well, today might make up a little for my pancreas being dumb last night

Friday, 30 May 2008
  1. New data in the lab looks good
  2. Submitted my 2nd journal paper
  3. Game and movie night tonight

science, creationism, and “open-mindedness”

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

I recently had a discussion (actually, my first-ever intelligent discussion) with a creationist. Our discussion was, mainly, about the nature of the debate rather than any specific points — after all, neither of us was going to convince the other. However, one of his main contentions was that so-called “evolutionists” were close-minded in nature and desperately clung to the theory of evolution when there are scientific problems with that theory.* Some responses:

  • The purpose of science is, in fact, to discriminate. It sorts out theories that accurately explain existing phenomena and predict the future behavior of the universe from those that do not provide sufficient explanations or make inaccurate predictions. It is not “close-minded” to reject a hypothesis that has been disproved many times over during the past hundred-odd years. This is just science doing its job! If, each time we educated a new scientist, we had to start from scratch without any established theories, we would still be at the level of the ancient Greeks. Very optimistically. Then again, it is the Platonic tradition to disbelieve observations of the physical world, so maybe that’s where the creationists want us.
  • Logically, to prove a hypothesis, we must either find an analytical proof based on irrefutable premises or show that the hypothesis is true for every single possible case. A frequent contention by scientists is that creationism cannot be placed on par with a scientific theory because it has no predictive power. But ah-ha, say the creationists, Dr. Russell Humphreys, Ph.D., used creationist premises to make predictions about the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune that were borne out after Voyager II. This proves that creationism has predictive power. Not so, I say! It proves only that creationist premises (and many barely-justifiable assumptions) lead to a prediction that is consistent with the physical world in a single case. Creationists will have to show a lot more predictions than that to demonstrate that they have a scientific theory on their hands. In fact, I challenge them to use Genesis to make accurate (or any) predictions in the biological sciences, rather than in a specific application of magnetic theory that is so underdeveloped at present that scientists have had to revise it every single time a probe visits an outer planet. Is it really so close-minded to expect logical rigor when arguments are presented as scientifically rigorous?
  • On the other hand, disproving a hypothesis requires only a single counterexample. By this test, creationism has been disproved many times over by various methods that date the Earth, Solar System, galaxy, and universe to far greater ages than the ~6000 years nominally required by creationism. In fact, Judeo-Christian biblical creation can be refuted on these grounds taking as a premise nothing but the inerrant truth of the bible: Genesis contains two creation myths, each of which is mutually exclusive of the other (different initial conditions, order of events, and duration of events). By the premise, both must be taken as true, however, if either one is true, then the other must be false. Since either one (or both) creation myths is false, the premise must be false. Ergo, neither myth can be treated as fact. Again, all I am applying here is the simple logic of implication; I am not necessarily closing my mind off to all alternatives. I even opened myself up to the creationist premise of the literal truth of the bible.
  • The theory of evolution has, well, evolved since the time when Darwin first postulated it. This is because science often uncovers phenomena that elucidate a new aspect of a field, and existing theories must be revised to account for that data (see previous remark about gas giants). In other words, when a theory cannot explain some data, scientists revise the theory (sometimes extensively). Thus, we do not “cling desperately” to evolution, since the theory itself has been repeatedly modified. However, creationism, by virtue of coming out of a supposedly irrefutable bible, has never been modified to fit new data. Rather, creationists “desperately cling” to their belief by re-interpreting the data to fit the existing theory. Well, I exaggerate slightly — creationism was modified to fit observed data once: by a guy named Darwin, who allowed that God must have created life through the process of evolution.
  • One thing that creationism will never be able to do is use the scientific method to provide a convincing inductive argument for biblical creation. To do this, creationists would have to take as a premise not the literal truth of the bible, but the accuracy of observation and their ability to draw logical conclusions from those observations. They would then have to use their observations alone to show that, logically, the most likely explanation for the data is that the world was miraculously created 5768 Earth calendar years ago and that the creator was their preferred god. First, I note that they do not currently take this approach — rather, they work backwards: take bible as true, go find evidence to support that premise/conclusion. (Creationists often obfuscate their argument by building their conclusions into their premises.) Second, and more importantly, there is no way creationists could support their theory in a scientific manner. There are two reasons why I know this. One — available data (e.g., the age of the Earth, Solar System, galaxy, and universe as obtained by radioisotope dating, measuring the speed of light, plate tectonics, measured sedimentation rates, crater counting, timing formation models for Solar System or galactic features, etc) do not support the theory. Two — even if creationists could show that the universe was <6000 years old, they would still have to show that it was created in a six-day period by a god (who they would also have to show the existence of, by logical interpretation of data). This is scientifically impossible unless said god were to appear and submit to observational tests. Here, creationists usually go back to invoking their bibles, which is where they build their conclusions into their premises. Now, I may seem unnecessarily harsh: What does all this have to do with open-mindedness? My point is simply that even if I give the creationists the benefit of the doubt, their theory does not stand up to truly scientific analysis and, in fact, they could not arrive at their theory through the methods of science. Whether scientists are “open-minded” or not has nothing to do with the validity of creationist theory.

