, therefore faith, to be considered valid by people.

Obviously I have not interviewed the new Miss USA. I don’t know if she really “thinks” or “believes” in evolution, but the very fact that the ICR is using this as a “win” in my opinion requires we ask the question: Are creationists winning some parts of this supposed culture war? The fact that, in everyday language, we are using terms like “believe” when referring to scientific theories seems to indicate they may be.

I’m reminded of something Steve Novella (Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast host) stated several months ago. He was talking about his and other doctors’ push to use the term “evidence-based medicine” or “science-based medicine” when referring to standard treatments. He added that after several years of doing this, that even the “alternative” medicine people were beginning to use the term. He saw this as winning part of the battle, part of the culture war, when your opponents use your terminology.

Is that what’s happening here?

Edit (Update on July 30, 2011): I saw this comic posted on another blog and thought that it summarized my point fairly well:

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.”

September 28, 2010

Do Scientists Believe?

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 10:47 am
Tags: , , , ,

Introduction

This is an interesting question, and one really of diction and intent. It’s one that I’ve personally had to catch myself on several times, and I try to be very careful about distinguishing between the two words “believe” and “think.” In our everyday lives, I don’t think most people actually pay attention to it, and the two terms have almost decayed to mean something other than their original intent.

What Does it Mean to “Believe?”

According to the dictionary widget on my Mac, the first definition of “think” is: “accept (something) as true; feel sure of the truth of.” The first two examples are, “The superintendent believe Lancaster’s story,” and “Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead.”

To me, however, I think the second example is the only one that really captures the real, perhaps original, meaning of the word, “believe.” I use the term to indicate when I accept something without any real evidence.

But, the term is often used today to describe when someone wants to placate another person by “softening” their stance. I’ll get to that later.

What Does it Mean to “Think?”

Again going to my trusty easy dictionary, “think” means “have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something,” or “direct one’s mind toward someone or something, use one’s mind to actively form connected ideas.”

In this case, it’s the second half of the second definition that I think captures the real meaning, and the real difference between these two as they should be used in language. If you use the first definition then it is actually nearly the same as the definition of “believe,” where “belief” is even in the definition.

Use of “Belief” when “Think” Should Be Used

I’ve been working on a paper lately about age-dating the last major volcanic events on Mars. In the process of peer review, you have to defend your paper to one or more reviewers because they are the ones you have to convince of your results so it can be accepted in t he journal.

You also have justify your conclusions within the paper for the broader audience who is not going to contact you personally to get clarification. When doing this, the difference between “think” and “believe” will hopefully become more important:

When I write my conclusions, I have them backed up by the data presented in the paper. Should I say, then, that I “believe” them? Or would it be more accurate to say I “trust” them and “think” they are accurate?

But then when a reviewer disagrees with me and points out, for example, that I should cite a paper that I don’t think I should, it sounds nicer if I say, “I don’t believe that would benefit the paper” versus “I don’t think that will benefit the paper.” “Believe” sounds, as I mentioned above, softer and more like.

For another example, I sat in the theater today at Meteor Crater (outside of Flagstaff, AZ, USA). The purpose of the 10-minute show was to talk about the importance of impact events in shaping the solar system and Earth. I had only two major issues with it, but then I heard the line, “Most scientists believe a giant asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs.”

There’s that word “believe” again. It makes it sound as though scientists take this on faith. And maybe if they were raised in a different school, they would believe something else. Should the word “believe” be used in this instance when roughly 98% of scientists who study this subject THINK the impact killed the dinosaurs (as in have examined the evidence and have come to a conclusion based on that evidence)?

Final Thoughts

You may think – or believe – that I am really splitting hairs here, writing about minutia. You may think or believe that the difference doesn’t matter.

However, I think it does. When a reporter states that “scientists believe [something],” it makes it sound as though they sat down in the lotus position, meditated for an hour, and then came to their conclusion via divine providence. In my opinion, using the word “believe” to describe a conclusion reached by examination of evidence is bad thinking.

May 29, 2010

Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris: On the Non-Scientifically Trained Trying to Do/Understand Science


Preamble

First, let me give one announcement for folks who may read this blog regularly (hi Karl!). This may be my last post for about a month or so. As you may remember from my last post, I will be teaching all next month, June 1 through July 2, and the class is every day for 95 minutes. I have no idea how much free time I may have to do a blog post, and I have some other projects I need to finish up before the end of the month (I’m also a photographer and I had a bride finally get back to me about photos she wants finished).

