Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 17, 2015

Podcast Episode 124: The Astronomical Distance Ladder


Measuring distance
In the Universe: A fun
Science episode!

An episode over two years in the making: The Astronomical Distance Ladder!!!!! (insert many cheers) In all seriousness, I have wanted to do this episode since autumn (August-ish) 2012, but I haven’t been able to find a good hook. Convicted and jailed felon, Kent Hovind, provided that for me on January 6, 1998, in a Coast to Coast AM episode I got my hands on. And so we have this episode. It is long. Those of you who like longer episodes, this is nearly an hour long. It did not intend it to be this long, but, well, that’s what happens when I get excited about a topic that’s not incredibly straight-forward.

I also guessed off the top of my head that an object with a redshift value of z = 1.4 would be about 10 billion light-years away. According to Wolfram Alpha, it’s 9.1 billion l-y lookback time, so take THAT, Prof. Morrison! (It’s been literally a decade since I thought about what z equals what distance, so I’m pretty impressed that I got that pretty close.)

I do want to apologize about the sound quality in this one and the variable volume levels (I tried to even them out in post-processing). I was recording during sustained 20mph winds with gusts over 50mph. So, I had a lot of background noise I was dealing with that varied in intensity.

This episode has three additional segments: New News related to a precision measurement of Saturn’s position, a new Logical Fallacies segment, and Feedback (one clarification, one negative and my response).

For the new Logical Fallacies segment, I’ll say what I said in the episode: “I’m open to feedback including overwhelming negative feedback on whether this was at all useful or is worth keeping in some modified way, and also if I’ve made any mistakes.” The fallacies discussed in detail for the episode are Argument from (Personal) Incredulity and Appeal to Ridicule. I got into how both of these are classes of Red Herring fallacies and the former is a sub-type of Red Herring, the Genetic. I also pointed out that additional fallacies in Mr. Hovind’s argument were the False Precision Fallacy, Appeal Against Authority, and False Analogy.

Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): The Raw Story has an article up today explaining a bit more about Kent Hovind, and that he is trying to testify before Congress (though he’s still in federal prison) about the IRS being a bunch of meanies.

October 31, 2011

Podcast Episode 9 Is Up: Earth’s Decaying Magnetic Field


And for another short post: Podcast Episode 9 is up. It’s about the young-Earth creationist claim that Earth’s declining magnetic field is evidence for a recent creation. This is a re-worked version of my previous post on the decaying magnetic field two months ago. I’ve gone into some more detail on the Kent Hovind claims that there have been no magnetic field reversals ever. The episode length is similar to my last episode at a bit over 30 minutes.

I’ve also introduced a whole new segment: Q&A. The idea is that anyone who wants can send in questions that I will attempt to answer. Preferably, the questions will focus on weird astronomy claims that you’ve heard or are interested in, but I’m willing to relax that to general astronomy questions that you may have.

December 3, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Quote Mining


Introduction

I’m going to interrupt my purely logical fallacies series to do one on a related idea, fallacious arguing. The difference that I’m drawing here is that there are still ways of arguing that are “wrong” or misleading without actually being formal logical flaws. The case I’m addressing here is that of “Quote Mining.”

What is “Quote Mining?”

In yet another aptly named term, quote mining is when you search for a quote – any actual statement – that someone has said, and then use it out of the actual context in order to imply that it meant something else.

In a completely contrived example, I could state, “The United States of America is a wonderful country where its citizens enjoy many freedoms. We have freedom of and from religion, the right to freely assemble, freedom of the press and speech, and we have the freedom to petition (something that I used in 10th grade to get an unpopular program removed from my high school). However, in recent years, this has come under attack by many people who claim that we are a Christian nation and they interpret the First Amendment to mean that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Someone could then quote-mine that statement and claim that I said: “The United States of America … [has a First Amendment] that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Grammatically, that is a perfectly valid thing to do. However, it has completely changed what I was arguing, and hence quote mining is a fallacious way to argue a point.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

There are a tremendous number of examples of quote mining across nearly all fields of, well, anything. One might think of lawyers, politicians, and news reporters as some of the most prolific quote miners around.

