Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Brian Cox is great. Hey, I can’t always be controversial. He is. He’s doing so much to get people interested in cool sciencey stuff, with his Wonders series and the BBC Stargazing thing and whatnot. The first time I saw him in person was at his lecture for 2009’s TAM London, and it was also the first and only time I’ve felt like I was starting to get my head around this whole Standard Model business.

It's so beautiful... What does it mean?

But I’m wondering about something. Critical thinking blogger Crispian Jago recently recounted a thing on Twitter which, without his kind permission, I’m going to share with you now:

The tale of science communicator and the fortean in 4 short tweets…

Despite liking astronomy my father-in-law believes we never landed on the moon and the world will end in 2012

On Monday he tuned into to BBC Stargazing live just as Brian was talking about moon landing denial

Brian said something to the effect of all the idiots who believe we never landed on the moon will be watching ITV

Apparently my father-in-law muttered “fuck you Cox” and promptly switched to ITV.

So Brian was completely right

Now, first of all, the theory that the NASA Moon landings were faked is utterly ridiculous. The reasons people cite for doubting the accepted story cannot possibly be grounded in a thorough and intellectually honest assessment of the evidence. There’s a lot of idiocy surrounding the conspiracy theories, without a doubt.

Brian’s antipathy to such piffle while he’s trying to talk about real and interesting science is understandable. There are countless fascinating things awaiting to be learnt about the Moon and mankind’s efforts to visit it, without being distracted by such fatuous and implacably recurrent drivel.

On a similar note, Stephen Fry once went so far as to ban anyone who believes in astrology from watching his interesting-factoid-based quiz show QI. Once again, I can entirely sympathise with the frustration.

And yet…

And yet while it undoubtedly does succinctly communicate an important scientific point to dismiss astrology or Moon-landing hoaxery as worthless bullshit, it’s not the only thing we need to do to fix the problem that millions of people still believe it.

In the case of Crispian’s father-in-law, I don’t know whether he’d be open to learning more about why he’s so badly wrong about everything, or whether he’s so firmly committed to his preferred nonsense that no approach, however diplomatic, will ever shake him from it. But insofar as Brian was absolutely right about him, it feels like a fairly hollow victory.

Some people will cite a few individual bits of trivia about the flag on the Moon waving even though there’s no wind to blow it. Some people will point to the time their horoscope told them to expect a financial windfall, and they found a fiver on the pavement. Some people will laud a homeopathic preparation for curing their headache, after about the length of time during which headaches will normally go away.

And although it might not always be possible, I don’t want these people to switch over to another channel and be wrong somewhere else nearly as much as I want them to understand why these are terrible and unconvincing arguments.

I don’t want to sound too censorious here. Brian Cox really is great at talking about important stuff in a way that’s engaging and makes sense, and part of that should sometimes involve calling out irrelevant bollocks that doesn’t deserve any further attention.

But it’s worth remembering what the real victories of science communication are, when considering people who believe the wrong things. Maybe they’re just not right yet.

Read Full Post »

Cosmos was one of the landmarks of modern science.

I’m not sure that’s an over-statement. Education, and enthusing and inspiring the public about the subject, has to count as a significant part of what modern science is.

In 1980, over the course of thirteen hour-long episodes, Carl Sagan brought numerous areas of science to life, introduced many wonderful and exciting concepts, and infused every moment with his passion and curiosity and delight at the pleasure of learning about the universe.

I can’t think of anyone of any note in the skeptical community who hasn’t either spoken with deep fondness of the impact that Cosmos (and Sagan generally) had on them growing up, or of the excitement of discovering it more recently, in the case of those who weren’t around to see it the first time. (I’m still working my way sporadically through the DVD box set.)

It’s such a beautiful project. Sagan died in 1996, and Cosmos was perhaps the most prominent part of his legacy.

More than thirty years later, we’re finally getting a sequel.

Another thirteen parts, entitled Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey.

The creative team behind this fantastically ambitious project include: the original series’s co-creators, Steven Soter and Ann Druyan (the latter also being Carl Sagan’s widow); Seth MacFarlane – or, to give him his full title according to most reports about this, “Seth MacFarlane yes really that Seth MacFarlane”; and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Hell.

Yes.

Tyson is intelligent, engaging, and loves what he talks about. I cannot think of anyone more appropriate to step into Sagan’s colossal, if metaphorical, shoes. Possibly Phil Plait. But Tyson’s a fantastic choice.

It’ll be a couple of years before this turns up on TV, but I’m going to be optimistic that it’s worth waiting for.

Read Full Post »

I told you yesterday I was having trouble keeping up the earnestness.

It all seems barely less terrible in that part of the world than it was yesterday, but there are other petty things worth getting annoyed about, in between just feeling sad.

Ben Goldacre has pointed to an article in the Daily Mail which is dripping with even more bullshit than you’d expect.

It suggests that a “supermoon” – basically the moon being closer to us than it usually is – could have caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And by describing this as “the latest natural disaster” of its kind, it seems to take it as read that the moon has already been wreaking havoc in numerous other ways.

“Astrologers” are credited with predicting that, in just over a week, the moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in years, and so its gravitational impact will be increased, causing “chaos”.

The first problem with this is fuck astrologers. Astronomers – the ones who actually do science instead of just making shit up – have kinda been on top of the moon’s perigees and apogees – that is, the times when it’s closest or farthest from Earth – for quite a while now. And yes, at the upcoming perigee it will be a smidge closer than it has been for a few years, but not by much. It’s less than half a percent closer than it was in the February perigee, and it’ll be a while before it’s that close again.

The second problem is that this upcoming perigee is due on March 19th. Saying the extra gravity could have caused disasters on Earth in the past few days is like saying “Hey, better watch out for werewolves, it’s only a week and a half till the full moon!” It was at its apogee – the furthest point – less than a week ago. That means the moon was further away from us than usual when the earthquake hit.

All credit to Phil Plait for explaining all this to me so that I can re-explain it all to you. As well as for putting up some repetitive and monumental stupid in his comments thread.

But what’s even more hilarious and/or murderously infuriating is that the Daily Mail posted another article, TWO DAYS previously, which describes “bizarre rumours” about a supermoon triggering “tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes” being put about by “conspiracy theorists” and “lunar-tics” (which, by the way, isn’t even a pun, because that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ fucking comes from).

They actually apply some moderately competent skepticism further down that article, quoting actual scientists who do much to debunk the exact same bullshit that the same newspaper is quite happy to regurgitate barely 48 hours later once something scary happened.

