Category Archives: Science

Intelligent Design Honesty

The excellent and famous philosopher Thomas Nagel on teaching intelligent design:

When … in response to the finding that the teaching of creationism in public schools was unconstitutional, the producers of creation science tried to argue that young earth creationism was consistent with the geological and paleontological evidence, … their arguments were easily refuted. … That is a good enough reason not to teach it to schoolchildren. ..

I agree with Philip Kitcher that the response of evolutionists to creation science and intelligent design should not be to rule them out as "not science." He argues that the objection should rather be that they are bad science, or dead science: scientific claims that have been decisively refuted by the evidence. … However, the claim that ID is bad science or dead science may depend … on the assumption that divine intervention in the natural order is not a serious possibility. …

So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause. …

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‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’

This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

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Our Comet Ancestors?

A few years ago PCW Davies persuasively argued that Earth life more likely started on Mars.  Last year, Napier and coauthors argued that comets are an even more likely source:

The recognition that life has an information content too vast to be assembled by random processes has led to many discussions of possible evolutionary routes, starting from a simpler self-replicating organic system and ultimately leading to the present-day protein- DNA-based life. … The clay model … uses the repeating lattice structures of clay particles and their catalytic properties of converting simple organic molecules in aqueous solution into complex biopolymers. …

The volume of clay on the Earth is vastly surpassed by that in comets. A single comet of radius 10 km and 30% volume fraction of clay contains as much clay, to within a factor of around 10, as that of the early Earth. However, our Solar System is surrounded by about 10^11 comets forming the Oort cloud …  Whereas the average persistence of shallow clay pools and hydrothermal vent concentrations of clay on the Earth can range from 1 to around 100 years, a cometary interior provides a stable, aqueous, organic-rich environment for around 10^6 years.  … mechanisms for interstellar panspermia have recently been identified, and we may
have to multiply this number by the number of Oort cloud analogues in the Galaxy.

(See also comments.)  The entire paper is very short and qualitative – I’d have preferred quantitative discussion of rates of comet collisions with each other and with early Earth, to help us estimate how fast comet life could spread across comets, and how far it would have needed to spread to give it a decent chance of spreading to Earth. 

But my core reaction is to marvel at how little work like this gets done.  Figuring out the origins of life usually comes near the top of important scientific questions, yet in fact few resources go into this area.  One reason, I suspect, is that for now the best way to approach this subject is qualitative and integrative, while academia mainly rewards impressive displays of ways with words, math, and tech.  Does the topic also just seem silly?

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The Comedy of Behaviorism

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

"Let me see if I understand your thesis.  You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?"
        — Sidney Morgenbesser to B. F. Skinner

Behaviorism was the doctrine that it was unscientific for a psychologist to ascribe emotions, beliefs, thoughts, to a human being.  After all, you can’t directly observe anger or an intention to hit someone.  You can only observe the punch.  You may hear someone say "I’m angry!" but that’s hearing a verbal behavior, not seeing anger.  Thoughts are not observable, therefore they are unscientific, therefore they do not exist.  Oh, you think you’re thinking, but that’s just a delusion – or it would be, if there were such things as delusions.

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Touching Vs. Understanding

On the plane home last week I talked to a sharp Yale historian, and realized we devote far more resources to preserving historical sites, and to making history available via museums, than we do to funding professional historians to make sense of it all.  That reminded me of complaints that NASA spends far more on sending instruments into space to collect data than it does on funding scientists to analyze that data.  In both cases we collect far more data than ever gets carefully analyzed.

Now part of the explanation must be that the public can more easily see historical sites, museums, and space instruments than historians and data analysts.  But that doesn’t seem to me a sufficient explanation – I suspect we are also just more interested in touching the past, and in touching space, than in understanding either.  We talk about understanding because that is a modern applause light, but really we just like to touch exotic things.  The more we can touch, the further is our reach, and the more important and powerful we must be.  I wonder how much more this explains.

Added: We have related desires to see art and sport events in person, up close, and to meet and touch celebrities in person. 

