Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 23, 2011

Creationists Complain on Censorship Because Math Apparently Shows GodDidIt


Introduction

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

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

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

Crux of the ICR Article

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

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

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

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

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

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

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

The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Evolution

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

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

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

Going a Bit Deeper Into This Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

June 12, 2011

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


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

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

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

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

November 23, 2010

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


Introduction

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

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

Statements by Andrew Basiago

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Quantum Mechanics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Apply This to That

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

November 7, 2010

Follow-Up 1: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


Introduction

This post is a follow-up to my first post from two weeks ago, “Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?” I strongly suggest reading it first.

If you don’t, a very brief summary is:

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) is a Research I university with 4 Nobel Prize winners on staff, 3 in physics and 1 in chemistry.
  • CU-Boulder has licensed Power|Force to use CU’s logo on PowerForce’s products and CU-Boulder is actively advertising for the product.
  • The product is a bracelet that, in the company’s own words, was “developed to work with your body’s natural inner force … [because] within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy.”
  • This is a fundamentally meaningless statement and in the opinion of many, fraud.
  • This was pointed out to CU-Boulder administration, which replied in an e-mail claiming that magnetic therapy (no mention of ions) is a clinically verified science.
  • See my first post as to why that is not true.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copy below on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

Further Correspondence

I was one of three people whom the original person notified of the advertising of PowerForce by CU-Boulder during football games (that person prefers to remain anonymous, but I have verified the basic claims in my previous post). One of the other people was less lazy than I, and in addition to writing her own blog post about this, sent a letter onto CU-Boulder’s administration. Her reply (and I have received permission to include the reply on my blog as well as post her name), comes not from the Chancellor’s e-mail this time, but Bronson Hilliard, the “Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson” at CU-Boulder.

Dear Rachael:

Allow me to answer your query regarding the University’s athletic marketing of the “Power Force” Power Band.

First, let me explain that the previous response that went out to a few individuals who e-mailed Chancellor DiStefano was supposed to be a reply on behalf of the chancellor by a staff member in our Buffalo Sports Properties office, not areply from the chancellor himself. I apologize for the way the reply was worded – it was confusing as to who the author actually was.

Regarding your query: members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns, looked into the University’s contract with the company that markets the bands, examined our peer universities’ relationships with the company, and reached the following conclusions:

· As you suggest, the claims of the company regarding the efficacy of the band aren’t based on firm scientific ground. However, the band is being marketed by through the athletic department as a novelty with affinity-inspired athletic branding that is unique to CU Athletics. The symbol it uses – the charging Ralphie – represents CU sports teams, not the university as a whole, and certainly not its research entities.

· In the same spirit, our sports-labeled products include everything from sweat bands to golf tees tolawn gnomes. These are all designed to create affinity and build school spirit, not to be literal representations of the University and its academic work.

· Likewise, the company is offering the same Powerforce Power Bands for universities that include Cal, Penn State, Missouri, Pitt and a host of other peer schools. These are quality institutions that, like us, have elected to promote a novelty item with an athletic logo for affinity and commercial purposes.

I appreciate your concern and that of your fellow graduate students and otherskeptics. Your respect for science and the scientific method is manifest inyour concern, and your dedication to advancing our highest academic values is impressive.

We do not believe in the end, however, that novelty items like the “Power Force Power Band” are threats to these values.

Sincerely,

Bronson R. Hilliard, director of media relations and spokesperson
University of Colorado at Boulder

An Analysis of Mr. Hilliard’s E-Mail

In this analysis, I am going to translate Mr. Hilliard’s message from that of a media relations person to what it actually says (implies) to those of us who have been pursuing this. My translations are in quotes, my comments are not in quotes. Note that I am not actually claiming that Mr. Hilliard actually said the things I put in quotes, these are just my translations from what I infer.

