Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 24, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be “Anti-Science?”


In my and other skeptically minded blogs, you will often read us either explicitly or by implication state that something we’re arguing against is unscientific, or it is anti-science. In the current political climate, you will often hear the Republican party being referred to as the “Anti-Science Party” by its detractors. Phil Plait has been a good example of that over the past several months with his numerous posts about climate change denial within the crop of Republican presidential candidates.

But what does “anti-science” actually mean? In the latest episode of the ID The Future podcast, the new host David Boze rants discusses for about 16 minutes that “anti-science” is actually a political term meant to stymie detractors of “Darwinian Evolution.”

The Claim

The entire podcast can really be summarized by what David states starting at 15 minutes 28 seconds into the episode: “The anti-science label is clearly a political tool designed to eliminate debate between proponents of intelligent design and proponents of Darwinian evolution. And, since we’ve demonstrated the common use of this label is false, when you hear it being hurled at those who disagree with Darwinian evolution, you can point out it’s unscientific to use the term.”

The Evidence

David spends the 15 minutes before this in a very scripted argument for his case. As his evidence, he focuses on pretty much the single – at least the most outspoken – candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who has called his fellow candidates out as being “anti-science.” This man would be John Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, and a man whom Conservapedia refers to as a “RINO” (Republican in name only).

Huntsman has very publicly stated that he accepts the evidence for evolution and trusts climate scientists that climate change is real, that overall it is warming, and humans are very likely a major contributor to it currently. This is as opposed to the rest of the candidates who, as a whole, deny climate change at all and are mostly biblical creationists (at least the most outspoken ones are).

In his main statements, and especially in the ones that David Boze used for this podcast episode, Huntsman has clearly focused on climate change and evolution. David even states that in the middle of the podcast before saying that, for brevity, he’s going to cut out the comments on global warming.

He then focuses entirely on the evolution parts. And uses that to say that clearly all Huntsman is talking about as “anti-science” is people who don’t fully accept an “atheistic Darwinian evolution.”

David goes into some of the US’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin (since Huntsman did), and laughingly says that Franklin was not an evolutionist (obviously not since Darwin’s theory was not published until 1859). He talks about Abraham Lincoln (since Huntsman brought him up as an example of a non-anti-science Republican), and says that evolution was not high on Lincoln’s domestic policy. Again, obviously not since the theory was published only two years before the civil war. Brings of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (again, since Huntsman did) and points out that clearly a scientific dark age did not happen when any of these men were in the White House (though this is an arguable point with the later Bush), the implication being that they were not strict atheistic evolutionists therefore under Huntsman’s alleged position, they should have brought down Western society.

All this is evidence, according to David Boze, that the term “anti-science” means “doubts Darwin” and is a political label and doesn’t mean anything else.

Can We Say “Cherry Pick” and “Persecution Complex?”

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured out from my tone that David has committed some HUGE leaps in logic that betray his ideology and doom his position. Two very obvious ones are cherry picking and at least a persecution complex if not an outright argument from persecution.

Mr. Boze has chosen ONE example of ONE person using the term “anti-science.” He has cherry-picked that ONE person’s use to focus on ONE topic, despite clearly stating just a few minutes earlier that he had used it in reference to TWO topics. That in and of itself should lead an objective, curious, and interested person to doubt his conclusions.

What Does “Anti-Science” Actually Mean?

The reality of the term is that we use it to mean anyone who disagrees with basic, objective, scientific data and disagrees with established scientific theories (where I use the term “theory” as a scientist). In politics these days, yes, it is mainly used in reference to climate change and evolution. Less frequently in politics, it is also used in regards to health care (especially vaccinations), abortion, energy policy, education policy, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and even basic mathematics.

I tend to use it – again either explicitly or implied – to refer to some people or ideas I discuss on my blog. I do try not to over-use it or paint with too broad a brushstroke. I don’t think that someone like Richard Hoagland, for example, is anti-science; I think he’s just deluded. Same with Andrew Basiago.

I wouldn’t even label most astrologers nor UFOlogists as anti-science except for maybe when they pull the special pleading argument of, “Oh, well you can’t test this because it’s untestable within the current scientific paradigm.” Right. It works until there’s a skeptic in the room and then it magically fails. Have you met my pet invisible dragon?

However, I talk about young-Earth creationism quite a bit here, and I would consider most creationists to be anti-science. They use science only when it can bolster their position, and misinterpret or plain ol’ deny it when it disagrees with their position and beliefs. That’s anti-science.

And yet, I label them as anti-science not because of their position on evolution, but because of their stances on comets, magnetic field data, the moon’s recession rate, basic physics of spiral galaxies, cosmology, and a slew of other topics. I have never actually directly addressed evolution in a post on this blog. I may have talked about it peripherally, such as in this post, but it’s never been the focus.

Surely my use of the term “anti-science” is just as valid as John Huntsman’s, which is surely more valid than the quote-mined version that David used.

Final Thoughts

Anti-science means, in my book, that you refuse to accept basic fundamental scientific methodology and/or results. It can be on a specific, sacred cow topic of yours such as whether or not Earth is hollow. It can be on broad topics based on your framework of biblical literal-ness. Being “anti-science” does not mean that you have to reject everything discovered in the last ~400 years.

And that’s where David Boze’s foray into the topic, I think, fails. He has an ideological persecution complex, sees it used in one way by a politician, focuses on half of that person’s argument, and then claims that anti-science means that you don’t accept atheistic evolution.

Sorry, David, my faith is not strong enough for those leaps.


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!

July 17, 2010

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


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.

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