Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 21, 2014

Philosophy: On Skepticism and Challengers


Introduction

I’m taking a break because I don’t want to work on this proposal at the moment. I’m great at procrastination, when I get around to it.

Anyway, I want to muse philosophical-like for a few minutes, reacting to some recent things I’ve heard regarding skepticism and people challenging your views.

“Healthy” Skepticism

George Noory, the now >1 decade primary host of late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, had Dr. Judy Wood on his program for the first two hours of his “tribute” to the September 11, 2001 (I refuse to call it “9/11” because I think that trivializes it — we all have our quirks) terrorist attacks. Judy Wood is author of the book, “Where Did the Towers Go?” Her thesis is that a directed “zero-point energy” weapon “dustified” the towers, or that they suffered “dustification.”

It was a very difficult interview for George, I’m sure, since Judy refused to speculate on anything. I’m also growing slightly more convinced that he may have questions written down on cue cards because he asked the exact same question a few minutes apart (“how much energy is required to ‘dustify’ the towers?”) and she refused to speculate both times. Just repeating what she “knows she knows that she knows.” She is also incredibly defensive and clearly doesn’t know what the word “theory” is.

All that aside, early in the interview, George did a tiny disclaimer saying that they always get people writing or calling in saying that doing shows like that is unpatriotic and/or disrespectful to everyone who died in the attacks and the aftermath. But, that it’s healthy to have skepticism and to always question the official story.

*cough*

Okay, George, you are correct in theory (yes, I used that word purposely), but completely wrong in practice. Skepticism does not mean doubting or denying or not accepting everything. Skepticism, as we use the term today, means to not accept something unless we have good evidence to do so. It’s a method of investigation, to look into claims, examine the evidence, and put it in context with all the other evidence and plausibility given what has been established about the way the world works.

At least, that’s how I tend to define it, and it’s how I tend to practice it.

Do I believe “the government” on everything? No. For example, President Obama recently announced that the US is going to take on ISIS in some form or fashion, but that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Given past experience when politicians have said that, and given the realities of ISIS and the Middle East area in general, I’m … shall we say … “skeptical,” and I will reserve acceptance of his statement until it actually plays out.

Do I believe that NASA “tampers” with photographs of the moon to “airbrush out” ancient ruins and alien artifacts, or do I accept what “they” give us? (I put “they” in quotes because “NASA” is an organizational administration within the federal government; it’s the people involved who do everything, and it’s contractors and grant awardees who deal with data and other things.) I accept what they give us. I tend to not question it.

Why? Because of past experience and my own experience in investigating the claims to the contrary. I look at other images of the area from multiple spacecraft. From spacecraft from other countries. They are consistent. They don’t show different kinds of anomalies you’d need in order to have the scenario that the conspiracists claim is happening. They do show what you’d expect if the data were faithfully represented, as it was taken, after standard spacecraft and basic data reduction steps (like correcting for geometric distortion based on how the spacecraft was pointed, or removing artifacts from dust on the lens).

George, there is a difference between healthy skepticism – looking into claims – and beating a dead horse. Or beating over 3000 dead victims to a terrorist attack.

There is no plausibility to Dr. Wood’s arguments. Her claims made to back them up are factually wrong. (Expat has addressed some of them in his blog, here, here, here, and here.) She is ridiculously defensive, refuses to delve further into her model to actually back it up, and has a name for herself only because people like you give her airtime to promote her ideas. True skepticism is to examine the arguments from both sides and draw a conclusion based on what’s real and what’s most probable. Which has been done by thousands of people who debunk every single claim the conspiracists make about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But you won’t go to them. You bring on Dr. Wood, or people from the Architects and Engineers for Truth.

A one-sided investigation is not faithful, not genuine, and is disrespectful to everyone.

Challenging Your Conclusions

In a related vein, but completely different context, I was reading through my RSS news feeds and came upon the headline to the effect (because it’s disappeared from my feed since I started to write this): Michelle Obama explains to school children that challenges [probably, though I read it as “challengers”] are a good thing.

