Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 20, 2009

Latest Creationism Article, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?” Is a Stack of Fringe Science Claims


Introduction

After writing for a few weeks on Planet X and 2012, I’m returning to my former bread & butter with debunking creationism articles – specifically young-Earth creationism (YEC). And today’s article by Brian Thomas, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?,” is, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a sarcastic, derogatory sense. I know my stated purpose for this blog is to just go for the science and test the claims and let them stand independent of who’s making them. But, after reading this article, I may resort to some stronger – though still at least PG – language. This is a family-friendly blog. ūüôā

Choosing the Setting

Brian Thomas starts off his diatribe as most other Institute for Creation Research (ICR) articles do, with a paragraph or two introducing the topic. In this case, the title of the article is misleading. I assumed it would be talking about how YECs view events like the moon’s formation via a giant impact, Uranus’ tilt via a giant impact, general processes of solar system formation (accretion of small particles into larger ones), etc. as too serendipitous to be natural and requiring a supernatural hand (as in “God”).

But, that’s not really the case for the article. Brian decided to write the article about how astronomers resort to methodological naturalism in their science. In other words, we (since I’m an astronomer I can say “we”) are looking for a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything that we can observe. Otherwise, we can simply say, “God did it” and that would end all science. After all, if “God did it” then what’s the point in figuring out how it was done – we’re already starting with the answer. But that’s really a topic for a different post.

Regardless, Brian doesn’t set the stage for talking about collisions “creating” anything. And the rest of the article doesn’t go into that.

False Analogy in the Second Paragraph

I knew when I got to the second paragraph and Brian calls Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a “militant evolutionary scientist” that this article was going to be an eye-roller. So, he’s starting out right in the third sentence with an ad hominem as well as a non sequitur set of logical fallacies: He’s calling Eugenie a supposedly derogatory name in order to discredit her, and being an evolutionary scientist – or even evolution for that matter – has nothing to do with astronomy.

But it’s really the end of the second paragraph that started to get me going: “Forensic scientists routinely and appropriately consider intelligent, non-natural causes when they reconstruct past events, and astronomers‚Äô refusal to acknowledge the possibility of divine causation makes some of their theories appear silly.”

To call it what it is, this is a false analogy. We have proof that humans commit crimes. It’s a given. It’s a no-brainer. “Duh,” as some might say. And, we have very good evidence that, say, trees don’t commit crimes, or at least not with intent. Again, “Duh.” So it would be completely irrational for forensic scientists (people who use science to investigate crimes) to, say, in a murder investigation, consider anything but a human having a hand in the killing. But what does that have to do with astronomy? There is no proof/evidence/scientific justification behind saying, “God did it” – or “Aliens did it” – in astronomy. Hence, because we pretty much know that humans do not have the power and ability of the Q Continuum and we can’t go around forming solar systems, we resort to natural explanations (had to throw in the Star Trek reference).

I just don’t understand why Brian would even “go there” in this article – making that analogy either shows profound ignorance or desire to deceive. Since I don’t know Brian personally, I cannot speak to which it may be, but I will let you judge based upon the rest of this article.

Comet Quandaries

I really don’t want to get into comets again, as I’ve already addressed YEC claims with regards to comets in two posts (“Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System” and “More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism“).

But, I want to nit-pick his words (emphasis mine):

For example, coincidental gravitational events have been invoked to explain the origin of comets. In this scenario, objects in the unobserved ‚ÄúOort cloud‚ÄĚ collide in such a way that a small percentage of them are launched into space and eventually form orbits around the sun. The likelihood that chance-based near-misses coupled with precise hits created, stored, and set in orbit the various comets in this way is unreasonably small.

Again, for the general science of comets and why this claim is wrong, see those two posts. But let’s look at the first text I bolded. The origin of comets is different from the source of comets. Current theory is that all comets formed at the beginning of the solar system along with everything else. They just formed farther away from the sun and hence where more ice could solidify versus closer to the sun where ice would be vaporized. That’s the origin. The present-day source of comets is this region of the outer solar system, divided into the Kuiper Belt which starts around where Pluto is, and then the Oort Cloud farther out, that theorists think could extend out to 2 light-years (half-way to the nearest star). Origin ‚Ȇ Source.