First Paragraph Translation: I’m not certain to what this is referring, perhaps Rachael in her original e-mail accidentally complained that the message about magnetic healing came from the Chancellor, which it actually did, though in the form of a forward from someone else. Regardless, this paragraph is unimportant as it is stated.

Second Paragraph Translation: “Here’s what we’ve decided:”

Third Paragraph / First Bullet Translation: “Agreed, PowerForce’s claims are meaningless, but I’m being as cagey as I can in stating that. But we’re not actually claiming it works, we’re just marketing it. Oh, and by the way, that CU logo? That doesn’t actually represent CU.” I would consider this an Inconsistency fallacy. Another person has suggested it’s simply an “absurdity” fallacy (not a formal logical fallacy, mind you, but one that works just as well). This claim might be, on paper, true, but anyone in the general public who sees any logo related to CU is not going to separate a sports logo from an academic logo or whatever Mr. Hilliard is claiming.

Fourth Paragraph / Second Bullet Translation: “I hope that what I’m saying is convincing you. ‘Cause, you know, we market other stuff like clothing with the CU logo but I’m saying that those don’t represent the University, either. I mean, a hoodie can really be risqué and we don’t want people to think CU administration really wants to present that image!” Alright, I may have gone slightly over the top with that translation, but in all seriousness, how naïve can a director of media relations be? Or how naïve does he seriously expect us to be? This is a False Equivalency fallacy. He’s attempting to shift the burden of proof to us, which I would claim that I (and others involved in this) have more than met (again, see my first post on this). What my/our point, though, is how can the bracelet and its extraordinary claims be considered a “novelty” that’s simply “designed to create an affinity and build school spirit” if they are being sold with the $29 price tag that claims it comes with magical ions … versus sweatpants that cost the same in the CU bookstore as they would at Target; this is not the same thing (the false equivalency fallacy). No one claims that the garden gnomes that CU sells are going to be like the garden gnomes in Harry Potter, but the claims that come with the bracelets are about as magical as that book/movie series.

Fifth Paragraph / Third Bullet Translation: “By the way, lots of other kewl skools also license this stuff, why don’t you go bug them? We’re just doin’ what everybody else is.” Follow-up: “Oh, everyone else is jumping off a cliff? Sure! I’d love to!” Yeah, that’s pretty much what it boils down to, a very very Skeptics 101 fallacy of Argument ad Populum (AKA Argument from Popularity). As a fellow skeptic pointed out in e-mail to me, this is actually an opportunity for CU-Boulder to take the high road and show these other schools that they are giving their name and logo to this company. As opposed to taking what many may consider a coward’s approach: hiding behind these other schools and jumping on the “everybody’s doin’ it!” bandwagon.

Sixth Paragraph Translation: “By the way, the space bar on my computer isn’t working. But isn’t it cute that there are some of you trying to pursue this? [Insert some trite compliments.]” I don’t think much more needs to be said about this paragraph but I in my infinite verbosity will, anyway. If what preceded it had been different – perhaps owning up and taking some responsibility – then this paragraph would not have come off quite as patronizing as it does. It also was interesting that a Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU-Boulder with a student-staff-administration population of well over 40,000 wouldn’t check over his e-mail to look for mistakes as simple as missing spaces between words.

Seventh Paragraph Translation: “For all those reasons, we’re not doing anything about this.”

Final Thoughts

Mr. Hilliard’s e-mail, whether intended or not, and whether ignorantly or not, is naïve in the middle and patronizing at the end. He seems to not realize – or hopes that we don’t realize – that people aren’t going to think of these as “novelty items” in the same way they are going to buy a golf tee as a “novelty item” or a CU-Boulder logo-infused shot glass as a novelty item. Any normal person is going to (1) see a CU logo and (5) assume CU is endorsing it, skipping all those intermediate steps Mr. Hilliard seems to think will lead them to a different conclusion. No one is claiming that a CU-logo-branded mug is going to imbue your morning coffee with extra energetic forces to get you through the day, and because of that charge you an extra $20. But that’s the basic claim of PowerForce – a fairly meaningless jumble of words sewn together like magnetic poetry on your refrigerator.