So true. Most people in the skeptical movement know that this is “a True.” Most scientists know this is “a True.” Most pseudoscientists are vehemently against being challenged.

I’ll take the subject of my last blog post to illustrate this example, not that I want to pick on him per se, but he’s the last person I listened to in detail that I can use to illustrate this point, other than Dr. Wood, who I discussed much more than I want to in the above section. Mike Bara.

Mike was somewhat recently on another late-night (though not quite as late) internet radio program, “Fade to Black,” where Jimmy Church is the host. It’s on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Radio Network,” where I was also a guest several months ago. I have since called in twice to the program, both times to discuss the possibility of debating Mike Bara on some of his claims.

The very brief backstory on that is Mike was on Coast to Coast, and basically attacked me. I called in, George said he’d arrange a debate, then stopped responding to my e-mails. A year later, the same thing happened, and George actually e-mailed me (I couldn’t call in because I lost power that night — happens sometimes in the mountains of Colorado, though we now have a generator), he wanted to arrange a debate, he claimed on air that I had stopped responding to his e-mails … and then he stopped responding to mine so the debate never happened. Later, I learned that it was Mike who may have dropped his acceptance. I related that to Jimmy.

Jimmy asked Mike if he’d be willing to debate me, and Mike’s response was effectively, “what do I get out of it?” Mike opined that what I (Stuart) would get out of it is a platform and attention which, according to Mike, I so desperately want (or maybe that’s Michael Horn’s claim about me … I get some of what each says is my motivation a bit confused). Meanwhile, Mike already has attention, so he said that he wouldn’t get anything out of it and therefore didn’t want to do it. Jimmy countered that it would make great radio (which I agree with).

I did call in, but unfortunately Mike got dropped when Jimmy tried to bring me in. It was the last 10 minutes of the program, anyway, so I told Jimmy what I thought we both (me and Mike) would get out of it: We would each have to back up what we say, and when challenged, it forces us in a radio setting to make our arguments concise, easily understandable, and actually back up what we’re saying.

That’s what we do in science: We have to back up what we say. We expect to get challenged, we expect to have people doubt our work, we expect to have people check our work, and we expect people to challenge our conclusions. Only the best ideas that can stand up to such scrutiny survive. That’s how science progresses. That’s where pseudoscience fails. Science is not a democracy, and it is not a communistic system where every idea is the same and equal as every other idea. It’s a meritocracy. Only the ideas that have merit, that stand up to scrutiny, survive.

The point of science is to develop a model of how the world works. If your model clearly does not describe how the world works and make successful predictions (and have repeatable evidence and have evidence that actually stands up to scrutiny), then it gets dropped.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found these musings at least mildly interesting. And let me know if you agree or disagree. Challenge my ideas, but if you do so, make sure you back them up!

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January 29, 2014

Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris Compares Scientists’ Passivity with Wikipedia Editing to Christians’ Views on Abortion Clinic Bombings


Introduction

I’m getting my roughly one post per year about Alex Tsakiris, the host of the podcast Skeptiko, in early. In the past, I’ve written a lot about how Alex makes consistent mistakes about the scientific process and how science works in general. This post is not dedicated to that.

One of Alex’s high horses lately has been censorship (or perceived censorship), especially with respect to Wikipedia. On episode 236, “Rome Viharo, Wikipedia, We Have a Problem,” Alex talked extensively about the issue with respect to one of his heroes, Rupert Sheldrake.

The allegation is that Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page has been targeted by a few skeptics (he claimed by the Guerrilla Skeptic group, which has disavowed the Sheldrake editing). And, those skeptics have been acting in a most unfair way towards Rupert and his supporters. I don’t really want to get much more into this issue because it’s a side-issue for what I want to write about here. If you’re interested, listen to the episode.

What’s important for this blog post is just the basic context in which Alex makes two statements.

