Category Archives: Pseudoscience

Fair Storytelling versus Young-Earth Creationism

An interesting essay from last month, by Fred Clark: “Phlebotinum, young-Earth creationism and the willing suspension of disbelief” (20 October 2014).

I think this analogy has something to it, but there’s also a point of contrast. A well-written phlebotinium story establishes the limitations of its fictitious technology, the rules by which it operates. Neither deflector shields nor transporters exist outside the story, but it’s well known that you can’t beam through the shields. Warp speed can only get you to the next star system so quickly. Go too fast for too long—warp 9.9 for more than seven minutes, let’s say—and your ship will break, and you will go no farther into space today.

By contrast, creationism flips from one standard to another, rewriting its own rules whenever convenient (or, rather, whenever it’s necessary to avoid an incovenience). Molecular biology is fine as long as it’s making pretty pictures of things “too complicated to evolve by chance!!!”, but as soon as it provides an explanation, out the door it goes. “Academic freedom” is the creationist rallying cry, as long as it’s creationists who are being cruelly un-freedom-ized (perhaps by the hateful demand that they actually get some science done).

Night Thoughts

Few debunkings of haunted houses, psychic media and so forth and so on rely exclusively, or even primarily, on what we’d call fundamental physics. It is not that the psychic operates in some way which requires a magnetic monopole; it is that the ability of people to do cold reading, plus our tendencies to remember hits and forget misses, plus other aspects of human behaviour, provide an alternative explanation which accounts for our experiences and gives us practical guidance for our future actions.
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Verily, Who Would Have Thunk?

Zack Kopplin describes an example of crackpot-idea synergy in a recent Slate piece about how “Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Along with the usual evolution-denialist drivel, those taxpayer funds are buying a threat to public health:

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

Anti-vax lunacy from the religious right? Who would have thunk it?

Well, other than people who have looked at the data, that is.

Reflections

Prompted by this review of Colin McGinn’s Basic Structures of Reality (2011), I read a chapter, courtesy the uni library. It was endumbening. To the extent that he ever has a point, he says in many words what others have said more clearly in few. He confuses the pedagogy of a particular introductory book with the mature understanding of a subject, displays total ignorance of deeper treatments of his chosen topic, blunders into fallacies, and generally leaves one with the impression that he has never done a calculation in all the time he spent “studying physics”. Truly an amazing achievement.

A few years ago, I might have blogged my way through the whole darn book. I must be getting old (“REALLY? NO WAY!” declares my weak knee). But is it a healthy and mature sense of priorities, or a senescent academic crustiness? Have I become one of those people, concerned with my vita to the exclusion of all else? Dark thoughts for this cold autumn evening, dark as our current season of superhero movies—Fimbulwinter 3: Flame of Despair….

“The Business of Skepticism is to be Dangerous”

Lately, I’ve found my thoughts returning to a passage of Carl Sagan which I first read years and years ago.

The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?

That’s from The Demon-Haunted World, chapter 24, page 416. I read that book as a child. I still remember the sensation of coming-to-wakefulness which that reading brought. Since then, I’ve grown taller and greyer and just a touch more bitter. I broke my heart a couple times, got my name into the learned journals here and there, and witnessed more than a few laudatory invocations of St. Carl of Ithaca.

I should have been less surprised to learn that skeptical institutions, fancy ones with Inquiry and Education in their names, belong on that list too.

It is difficult to have patience for those who restrict their community-building to those who need it least.

EDIT TO ADD: Basically, this.

If you want an effective movement with a broad reach, this is roughly the dumbest move you could make. However, if your goal is to reinforce the public’s belief that secularism and atheism particularly is nothing but a bunch of misanthropic white guys whose only real goal is feeling superior to believers but who don’t care about making real change in the world, well job well done. And fuck you.

The Transparent Academy

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to have all the course materials necessary for a good, solid undergraduate physics degree available online, free to access and licensed in a way which permits reuse and remixing. I’d like it all in one place, curated, with paths through it mapped out to define a curriculum. When I say all the course materials, I mean that this webzone should have online textbooks; copies of, or at least pointers to, relevant primary literature; video lectures; simulation codes; sample datasets on which to practice analysis; homework and exam problems with worked-out solutions; interactive quizzes, so we can be trendy; and ways to order affordable experimental equipment where that is possible, e.g., yes on diffraction gratings, but probably no on radioactive sources. I’m talking about physics, because that’s what I nominally know about, but I’d like this to encompass the topics which I got sent to other departments to learn about, like the Mathematics Department’s courses in single- and multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, group theory, etc.

One way to think about it is this: suppose you had to teach a physics class to first- or second-year undergraduates. Could you get all the textual materials you need from Open-Access sources on the Web? Would you know where to look?

What with Wikipedia, OpenCourseWare, review articles on the arXiv, science blogs, the Khaaaaaan! Academy and so forth, we probably already have a fair portion of this in various places. But the operative word there is various. I, at least, would like it gathered together so we can know what’s yet to be done. With a project like, say, Wikipedia, stuff gets filled in based on what people feel like writing about in their free time. So articles grow by the cumulative addition of small bits, and “boring” content — parts of the curriculum which need to be covered, but are seldom if ever “topical” — doesn’t get much attention.

I honestly don’t know how close we are to this ideal. And, I don’t know what would be the best infrastructure for bringing it about and maintaining it. Idle fantasies and pipe dreams!

I’d like to have this kind of resource, not just for the obvious practical reasons, but also because it would soothe my conscience. I’d like to be able to tell people, “Yes, physics and mathematics are difficult, technical subjects. The stuff we say often sounds like mystical arcana. But, if you want to know what we know, all we ask is time and thinking — we’ve removed every obstacle to your understanding which we possibly can.”

I don’t think this would really impact the physics cranks and crackpots that much, but that’s not the problem I’m aiming to (dreaming that we will) solve. Disdain for mathematics is one warning sign of a fractured ceramic, yes: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen websites claiming to debunk Einstein “using only high-school algebra!” We could make learning the mathematical meat of physics easier, but that won’t significantly affect the people whose crankishness is due to personality and temperament. Free calculus lessons, no matter how engaging, won’t help those who’ve dedicated themselves to fighting under the banner of Douche Physik.

Alchemists work for the people. —Edward Elric

Signature in the Cell (Repost)

For your convenience:

The following is a list of debunkings of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, arranged more or less in chronological order. I have not included every blog post I’ve seen on the topic; as I did for Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, I’ve focused on the most substantive remarks, rather than keeping track of every time somebody just quoted somebody else. (I’ve also probably overlooked, forgotten, mistakenly thought I’d already included or never been made aware of some worthwhile essays.) In some cases, additional relevant posts can be found by following links within the essays I have listed.
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Colony Collapse Disorder

Bug Girl takes on a recent paper which claimed to find evidence that cell phones have it in for beehives. The punchline:

This paper (which for a student research paper would be questionable) should not have been in a journal. It definitely should not have postulated a connection to Colony Collapse Disorder.
And it should never have made the levels of press exposure that it did.

Read the rest at her blag.

Monday BPSDB: Null Physics

BPSDBA fellow named Terry Witt has been advertising his self-published book, Our Undiscovered Universe, in places like Discover magazine and Scientific American. Unfortunately, the ad pages aren’t exactly peer-reviewed, or even cross-checked with a nearby grad student; being businesses, magazines naturally care about revenue. Upon examination, Our Undiscovered Universe turns out to be brimming over with crank physics and general nonsense. Ben Monreal, who was one of the intimidatingly smart people in the lab where I did my undergrad thesis, has weighed Witt’s “Null Physics” and found it wanting; his review of Our Undiscovered Universe is quite a good read.

Witt’s book starts with pseudomathematics before moving on to pseudophysics. As Ben explains,

Chapter 1 is where Witt lays out a series of “proofs” derived from what he calls the “Null Axiom”. That axiom is: “Existence sums to nonexistence” (pg. 28)—something that Witt calls self-evident after a page of invalid set theory. The central mistake, if I had to identify one, is the claim that “X does not exist” is the same as “everything except X exists”. This is utter baloney, whether in formal logic or in set theory or in daily experience.

Actually, as the book unfolds, Witt doesn’t appear to use this dead-in-the-water non-axiom for anything. He does, however, pile on more pseudomathematics:

Chapter 3 contains such gems as Theorem 3.1: “The Existence of Any Half of the Universe is Equal to the Nonexistence of the Other Half” (pg. 66) and Theorem 3.9: “The Time Required for Light to Traverse the Universe is Eternity, infinity/c” (pg. 72). I am not making this up. Witt throws around “infinity” as though it were an ordinary real number; he multiplies and divides by it, etc., with normal algebraic cancellation. This is complete nonsense; there are two centuries of mathematical thought figuring out the mathematical properties of infinity, and Witt’s approach is valid in exactly none of them. (Witt later explained on his online forum—currently disabled—that he’s reinvented all of the mathematics associated with “infinity”. His reasoning, if that’s what you call it, was that his new definition jibed with a grand idea about math being dependent on nature; it was an argument from incredulity.)

When Witt does finally get around to physics, five chapters into the book, he doesn’t do any better.
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Quantum Woo, Part N

BPSDBTime for a little BPSDB! The redoubtable Ben Goldacre has the dirt on Bill Nelson’s “QXCI machine,” a device for “bioenergetic health auditing,” a medical procedure well-known among specialists as an essential step in the surgical removal of cash from wallets. Best of all, though, is what QXCI stands for: Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface. Now, quantum physics has jack to do with consciousness, but more importantly, “quantum xrroid” just sounds. . . painful. Like a blood boil growing inside your X, if you know what I mean.

Maybe a “quantum xrroid” means that your X is in a superposition of inflamed and not inflamed and only settles on one or the other option when your doctor examines it.

(Incidentally, I met the redoubtable Ben Goldacre in Vegas a few weeks ago — and thereby would hang a tale, if he weren’t still hoarding the photo evidence.)