Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 3, 2011

Follow-Up: David Coppedge Who Sued NASA Is Fired


Introduction

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

I was just informed today that he has been fired.

Background

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

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

Anyway …

Laid Off

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

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

Continuing Thoughts

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

July 17, 2010

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


Introduction

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

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

Setting Up the Question

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

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

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

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

An Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

Okay, a Teensy Bit of Ridicule

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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.

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.

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