First Statement, ~27 min

The first of two statements I want to talk about starts about 27 minutes into the episode. I’m going to quote from Alex’s own transcript, which I haven’t verified, so it’s possible it contains an error or more (emphasis is mine):

I think that’s really the more interesting issue and I think we can sit on the sidelines and go, “Oh my gosh, isn’t this horrible and will things ever get better? These crazy skeptics!” The thing I always point out to people is the dogmatic skeptics, the fundamentalist Atheists, who these people represent, are really the tip of the spear for scientism. We always want to do like you did and say it’s really not a problem with science, is it? It’s a problem with scientific materialism. It’s a philosophical issue. No, forget it. It’s about science.

If we’re going to talk in general terms, science media has been completely co-opted by this point of view. The reason I’d come back and say it’s the tip of the spear is because you don’t see scientists rushing to the aid of Rupert Sheldrake just on principle saying, “Hey, this is a colleague of ours. This guy is clearly a biologist. He’s a Cambridge Fellow. We need to defend this.” No. They sit on their hands and silently cheer. Some of them sit on their hands and hope the arrow doesn’t point to them next.

So it’s really akin to what you were talking about with religious fundamentalism back when they were bombing abortion clinics. Of course there was an outcry of “Stop the violence” from other Christians. But there wasn’t too much of an outcry, right? There’s a lot of sympathy. “Well, we can certainly understand how upset people are by all those babies dying.”

So these frontline soldiers, these tip of the spear of an ideological debate, I think we have to be careful when we separate them and bifurcate and say, “Well, they don’t really represent science.” Yeah, I think they do. They form a pretty good representation of the crazy scientific materialism that really grips science as we know it right now. I don’t see any relief from that.

Wow. Logical fallacy of a false analogy, anyone? Alex is clearly making an analogy, saying that scientists not rushing to support Rupert Sheldrake and his Wikipedia page being edited is equivalent to Christians remaining quiet when abortion clinics are bombed in the name of Christianity. Not only is this a false analogy, it’s a fairly offensive one.

Here’s one way it’s wrong: Scientists, for the most part, have never heard of Rupert Sheldrake. Despite what Alex and Rome argued in the episode, Rupert Sheldrake by most measures would also NOT be considered a “practicing” or “active” scientist, or at least active biologist. I would guess that less than 1% of active scientists have ever heard of the guy — mostly the people who know of him are people in the paranormal field and skeptics. Of those very very few scientists who have heard of him, even fewer know what he does. Of those, even fewer actively scour Wikipedia to look up names. Of those, even fewer actively look at the Talk or History pages to even see if there have been lots of edits. and apparent “editing wars” going on.

So, we have a very small fraction of the population who are scientists, multiplied by a small fraction who have heard of Sheldrake, multiplied by a small fraction who know anything about him other than his name, multiplied by a small fraction who look at Wikipedia for him, multiplied by a small fraction who look at the Talk or History pages to investigate.

Compare that with the number of people who have heard of abortion. I knew what abortion was when I was twelve years old because it was a topic we could write on for a persuasive paragraph in English class. I would guess that by their teen years, almost everyone knows about abortion. But, let’s be generous and say that 50% of the global population knows what abortion is. Multiply that by around 2.1 billion Christians in the world. Multiply that by the fraction who read political news.

One of these is a bigger number than the other … my point is that there are an enormous number of Christians “in the know” about abortion clinic violence who can call it out, and there is a vanishingly small number of active scientists who know about Sheldrake, what he does, and what’s on his Wikipedia page, and what’s going on with the editing of it. Ergo, false analogy.

It’s a false analogy in another way because he has people speaking out about violence by people because of religion with respect to abortion clinics, and he’s comparing that with a guy throwing a hissy fit about what people are writing about him on the internet. Sorry Alex, but the bombing of an abortion clinic is a bigger deal to me than Sheldrake being unhappy that people point out on his Wikipedia page that he says and does a lot of stuff that is not supported by any reputable data.

