Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

On Global Warming and Climate Change

March 24th, 2015 3 comments

You’ll be hearing more like this from Ted Cruz and others as campaign season picks up and the race for the base begins:

…[R]emember how it used to be called ‘global warming’ and then magically the theory changed to ‘climate change’? The reason is it wasn’t warming, but the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it’s not.

Now, of course, Cruz is full of it. This conservative trope is essentially data cherry-picking, and has long since been debunked.

However, that’s not the worst of it. A rather embarrassing fact for Cruz and his fellow travelers is that conservatives pushed for that exact change in name for the theory… for political purposes:

It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

  1. “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

The fact is that on the science side, the terms “global warming” and “global climate change” have both been used, in almost equal measures, since the 1980′s. They didn’t choose either for political purposes, but rather to describe the phenomenon as best they could. Both are true: the planet is warming, and it is experiencing climate change.

There has been a push amongst scientists to leave the term “global warming” behind—but not to avoid embarrassment over incorrect theories. Instead, it is because of what Stephen Colbert termed as “Peek-a-boo-ology,” a political science-denial technique conservatives have been using in force, which basically tries to push the idea that “global warming” means that “every inch of the Earth must be getting noticeably hotter or else the whole thing is false.” If it’s not warm where I am right now, there’s no global warming. If temperatures don’t rise consistently every year, there’s no global warming. Of course, this is idiocy, but to combat this, the more comprehensive “climate change” designation offers more clarity. The climate change is still caused by global warming, but if people see a snowstorm and get confused, best not to tax their intellect too far.

In short, Cruz and other conservatives are trying to deny climate change by claiming that scientists switch the terms to avoid embarrassment over being wrong, when in fact it was conservatives who effected to switch, in two different ways, for political purposes.

Categories: Right-Wing Lies, Science Tags:

An Unreasonable Standard

November 4th, 2014 Comments off

Why is it that when there’s a tragic death in space travel and exploration, it’s considered a huge black eye and a major setback for the entire endeavor, but not with anything else?

There are tens of thousands of deaths in automobiles each year; why isn’t that a setback for the car industry?

There is a very high death rate for serious mountain climbers; Mt. Blanc along accounts for about a hundred deaths a year. Why is not each new death a setback for the sport?

In fact, insurance companies regularly estimate the number of deaths in any particular industry over certain projects or periods of time.

So why is it that, apparently, only in space flight, is a death rate seen as unacceptable? Did anyone really expect that such an endeavor would never expect an accidental death?

Categories: Science Tags:

Scientists Do the Work, God Takes the Credit

May 23rd, 2013 4 comments

From a news report that caught my eye:

Timing, faith, heroics, preparation and a bit of luck spared thousands.
Local, state and federal officials credit luck, happenstance, timing, faith, heroics, preparation and the seasoned experience that comes with living in the heart of Tornado Alley for the relatively low victim count.

Really? Faith was one of the elements? How did that work?

Of the elements listed, “luck,” “happenstance,” and “timing” all pretty much mean the same thing, and are true. Some people survived simply due to chance.

“Heroics” I get as well—for example, teachers risking their lives to save their students.

“Preparation” definitely—storm shelters no doubt saved many lives. Related to that would be “seasoned experience,” which both led to the preparation and informed people what to do in cases like these.

But “faith”? Where did that come in? I mean, let’s say we’re assuming God controls everything, at least as far as nature is concerned (people have free will). Okay, but then that means that he sent the tornado. I don’t see how faith helps you there. And if it means that praying saved people, then that must also be applied to those who did not survive: did they fail to pray? And if so, did God kill them for it? What if they did pray but died anyway; how would faith have helped them there? Surely there must be many among the survivors who did not pray; why were they left alive?

So, really, I don’t see how faith could possibly be included in that list. Maybe as a coping mechanism afterwards, but in terms of keeping people from harm? Hardly. So why force that into the list? Read the article, and you will see no evidence whatsoever to support the inclusion.

Eventually, the “news media” was also credited, albeit only near the end of the article; acknowledgment of the communication system for warnings is appropriate, surely more than faith was.

However, something far more relevant was pretty much ignored: science. You know how all those people got warned so quickly? Scientists studied how weather works. Scientists, some of whom risk their lives chasing these storms to get the data required, worked out the mechanics of tornado prediction. And scientists developed the technology which brought the message to these people. Not to mention that engineers designed the building structures and shelters that saved so many lives.

So, really, the biggest thanks of all should go to scientists, who probably were #1 on the list of life savers.

How many thanks did they get? How many were mentioned in stories like these?


But faith gets a big “thank you.” Not as big as God himself, though; see the video at top, in which Wolf Blitzer awkwardly tries to actually press a “thanks” to the Lord for the woman and her child surviving the storm. It’s not just that she was an atheist, but rather that Blitzer seemed so eager to get a “Thanks be to Jesus!” out of her.

