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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August 24, 2011

Eroding Continents, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, and Young-Earth Creationism


Introduction

Recently, I’ve done a lot of posts on young-Earth creationism (YEC), and the majority of those have been based on the Institute for Creation Research’s daily “science” updates (or as the Eye on ICR blog calls them, “daily pseudoscience updates” or “DpSU”). As such, when yet another geology-related one came out this week, I was going to ignore it. Especially because said Eye on ICR blog already covered it (don’t you have homework, Peter?).

But then I read this particular “DpSU” again, entitled “Continents Should Have Eroded Long Ago,” and I decided that, actually, there was something I wanted to cover from it.

The Obligatory Summary and Wrongness of the ICR Article

I do have to briefly summarize these points before I get to the larger issue I wanted to address. Basically, in said article, the “science” writer Brian Thomas talks about a recent paper that estimates the rate of erosion of continental crust material. The paper, by Eric Portenga and Paul Bierman, is freely available for anyone to read and it is in a legitimate publication (as in it’s not something like the “Answers Research Journal” or “Creation Science” or “Origins”).

The paper itself is actually somewhat interesting. It’s about 7 pages long, has big pretty full-color images, and may be somewhat understandable to someone without any background in the field (I do apologize, but even though I swore I never would, I do lose track of how much background the general public has in these areas). I should also note that this paper is a metanalysis of previously published data, so the authors themselves did not go into the field but rather pulled a lot (1599) numbers from the literature. The paper was really comparing two different erosion rates, that of rock outcrops to those of basins. To quote the very first page, they found “Drainage basin and outcrop erosion rates both vary by climate zone, rock type, and tectonic setting.”

But, they calculated an average erosion rate of 12±1.3 meters per million years (or 12±1.3 micrometers per year) though the median was 5.4 µm/yr. This large difference of a factor of ~2x between the average and median (median is the middle number of a sorted list) indicates that the data are highly skewed towards lower erosion rates. They found erosion rates within drainage basins to be about a factor of 20x larger with a 218±35 meters per million years (218±35 µm/yr) average, or 54 µm/yr for the median (again indicating a skew towards slower rates). They then discuss variations in different locations, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and have more discussion in the paper than I want to put here.

So, that’s what the authors of the paper found.

Where Mr. Thomas comes in is the following: “According to the study, the average erosion rate for outcrops was 40 feet every one million years. The average thickness of continental crust above sea level can be estimated at about 623 meters, or 2,044 feet. To erode 2,000 feet of crust at 40 feet per one million years would require only 50 million years. So, if the earth is billions of years old, why is its surface not completely flat?” He does the same with basins and claims that this puts a limit at 3 million years.

He then shoots down the idea that geologic uplift is happening with a 1986 paper by a creationist in a creationist publication and then states, “The fact that mountains and even continents still exist is testimony to the young age of the earth. It looks as though the continents cannot be billions of years old, because they would all have eroded in a fraction of that time. And yet they still stand tall.”

Well, one problem with this is simply that, even if we assume everything he wrote is true, we could still easily have a million-year-old planet, no problem, not a 10,000-year-old one.

Another problem is simply that he’s wrong wrong wrong. Did I mention he’s wrong? He ignores things like isostasy where regions of continents are still moving upwards from the last ice age. He ignores volcanism and how volcanoes build mountains (do I really have to cite a source for that?). He ignores that fact that non-volcanic mountain ranges are still growing, where, for example, the Himalayans are growing at a rate of about 6 cm/yr (2.4 inches/year). For those who are really really bad at math, 6 cm/yr is much larger than 5 µm/yr — larger by a factor of 12,000. More than enough to keep up with erosion.

Now, I really don’t think I have to go much further in showing the sheer willful ignorance of Mr. Thomas on this topic. But this feeds into a much larger one that is near and dear to every YEC’s God-given heart.

Uniformitarianism versus Catastrophism

I can almost guarantee that you will never hear the terms “uniformitarianism” nor “catastrophism” unless you pay attention to creationist writings or you delve very deep into the history of philosophy of science or, specifically, geology.

Over-simplified, uniformitarianism is the notion that all processes that exist now are the same as they have been. Creationists assume this when they say the Moon cannot have formed 4.5 billion years ago because it is currently moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1 inch per year and if you run the numbers backwards (assuming uniformitarianism), then it crashes into Earth way before 4.5 billion years ago.

In contrast, catastrophism is the opposite, where rates of change will change, sometimes being faster and sometimes slower.

What I find fascinating is that YECs will use catastrophism to explain practically everything in their view of natural history. God stretched out the heavens so we get away from the “distant starlight problem.” God made the world and all that stuff in a day or two so we don’t have to deal with formation times of the solar system. The flood explains the Grand Canyon, sedimentary rock layers, Earth’s magnetic field reversals, and lots of other things. All fall under catastrophism.

As a consequence of this embrace, they deride us evilutionists for assuming uniformitarianism. Hence uniformitarianism is assumed with the speed of light, universal constants, radiometric dating, continental drift, etc.

And yet, when given the opportunity to take a bit of modern science and twist it to their own agenda (as in the case of this paper), they assume uniformitarianism! Thomas’ assumption that the basins would be flat within 3 million years is based on the currently observed rates. Same with the continents. And same with several other topics I’ve addressed in this blog over the past three years.

Final Thoughts

I realize that those of you who are not YECs are going to read the above section and think, “What do you expect? Creationists are never consistent with the facts, they distort them to suit their argument-of-the-minute.”

Fair enough. But, I find it enlightening and, yes, even slightly exciting to find yet another inconsistency in their arguments. Granted, the argument in the particular article of this post is completely wrong based on very basic geology that I think most third graders have learned (if you know about volcanoes, you know his argument is wrong). But, it also exposes this inconsistency.

When it suits them, the catastrophic Flood explains everything we can throw. But when it suits them, they take a modern scientific measurement, assume a dramatically flat uniformitarian extrapolation, and hence show that Earth can’t be as old as it is.

Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve pointed out formal logical fallacies, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are two basic ones here. The first is a reductio ad absurdum where he’s reduced the study’s results far beyond what the authors intended. The second would be a basic straw man where, as a consequence of reducing the study to something stupid, they’re extrapolating it to argue a point that is obviously false but was never intended to be made.

Edited to Add …

I can’t believe I left this out, that that plucky guy over at Eye on ICR pointed it out quite well: The paper that Mr. Thomas is pulling the latest erosion estimates from relied upon 10Be-based ages. It’s not important to go into the mechanics for this particular method here, suffice to say this is a radiometric-based age. But, wait a sec, creationists – including Mr. Thomas – very frequently argue against radiometric ages because they seem to think they don’t work! (Check out, for example, “Radiometric Dating: Making Sense of the Patterns” from AiG, “Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth” from AiG, “Feedback: Dating Techniques” from AiG, “Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable” from ICR, “The Sun Alters Radioactive Decay Rates” from ICR, “Dating in conflict: Which ‘age’ will you trust?” from CMI, or “Nuclear physicist embraces biblical creation” from CMI, if you don’t happen to believe me.)

So yeah, I guess we can believe radiometric dates when they support creationism, but otherwise they’re wrong and full of flaws. Hmm. This is actually something that I often point out when I give a public lecture on these kinds of topics, and one that I’ll be doing when I give my Apollo Moon Hoax talk in a few days: Science presents a cohesive story. Pseudoscience does not. You either have these flaws in radiometric dating that doom it (as creationists almost always argue), or you can trust the scientists to know what they’re doing and take the results from that (as Thomas is doing in this one instance). You really can’t have it both ways.

June 2, 2010

Ah, the Joys of Stepping on Someone’s Toes: Terry Nazon Redux


Introduction

A few months ago, I wrote a 2-part post about the claims of astrologer Terry Nazon and her claims about 2012. I asked a fellow blogger (Johan), one who knows much more about archaeology than I, to do a third part for the series about her archaeology claims of the Mayans. He kindly obliged and you can read all three parts here: Part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I made a point that her many claims made on her website about the astronomy of 2012 were either (a) wrong, (b) meaningless, or (c) insignificant. Johan’s point in the third part was that her information about the Maya was (a) wrong and (b) reflected a fairly ethnocentric view on her part.

My point was to conclude that she (a) doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about from an astronomy nor archaeological point of view, and (b) if what she said could be shown to be so demonstrably wrong, why should someone pay her several hundred dollars for a phone call ($330 for an hour, or $75 for an e-mail reading)?

Edited to Add: On September 18, 2012, I got an e-mail from my thesis advisor and boss that Terry was planning on suing me for various things. I have updated this post accordingly, leaving the original language but making edits with strikes to indicate deletions and underlines to indicate additions. I also note that while I filed this under “scams,” this is my opinion based on her writings, it is not a statement of legal fact.

What’s Going On

Apparently rather than defending her claims, over the past 24 hours Johan and I have been receiving much spam and angry threats to both our blogs as well as through e-mail. The e-mails were almost certainly from Ms. Nazon, sent from the Comcast IP address 75.149.179.194 in Florida, the same as her area code on her website, and from her eponymous and Comcast-based e-mail address. The comments, attempted to be posted under various names, have also come from the same IP address.

It appears also as though she is now trying to pass herself off as me, posting under the name “astrostu206265” (the ID I happened to choose when I started this blog due to a sort of “inside number” to astronomers of 206265), e-mail address “astrostu206265@yahoo.com” (which to my knowledge does not exist), and of course that IP address (75.149.179.194). She (apparently) has tried to do this on my blog and she has done this on others. I got an e-mail from The Godless Monster blog writer asking if I made the post to their blog under that IP address with the message:

“You are all a bunch of anonymous cowards who hide behind anonymous names and @anywhere emails…no one will listen to anywhos @anywhere.com s
fakes. cowards and phonies who must not believe what they write because they are ashamed to put there name and face to it…stand up cowards and be counted.”