The next piece of text shows very poor editing, a profound ignorance for the astronomy, or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Everything that is gravitationally bound to the solar system by definition orbits the sun. All of the comets – be they in the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or something else within the solar system are already on orbits around the sun. And what could he possibly mean by “launched into space?” Um, hello? — they’re already in space. By definition! They’re “launched into space” the same way that asteroids that happen to cross Earth’s orbit are “launched into space.” The way he’s worded it implies that there’s some base station that every-now-and then hurls them at us like we launch rockets.

And I note that while this may seem like an ad hominem attack, it’s not – I am addressing his claims, showing why they make no sense, and then stating three possible reasons why he made the claims in a non-false trichotomy.

Another Creationist Playground: Venus

My observation has been that if a YEC is going to talk about solar system astronomy in an attempt to support their claims, they will first go to comets, then either to Venus or magnetic fields. Brian does both, but first he does Venus:

Another random collision, according to Cardiff University‚Äôs Huw Davies, is supposedly responsible for the creation of Venus. Davies proposed that the second planet from the sun is the result of “a mega-collision between two large embryonic planets.” But many very specific parameters would have had to be involved in this random ‚Äúlittle bang‚ÄĚ to form Venus‚Äô unique composition, its reverse spin, its orbit about the sun, and therefore its role in balancing the earth‚Äôs own orbit, which is vital to the survival of life here. Since when do collisions‚ÄĒespecially mega-collisions‚ÄĒadd purpose-oriented specificity to any system?

There are several things wrong with this paragraph. First off, Brian Thomas talks about only one of the hypotheses which has been presented to explain Venus’ orbital characteristics (mainly that it spins backwards, slowly, such that its day is longer than its year). Doing that is misleading at best. A more recent hypothesis than the giant impact has to do with a lot of math, basically the same kinds of tidal forces that causes oceanic tides on Earth from the sun and moon are responsible and quite capable of flipping Venus over via tidal interaction with the sun. Philosophically, this is more plausible to astronomers because it doesn’t invoke a serendipitous giant impact to flip Venus over. Not mentioning this as another valid scientific hypothesis is disingenuous – or shows ignorance – on Brian’s part.

Another – though minor – point is his reference to this as a “little bang.” To the causal reader, this draws an immediate connection to the “Big Bang” – the theory of the formation of the cosmos – which is something that YECs have successfully been able to draw doubt to the validity of among their followers. Hence, this is an example of “poisoning the well.”

Moving on, Brian states that Venus plays an important role in balancing Earth’s orbit and hence a serendipitous event somehow led to purpose-oriented specificity to the solar system. First, Venus really doesn’t have much of anything to do with Earth’s orbit and hence life. So that statement is pretty much wrong. Second, there are lots of random things that are later co-opted for a specific purpose. For example, I may go into the grocery store thinking I’m going to buy food to make Thai Basil Chicken. But, ground beef may be on sale that week for 50%-off. That’s a random event. I may then co-opt that random event and use it for a purpose – make a “hamburger soup” instead because it’s cheaper. It’s really the same concept – the solar system and the universe isn’t the way it is such that we can exist, rather we exist the way we do because the solar system and universe happen to be set up the way they are.

Martian Magnetics

Mars is thought to have had a rather strong magnetic field early in its history. We find highly magnetized regions of the planet’s crust that are consistent with this, but there is no global magnetic field now. The thinking is that the planet – because it’s half Earth’s diameter and less than 1/8th Earth’s mass – simply cooled off much faster than we did and so the molten metals in its core were no longer fluid enough to generate a magnetic field. That’s the consensus view of Mars’ magnetic history.

However, Brian chooses not to mention that, but rather something that I’ve honestly never heard of:

University of Toronto‚Äôs Jafar Arkani-Hamed proposed that a collection of hovering asteroids ignited and maintained an ancient magnetic field on Mars. Such a field would have been required for living cells to exist on that planet. But the possibility that these asteroids somehow avoided Mars‚Äô moons and then hovered with just the right masses, trajectories, and distances to have pulled Martian electromagnetism into motion “for 500 million years” seems incredible. Mars rocks do show evidence that there once was a magnetic field. However, these asteroid conjectures seem merely to be extensions of a larger methodological naturalistic interpretation since the proposed asteroids and their exact specifications are ad hoc provisions with no direct evidence (and virtually no indirect evidence.)