Rather than actually stand up and admit that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, this latest e-mail adds yet another layer of naïveté on CU-Boulder, this time in the office (via the Director) of Media Relations. It now seems that this issue has been studied (re: “members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns”) and they are happy with (a) actively promoting a pseudoscientific product, (b) being associated with a company that – to anyone who knows the basics of human physiology and/or chemistry and/or physics and/or critical thinking – is making things up, and (c) allowing that company to market products with the University’s logo and name.

We also have the Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU committing at least three formal logical fallacies: Inconsistency, False Equivalency, and Argument ad populum.

Yet again, I would call on all of you to contact the administration and let them know what you think. Alternatively or in addition to, you might do so at some of the other schools that license PowerForce, especially if your own school is swept up in this.

I also encourage you to get the word out. WordPress in the last several weeks added the common “sharing” buttons that let you tweet/facebook/digg/reddit/stumbleupon/wordpress my posts to let others know about them. Even if you don’t want to get directly involved by contacting school administrations, I encourage you to pass this post along via any or any combination of those links that are pretty easy to use. Someone among your hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers may decide to send a message along to the administration.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copied above on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

October 4, 2010

Comic Strip “Get Fuzzy” Tackles Pseudoscience with the “Big Bonk” Theory


Introduction

I listen to a lot of Coast to Coast AM. I know that a good fraction of the guests are quite literally certifiable, but it’s a good distraction from the mundane work day and, well, it can get addicting.

One of the hallmarks of the show, and something that its originator Art Bell would frequently say, is that that they will put ANYONE on to talk about ANYTHING (so long as it’s civil, etc.). This means that you get a lot of crazies. Same with folks who call in (despite the screeners). People who advocate pretty much anything and everything that the “mainstream” does not advocate. And a frequent refrain is that their “theory” is just as good as the mainstream one.

The Parody

Note: All images posted here can be opened in a new window and will be roughly double the posted size for easier reading.

Early in my college career I was introduced to the comic strip Get Fuzzy drawn by Darby Conley, one of the only things to which I’m thankful for my roommate. But that’s a different story. Anyway, the premise behind the strip is a single guy, Rob, living in an apartment with an anthropomorphized talking cat and dog. The cat, Bucky, is fairly insane while the dog, Satchel, is fairly dopy. I think the height of the strip was a few weeks where the cat was suing the ferret next door for knocking out his tooth … on Judge Judy.

Anyway, starting September 20 and going through October 2, barring the Sundays, the artist ran a story where Bucky decides to challenge, in a very Coast to Coast AM -like way, the idea that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. The September 21, 2010 strip follows:

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Well, when put like that, the scientific consensus seems laughable. But that’s because you have left out a significant amount of information. But it gets better. In the strip from September 24, 2010, the final line from Satchel is actually one that the Coast to Coast AM host, George Noory, has stated many times to someone’s crazy idea:

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Continuing:

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

The Moral of the Story: Final Thoughts

Why am I taking the little free time I have these days to make a post about a comic that has little to do with astronomy? Because it has everything to do with how people think. And it has everything to do with how that maybe 1% of the population is willing to elevate any hair-brained notion to the same status as a scientific theory that has theoretical and observational backing and has withstood all attempts at falsifying it. And I do mean all.

This series may be a comic strip, but people really do this kind of thing, and worse, there are people who unquestioningly believe the one lone nut who promotes it!

The next time you read about or hear about or see about someone’s “theory,” pause and think. Don’t just accept it at face value. Is there evidence behind it? Are they giving you all the background information? Are they making things up, or are they “on the level?” In the end, is it something that’s worth your time to investigate further and seek out independent information, or is it just another “Big Bonk?”

Legal note: All images shown here are housed on the original server and I did not download them. All are copy written by Darby Conley and distributed by UFS, Inc. and posted online at comics.com. For brevity, I have not posted all strips in the series but picked the most relevant.

