Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 9, 2010

If Darwin Is Responsible for the Holocaust, Newton Is Responsible for Bombs


Introduction

Well, my class is over, at least one student is complaining about their final grade, and I’m diving back in to trying to get back to work and play. And blogging — yeah, that too.

I hadn’t thought of a good quick post topic to write about lately until I saw someone else’s post tonight about the Discovery Institute yet again reviving the canard that Darwin is responsible for the Holocaust. But the blogger raised an interesting point that I hadn’t thought about before, so I decided to do my own quick post on it.

Darwin and the Holocaust

If any of you are unfortunate enough to have watched that Ben Stein docudrama piece of G-rated-term-inserted that came out a year or so ago, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” then you know that a common claim of the Intelligent Design movement — indeed, any “anti-Darwin” or “-Evolution” movement – is that the idea of human evolution from a more “primitive” creature is directly linked to and the cause of lots of atrocities such as Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s holocaust, forced sterilization, eugenics, and so on.

This isn’t a straw man here — if you’re not aware of these claims, then I invite you to read any of the following:

Any of those will do. And now, let’s be clear: Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the same day and year as Abraham Lincoln. Conjures up an immediate feeling of “cool” and “he must be great” due to that simple association with Lincoln, right? Contrast that with: Darwinism led to Hitler! Gasp! Shudder! Instead of that warm, fuzzy feeling your gut is now reeling in contempt for the man. Hence why comparison with or association with or even just mentioning Hitler these days is almost in and of itself a logical fallacy (poisoning the well or ad hominem).

Anyway, my purpose here is to present what the ID folks and some Christians are doing in order to attack the formalizer of evolutionary theory and the theory itself, trying to link it with culturally distasteful concepts, happenings, and people. Let’s also be clear: Darwin died in 1882, fully a half century before the Nazi holocaust.

Does This Make Sense?

The purpose of this blog is not at all about evolution. But rather astronomy with some physics and geology thrown in. Hence the connection to the above: Claiming that Darwin was the cause of Hitler’s holocaust, or eugenics, or whatever is the same as saying that Isaac Newton is responsible for bombs. Or for missiles. Yes, dear reader, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter that projectile weapons had been in use for, oh, maybe 100,000 years before Newton was born. Or that missiles weren’t created until maybe 300 years after Newton died. Doesn’t matter. It’s the exact same logic that the Intelligent Design folks use to say Darwin was responsible for the holocaust.

Why? Because Newton formulated gravity. Without understanding how gravity works and being able to predict how objects will behave when forces are applied, then we can’t understand how bombs or missiles work. The entire idea behind “The Rocket Equation” (the bane of undergrad physics) wouldn’t have been possible without the gravitational theory Newton formulated or the calculus he is generally credited with creating. (“The Rocket Equation” is a differential equation that describes the motion of a rocket as mass is lost because in a rocket, the fuel is a significant fraction of the initial mass.)

The Bottom Line

Does that mean, from an actual objective view, that Newton really is responsible for missiles? Or is Archimedes responsible for battleships (after all, he’s generally credited with figuring out buoyancy)? Of course not. These men developed ideas of science that could predict how things would behave in the future and explain how things behaved in the past.

Similarly, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution to describe the scientific theory that all creatures are descended from a common ancestor. This theory describes how things behaved in the past, and it is used to predict how things will behave or discoveries that will be made in the future.

So, Darwin Isn’t Responsible for the Holocaust?

No, he’s not. A scientific theory in itself does not have any sense of morality attached to it. It just is. It is neither good nor bad. People can use it and abuse it for good or bad things. Just as Newton’s theory of gravity describes how a missile launched from Iran can strike Israel, it also describes how Apollo 11 landed on the moon and returned safely with its crew. Using a theory to do something that is considered good or bad by the majority says nothing about that theory’s origin, nor should the blame or credit be given, necessarily, to that theory’s formulator.

Science is built upon the shoulders of giants, and if Darwin hadn’t formulated evolution when he did, someone else would have shortly thereafter. Similarly for Relativity — if Einstein hadn’t formulated it when he did, someone else would have very soon after, for the pieces were already out there, they just needed someone to put them together in a new way.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still not understanding this, let’s think of it a different way. Let’s use Christianity. Many Christians, I’m sure, are wonderful people who believe that Christianity stands for helping the sick, feeding the homeless, keeping children off the streets and occupied with productive things, and so on and so forth. Those are the tangible things – I’m ignoring the more spiritual for purposes of this argument.

So under this idea, priests will go to hospitals and sit with people who need to just have someone there with them. Churches will organize groups to work at a soup kitchen, etc.

But, using the exact same philosophy, using Christianity as a justification, the Crusades were launched from Europe, killing tens of thousands. The Inquisition destroyed livelihoods and lives throughout Europe a few centuries later. Literal witch hunts killed dozens in America, but tens of thousands across much of England and some of Europe only a century or two after that.