Second Statement, ~44 min

The second statement I wanted to talk about for this post happens during Alex’s closing monologue, about 44 minutes into the episode.

What does this say about science? And I know I keep saying “science,” and people go, “Well, it’s not really science, science means this or science means that,” but I tend to disagree. I think this situation really speaks to the larger problem with the way science is applied. And I think – as I said in the show – the lack of support for Sheldrake, in a situation where the scientist should obviously be supported by his peers, speaks loudly and clearly that this is a problem with science in general. But maybe you disagree; I’d like to hear your opinion.

Well, I guess I was mistaken when I started this post and said it wasn’t going to deal with Alex’s lack of understanding of how science works. (And, that most scientists, and probably people in general, would not consider Sheldrake’s work in the last ~decade to be “science.” Doing an experiment on whether dogs are telepathic, or writing a book bemoaning what he calls “scientific dogma”, don’t count as “science” as far as most of us are concerned.)

First off, Alex Tsakiris is not a scientist. And, so far as I can tell, he has never taken a philosophy of science class. He is in no position to decide what is or is not science. When actual practicing scientists tell him he is wrong, that something is not science, he can of course disagree, but he will very likely be wrong. Yes, this is a bit of an argument from authority, but beware of the fallacy fallacy here — just because I used an argument from authority does not mean my argument is wrong.

Second, very, very rarely will scientists be drawn into any sort of public debate with respect to an actual scientist (as opposed to what Sheldrake is now) being “dissed” (my word). The most recent example I can think of would be Michael Mann and the huge amount of political pressure he faced in Virginia because of his research on climate change. Even then, I don’t remember many individual scientists coming forward to back him up, though I do seem to recall some professional scientific societies issuing statements about it. And Michael Mann was facing MUCH more pressure than Rupert Sheldrake: Political, social, financial harassment and threats versus a few people editing his Wikipedia page unfavorably.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure there’s much else to say on this issue at this point. I decided to write this post when I heard Alex compare scientists remaining silent on Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page with Christians remaining silent on abortion clinic bombings. That was just so over-the-top and (I think) offensive that I wanted to put it out there so others knew about it.

The extra bit showing how Alex – yet again – does NOT understand how science works was gratuitous. But, as I said, I seem to consistently write about one post a year on something that strikes me about what Alex says on Skeptiko, so I got this year’s in early.

August 24, 2013

Skeptiko’s Standards of Evidence for Fairies


Introduction

I’ve written very roughly one post every year or so on Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris and his absolute refusal to understand how science is done and why there is a disconnect between “true believers” and “skeptics.” Here are the four posts I’ve done (well, now five), and I recommend the 2010 and 2011 posts specifically. They’re long, but I think they’re very well written and from time-to-time I even go back and re-read them and just think, “Wow, that was really good!”

Anyway, enough self-praise. It was only in one of my posts, the 2011, that I discussed Alex’s derision with Carl Sagan’s famous, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” phrase. In that post, I discussed it in the context of how a hypothesis is tested and may eventually become a theory.

But, I think it’s worth delving more into this now because in his latest, Episode 219, Alex, almost makes this the center point of the conversation between himself and Dr. Stephen Law of Centre for Inquiry UK.

And despite Dr. Law explaining it, Alex still does not get it.

The discussion starts about this very roughly at the 38 minute mark. Please note that I’m using Alex’s transcript for this, assuming that it’s correct. Though that might not be the case.

Extraordinary Claims Is Anti-Science

Alex first broaches this topic by stating the following:

“I see that as just an intellectually feeble kind of pronouncement. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof—that is anti-science, isn’t it? … We’ve built this whole institution of science, the whole process of peer-review, the whole process of self-correction around this idea that we will altogether discover what is real, what is not real, what is extraordinary, what is not extraordinary. So then the idea that after the fact, after the results come in, we say, “You know, that’s pretty interesting results but I deem that to be extraordinary; therefore, you need an extra level of proof on that.” I think it’s just silly.”