Because of this, I’m not going to look too hard to try to find one, but rather I will use one that very clearly illustrates the idea from a presentation I gave about young-Earth creationist claims about astronomy (and geology).

The particular claim was made by Kent Hovind in his “Creation Science Evangelism” series, Disk 6 part 1. Hovind was trying to claim that Earth’s magnetic field has never reversed polarity (the magnetic “pole flip” that has many people worried for 2012). In order to bolster this claim, he used an apparent Argument from Authority (another logical fallacy) from a Science paper from 1979. The quote was: “It is clear that the simple model of uniformly magnetized crustal blocks of alternating polarity does not represent reality.”

That statement seems pretty damning. We’ll ignore that it’s been 30 years since that statement was made and that science changes with new evidence, since this is a clear example of quote mining. Fortunately, Hovind provides the reference and I was able to look up the article (Hall, J.M., and P.T. Robinson. (1979). “Deep Crustal Drilling in the North Atlantic Ocean.” Science, 204, pp. 573-586.). The VERY NEXT SENTENCE of that article reads, “Clear reversals of polarity with depth are observed.”

In other words, Hovind used the first sentence to claim that these authors were arguing that the entire model of alternating magnetic polarity embedded in the ocean crust is false. Rather, when put into context, we can see that the authors were rather arguing that the simple slab model of alternating magnetic polarity is not accurate, that they do see alternating polarity, but you need a more complicated model than a simple brick-like approach.

Final Thoughts

Through quote mining, one can effectively make anyone say almost anything. It’s an unfortunate thing, but nearly everyone does it. By leaving out context or by using enough ellipses (the “…”), it’s very difficult to actually know if what someone is “supposed” to have said is what they meant. This is especially the case in print media (newspapers, magazines, etc.), but even with video, a good editor can make it appear as though someone has said something that they did not mean.

The fallacious method of quote mining is definitely something to watch for.

With that said, I would like to try to reassure my readers that when I have used quotes from sources that I argue against, I have tried to not fall into this fallacy. That is partly why I provide links back to the original sources, or I provide references, if possible, so that you can go back to the source to check it for yourself.

November 25, 2009

Logical Fallacies: The Non Sequitur


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies that, once completed, will be organized into a somewhat methodical outline and links posted at the top of all relevant posts, I’m going to now address the incredibly common “Non sequitur” fallacy.

What Is the Non Sequitur Fallacy?

The phrase, “non sequitur,” is Latin, and it literally translates as, “It does not follow.” And like most logical fallacies, it really means just that: The non sequitur fallacy is when any rebuttal is given that, well, just has nothing to do with the original claim. In that sense, many logical fallacies could be non sequiturs, such as the Straw Man, but this post is really about the broad, more obvious type rather than sub-types.

Example of a Non Sequitur from Young-Earth Creationism

I’ve been wanting to bring this in for awhile, an example from Kent Hovind, possibly better known as “Dr. Dino,” and definitely better known now as the, “I’m-an-employee-of-God-so-I-don’t-have-to-pay-taxes” guy who’s serving a 10-year prison sentence, with his wife, for tax evasion.

Anyway, in Hovind’s very long video lecture series on young-Earth creationism (YEC), which I have watched over 10 hours of, he makes several examples of this fallacy. One of them is when he is discussing ages of fossils, specifically within the context of how radioactive dating methods work.

Hovind makes a rather interesting claim when he is trying to make the point that radioactive dating methods don’t work, and they don’t work to the point that “even scientists” won’t use them. One of the many examples is that he says fossils are NOT dated by radiocarbon methods.

*Gasp!* But how could this be!? Surely, geologists would use carbon-14 dating methods to determine how old a fossil is, like a dinosaur, right? And if they don’t, then how can we, the common citizen, trust that carbon-14 is a valid method? And if carbon-14 doesn’t work, then why should we trust anything else that those scientists say!?