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Funding Bias

From a Post article while I was traveling:

Wal-Mart and Toys R Us … will stop selling plastic baby bottles, food containers and other products that contain [BPA]. … One of the eyebrow-raising statistics about the BPA studies is the stark divergence in results, depending on who funded them.  More than 90 percent of the 100-plus government-funded studies performed by independent scientists found health effects from low doses of BPA, while none of the fewer than two dozen chemical-industry-funded studies did.  This striking difference in studies isn’t unique to BPA. When a scientist is hired by a firm with a financial interest in the outcome, the likelihood that the result of that study will be favorable to that firm is dramatically increased. …

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Cloud Seeding Markets

Nature considers cloud-seeding:

Chinese meteorologists will use weather-modification technologies to try to stop rain from spoiling the [Olympic] party. … Official figures … say that the country created 250 billion tonnes of rain between 1999 and 2006. … Critics say that many of these claims are laughable, and that most of the projects under way are based on little more than faith. … Today, countries from Australia to Iran practise some form of cloud-seeding – as do nearly a dozen US states. …

Some Chinese rain-makers have tried to conduct controlled seeding experiments. … In the early 1990s, the researchers found that rainfall rose by 18% as a result of 21 seeding operations – but the sample was too small for the results to be statistically significant.  In an earlier study, conducted between 1975 and 1986, meteorologists in … southeast China, conducted a randomized seeding experiment with two 14,000-square-kilometre regions. Over the course of 244 experimental days, they found that areas that had been seeded had 20% more rainfall than did those that had been left to their own devices.

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The Psychological Unity of Humankind

Followup toEvolutions Are Stupid (But Work Anyway), Evolutionary Psychology

Biological organisms in general, and human brains particularly, contain complex adaptations; adaptations which involve many genes working in concert. Complex adaptations must evolve incrementally, gene by gene.  If gene B depends on gene A to produce its effect, then gene A has to become nearly universal in the gene pool before there’s a substantial selection pressure in favor of gene B.

A fur coat isn’t an evolutionary advantage unless the environment reliably throws cold weather at you.  And other genes are also part of the environment; they are the genetic environment.  If gene B depends on gene A, then gene B isn’t a significant advantage unless gene A is reliably part of the genetic environment.

Let’s say that you have a complex adaptation with six interdependent parts, and that each of the six genes is independently at ten percent frequency in the population.  The chance of assembling a whole working adaptation is literally a million to one; and the average fitness of the genes is tiny, and they will not increase in frequency.

In a sexually reproducing species, complex adaptations are necessarily universal.

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What is the probability of the Large Hadron Collider destroying the universe?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will create conditions “last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.”  A lawsuit has been filed to prevent the LHC from being turned on for fear that it might destroy the earth or perhaps even the universe.  Some scientists associated with the LHC have stated that the LHC is safe to operate.

But, as the Dilbert Blog points out, should we trust these scientists’ stated opinions?  Scott Adams writes:

“And who exactly ran the numbers to decide it wasn’t that risky? After all, the whole point of the Large Hadron Collider is to create conditions that are not predictable. If someone already predicted what would happen using nothing but his laptop and Excel, and determined it was safe, I don’t think we’re getting our $8 billion worth.

I can’t see the management of this project spending $8 billion, realizing it was a huge boner, and then holding a press conference suggesting it be turned into a parking garage. I’ll bet a lot of people in that position would take at least a 5% risk of incinerating the galaxy versus incinerating their own careers. I know I would.

If the lawsuit succeeds, imagine trying to get another job with that project failure on your resume.

Interviewer: ‘So, you spent $8 billion dollars trying to build a machine that would either discover something cool or destroy the universe. Is it fair to say you are not a people person?’”

Some of this blogs’ readers and writer seem to know a lot about physics.  Here is a question for you:

(1)  What is the probability that the LHC will destroy the visible universe?

If you think the answer is zero please don’t bother posting a comment since your knowledge of probability theory is insufficient for your comment to be informative. 

And here is a question for everyone:

(2)  For what answers to (1) should the LHC be prevented from operating?

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And the Winner is… Many-Worlds!

This is one of several shortened indices into the Quantum Physics Sequence.

Macroscopic quantum superpositions, a.k.a. the "many-worlds interpretation" or MWI, was proposed in 1957 and brought to the general attention of the scientific community in 1970.  Ever since, MWI has steadily gained in popularity.  As of 2008, MWI may or may not be endorsed by a majority of theoretical physicists (attempted opinion polls conflict on this point).  Of course, Science is not supposed to be an opinion poll, but anyone who tells you that MWI is "science fiction" is simply ignorant.

When a theory is slowly persuading scientists despite all academic inertia, and more and more graduate students grow up familiar with it, at what point should one go ahead and declare a temporary winner pending new evidence?

Reading through the referenced posts will give you a very basic introduction to quantum mechanics – algebra is involved, but no calculus – by which you may nonetheless gain an understanding sufficient to see, and not just be told, that the modern case for many-worlds has become overwhelming.  Not just plausible, not just strong, but overwhelming.  Single-world versions of quantum mechanics just don’t work, and all the legendary confusingness and mysteriousness of quantum mechanics stems from this essential fact.  But enough telling – let me show you.

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