Never mind that the moon isn’t at the perigee for more than a week, meaning it’s currently further away than usual, and so the earthquake in the pacific isn’t what the astrologers predicted at all. Come yesterday’s scare-mongering, all the science gets relegated to way down the page, below the picture, where they know most people probably won’t look. And the last word goes to the “small and vocal minority” who are daring to defy the stodgy old scientists by believing whatever fantasies they want.

Donations are still needed and appreciated at the Red Cross and Save The Children.

Read Full Post »

Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, posted a thing yesterday.

He was considering a step-by-step argument, which seems to result in the likely conclusion that life on Earth was the result of a deliberate seeding operation by aliens. Read it through on his blog before deciding it’s nonsense. I’ve summarised it very coarsely, and it’s more lucidly reasoned out than you might think.

His point, though, was to ask his readers to spot the flaw in the logic, which he finds himself unable to do, despite assuming apparently a priori that there definitely is a flaw. He doesn’t lay out explicitly why he’s unconvinced by what seems to him like watertight reasoning, and you may in fact be in agreement with the conclusion yourself.

But, a few problems with it did occur to me as I was reading, so I thought I’d try fleshing them out here, in a purely speculative and thoroughly uninformed manner.

– Firstly, I think the principle of indifference may be being inappropriately applied.

This is a mathsy thing. The idea is, you can basically guess equally between a number of possibilities when you don’t know anything about what’s going on, and simply have a number of options presented to you. If I ask you to guess what playing card I just randomly picked out of a deck, for instance, you might just as well say the nine of diamonds as the seven of spades. Nothing stands out about any one option, so you can apply the principle of indifference, and treat them all as being equally likely.

But sometimes it’s inappropriately applied. One way I’ve seen this done before is to argue that our Universe is likely to be only a simulation. We think we live in a reality that really exists, but as we approach a time when it’s feasible to create a Matrix-like simulation in which conscious beings could live unawares, we have to consider that maybe we already exist in such a simulation.

But maybe the reality that’s simulating us is itself only a simulation, within a reality which is also only a simulation, and so on, Inception-style, with as many layers as you like. Then, the possibility that ours is the real reality, and we just haven’t created any universe simulations ourselves yet, is just one among indefinitely many. So (the fallacious argument goes) the odds on that being the case are vanishingly small.

The reason it’s not convincing is that all the various options – that our reality is real, or that we’re the first simulation, or the second, or the seventy-fourth – should not be treated as equally likely. The idea that our reality is real makes fewer assumptions about the plausibility or the existence of colossal universe-simulating machines, and can legitimately be given a greater weight than the other options.

Scott’s argument may suffer from the same false application of this principle. It says: we could soon be the first species ever to send spaceships to other planets and “seed” them with the building blocks of Earth-like life – or we could be one of many stops in an indefinitely long chain of other species which have already done that. That is, Earth may have been seeded by an alien civilisation, which itself was seeded by another, and another, and so on.

If you consider that we could be at any point in the chain, and treat them all with the principle of indifference, then it may seem unlikely that we just happen to be the first, “unseeded” life-forms in the cosmos. But there are different assumptions involved in “It’s already happened” than “It hasn’t happened yet”, and so, barring any other evidence which directly supports it, I don’t think we’re obliged to give the possibility that our own world was “seeded” so much weight.

– Because, don’t forget, there is no other evidence directly supporting the idea that this seeding is what’s happened here. However solid the arguments might be that it could happen, or that it’s virtually inevitable to happen with any life that reaches a certain threshold of intelligence, it’s all just speculation. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same thing as empirical data. However unlikely you want to argue that the “unseeded Earth” possibility is, it’s entirely consistent with the current data, and it makes fewer assumptions about the Universe than the alternatives.

– I’m also not fully convinced that any intelligent life-forms would necessarily reach the point where this seeding of other worlds becomes both practical and desirable. There are various assumptions on which this rests, like our (or other life-forms’) ability to get that far technologically without destroying ourselves; the superior plausibility of the seeding option over any other methods for sustaining life; the eventual success of even a well planned seeding mission in giving rise to intelligent life again; and the timescale necessary for this to happen. (We have pretty good evidence that life on Earth has been evolving slowly for about a quarter of the age of the Universe. It can’t have happened that many times, going by this iteration rate.)

– We also have no idea how likely the possibility of alien life actually is. There’s so much uncertainty over so many variables of the Drake equation, that whether or not any other life has yet been able to arise anywhere else in the galaxy is still deeply contentious. A lot of things needed to be exactly right on Earth for life to get going and start becoming complex and interesting, and we don’t really know how rare those conditions are. The scenario of other aliens having got there before us is far from being a given.

Leave a comment if there are any more obvious points leaping out at you which demonstrate that one of us is going wrong.

Read Full Post »

This is my 500th post on this blog.

It shouldn’t have taken more than 900 days to get this far, ideally, but we’re here now, and I think I’ve been getting the hang of it lately.

So, to celebrate, let’s have some comedy.

If you’re not familiar with Conservapedia, it is fucking hilarious. But today’s specific entertainment is the page on counterexamples to relativity. (Thanks to Brian Cox for bringing this to the attention of Twitter recently.)

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. Here is a list of 30 counterexamples: any one of them shows that the theory is incorrect.

Yep, it turns out you don’t have to have a scientific background or spend years studying physics to be able to disprove Einstein. You just have to be sufficiently right-wing. That’s all it takes to be a genius!

Look, scientists don’t claim that relativity is perfect and complete and explains everything in the Universe flawlessly. Reconciling general relativity with quantum theory is one of the big unsettled problems of physics today. But in the arena to which they apply, the general and special theories of relativity are the best we’ve got. When there are discrepancies between nature and relativity, they tend to be smaller than the discrepancies between nature and any other theory. That’s why we bother with them at all.

It’s unclear what the Conservatards think would act as a superior alternative to relativity. Neither classical mechanics nor quantum mechanics is violently decried as an elitist liberal conspiracy, so clearly they’re not disapproved of very strongly. (Though, if you’ve passed high school physics, their thoughts on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle should give you a giggle.)

Some of my favourite bits:

– #5 is a question. It’s not even making a statement. Is it meant to be rhetorical?

– #7 seems to assume the Big Bang model of the universe, which is very much not Conservapedia’s usual style.

– #9 is a Bible quote. To disprove relativity. Which has literally nothing to do with anything.

– #11 completely ignores the theory’s consistency with any evidence, and just says that it’s wrong because it hasn’t led to any further “insights”. This is like insisting that, if you beat your friend in a game of basketball, you must be taller than him, and ignoring whatever happens when someone gets out a tape measure.

