Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 4, 2011

Creationists/IDers Attack the Person, Scientists/Skeptics Attack the Claims


Introduction

This is going to be a short post and is more a musing based on observations I’ve made over the past few years. Of course, I should give a standard disclaimer that I’m not a psychologist/psychiatrist nor schooled in etymology. That said, let’s look into how some people argue.

Creationist and Intelligent Design Argument Structure

Okay, I’m not actually going to go into the detailed structure here, though I actually talked a bit about this in my “Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science” post. That’s the most frequent method these days — trying to show the evolution can’t be true rather than their model is true.

A less frequent though still often-used argument is to attack the founder of the field they are attacking. Most often this is Charles Darwin. He thought dark-skinned people were evolutionarily inferior, he was an atheist, he studied with bad people, etc. etc. It also can extend to other “founders” of the field of evolution, such as Charles Lyell. And I suppose it’s worth mentioning that many “amatuer scientists” these days who claim to have faster-than-light travel will frequently say that it was Einstein who was wrong.

Why Talk About This?

I think it’s interesting, and I blog about what I think is interesting within the subject of my blog. 🙂

Why do I think it’s interesting? I think it’s interesting because scientists do not generally attack the people who make the claim, rather they attack the claims that people make (and “attack” here really is more strong of a word than I should probably be using). For example, people do research into general relativity. They don’t do research into Einstein. Similarly, when writing papers on evolution, people will cite/reference papers that found similar/different results and discuss why they agree/disagree with those results. In fact, in one case I actually was attacked directly after reviewing a paper, where the author attacked my research instead of the (valid) points that I had made about her paper. I notified the editor of the journal and after profusely apologizing, she told the author that her paper was not welcome to be resubmitted to the journal.

So, to put it succinctly, in science, we go by the data, not the people making the claims.

Contrast that with Christianity, which in its very name is founded upon a single principle figure, Jesus (“Christ”). (This is probably why so many young-Earth creationists and IDers refer to evolution as “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism.” No, it is evolution. We do not follow a dogma set forth by our Lord Founder.)

What I infer from this is what we all pretty much already knew, that religion (and ID) is based upon a dogma stemming from a single person. If someone were to attack the personage of Jesus, his sayings/teachings/actions or even whether he actually existed, then their entire worldview is shaken.

This is very different from science, where I really couldn’t care less if Newton was an alchemist, Darwin a racist, or [make up what you want about] Einstein. The person doesn’t matter. It’s the claims, the data to back them up, and whether it is repeatable and testable that matters.

Final Thoughts

This can also be extended to other pseudosciences, or at least individuals within them, such as UFOlogy or astrology. Even when I have taken great pains to make it clear I’m debunking the claims of certain people, I still get accused of calling them a “liar.” Not true. While that may be the conclusion you draw when I say, “The claims [this person or field] makes in [this area] therefore do not fit with the available evidence,” that is not the same thing as calling them a liar.

Branches of science may be founded by an individual or small group of researchers, but the science itself is wholly independent of them. I am not a “LemaĂ®treist” if I accept the Big Bang. I’m not a “Huygensist” if I agree that Saturn’s rings are made of individual particles. However, it seems that the more dogmatic Christians do not understand this, for it is not what they know. They frequently attack the person who founded the field instead of the science itself, and that is why they will forever be relegated to dogmatic religion and nothing else.

Advertisements

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.

December 29, 2008

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


Introduction

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.

Wrap-Up

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.

December 17, 2008

The Milky Way’s Black Hole Verified – Creationists Still Work Around It with Non Sequiturs


Introduction

About a week ago, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) sent out a press release about a very long 16-year study that tracked the positions of several stars in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. By watching the stars move, they can infer the gravitational force that affect their orbits, and hence the mass in the center of the galaxy. The result was verifying the presence – and shrinking the error bars on the mass of – the black hole that resides in the center of the Milky Way.

I didn’t realize that this was in any way related to young-Earth creationism, and yet, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) today (Dec. 17) published an article by Brian Thomas entitled “Fast-Orbiting Stars Puzzle Astronomers” that somehow connects this research to imply support for their creation “model.” It is made of five distinct inferences and conjectures that I address below.

Claim 1: This Shows Stars and Planets Can’t Form in Stable Orbits Naturally

To quote from the article:

An ESO news release stated, “The mystery still remains as to how these young stars came to be in the orbits they are observed to be in today.” Given a purely naturalistic origin scenario such as that offered in the Big Bang theory, one wonders how so many stars and planets came to be in orbits at all, rather than swirling off into space.

This is a non sequitur (“doesn’t follow”) logical fallacy. The mystery is how these stars seem to be on quasi-stable orbits around the black hole since the requisite velocity of the stars to not fall into the black hole is fairly high and, given what we know of galaxy formation, it is unlikely that these stars formed in that location with that velocity.

This has nothing to do with solar system formation. The prevailing model of solar system formation is that a giant nebula of swirling gas and dust will collapse and have a net rotation. As the cloud collapses, the center of it will accumulate the most material and form the star. Other parts of it – that are rotating – will also collapse and form planets. It is actually thought that many would-be planets do get ejected from the system due to interactions with any massive planets (like Jupiter).

Objects get ejected when they are given too much energy – a velocity boost. If the mass of the system is no longer large enough to overcome that velocity, then the object will escape. If the object is gravitationally bound, then by definition, it will be in orbit. And ultimately, that’s pretty much how we measure the mass of all objects in the universe – how fast objects that are gravitationally bound to them are moving.

It’s really hard to see how the ESO quote honestly has anything to do with why planets “came to be in orbits” — it’s just a complete non sequitur.

Claim 2: How Could Stars Share Orbits?

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel.

I’m not sure if this is a logical fallacy or not: Mis-reading the press release (I’ll assume an honest mistake). Contrast the ICR article statement of “astronomers … observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital parttern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel,” with the actual statement from the researchers:

“The stars in the innermost region are in random orbits, like a swarm of bees,” says [Stefan] Gillessen. “However, further out, six of the 28 stars orbit the black hole in a disc. In this respect the new study has also confirmed explicitly earlier work in which the disc had been found, but only in a statistical sense. Ordered motion outside the central light-month, randomly oriented orbits inside – that’s how the dynamics of the young stars in the Galactic Centre are best described.”

I read the ICR statement 3 times and each time got the impression that they are reading the article as saying that these six stars are on the same orbit – hence the Ferris wheel analogy. A better analogy would be the six cars being on a race track contrasted with a swarm of bees. The six stars orbit in the same plane like the planets in the solar system, but they don’t “share” the same orbit. The stars that are closer to the black hole orbit in more random orbits, like bees, or to extend the solar system analogy, more like comets.

Claim 3: The Stars Should Be Shredded … Much Less Be on Similar Orbits

The next claim is the sentence following Claim 2 (repeated for context):

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel. The question is complicated by the likely effects of the violent “forces of the black hole” that would rip stars apart, not place them on a galactic train track.

This is a case of quote-mining. When the press release talks about “forces of the black hole” (in this case, tidal forces which occur when the gravity pulls more on one side of an object than another causing it to stretch), it does so in the context of it’s hard to get our current models to actually form stars near the black hole … it has NOTHING to do with the stars’ orbits.

\And that – what the press release says – is interesting science: Researchers want their theories to be tested and if they can’t explain something, that’s good because it forces them to revise their theories. If we already knew everything, there’d be no point in doing science.

Claim 4: Somehow Tying in SETI Makes Creationism Real

When I read the next paragraph, I honestly had to read it twice to see if there was any natural progression from the quote from the ESO press release to their claims about SETI. It may be there, but it’s extraordinarily tenuous:

The ESO also stated, “Excitingly, future observations are already being planned to test several theoretical models that try to solve this riddle.” These models will certainly not include one that involves an outside intelligence having placed the stars in their orbits, even though other cosmologists have dedicated themselves to the search for alien intelligence, which some believe may have even seeded life on earth.

Let’s analyze this:

(1) ESO is saying that more research needs to be done and that it is planned to be done to answer the question of how stars could either form close to the black hole or could migrate there fast enough (since they’re young stars). … Okay …

(2) ICR says that us secular scientists will no doubt NOT include models that say “God Did It.” … Okay …

(3) We won’t do this despite people who are dedicated to looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life. … Non sequitur …

(4) Some people believe in pamspermia – the idea that it was extraterrestrial life that originally seeded life on Earth. … Okay …

So the problem here really centers along that same non sequitur logical fallacy: Somehow, because the astronomers are looking for a natural means to get these stars here as opposed to an omnipotent being, that’s bad because other astronomers are actively searching for extraterrestrial life (effectively, SETI). It really is just that, a non sequitur; it’s hard to actually explain why because the two have NOTHING to do with each other.

Claim 5: Universal Fine-Tuning

The precise construction parameters of cosmic structures like these stars and the rules that govern them will only be intelligible as products of a supernatural Creator.

Rather than drag this post on any longer, I will refer you to my post where I directly address the issue of fine-tuning of cosmological parameters (basically a god of the gaps logical fallacy): Why the Universe’s Fine-Tuning Is NOT Evidence of Intelligent Design.

Final Thoughts

I really don’t have much else to say about this one. The only way Brian Thomas’ article makes sense is to completely ignore the non sequiturs – ignore any sense of logical progression from one claim to another, and simply take – on faith – that he’s tied it all together for you.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.