* Many creationists have latched on to the term “evolutionist” to describe anyone who believes in a non-biblical creation; that is, that evolution guides the development of life and that the universe is >5768 years old. Essentially, the term applies to most scientists. However, I reject the use of the word “evolutionist” because it seeks to portray evolution as a belief system rather than a scientific theory. I do not believe in evolution, rather, I am convinced of evolution, perhaps of the punctuated equilibrium variety, by a preponderance of evidence. Furthermore, my convictions that the theories governing relativity, radioactive decay, plate tectonics, etc, are sufficiently accurate to date the formation of the Earth, Solar System, and universe are not dependent on my being convinced of evolution.

Miis that people need to stop making

Monday, 26 May 2008
  1. Darth Vader.  Okay, guys, none of them actually looks like Vader (especially the small ones), and can you really see Vader playing bowling?
  2. Those shark-head things.
  3. The little designs on the heads, and nothing else.  Particularly the obscene ones.
  4. Michael Jackson.  Those are just frightening.
  5. Jesus.

scientific method

Thursday, 22 May 2008

As postulated by Sir Francis Bacon:

  1. Research the background of the issue you want to address.
  2. Formulate a testable hypothesis.
  3. Design an experimental or theoretical investigation to provide a test of the hypothesis.
  4. Gather data from the investigation.
  5. Compare the data to the hypothesis.  If:
    • the data supports the hypothesis, then devise a new, more rigorous test of the hypothesis and repeat.  If, after many repetitions, the hypothesis is still supported, then it moves into the realm of scientific “theory.”
    • the data does not support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is rejected.  Throw it out and go back to step 2.

I contend that this does not accurately describe the thrust of modern science.  Rather, I suggest the following summary:

  1. Research the background of the issue you want to address.  Find a specific question that you want to answer (it need not be a simple yes/no question, either).
  2. Gather data that may help address the question, in either experimental or theoretical work.  (This is, in many ways, an extension of step 1.)
  3. After you have a body of data, then formulate a hypothetical answer to the question you asked; an answer that fits available data.  (I.e., use inductive reasoning.)
  4. Devise a new test of the predictive power of the hypothesis: If the hypothesis is true, then some other hitherto unknown fact must also be true.
  5. Carry out the new test.  If:
    • the new data supports the hypothesis, then continue to devise new, more rigorous tests of the hypothesis and repeat.  If, after many repetitions, the hypothesis is still supported, then it moves into the realm of scientific “theory.”
    • the new data does not support the hypothesis, then modify the hypothesis to account for the new data as well as previous data.  Repeat steps 4-5.  If, after many repetitions, data exists that the hypothesis cannot account for even after many modifications, then you must back up further into the process: repeat steps 3-5 (“maybe this other thing is going on, instead…”), then 2-5 (“maybe we need to look more closely at this phenomenon and it will shed light on how we form our hypothesis…”), then 1-5 (“maybe someone else has a better idea than we do…”).

Starcraft 2 campaign story prediction

Saturday, 17 May 2008
  1. Zerg: Kerrigan hatches evil plan, battles Protoss and Dominion forces.  Go back to Earth to infest the population?
  2. Protoss: The intrepid warriors discover Kerrigan’s plans, which of course involve the Protoss’ own Xel’Naga origins, and devise a way to circumvent her.
  3. Terran: Rebel forces led by Jim Raynor fight against the Dominion for a while, but then Raynor’s old allies the Protoss come to him and he launches their bid to stop Kerrigan.  Raynor gets the girl?

semester’s over now

Saturday, 10 May 2008
  1. Northern Water Snakes
  2. Enemy at the Gates
  3. Robert Downey, Jr.
  4. Book sale
  5. Modeling clay
  6. Window envelopes
  7. Scrambled eggs
  8. Nimbus clouds
  9. Callithump
  10. Twelve-hour airplane flights
  11. Five hundred dollars
  12. Science fiction