– #18 is even funnier: relativity led to the atomic bomb, which is bad because it kills people, therefore the theory is false. Seriously. Icing sugar has carbs and will make you fat; therefore the cake is a lie.

– #28 brings up the first chapter of Genesis, which is more like it (though destroys the usefulness of #7 as a counterexample). It also randomly decides that the firmament described in the Bible “likely refers to the creation of the luminiferous aether”. What the fuck an outdated theory essentially disproven by the end of the 19th century has to do with anything, or how it disproves relativity, I have no idea.

– Whoever compiled this list basically has no idea what any physics means. Even I can explain why #16, #20, #25, #27, #29, and #30 are just factually incorrect. And the Twin Paradox one wasn’t hard to look up. That stuff’s been experimentally verified too, for what it’s worth.

Oh dear, I was supposed to just present this without comment for your amusement, but I seem to have ended up rather rambling on. Terribly sorry.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know the sky that well.

I mean, we’re not completely unfamiliar, the sky and I. We’re on friendly-nod terms, when we see each other. But we’re not what I’d call close. We don’t really hang out together much. I’d definitely miss it if it went anywhere, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t much notice my absence.

I imagine we all have friends who we’re not as close with as perhaps we’d like. And the sky has a lot going on in its life that I don’t know anything about, often because I never really bothered to ask.

So what does the sky fill all its space with? Well, you’ve got birds up there flapping around a lot. You’ve got buildings and other man-made structures towering up into it. You’ve got human-designed machines, like aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, and whatnot. You’ve got a lot of weather happening: rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, not to mention clouds of numerous shapes, shades, and consistencies, and the very odd things the Sun sometimes gets up to. You’ve got your Aurora Borealis.

And then you’ve got the rest of the Universe. Well, not all of it, but even just the bit you can see in the sky is pretty extensive. Other stars, other galaxies, distant nebulae, passing comets. Planets like Mars or Venus, a bit closer to home, are often visible from Earth with the naked eye. Orbiting satellites, closer still.

And there’s a lot of stuff I probably haven’t even thought of. All the things I’ve mentioned so far have their own fields of scientific endeavour, with some people spending years studying them to acquire a high level of expertise. I am not an expert in aircraft, or architecture, or astronomy, or aurorae, or aviation, or… a synonym for meteorology that starts with ‘a’. A lot of the time, I really can’t speak with much authority on what I’m seeing when I tilt my head up and open my eyes.

This is my point. I often don’t know what I’m seeing in the sky. And neither do you.

The term ‘UFO’ is widely used to describe alien spacecraft – machines that have been piloted here from another planet by extra-terrestrial intelligences previously unknown to human experience. But a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. Once you’ve decided that it’s a spaceship, it’s not unidentified any more.

And if you make that call, that means that you’ve positively identified something you’ve seen in the sky. Something quite possibly far away, small, blurry, moving rapidly, obscured, and otherwise pretty damn hard to see. Positively identifying the exact nature of something like that, without getting any closer or using any more technical equipment to examine it, or in any way verifying your assessment objectively, isn’t easy. Especially if you’re not an expert in aircraft, astronomy, and all the rest – but even if you are an expert, there are limitations on your deductive abilities based on what you might be able to squint at in the far distance. You’d have to have gathered a lot of information, and have some serious expertise in analysing and processing it, before you could really claim such a thing confidently.

Astronomers use carefully calibrated telescopes to observe their chosen celestial objects of interest, and take detailed notes of exactly what they see and exactly where they see it, so that a coherent picture can be carefully pieced together over time by repeated verification of observations. Naturalists use binoculars to track animals such as birds, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disturbing them, and to get close enough to have a good look, so that they can be really sure exactly what they’re seeing. And ufologists… well, they have a tendency to just point at stuff in the sky, and say “Wassat? Must be aliens.”

Okay, that might be a little unfair on some of them. It’s not like there isn’t any room for a proper scientific discipline here. You could examine this stuff critically, and do all sorts of technical sciencey things like checking your facts. But the people who actually do that tend to conclude that there’s probably nothing to any of this. It’s been observed before that amateur astronomers are the perfect people to find some reliable evidence of an alien presence in the sky, given how much time they spend looking up there and how much more they know about what they expect to see, but it doesn’t happen.

The people who witness these extraordinary things in the sky that can’t possible be explained are usually unqualified amateurs with no specialist equipment or knowledge. Of course they can’t explain what that curiously moving point of light is. But for some reason they often decide that their lack of expertise trumps anyone else’s potential insights, and if they can’t think of a mundane explanation, then they decide it must be something completely outside mundane science’s ability to account for.

In short, the people with the expertise are better at identifying what they see, which makes those things no longer UFOs. The people who really stand by their alien stories tend to be the ones who really want to believe they’ve found something, and can’t let it go, needing to sift through to find a particular interpretation of a particular set of evidence which supports their idea, and focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

And the particular self-affirming flaw I’m talking about here is the point of the word “unidentified”. I’m always seeing stuff in the sky that I don’t know what it is, and can’t reliably identify, and the same must be true of alien-hunters. But it should seem odd that alien craft are all they seem to be any good at identifying. How many people who claim to be capable of spotting a flying saucer in the far distance with their own eyes, and reliably telling you how far away, how big, and how fast-moving that blurry smudge is over there, could also tell you anything about the position and luminosity of Venus?

And if it’s not very much, then how do they know that Venus can’t look exactly like what they think an alien spaceship looks like?

If something is truly an Unidentified Flying Object, then by definition you don’t know what it is. But the assertions made by enthusiasts so often amount to nothing more than an argument from ignorance: “What we’re seeing here has no explanation, therefore you must accept my explanation“. But it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a lot of things going on in the sky that neither you nor I could spot and describe precisely from a single distance glance. “Something unknown to me” is a simpler, and therefore preferable, explanation than “something unknown to me and from another planet“.

Read Full Post »

In which I take the foolish and reprehensible step of holding a slightly different opinion from that of David Mitchell.

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author, though he’s brilliant too (and there are apparently many others as well, many of whom I’m sure are also jolly good)) is brilliant. He’s been getting some play in the skeptical community lately because of some rather fun jabs that comedy duo Mitchell and Webb take at pseudoscience in their sketch shows, like the Homeopathic E.R. sequence. And he wrote an article this week, about this physics professor in the US who declared recently that Hollywood films should stick closer to science fact.

The first thing I’m prompted to wonder is why this is suddenly newsworthy now, when I’m sure there have been any number of scientists grumbling on very similar lines for years. And David’s main point has also been made a number of times before: the primary purpose of TV and film is to be entertaining, and it’s entirely correct that this should sometimes take priority over reflecting such petty details as the laws of physics with perfect accuracy.

