Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to choose your religion scientifically.

This is from several places, via OnePissedOffVet. Go there and look at all the links...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Good science" vs. "Bad science"

I have written before about the scientific method, but I’ll give a quick little summary here, for all you humanities majors out there.

You start with a set of what should be undisputable facts or observations. “See, that big barn over there on my neighbor’s property? It’s red. Right?” It’s something that everyone can, or should be able to, readily agree to. Then you start asking, “Well, how did it come to be red?” You might start making a hypothesis that explains your questions about whatever it is that you have observed. “See that guy over there? He’s my neighbor. It’s his barn. He probably just got finished painting it that color.” Of course, you don’t know for certain that your neighbor just painted the barn. However, there are all sorts of clues that your supposition might be a true one. That’s your theory. You just have to go about figuring out if your theory is valid or not, such that other people armed with the same starting point and facts as you will come up with the same conclusion. You are out to give validity to your theory.

The reason I said “give validity to” instead of “proving” is that the term “proof” implies absolute certainty in something. Many times in science, there will never be 100% certainty of something. However, if you can get your theory in good enough shape that your peers agree with your conclusion and no one can really come up with either 1) major points your theory doesn’t address or ) a better alternative, then people start using the word “proof.”

Anyway, to get back to my red barn analogy… There may be a number of ways you might go about trying to figure out if your neighbor painted his barn red. For instance, you could ask him. If he says “Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with that?”, then your work is pretty much at an end. Unless, of course, someone calls your neighbor a liar or, even better, comes up and declares, “No, I painted the barn! Don’t listen to that man!” Then you are kind of stuck. You now have two competing conclusions that cannot simultaneously both be true. You now need some additional input about why your original theory might be the correct one.

Say you observe that your neighbor is holding an open can of red paint. Additionally, he is also holding a paint brush full of wet red paint, his pants and shirt are all covered in very wet paint, and there are red footprints leading from the barn directly to where he is standing. This is getting very close to becoming your “proof.” You have convinced yourself, your wife and anyone else who will listen. However, those people may not actually know anything about painting. Or barns. Or perhaps they just don’t really care one way or the other.

Therefore, the next thing you need to do is get your peers (those who DO care about painting, barns and painting barns red) to agree with your conclusions about why that barn is red. You may go speak at a conference specializing in barn construction and circulate a paper you wrote on the subject of your neighbor and his barn. You might write an article for “Barns Monthly” magazine and “The Journal of National Association of Animal Husbandry Buildings”. Those, of course, are the most widely read publications for those who care about such things. Your peers read your article and most come to an agreement that, yes, you are correct in your starting point (it is indeed a barn and it is red) and how it got that way. Yes! You have triumphed! You are the King of the World! Fame and a lucrative speaking career beckon.

However, the next month, you might receive a letter from one of your rivals. He puts forward an alternative hypothesis. “No, the barn is red because the local lumber company, five miles down the road from your neighbor’s barn, is selling barn siding that is already painted red. Your neighbor bought his lumber there. I have a copy of his receipt.”

Your first reaction is, of course, “Oh, crap!” Your finely crafted case about how your neighbor’s barn came to be red is about to come crashing down around your ears. Utter humiliation awaits. Your wife isn’t speaking to you and your dog bit your hand when you tried to pet him. You must do something to rectify this terrible situation. Immediately, if not sooner.

So, it appears obvious that your theory needs to evolve to take these new facts, which are not really open to dispute (sale on red lumber, copy of the sales receipt) into account. Aha! You have it! Yes, your neighbor bought lumber already painted red, but he didn’t use it to build his barn! He used it to build a garage instead! Your original hypothesis is still sound! How else do you explain the wet, red paintbrush, the open can of paint and the footprints?

And so it goes. The reason I went on at such length about such a seemingly trivial and/or stupid scenario is that I wanted to put what really happens during the scientific method into a concept that non-scientists could easily understand. Even with its dramatic oversimplifications and stupid analogies, the scenario above gives an approximation about how the scientific method actually works. To repeat, this is how my “good science” of my title works. It doesn’t matter what kind of answer you get. It’s the process that matters! Start with facts. Make a hypothesis that fits the facts and answers all open questions. Peer reviews. Continually adjust your hypothesis whenever new facts come to light or when someone points out where your logic is not sound.