Next time, Wolf, ask someone if they might want to say a word of thanks to the nameless scientists who did most of the work. But then, if he did that instead of trying to praise Jesus, then he’d be part of the War on Christianity™.

Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

Recycled BlogD: The Futility of SETI

February 17th, 2013 1 comment

This is an article from 2006, and I stand by it just as much if not more than I did seven years ago. I feel it is important to reach out and find extraterrestrial life, and the recent discovery of so many exoplanets is an exciting step in this direction. However, for the reasons given below, I don’t think it’ll be accomplished using radio frequencies.

To me, that smacks of assumptions that are almost childlike: we are in our technological infancy, barely just discovered how to use electricity a century or so ago, and we presume that this is the ultimate communications medium that everyone is using. Seen in proper context, we kind of look like a six-year-old working with string tied between tin cans. Not that the technology can’t work, but rather than there are probably several generations of communications technology that are currently beyond our understanding.

A commenter in 2007 added another point: we presume that evolution necessarily leads to intelligence, in particular an inquiring or social intelligence, when that may not be the norm.

I am very much a fan of science, as well as science fiction. I am pretty certain that other life and civilizations exist out there, and am quite keen on the concept of contacting that life.

That said, I don’t think SETI will ever accomplish anything. Here’s why.

Imagine there is a tribe of primitive people on a remote and small archipelago in the south Pacific (where these imaginary tribesmen are usually located), who have never encountered anyone else in the world. They are way off of sea and air traffic lanes, so they have never even seen any evidence of others living on Earth. They do know the Earth is curved (they see boats going to their most distant island disappear over the horizon) and vast, and they wonder: are there any other people, any other tribes out there?

So they send their smartest people off to try to contact others using the most sophisticated communications technology they possess. These big brains climb the tallest mountain in the island chain, start a fire, and begin sending up smoke signals. The communications team figures that if anyone exists out beyond that horizon, surely they will see the signals, and if they do, they will reply in kind. The intrepid team spends weeks up on the mountain, sending signals and keeping a keen and vigilant watch on all horizons for any reply.

Eventually, after receiving no answers to their many signals, they decide to pack it in. Either there is no one else out there, or they aren’t watching for smoke signals, or they aren’t advanced enough to understand or send them, or they just don’t care to reply. Regardless of which is true, they cannot find any evidence of life out there.

And as they walk down the mountain in resignation, they are completely unaware that at that instant, countless radio signals from dozens of highly advanced civilizations on Earth are coursing through the very space they occupy.

In this analogy, we are the tribesmen.

It has always surprised me that this probable truth is never discussed, that I have encountered at least, in public discourse about the search for intelligent life in the universe. No one seems to consider or at least speak aloud the most likely case that alien signals abound around us–but we simply don’t have the technology to pick them up.

Think of the scientific arrogance: we are supposed to assume that the long-range communications technology we possess–electromagnetic radiation signaling–is somehow the ultimate in scientific achievement. Here we are, just beginning our scientific development, still without a unified field theory on how the universe works, and yet the technology we developed just a hundred years ago–the blink of an eye by cosmological standards, and just the very beginning of what is likely a long technological evolution–is the end-all-be-all of cosmic telephony. I find the idea highly unlikely. You might say that there is no better conceivable technology than radio to communicate–but I’m sure that what was thought of the last best way to talk before radio technology was developed.

I have little doubt that decades, centuries, or even millennia in the future, we will discover if not one, then many more advanced stages of communications technology, and when that time comes, we’ll discover why things seem so silent in the universe when we listen just with radio telescopes.

Categories: Recycled BlogD, Science Tags:

On the Practicality of Reason

November 21st, 2012 3 comments

Marco Rubio has been in the news recently for equivocating on the age of the Earth:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Translation: “I can’t have science which contradicts fundie beliefs! I’m running for president, for Pete’s sake!”

A lot of apologists for this kind of young-earth creationism try to make it seem like there is no real-world impact for denying the science on this. A lot of people who know science disagree, saying that, for example, believing evolution is false will have a real impact on a student’s understanding of biology and other aspects of science.

However, it is sometimes hard to see exactly how that works. After all, most people don’t learn enough about biology or science in general for the difference between believing or not believing in science to have any real impact on their lives. As a result, the effects of fundamentalist denial of science remains distant.

One conservative, not necessarily religious, form of science denial is starting to break through to people’s lives: the denial of climate change. Seeing Rhode Island-sized chunks of ice break off the polar caps every other month are one thing, but storms the size of Hurricane Sandy now pounding our shores on a regular basis have made things even more plainly obvious.

But what about the age of the universe? The age of the Earth? How does that effect us on a daily basis? Paul Krugman took a stab at it recently, noting: “If you’re going to ignore what geologists say if you don’t like its implications, what are the chances that you’ll take sensible advice on monetary and fiscal policy? After all, we’ve just seen how Republicans deal with research reports that undermine their faith in the magic of tax cuts: they try to suppress the reports.” In essence, denying science begets denying facts, an excellent point in light of current and recent conservative beliefs, policies, and actions.