Reality is unrealistic, after all. You don’t want everything in fiction to perfectly resemble the real world you already know and are bored with – that’s why you’re watching telly in the first place. I think I more or less agree with David’s assessment that:

Being realistic is a storytelling tool, like lighting, music and sexy actresses.

This doesn’t downplay its importance too much. If you’re telling a story, then storytelling tools are vital. If you don’t bother worrying about the lighting while filming, it’s likely to end up looking terrible; likewise, if realism is completely disregarded, your script will probably be a total mess. Realism is important, but to be used wisely as a tool of story-telling, wherever appropriate, not adhered to dogmatically.

Where I started to cringe a little was this paragraph:

How typical of a scientist to try to reduce film-making to a formula. He’s noticed that enjoyable science fiction sometimes needs to include the impossible, but streams of implausible events don’t make a compelling narrative. He’s right but he should have left it at that. The happy medium is found by using judgment not maths.

It’s the first sentence, really. I hang out with far too many science geeks, and read far too many scientists’ blogs and Twitter feeds, not to be acutely aware that reducing anything to a formula is not typically representative of what scientists always do. It’s usual poor tabloid reporting that produces that kind of nonsense. To some actual scientists, such formulae are anathema.

But despite that nagging quibble, he’s making basically a good point. The guy making these recommendations – Professor Sidney Perkowitz of the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – has reportedly suggested a limit of “one big scientific blunder in a given film”. Which is where it starts to get a bit silly.

David speculates that this is comparable to the “one coincidence to which good screenplays are supposed to be restricted”, but that doesn’t seem like a great analogy. Major coincidences happen sometimes in the real world, but rarely in big clumps, so multiple coincidences in your film will make it start to look unrealistic.

But scientifically impossible things don’t happen at all, so whether there’s one breach of the laws of nature in your movie or a dozen makes no difference as to its implausibility. Any such simple hard-and-fast rule is bound to be misleading and unhelpful.

One film I recently really enjoyed was called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’m about fifteen years older than its target audience, but it was warm and funny and energetic and had nifty pacing and great comic timing and for the most part it stopped short of being annoying in its zaniness. Two thumbs up. But it was full of completely impossible things going on that only make sense in a cartoon world – unsurprisingly, being an animated kids’ film – and if you were scientifically nit-picking your way through, you’d have no time left for anything else.

And I would dispute that there exists any precise definable line between stories where you can do stupid cartoon stuff, like drop anvils on your characters and have tweeting birds appear circling around their dazed heads, and sci-fi, where everything must make perfect sense. Just as much as I dispute that allowing “one big scientific blunder” per movie does anything useful to address scientific plausibility in cinema. What’s likely to be acceptable depends far more on the context and the internal logic of an individual film.

It’s also worth noting that sci-fi writer John Scalzi was way more put out by the bad science in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie than was astronomer Phil Plait. These are both guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two, but it’s clearly possible to forgive a lot that you know is technically unrealistic, in the right context.

And while it’s lamentable that it’s taken me this long to reach one of the most interesting points about all this, there’s one thing I’ve heard from scientists on this subject time and again: When big-budget sci-fi movies do get actual science advisors on board to try and make sure things stay somewhere within tentacle’s reach of reality, they almost never have to totally sacrifice huge swathes of cool stuff that they wanted to do. Very often, having someone who really knows their stuff just makes the science even more awesome.

The conversation will go something like:


“Okay, someone send the resident geek in here. And get me some more coffee. Ah, smarty-brain, there you are, how’s it going? Listen, what’s your nerdy take on this bit in scene twelve where James Bond goes solar-wind-surfing? That’s a thing, right, solar wind? So I figure we get him wind-surfing but, like, on the Sun. Pretty cool, right? Not really sure how we get him up there, though. Does the Space Shuttle go to the Sun? Could we get one of those sky elevator things I think I heard about that one time? China has those, right?”

“Yeah, look, I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about this whole scene, none of it really makes any sense, and if you go ahead with it as it’s currently written then your audience are going to tear you a scientifically impossibly large new one for turning their favourite franchise into a joke.”

“Damn. Tina, cancel my breakfast with the Prime Minster of China, tell him he can keep his crazy moon escalators. Okay then, astro-boy, you’d better come up with some new idea that’ll give me an excuse to have Bond to take his shirt off and justify a special effects budget bigger than the GDP of several small countries.”

“Well actually, if you’d ever paid any attention in school, or indeed to any other human being in your entire life, you might be aware of this other thing you could do, which would still look awesome on screen and let you showcase the CGI expertise of your hordes of computer-literate underlings, with the added bonus that it’s not total bullshit.”

“You mean, giving a shit about scientific accuracy might not reduce the entertainment factor by crippling my ability to blindly throw in whatever cool stuff I can think of, and may even put me in a better position to make exciting and visually inspiring references to genuine scientific phenomena?”

“Yep. You want to do things that way then?”

“Make it so.”


Wow, that rather got away from me. Wasn’t expecting that to turn into quite such a flight of fancy. Probably a bit wordy and less funny than I think it is. Still, not in the mood to edit now.

A good example of the kind of thing you may have just skipped over is the occasional recognition in some sci-fi films that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and so cool-looking explosions wouldn’t actually make any noise when observed from a distance. David likes hearing stuff explode, and is willing to forego some realism on that score, which is fine – there’s always got to be some suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, and we all have our different limits – but as Phil Plait points out, a spaceship blowing up in perfect silence can, if done right, be eerie as hell. Knowing how the real world works can really add to a talented director’s repertoire.

Yikes. That was wordy. Have I covered everything? I feel I should sum up. Or at least redraft before I post this. Nah. Thoughts, anyone?

Read Full Post »

You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– Inigo Montoya

This is a staple of pseudoscience. Not quoting The Princess Bride – everyone does that too much, regardless of their scientific credibility. I mean anomaly hunting. But the anomalies that woo-mongers think they’re looking for often aren’t anomalous in any useful, scientific sense of the word.

A scientific anomaly is a fact that is strange or unusual, in that it doesn’t fit into the model suggested by a particular theory. It’s some piece of data which genuinely oughtn’t to be there, if our present understanding is completely correct.

A scientific anomaly is emphatically not any event or occurrence that makes you go, “Oooh, that’s spooky“.