That’s the same message she that person with that IP and that e-mail tried to post to my blog, twice. And she that person with that IP and that e-mail posted it to the comments section of “New Discoveries and Comments About Creationism” where I happened to post a comment or two.

The purpose of this post is to let fellow bloggers know – if they happen to do a search for “astrostu206265” – what’s going on, and to block that IP address and similar messages if she that person with that IP and that e-mail moves computers.

Final Thoughts

I hadn’t really planned on making this whole thing public since I didn’t want to feed it, but I did want to make a quick public statement in an attempt to separate what she’s doing from my own actions. I’m in Colorado, my IP address starts with 67.161.x. Oh, and if anyone happens to know a way to have WordPress actually spoof my handle (astrostu206265) and make it appear as my actual name, let me know, ’cause I’ve been looking for that for awhile I’ve changed my handle here so WP displays it as my name.

I also noticed that, throughout this, she still has the wrong information (and type-os) on her website. And in case she does end up fixing it, I saved a copy of the page like all the sites I talk about as evidence that I wasn’t trying to make straw man arguments. She’s also still claiming that she is, “Terry Nazon, World Famous Celebrity Astrologer.” Interesting way for one of that status to act, assuming it was her.

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.

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


Introduction

This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

December 21, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Misrepresenting Quotes, or a Position


Introduction

Following my week-long break from a 6-week series (so far) on logical fallacies, I’m going to again take a slight detour from the more formal logical fallacies and address a fallacious way of arguing a point, and that is the complete misrepresentation of a position.

What Do I Mean by the Misrepresentation?

I suppose at its core, this can be the same as quote-mining or the Straw Man or even misusing an Argument from Authority, and it can be used either to bolster or to denigrate a claim.

In effect, what I’m talking about here is when someone is trying to stake out a position (for or against something), they bring in an apparent authoritative argument or a piece of evidence, they may actually quote it properly with or without context, but then they simply misunderstand what it actually is saying.

How did I come up with this? From an episode of Coast to Coast AM that I was listening to …

Example from a Conspiratorial Standpoint, Thinking Scientists Are Holding Back Earth-Shattering Information

The context of this example is a person, Mitch Battros, an “Earth changes expert,” trying to link together the Yellowstone supervolcano, apparent Mayan prophecy, the current solar cycle (#24), and multiple universes leaking into ours.

The following is a direct quote from Mitch Battros during the fourth hour of the December 17, 2009, Coast to Coast AM radio show, starting at approximately 11 minutes into the hour:

In this article, [the scientists with the European Space Agency’s “Planck” satellite mission] say that they’re concerned about exposing too much information, that it would be overwhelming. I’ll quote: “To one’s surprise, there are astrophysicists and cosmologists who are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data, setting new paradigms, and unsettling current models.” That goes back to Mayan prophecy. The galactic alignment.

Now, within the context of the show and everything that Battros spoke about, it’s fairly obvious that he at least is presenting this in the following way: Scientists think these missions will (a) Provide lots of new data that will make their “theories” certain to (b) set new paradigms that will (c) revolutionize the way we look at the universe. Within the context of the show and his very next sentence fragments, he seems to think that means that legitimate scientists will verify his ideas.

However, as an actual scientist who is likely more familiar with (1) the way that scientists write and think, (2) the way science operates, and even (3) some of the problems facing astronomy today, I have a different take on his quote.

My take is that, first, there is a real data problem in astronomy. For example, a single instrument on a single space craft (specifically, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft) is returning images from Mars at up to a few 10s of centimeters per pixel. Each image is generally around a gigabyte in size. The instrument has been in orbit for a few years and has taken thousands of images, comprising terabytes (TB) of data. If any of you are computer folks, you’ll know that at the consumer level, we’re just now (Dec. 2009) getting hard drives out that store up to 2 TB. Now, multiply that by about 6 for the number of instruments on that craft. Multiply that by a dozen or two for the number of spacecraft out there. Multiply that out many times to include gigapixel camera arrays on world-class ground-based telescopes.

With that in mind, the phrase that scientists “are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data” takes on a much less sinister and conspiratorial mentality. Figuring out how to store the data and then how to retrieve (from searching) that data is a real problem these days.

Now let’s look at the next two parts – new data creating new paradigms and unsettling current models. Again – and I say “again” because I’ve said this many times in this blog – this is the whole point of science. With new, high-quality data when testing models of very cutting-edge physics, you are almost always going to cause a paradigm shift, be it simply being able to rule out one model from another (a paradigm shift) or having good, reproducible, high-quality data that does not fit with any of the current models, forcing them to be “unsettled” and for a new model to take its place.

Hence, by misrepresenting what someone likely meant, they have used a fallacious form of arguing — their premise or apparent evidence from that quote is useless as it does not actually mean what they think.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common method of arguing AND it is difficult to identify if you do not actually know the field well. It is VERY often used by young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (see my post on Casey Luskin’s ignorance about library books), but everyone can fall into the trap, whether knowingly (in which case it’s no longer a fallacy other than plain ol’ lying) or unknowingly.

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.

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.

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