Introduction

I have posted once before about Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris in my post about The Importance of Peer-Review in Science. The purpose of that post was to primarily show that peer review is an important part of the scientific process, a claim contrary to what the host of said podcast had claimed.

Now for the official disclaimer on this post: I do not know if Alex is a trained scientist. Based on what he has stated on his podcast, my conclusion is that he is not. What I have read of his background (something like “successful software entrepreneur” or around those lines) supports that conclusion. However, I don’t want to be called out for libel just in case and so that is my disclaimer.

Also, I am not using this post to say whether I think near-death experiences are a materialistic phenomenon or point to a mind-brain duality (mind/consciousness can exist separately from brain). That is NOT the point of this post and I am unqualified to speak with any authority on the subject (something I think Alex needs to admit more often).

Anyway, I just completed listening to the rather long Skeptiko episode #105 on near-death experiences with Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella Dr. Steven Novella (see Points 2 and 3 below for that “Dr.” point). I want to use that episode to make a few points about how science is done that an (apparently) non-scientifically-trained person will miss. This post is not meant to be a dig/diss against so-called “citizen science,” rather the pitfalls of which non-scientists should be aware when trying to investigate pretty much ANY kind of science.

Point 1: Conclusions Are Not Data

Many times during the episode’s main interview and after the interview in the “follow-up,” Alex would talk about a paper’s conclusions. “The researchers said …” was a frequent refrain, or “In the paper’s conclusions …” or even “The conclusions in the Abstract …” I may be remembering incorrectly, perhaps someone may point that out, but I do not recall any case where Alex instead stated, “The data in this paper objectively show [this], therefore we can conclude [that].”

This is a subtle difference. Those of you who may not be scientifically trained (or listened to Steve’s interview on the episode) may not notice that there is an important (though subtle) difference there. The difference is that the data are what scientists use to make their conclusion. A conclusion may be wrong. It may be right. It may be partially wrong and partially right (as shown later on with more studies … more data). Hopefully, if there was not academic fraud, intellectual dishonesty, nor faulty workmanship (data gathering methods), the actual data itself will NEVER be wrong, just the conclusions from it. In almost any paper — at least in the fields with which I am familiar — the quick one-line conclusions may be what people take away and remember, but it’s the actual data that will outlive that paper and that other researchers will look at when trying to replicate, use in a graduate classroom, or argue against.

I will provide two examples here, both from my own research. The first is from a paper that I just submitted on using small, 10s to 100s meter-sized craters on Mars to determine the chronology of the last episodes of volcanism on the planet. In doing the work, there were only one or two people who had studied it previously, and so they were obviously talked about in my own paper. Many times I reached the same conclusion as they in terms of ages of some of the volcanos, but several times I did not. In those cases, I went back to their data to try to figure out where/why we disagreed. It wasn’t enough just to say, “I got an age of x, she got an age of y, we disagree.” I had to look through and figure out why, and whether we had the same data results and if so why our interpretations differed, or if our actual data differed.

The second example that’s a little better than the first is with a paper I wrote back in 2008 and was finally published in a special edition of the journal Icarus in April 2010 (one of the two main planetary science journals). The paper was on simulations I did of Saturn’s rings in an attempt to determine the minimum mass of the rings (which is not known). My conclusion is that the minimum mass is about 2x the mass inferred from the old Voyager data. That conclusion is what will be used in classrooms, I have already seen used in other peoples’ presentations, and what I say at conferences. However, people who do research on the rings have my paper open to the data sections, and I emphasize the “s” because in the paper, the data sections (plural) span about 1/2 the paper, the methods section spans about 1/3, and the conclusions are closer to 1/6. When I was doing the simulations, I worked from the data sections of previous papers. It’s the data that matters when looking at these things, NOT an individual (set of) author(s).

Finally for this point, I will acknowledge that Alex often repeats something along the lines of, “I just want to go where the data takes us.” However, saying that and then reading a paper’s conclusions are not mutually compatible. Steve pointed that out at least twice during the interview. At one point in the middle, he exclaimed (paraphrasing), “Alex, I don’t care what the authors conclude in that study! I’m looking at their data and I don’t think the data supports their conclusions.”

Point 2: Argument from Authority Is Not Scientific Consensus

In my series that I got about half-way through at the end of last year on logical fallacies, I specifically avoided doing Argument from Authority because I needed to spend more time on it versus the Scientific Consensus. I still intend to do a post on that, but until then, this is the basic run-down: Argument from Authority is the logical fallacy whereby someone effectively states, “Dr. [so-and-so], who has a Ph.D. in this and is well-credentialed and knows what they’re doing, says [this], therefore it’s true/real.”