For instance. If biologists ever observed a modern chimpanzee giving birth to human offspring, that would be an anomaly totally irreconcilable with the current theory of evolution. This is true despite the persistently ignorant insistence of some creationists, who think that this is exactly what would be needed to finally prove Darwin right. Similarly, a verifiable discovery of those famous rabbits in the Precambrian would be entirely anomalous, and could not be accounted for within evolution.

If psychics exist, they would presumably be able to demonstrate their powers under controlled experimental conditions. If their rate of success at telling me what number I’m thinking of was sufficiently above what you’d expect from chance guesswork, then this would be an anomalous result, incompatible with the current scientific worldview which does not admit psychic powers. So, we would need to update our picture of the universe to accommodate this. This kind of anomaly can’t simply be left hanging.

One real anomaly, which intruded into astronomy in the mid-19th century, concerned the orbit of the planet Uranus. We had a wonderful theory of how everything in the solar system moved, and could predict where all the known planets would be at future times with fantastic accuracy, using Newton’s law of gravitation. But Uranus wasn’t quite behaving. People had checked and double-checked the numbers, but the seventh planet was definitely wandering very slightly off course, if the information they were plugging into the calculations was right.

So, this anomaly prompted people to start wondering what was going on that we weren’t seeing. For the most part, we had a pretty good theory going, and it turned out that it could be saved if we supposed that there was another planet further out, tugging on Uranus’ orbit a little with its gravitational pull. Then the numbers would all work beautifully again.

Crucially, though, they weren’t just assuming that some other massive body must exist out there, because the theory just had to be true. They were refining the theory, adding new elements to it, and in so doing they made a new prediction, by which they could test whether the new version of the theory was any good. Theories do that. If it can’t predict specific future observations, it ain’t a theory. And in this case, the Newtonian model of the solar system predicted a new planet of a specific mass, in a specific place, with a specific orbit.

They worked out where it should be, aimed their telescopes thataway, and, lo and behold: Neptune.

So, looking for anomalies and ways to account for them can be productive. But if you go chasing after things that aren’t truly anomalies in this sense, you’re not going to be doing anything as awesome as finding new planets. It just becomes pseudoscience.

The kinds of anomalies that some people go hunting for don’t hint at improvements to good scientific theories, but consist simply of any result which stands out in some way. Anything that looks a bit weird can be seen as an “anomaly” – even though weirdness is often a fundamental and entirely expected feature of the universe. Not every theory should be expected to immediately explain every observation. To suggest that a theory needs to be entirely thrown out, and replaced with some entirely new paradigm, is a common overreaction to one small “anomaly” being found.

So, when anomaly hunters approach an idea that’s actually pretty solid and widely accepted – say, that 9/11 was perpetrated by a band of Islamic extremists, or that ghosts don’t exist – they might pick up on some small factors that seem at first glance not to fit perfectly with the established explanation – say, that “fire can’t melt steel”, or that there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – and use these to call the established explanation into question. The very fact that anomalies exist – in this sense of strange-seeming things that can’t be immediately explained – is held up as evidence of the weakness of the prevailing theory.

But it may well easily be shown, with a little more work, that the prevailing theory is entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen – say, by slowly explaining how chemistry works, or by just growing up. These aren’t genuine anomalies, in that they don’t really need any new phenomena to be invoked to explain them. They fit just fine into a description of the world that we already have.

The kinds of anomalies that people latch onto might be things that we really don’t know the answer to, and can’t explain with certainty to everyone’s absolute satisfaction. But y’know, those are actually okay too. The unknown is pretty consistent with a lot of good ideas. Failing to absolutely nail every single detail of everything that’s going on is not scientifically anomalous at all. There’s no problem if it’s just an uncertainty; it’s only when something is truly inexplicable that your theory needs to be re-worked.

Every so often, a person might see some strange-looking lights in the sky which they can’t accurately identify. These reports are exactly the types of anomalies that UFO-enthusiasts go hunting for, but they’re not comparable to the problem with the orbit of Uranus. There’s nothing about a world free from alien visitors which implies that everyone will know exactly what they’re looking at every single time they spot a thing in the air. People occasionally squinting up at the sky and going “Wassat? I dunno… some geese maybe? Helicopter?” doesn’t undermine the skeptical position, because that could easily happen if there weren’t any aliens around. It would take much more than that – a genuine scientific anomaly, entirely lacking in plausible naturalistic explanations – before their case is supported.

This actually relates to Ockham’s razor, which I’ve apparently neglected to provide its own entry yet. These supposed “anomalies” are often held up as being evidence of some new and strange phenomenon, but if that phenomenon is something completely unproven, then a more mundane explanation might be far more reasonable to assume, even if we can’t be sure of all the details. There was no plausible mundane explanation – one that didn’t introduce some new assumption – as to why Uranus’ orbit shouldn’t fit the calculations; but people thinking they see stuff in the sky can easily be explained without bringing aliens into the equation. The Moon confuses some people. We know that boring stuff is often what causes these things. Saying that it might do so again, even without absolute proof, isn’t much of a stretch.

To see someone getting this particular point really wrong, check out Steve Novella‘s blog on this topic, in the section where he mentions Richard Hoagland. The “anomalies” that guy finds have only the flimsiest connection to his pet crazy ideas, and have very easy explanations already that don’t require massive leaps of logic to some totally new concept. When you have to invent vast alien civilisations and sinister, all-encompassing government cover-ups to account for the fact that there’s no other evidence for what you’re saying… at what point do you decide that maybe some mountains just happened to make a kinda interesting shape that one time? It’s a quirk, but not an anomaly.

Exploring the limits of a prevailing scientific theory’s power to explain the available evidence is one thing. But anomaly hunting, tracking down any slightly funny-looking result or interesting quirk of data, and using it to bolster the standing of your alternative hypothesis, however tenuous the connection might be, regardless of whether it matches with any of your own predictions, and without exhaustively checking whether it can be reconciled with the original theory, is not good science. It’s a wander into crazyville.

Read Full Post »

The planet we live on is around eight thousand miles across. It’s a pretty big ball of rock, floating in empty space. The ball of burning gas it’s spinning around is nearly a hundred million miles away. That’s further than a supersonic jet could travel in a decade. Cold, black vacuum stretches out in every direction from us, for a long, long way.

The nearest thing to us is the Moon, around a quarter of a million miles away. If you could drive there in a straight line, at the kind of speeds you’d normally travel along a motorway, it’d take you around six months, non-stop. Start now, and you’ll just be coming up on it in 2010. If I’d run a complete marathon every day of my life up to now, I’d be nearly there.

