Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 30, 2011

A Follow-Up on How Science Works versus Creationism


Introduction

This is a short follow-up to my last post, “Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True.” In that fine piece of blogging, I talked some about how science is a process where we continually revise our knowledge based upon new observations and discoveries. Contrasted with creationism.

It was therefore apropos that I ran across this article on Ars Technica, “ How a collapsing scientific hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest .”

Article

The article in question was written by John Timmer, a faculty at Cornell Medical College. He got his Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology (like my dad!) from University of California, Berkeley (not like my dad). So I’d say he’s reasonably qualified – while avoiding an argument from authority – to write about this topic.

In his article, Dr. Timmer tells the story of a small group of researchers thought they found a retrovirus associated with prostate cancer, and they later even linked it to people with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m about as qualified to talk about medicine as any other lay person (so not much), but I can gather that this would be pretty darn important. A retroviral link means (a) a good test to see in who this may develop, and (b) a possible cure if we could get rid of that retrovirus. Their work was published in one of the two leading journals in the world, Science.

Then problems developed. I don’t want to take too much away from Dr. Timmer’s article, which I highly recommend reading. But, suffice to say, other people investigated these claims and tried to verify them. Nothing less than the country’s blood supply was actually at stake if their findings bore out. Problem was that no one could replicate them. And the main researcher’s (Judy Mikovits) co-authors started to walk away. Mikovits didn’t, ended up being fired for insubordination when refusing to share cell cultures as required, and then arrested for stealing her lab notebooks and other things.

So, as the title sums, a collapsing hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest, but also a good moment to illustrate how science works, especially in contrast with creationism.

How Science Works

Readers of my blog will recognize that I’ve said this before, but it’s important to get across. So I’ll try to shorten it this time. The scientific process requires duplication of findings. It requires testing of claims. It requires questioning and critiquing others’ results. It requires revision.

All of these requirements are how and why the process of science is incremental and self-correcting. Mikovits’ work made it into one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. That does not mean everyone believed it nor that it meant it was “true.” Less than five years later, the paper has been retracted and the researcher has been pretty much disgraced in the scientific community and is facing significant legal issues due to misconduct and theft. The study was shown to be wrong. The scientific process is to thank for showing that.

(And now the obligatory “in contrast, creationism … .”) In contrast, creationism generally requires putting your fingers in your ears and shouting, “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” when something contradicts their favored position. Or, they will accept the latest study whole-heartedly if it fits their paradigm, but not admit it was wrong if later retracted or shown to be wrong or misunderstood. I pointed to Earth’s magnetic field strength last time, this time I’ll choose comets and simply link to my blog (here, or here), or podcast (here).

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the worst part of the story in question is that a whole new subset of medical pseudoscience has cropped up because of Mikovits’ work. Before she came along, no people suffering from these really thought there was a retrovirus cause. Now some do, and “alternative” practitioners offer to test them for the non-existent retrovirus or offer antiretroviral agents as “cures.” Even though it’s now come out that the original study was simply wrong. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t change things once the idea is out there.

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February 3, 2010

“How Could a Simple One-Armed Farmer …” A Bit More on Billy Meier / Michael Horn, And What Scientific Falsification Means


Introduction

In what is hopefully the last post for quite awhile on the alleged contactee status of Swiss farmer Billy Meier and his “Authorized American Media Representative” Michael Horn, I would like to discuss two very old (3+ years) interviews that Horn gave on the podcast, The Paracast. Specifically, I would like to address the second interview where Horn is presented with a specific analysis of a specific photograph that was shown beyond a reasonable doubt by one of the foremost experts in Photoshop to have been faked … and then Horn’s apparent refusal to actually answer the claims raised.

What Does it Mean to Falsify Something?

In science, there is pretty much no case where you can “prove” something. Just like the American legal system, someone is never “proven innocent,” nor are they “proven guilty.” They are either shown to be “not guilty” (very different from “innocent”) or that there is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that someone is guilty.

We operate much the same way in scientific circles. Even the two pillars of modern physics – Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – which I note are “theories,” have never been proven to be 100% true. They simply can’t be – science doesn’t operate that way. True, there are literally thousands of independent experiments that have tested these theories and shown them – so far, beyond a reasonable doubt – to precisely predict the results of the experiments to within measurement uncertainties and errors.

However, all it takes is ONE experiment, one piece of indisputable, independently reproducible evidence or an experiment or observation that is irreconcilable with any established theory, and the theory goes out the window. In historic hindsight, it’s really as simple as that, though of course during the process of the revolution it is a little messier.

Why do I bring this up? Well, it’s very relevant to the interviews that I’m going to address.

Paracast Interviews

Yet again, Conspiracy Skeptic Karl Mamer clued me into some older interviews that were done with Michael Horn and put out on June 27, 2006, and July 11, 2006. I think during that time I was on a 25-hr/day schedule to photograph the moon every night for two lunar months … but I digress.

Anyway, in the first interview, Horn was pretty much given free reign, much like in the Coast to Coast AM interviews I’ve heard. It was really the latter that this post will focus on. First off, The Paracast has two hosts – Gene Steinberg who is an award-winning journalist, and David Biedny (pronounced “Bee-ed-nee”) who is one of the world’s foremost experts in the Adobe program “Photoshop” and works at Industrial Light and Magic. His credits include working on the effects of Hudson Hawk, Terminator 2, Star Trek VI, The Rocketeer, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Hook (I wonder if he’s the one who digitally removed all of Robin Williams’ chest hair in that movie). The reason why I bring up Beidny’s credentials in what may seem like an obvious argument from authority (though it’s not and I’ll address that below) is that the second interview was almost all Biedny going head-to-head with Horn with the intent of his analysis of a single photograph that Horn claimed was genuine.

Burden of Proof versus Refutation

First, if you end up listening to The Paracast as a result of this blog post please note that it DOES have commercials annoyingly throughout it. Be fore-warned.

Moving on, if we ignore the front matter and the posturing, the real meat at the beginning of the interview as about falsification. The two hosts put forth the idea that if any single piece of Meier’s evidence that Horn was putting forth as genuine was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be faked (false/hoaxed/lied/etc.), then that should – and would in their eyes – call the entire thing into question. Following the logic of science that I laid out at the beginning of the post, that makes perfect sense to me.

However, without actually acknowledging that, Horn countered that if he could show that a bunch of it was true, then it should be accepted as true. The hosts, and I sitting in my little office, laughed at that.

Why? one may ask. After all, isn’t that only fair – wouldn’t it be a double-standard to think otherwise? The answer: No.

Think of it like this: In my apartment, I could use a mixture of some various chemicals to come up with something that looks like chocolate. I may have actually done this. I could then present it to people as, “This is genuine chocolate. Here, have a taste! It’s chocolate and you’ll be able to tell!” Those people – I may present it to hundreds – may agree with me that it’s real chocolate. I could then call on them as witnesses that it’s real chocolate. However, I may then give it to someone who is able to analyze it in a different way, or may be more sensitive to the actual taste of chocolate or the chemicals I’ve used, and that person could then demonstrate that, beyond a reasonable doubt, what I gave them as “genuine chocolate” was fake.

I could say, “But all these other experts said it was real!” That wouldn’t matter. I had fooled them. All it takes is one, irrefutable piece of evidence that I had hoaxed my chocolate that would then call everything else I had tried to pass off as chocolate into question. Even if some of it actually had been real.

So, that is why I can fairly easily say to Meier, or a creationist, or an astrologer, or anyone else, really, that once I’ve conclusively demonstrated that any one of the claims you’ve put forward as genuine is demonstrably false, then that should call into question everything else you’ve done. Just look at the South Korean scientist who was found out to have faked some of his stem cell research.

[As a side-note, to anyone reading this who has had any chocolate that I’ve made, I would never actually try to pass of fake stuff as real, and I’m up-front when I do use white chocolate which isn’t really chocolate.]

Getting Into It, But Not Really, or “How Could a Simple One-Armed Farmer …”

With this in mind, Biedny did an in-depth analysis of one of the photographs that Horn had been putting forward as genuine. On the episode, Biedny pointed to several artifacts in the photograph that clearly demonstrated compositing different images and models to create the single finished product. Getting into the details is not the purpose of this post – go listen to the episode if you’re interested.

Rather, Horn’s reaction is what I wanted to address. As has been the case in the comments section of my own blog, Horn has refused to directly address the refutations I gave of the alleged prognostication of asteroid Apophis. The first post on the subject contains the bulk of Horn’s comments which simply dodge the issue and point to other alleged predictions. The second post on the subject contained a detailed look at the timeline of the alleged prediction where I looked through all of the available documented evidence to show that Meier did not predict Apophis. For me, that was the equivalent of what Biedny did with the one photograph – I went into detail on one prediction. The third post was more of a superficial discussion of it, discussing my discussion of the blog discussion during my discussion with Karl Mamer. Lots of discussing.

But none addressing the point — I directly challenged Horn on at least 4 occasions on my blog – both in posts and on the comments – to come up with a refute to my break-down of the timeline of the alleged prediction of Apophis. He has not done so.

Neither did he with any of the points that Biedny raised for the faked photograph. Rather, very conspicuously – and discussed during a recap during the last ~8 minutes of the latter Paracast episode – Horn dodged the points that Biedny raised. He had two main things he kept going back to. First was the various other experts that he claims have looked at the photograph and said it’s genuine. However, I refer you to my discussion of chocolate that I had a few paragraphs ago – it does not matter how many experts I have convinced that what I’m putting forward is real, it just takes one to shoot something down. The second thing he kept coming back to was, “Yes, but how could a simple one-armed farmer …” (the quote may have been “simple one-armed Swiss farmer” a few times, I don’t actually remember). I liked the host’s response to that after the upteenth time that Horn raised it (following is paraphrased even though it’s in quotes): “We’re not saying that he did. He could have had help. All we’re saying is that there is undeniable evidence that this photograph has been faked, we don’t care how he may have done it.”

Final Thoughts

That was really the extent of the discourse. Not once did Horn directly address Biedny’s demonstrable claims of pointing out flaws in the photo that show it to have been forged. Horn simply dodged the subject. Occasionally, Horn would ask, “But look at this [other] photograph.” Biedny’s response – in my mind – was quite proper, and it was effectively, “Why should I? I’ve neither the time nor inclination. I’ve shown one that you put forward as genuine has been faked beyond a reasonable doubt, calling into question all the rest of the claims.”

Similarly on my blog, Horn has refused to directly address the evidence I presented in terms of the Apophis timeline, and rather he has pointed to other alleged predictions and claims and lines of evidence that, at the moment, I have zero inclination nor time to pursue. But, I don’t think I need to. I have demonstrably shown with the available evidence that the claim that Meier predicted Apophis is false. I think that calls into question all the rest of his claims, and I don’t think I need to go into them, especially when others already have.

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