September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking, God, and Design, and the Universe


Introduction

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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.

April 28, 2010

Young-Earth Creationists Need to Have a Consistent View Things: Radiometric Dating and Noah’s Ark


Introduction

One of the best and most reliable ways to determine the absolute ages of a material is through radiometric dating. Because of this, and because they show the age of things to be older than 6000 years, young-Earth creationists (YECs) have spent decades trying to show that it doesn’t work or just claiming that assumptions that scientists make are not true.

Their attempts at this include bringing samples of newly formed lava to a lab where they find an age of a few million years and then laugh saying that it only formed a decade ago. (Two issues there are that (1) the type of dating employed isn’t accurate for a sample younger than 500,000 years, and (2) they dated small minerals in the lava that did not melt in the original lava so actually were many millions of years old.)

Or they will claim that radiocarbon dating isn’t even used for dating dinosaur fossils … leaving out that radiocarbon dating can’t be applied to things that are more than ~50,000 years old.

Anyway, all that’s for another post. The purpose of this post is to point out that the point of science is to develop a model that can be applied to everything it attempts to describe. Gravity works the same on Earth as on the moon as in the center of a galaxy cluster. For the issue at-hand, YECs need to decide whether they believe in radiometric dating and its usable, or whether they don’t and so don’t use it.

Why Am I Talking About This?

In the news over the past week, yet another group of YECs have claimed to discover Noah’s Ark on top of Mt. Ararat in Turkey. There are many outlets for this story, but out of fun, I’ll link to the one over at FOX News. The relevance to radiometric dating? I’ll quote (emphasis mine):

“The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.”

Didja see that? Meanwhile, over at Answers in Genesis:

“All radiometric dating methods are based on assumptions about events that happened in the past. If the assumptions are accepted as true (as is typically done in the evolutionary dating processes), results can be biased toward a desired age. In the reported ages given in textbooks and other journals, these evolutionary assumptions have not been questioned, while results inconsistent with long ages have been censored.”

Or from an older Institute for Creation Research article:

“Creationists are not so much interested in debunking radiocarbon as we are in developing a proper understanding of it to answer many of our own questions regarding the past. At the present time it appears that the conventional radiocarbon dating technique is on relatively firm ground for dates which fall within the past 3,000 years. For periods of time prior to this, there are legitimate reasons to question the validity of the conventional results and seek for alternative interpretations.”

Or, a case of very special pleading from another ICR article:

“A ‘Back to Genesis’ way of thinking insists that the Flood of Noah’s day would have removed a great deal of the world’s carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, particularly as limestone (calcium carbonate) was precipitated. Once the Flood processes ceased, C-14 began a slow build-up to equilibrium with C-12—a build-up not yet complete. Thus carbon dating says nothing at all about millions of years, and often lacks accuracy even with historical specimens, denying as it does the truth of the great Flood. In reality, its measured disequilibrium points to just such a world-altering event, not many years ago.”

Final Thoughts

You can’t have it both ways. Or all four ways (I kinda lost count). Either (1) radiometric dating doesn’t work, (2) radiometric dating does work once you account for things that YECs have yet to really define, (3) it does work for the recent past to 3,000 years ago but not for anything before that, or (4) it works for everything made after the flood (as in the ark was built before the flood so can’t be dated with it).

What this all boils down to is the Inconsistency Fallacy, one I didn’t address in my series the last two months of 2009 on Logical Fallacies (but I do intend to return to that series later this year). The Inconsistency Fallacy is basically summarized as, “Multiple statements that contradict one another.” For example: “Statement A is true and B is true. Use one of these statements to prove the other is false.” Or, “Bill is younger than Jill, and Jill is younger than Charles. Charles is the oldest of the three.”

And that’s the case here. Either it’s valid, or it isn’t. You can’t use radiometric dating to claim the Bible is literally true to claim that radiometric dating doesn’t work.