Here are the points I want to highlight. There are rarely absolute proofs to anything. You might have a model of understanding that comes very, very close to answering all the open questions about some phenomena. Maybe not all questions, but your theory works very well. Or maybe, your theory does indeed answer all open questions, until the day that someone either asks a new question that no one has ever thought of before, or perhaps some new facts or observations are uncovered that now cast some doubt on your hypothesis.

A very good and very understandable example of this is of Newtonian physics. You remember Sir Isaac Newton, don’t you? The chap who got bonked on the head with the apple? Described his theory of universal gravitation? One of the most influential scientists and mathematicians to have ever lived? Yeah, him. His theories worked incredibly well to describe how gravity affects our world. You could use it to set the elevation of your cannon so that your cannonball hits the enemy over across the valley. Terribly useful stuff. Newtonian physics ruled the day.

However, when one gets looking closer, it appears that Newtonian physics doesn’t exactly predict the motion really big things, like planets, when you start examining it in detail. Surprise! It turned out that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. It didn’t predict everything that it should. And the closer that people starting examining the facts and data, the more it appeared that there were some major shortcomings into his theories. Enter Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the floodgates were opened.

I don’t want to get into a history lesson about classical vs. modern physics. That would be pretty tedious. My point is that Newtonian physics was never The One True Answer. Oh, you got very good predictions about how everyday objects react. But it was never more than an approximation. At the scale we cared about, those approximations did not matter. You never saw the errors because they were so small. Now, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and cosmologists are getting into some very, very strange and disturbing theories about the universe. They are nowhere near the classical Newtonian physics. However, Newtonian physics still predicts some things, like that apple or that cannon shot, extremely well. So, was Newton’s theory wrong? Or right?

I apologize about how long it has taken me to reach this point, but I am now getting to what I really wanted to discuss. This is what really upsets me when I hear religious fundamentalists or ideologue conservatives talk about something like evolution or global warming in absolute terms. They obviously do not understand the scientific method. They just do not. There are very, very few absolutes. Black/white answers are sometimes only aren’t possible; they are also a pipe dream. And something you may be absolutely certain about one day can crumble right before your eyes with the introduction of a new set of data. That does not mean you were totally incorrect! That just means you need to go back to the drawing board. Your theory may need just a tweak, or it may need to be totally scrapped. You don’t know until you start digging into it, armed with your newly acquired facts and data.

The one “criticism” that I hear about the theory of evolution is “It’s only a theory!” Of course it’s only a theory! Jeez. That’s a really, really dumb thing to say. So is the theory of gravity. Do you disagree that gravity exists? Of course not. But the explanation we currently have as to why gravity exists is incomplete. Those scientists and mathematicians who work out on the esoteric edges of their fields may feel they are getting close to having an answer (hint: it’s called M Theory and involves a universe made up of eleven dimensions), but they are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot of the answers already worked out. “It’s only a theory!” is not a valid criticism! That’s how the process works! Anthropologists, geneticists and researchers in many other fields agree that evolution is a fact. They just cannot explain every aspect. There are still many unanswered questions. So what? That does not mean that the entire concept is wrong! It just means it is still a work in progress.

Another problem that seems to occur in today’s society is that we demand everything be “dumbed down” to the point that every single person feels that they must be able to understand something before they will admit it to be true. If they can’t understand it, then, by definition, it isn’t true. What hogwash. Experts in a field are experts for a reason; they know more than you do about something! That’s what makes them an expert! There is a reason it takes eight years plus to get through college and earn a Ph.D. in something. It’s complex! It’s difficult! Their conclusions do have more validity than yours do! You probably don’t know jack about the subject, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter.

Yet another problem is that many people seem to feel that they are free to disagree with a scientific conclusion if it doesn’t support their already set-in-concrete opinions. If science doesn’t come to the conclusion that they wanted it to, then it becomes “bad science.” The Earth’s climate is actually getting warmer, and the activities of mankind are a major contributing factor. The Earth is much, much older than 6000 years. Evolution in living things does indeed occur. Earth is not at the center of the universe, nor does the sun revolve around the Earth. On and on… Many people throughout history have taken a very dim view of scientific conclusions that are at odds with a position in which they have a vested interest (e.g., the Church, Galileo, and is the Earth at the center of the universe or not?). The scientific method does not care if you have just had the rug jerked out from beneath your feet. That's too bad, but that is your problem, not science's. Deal with it.