If any of my readers have listened to Skeptiko, you are very likely familiar with this argument … Alex uses it in practically EVERY episode MULTIPLE times. He will often present someone’s argument as being from a “well-credentialed scientist” or from someone who “knows what they’re doing.” This bugs the — well, this is a PG blog so I’ll just say it bugs me to no end. ALL BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS A PH.D. DOES NOT MEAN THEY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING. ALL BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS DONE RESEARCH AND/OR PUBLISHED DATA DOES NOT MEAN THEIR CONCLUSIONS ARE CORRECT OR THAT THEY GATHERED THEIR DATA CORRECTLY.

Okay, sorry for going all CAPS on you, but that really cannot be said enough. And Alex seems to simply, plainly, and obviously not understand that. It is clear if you listen to practically any episode of his podcast, especially during any of the “psychic dogs” episodes or “global consciousness” ones. It was also used several times in #105, including one where he explicitly stated that a person was well-credentialed and therefore knows what they’re doing.

Now, very briefly, a single argument from someone does not a scientific consensus make. I think that’s an obvious point, and Steve made it several times during the interview that there is no consensus on the issue and individual arguments from authority are just that — arguments from authority and you need to look at their data and methods before deciding for yourself whether you objectively agree with their conclusions.

Edited to Add: I have since written a lengthy post on the argument from authority versus scientific consensus that I highly recommend people read.

Point 3: Going to Amazon, Searching for Books, to Find Interview Guests

Okay, I’ll admit this has little to do with the scientific process on its face, but it illustrates two points. First, that Alex doesn’t seem to understand the purpose/point of scientific literature, and second that fast-tracking the literature and doing science by popular press is one of the worst ways and a way that strikes many “real” scientists as very disingenuous. I’ll explain …

First, I will again reference my post, “The Importance of Peer-Review in Science.” Fairly self-explanatory on the title, and I will now assume that you’re familiar with its arguments. In fact, I just re-read it (and I have since had my own issues fighting with a reviewer on a paper before the journal editor finally just said “enough” and took my side).

To set the stage, Alex claims in the episode:

“Again, my methodology, just so you don’t think I’m stacking the deck, is really simple. I just go to Amazon and I search for anesthesia books and I just start emailing folks until one of them responds.”

As I explained, peer-reviewed papers are picked apart by people who study the same thing as you do and are familiar with other work in the area. A book is not. A book is read by the publishing company’s editor(s) – unless it’s self-published in which case it’s not even read by someone else – and then it’s printed. There is generally absolutely zero peer-review for books, and so Alex going to Amazon.com to find someone who’s “written” on the subject of near-death experiences will not get an accurate sampling. It will get a sampling of people who believe that near-death experiences show mind-brain duality because …

Published books on a fringe “science” topic are done by the people who generally have been wholeheartedly rejected by the scientific community for their methods, their data-gathering techniques, and/or their conclusions not being supported by the data. But they continue to believe (yes, I use the word “believe” here for a reason) that their interpretations/methods/etc. are correct and hence instead of learning from the peer-review process and tightening their methods, trying to bring in other results, and looking at their data in light of everything else that’s been done, they publish a book that simply bypasses the last few steps of the scientific process.

Not to bring in politics, but from a strictly objective point, this is what George W. Bush did with the US’s “missile defense” system. Test after test failed and showed it didn’t work. Rather than going back and trying to fix things and test again, he just decided to build the thing and stop testing.

Point 4: Confusing a Class of Outcomes with a Single Cause

This was more my interpretation of what Alex did in the interview and what Steve pointed out at many times, and it is less generalizable to the scientific process, but it does apply nonetheless.

Say, in cooking, you serve up a pizza. The pizza is the “class of experiences” here that is the same as a class of things that make up the near-death experience (NDE). The toppings of your pizza are the individual experiences of the NDE. Pizzas will usually have cheese, NDEs will usually have a sense of well-being. Pizzas may more rarely have onions, NDEs may more rarely have a white light tunnel associated with them. You get the idea.

Now, from the impression I got, Alex seemed to claim throughout the episode that there was only one way to make a pizza — have an NDE. Steve argued that there were many different ways to make a pizza, and that all those different techniques will in general lead to something that looks like a pizza.

Point 5: Steve’s a Neurologist, Alex Is Not

I need to say before I explain this point that I am NOT trying to say that you need a Ph.D. in the topic to do real science. I do not in ANY WAY mean to imply that science is an elitist thing where only people “in the club” can participate.

That said, I really am amazed by Alex arguing against people who actually have studied the subject for decades. If you are a non-scientist, or even if you are a scientist but have not studied the topic at-hand (like, gee, me talking about near-death experiences while I’m an astrophysicist/geophysicist), then you need to make darn sure that you know what the heck you’re talking about. And you need to be humble enough to, when the actual person who’s studied this says you’ve made a mistake, take that very seriously and look again at what you thought was going on. The probability that you have made a mistake or misunderstood something as opposed to the expert in the field is fairly high.

Again, this is not my attempt to backtrack and myself commit an argument from authority fallacy. However, there is a difference from making an argument from authority fallaciously versus listening to what an authority on the subject says and taking it into account and re-examining your conclusions. It seriously amazes me how much Alex argued against Steve as if Alex were an expert in neurology. It caused him to simply miss many of the points and arguments Steve was making, as evidenced by Steve saying something and then needing to repeat his argument 20 minutes later because Alex had ignored it because Alex has been buoyed by his interviews with previous pro-duality guests.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve stated, the purpose of this post is not to discuss whether NDEs show a mind-brain duality or if it has a purely materialistic explanation. The purpose is to point out that the methods Alex uses are fallacious, and while I know that people have pointed it out to him before, it seems that it has made very little impact upon the way he argues. I believe this is in part due to his need for confirmation bias – he definitely has made his mind up on whether or not psi-type phenomena exists. But I also am fairly sure that it’s because Alex lacks any kind of formal training in science. Because of that, he makes these kinds of mistakes – at least originally – without knowing any better. Now, since it’s been pointed out to him, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to keep making them, but again that’s beyond the purpose of this post.

So, to wrap this all up, non-scientists take heed! Avoid making these kinds of mistakes when you try to do or to understand science yourself. Make sure that you look at the data, not just the conclusions from a paper. Don’t make arguments from authority. Remember that popular books are not the same as peer-reviewed literature. And keep in mind there can be (a) multiple explanations and (b) multiple ways to reach an end point.

April 30, 2010

What’s a Theory? Dictionary versus Science


This is a short post so I’m going to dispense with the normal “Intro” and “Final Thoughts” sections. Back in December 2008 in one of my first posts, I talked about what a scientist means by “Theory” because it’s very different from the general public. The post is reasonably well-used with over 2,300 views (averaging somewhere around 5/day) and it gets a fair amount of hits from Google under the “define: [word]” category of searches.

The crux of that post was that the word “theory” in popular use is simply “vague idea of something” as opposed to the use by scientists being, “This has been elevated to the highest level of certainty possible in science, withstanding hundreds or thousands of attempts to disprove it.”

Recently, though, I’ve been seeing some blog posts and some posts on creationist sites that disagree with this, trying to back up a very fallacious idea that “theory” in science means what the general public uses it for. Unfortunately, when I decided to write this post, I could not readily locate an example, and for that I apologize. But I promise you that unless I was having some very realistic dreams across multiple nights, this is not a straw man argument.

However, the arguments that I have read generally go as follows: “Scientists claim that you can’t say ‘Evolution is JUST a Theory’ because ‘theory’ to them means the pinnacle of scientific certainty. However, the [insert definition number] in the [insert your favorite dictionary] says that ‘theory’ means ‘a supposition’ [or similar language]. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that evolution is just a theory or the Big Bang is just a theory.”

To say that this is a ridiculous argument is an understatement. It’s exactly what the British Chiropractor Association did to Simon Singh recently. Bot for those of you who don’t know that whole story, let’s have a different example: Sally says, “The star Sirius was really bright last night before it set.” Johnny knows that the word “star” can mean both a famous person (as in “movie star”) or a celestial object that is a giant ball of gas that when alive produces energy through fusion. Despite the context, Johnny chooses to think that Sally meant the up-and-coming movie star with the stage name “Sirius.” Admittedly, like many of my examples, this is a bit contrived, but it is pretty much the same thing.

So, in summary, it doesn’t matter what definitions 1-4 say a word means. In science, the word “theory” has a very set definition. Claiming that scientists mean something else when using it and trying to argue that the dictionary is proof of this is simply absurd, and in itself is a straw man argument.

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