However, that is still indirect, and therefore relatively difficult for many taken in by the fundie narrative to internalize. How can we state in more concrete terms that denying the science on the age of the Earth as well as a variety of fossil life consistent with that age has real-world impacts? How can we show in better kick-to-the-gut terms that accepting evolution is in fact an important thing?

One attempt was antibiotics, and how the microorganisms we fight with them are rapidly evolving, making more and more of our medicines ineffective. However, fundamentalists have a workaround: that kind of evolution, the kind we can observe in real life, we’ll call that “micro-evolution,” which yields only small changes in organisms over short periods of time, and accept it because it can be consistent with a young earth; but it is different from “macro-evolution,” the kind which says all life evolved over billions of years. Have you ever seen a giraffe evolve into a hippo in a laboratory? No? Then I will smugly not believe in this “macro-evolution” kick you’re on because you have no evidence that is easily digestible in sound bites a layman can discern without trying too hard.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these arguments are dead wrong, in any number of ways. But you have to remember that the problem lies in getting non-scientists to understand, and answers like the one above, as clearly wrong and flawed to a scientist as it is, is nevertheless more than enough to assure a fundie who, after all, wants to believe in whatever supports their religious beliefs.

What we need is an argument which is not too technical, but which shows clearly that young-Earth creationism simply can’t be right.

Just today, I found a great example of just that. Alex Knapp at Forbes does it:

Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.

If the Earth is really 9,000 years old, as Paul Broun believes and Rubio is willing to remain ignorant about, it becomes imperative to shut down our nuclear plants and dismantle our nuclear stockpiles now until such time as scientists are able to ascertain what circumstances exist that could cause deadly acceleration of radioactive decay and determine how to prevent it from happening.

That is an excellent point. Dating techniques are based upon the science of understanding the decay of atoms. This decay is directly linked to both the measured age of objects far older than the supposed creationist age of the universe and to the stability of nuclear power and weapons. If it is unreliable, then so is everything based on atomic decay.

Atomic decay is used to regulate time, for crying out loud; the time you set your watch by is determined by atomic clocks. The chemotherapy for cancer treatments someone in your family is bound to have undergone, or is undergoing, is also directly related to this—that person could die if the science on radioactive decay is wrong.

So! Hearing this, fundamentalists will give up and concede the earth is 4.54 billion years old, right?

Yeah, I know. That’s the thing—if a person wants to believe something without having to pay the price for it in some other way, they’ll always find a way. One way is what a lot of these fundies do: simply ignore the effective arguments and facts. Pretend they don’t exist. They already do this, relying on a host of bogus arguments “proving” “evil-ution” is wrong, despite a mountain of science, collected here, for instance, proving their arguments are rubbish.

Other forms of denial exist, up to and including the “nuclear option” of denialism: God created the universe to seem like it’s old so as to test our faith. Yeah, that must be it. God created a vast universe full of carefully crafted and fully-consistent deception all for the benefit of our tiny race on on our tiny planet, to see if our love of Him is great enough that we will believe more in the science gleaned from an ancient, error-filled, inconsistent philosophy text written by people who did not know about and were not writing about science than we will believe in the actual universe in front of our eyes. Yes, that’s reasonable.

Aside from the fact that this supposition is ludicrous, there is another key flaw: it presumes that virtually all of creation is a lie intended to deceive us. It assumes that God created us flawed so we could be deceived, then deceived us, and then punishes the deceived with an eternity of pain and horror.

Again… yeah, I know. Making these arguments won’t shift the beliefs of the deeply committed.

So, why argue any of this?

Because there are many on the fringes, especially the young ones who have not heard these arguments before, the ones whose “hearts have not been hardened,” who will hear the arguments and will perhaps succumb to reason. Reason, which Martin Luther himself identified as “the greatest enemy faith has.”

And it is working. The number of those not affiliated with an established religion is growing. As Rick Santorum pointed out recently, many young people going to college and learning this satanic “critical thinking” hogwash are coming out of college less convinced about fundamentalist denialism than they were going in.

He called it “indoctrination.” Which is the opposite of the truth, of course. “The indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned.” That kind of goes against the entire idea of critical thinking—but “indoctrination” describes perfectly what fundamentalists want their kids to stick with.

What we need is more exposure to the idea that, in Genesis, the Hebrew word “yom”—as in, the six yom of creation—can mean “era” just as legitimately as it can mean “day.” Once people realize that they can believe in the Bible and in science, things will go a lot smoother.

The problem: organized religion. You see, it has been insisting for quite some time that the translation of that word is a 24-hour “day.” And these people claim to directly represent God. They claim that they are the dispensers of High Truth.

Realizing that Genesis could refer to “eras” makes a lot of sense and would allow for believers to believe that the Bible was never in error on that point.