December 21, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Misrepresenting Quotes, or a Position


Introduction

Following my week-long break from a 6-week series (so far) on logical fallacies, I’m going to again take a slight detour from the more formal logical fallacies and address a fallacious way of arguing a point, and that is the complete misrepresentation of a position.

What Do I Mean by the Misrepresentation?

I suppose at its core, this can be the same as quote-mining or the Straw Man or even misusing an Argument from Authority, and it can be used either to bolster or to denigrate a claim.

In effect, what I’m talking about here is when someone is trying to stake out a position (for or against something), they bring in an apparent authoritative argument or a piece of evidence, they may actually quote it properly with or without context, but then they simply misunderstand what it actually is saying.

How did I come up with this? From an episode of Coast to Coast AM that I was listening to …

Example from a Conspiratorial Standpoint, Thinking Scientists Are Holding Back Earth-Shattering Information

The context of this example is a person, Mitch Battros, an “Earth changes expert,” trying to link together the Yellowstone supervolcano, apparent Mayan prophecy, the current solar cycle (#24), and multiple universes leaking into ours.

The following is a direct quote from Mitch Battros during the fourth hour of the December 17, 2009, Coast to Coast AM radio show, starting at approximately 11 minutes into the hour:

In this article, [the scientists with the European Space Agency’s “Planck” satellite mission] say that they’re concerned about exposing too much information, that it would be overwhelming. I’ll quote: “To one’s surprise, there are astrophysicists and cosmologists who are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data, setting new paradigms, and unsettling current models.” That goes back to Mayan prophecy. The galactic alignment.

Now, within the context of the show and everything that Battros spoke about, it’s fairly obvious that he at least is presenting this in the following way: Scientists think these missions will (a) Provide lots of new data that will make their “theories” certain to (b) set new paradigms that will (c) revolutionize the way we look at the universe. Within the context of the show and his very next sentence fragments, he seems to think that means that legitimate scientists will verify his ideas.

However, as an actual scientist who is likely more familiar with (1) the way that scientists write and think, (2) the way science operates, and even (3) some of the problems facing astronomy today, I have a different take on his quote.

My take is that, first, there is a real data problem in astronomy. For example, a single instrument on a single space craft (specifically, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft) is returning images from Mars at up to a few 10s of centimeters per pixel. Each image is generally around a gigabyte in size. The instrument has been in orbit for a few years and has taken thousands of images, comprising terabytes (TB) of data. If any of you are computer folks, you’ll know that at the consumer level, we’re just now (Dec. 2009) getting hard drives out that store up to 2 TB. Now, multiply that by about 6 for the number of instruments on that craft. Multiply that by a dozen or two for the number of spacecraft out there. Multiply that out many times to include gigapixel camera arrays on world-class ground-based telescopes.

With that in mind, the phrase that scientists “are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data” takes on a much less sinister and conspiratorial mentality. Figuring out how to store the data and then how to retrieve (from searching) that data is a real problem these days.

Now let’s look at the next two parts – new data creating new paradigms and unsettling current models. Again – and I say “again” because I’ve said this many times in this blog – this is the whole point of science. With new, high-quality data when testing models of very cutting-edge physics, you are almost always going to cause a paradigm shift, be it simply being able to rule out one model from another (a paradigm shift) or having good, reproducible, high-quality data that does not fit with any of the current models, forcing them to be “unsettled” and for a new model to take its place.

Hence, by misrepresenting what someone likely meant, they have used a fallacious form of arguing — their premise or apparent evidence from that quote is useless as it does not actually mean what they think.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common method of arguing AND it is difficult to identify if you do not actually know the field well. It is VERY often used by young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (see my post on Casey Luskin’s ignorance about library books), but everyone can fall into the trap, whether knowingly (in which case it’s no longer a fallacy other than plain ol’ lying) or unknowingly.

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