Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 2, 2014

Because Volcanoes Can Form Quickly Means … Jesus and Young Earth?


Introduction

I have a vast number of young-Earth creationism articles to write about, but this one, just put out by creation.com, will be quick.

Background

I remember learning about the Volcán de Parícutin in grade school: In 1943, a Mexican farmer was in his field and suddenly a fissure opened and a volcano literally rose to over 100 meters high over the next few days, destroying the field and neighboring villages (the villages of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro).

It was a story that I believed unquestioningly (as many children do), but then wondered if it was real later on, and then looked up the details.

In the first year, the volcano grew to 336 meters (1102 ft), and by 1952, it reached a final height of 424 meters (1391 ft) and has been dormant since. It likely was formed from a small branch of a much larger volcanic feature and magma chamber, and that branch has likely collapsed and the volcán will never erupt again.

Therefore Recent Creation

The entire thrust of Jonathan O’Brien’s article is that because this volcano formed in the space of a few years, it means that everything on Earth can form in just a few years and you don’t need “millions of years” (there’s an entire section of the article called “Millions of years not needed”) to form geologic features:

They assert that most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form. Yet we know from actual eyewitness testimony that Mount Parícutin took only 9 years to form, from beginning to extinction, with most of its growth having occurred in the first year. With much larger forces at work in the earth’s crust, as occurred during the terrible year of the global Flood, even the largest geographical features we see in the world today would have formed in months, weeks or even days.

Straw Man and Technique Misuse

This is a straw man. Geologists don’t claim that “most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form,” at least not the way that Mr. O’Brien is implying. Non-volcanic mountains? Yes. Some volcanoes? Yes. The Hawai’ian island chain? Yes.

But geologists have various ways of estimating how long different processes take. One way for volcanoes is to look at the layers of material and the kinds of plants and/or animals trapped within them. Another way is radiometric dating, such as Rb/Sr dating. With a half-life on the order of 50 billion years for rubidium-87, that means the technique is only usable on features that are 10s to 100s of thousands of years old, at a minimum, with current laboratory techniques.

I mention this because of the feedback to the article … of the five comments, four of them are mocking radiometric dating, along the lines of “Nic G.” from Australia: “Has any radiometric dating been carried out at the site? That’d make for some confronting results.”

This is a common tactic of creationists who try to show that radiometric dating methods are flawed: Misusing a technique with known constraints, and going outside those constraints. The most famous example (probably) is that of Mt. St. Helens, where a creationist got a sample of rock from the 1986 eruption and sent it to a lab and got ages of 340,000 to 2,800,000 years.

Final Thoughts

What’s somewhat reassuring is that I’ve addressed all this kind of stuff before on this blog. This is reassuring because it shows that there really are very, very few “new” arguments for young-Earth creationism, that they stick to a set script of explanations that have been debunked an innumerable amount of times in more ways than you can think of. Perhaps that’s the price for placing your belief system on text from 1500-5000 years ago that refuses to be updated.

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April 30, 2010

What’s a Theory? Dictionary versus Science


This is a short post so I’m going to dispense with the normal “Intro” and “Final Thoughts” sections. Back in December 2008 in one of my first posts, I talked about what a scientist means by “Theory” because it’s very different from the general public. The post is reasonably well-used with over 2,300 views (averaging somewhere around 5/day) and it gets a fair amount of hits from Google under the “define: [word]” category of searches.

The crux of that post was that the word “theory” in popular use is simply “vague idea of something” as opposed to the use by scientists being, “This has been elevated to the highest level of certainty possible in science, withstanding hundreds or thousands of attempts to disprove it.”

Recently, though, I’ve been seeing some blog posts and some posts on creationist sites that disagree with this, trying to back up a very fallacious idea that “theory” in science means what the general public uses it for. Unfortunately, when I decided to write this post, I could not readily locate an example, and for that I apologize. But I promise you that unless I was having some very realistic dreams across multiple nights, this is not a straw man argument.

However, the arguments that I have read generally go as follows: “Scientists claim that you can’t say ‘Evolution is JUST a Theory’ because ‘theory’ to them means the pinnacle of scientific certainty. However, the [insert definition number] in the [insert your favorite dictionary] says that ‘theory’ means ‘a supposition’ [or similar language]. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that evolution is just a theory or the Big Bang is just a theory.”

To say that this is a ridiculous argument is an understatement. It’s exactly what the British Chiropractor Association did to Simon Singh recently. Bot for those of you who don’t know that whole story, let’s have a different example: Sally says, “The star Sirius was really bright last night before it set.” Johnny knows that the word “star” can mean both a famous person (as in “movie star”) or a celestial object that is a giant ball of gas that when alive produces energy through fusion. Despite the context, Johnny chooses to think that Sally meant the up-and-coming movie star with the stage name “Sirius.” Admittedly, like many of my examples, this is a bit contrived, but it is pretty much the same thing.

So, in summary, it doesn’t matter what definitions 1-4 say a word means. In science, the word “theory” has a very set definition. Claiming that scientists mean something else when using it and trying to argue that the dictionary is proof of this is simply absurd, and in itself is a straw man argument.

November 19, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Straw Man Argument


Introduction

In my ongoing series about logical fallacy types, the discussion this time is about the “Straw Man.”

What is the “Straw Man” Fallacy?

In a nutshell, a “Straw Man” is an argument against a claim that was never made. An extreme case would be that someone claims, “The sky is blue,” and then the person who argues against it says that that person actually said, “The sky is green” and chose to argue against the sky being green.

Example from Creationism

As seems to be the case so far, my example from Creationism of this claim is the origin of the universe. Cosmologists argue that the Big Bang was the first thing that happened in our universe. From this event, everything that we know originated. Cosmologists do not know how the Big Bang happened/occurred/originated, but there are several different hypotheses that are being worked on (bubble universes, brane theory, etc.). For two sentences, that’s a fair description of the state of things.

However, what you will often see creationists argue is that we came from “Nothing.” Yep, the common claim is that, “Nothing happened to create something which created us.” They then go through hoops to effectively say, “Well isn’t that silly,” or, “Isn’t that the same thing as God created everything?”

But, what the creationist argument really is, is simply a Straw Man — they are taking something that astronomers never claimed and then arguing against it. This is done usually because either (a) they don’t actually understand the claim and hence the difference between it and what they argue, or (b) because they are purposely trying to make the original claim or claimant appear foolish.

Final Thoughts

Straw Man arguments are usually fairly easy to pick out if the incorrect argument is actually stated. To use my original contrived example of the color of the sky, if the second person does not explicitly state something to the effect of, “Well if the sky is green …” to indicate that is what they are arguing against, it can be a little tricky. That’s because you will have to pay careful attention to how and what they argue in order to see what they are actually arguing against.

November 12, 2008

Misconception: Big Bang Describes the Formation of the Universe


Introduction

One argument that many creationists use to say that God exists is that something must have started the Big Bang (if they even accept that the Big Bang occurred). Or, they claim that the Big Bang is too unlikely to have occurred.

But, besides creationists, many people have the misconception that the Big Bang is what astronomers and physicists say started the Universe, forming it and bringing it to what it is today.

Most of that is a misconception.

What’s The Deal?

What’s really going on is that the Big Bang is a theory (theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory) that mathematically describes what happened almost immediately after the Universe came into existence. It is the best theory that fits with observational evidence.

That “almost immediately” is known as the “Planck Time,” which is equivalent to about 5×10-44 seconds. This is the time it takes light to travel a “Planck Length,” which is equivalent to about 2×10-35 meters. In other words, this is a very small amount of time, but due to some very complicated mathematics that gives me a headache, our current understanding of physics says that we cannot know what happened before the universe was 1 Planck Time old.

And, the Big Bang does not try to describe that. What the Big Bang describes is how the the Universe grew and changed after 1 Planck Time, such as the separation of the four fundamental forces of nature, the creation of matter, and so-forth — you know, the little things.

It is generally believed that, based on what we can describe after 1 Planck Time, that the Universe was, at time=0, an infinitesimal point of infinite density that was an explosion of space and time into our present-day Universe. But, that extrapolation is not a formal part of the Big Bang Theory.

So What?

You may ask why I’ve decided to devote a post to this – admittedly – seemingly minor point. The reason is that, first off, it’s a misconception that’s out there and I want to set the record straight.

But the second reason is that it means that creationist arguments that say the Big Bang doesn’t say what started the Universe, or how it started the Universe means that scientists just don’t know and they’re afraid to say, “God Did It.” They also attack the Big Bang because it seems to take God out of the picture.

What they’re actually doing is making a Straw Man fallacy – they are setting up a false argument and tearing that down rather than focus on what science really says. This is similar to the following situation: I decide to throw a ball up in the air. It goes up, following a parabolic arc, and comes back down to my hand. Physics has an exact description of the shape of that trajectory and the time it takes. But, physics says nothing about why I decided to throw the ball up in the air.

Creationists, in this analogy, would try to argue that physics doesn’t properly describe how I threw the ball in the air, or why I threw it. They are simply arguing against something that that particular theory never set out to describe.

This is much like evolution: Creationists claim that evolution can’t explain the origin of life. But evolution doesn’t try to explain the origin of life, merely what happened to that life once it formed. Same types of arguments, same fallacy.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you readers who are at least dedicated to learning about science now have a little more understanding about the nature of the Big Bang Theory, what it actually does describe, and what it does not. The next time you hear someone equate “formation of the Universe” with “Big Bang,” you will know that actually they are not quite the same thing.

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