But it would mean that the church which pushed the 24-hour day interpretation was in error, and we can’t have that.

But there is hope. It took the Catholic Church just four centuries to “forgive” Galileo for being right. So, all we have to do is wait several hundred years. Maybe they’ll come around on this, too.

Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

NASA Pulls Off Another Miracle

August 6th, 2012 2 comments

They did it!

Remember the Seven Minutes of Terror? Well, they’re over now, and NASA has yet another spectacular feather in its cap, as the Curiosity rover begins its new mission on Mars. Equipped with several cameras, including color, 3-D, and (I believe) higher-def cameras than we’ve seen on Mars before, Curiosity should provide us with quite a show.

For starters, the simple, low-res image of the lander’s wheel and the horizon:

673560Main Msl5 Full

NASA missions are always fun, and at $7 per American, this one seems well worth the cost. Compare that to $10,000 per taxpayer, or $4400 per American, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. $2600 per American for the Iraq War alone, which was an entirely optional war. Hell, for one-tenth of the cost of the Iraq War alone, we could be sending a manned mission to Mars.

Sorry. So easy to split off and talk politics… What I meant to say was, go NASA, you ROCK!

Categories: Science Tags:

Struck by Lightning

July 16th, 2012 2 comments

Wow! Six years ago today, I was struck by lightning. I even recorded it, audio on the link. Of course, it didn’t exactly hit me–the main bolt hit a few feet behind me and to the left, otherwise I might not be here any more. But some part of that lightning bolt split off and struck my foot.

I did not find out until a few days later that a co-worker and friend was hit in the exact same way by lightning on the exact same day, maybe just a few minutes before me.

I get hit indirectly by lightning, happen to be recording it at the time, and someone I know is also being struck on the far side of town at about the same time.

I am still in awe at the odds of that.

Categories: Science Tags:

Trailer: Seven Minutes of Terror

June 25th, 2012 3 comments

These people are fracking insane, while still being unbelievable geniuses. If they pull this off, the general reaction will probably be, “Oh, another Mars rover.” This trailer, however, shows how utterly fantastic the challenge is. If it works, everyone should be impressed as hell.

Categories: Science, Technology Tags:

A Bit Too Much of an Optimist

May 27th, 2012 2 comments

Richard Leakey believes that creationists will vanish within a generation or two:

Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be history.

Not that the avowed atheist has any doubts himself.

Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.” …

“If you don’t like the word evolution, I don’t care what you call it, but life has changed. You can lay out all the fossils that have been collected and establish lineages that even a fool could work up. So the question is why, how does this happen? It’s not covered by Genesis. There’s no explanation for this change going back 500 million years in any book I’ve read from the lips of any God.”

I think that Leakey doesn’t really understand the Fundamentalist / Creationist mindset. He seems to believe that all you need is overwhelming facts and evidence, and they will accept something contrary to their strong religious convictions. That’s a mistake. These people literally take what they believe as an article of faith. They could be looking directly at a mountain of evidence clearly contradicting them, and still not waver. All they have to do is say it’s a trick, Satan’s behind it, so forth and so on, and then walk away. It’s pretty much what they are doing now.

I recall Arthur C. Clarke making the same error, writing in his stories that once we meet alien species, the superstitions of religious belief would melt away. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen, either.

I think that if these people are to accept things like the age of the universe or the workings of evolution, it will not be until a much longer time than now, due to social workings and not wholly that of evidence.

Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

Answering Questions

October 10th, 2011 12 comments

Philosophers and theologians sometimes say that science can’t answer the important questions like, “Why are we here?” or “What is the meaning of life?” You know what? Neither can the philosophers or the theologians. They just pretend that they can. Science makes no such pretense.

Categories: Quick Notes, Religion, Science Tags:

Getting a Clear Picture

June 24th, 2011 1 comment

It’s pretty difficult to get a completely accurate read on how bad things are after the Fukushima reactor. A great deal of this is due to news stories which focus on sensationalism without actually checking the facts.

Take a recent Al Jazeera story, titled “Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think.” Much of the story may or may not be true, but take this nugget:

In the US, physician Janette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano published an essay shedding light on a 35 per cent spike in infant mortality in northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima meltdown, and may well be the result of fallout from the stricken nuclear plant.

The eight cities included in the report are San Jose, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Boise, and the time frame of the report included the ten weeks immediately following the disaster.

“There is and should be concern about younger people being exposed, and the Japanese government will be giving out radiation monitors to children,” Dr MV Ramana, a physicist with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University who specialises in issues of nuclear safety, told Al Jazeera.

Sounds pretty striking. However, when you actually think about it, it also sounds completely bogus. Radiation levels along the west coast of the U.S. barely showed any trace of radioactivity from Japan, and what was found was insignificant in the context of background radiation. For this to result in a 35% spike in infant mortality sounds rather ludicrous, and should not pass anyone’s initial sniff test.

