Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 7, 2011

Mercury’s Uniqueness Revealed by MESSENGER: Does It Mean a Recent Creation?


Introduction

An interesting thing that happens when you’re defending your thesis and consequently not blogging for a few months is that other blogs can crop up that tend to cover similar material. In this case, there is a blog entitled, “Eye on the ICR” run by a high school student from New Zealand. Ah, if only we had blogs back when I was in high school … though I probably wouldn’t have been writing against creationism as my topic of choice.

Anyway, this New Zealander seems to take great delight in ripping to shreds the news postings by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) writers. Much as I do. Unfortunately, he’s posted his before me! (And I couldn’t find his name on the site, so throughout this post, he’s the “high school student.”)

Whatever … he’s still a high schooler, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer. Hopefully I can add something to the conversation he started. We’ll see.

Mysterious Mercury

This post is yet another about the “science” writer, Mr. Brian Thomas, and in this case his ICR article, “Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique.” First off, the name “MESSENGER” is an acronym that stands for “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.” In other words, you need to capitalize it, unless you’re writing for the BBC which doesn’t seem to capitalize acronyms. Ah, we’re off to a good start.

After the title, Mr. Thomas does his normal routine of spending a paragraph or two (in this case one) giving some very brief background about the subject. It’s okay, something you’d get in a normal news article but which most third graders know.

Then we get to the line that those who are familiar with young-Earth creationist (YEC) writings know is the kicker: “Mercury possesses unique characteristics … clues point in the opposite direction to what astronomers expected.” Yes, that’s right, because something is not exactly as a model predicts, God did it. That’s basically what the remaining six paragraphs say.

A High Density

The third paragraph presents Mr. Thomas’ first problem-of-choice: Mercury’s high density and large core. The issue is that Mercury does have a high overall density. In fact, it is the second highest of any planet at 5.43 grams per cubic centimeter (water = 1); only Earth is more dense, at 5.52. But, Mr. Thomas quotes Spike Psarris from 2004 claiming, “according to naturalistic origins models, ‘Mercury can’t be anywhere near as dense as it actually is.'”

For my very loyal readers (hi Joe, Susan, Karl), you might remember that I discussed Spike Psarris twice (here and here) in ripping apart a 12-minute video segment he produced on why Jupiter needs God to have created it 6000 years ago.

In skepticism, we often give YECs and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents the proud title of the best examples of quote miners. In this case, a creationist (Brian Thomas) is quote mining another creationist (Spike Psarris). Spike does indeed say that in his 2004 article. But he actually goes on to explain that we have a perfectly reasonable natural model for how Mercury got as dense as it did. Granted, Spike in his own special way then tries to rip it to shreds through an argument from personal incredulity, but that’s somewhat beside the point for this post.

For those wondering, the “evilutionist” way of explaining this is that Mercury was involved in a massive collision early in its history that stripped away all of its crust and a large portion of its outer mantle, leaving behind the core of an originally much larger planet along with some mantle material. We know that these kinds of large collisions happened in the early solar system, there is an enormous amount of evidence for that, so it is perfectly plausible that this is what happened on Mercury. Despite what Spike says.

Too Much Sulfur?

Paragraph four of Mr. Thomas’ article states, “assuming that the planet formed naturally and close to the then-forming sun, lighter-weight elements like sulfur should have been ‘lost in space,’ … and yet Mercury has ‘high levels’ of sulfur.” Hmm. I guess that means evolution can’t be true and God created everything 6000 years ago.

As with pretty much the rest of this article – and I’ll just point it out here for the time-being – Mr. Thomas does not actually make an independent argument for a 6000-year-old universe created by God. He simply tries to cast doubt on his own – highly limited – understanding of planetary astronomy. Anyway, moving forward …

Yes, one of the interesting discoveries of MESSENGER is that it detected high levels of sulfur on Mercury. And yes, Mercury likely formed close to the sun, well inside the temperature line where we would expect lighter elements and molecules to be gaseous and not condense and be incorporated in large quantities into forming planets. Except, well, obviously they did. And there are numerous ways of getting them to these planets — remember I talked in the last section about lots of massive collisions? This is the way we think Earth got most of its water.

Magnetic Fields

Paragraphs five and six talks about the magnetosphere of Mercury:

In the Space.com Q&A, Solomon commented, “I’m now fascinated by the magnetosphere.” And it is small wonder that he is, because for many years the “dynamo theory” (which has since been shown to be false) was the only explanation offered for magnetic fields on rocky planets that are supposed to be billions of years old. However, this theory requires a molten magma core. And Mercury is so small — only slightly larger than the moon — that its core should have cooled into a solid millions of years ago. Therefore, it should not have a magnetic field at all … . And yet it does.

Messenger’s new magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field. Instead, they add ammunition against a naturalistic origin for the planet. Scientists did not expect to discover that Mercury’s magnetic field is lopsided, but the 2011 Messenger data showed that it is stronger in the north than it is in the south. What natural process would cause that?

I actually want to disassemble the second part first, in that the “magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field.” As a science writer, Mr. Thomas should know that measurements (data) do not explain anything. Data are data (“data” is the plural form of “datum”). They have no explanatory power in and of themselves, the data simply are what they are. It is how the data fit into models that will then support or refute them.

Further, on the lopsidedness of the field. I know I’ve said this before, but for new readers and returning ones who like the reminder: That’s what science is!! We want to find something we can’t immediately explain because that means that we can then go try to figure out why it is the way it is! It’s only YECs that don’t want anything that doesn’t fit with their own Goddidit model because that would mean that, gasp!, maybe goddidn’tdoit. In fact, Mr. Thomas, in what is obviously meant to imply that goddidit, asks the exact question that I’m sure that mission scientists are trying to answer: What process causes a lopsided magnetic field?

Okay, back to the first paragraph quoted above. I’m not even sure I really need to go into this too much. Suffice to say, yes, the fact Mercury has a strong magnetic field was a surprise when it was discovered, and it is actually one of the main questions that drove the MESSENGER instrument suite choices that will try to gather the data that will be used to test and further develop models to explain why it has an active magnetic field. Obviously, ongoing scientific research is just too much for Mr. Thomas to handle, though, because he clearly wants these observations to force us evolutionary astronomers (I still don’t understand what evolution has to do with astronomy) to throw up our hands and admit that his God did it.

Oh yeah, and the whole “dynamo theory which has since been shown to be false” is him blowing out his you-know-what. That’s about the only outright lie I came across in this article.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure what it takes to be a science writer with ICR. I actually looked over their site for a job description or any information related to jobs, and all I found were bible versus from the Book of Jobs. Go figure. Regardless, I don’t think the requirements can be much, especially any knowledge of science. In the next-to-last paragraph, Mr. Thomas clearly shows his ignorance: “If nature formed the planets from the same cloud of space debris, then why are they not uniform in constitution, orientation, and placement?”

I have explained to 6-year-olds why there are differences in objects in the solar system even though they formed from the same “cloud of space debris.” And they understood it. (One of the big reasons is that, as the sun heated up, it caused a temperature gradient in the cloud that resulted in significant compositional differences in the inner and outer solar system.)

Mr. Thomas, please, do your homework next time. And by that, I mean read something other than the bible or Spike Psarris. But, I suppose when you’re content with a god of the gaps outlook on everything in life, actually learning something new is not important.

Oh, and in all seriousness, check out the Eye on ICR blog if you like reading this kinda thing. A high school student willing to take on the ICR, even if it’s just in a blog, and point out their foolishness is pretty cool. When I was in high school, the only creationists I confronted were classmates (ah, I still remember 7th grade when I made a girl cry just by saying that we didn’t know why the Big Bang happened, but who created God?).

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December 11, 2008

Another God vs. the Multiverse Post


Introduction

This post is in response to the “‘Multiverse’ Theory Fails to Explain Away God” article on the Institute for Creation Research website, posted on Dec. 3, 2008.

There is a current hypothesis (not theory) in theoretical physics/cosmology which posits that our Universe is not alone in the … whatever … but rather it is one of many different universes (universae?). One reason that this has come about is that it is a natural conclusion from String Theory (which is another thing that I think is more of a hypothesis than theory). Another reason, and more the subject of this post, is that our universe seems to be “fine-tuned” for life in the sense that if the fundamental forces, subatomic particles, or other things had seemingly slightly different properties that the Universe would be inhospitable to life. In order to resolve part of this apparent “cosmic lottery” win without invoking a creator, the multiverse idea works rather well.

Because of this, creationists like to attack it, such as Brian Thomas who wrote the article I refer to, and to which this post is a response.

The First Fallacy

The first real fallacy of this article is a subtle one, I think informally known as the Gambler’s Fallacy. This fallacy can be realized in flipping a coin. The first time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. The second time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. The third time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. And so on.

Now let’s say that you have flipped it 10 times, and EVERY time it has come up heads. The fallacy would then be to say that, “It’s come up heads 10 times in a row, the next time it almost MUST come up tails! 11 heads in a row is too improbable.” But, the chances of it coming up heads the 11th time is, again, just 50%. The coin “doesn’t know” about the previous flips.

Brian invokes this fallacy in the statement, “All conceivable fundamental construction parameters could exist in a vast array of alternate realities. Most of these imaginary universes would not have the right conditions for life to exist, but by a cosmic coincidence, all the life-friendly forces of our universe happened to line up correctly.” This over-states the significance (if the multiverse is true) of having all of these properties lining “up correctly” for our Universe to have life, simply based on invoking this fallacy.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Next, Brian says something that I agree with: “There is no evidence for the existence of alternate universes, and if a concept cannot be proved or disproved, it is not open to scientific investigation.”

Yes! Thank you! Very true! So keep your religion out of science class!

Exaggeration

Brian then goes through some exaggeration. He states, “Even tiny variations in planetary distances, any more or less gravity, or any other difference in the current structure of the universe would make it hostile to life.”

This is not true. Earth could be between about 0.9-1.3 times its current distance from the Sun and still be perfectly hospitable for life, according to many of the latest studies on the solar system’s Habitability Zone. In addition, our position in the Galaxy could similarly vary by quite a bit and still have no impact on life, as could our distance to or from other galaxies, despite his statement, “the distance of the earth from other galaxies and from the sun are all essential for the delicate balance needed to sustain life.”

Let’s Go Back to the Pot and Kettle – Invoking God of the Gaps Fallacy

Sigh. Just a paragraph and a half later, Brian states, “The one model that explains this data without inventing fictional, unprovable multiverses is the creation model, which presents the planned, purposeful origin of space, time, matter, and life by a Creator.”

I thought we had actually made a breakthrough on what was science here. The creation model is not a scientific model since it cannot be tested. There is no way to prove nor disprove the existence of a creator, nor of their intent in creating a universe. This is simply a God of the Gaps logical fallacy where he effectively states, “Science doesn’t have an answer, but it can all be easily explained by ‘God.'”

Wrapping Up Their Argument

Brian writes in his last paragraph, “University of Texas theoretical physicist Stephen Weinberg told Discover, ‘I don’t think that the multiverse idea destroys the possibility of an intelligent, benevolent creator. What it does is remove one of the arguments for it.’ But it does not do that. Rather, the multiverse hypothesis is a conclusion based on the assumption that there is no Creator.”

This is again a misuse of scientific language as well as a lack of understanding of the origin of the multiverse hypothesis. The latter I addressed in my Introduction. The former is that he says the multiverse is a “conclusion.” It is not. It is a hypothesis (as he coincidentally states 3 words earlier). A hypothesis is a premise – an idea – that can then be used to make predictions that can be tested. A conclusion really isn’t even used in scientific language, but the closest equivalent is probably “Theory,” which is completely inappropriate to describe the multiverse idea at this time.

My Final Thoughts

The multiverse hypothesis is an interesting one, but one that, at present has no practical way of being tested. As a result, it is just a “hypothesis” and cannot be called a “theory.” Despite this, creationists unsurprisingly view it as yet another scientific challenge to their dogmatic views of a young universe created by a loving god for them to live happily in and convince everyone of that “fact.” Hence the present attack on it by the ICR in Brian Thomas’ article.

But, besides all the reasons I presented above as to why his arguments are fallacious, there’s an additional, interesting, but subtle one: “Life” in their meaning is “human life as it is now.” “Life,” however, is VERY poorly defined, and it could (even with its current “definition”) exist in other forms that are nothing like our own (think the Star Trek energy beings from various episodes in all the series) that could perhaps easily exist with the fundamental forces, constants, and particles being very different than they are here.

November 14, 2008

Logical Analysis of the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God


Introduction

As I’ve stated before (like here or here), creationists often use a seeming leap of scientific faith to justify a “proof” for the existence of God from somewhere within the Big Bang theory. So far, I’ve argued against specific scientific claims that would seem (to their proponents) to show why we need something divine to justify our existence.

In this post, however, I’m going to examine this from a purely logical standpoint, critiquing what apparently is known as the “Cosmological Argument” for the existence of (a) G/god(s).

The Claim

The Cosmological Argument actually has its roots at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, over 2300 years ago. The main premise is that everything (all effects) must have a cause.

There are many different ways of positing the argument, some involve 6 steps, some 4 steps, and some 3 steps (like the one below). They all pretty much say the same thing.

Therefore, I’m going to go with the easier 3-step one, and I am specifically taking my cues for the version of this argument from this person’s blog post:

(1) The universe exists, and there must be an explanation for why it exists.

(2) There are only three possible explanations for why the universe exists: (a) It has always existed. (b) It created itself. (c) It was created by something outside of itself.

(3) Explanation (a) has serious scientific and philosophical problems. Explanation (b) is absurd. Therefore, the universe was created by God.

Critique

Part 1: From a philosophical argument, there really doesn’t need to be an explanation for why something exists. It could just exist. I choose to take 2 steps at a time occasionally “just ’cause,” there really doesn’t need to be any specific reason. So right off the bat, we have a faulty major premise.

If you choose to interpret this from a cause-and-effect argument – the “effect” of the universe existing must have a cause – I would argue that this is not necessarily true. Science’s current concept of the “universe” is, by definition, “everything” and that includes space and time. Therefore, if time did not exist “before” the universe formed, how could there be a cause?

Some may argue that this itself is a logical fallacy of “Special Pleading,” meaning that in this one particular case I am arguing that the rules by which we live and are normally subject to don’t really apply in this special case. I would partially agree with this … however, I would also make the point that the formation of the cosmos is a special case, and the rules by which we live now were likely not in existence “before” the universe came into existence.

Part 2: I would agree that, logically, the three possible explanations for “why” the universe exists are likely correct, though I would point out that this could be a case of the “False Dichotomy” (or I guess “false trichotomy”) logical fallacy: Those three options may not actually be all the possible explanations. We may just not know, especially considering that we’re talking about something that happened “before” the creation of our universe. But let’s examine each of them, anyway:

Part 3: I would agree that, taken at its face, 2(a) does have some scientific problems. Evidence that I have talked about before does seem to show that the universe – at least as we now know it – had a definite beginning. However, that may not actually be the case. Stephen Hawking has posited the idea that the universe and time may be closed, but unbound. To get an idea about what this means, think of a sphere: You could walk along the surface of a sphere literally forever and never come to the edge of it. Therefore it’s closed (it’s a finite size) but unbound (the geometry has no edges, no beginning nor end).

To say that 2(b) is “absurd” is an ad hominem logical fallacy that just ridicules it without providing a reason why it would be false, rather just implying that its false by name-calling. Granted, this is akin to the “Grandfather” paradox of time travel, where it sometimes is put such that you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you never would have been born to go back in time and kill your grandfather. Another slight wrinkle on this that is less of a paradox and more of an incestual scenario is that you go back in time, kill your “grandfather,” and then end up “arranging things” [rated PG blog] such that you become your own real grandfather.

That seemingly shouldn’t be “allowed” to happen, but again, since we are dealing with the universe itself, there are possible ways that the universe could have caused its own formation. For example, some ideas are that there was a previous universe that went through a “Big Crunch” and then rebound, forming our own universe. In that sense, the previous “universe” was the parent of our own “universe.” However, I’m not sure if any actual theoretical cosmologists put stock in that scenario, so I’m willing to grant that 2(b) is unlikely, but not “absurd.”

The original post then simply states that 2(c) is the only logical conclusion, that something else must have created the universe. The person then commits two HUGE logical fallacies of a non-sequitur – that that “something” that created the universe must have been God (in other words, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the something that created it was “God”) – and the fallacy of the Unstated Major Premise – that “God” actually exists.

To give you an example of why this is an “absurd” argument, think of this scenario: I come across a bird in the forest, sitting on a tree. I have never seen another animal before, nor do I know how it could have been formed, so I follow an apparent line of logic to figure out how it formed: I reason that the bird must have a cause. The cause could be the bird (a) always existed, (b) created itself, or (c) something else created it. (a) is has problems, (b) is “absurd,” and so I reason that God created it. But to you, an outside observer, you realize that I just made a major leap of literally “faith” to go from “something” created it to “God” created it … when more likely it hatched from an egg that was created by its parents and (a) G/god(s) had nothing to do with it even if (s)he/it even exists.

Other Critiques

There are other possible scientific explanations for how our universe came into being. “Brane Theory” is one, that holds that multidimensional membranes somehow interacted to create the universe. Others involve the cyclical approach I mentioned above. Another is that we represent a “pocket” of inflation from another, different, larger universe. We don’t know, but to attribute something that we don’t know to (a) divine creator(s) is yet another logical fallacy, the God of the Gaps.

Another, major, weakness of this argument is … Who/What created God? If everything must have a cause, and the idea that nothing has “always” existed, then what created God? This is a special pleading case as well as an example of the Inconsistency logical fallacy, where they’re stating that the universe can’t not have a cause, but God can.

Further Reading

Much more intelligent philosophers than I have argued about the Cosmological Argument. I invite you to read some other sources (some pro, some con):

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