Category: scientific method
The difference between good science and any religion. Good science is proudly self-critical. The Edge 2014 annual question, answered by almost 200 writers, is this: “Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?”
How should one interpret scientific claims? Here are the headings to an excellent article featured in Nature:
Differences and chance cause variation.
No measurement is exact.
Bias is rife.
Bigger is usually better for sample size.
Correlation does not imply causation.
Regression to the mean can mislead.
Extrapolating beyond the data is risky.
Beware the base-rate fallacy.
Controls are important.
Randomization avoids bias.
Seek replication, not pseudoreplication.
Scientists are human.
Significance is significant.
Separate no effect from non-significance.
Effect size matters.
Study relevance limits generalizations.
Feelings influence risk perception.
Dependencies change the risks.
Data can be dredged or cherry picked.
Extreme measurements may mislead.
This past weekend, I was discussing the nature of explanations with some relatives. I argued that to explain anything completely, one would have to explain absolutely everything, given the need for context in a complete explanation and given the inter-connectedness of all that we know. Many explanations falling short of explaining everything work, at least on a local level, because on a local/pragmatic level an explanation is merely a description that makes us feel good.
Today, I came across a quote by Carl Sagan that relates to the above:
I thought I might write about something other than politics this morning, but some things are just too there to ignore. But perhaps this isn’t strictly about politics.
Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently said the following. I’m pulling the quote from news sources so I don’t get it wrong.
“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
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I’ve previously written about the works of Paul Kurtz. I’ve long admired his Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles. I also agree with his concerns about “fundamentalist atheists.” In fact, it was his position on “fundamentalist atheism” that likely gave rose to his contentious departure from the Center for Inquiry.
More recently, Kurtz has made the argument that atheists, agnostics and other disbelievers would be best served characterizing themselves as “skeptics” rather than as atheists, agnostics or non-believers.
I would like to introduce another term into the equation, a description of the religious “unbeliever” that is more appropriate. One may simply say, “I am a skeptic.” This is a classical philosophical position, yet I submit that it is still relevant today, for many people are deeply skeptical about religious claims. Skepticism is widely employed in the sciences. Skeptics doubt theories or hypotheses unless they are able to verify them on adequate evidential grounds. The same is true among skeptical inquirers into religion. The skeptic in religion is not dogmatic, nor does he or she reject religious claims a priori; here or she is simply unable to accept the case for God unless it is supported by adequate evidence.
Kurtz lists additional reasons for the use of the term “skeptic.”
[S]kepticism based on scientific inquiry leaves room for a naturalistic account of the universe. It can also recommend alternative secular and humanist forms of moral conduct. Accordingly, one can simply affirm, when asked if he or she believes in God, “No, I do not; I am a skeptic,” and one may add, “I believe in doing good!”
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku must be a fairly smart guy in some respects. After all, he is a Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York. What he had to say yesterday on CNN was idiotic, however, and to the extent that he demeaned the scientific method , he should be ashamed for making all scientists look like buffoons.
I just happened to see a CNN “news” show as I was preparing lunch yesterday at my workplace kitchen (there is a TV hanging on the wall). At the end of one news segment, it was announced that we should stay tuned because there is new evidence of an ancient galaxy indicating that there are advanced civilizations living on other worlds. What??? This announcement immediately sent up red flags. I asked co-workers, “Who is the crackpot who is going to make these claims?” After the commercial ended, we met the crackpot: Michio Kaku.
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I was reading The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 and had a thought involving the Abundance of the Elements and isotopes. We now know how the elements formed, and have measured their relative abundances for a while and across the universe. The theory of how they form matches every measurement. Basically, Hydrogen and traces of Helium have been around for over a dozen billion years. Heavier elements form when the mass attraction of enough hydrogen squishes a star’s core to fuse together helium and some lithium, a star is born.
All the rest form from the extreme compression and sudden release of supernovas. All that hydrogen and helium (basically protons and neutrons as there are no attached electrons at those pressures) are squeezed to dissolve into a quark soup then expanded and quick-frozen before they can push themselves apart. What is expected from this is an asymptotic curve of element abundances with hydrogen at the high end, and slight peaks forming at iron, xenon, and lead (particularly stable elements).
This is what is measured in our solar system:
Don’t let the zig-zag pattern confuse you. Odd numbered elements are harder to hold together than even ones; each pair of protons needs a pair of neutrons to let them stick together. But odd numbered ones have that odd pair of singles; they are just less likely to form.
But how does Carbon-14 fit in? What really freezes out from the splash of quark soup is not so much elements as isotopes. Every possible isotope forms in its proportional place along the curve. Then the unstable ones follow a decay chain until either they reach a stable element, or we measure them somewhere along the way. Uranium, for example, has 3 isotopes that last long enough to have hung around the 5 billion years or so for us to measure them. Technetium, on the other hand, is only found today as a decay byproduct from other elements.
So back to carbon. The three most common isotopes of carbon weigh 12, 13, and 14 atomic units (aka fermion masses: neutrons or protons). C-12 is most of it, C-13 is 1.1%, and C-14 is about 1/1,000,000,000,000 part of it. Carbon 13 is an odd-numbered isotope, and therefore intrinsically rare. Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. So if it were created in the expected normal proportion to carbon-12 billions of years ago, we would expect to not see any left. Where it all comes from is recent nuclear collisions between protons (cosmic rays) and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. (More details here).
We see the amount of carbon-14 that we’d expect for a regular continuous influx of cosmic rays that we do measure. But if all the elements had been made 10,000 years ago, we’d expect about C-14 to be about 1/4 of the total carbon, not the mere 1/1012 of it that we know is produced by cosmic ray collisions.
It turns out that comparing the abundance of isotopes of any element indicates the age of the planet to be between 4,000,000,000 and 5,000,000,000 years.
But what (I can predict this argument) if God created the elements with the isotope distributions intentionally skewed to just look like everything is that old? The old God-is-a-liar and created the young world old to eventually test faith of careful observers argument. I counter this with:
Given God and the Devil, which one has the power to put consistent evidence in every crevice of this and other planets and throughout the universe for every method of observation in every discipline for all interested observers of any faith,
and which one might inspire a few men men to write and edit a book and spread its message eagerly that can be interpreted to contradict that massive universe of evidence?