Sure enough, the data was found to be incorrect, if not fraudulent. The essay cherry-picked eight cities which made a writer for Scientific American “pick up a whiff of data fixing,” and the essay used only a four-week period prior to the Fukushima disaster to establish a baseline for infant mortality. Coincidentally, those four weeks showed strikingly low mortality rates, most likely a statistical blip–from the fifth week back, rates were considerably higher on average. When the Scientific American reviewer checked the data, even for just those eight cities, for the entire year, he found that infant mortality rates were actually declining throughout the year, not spiking sharply.

The ten weeks after Fukushima did see a few high numbers, but the four weeks previous were unusually low. The low numbers before Fukushima were not, of course, related to the incident, but were the primary reason a “spike” seemed to appear when only those four weeks were used as a baseline. One could just as easily compare the data for the month before those four weeks and see a similar “spike” occurring two months before Fukushima.

In short, the essay’s claims should never have been published. Sure, the media might not want to wait around for every study to be peer-reviewed, but if you don’t, then you are bound to release, as “news,” completely erroneous data as shown above. This only serves to put all the rest of the claims in the Al Jazeera article in question–what else was not fact-checked? Was the writer going for the sensationalist angle, only choosing to focus on evidence which supported a predetermined conclusion?

This is not to suggest that Fukushima isn’t worse than we think it is–it may well be a lot worse–but it suggests that not all the alarmist information, including that released by “experts,” is as accurate as we believe. That goes for data suggesting that things aren’t so bad as well.

Because the atmosphere regarding nuclear power, even within the halls of science, is so subject to polarized views and infected by bias, added to the fact that there is so much we just don’t know for certain about the subject of radioactivity and health, it is much harder to get a clear picture of how bad things really are.

Scientists Being Tried for Failure to Accurately Predict Quake

May 31st, 2011 1 comment

At first I thought this was satirical news, but I was wrong. In Italy, six seismologists and a public official are being tried for manslaughter over a public statement by the official that an earthquake was unlikely–a week before an earthquake hit the town and killed 308 people. If convicted, they could spend up to 12 years in prison.

In the days before the destructive earthquake, there were precursor quakes, and the defendants were called upon to analyze the potential threat. After the meeting, the public official, working for the Civil Protection agency, made the statement, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” As a result, people in the town did not prepare for the quake, leading to many of the deaths.

The problem here is, the public statement is almost certainly not representative of what the seismologists said. That’s their claim, and it is most likely true: no self-respecting seismologist would say in such a situation that minor quakes release tension. That’s something a non-seismologist might think. The meeting minutes revealed no such assurances, instead revealing that they said something more reasonable: there’s no reliable way to predict earthquakes.

What’s most likely is the classic case of the public official wanting to calm fears and protect business interests, and so releasing the most favorable statement he could think of. But even that is not a criminal offense. On the other hand, government officials apparently do not require building codes to be strict enough to prevent people from being killed when quakes hit; no one is being prosecuted for that, however.

Instead, the seismologists are being blamed. Scapegoat, anyone?

Categories: People Can Be Idiots, Science Tags:

Sorry, Ellie

April 27th, 2011 Comments off

Predictably, public funding for SETI has dried up:

NASA had provided the financial backing for some early SETI projects, but that funding dried up under Congressional scrutiny, with some lawmakers criticizing the “chase” for Martians and flying saucers.

While I support science spending in general, and would greatly support anything which leads us to discovering life elsewhere in the universe, I frankly don’t believe that SETI will get anywhere. I explain that in this blog post from five years ago, but long story short, I think that if aliens are talking, it’s not with any technology we currently possess. I hate to sound like Sagan’s David Drumlin character, but it would be better to invest the science spending somewhere else.

Categories: Science Tags:

Lies, Damned Lies, and People Too Lazy to See the Difference

April 20th, 2011 3 comments

David Simon, an author, journalist, and a writer/producer, said to Bill Moyers:

One of the themes of The Wire really was that statistics will always lie. Statistics can be made to say anything.

You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America: school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, fifty people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.

I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-backed securities were actually valuable, and they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning and that they’re solving crime. That was a front-row seat for me as a reporter, getting to figure out how once they got done with them the crime stats actually didn’t represent anything.

I agree with Simon that politicians and many others use statistics to lie, but I strongly disagree with the sentiment that “statistics will always lie.” Statistics can be and often are very true and extremely useful. It’s people who lie. They use statistics to lie in the same way they use any other fact, true or false. Correct statistics can often be used to out the lies–but when people believe that statistics as a whole is suspect, they will just as often use that as an excuse not to listen to the truth. They’ll believe the lie because they want to.

One reason statistics are often used is because they easy to express, but a more important reason is that they imply careful research was done to produce them, therefore giving a stronger sense of authority. It’s the same reason why interested parties will pay for fake “scientific” studies, like tobacco companies often do–because research carries weight and it’s easier for people to believe in research results.

Sometimes statistics are just made up, but more often they are the result of some kind of study or poll. Often the untruth lies in the intent of the study, but even when the study is completely legitimate, telling only specific results in the absence of a complete context–in essence, the half-truth.

An excellent example is the common right-wing lie that during the Reagan years, we cut taxes and doubled revenue. That’s a regular fact and a statistical fact. Both are true. However, they are used to present a completely false impression, that tax cuts during the Reagan era caused a doubling of revenue, thus proving correct the “trickle-down” theory. The lie comes from the misuse of the facts. Yes, it is true, we cut some taxes, but we raised others more, and in the end had a cumulative tax hike. And yes, revenues roughly doubled, but that figure fails to take inflation into account, something which distorts any claimed effect. The true reading of the facts tells us that taxes were raised slightly under Reagan and revenues increased by a few dozen percent–obviously not supporting trickle-down at all.

In this example, we see both statistical and non-statistical data used to lie–but that doesn’t mean that both types of facts will “always” lie. Discerning accurate and honest application of statistics is a necessary skill for any consumer of information.

Simon, in his broad dismissal of statistics as a whole, is being intellectually lazy–the same fault which causes people to believe bad statistics in the first place. People tend to take facts at face value and are too lazy to think critically, to question the facts they are presented, to check them or to apply logic to them, which would allow them to see past the lies.

Categories: Science Tags:

Teaching the Controversy

April 11th, 2011 2 comments

First, creationists wanted creationism to be taught in science classes. When that failed, they re-styled their product as “Intelligent Design.” When that didn’t work, they evolved the strategy into “academic freedom.”

Their current tactic? “Teach the Controversy.” A new Tennessee proposal (PDF) that passed the state House:

(a) The general assembly finds that:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and

(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

(b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(e) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

The language is actually quite clever; it goes to great lengths to emphasize “objectivity,” “critical thinking,” “explore,” “evidence,” “scientific theories”–making it sound like this is all about science and that there will be no funny business.

When you read the text carefully, however, it opens the door for creationism to be taught. Parts (b) and (c) effectively say that teachers can teach the controversies and administrators must assist them–that’s the door opening. Part (d) forbids administrators to prohibit teachers “helping” students to see the issues. This element is critical–it means that if a teacher, for example, were to introduce the subject in a way that greatly favored the creationist view, administrators would not be allowed to interfere. Note the language concerning “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered”; that’s code for allowing in creationist arguments that evolution is flawed.

Interestingly, it’s that last paragraph which is the real giveaway; while appearing, at first cursory glance, to be an assurance that this will not be used to promote religion, it is in fact the key to legitimizing religious doctrine as science. While it may be intended to smooth the law’s way when challenged in the courts, this part is really the slickest pro-creationist part of the bill. Some of it’s language is actually pretty bold; first, it classes religion right together with non-religion, placing them on an equal basis–meaning that religion gets equal play with secularism. Which, of course, is contradictory.

This comes from the view from a religious standpoint that secularism and atheism, seen from the distance of faith, are one and the same–that allowing no religion in a science class means that atheism is being favored. This is not true, of course–saying there is no god is just as non-scientific as saying there is one. But since fundamentalist religion in America today holds that what we observe and measure contradicts religious “truth,” reporting objective observations is, for them, tantamount to denying god, and so is atheist in nature.

Given the actual, true nature of secular science, placing secularism and religion on equal footing in a science class is just as bad as placing secularism and atheism on equal footing. Neither is secular; secular means that religious views, for or against, are simply not germane. This bill tears down that point, making science classes a referendum on religion versus atheism.

Note that the language also forbids promoting “discrimination for or against” either “a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs” or “religion or non-religion.” When you recall that “discrimination” against religious beliefs is equal to not teaching creationism in the classroom, you can see the true purpose is to include religious doctrine where none was allowed before. Keep in mind that these people believe it is discriminating against religion when children are taught that the universe is billion of years old without the Young Earth Creationist view being given equal or greater billing. The “for or against” is also key–it again places religion on an equal basis with “non-religion.” “Non-religion” is, remember, what we usually refer to as “science.”

In case you think this may be the wrong way of looking at the bill, remember that this state legislature is not precisely averse to trying to get religion in the public schools any way they can. Amusingly, one of those legislators said this in reflection on the recent bill:

Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, quoted Albert Einstein as saying: “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.”

Of course, Einstein, a non-observant Jew who said that he believed in Spinoza’s God, never said that. Nevertheless, it kind of tips this lawmaker’s hand as to his intent in passing the bill.

Anti-science rhetoric typical of creationists was also abundant from Republicans, and was just as ludicrous. Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, for example, makes this error-studded statement on why science cannot be trusted:

I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.
Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.