Now, I have not read Arkani-Hamed’s paper, but on the surface it seems fairly implausible. Just as Brian says (see, sometimes I do agree with the creationists). There really isn’t any evidence for his hypothesis, as far as I know without reading the paper. But again, why wouldn’t Brian even mention the consensus view? Why does he resort to something on the fringe to try to make a point? Really, Brian is doing the same thing here as saying that creationists can explain everything by saying that God did it – that’s the consensus view – but then there’s one creationist that says, for this one thing, he doesn’t think God did it, but rather it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster (any pastaferians out there?).

In addition, throwing Mars’ moons in there really isn’t important because the consensus view is that they were captured asteroids, after Mars formed, and so it’s not necessary for them to have been in place when Arkani-Hamed’s asteroid swarm induced Mars’ magnetic field, and hence they really don’t cause a problem for it.

Brian then makes the obligatory argument of a decaying magnetic field being proof of a young solar system: “Incidentally, the observation that Mars‚Äô magnetic field rapidly decayed would be consistent with a young universe in which systems break down. Magnetic fields observed in other planets are decaying at rates precisely predicted by one creation model.” I’m really not going to address this because it’s a classic YEC argument that I will address in a future blog post (though here’s a preview: It doesn’t hold up to the science!).

Final Thoughts

I think I got through that without too much name-calling. Rather, I question Brian’s sincerity. Obviously he is writing for a Young-Earth Creationist think-tank, the Institute for Creation Research. So obviously his stories will have a slant or bias towards that cause. But there’s such a thing as professional ethics, a code of conduct, or just basically telling the whole truth. As I’ve pointed out, at least for this story (and in past ones in other posts), Brian does not do this. In his skewed perspective, he omits information, goes out and finds cases of fringe ideas to point out how a non-God approach seems “out there,” resorts to many different logical fallacies, and just plain gets the science wrong either deliberately (which should violate the ethics laid down by his God) or through profound ignorance about what he’s writing (which would – or should – doom anyone in pretty much any other job). Perhaps now you may understand why I was frustrated more than usual when reading this article.

As for the actual science content, I really have nothing left to say. He’s just wrong pretty much on every count. Case closed.

September 4, 2008

Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System

Filed under: comets,creationism — Stuart Robbins @ 4:47 am
Tags: , , ,

This post is in regards to the Institute for Creation Research’s February 4, 2006 program about Comets. ¬†You can listen to the audio¬†here.

The beginning of this program is actually fairly decent, talking about how comets are “dirty icebergs” that orbit the Sun, and when they get too close, they begin to lose material because the Sun’s heat and wind both melt and erode material from its surface. ¬†I don’t know precisely if the number “5%” of it gets removed, but that’s not a huge issue for me (is for them, and I’ll explain why).

The first real mistake in this piece comes at about 2 min 30 seconds in. ¬†The host makes the point that, “Since matter is being stripped away from comets, how long do they survive in the solar system?” ¬†Their expert, Dr. Falkner (not sure on that spelling), replies that most comets are only a few miles across and that each time they come close to the Sun, they may “lose a few feet off of that size.”

This contradicts what they said above about the 5% number. ¬†Let’s say for argument that a comet is 1 mile in diameter (probably fairly small). ¬†And a “few feet” amounts to a generous 10 feet. ¬†If it loses 10 feet off its diameter every pass, it would need to go through about 528 passes of the Sun to¬†disintegrate … not after “probably maybe 100 trips around the Sun it eventually dissipates.” ¬†If comets have orbits of 100 years (as they then generalize), then that’s nearly 53,000 years! ¬†NOT 10,000 years.

Then let’s examine the claim of 5%. ¬†If a comet is again 1 mile in diameter, then it doesn’t simply have to approach the Sun 20 times (20*5 = 100) to die off. ¬†5% is multiplicative. ¬†So the first pass it would have 95% of its original material, but the next pass would reduce it to 90.25% of its original material (0.95*(1-0.5)). ¬†This continues iteratively. ¬†So the third pass would leave it with 85.7375% (0.9025*(1-0.05)), and so on.

But this is again a huge over-generalization, but they use it to say it’s evidence for recent creation. ¬†Well, yes, IF¬†you assume that all comets started orbiting the Sun on orbits that took them close to the Sun when the solar system was formed, IF¬†you assume that all comets have 100-year orbits, IF¬†you assume that all comets are only 1 mile in diameter and lose a few feet or 5% (which are NOT equivalent) of material after every orbit, then sure, this may be evidence for a recent creation. ¬†But this is NOT the case.

And it’s not even the biggest mistake they make. ¬†The host then says that, “Many evolutionists answer this question by hypothesizing that a large cloud of orbiting comets (dirty snowballs) exists in the outer reaches of the solar system.” ¬†So there’s the association fallacy at work, I’m an “evolutionist” and therefore I’m wrong about other things simply by that association.

Well this claim that that’s what astronomers believe is mostly true. ¬†They are referring specifically to the Oort Cloud, a very large (2-light-year-radius) cloud of comets that is believed to contain trillions of bodies in the outer reaches of the solar system, extending half-way to the nearest star (4.3 light-years away). ¬†It is believed to be the source of long-period comets (comets that have a “year” of more than 250 Earth-years). ¬†But there’s another region of comets interior to the Oort Cloud that starts just outside Neptune – the Kuiper Belt. ¬†This is another region of space believed to have billions of comets that is the source for short-period comets (those with years less than 250 Earth years). ¬†The Kuiper Belt was first observed in 1992 (when the first object was discovered in it). ¬†The Oort Cloud remains the subject of theory simply because the objects in it are so far away and so small that they are too faint to be detected with current technology. ¬†But it is still a falsifiable theory.

Now that you have a brief understanding for what these are, on with the ICR claims (at about 4 min in): ¬†[host] “However, there is a small problem with the Oort Cloud Theory.” ¬†[scientist] “All this sounds very complicated, but the bottom line is nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud. ¬†We see what looks like an Oort Cloud around other systems, but we don’t see it in our own¬†vicinity. ¬†So I have my doubts that it exists …” [emphasis mine]

So let’s think about this for a bit. ¬†“Nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud … so I have my doubts that it exists.” ¬†Alright. ¬†No one’s ever seen gravity, but we see its effects. ¬†No one has ever seen a crater form on a planetary surface, but we have a very good idea of how it happens and we can model it. ¬†No one has ever seen a star explode (this is a good thing) but we have good models that make predictions about what we should see after they explode, which have been observed.

The Oort Cloud is hypothetical, and it is not possible to actually observe it with our technology.  But, it is the best science-based explanation for long-period comets.  The Kuiper Belt was hypothetical, but it was later verified and we have now cataloged many hundreds of members of it.

And they even miss the point that even if the Oort Cloud does NOT exist, then (a) there’s no source for long-period comets, but (b) it STILL¬†does not mean that the solar system was created 10000 years ago or less. ¬†That’s because it’s actually fairly few comets that enter the inner solar system at any given time, the Belt has to be perturbed by a passing object to knock a comet into the inner solar system. ¬†That takes time. ¬†And so any object in the Kuiper Belt today could get knocked into an orbit that takes it close to the Sun and makes it a comet to us. ¬†That starts the clock on that particular comet at 0. ¬†So the fact that we still see comets today says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING¬†about the solar system having been created recently.


The creation scientist then goes on to talk about some other stuff, but around 5 min 30 sec basically sums up the point of the broadcast episode: ¬†“Comets are fragile. ¬†During their orbits around the Sun, they shrink, or melt, some occasionally hit the Sun or Jupiter, and some comets leave the solar system all together. ¬†Yet, there’s the continued presence today of hundreds of known comets … each and every comet is a witness to a supernatural, created solar system that is just thousands of years old, not billions.”

As I have hopefully convincingly shown, this is simply not true.  It is based on gross generalizations, assumptions, and outright disregard for the consensus of the structure of the solar system.

But, it’s difficult to argue with faith, when the announcer says (8 min 30 sec): ¬†“As creationists, we know that comets, along with the rest of the Universe, were made by God on Day 4 of Creation Week.”

This is why I am not trying to convince you that creationism is or is not true.  I am simply illustrating that the scientific claims that creationism makes are flawed, not true, or outright denials of evidence.

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