It does not matter to the scientific method what the answer turns out to be. You cannot dictate your preferred answers to the scientific method. That’s dishonest and manipulative. You must start with the question, make a hypothesis and then end up with a convincing answer! You cannot start with the answer first! Nor can you object to the facts and observations that the scientific method started from. The barn really is red. It is not green. To say otherwise is false and it makes the holder of such views look like an idiot. That is what bad science is; it is not science that doesn’t give you the answer you wanted.

In the last 25 years--but it has really picked up speed in the last 10 years--our society has devalued science and the answers it can provide. Sometimes we may not like the answer. That doesn’t mean science is somehow wrong or bad. It just means that we should probably either adjust our way of thinking or possibly do something to change the outcome that the scientific method is predicting. That might be anything from cutting the emissions of greenhouse gasses significantly to perhaps realizing that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the existence of God.

What we have now is a society that values opinions more than answers reached by the scientific method. And, the current thinking goes, the more fervently you believe in something, the better chance it has of being true. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. That is the way that civilizations collapse. They cannot cope with the reality that will ultimately come crashing down on their/our collective heads.

Photo from here.

Cross-posted at Barking Rabbits and MadMike'sAmerica.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“If the Earth is only 6000 years old, then why…?” Question number 43.

I am continually amazed at the number of people who insist, for no other reason that the Bible implies that Adam showed up on the Earth about the same time it was created, that the Earth is relatively young. In fact, most fundamentalists insist they know the age of the Earth is approximately 6000 years old. Why do they know this? From Starryskies:

The Judeo-Christian belief that the Earth was 6000 years old is still argued by some fundamentalists though they are a tiny minority. They steadfastly base their beliefs on the fact that the Old Testament in their bible is an accurate and literal history of the world. This belief was given a boost in 1642 by John Lightfoot, a distinguished Greek scholar and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University who got very specific and said that the moment of creation was 9:00 AM, September 17th, 3928 BC. It’s hazy just how he arrived at this figure but it had something to do with adding up all those "begats" in the ancestries of people mentioned.

And that is how fundamentalists are absolutely certain the Earth is 6000 years old. Because someone in the 17th century (which is nowhere near Biblical times) calculated the number of people “begat-ing” other people in the Book of Genesis and then did a little math. Genesis helpfully gives the age of the people involved (Enos lived to the ripe old age of 90, and apparently Kenan lived to be an astounding nine hundred and ten years old), so that M. Lightfoot could add up the numbers and come up with a number close to 6000 years. And that is reason enough, in logic of most fundamentalists, to disregard all scientific findings from a multitude of scientific fields that concludes the Earth is over a billion years old.

Here is the question I wanted to pose. I just felt like doing a little setup about where this premise of a 6000 year old Earth is actually coming from. This is a very easy-to-understand thought experiment that doesn’t even require any of that pesky scientific logic that fundamentalists look down their noses at. Look at the pictures that accompany this post. They show (in the following order) the surfaces of the Earth’s moon, the planet Mercury and Callisto, a moon of Jupiter. Each of these bodies inhabits a distinctly different area of our solar system. What is the obvious similarity between these bodies?

The answer is each of these bodies is heavily cratered. If you look closely, you can see areas of craters within other craters that are within even older craters. Each of these craters represents a huge impact from an incoming object that struck the surface of the moon/planet sometime in its distant past. Now, how many years might it have taken to have each of these bodies to be struck by so many objects that the craters cover every square mile of the moon’s/planet’s surface (that hasn’t been resurfaced by some geologic activity)? We can’t know for certain. But, for the sake of comparison, how many of these collisions do we see today? Well, we know of three such events since mankind has had the technology that would enable us to see them; Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July of 1994 and another comet or asteroid in July of 2009, both impacting the planet Jupiter and the Tunguska event in Russia in 1908. July seems to be a very bad month for Jupiter.