Umm, no. This woman appears to be going on a factoid she must have heard that aerosols help reflect solar radiation (not “the earth’s rays”). However, it was not the aerosols that were bad, it was the CFC’s in the aerosols, and they were not said to be contributing to global warming, but that they were depleting the ozone layer. Not to mention that we never gave up aerosols (you can still buy all manner of things in aerosol spray cans, as this woman seems to have overlooked), we only gave up the CFC’s in aerosols. And clearly, aerosols did not stop global warming trends. Scientists were not wrong on this; this woman, on the other hand, sounds like an idiot. And again, it reveals a clear anti-science agenda.

These are the people who wish to lecture us on and legislate “critical thinking” in science classes.

When looked at objectively, this bill is just as bad as all the other ones passed in recent years to get creationism back into the public schools. What is happening is that we’re getting the same old creationist proposals dressed up more and more deceptively, the authors hoping each time that the courts will have been sufficiently stacked with religious conservatives to allow for one of these to be approved.

Categories: Education, Religion, Science Tags:


January 8th, 2011 6 comments

OK, this is getting spooky. Maybe.

We first heard about it when hundreds of blackbirds were reported falling from the skies in Arkansas–and the number kept growing, now estimated at about 5,000. But that wasn’t the only incident; among the mass sea and air deaths:

  1. the 5000 blackbird falling dead with physical trauma from the sky in Arkansas;
  2. not far away, hundreds of thousands of drum fish–but no other species–showed up also dead;
  3. 100 tons of dead fish washed up on the Brazilian coastline;
  4. 2 million fish dead in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland;
  5. 500 more blackbirds in Louisiana;
  6. a large number of dead snapper fish in New Zealand;
  7. hundreds of grackles, starlings, and robins fell dead in Kentucky, these with no signs of trauma;
  8. 40,000 velvet swimming crabs washed up dead near Kent in England;
  9. 50 Jackdaws fell dead on a street in Sweden, with no visible signs of damage.

Add to that the most recent case in Italy, where 8000 turtle doves fell to their deaths in a town, with blue stains around their bills.

Google is now mapping the mass deaths, which seem to include up to 30 incidences worldwide over the past several weeks.

Now, not all of these incidences seem really strange; a few dozen birds dying a a strain of bird flu in eastern Japan doesn’t seem too unusual. Which leads one to ask, is this really so unusual, or are we just noticing this more than we have in the past? The USGS says this is actually normal, with mass die-offs reported almost every other day, or 163 each year on average. Perhaps all this is is one story with an unusual twist making headlines, and then all the rest of the stories standing out because of the first one.

Occam’s razor suggests this is probably the case–we’re just paying attention to something that was ignored previously. That does not, however, stop the stories from raising some hairs on your arm (especially if you’ve seen the movie The Happening), or feeding conspiracy theories in those who live in a much more interesting world than the rest of us.

Categories: Nature, Science Tags:

What Your Beliefs Are Based upon Does Count for Something

January 1st, 2011 7 comments

It’s telling that those who accept global climate change do so because they accept the science, even though it goes against their own personal interests. Truth be told, we want to gulp up energy using all of our modern conveniences and drive big, cheap gas guzzlers just as much as the next guy, when it comes right down to it. Those who oppose global climate change do so not because of any scientific models–in fact, it’s despite the science, “dissenting experts” BS aside–but because they are ideologically opposed and/or because they don’t want to go to the trouble or expense required should the theory be true. Like everyone else, they also want to enjoy conspicuous energy consumption. But instead of accepting a painful truth and making sacrifices, they simply reject the science so they can enjoy the luxuries without believing they are destroying the world for future generations in doing so.

In short: one side believes against their personal interests because the science tells them so, and the other believes because it is personally and politically convenient to do so. Which has more likelihood of being correct?

Categories: Quick Notes, Science Tags:

Crime and Fraud in “Climategate”–on the Part of the Accusers

July 10th, 2010 1 comment

On November 17th, someone with an IP address apparently located in Turkey hacked the servers used by the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. 160 MB of data was stolen before the breach was noticed and the server shut down. Within a few days, the stolen data was sent, via Russia (which is highly dependent upon oil and gas revenues), to groups opposed to climate change. Groups with vested interests in fossil fuels and heavily biased against the very concept of global climate change scoured the stolen emails and documents, cherry picked “random” information which, out of context, made it seem that climate change was fraudulent and the scientists who studied it were dishonest hacks, and then executed a “highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal” which the “liberal” media immediately lapped up and made a world-wide sensation.

The damage to the reputation of climate change studies is done; despite the fact that the accusations are now completely discredited and the scientists in the “scandal” cleared of any fraud or misdoing, people around the world now have the impression that climate change science is tainted by fraud. Those who disbelieved before now feel they are vindicated, many who doubted now are swayed away from the side with real evidence on its side. And everywhere there will be the stigma of mistrust, however undeserved.