This is probably what Hovind wants you to think. However, the claim that we don’t date fossils through radiocarbon methods is perfectly true, but a perfect non sequitur. Pointing out that we don’t use the decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14 is like pointing out that a repairman won’t use a hammer to apply paint. It’s completely base and unnecessary.

Why? Because fossils don’t contain carbon. A fossil is formed when minerals replace the organic material that was there. The organic material was what had the carbon in it, but the fossil does not. Hence, we can no more use carbon-14 dating to determine how old a fossil is than a surgeon can use his or her car keys to form a triple bypass.

An Example from a Grant Review

Last March, I received back a review of a grant that I had submitted in order to fund the rest of my grad student career separately from my advisor (save him money, great CV builder). Unfortunately, I did not get funded, but when I got the comments back, most of them were, well, non sequiturs, which frustrated me to no end.

For example, without trying to get into 15 pages of background information, my proposal was to complete my database of craters on Mars. One of the key points in any database is to actually identify the objects. I had stated how I would do that, by outlining (tracing) the rim of every crater, and that each point along the rim would be recorded in decimal degrees (such as, 56.23421345° North, 128.2342134239° East). Fairly straight-forward.

One of the “Intrinsic Merit Weaknesses, Major” that was noted was, “There is no information provided on the projection and coordinate system that will be used.” That’s a non sequitur because it doesn’t matter — if the data is recorded in decimal degrees, then it can be projected into any coordinate system someone wants.

Another example was the following paragraph. I had stated in the proposal that the database, when completed, would be distributed among the general research community for them to use (that’s right, I learned how to share in kindergarden … I also learned that I was mentally retarded because I’m left-handed). I stated twice in the proposal that it would be distributed through the Mars Crater Consortium’s website, PIGWAD (the USGS’s data website), and PDS (NASA’s data website). This was what the reviewers noted: “No detail is provided as to how the resulting database will be distributed, a task that will not be straightforward given that the [researcher] will be using in-house algorithms.”

Okay, so, first-off we can see that the reviewer missed where I stated that information, twice. But we can also see the non sequitur because the algorithms are to do things like fit a circle to the crater rim, or calculate the average elevation. Those are used to create the database, while the database itself is, well, just a database. “In-house,” “commercial,” “GPN,” and other algorithms are irrelevant to how the final database would be released.

Final Thoughts

The non sequitur is generally fairly easy to spot because it’s one of those things that, when used, will usually make you go, “Huh?” because it doesn’t make sense — it doesn’t follow from the original argument/claim. It’s frequently used in everyday life, just like the ad hominem, though probably the non sequitur is a little harder to spot.

July 31, 2009

What Is Science, Its Purpose, and Its Method?


Introduction

Following up on my post “Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”,” as well as a recent planetarium lecture I gave on young-Earth creationism in astronomy, I thought it would be a valuable post to go over specifically what the purpose of science actually is, and how science goes about, well, science.

I need to make three things very clear up-front: First, I am not a philosopher. I have not taken any philosophy classes, nor have I taken a philosophy of science class (though I think I probably should).

Second, even though “science” is an inactive noun – where I use the word “inactive” to mean that it is a process and a mode of thinking – I will be using it throughout this post as an “active” noun, personifying it to actually “do” things. This is how it’s used in popular culture, and I see no real reason to take efforts to not go with the colloquial use in this posting.

Third, this post is going to serve a dual purpose by contrasting the scientific method with the creationist “method” in order to show how science differs in key, important ways.

Dictionary Definitions of Terms

The way the dictionary that Apple kindly provides on their computers defines “science” as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There are three sub-definitions, but that main one emphasizes that “science” is an activity, a study, and one that looks for natural explanations.

My only qualm with this definition is that I would add to it not only what it does or how it operates, but its purpose, as well: “The purpose of science is that once it has provided an explanation for the physical and natural world, it allows one to use that explanation to make predictions.” I know that when I stand on one foot, if I don’t shift my weight to that one foot, I will likely fall if I do not support myself. That is because I have repeated observations that tell me this. Without that predictive power that in the future I will fall if I don’t shift my weight, then all those previous observations are fairly worthless.

In this section, I also want to define “dogma.” Using the dictionary again: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Now, hopefully I’m stating the obvious, but “dogma” and “science” are not equivalent. In fact, I know that I’m not stating the obvious because there are many, many, many people out there who believe that science simply leads to dogmatic facts/ideas/theories, etc. This is not true. And in the rest of this post I will show you why.

A Look at the Creationist “Science” Method

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that this is not a straw man argument, an exaggeration, or anything else that may lead to you thinking this is not true. This section is really how many – if not most or all – biblical literalists view science, and this is how they decide what science to incorporate into their worldview.

Ken Ham, the CEO of the “Answers in Genesis” (a young-Earth creationist think-tank in the US, now separate from the Australian group by the same name), has explicitly stated that one must start with the Bible, while others at AiG have stated that even logic and science itself flows from the Bible, for without it, you couldn’t even have the tools that science uses.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a flow chart:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The above flow chart shows the basic, fundamental process that most biblical literalists use to vet science. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field. Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. In fact, to quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

A Look at the Scientific Method

You’ll notice that this flow chart is a tad larger:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

It starts at the same place, with an idea/observation/etc., which we call a “hypothesis.” As opposed to testing this hypothesis against the Bible, it is tested by performing an experiment. In other words, can the idea that you have accurately predict the outcome of an experiment?

If not, then the idea is rejected. If it did accurately predict the outcome of the experiment, then ideally you will do several more and gather other observational evidence, but effectively you now have created a theory. A theory is when all pieces of evidence support that idea, and NO experiment has refuted it.

The next step of a theory is to use it to predict a future event. This is where my definition of science differs from the dictionary by adding these predictive properties (the bottom half of the flow chart). Without the theory of gravity being able to predict the motions of the planets and moons, the behavior of tides, etc., then what good is it other than to have on paper and look pretty?

So the theory is used to predict a future event. If it predicted it correctly, then you simply rinse and repeat. Much of basic scientific research is really just testing theories. Far from being the “dogma” that many creationists will want you to believe, theories are subjected to tests every day.

In fact, scientists WANT to be the one to do the experiment that the theory predicted a different outcome for. That’s where we follow the “NO” arrow on the flow chart. If the theory can be modified to support the latest evidence, then it is improved, and you go back and continue to test the now-modified theory. An example of this would be the addition of Inflation to the Big Bang model.

However, if the theory cannot be modified to support the latest evidence, then we have a scientific revolution. People remember your name. You get Nobel Prizes. And money. And women (or men). Anyone over the age of 10 knows Einstein’s name and know him to be synonymous with “Relativity” and likely even “E=m·c2.” Advertisers wish they could be that efficient.

Final Thoughts – What’s the Point, and Why No Spiritualism/Paranormal Allowed?

The point here is that, well, I’m honestly sick of hearing the anti-“darwinist” crowd claiming that evolution, the speed of light, the Big Bang, and many other scientific theories are just a “materialistic dogma.” They’re not. Plain and simple. Dogma is where you believe something as FACT and it cannot be shown to be false, regardless of any evidence. Theories and the scientific method is a process that requires evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. It requires predictive power.

And that is why spiritualism/religion/supernatural/paranormal beliefs are simply not allowed in science. Sorry, they’re not. Why? Because almost by their very definition, they lack any predictive ability. If you can’t use your hypothesis or theory to predict a future event, then they have just been shown not to work. Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster may have created us all by touching us with His noodly appendage. That may be a hypothesis. But you simply can’t test that because He in His Infinite Carbalicious Goodness can just choose not to do it again. Or some vaguely-defined “Intelligent Designer” may have caused the bacterial flagllum to exist or have formed the mammalian eye. But that belief does not present any way of being tested, whereas evolutionary theory does (and has shown the precursors to all of those).

And that’s really the point of science: To use testable ideas to explain the where we came from, and then to predict where we’re going.

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