In the celestial, non-fundamentalist time frame, that is a very short slice of time. However, in the 6000 year fundamentalist time frame, 100 years is getting to be a significant percentage. Three known impacts per 100 years isn't that much, certainly not enough to account for the massive amount of cratering we see on a majority of the planets and moons that have surfaces that are not being continually eroded or refreshed. However, three known impacts per 100 years seems to indicate that there are still lots of objects out in our solar system, just waiting for their chance to plaster the planets and their moons. However, even at that rate of three or four impacts somewhere in our solar system every 25 years, that still would indicate that these bodies have been around a lot longer than 6000 years in order to build up the very impressive scar tissue indicative of small, large and huge impacts from comets, asteroids and meteors. 6000 years does not seem nearly enough time, especially since material such as the Bible itself does not mention anything about King David and his impressive army dodging incoming meteors. If the Bible is the only source of ancient history that can be trusted (apparently), then all those impacts from other-worldly intruders must have happened before mankind showed up and could see such events with our own eyes. Because, if those impacts happened, they surely would have been talked about somewhere in the Bible, correct?

Now, as an added argument, what is missing from the Earth that these other bodies have? The same craters; they are, for the most part, nowhere to be found on the surface of the Earth. There are a few exceptions, such as Meteor Crater in Arizona. So, what happened to the evidence of the rest of the impacts that the Earth must have sustained during its early life? They were obliterated due to natural erosion and constant resurfacing that the Earth’s surface continually undergoes. How long must that have taken, to get rid of all visual evidence of the craters that must have been here? Quite some time, given how “fresh” Meteor Crater appears to be. I suppose, if you do support the notion that God created the entire universe, that He also could have somehow “protected” the Earth from such impacts, such that there never were any craters, while our nearby Moon got continually pounded. But then, Meteor Crater and the Tunguska object become problematic. God apparently didn’t do a terribly thorough job of protecting the Earth.

(It occurs to me that someone, I suppose, could argue that The Great Flood wiped away all traces of meteor and comet impacts from the surface of the Earth. Fundamentalists use The Flood to explain quite a lot of things, such as why there are fossils of fishes and other sea creatures that are found high in the mountains, quite a distance away from any body of water. Given that leap, it's plausible that someone could make the same claim regarding the non-existence of impact craters on the Earth. However, there is still that pesky point that the Bible doesn't mention anything about these impacts. And, according to these 6000-year-old-Earthers, the Bible is the one and only source of true information.)

With this (hopefully) easy-to-understand thought experiment, it seems more than obvious that the solar system is much, much older than 6000 years.

So, my question to those believing that the Earth is around 6000 years old is the following. Why is someone in the 17th Century counting up the “begats” of all the Biblical characters and using their sometimes unbelievable ages to calculate the age of the Earth more compelling than using your eyes and your mind to come to an obvious and immediate conclusion that the age of our solar system, and therefore our own Earth, is very ancient? Please enlighten me. I am all ears.

Picture of the moon’s surface from

Picture of Jupiter’s moon, Callisto, from

Picture of Mercury from

Cross-posted at MadMike'sAmerica.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How important is the human species, really?

This is a newly released photo of galaxy cluster Abell 370 taken by the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is, at this point in time, one of the greatest achievements of human history. The science and technology behind this instrument is astounding, and that isn’t even saying anything about the discoveries that have been aided by the existence of the Hubble.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I just want to speculate a bit about the role of human beings in the Grand Scheme of Things.

Take a close look at that photograph. Most of the objects captured in this extraordinary image are not stars. They are galaxies, similar to our own Milky Way. I would estimate there are anywhere from one hundred to three hundred galaxies show in that photo. That photo represents one very small fraction of the entire sky. There are literally billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions. In turn, each galaxy is made up of anywhere from as few as several million stars (such as globular clusters) to tens of billions of stars. It takes light about 150,000 years, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to travel from one side of the rim of a typical galaxy like ours to the opposite side.

Now let's take a look at our smaller, more understandable solar system, where we are talking about a single star out of the literally trillions of stars that currently exist. It takes light around eight and one third minutes to travel the 93 million miles from our sun to the Earth. Probes sent to the outer planets, although they usually take a very circuitous route to take advantage of gravity assists, take years to get from Earth wherever they are going. This demonstrates that even our local neighborhood, which is a very tiny place indeed in the midst of all these billions of stars in the billions of galaxies, is a still incomprehensibly large.

Human beings cannot comprehend how large the universe really is. Astronomers and cosmologists really only understand it because they deal with that immensity every day of their lives. Everyone else deals with the universe on a scale that makes sense to them. Many Americans, for instance, do not seem to understand that there is an entire world of people and cultures that exist outside of their town, their state or their country. It’s no wonder that they cannot really grasp what the universe seems to be about.

Ancient cultures always put themselves at the center of the universe, because they had never experienced anything outside their culture. I do not want to get into what historically happens when cultures collide, or when one culture decides, for whatever reason, to pick up their stakes and move to an entirely new location. That is not the subject I want to explore here. My point is that the universe to ancient cultures was usually a very small place. To the inhabitants of Easter Island, the universe consisted of their island and the ocean. Native American cultures may have viewed their universe as a few hundred miles surrounding Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. That was all they knew, so their customs and legends grew out of the belief that there was very little of interest beyond what they knew. “Here Be Dragons” was a warning that was placed on the white areas of maps.

I have taken a bit of time to set up my premise of this post. Most every culture in the history of mankind, it seems, has viewed itself as “God’s Chosen People.” These cultures had no reason to believe otherwise. Every culture seems to have had its own creation myth, to explain how the universe came into being. Part of this creation myth must also address how the People came into being. Some Native American cultures believed that they were descended from the beings who inhabited the underworld. Usually, the word that Native Americans used for themselves translated into something akin to “The People.” That meant, everyone else was not the part of tribe of true humans. They were “something else.” Only the People were The People.

Christianity seems to me to be no different. There is the creation myth; “God created the Heaven and the Earth.” There is the explanation of where humans beings came from; they are descended from Adam and Eve, who were themselves created directly by God. The ancient Jews became known to themselves as “God’s Chosen People.

The point that I am making about these religious views that people hold regarding themselves is that they invariably put those people at the center of the universe. They are the only thing that matter. God or other diety is intimately involved in the lives, beliefs, actions and traditions of the Chosen People. There is no detail too small in the lives of the Chosen People. If you did things that God disapproved of, or even thought “inappropriate thoughts”, then God would be mightly displeased and you put your immortal soul at risk about going to Heaven or going to sit with your elders in the sky when you die.

Take a look at that picture again, and think about the immensity that we are talking about. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, seperated by distances so vast that light takes millions of years to travel between them. If God created the Heaven and the Earth, then He created all of this.

My question is, if humans are the center of God’s attention, then what is the rest of the universe for? In the “big picture” scheme of things, it appears to me that humans are totally inconsequential. Galaxies gobble up other galaxies. Monstrous black holes suck up everything, including light, that comes within their event horizon. Suns explode in supernovas, taking out everything in the neighborhood. Our own sun, which seems to benign and has been the focus of so many religions in the history of mankind, is destined for this very fate. Earth will not survive this explosion.

Mankind is the center of God’s attention, such that He cares about whether you believe in Him or not? Or whether you think “impure thoughts?” He cares about whether or not someone engaged in extramartial sex? He cares about whether or not someone is gay, or that gay people might be allowed to be married to each other? I have heard, on a number of occasions, the basketball teams at Christian schools pray before every game, praying that playing the game of basketball “glorifies God.” I am sorry, but I fail to see how God could possibly be interested in such trivialities by a very small group of people on a tiny part of a tiny planet in a remote part of the Milky Way galaxy.

I have used this argument before, and I was accused of “not having an imagination.” Perhaps. But perhaps all the believers of God or whatever other diety they pray to suffer from microscopic vision, such that they cannot change their point of view that puts them at the center of the universe. To me, that is what happens when you teach a child, as soon as they are old enough to comprehend spoken language, that we ARE at the center of the universe and God DOES take microscopic interest in our daily lives.

If humans are indeed the center of God’s attention, then it seems that, to me, God is terribly extravegant and a very large showoff. Why wouldn’t the Earth be a big flat plane, just as people without science always envisioned it to be? That certainly would have been more focused.

I believe that the universe is a vast, mysterious and wonderous place. The things that science has discovered, and are continually discovering, about the place we inhabit are truly mindbending. I do not need an explanation that includes God to understand how amazing and wonderful it is that we even exist.