We can’t do that. The closest I’ve ever come is when I was driven up to the top of Mount Evans in Colorado. That’s a couple of miles above sea-level, but in a way you’re still very much on the ground. It’s one of the highest points on Earth, but it’s just a knobbly ridge on a not-quite-sphere. I’ve been in some tall buildings too, but our artificial efforts to reach upward leave us equally earth-bound.

If I leap up and stretch, I can get a few feet off the ground, into the air, into space, toward the Moon and the Sun, thousands and millions of miles away. A few feet, on a good day, when I’m feeling agile. Or I can climb a tree, and make it a little higher. Look out of my window, see that I’m maybe ten metres above the pavement.

Up until a little over a century ago, this was pretty much the limit of man’s endeavour as regards travel throughout the universe. We were utterly confined to within a cosmic micron of our ball of rock. Everything that went up had to come down. We were stranded, as we had been for millennia, on the ground. However high we leapt, it always pulled us down, always down again. However we pushed, we were glued firmly in place. Stuck on our ball of rock, hovering alone in space, surrounded by nothing, emptiness, for more miles than your feet will ever take you.

Our planet is vast, but its hugeness is dwarfed by the gaps that separate it from anything else in space. Even if we extended our reach a million-fold, we’d make the barest dent in our isolation. The distance above and around us all, through which we would have to struggle as the Earth drags us back down with all the might of six quintillion tons of rock, is unimaginable.

I mean… there’s just no way we’re ever getting off this place. It’s just completely impossible.

And forty years ago today, people walked on the fucking Moon.

I’m trying to talk myself into being as absolutely amazed by this as it deserves. I’ve managed it before, where something about my perspective has shifted, and rather than it just being something that happened years before I was born (and therefore something which has simply always been true), it suddenly seemed utterly astonishing. The Onion have the right idea. I’m not sure the hastily scribbled lofty rhetoric is quite doing it this time, but it’s a start. Maybe I’ll go watch The Dish again.

Actually, you know what’s much funner than all my rambling on about the scale of the universe? Watching Buzz Aldrin punch some dickhead in the face. Yes, violence is bad, this doesn’t prove anything, logical argument should never be replaced by exertion of might… but I can’t even find a tiny corner of myself that doesn’t love this. You fuckin’ tell him, Buzz.

Read Full Post »

So, I guess I should’ve done this one sooner. Pseudoscience is pretty much the pinnacle of anathema to everything I’m struggling for on this blog (hey, writing dozens of words about stuff as often as five or six times a month is a real struggle sometimes). I’m all about science, and a worldview based on empirical data and testable theories. I’m an atheist, but the interesting fight isn’t just against religion, it’s against the irrationality and flawed thinking that underlies all kinds of non-reality-based beliefs and ideas, religion included.

Pseudoscience is what you get when a hopeful but misleading patina of science is used to try and smarten up some ideas which, however nice they might be, have no connection to the real world. It’s some phenomenon or notion whose fans will stand by it unwaveringly, regardless of whether it’s actually supported by any evidence. Astrology, for instance, is widely regarded as a pseudoscience. Its claims can be shown to be empty and meaningless once you bring a few actual scientific investigative techniques into it, and its adherents have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to scrape together a flimsy charade of supporting evidence.

Obviously nobody ever thinks that what they’re doing is pseudoscience. People don’t believe that they’re deliberately ignoring contradictory evidence and sticking to unsupported claims long after they’ve been shown conclusively to be untenable. They’re much more likely to think that they’re steadfastly fighting an uphill battle for a truth that the rest of the world is too blind to accept. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to untangle good, healthy debate and disagreement on the one hand, from actual pseudoscientific nonsense on the other. When people have conflicting ideas, how can you tell if there’s a reasonable, scientific difference in opposing parties’ interpretations of the data, or if one side’s just full of shit?

Well, despite what contradictory views different people might have on Ufology, or Bigfootonomy, or the current deadness-to-aliveness quotient of Elvis Presley, there are some definite protocols and standards which you have to adhere to if you want to legitimately call what you’re doing science.

When addressing pseudoscience, it’s not really constructive or desirable to simply declare “This entire field of study is bunk”, regardless of how tempting it might often be. There’s always the possibility that someone may come along and provide a robust scientific theory about something we might have written off as complete crap – and if there’s ever any evidence that this is what’s happened, we need to be open to it. But a lot of stuff is bullshit, has no supportive evidence, and isn’t likely to anytime soon.

So, rather than simply listing a number of disciplines which are stamped irreparably with the label “Pseudoscience” and may never be taken seriously by anyone who values their scientific credibility, more common is to provide a list of “red flags” – things which generally indicate poor methodology, irrational and ideology-driven research, and that you would do well to be more than usually doubtful about.

What follows is a list of these things to look out for, which should warn you that proper science might not be at the top of the agenda. I’m taking a lot of cues from similar lists at Skeptoid, and these three wikis, but with my own suggestions for how best to calibrate your bullshit detector.

Decrying the scientific method as inappropriate or inadequate to apply to this particular claim

Look, science is just awesome. As the internets are so often keen to point out (and score geek cred for referencing xkcd), it works, bitches. If you’re doing science, you really ought to have a pretty good understanding of how it works (which isn’t hard to grasp), and why it’s important to apply these principles to any new hypothesis before we credit it with being probably true.

This means that, if you’re going to claim that your new idea will revolutionise our understanding of the universe, you can’t get all touchy and offended when people start asking for proof, trying to knock it down, poking holes in it, and bringing up whatever pesky facts might cast doubt upon it. They just want to know you’re not as full of shit as all those loons with their own Grand Unifying Theories, who share your passion but whose ideas don’t make a lick of sense.

If you want people to take you seriously, and believe that you’re any different from the loons, you should be doing everything in your power to help them with their knocking and poking. Because however much this hypothesis is your beautiful darling baby, and you know it will change the world and make you a hero and persuade everyone to shove that haggard old Liberty bint out of the way to make room for a statue of you, you must never forget the crucial and constant scientific principle that it might all be total bollocks.

If you’re wrong, you should really be keen to find that out. If you’re right, you’ll have a theory that’s all the stronger and more convincing for having withstood everything that humanity’s current scientific understanding could hurl against it. This has been the path of every established theory in the whole of science. You are not above this process.

This includes medical practitioners who claim that they don’t have time to waste performing rigorous scientific tests on the alternative treatments they’re dishing out, because they’re “too busy curing people” to bother with any of that. As if all those researchers painstakingly performing controlled studies to determine the actual effects of their treatments are just trying to find ways to pass the time.