People will give Jesus credit for the ideas of Christianity and why they are volunteering in a school for underprivileged children, or running a daycare in the church basement. Do they also give Jesus credit for killing hundreds of thousands of people because of everything else people have done supposedly in his name?

Think about that next time you hear someone say that Darwin is responsible for Hitler.

April 25, 2010

In the News: David Coppedge Sues JPL for Religious Discrimination


Introduction

This has been in the news quite a bit lately, even making some normal mainstream news sources. It’s definitely made the rounds of ALL the young-Earth creationist and Intelligent Design sources that I peruse on a near-daily basis.

Since it does somewhat cover the topics that I address on this website, I thought I would weigh in with my own thoughts on the issue.

The Lawsuit – What’s Known

The lawsuit in question is being brought against NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of David Coppedge by attorney William Becker, Jr., of The Becker Law Firm, in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, and besides against JPL in general, Coppedge’s direct supervisor, group supervisor, and Manager of IT Resources are all named.

The suit alleges that Coppedge was faced with religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation, general violations of his free speech, and wrongful demotion.

So far, everything about the case has come out of pro-ID or -YEC sources, Coppedge, or the attorney (and related court filings). JPL has yet to comment publicly, and I sincerely doubt they will since they state their policy is not to comment on pending litigation (and they have also stated that, at least as of the end of last week, they have not yet been served with the lawsuit).

The events in question allegedly came as a result of Coppedge handing out pro-ID materials to co-workers who expressed an interest in them. And everything else came as a result of that.

Regress: Some Background on David Coppedge

My run-ins with Coppedge are purely from his writings … on the Institute for Creation Research’s website. Yep, that’s right: Coppedge is a young-Earth creationist, at least based upon his writings. He has written several articles for the ICR, though I have only addressed two in this blog: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)” and “Dating Planetary Surfaces with Craters – Why There Is No “Crisis in Crater Count Dating”.” From his writings, he has a very poor grasp of astronomy, despite the attempt of argument from authority by posting at the bottom of them, “David F. Coppedge works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (The views expressed are his own.)” I address this more below.

Coppedge runs computers at JPL for the Cassini mission to Saturn. His expertise is in computers, not astronomy. And not evolution.

My Thoughts

First, I would like to point out that the Discovery Institute, the “think tank” behind Intelligent Design, has steadfastly maintained over the years that ID is not religion. I find it somewhat ironic that, for allegedly promoting pro-ID materials, he is suing for religious discrimination.

The DI’s claim that one of NASA’s mission statements is to examine the origins of life and so Coppedge was doing something within that is not valid in the objective sciences, in my opinion, because he was taking the religious route. Coppedge, as far as I can tell, is a young-Earth creationist. He was handing out ID materials. ID is religion (despite the protestations of the DI).

I also find it very interesting – and very telling – that no where in ANY of the Intelligent Design stories about this lawsuit do they mention Coppedge’s YEC leanings. Do a word search on their story’s page about the suit for “creation” and you won’t find it. And the DI has continued to exploit this lawsuit, writing near daily articles about it on their blog, Evolution News & Views.

Now that I have that off my chest, I want to look at what has been alleged by Coppedge. Remember that he was a supervisor, in charge as Lead Team System Administrator of ~200 computers involved in NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn. As a supervisor, though even I doubt he tried to use his role as supervisor, it is stated he distributed pro-ID materials.

This is something that I think, at the very least, should not have been done unless (a) he was specifically asked for them, and (b) he did so while he was not “on the clock.”

I bring up the first condition because there can be a very strong implied coercion – even if unintentional – for people to follow what “The Boss” says. I doubt my father remembers this, but when I was very young and spent one school year in the Cub Scouts, I asked him to bring in a sign-up sheet for whatever fundraiser I was doing at the time. At that time, he ran a research lab with several faculty, post-docs, techs, and graduate students. He refused to do so because he didn’t want people to feel obligated to sign up for something from “the boss’s son” even though he in no way would have tried to use his position.

The second condition is that, like it or not, the First Amendment guarantees as much a freedom of religion as a freedom from religion, and the government cannot in any way advocate for or against religion or use its capital in such an endeavor. If Coppedge used time when he was being paid with government money to spread this material, then I would consider that a reprimandable offense. Granted, if it was a “first time” thing, then if I were his boss I would just bring him into the office and mention there are issues here and he needs to do this on his own time and away from NASA buildings so that it doesn’t give the appearance in any way of a government-sponsored event.

Several of the reports on blogs and pro-ID and -YEC sites have emphasized that Coppedge has not been informed of who complained about him handing out material. They make this seem sinister and under-handed, but to me it makes perfect sense. Say you’re working in an office, and your supervisor does something you think is very bad, but you’re afraid that if you tell him about it he’ll fire you. Instead, you go to his boss and complain about it and ask that your identity be kept confidential in order to avoid reprisals. Even if your supervisor wouldn’t have fired you, it could still unconsciously have affected your job evaluations or future promotions if they knew it was you. Keeping your identity secret is the only way to prevent this, though in a lawsuit you would likely necessarily be called as a witness. In this sense, making a big deal about Coppedge not being “informed of the identities of his alleged accusers or even of the specifics of any of their complaints so that he might have the opportunity to rebut them” seems perfectly reasonable, in my opinion. (source for that particular quote)

My next point is, admittedly, perhaps a little more vindictive and has nothing to do with the merits or lack-there-of of this case. I think that Coppedge has used his position as an employee of NASA and position on the Cassini mission as an argument from authority for way too long and this lends an air of undeserved credibility to what he writes. It’s also a complete non sequitur authority because managing computers says nothing about someone’s knowledge of astronomy which also says nothing about that person’s knowledge of evolution.

Finally, I’d like to end with this repetition: All information so far has been from the plaintiff’s side (Coppedge’s). Almost all news articles available on the subject are from pro-ID or -YEC sources. As with any lawsuit, there are almost always two sides to every story, and I suspect that NASA’s is different. I suspect NASA will likely claim Coppedge used his position to push the materials on others. And/Or I suspect NASA will claim Coppedge has done this in the past, was warned, and after continuing to do so he was finally reprimanded pursuant to the Establishment Clause.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Coppedge simply did obtain pro-ID materials that another employee requested and JPL over-reacted and did something that legitimately was unwarranted (though I honestly doubt it but that is my own bias). I think that as this case unfolds we will see that Coppedge is not quite the victim he has been made to seem.

November 13, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Ad Hominem Attacks and the Sub-Types of Tu Quoque and Poisoning the Well


Introduction

In my third installment of my series on Logical Fallacies, we’re going to cover the “ad hominem” attack along with several sub-types.

What’s an Ad hominem?

Ad hominem is a Latin phrase that literally translates as, “to the person” (and because it is in a language other than English, when using it in an English sentence it should be italicized). This is apropos because the fallacy is when one attacks a person making claims rather than the claims themselves — in other words, they address their arguments “to the person” rather than the claims. Because this is a fairly general fallacy, there are several sub-types.

Example of the Ad hominem, Abusive

There is no real standard ad hominem that I could think of in terms of creationism, intelligent design, UFOs, 2012 doomsday people, Planet Xers, astrologers, and all the rest of the pseudosciences that I’ve addressed on this blog. Really, the ad hominem is usually a spur-of-the-moment type of fallacy and generally used when one is just plain annoyed and wishes to use malice.

A contrived example would be the following situation: A die-hard UFO=aliens believer is debating with the virtuous skeptic when, frustrated, the UFO believer cries out, “Well of course you don’t believe me, you just believe whatever those scientists tell you to believe.”

Now, of course, this can easily go both ways. For example: A skeptic walking down the street sees a sign for a Psychic / Palm Reader / Tarot Card Reader / Astrologer, sees someone walk in, and obnoxiously declares, “Yeah, you’re gonna trust her — she doesn’t even have a real job!” The skeptic has just addressed the person rather than the actual claims.

Example of the Ad hominem, Circumstantial

This variety of ad hominem, rather than direct character assassination, uses circumstances rather than the person. For example, to pick on the Noble Skeptic, a skeptic might claim of a seriologist (someone who studies crop circles), “Well of course they believe crop circles are caused by aliens. That’s because they run a tour company and charge lots of money to bring people to see the formations.”

Assuming the seriologist in question actually does this, then the skeptic has just used the circumstantial ad hominem where they have drawn an albeit valid link that may be some of the seriologist’s motivation, it still does not address the actual claims of crop circle believers.

Sub-Type: Tu quoque

Lots of Latin in this blog post! Tu quoque literally translates as, “You, too.” This form of ad hominem attack, rather than being used initially, often follows one lobbied against its user. It’s really the quite childish playground taunt of, “Oh yeah! Well so do you!”

To continue my above example of the seriologist, once the Noble Skeptic has used such a logically fallacious circumstantial ad hominem, the seriologist may come right back with, “But you charge admissions to your lectures against aliens, crop circles, and UFOs!” In other words, they’ve just pointed out that the very ad hominem used against them – financial ties to the cherished belief – can also apply to the skeptic.

But again, the actual claim itself of whether crop circles are caused by aliens has not been addressed.

Sub-Type: Poisoning the Well

“Poisoning the Well” is a sub-type of ad hominem where, rather than outright attacks on a person or group, the attack is subtle and tries to get the listeners to distrust the person or group being attacked. They have been, effectively, “poisoned.”

An example of this that is often used by both creationists but much more so by the Intelligent Design proponents is calling pretty much anyone who disagrees with them a “Darwinist,” “Evolutionist,” or even “Evilutionist.” In other words, without addressing any of the claims themselves, they have already biased their audience against those people by giving them a seemingly unfavorable characteristic.

The Inverse ad hominem

I’ll address this more in my upcoming post on the Argument from Authority as a sub-sub-sub-…-sub type of that, but suffice to say here that the inverse ad hominem is just what it would seem to be. But rather than used to argue against someone or something, it’s used to try to give undue support for their position.

For example: “That Creationist on-stage is much better dressed than his opponent. He must really know what he’s doing to show up like that.”

Or, in every-day life, when walking down the street people will usually give much more sidewalk space to someone dressed in a tuxedo, evening gown, or priestly garb than a person walking in sweat pants and a t-shirt.

Final Thoughts

Everyone uses ad hominem attacks. I’ve used them, you’ve used them, we’ve all used them. But, it’s an argument ad populum (again, future post!) to say that because everyone uses them, they’re a good way of arguing. They’re so often used in politics that most people have turned away from politicians and created the joke of “politicks = poly + ticks, or “many” + “blood-sucking insects.” Of course this, in itself, is an ad hominem.

I should note, by the way, that something is only an ad hominem IF it is used as an argument in itself. Just using it in an argument or on the school playground to call someone a “jerk” for example is NOT an ad hominem. However, the poisoning the well fallacy is not as subject to this restriction.

And before some commenter points it out, I used ad hominems and inverse ad hominems throughout this post, such as the “Noble Skeptic” or “die-hard UFO=aliens believer.” Yes, I know I used them. I did it on purpose. Thank you for not using your own tu quoque in the Comments section.

November 11, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Final Consequences


Introduction

Continuing my series on logical fallacies, this post will address the fallacy of the Argument from Final Consequences.

What is the “Argument from Final Consequences?”

The “Argument from Final Consequences” fallacy can effectively be stated as: “Something exists, therefore [this] caused it.” In other words, it confuses cause and effect, starting with an effect and then assuming a cause.

Main Example from Creationism

One of the best astronomy/physics-related examples of this logical fallacy from Creationism (and Intelligent Design) proponents is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. Since I have addressed this argument in detail in a previous post, the very short argument goes as follows: “In order for us to exist, the universe has to be very fine-tuned in order for that to happen, therefore God (or an “Intelligence”) was the one that created it.”

If we deconstruct that argument, we have an observation and conclusion of an effect — the universe must be fine-tuned for us to exist here — and then we have the cause — God did it. In other words, we have the effect placed before the cause in the argument, or an Argument from Final Consequences logical fallacy.

A more honest ay of addressing this situation is to observe that we exist the way we do because of the way the universe is. We have the cause — the universe is the way it is — and the effect — we exist as we do to take advantage of the physical laws of the universe that we inhabit. Saying that we could not exist if the universe were different is probably true, but that does not mean that no type nor form of life could exist, just our particular kind of life.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Final Consequences is a little harder to spot in discussions because you generally have to pause, deconstruct the argument, and really look at what they’re claiming to be the cause and effect to determine if they are using the effect to justify the cause.

July 31, 2009

What Is Science, Its Purpose, and Its Method?


Introduction

Following up on my post “Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”,” as well as a recent planetarium lecture I gave on young-Earth creationism in astronomy, I thought it would be a valuable post to go over specifically what the purpose of science actually is, and how science goes about, well, science.

I need to make three things very clear up-front: First, I am not a philosopher. I have not taken any philosophy classes, nor have I taken a philosophy of science class (though I think I probably should).

Second, even though “science” is an inactive noun – where I use the word “inactive” to mean that it is a process and a mode of thinking – I will be using it throughout this post as an “active” noun, personifying it to actually “do” things. This is how it’s used in popular culture, and I see no real reason to take efforts to not go with the colloquial use in this posting.

Third, this post is going to serve a dual purpose by contrasting the scientific method with the creationist “method” in order to show how science differs in key, important ways.

Dictionary Definitions of Terms

The way the dictionary that Apple kindly provides on their computers defines “science” as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There are three sub-definitions, but that main one emphasizes that “science” is an activity, a study, and one that looks for natural explanations.

My only qualm with this definition is that I would add to it not only what it does or how it operates, but its purpose, as well: “The purpose of science is that once it has provided an explanation for the physical and natural world, it allows one to use that explanation to make predictions.” I know that when I stand on one foot, if I don’t shift my weight to that one foot, I will likely fall if I do not support myself. That is because I have repeated observations that tell me this. Without that predictive power that in the future I will fall if I don’t shift my weight, then all those previous observations are fairly worthless.

In this section, I also want to define “dogma.” Using the dictionary again: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Now, hopefully I’m stating the obvious, but “dogma” and “science” are not equivalent. In fact, I know that I’m not stating the obvious because there are many, many, many people out there who believe that science simply leads to dogmatic facts/ideas/theories, etc. This is not true. And in the rest of this post I will show you why.

A Look at the Creationist “Science” Method

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that this is not a straw man argument, an exaggeration, or anything else that may lead to you thinking this is not true. This section is really how many – if not most or all – biblical literalists view science, and this is how they decide what science to incorporate into their worldview.

Ken Ham, the CEO of the “Answers in Genesis” (a young-Earth creationist think-tank in the US, now separate from the Australian group by the same name), has explicitly stated that one must start with the Bible, while others at AiG have stated that even logic and science itself flows from the Bible, for without it, you couldn’t even have the tools that science uses.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a flow chart:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The above flow chart shows the basic, fundamental process that most biblical literalists use to vet science. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field. Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. In fact, to quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

A Look at the Scientific Method

You’ll notice that this flow chart is a tad larger:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

It starts at the same place, with an idea/observation/etc., which we call a “hypothesis.” As opposed to testing this hypothesis against the Bible, it is tested by performing an experiment. In other words, can the idea that you have accurately predict the outcome of an experiment?

If not, then the idea is rejected. If it did accurately predict the outcome of the experiment, then ideally you will do several more and gather other observational evidence, but effectively you now have created a theory. A theory is when all pieces of evidence support that idea, and NO experiment has refuted it.

The next step of a theory is to use it to predict a future event. This is where my definition of science differs from the dictionary by adding these predictive properties (the bottom half of the flow chart). Without the theory of gravity being able to predict the motions of the planets and moons, the behavior of tides, etc., then what good is it other than to have on paper and look pretty?

So the theory is used to predict a future event. If it predicted it correctly, then you simply rinse and repeat. Much of basic scientific research is really just testing theories. Far from being the “dogma” that many creationists will want you to believe, theories are subjected to tests every day.

In fact, scientists WANT to be the one to do the experiment that the theory predicted a different outcome for. That’s where we follow the “NO” arrow on the flow chart. If the theory can be modified to support the latest evidence, then it is improved, and you go back and continue to test the now-modified theory. An example of this would be the addition of Inflation to the Big Bang model.

However, if the theory cannot be modified to support the latest evidence, then we have a scientific revolution. People remember your name. You get Nobel Prizes. And money. And women (or men). Anyone over the age of 10 knows Einstein’s name and know him to be synonymous with “Relativity” and likely even “E=m·c2.” Advertisers wish they could be that efficient.

Final Thoughts – What’s the Point, and Why No Spiritualism/Paranormal Allowed?

The point here is that, well, I’m honestly sick of hearing the anti-“darwinist” crowd claiming that evolution, the speed of light, the Big Bang, and many other scientific theories are just a “materialistic dogma.” They’re not. Plain and simple. Dogma is where you believe something as FACT and it cannot be shown to be false, regardless of any evidence. Theories and the scientific method is a process that requires evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. It requires predictive power.

And that is why spiritualism/religion/supernatural/paranormal beliefs are simply not allowed in science. Sorry, they’re not. Why? Because almost by their very definition, they lack any predictive ability. If you can’t use your hypothesis or theory to predict a future event, then they have just been shown not to work. Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster may have created us all by touching us with His noodly appendage. That may be a hypothesis. But you simply can’t test that because He in His Infinite Carbalicious Goodness can just choose not to do it again. Or some vaguely-defined “Intelligent Designer” may have caused the bacterial flagllum to exist or have formed the mammalian eye. But that belief does not present any way of being tested, whereas evolutionary theory does (and has shown the precursors to all of those).

And that’s really the point of science: To use testable ideas to explain the where we came from, and then to predict where we’re going.

March 17, 2009

Defending the Big Bang: An Introduction

Filed under: big bang,creationism,intelligent design — Stuart Robbins @ 12:00 pm

Introduction

I’ve been trying to think of another series of posts to do after my fairly successful one on Planet X and 2012. And then it struck me – why not start at the beginning, or, perhaps more precisely, just after the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang.

There are a few main types of arguments (non-scientific) against the Big Bang (and yes, it should be capitalized because it is a singular noun event/theory). First, there are the young-Earth creationists who will generally argue against anything that science comes up with that goes against their sacred book. Second, there are the Intelligent Designers who out of necessity have to say that the Big Bang was put in motion by “an intelligence” because otherwise their arguments against a natural evolution fall apart. Third, there are the self-proclaimed “amateur scientists” who hold “alternatives” to Big Bang cosmology with things you may never have heard of before, like the “plasma theory” or “plasma universe.”

What I plan to do is, over the next few days, write about four posts addressing the issues raised and the scientific rebuttal. The first post will address the pillars of the modern Big Bang theory, and subsequent posts will likely reference it.

Other Posts in This Series

None yet.

December 12, 2008

Casey Luskin’s Rant on an ET Life Library Book – He Just Doesn’t Get It


Introduction

I’ve been looking for a way to fit in another post about Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute, that has something to do with astronomy, and maybe have an opportunity to point out why Casey Luskin‘s rants on their podcast are really incredibly ignorant.

And today’s “ID the Future” podcast on “Materialist Science Fiction at a Public Library” provides me with just that opportunity. Oh, and it also gives me the opportunity to somewhat defend libraries, since I used to work at one I know something about them.

The Claims – An Overview

The paragraph description for this episode of ID the Future is:

On this episode of ID the Future, Casey Luskin examines the lame materialist science fiction being promoted to students at a local public library. With wild speculations on the existence of life outside our planet based on the idea that life just takes a “bing” and some interstellar chemicals, this book should be not on reference shelves, but in the science fiction section. Listen in as Luskin lays a Dewey decimal smackdown on Life on Other Planets.

Right off the bat, you can tell that this episode is not going to a nice, unbiased review of a book, given the language “Dewey decimal smackdown” as well as “lame materialist science.” Having worked at a library before AND being an astronomer, though, I was somewhat interested to see how these folks were going to formulate their complaints. So I listened to the ~5-minute episode.

The bulk of the episode focuses on numerous ad hominem attacks (attacks based on denegrating someone or something’s character in order to get you to be adverse to believing them) against the book in question, Life on Other Planets. The actual meat of Luskin’s arguments focus on his belief (yes, belief) that information cannot be naturally created inside a cell, that an external intelligence must have put it there. I’m not actually going to address that claim, though, since I am not a biologist.

I will address his claims about extra-terrestrial life and the SETI project.

But, before I get there, I would like to resort to my own little ad hominem attack …

Casey Luskin Doesn’t Know What a Childrens’ Book Is

In the podcast, about 40 seconds in, Luskin gives his own little overview of the book. He states, “The title page featured little green men with big alien bug-eyes, the kind of pictures you might see on some nutty UFO website.”

Okay, I looked at the book. You can view it for yourself on Amazon (it’s “Look Inside!” feature). Luskin plainly doesn’t know the difference between a Title Page (the page inside most books that has the – you guessed it – title!) from the Table of Contents (the page or pages inside most books that have the … contents!). In fact, that picture of aliens is quite clearly ON the page labeled, “Contents.”

But I digress.

Casey then states, “The book and its display were clearly aimed at students, perhaps junior high or high school aged.”

Perhaps it’s been a few years since he was in grade school. Perhaps he doesn’t remember quite what age-appropriate literature would be. Or perhaps he went to a school system that separated grades differently. Where I went to school, “junior high” was grades 6-8, and “high school” was grades 9-12. That would be ages 12-18.

The book is fairly clearly for a younger audience. You can tell that simply from the print size, the spacing between words, and the spacing between lines. In addition, Amazon fairly clearly states on their website: “Reading level: Ages 9-12.” Casey, that would be elementary school.

Besides this, if you look at the copyright page (that would be the page with the copyright information, Casey), the Library of Congress cataloging information clearly states, “Juvenile literature.” Not “Young adult” literature (the new term for that junior and high school level of reading).

You may think that I’m nit-picking here. Perhaps I am. But I am sure that I am not alone that when I think of “high school” material I think of reasonably in-depth information, and lots of good science. But when I think of “elementary school” material, I think of big print, lots of pretty pictures, and simpler prose to try to get children interested in science. The science should still be there and it should be accurate, but it can – and should – take on a different form for that age level.

Moving Along … A Problem with “Bing!”

This is where the age-appropriate language really comes into play and where Casey makes much ado about nothing. At 2 min 20 sec into the podcast, Casey is quoting from the book: “‘Put some common interstellar chemicals in a cold chamber with no air, zap it with radiation, and bing! you’ve got a protocell.'” (I don’t know the exact punctuation because Amazon doesn’t happen to have that page available for online viewing.)

From 2 min 25 sec through the next 10 seconds, and then for an additional 10 seconds later on, Casey harps on the “bing” language. That’s about 20 seconds. In a podcast with 5 minutes of material, that’s at least 6% of the time devoted to one word.

And I agree. “Bing!” should not be used in literature for high schoolers. They would roll their eyes and no longer pay any attention to it. But for children in grades 3-5, that language is fully appropriate, and inserting fun words like that can help keep them interested. Again, this is why Luskin’s inability to properly judge the target age of the book is an important part of his argument, and why I feel the need to point it out.

The Crux of the SETI Claims

Casey makes a rather large deal (at about 3 min 45 sec) about SETI’s purpose, and that, “SETI researchers are trying to find signals that imply an intelligent source.”

I’m not really surprised that he discusses this for awhile because that’s really what Discovery Institute researchers supposedly do: They try to look at biological systems and say that they could not have been constructed naturally so they must have been constructed by an intelligence. That’s where they stop. They don’t try to find out how those systems may have arisen naturally. In fact, they purposefully ignore studies that have shown how they evolve naturally, such as their bread and butter, the bacterial flagellum (which is a straw man since there isn’t “the” bacterial flagellum, there are many different kinds) or the mammalian eye.

SETI scientists, however, do look for signals that astronomers think (not believe) could not have been made from a natural source. And if they were found, there would be hundreds if not thousands of scientists debating the claims and trying to figure out a way that they could have been made naturally. And in the true nature of science, a consensus would eventually come out that would determine, in light of the evidence, whether that signal is made by artificial or natural means.

For example … in the 1960s, detectors were built and, when they were turned on, a very regular, very fast pulsing signal was discovered. This signal was found in other locations in the sky, with different pulsing rates and different intensities. But each time, it was incredibly regular, and often times incredibly rapid (such as over 1000 times per second). It was believed that this signal was artificial in nature because people couldn’t figure out how it could be made naturally. In fact, they were given the nickname of “LGM,” short for “Little Green Men.” Astronomers did not publically conclude that these were actually aliens. Even those that thought they were aliens tried to poke holes at the idea and really figure out what else they could be. And they certainly didn’t try to get it put into science text books that these were alien signals.

We now call these objects “pulsars,” which are collapsed, dead, massive stars about the diameter of Manhattan island, that rotate very quickly and beam radiation into space at the frequency that they rotate. If we had just stopped at, “It’s little green men, let’s try to communicate with them” instead of trying to figure out what else they could be, then we may not have ever really discovered this important – and useful – class of astronomical objects.

The same thing would happen if SETI found a signal that it believed was artificial. And we may discover a new class of natural object, but we may also have found ET life. For example, if it finds a signal that pulses the Fibonacci Sequence at us up to 100 (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89) or prime numbers up to 100, then it would be fairly difficult to conceive of a natural object that could do this.

Defending Libraries: Casey Luskin’s Ignorance of Classification

Luskin spends his last 40 seconds in the podcast in what I would literally consider a rant:

Perhaps the folks at this library could have used a little prodding from Conan [the Librarian]. Despite the patent over-statements and blatently false over-simplifications of Origin of Life Research in this book, the Dewey Decimal call number for Life on Other Planets was 576.8, or Life Sciences – Genetics & Evolution. In my view, if you’re going to market these kinds of false speculations to kids, better forewarn them by classifying the book in the 800s, Fiction.

There are two (main) things wrong with this:

(1) Libraries Don’t Really Choose the Dewey Number: Casey has a false premise here that individual library systems can just go around choosing their own Dewey number for books. That is false. In all books, at least those printed in the US, on the Copyright page there will be Library of Congress Cataloging Information. It will specify all of the information required for cataloging the book by libraries, and it will give a Library of Congress -assigned Dewey number. This book’s is 576.8’39, the ‘ meaning that numbers after it are only used in MASSIVE library systems that require further categorization. It also has the Library of Congress catalog system classification, QB54.D66 2003 for this book. That’s where the book will appear in any and pretty much all libraries.

(2) 800s are NOT for Fiction: Even in Casey’s rant and his attempt at a joke, he messes up. The Dewey system does not catalog works of fiction. Those are found in any library by subject (such as Mysteries, Science Fiction, Poetry, etc.). The Dewey 800s are used for Literature. In other words, famous and important, historical or contextual work that has something more to offer than just a good story. For example, Shakespeare has a Dewey number (822.33). Or Edgar Allen Poe (811.3). You will find William Shatner’s latest Star Trek fan fiction in the Fiction section, not under a Dewey number.

Wrap-Up

Alright, this post is a lot longer than I originally intended it to be. I apologize for that, but it was good to get it out of my system. I’ve listened to ID The Future podcast for so long that it’s nice to finally be able to do a blog post on Casey Luskin’s factual errors, ignorance, and distortion of the truth:

(1) He doesn’t realize the age level for this book, leading to skewed interpretations of age-appropriate language.

(2) He doesn’t know the difference between a Title page and a Contents page.

(3) He doesn’t know how library books are cataloged by Dewey number.

(4) He doesn’t know where Fiction goes in a library.

(5) He doesn’t realize how the scientific process works in terms of SETI’s search for a “signal that contains information.”

(6) He rants about how a childrens’ science book doesn’t claim that an intelligence is required to create life.

September 9, 2008

Why the Universe’s “Fine-Tuning” Is Not Evidence of Intelligent Design


This entry is in reference to an episode of the “ID The Future” podcast, “The Argument for Design Cosmology” that was released on September 8, 2008.

This episode of the “ID The Future” podcast is fairly long, at nearly 32 minutes.  Because of this, I am not going to address each individual claim made by the guest, Dr. Bruce Gordon (who holds a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science with a focus in the foundation of modern physics), on the concept of the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of nature.  To be perfectly honest, Dr. Gordon goes into a lot of aspects of cosmology that make my head spin.  Consequently, I will be addressing his most basic claim – and the basic claim put forth by the Discovery Institute on cosmology.

The premise is this:  The most reduced model of physics has a handful of fundamental particles (such as quarks, electrons, neutrinos, and leptons).  It also has four Fundamental Forces (strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational).  In cosmology, there are some “fundamental constants” (or “fundamental values,” since we’re not really sure if they’re constant with time).  The main one that IDers discuss is the Hubble Constant, which is the expansion rate of the Universe.  Another fundamental constant is the speed of light, or the Gravitational Constant (a less well-known one is the Planck Constant that appears a lot in Quantum Mechanics).

One of the big questions of modern theoretical physics and cosmology is why these fundamental particles, forces, and constants have the properties and/or values that they do.  For example, why the mass of the electron is 9.109·10-31 kg, or the speed of light in a vacuum is 2.998·108 m/s.  Or why the strength of gravity on 2 protons in the nucleus of an atom is only 10-36 times the strength of the electromagnetic force.

The claim from Intelligent Design – and in this episode professed by Dr. Gordon – is that if any of these were different, even by the smallest amount (he throws out numbers such as to 1 part in 1040 for one of them — I do not know enough about particle physics to agree or disagree there) then our Universe would be vastly different and we wouldn’t be here.  As I said in my opening paragraph, I do not have the expertise to pick apart his specific numbers/values on precisely how fine-tuned these need to be, but for the moment let’s take his claims at face-value.

The conclusion from this – the entire point as to why IDers point this out – is that because “material” science has no good explanation for why these values are the away they are, and we could not exist if they were different, then there must have been some guiding intelligence that designed the Universe to be favorable for our development.

At this point, I will state right off the bat:  That conclusion by IDers may be correct.  There may have been some sort of intelligence guiding how our Universe formed such that we could develop the way we did.

However, THAT IS NOT A SCIENTIFIC CONCLUSION.  That conclusion is the logical fallacy of “God of the Gaps.”  The God of the Gaps argument can be reduced to two steps:  (1) There is a gap in scientific knowledge (we don’t know why these constants came out as they did).  (2) The gap is filled by an act of (a) G/god(s) / “intelligence.”  That’s what Dr. Gordon and Casey Luskin (the interviewer) have done, they’ve simply filled the gap of our scientific understanding with a supernatural intelligence.

Besides it being a logical fallacy, there is another reason why it’s not science, and that has to do with the nature of science.  The purpose of science is to derive from evidence the workings of the Universe.  It makes hypotheses and uses natural evidence to test them in order to either support or refute that hypothesis.  By its very nature, science cannot deal with matters of supernatural ideas nor theology because, once you have invoked something that’s supernatural, it is no longer within the natural world (pretty much by definition).

Therefore, once you invoke a supernatural intelligence to make our Universe favorable for life as we know it, then you are no longer in the realm of science.  You cannot test the “intelligence” posit because it is outside nature, and if you were to ask, “Why would an intelligence design it this way?” the answer is a matter of theology (e.g., “You can’t question the mind of God,” or “So that we could live.”).  In addition, this is what has been termed a “science-stopper.”  In other words, if we already have the explanation (“God did it”) then why should we bother with doing any further research?

Science – and this particular podcast program likes to use the term, “materialistic science” as if to differentiate it from ID under the false assumption that ID is a science – does not really know why we live in the Universe we do.  The leading hypothesis deals with a consequence of String Theory, called the “Multiverse.”  The idea behind the multiverse is that our Universe is just one of many Universes, each with their own set of constants, and we really did just get the luck of the draw (akin to the Anthropic Principle).  There’s no known way to test this or to make predictions from it that are testable (that we know of) and so I relegate it to the term of “hypothesis” and not “theory.”  But, it comes about as a consequence of a materialistic paradigm, and so it is still science.  It does not invoke any supernatural argument.

Consequently, whether or not we have a satisfying explanation for why the fundamental properties of our Universe are the way they are, it is not within the realm of science to conclude that the Universe was created this way by (a) G/god(s) or “intelligence.”

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