Dr. Law responded by giving an example of, if he claims that he has a cell phone and a car, no one would think twice about it. But if he says that he has a fairy that he can make dance on the end of his finger, then Alex would doubt that. It’s an extraordinary claim.

I thought that was pretty good. Alex agrees, but then switches it “back to science” (my phrase in quotes). The problem with this dismissal and then redirect is that it’s not a redirect. Every claim should be testable – that is science. Stating that you have a fairy dancing on your finger is a claim and it should be subjected to the same kind of testing that anything else would be. The fact that our daily experience says that fairies don’t exist means that the burden of evidence he needs to provide in order to counterbalance all the other evidence they don’t exist is higher. Ergo, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Dr. Law states this later as: “It’s because the prior probability of anything like a fairy exists is very, very low indeed, knowing what we do.”

Alex’s Go-To Richard Wiseman Quote

I like Richard Wiseman. Well, I like a lot of his work — I’ve never met the guy. He is a Ph.D. psychologist. He is not a hard scientist. And like everyone – in spoken word or print – I’m sure he’s said some things that he didn’t quite mean or that he might think are true but no one else does.

I give that preface because this has been Alex’s go-to “stump the skeptics with an argument from authority” thing for years now, and in a test on “Who’s Bigger” Alex pulled it out and showed it to Dr. Law:

That’s British psychologist and parapsychology critic, Richard Wiseman, who has investigated probably more of these paranormal parapsychology claims like telepathy than just about anybody else. Here’s his quote: “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing (and he later added in this quote, ESP) is proven. But that be[g]s the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?” …

He is talking about creating another level of proof, a completely arbitrary level of proof based on his beliefs of what is extraordinary in terms of a claim and extraordinary in terms of proof. There’s no way to intellectually defend the statement.

The conversation then goes into a direction I think it shouldn’t have, I think that Dr. Law should have come back very forcefully against Richard’s statement and pointed out (correctly) that Alex is using one psychologist’s opinion as a stand-in for all skeptics and all scientists (and all scientists who are skeptics).

If it wasn’t obvious yet, I disagree with what Wiseman said. Heck, Penn and Teller showed in 20 minutes that remote viewing (in one example) is utter bull.

I think that Dr. Law needed to return to the “definition” of an “extraordinary claim.” After all, my recollection is that Sagan was using it as a simple example of how science is actually done and how we should weight evidence. So I’ll repeat it because Dr. Law did not: An “extraordinary claim” is only extraordinary when there is a large amount of evidence already that it does NOT exist. Ergo, to demonstrate that it does, you have a much larger burden of evidence not only to demonstrate that it does exist, but to demonstrate why the evidence that it doesn’t exist does not stand up to your new evidence that it does.

And we do do this all the time in science. I think I’ve talked before about the “granola bar” model for Saturn’s rings, that after Voyager we thought that ring particles resided in density waves that could be modeled as granola bars of high density material with nothing between them. That explained the observations well, and there was no reason to change it. But evidence mounted that could not be explained by the simple granola bar model and after enough did, we have a new paradigm of how the ring particles are distributed that can explain both the new evidence AND the old Voyager evidence. That’s what you need here.

Where the Conversation Actually Did Go

Unfortunately, Dr. Law made the mistake of stating, “Maybe your view is that there’s already an awful lot of evidence in for the existence of psychic powers, say.”

So Alex whipped out his Big Gun again and quoted Wiseman. Again, Dr. Law did not take that opportunity to call out the argument from authority but instead said, “I can’t comment on that because I’m not an expert on that area of science. But let’s suppose that that’s true. I guess what Wiseman is saying here—and that might be true for all I know.” He went on to talk about how scientists have been fooled before by tricksters (such as Uri Geller), that scientists are in fact one of the easier groups of people to fool because we have built up over the decades exact methods of observation that we expect should yield objective results, and magicians sneak in around the edges and take advantage of what we expect.

Dr. Law clearly has not argued (or at least was not prepared to argue) with Alex and explain his point so Alex might grasp it, because he then stated, “So you have to be extra, extra specially careful when it comes to investigating those kinds of things. I can’t believe that you would disagree with me about that.”

I just had to shake my head at that. It’s Alex’s entire point: He doesn’t think you should have to take extra measures, hence his lack of comprehension of “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence.” And of course, Alex took that bait:

“Intellectual black hole alert. Dr. Law, this is exactly what you preach against is that we’re going to layer on top of this without any proof, without any evidence. If that’s your claim, then someone needs to prove that, as they’ve tried to do so many times and as the social sciences…”

When Dr. Law responded that “they have proved it,” Alex retreated. Unfortunately for Dr. Law, Alex is very good at recovering and redirecting where he wants to go. The rest of the “interview” is very much continued re-direction which didn’t really accomplish anything and Alex tries to stop the interview, though Dr. Law insists on trying to make his point once more, this time with a perpetual motion machine. Alex’s very patronizing response is what I think I’ll finish this post up with:

Well, Stephen, I just beg to differ. I don’t think you’re intimately familiar with the data.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it is about the data. It is about the data both for and against a phenomenon and how it all fits together and how it balances out. An “extraordinary claim” is not something that has a set definition, or that some Elevated Council of Elders gets to decide what fits into it. It’s something for which there’s simply a lot of evidence against.

The maxim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” I think, is a good way to concisely describe this simple concept. And it’s one that after over 200 episodes of Skeptiko, Alex Tsakiris still refuses to understand. And I use those words purposely: This concept has been explained numerous times to Alex, so by this point, it I can only conclude that it is a willful choice to not understand.

 

P.S. It looks like someone has used a lot of my blog posts on Alex’s RationalWiki page. Anyone a good wiki editor want to fit this in somehow, get more directs to my blog? 🙂

P.P.S. Alex actually posted in my comments twice in my 2010 post (search for “Comment by Alex”). He said he would be “happy to engage/discuss” yet when I agreed, nothing. I would repeat now, for the record, that I am fully willing to go on Skeptiko and discuss the specific points that I have made in any of my posts. After all, these get to the heart of why there is a disconnect between so-called “skeptics” and “believers,” which is supposedly what Alex went into Skeptiko to try to understand and bridge.

August 11, 2011

Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science


This post is more of a conversation with my reader(s), you. I was listening to an episode of the ID: The Future podcast (a pro-“Intelligent” Design production) today. The episode that was put out today is entitled, “Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features.” While listening to the podcast, it was the standard: Casey Luskin (one of their lawyers and the most common host of the ‘cast) was complaining that, yet again, evolution somehow couldn’t answer a question he had; in this case, it was with bird feathers.

While listening to the ‘cast while drawing squiggly lines around craters in what qualifies as “work” for me these days, I found myself thinking, “Sigh, another episode bashing evolution.” (For those of you wondering, yes, I really do speak the word “sigh” to myself sometimes.)

And that got me thinking – and became the subject of this post: Many of the Cristian-style arguments I dissect on this blog (ID or YEC — that’s Intelligent Design or young-Earth creationism for those of you just joining) are simply arguments against science, and usually aimed at being against evolution even though they rarely have anything to do with evolution.

For example, here are the ten most recent original episodes from the ID: The Future podcast (least recent to most recent):

  • Discussing the New Exoplanet With Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez
  • ID Scientist Douglas Axe Responds to His Critics
  • Evolutionary Biologist Richard Sternberg discusses modern genomics and junk DNA
  • Scientific Reasons to Reject an Atheistic Worldview
  • Discussion and commentary on publisher Failing to comply with Texas science standards
  • Recent articles confirm the thesis of Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA
  • Anders Behring Breivik Shows That Ideas Really Do Have Consequences
  • Threatening the Pharyngula–The Debate With PZ Myers on Evidence from Embryology
  • Pseudogenes Shrink Gaps for Theistic Darwinian Evolutionists Collins & Giberson
  • Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features

First, I must say that if you look at the ‘cast episode list in iTunes or wherever, you will see other episodes. But, they are ALL repeats of earlier episodes from 1-4 years ago that I have weeded out of the list. I mean, come on, are they that lazy? They’ve had 10 original episodes since May and yet they post 3 episodes a week? But I digress …

Looking at the titles for these episodes, I see one episode that is pro-ID, one that is pseudo-legal, and eight that are anti-evolution (where “evolution” here is defined as they do, so I’m counting the astronomy episode because in it they argue Earth and the solar system and universe are ID’ed). In other words, the preponderance of the episodes are not advancing their cause, they are arguing against someone else’s. In this case, that “someone” else is the vast majority of the world’s scientists.

Let’s take a look at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR)’s last 10 news articles:

  • Evolutionary Paradox: Embryos Resist Tinkering
  • Laetoli Footprints Out of Step with Evolution
  • Evolution Delays Discovery of Dolphin Sensory Ability
  • More Evidence Neandertals Were Human
  • Did Natural Gas Take Millions of Years to Form?
  • Early Bird Gets the Boot: Researchers Reclassify Archaeopteryx
  • Origin of Cells Study Uses Bad Science
  • Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology
  • Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable
  • Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique

By my count, we have only one post that promotes Christianity or creationism directly (and I talked about that one here in my post on “A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space”). All of them are anti-science.

Now, to be fair, some sources do have a slightly more “pro”-creationism bent than these two. Answers in Genesis is one of them (guess where they look for their answers to questions) where the last 10 articles are about half promoting their worldview, the other half arguing against the secular one. And, when I listen to the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, it is almost all promoting of their view rather than anti-promoting science, though the guests will often spend maybe 5-10% of their time taking digs at the establishment (especially “Big Pharma,” scientists in their “Ivory Towers,” peer review, and those pesky things called “logic” and “evidence”).

But this got me to thinking that these other groups — the two I pointed out being the Discovery Institute and ICR — really don’t actually promote their worldview. They just try to dismantle science. In doing so, they seem to be hoping that you, the reader/listener, will accept their false dichotomy, accept their premise that science is wrong, and therefore embrace a god of the gaps and think that their view that they haven’t actually promoted in that article/’cast is true.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t actually think I’m doing the same thing, even though the majority of my posts on this blog are anti-their anti-arguments. In my posts, I try to explain what the relevant science is, provide you with logic and evidence, and while I usually do tell you what you “should” take as the “truth” (even though science is never after and cannot give you Truth with a capital “T”), I will often tell you not to take my word for it but to do your own investigation by using independent evidence and logic. ♩Take a look, ♬it’s in a book, a ♪ … but I digress again.

Then again, one reason I started this blog is because I do like to spread edjumication around, and I think that one of the best ways to actually learn and remember something is by seeing where others get it wrong in an odd way. So for example, in my last post, I talked at length about Earth’s presently decaying magnetic field and how YECs use that to argue for a recently created world. I could have just written a short blog post about geomagnetic reversals, flux, and excursions, but Wikipedia has kinda already done that for me. Or, I could do what I did, which is present the basics of the science, show how people have used it incorrectly, and then you may find it a more interesting way of learning the information and remembering it a bit longer.

And thus, this is a conversation with you: What do you think? Do you think that this kind of writing that I do is the same as the anti-propaganda that the IDers and YECs use? Or is it different? Is either a valid argument? Let me know what you think in the Comments section!

October 9, 2010

“Scientists Don’t Like New Surprises” People Haven’t Met My Thesis Committee


This is going to be a quick post so I’m going to dispense with my normal subject headings. This idea that scientists don’t like surprises, or don’t like new things that challenge their sacred beliefs floats around the internet and popular culture a lot. The media delights in headlines that read, “Scientists are …” and insert any of the following: Baffled, Surprised, Astounded, Shocked, Clueless, Bewildered, Befuddled, Amazed. And many other adjectives that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

That’s the general media. Creationist folks and the intelligent designers also adore this because their literature tends along the “if scientists can’t explain this it’s proof that God did it.” You might be thinking, “Hey! That’s a straw man,” or “That’s not a fair characterization!” For you folks, I direct you to some recent postings:

From The Bible Is the Other Side blog:

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft made a starling discovery, there are active geysers at the south pole of little moon Enceladus! It had astronomers shaking their heads, how could a small dead moon be still be geologically active after 4.5 billion years? It should have been frozen out billions of years ago because of lack of bulk, they say. … It’s truly amazing on what has been discovered! While the Cassini mission has thrown secular theories a loop, it has provided a wealth of great information on confirming the Bible!

From The Institute for Creation Research:

Mosasaurs were marine reptiles with large jaws and big teeth. Their fossils have been found on every continent, including Antarctica. They grew longer than 40 feet, and although they had fearsome jaws that marked them as a formidable predator, scientists had until now assumed that they were only mediocre swimmers. … However, an in-depth study of the world’s best-preserved mosasaur–which contains soft tissues such as skin, external scales, branching bronchial tubes, intestinal contents, decayed hemoglobin, and retinal soft tissues–demonstrated that the evolution-inspired weak-swimmer idea was all wrong. Instead, mosasaurs had all the necessary “adaptations” for a “fully aquatic existence.” … It has now been determined that mosasaurs swam quite well. Their remains show no evidence of having transitioned from any kind of land reptile, and at least one of them contains still-soft tissues. They therefore look like they were created recently, in accordance with Genesis history.

From The Discovery Institute:

A new paper in Nature magazine again shows that what was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. … What was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. Which paradigm would have predicted this finding: unguided neo-Darwinian evolution, or intelligent design?

The reason I bring this up is that I recently had a meeting with my thesis committee. Five Ph.D. scientists, all tenured except one who is tenure-track, two having been in the field as faculty researchers for over four decades. One of them did what I un-derisively and respectfully refer to as a more primitive version of my thesis work for her own thesis in the late 1980s.

There were two main things I came away from my thesis committee meeting with other than fighting the urge to cry (okay, not really, but it was not a pleasant experience). The first was that I needed to better focus and define the project, which is only a little disconcerting being ostensibly 7 months from defending. The second was a major emphasis from my committee members on the need for me to point out what is NEW with my work and has not been done before. Direct questions from my committee were: “What are the new results?” “How is your database different?” “What papers will you be comparing to?” “What papers’ hypotheses will you be testing and refuting?” And again, “What are the new results?”

Here are five people who between them have been in their field for about 150 years, who are established Ph.D. scientists in the ivory tower of a Research I institution (except one who I think is Research II), and according to popular ideas should be wanting me to prove that everything they’ve done in the past is right.

Instead, almost all they wanted to know was what am I doing that’s different and new and will “shake up” the field.

Amazing how people who have never actually been in the field they talk about end up characterizing it as the opposite.

Edited to Add:

After going to sleep after writing this post, I wanted to mention two more quick things that are related but obviously weren’t mentioned by my thesis committee. First, in order to publish in science, you pretty much always have to have something new. A paper review I got back a few months ago complained that it shouldn’t be published because it “presents little that is new.” Academia is pretty much publish or perish.

Second, the same thing goes for funding. While duplication of previous results, or duplication to place more stringent constraints on older results is important, funding committees have strong reservations in funding pure duplication research. This will vary significantly across disciplines, however, so it is a somewhat weaker argument to counter those who think “Scientists Hate Surprises.” For example, in the medical field, duplication is very important, especially clinically and in the pharmaceutical industry. But in my own field, you almost cannot get a grant if even a little of what you propose is duplication. Again from my own experience, I had a grant proposal in 2 years ago where about 5-10% of what I was going to do was duplication. Part of the reason it was rejected was they latched on that and said if someone else is already doing it, they’re not going to pay for it twice.

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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