One person’s subjective interpretation of one small set of data points – say, how an individual doctor remembers the general feedback he’s got from a handful of patients about a particular pill he’s been giving them – is a far less effective way of finding out the real effects of a treatment than a proper, blinded, scientific study, which can include information from thousands of people and rule out countless potential sources of bias. These studies are why you’re not likely to get a prescription of leeches or thalidomide from your GP anytime soon. They’re the best way we have of finding out what reality is like. (Read Ben Goldacre‘s book for a more thorough discussion of things like the placebo effect, observer bias, and the numerous other phenomena which can make our personal judgments totally unreliable when it comes to the efficacy of medical treatments.)

Being batshit crazy

Now, granted, some batshit crazy stuff does in fact turn out to be real, like quantum mechanics or Mr. T, but these examples are relatively few. You can label yourself a mould-breaking freethinker unfettered by the constrictions of current paradigms, but that won’t stop people calling you an ignorant jackass. Yes, Galileo was right, even though he was viewed as heretical by an oppressive establishment dogmatically set in its ways. But just the second thing on its own isn’t enough.

It might not sit well with the part of us that wants to cheer on the underdog, and see some high-and-mighty ivory-tower types collapse under their own hubris, but most claims which totally contradict established science are going to turn out to be completely wrong. In most cases, such science is established for good reason, and has a lot of data backing it up. If all of this is going to be overturned, it probably won’t be because of a single set of results from one new experiment – particularly given how easy it is for the ignorant, scientifically illiterate, and borderline mentally unstable to make scientific claims.

Obviously this new claim may end up being borne out over time, and the old ideas will then need to be abandoned – but for every Galileo, there’s a thousand whining ideologues, raving lunatics, or honestly mistaken researchers who thought they might’ve discovered something they could publish a career-making paper on but are finding it too painful to admit to themselves that they’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Science by press conference

Good news, everyone! I’ve invented a new type of fish which completely vanishes when left unattended, leaving no decaying and unhygenic remains behind at all! It totally worked this one time, when Reid and Hofstadter from the physics lab challenged me to an office-chair race, and I left it completely unattended. Except for my cat, who’d been asleep by the test tube rack, but he definitely wasn’t involved. He’s not a scientist. He hasn’t even got a PhD. The point is, I’m a groundbreaking genius, and now I need substantial funding for further research. Yes, mine is the only lab to have produced any such results so far. Yes, it’s just the one result. But we’re all very excited by the empty, slightly greasy plate which constitutes our lone data point, and we look forward to developing this technology into something accessible to everyone. Did you hear what I said about funding?”

There’s a reason very little actual science tends to turn up this way, in sudden monumental bursts, where whole long-standing paradigms are suddenly overturned in one brief newscast. If someone gathers together a horde of journalists, camera crews, and other sundry spectators, to make some grand announcement about a world-shattering scientific accomplishment never before mentioned in the public sphere, then there’s a good chance that they may have taken one or two short-cuts in the actual science.

Science depends on peer review and replication of results – if you give the details of your experiments to other, independent researchers, they should be able to do the same stuff as you did, if they recreate the same conditions. You have to give other scientists a chance to try it for themselves, and maybe tighten up the protocols (like not letting the cat inside the lab) to see if there might be an explanation for your results which doesn’t imply that everything you know is wrong. A good scientist doing credible work will understand and appreciate the need for this kind of scientific rigour, and welcome the opportunity either to further bolster their claims with independent evidence, or to falsify their own findings before they do something silly like call a press conference over something that will turn out to be easily disproven by the emergence of a well fed cat.

Heads I’m right, tails you’re wrong

My first point was that the best way to prove the scientific merit of your idea is to go through all the usual rigmarole of the scientific method. One specific example of this is that you need to make sure that your idea is potentially falsifiable.

There should be a constant attitude in science – especially with regard to new and unproven ideas – which goes along the lines of, “Take THAT, supposed laws of nature!” You should be trying to bitchslap every contending theory down with the most awkward facts you can muster, and be prepared to chuck it out, if it can’t take the heat and collapses into either inconsistency or tears.

You need to be doing the kinds of experiments where you can say in advance, “We’re going to do this, this, and this, and we predict that will happen. If that does indeed happen, then great, we might be onto something – but if the other turns out to happen instead, then we’re going to have to rethink this theory.” You need to be able to point out, ahead of time, what observations could be made, which would blow your theory out of the water if they were ever reliably demonstrated. You try your damnedest to disprove it, and let everyone else have a go, and if they can’t, then you’ve got yourself a respectable theory.

All good science has something which could totally screw it up like this. Evolution? Precambrian rabbit. The Standard Model of particle physics? If the Higgs boson doesn’t turn up where it should be in the LHC. Science.

But how do you prove homeopathy doesn’t work? Well, you might have thought that repeated analysis of experimental data showing it to have no significant clinical effect beyond that of a placebo would count as disconfirming evidence, but its proponents don’t seem willing to take this as a sign that they need to seriously rethink their ideas. In actual medicine, new treatments are constantly being tested against those already in use, and if they don’t show a significant effect, nobody keeps pushing for them to be widely adopted. They scrap it, or make some significant changes before testing it again, and don’t keep prescribing it to people in the meantime as if it worked. Homeopaths don’t seem to work like this. If someone isn’t willing to suggest what results would falsify their hypothesis if observed, and genuinely rethink their ideas if what they predicted would happen didn’t happen, this should cast doubt on how scientific they’re being.

The pseudoscience, it ain’t a-changin’

It’s never a good sign when your supposedly scientific field goes for a long time without making any significant developments, or adapting to new information and more recent research. Any useful scientific theory makes predictions about future observations, and will generally gather supporting evidence over time as these predictions are vindicated – or, it will change and refine its ideas when new data contradicts the predictions it made.

Astrology is an excellent example in this case. There’s been almost no noticeable change to it in centuries, despite repeated disconfirming evidence, and the fact that the traditional astrological arrangement of zodiac signs simply doesn’t apply any more. I remember one day at school over a decade ago, we were discussing in class a newspaper article about the actual positions in the sky of the constellations of Leo, Aquarius, and so forth, in the modern world, compared with when the standard arrangement of western astrology was first put together. Technically, based on where the constellations actually are in the sky, it was said that my birthday should fall somewhere in Sagittarius, rather than Capricorn. But there’s been no actual progress in the study of astrology resulting from this or any other development in our understanding. It’s completely static, and oblivious to new data. This does not bode well for scientific integrity.

“Energy”

Whenever some new supposedly scientific practice or product throws the word “energy” around, take a shot. Wait, I mean, be skeptical. In science, “energy” is a term referring to a well defined concept, describing how much work (itself a well defined thermodynamical concept) can be performed by a force. In pseudoscience, it’s usually just some vague, wishy-washy notion of “life force“, which some subset of animate objects is assumed to possess, but which can apparently never be quantified, directly measured, or observed in any other way that might actually be useful. It can supposedly be “felt”, by those attuned to it, but this kind of claim doesn’t stand up even to a nine-year-old’s investigations.

If a new claim is based on harnessing “energy”, but never really explains what that means or how it’s consistent with our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, that’s a big red flag. It should never be enough that you’re expected to “feel” something working, because there are many, many ways that your “feelings” can be misleading.

“Natural”

Another magic word which, when it comes to a large number of alternative medical products, health supplements and the like, shouldn’t be nearly as persuasive as it often is. “From the ecosystem that brought you such previous best-sellers as arsenic, smallpox, cocaine, and HIV, comes our new all-natural sensation…”

Obviously that last one’s not such a great example, since we all know the AIDS virus is actually a divine punishment for gayness and/or was created by the government as a means of population control. But the point still stands that Nature’s a bitch, and you should not expect her to be on your side. Chemicals designed specifically to be as beneficial to humans as possible, on the other hand, might be a better option.

Don’t go too far the other way and assume that natural = bad, or your diet will take a serious downturn – but if the “natural” quality of some remedy is being touted as a plus, there’s a good chance it’s meant to be emotionally persuasive, because there’s really nothing rational or logical to be persuaded by.

It cures cancer, makes the bed, and house-trains your unicorn

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s tautologically bullshit. And if a new scientific development comes overflowing with promises of the many wonderful ways it will change your life for the better, the problems it will solve, and the quick fixes it will fix quickly, then that should be a hint that the people making these claims might be more interested in parting some fools from their money than genuinely breaking new scientific ground. (This is especially true if the grandiose promises are being made in a high-profile public announcement, and the practical results are all still yet to materialise.)

Does it work? TRY BUY IT AND SEE FOR YOURSELF

If the people doing the research are also the people taking your money for the product whose efficacy they’ve been researching, that’s not a great sign. What should be even more suspicious is when they can’t provide any actual data to suggest that the product works, and their best suggestion is that you spend your own money (or even just your own time and effort) on performing a non-blinded and unreliable study by yourself, with a sample size of one. (That one being you. And nobody is a statistically significant sample size all on their own.)

If they’re promoting or selling it, and making claims for its effectiveness, there should really be data by now supporting the idea that it actually does something. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” might be a fine way to approach, say, oysters, or bungee jumping, or homosexuality, but it’s not a sound principle on which to base scientific research.

It’s a conspiracy!

The usual reason for ideas not being accepted by the scientific community is that they’re bad science. People who claim that their amazing findings are being suppressed by a conspiracy are much more likely to fall into the “batshit crazy” category mentioned above, than to have actually achieved anything that anyone could possibly have reason to suppress. It’s much more likely that they just don’t have the data to suggest that their hypotheses are anything other than wishful thinking, and so the scientific community is justifiably uninterested.

It profoundly misunderstands the nature of science and the motives of scientists to suggest that there exists any kind of grand conspiracy which is innately hostile to new ideas, and strives to preserve the status quo. Science is all about discovery, and improving our understanding, and scientists love discovering new stuff they can’t explain, and for which they’ll have to come up with a new theory. If you’re even dimly aware of something called “the past”, and have an idea of what things were like there, and how different were the levels of technology and our understanding of the world, then it should be clear that science is anything but stagnant and unchanging.

Sometimes, an individual scientist will be too attached to their preferred, established theory to accept new data which should prompt them to update their ideas. But the process as a whole is geared entirely around going where the evidence points, and people complaining about their ideas not being accepted probably just don’t have any such data.

foorp fo nedruB

That’s a reversed burden of proof, for those of you busy trying to translate it from Klingon or something. If someone comes along with a new product or scientific claim, you’re under no obligation to take them seriously until they’ve demonstrated that it works. You’re not obliged to prove that it’s completely impossible before making any kind of judgment, or give them the benefit of the doubt until then.

Homeopathy and astrology, for instance, are both claimed to work by mechanisms that seem entirely implausible, based on our current understanding of multiple areas of science. This doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that nothing will ever come of them, but nobody’s interested in doing that. You can’t absolutely prove that my pet unicorn Hildegaard isn’t spying on you right now and telepathically reporting your every move back to me, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat it like a credible theory. These ideas all fail a number of basic tests for scientific plausibility, so until someone actually produces some convincing, repeatable, rigorously scientific results, you can ignore the crackpots continuing to promote them. If you’re not being presented with any data, but still being told to “trust” this idea, or told that your skepticism isn’t appropriate or justified, then you might just be looking at a big ol’ steaming pile of pseudoscience.

Impedimentarily obfuscatory collocution

As is so often the case, things go much more smoothly and productively in science if people know what the hell you’re talking about.

Science has jargon in almost every field, and this is fine and necessary. Physicists, for instance, often talk about neutrinos, and quarks, and bosons, and fermions, and many other terms not in common usage. But this doesn’t make them needlessly technical and opaque; they’re just labels for things which don’t often come up in discussion outside of particular scientific circles. Someone not familiar with the sport of badminton might not know the word “shuttlecock”, but they could probably get to grips with it and use it appropriately after being shown what one is. They wouldn’t insist on everyone avoiding the technical talk and referring constantly to “the ball thingy with the feathers on”.

Expecting physicists to go without these terms would be like abandoning the words “man” and “woman”, and attempting to describe people’s gender in terms of factors like their shape, or anatomy, or whether they smell nice. It doesn’t add anything to transparency, or simplify the discussion at all (in fact, quite the opposite).

Corporate jargon is an endlessly fun object of mockery, even though a lot of the phrases involved seem to be perfectly acceptable idioms communicating useful concepts that our language doesn’t otherwise account for. People usually start taking objection when it’s not really being used to communicate anything – when pointlessly verbose and grandiloquent language is used as if to deliberately obscure the meaning. (“Synergy” can actually mean something, but it can just be something to say if you want to sound business-savvy.)

A common sign of pseudoscience is to see lots of technical language being thrown around which looks plausibly scientific, but can’t be consistently reconciled with any other scientific field, or which doesn’t explain its jargon expressions in more mundane terms. SkepticWiki has some good examples, including “quantum biofeedback”, “Counter Clockwise Molecular Spin of Water Molecules”, and “total consciousness of the universe”. There’s also a lot of technical-sounding variants on the ill defined concept of “energy”, as mentioned above. This sort of thing should raise your skeptical hackles still further.

I’ll add more in future, but this seems like an adequate start.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: