Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 29, 2008

Answers in Genesis Year-End Review of Astronomy – An Assessment


Answers in Genesis (AiG), a young-Earth creationism think tank headed by Ken Ham (the folks that built the creationism “museum” within an hour’s drive of my hometown), has published their Year in Review for 2008, featuring a recap of their biggest headlines.

They address 13 main points, the first four being astronomy related. While they are mostly fairly benign in and of themselves, I thought I’d briefly address them myself and express my own opinions about their take on them.

(1) In Search of the Big Bang

The top of their list is a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that was unfortunately taken off-line until at least next summer due to a helium leak. The purpose of the LHC, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is to conduct four main experiments for the purpose of creating densities and energy levels (in very tiny volumes of space) that approach what physicists think the universe was like soon after the Big Bang.

Possibly because the LHC was never fully functional, this AiG wrap-up really has nothing much to say about it. Rather, the author devoted half the space to an ad hominem, non sequitur attack at something that (by the nature of it being a non sequitur) is not related to the LHC operations nor experiments at all.

(2) Water, Water Everywhere

NASA’s mantra has been “Follow the Water” for several years now, something that I addressed in this blog post. Briefly, the main reasoning is that the search for life is perceived to be “sexy” and something that inspires the public, and then hopefully congressional purse strings. The relation between water and life is that every form of life that we know of requires water in order to be active. Hence, we are most likely – based on our experience here – to find extraterrestrial life where there is extraterrestrial water. And it is much easier to find water than it is to just start searching for life.

With that in mind, AiG’s article then states, “Evolutionists seem to believe that observing the ingredients of life is evidence that those ingredients could self-organize. Taking this logic into the kitchen, couldn’t we say that since we observe flour, sugar, eggs, and the like, cakes are able to mix and bake themselves?”

There are two logical fallacies here, one for each sentence. The first is a straw man. As I have just explained, us “evolutionists” (“evilutionists?”) do not believe that observing ingredients for life is evidence that they could self-organize. We’re simply narrowing the search.

For example, let’s say that you were going shopping for a new shirt. The first thing you would do is to figure out where the stores are that sell clothes. The second would be to then systemmatically go from one to the other until you found one that sells shirts, and then from those you would search for a shirt you liked. That’s what astronomers are doing with the search for life. What you would not do is just go from store to store – be it a video store, grocery store, pet store, etc. – in search of your shirt because there’s no point in looking for a shirt in a store that doesn’t sell clothes.

The second fallacy is a false analogy. Putting out ingredients for a cake on a kitchen counter and then expecting them to assemble into a baked cake is just stupid. And that’s not what we’re saying happened with life. First off, origin of life study is not evolution. But besides that, what the current ideas for origin of life are is that you had molecules (not macroscopic cups of flour and sugar and eggs) that over time (as in not in the hour you leave them on your counter) happened to come together via external forces (as in not doing nothing with the ingredients sitting on your counter) to make a self-contained, self-replicating-capable protocell.

That’s very different from a cake magically assembling and baking itself.

(3) Earth Versus the Other Worlds

This section is just a massive two-paragraph argument from ignorance (not meant as an insult, but as a formal logical fallacy). This year was impressive in exoplanet research, which included the first real imaging of exoplanetary systems (one from Keck, the other from the Hubble Space Telescope) and the lightest-mass planet yet, one about 5 times Earth’s mass.

One of the many difficulties in finding exoplanets is that our methods work best with massive planets that are very close to their parent stars. And — gasp!! — that’s what we’ve found so far!! We, quite simply, do not have the technology to detect Earth-like planets yet. It’s really as plain as that. Saying that they don’t exist is a conclusion from complete lack of data – an argument from ignorance.

With that in mind, I will simply provide AiG’s section on this and then move on:

Exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) have become one of the hottest topics of late in astronomy, as secular “astrobiologists” search for Earth-like planets among the stars. This year, we covered Super-Earths and the search for Earth’s twin; planets MOA-2007-BLG-192L, WASP-12b, and “Vulcan”; and the first-ever true “sighting” of an exoplanet.

Yet all this time, we’re still learning about how special Earth and our solar system are. As we wrote in July, “[I]n spite of the evidence that Earth is indeed unique and that the existence of life on Earth is no mere accident, evolutionists cling by faith to their worldview,” and (separately), “Everything we learn continues to point to the fact that Earth and its astronomical environment are anything but ordinary—in fact, our planet and solar system are unique.”

(4) Our Friend Phoenix

This is pretty similar to the first news item on the LHC – they’re grasping at straws:

As for most of Phoenix’s discoveries, we said in July that, “though [they don’t] prove the possibility of life, [they don’t] disprove it, either—and thus evolutionists use it as a basis for clinging to the hope that evidence of life may some day be found (and prove an evolutionary origin for life on Mars and elsewhere).”

What do they mean by “clinging to … hope” about finding ET life? Personally, I’m not big on astrobiology. It doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I think it’s a fascinating question, but I also think that influenza is fascinating and I’m glad other people are out there researching it but not me. But Phoenix had as much to do about “finding life” as finding water on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). The instruments on the craft were not designed to detect life, they were designed to look for water (on Phoenix) and do general chemical analysis (on Phoenix and Cassini). I’m still not completely honed in on logical fallacies, but my call on this is pretty much an argument from ignorance wrapped up in a non sequitur.


I won’t be doing my own year-end astronomy news review, partly because I just started this blog in September. Personally, I may say that the biggest pseudoastro news would relate to either the conspiracies surrounding the LHC or Edgar Mitchell’s take on UFOs (he’s a former Apollo astronaut, so the UFO community used him as a massive argument from authority to back up their claims).

Consequently, I’m going to just address other folks’ wrap-ups, if they exist. And AiG has provided my first opportunity to do so. They bring up some very important advances in astronomy, but as usual, their interpretation is steeped in fallacies and misunderstandings.


September 15, 2008

CERN and the LHC – About Correlations and Scientific Certainty

One of the major topics in the “cryptonews” over the past two weeks has been about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe, operated by CERN.  The LHC is the largest, most powerful collider experiment to be built, and it was “switched on” last Wednesday (September 10, 2008).  The collider operates by sending protons (as clouds of hydrogen gas that have been stripped of their electrons) around the 17-mile tunnel at close to the speed of light, in opposite directions, smashing them into each other and observing the results.

The purpose of this post is not to get into how colliders work, what the experiments are looking for, nor even to really address all the doomsday scenarios that have come out by “scientists” who are suing CERN to try to stop it.  Rather, the purpose of my post is to talk about correlation vs. causation and what it means when scientists say that something will or will not happen.

First off, after the LHC was activated, people have been attempting to link it to hurricanes and earthquakes.  There were two in indonesia, one in Japan, and others elsewhere.  However, according to CERI, the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, there are over 55,000 earthquakes that are felt per year, and over 7000 that can cause damage.  That’s nearly 20 earthquakes per day that can cause damage.  Large earthquakes (magnitude 6 or larger) occur about once every three days somewhere on Earth.

My point here is that earthquakes happen.  They may be in the news more often around other events in an attempt to link them to drum up ratings.  In addition, you are more likely to take notice of a reported earthquake if you are actually looking for it, trying to correlate it with another event (e.g., the LHC being fully activated).  There are two things going on here:  Confirmation Bias, and the logical fallacy of confusing association with causation.

Confirmation bias is where you believe in something, and so when any event occurs that confirms that belief, you remember it, but when an event occurs that refutes it, you forget it.  For example, I may think that Student A is brilliant and does well in all her assignments.  That’s my bias.  If she turns in her next assignment and gets 100% correct, my bias is confirmed.  If she misses a question, though, I am likely to not remember that she missed it later on, or I’m likely to rationalize it away as a potentially unfair question.  This is the same thing with any geologic disturbance that people are claiming is a result of the LHC.

Confusing association with causation is a logical fallacy whereby all because two things may happen at the same time, you automatically assume they are related.  For example, if I saw a bird fly by my window and at that same moment a light bulb went out in the kitchen, I would think that the bird caused my lightbulb to blow out, even though, in reality, one had nothing to do with the other.

The second aspect I wanted to address is what it means when a scientist says something will or will not happen.  What they are actually saying is that, given all the evidence and our current understanding of how things work, the likelihood of the event happening (or not happening) is very close to 100% (or 0%).  A good scientist will never say that something is impossible.  Saying that would require an infinite amount of knowledge.

The reason this is relevant is that some people are saying that there’s a tiny possibility that the LHC would produce something that would destroy the Earth or Universe.  Yes, it’s possible.  It’s about as possible as the LHC creating a flying unicorn that poops rainbows.  Given everything we know and have verified about particle physics, the LHC producing something that destructive will not happen.  But, there is always the possibility that something unknown could happen.

This is why scientists generally do not call things the f-word:  “Facts.”  There is no “Fact of Gravity,” or “Fact of Nuclear Physics.”  Science deals with “Theories,” which is about equivalent to how many in the public think of “Facts.”  A scientific theory is one that has been verified by countless experiments, different lines of evidence, and has withstood attempts to disprove it.  The Theory of Relativity has so far been confirmed by everything we’ve thrown at it.  Our theories show that the LHC is perfectly safe.  But fear-mongers throw around “theory” as if to say, “Scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, after all, it’s just a theory.”

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