And the liberal media whose agenda is supposedly to front claims like climate change? Are they covering the story of how “Climategate” itself was a fraud and a crime with anywhere near the same fervor and hype that they covered the fraudulent claims in the first place? Of course not. A few retracted, but none cleared the scientists with a fraction of the volume or intensity in which they smeared the researchers.

It is the sad fact of the nature of the media, and how it is so easily manipulated by those who have no scruples: scandals run on page one; stories about how the scandals were not scandals at all run buried in the back. Not only are they not as sexy, but the media don’t much like admitting very loudly how easily they were scammed. And so the scammers get what they wanted.

Categories: "Liberal" Media, Journalism, Science Tags:


July 7th, 2010 6 comments

Imagine one of your children brings home their 4th grade science textbook. You decide to have a look at it, and on page 40, you read this:

Electricity is a mystery. No one has ever observed it or heard it or felt it. We can see and feel and hear only what electricity does. We know that it makes light bulbs shine and irons heat up and telephones ring. But we cannot say what electricity itself is like.

We cannot even say where electricity comes from. Some scientists say that the sun may be the source of most electricity. Other think that the movement of the Earth produces some of it. All anyone knows is that electricity seems to be everywhere and that there are many ways to bring it forth.

Now, what exactly would you think of that text? Me, I’d immediately contact the school and ask what the hell they’re teaching my kids. Of course, if that were the text that was used, it would mean that the religious fundamentalists had gotten control over the school system and were using textbooks published by Bob Jones University. The textbook in question–“Science 4: Students Text”–is home-schooling fare, or, in other words, texts for parents so extremist that they go to radical lengths to prevent their kids from getting exposed to the secular wickedness served up at public schools, and there are no private religious schools nearby with a fanatical-enough curriculum to satisfy them.

The passage above (seen scanned here) has been raising a lot of attention since PZ Myers featured it a few days ago on Pharyngula. You gotta know that it has led to a lot of attention because BJU Press has yanked the “Look Inside” feature for that one book’s class set off their web site, one would assume to avoid more embarrassment.

However, it doesn’t take much searching of their site and leafing through sample chapters of other texts to find stuff that’s interesting, though nothing quite as spectacularly buffoonish as that 4th-grade passage on electricity. Certainly the text is, to say the least, suspect as “Science.” Take this page from a 6th-grade text on goelogy:

Places where the plates meet are called plate boundaries. Scientists think that currents in the molten rock of the earth’s mantle may move the plates a few centimeters each year. This movement may cause the plates to separate, to collide, or to slide along their plate boundaries.

Some scientists believe that at one time the earth could have been a single large landmass that they call Pangaea (pan JEE uh). Because there was no recorded observation, we cannot be sure that such a landmass existed. We also cannot know how the landmass may have broken into pieces. However, the Bible tells us in the book of Genesis that God sent at great flood to destroy the wickedness on the earth. Genesis 7:11 states that “the fountains of the great deep [were] broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.”

Many Creation scientists think that the earth’s surface went through catastrophic changes during the Noahic Flood. These deluges could have caused the great landmass to break and separate. The plates may have moved with such tremendous force that landforms such as mountains could have been formed as plates collided.

Some scientists claim that landforms took millions of years to form, but it is likely that they formed in a much shorter period of time.

Note the determined dissembling and introduction of doubt when it comes to facts not embraced by the church. “Because there was no recorded observation,” and “we cannot know,” in addition to the insertion of biblical events to explain the form of the Earth. Not to mention the cute capper at the end, “it is likely that they formed in a much shorter period of time.” Yeeess, that is “likely.” Not that we’re making any claims here! We report, and you, the student, decide!

If nothing else, it is an interesting look at how the fundie crowd teaches “science” to their kids–with enough of the subject matter intact to make them aware of all the basics other kids know, but with just the right amount of fundie flavor to keep them out of hellfire.

Also note the repeated use of “some scientists think,” “some scientists believe,” and “some scientists claim” liberally applied to almost every statement of scientific fact, no matter how established or non-controversial. (Note, however, that when creation scientists are mentioned, it’s “many,” not “some.”) The intent is, naturally, to create a sense of doubt concerning anything that mainstream scientists say, as if everything is the field of science is just speculation, nothing more than theories and opinions, and therefore one can take creation science or other fundamentalist biblical interpretations just as, if not more seriously.

Or, I should say, some bloggers think that it is likely that these texts are full of it.

Of course, I am sure that these home-schooled kids will be set straight when they eventually attend Glenn Beck University (accreditation pending).

Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

Cool and/or Scary

May 21st, 2010 2 comments

They’ve created the first living organism with completely synthetic DNA. They didn’t build the whole cell, though, they did a transplant. Still, wow. And, unnerving. You wonder when they are going to use this to (a) cure cancer and (b) create a virus that will kill every last human being.

This part is a bit spooky:

Dr Venter told BBC News: “We’ve now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell – a different organism.

”As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code.“

Software. And the cell is hardware, which reads the program and executes it. Hrmm.

Categories: Science Tags: