Category Archives: Science

Oh noes!

The LHC might not be running until 2010. Now I may actually have to pay for all of those “no money down” things I bought when I thought the world was going to end…that’s the real tragedy.

The art of "debate"

This has been a long time coming. There are certain things that tend to happen when I discuss things with friends (or whoever) that tend to piss me off. There are things that I appreciate from my partner in discussion and certain expectations I have. I extend certain courtesies and I expect the other person to do the same. Below I will discuss what these things are.

First some DO’s and DO NOT DO’s of “debating” with me (for ease of language I will be using the form “you” to refer to the partner in debate):

State your argument/position and the evidence for it.

Expect me to be on the defensive about my position, content to answering long strings of questions about alleged “holes”, without you stating your position.

Know about science if you are to argue about science. Not everything can be scientific. Science has a particular definition of what is and is not science, just like there is a particular definition of what is and is not a spoon.

Expect to get away with an argument from ignorance. It is not acceptable to ignore data you don’t like. It is acceptable to reject data that has been shown to be false.

Realize that as a skeptic, my mind will change with the evidence.

Assume that my position on any topic is fixed/static or that past statements of mine are my own unchanging gospel. Therefore, the use of my past statements as an argument against what I’m saying now is neither accurate nor acceptable.

Realize where my expertise lies and where it does not.

Expect me to be an expert on all topics. My inevitable inability to answer a particular question in a long string of questions does not mean that the entire argument, for — let’s say — evolution, falls apart.

Make a clear argument. This sounds a lot like the first DO, but what I mean here is: the premise of the argument should be true and the logic between the premise and conclusion should be sound so that the conclusion makes sense. (More on this below.)

Commit logical fallacies or get offended if I point them out. I’m not doing this to appear “smarter” than you, I’m doing this so you can strengthen your own argument. If your logic is flawed or your premise is wrong, perhaps by fixing those things you can develop a better argument in your favour.

Realize I’m human. I may make a fallacious argument myself at times without realizing I have done so. Point it out. It’s only fair.

Gloat and assume you’ve won the argument because I committed a logical fallacy.

Realize that I am an individual.

Say anything like “You’re a skeptic so you should believe Z, behave like Y, and say X.” I am the governor of my own “beliefs”. My identification within an organization does not mean that I don’t think for myself. I disagree with Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, etc etc on some things and they do not have freedom from criticism in my eyes. So please don’t assume I am suffering from hero worship just because I promote their websites or use them as sources for certain appropriate topics.

These are just a few things that I thought of today. I may come back and edit more in.

Ok, now a summary of the structure of an argument. When we argue or defend a position, we are taking these principles into account whether we know it or not. It sounds pompous for a skeptic such as myself to point this out, but the idea behind pointing out the structure of an argument is to avoid wasting time and improve the structure of the whole debate. I would wager many people have been in a situation where they were discussing something controversial and something the other person said made them wince and sputter. They weren’t sure why, but they knew that statement was infuriatingly nonsensical and wrong somehow. They may have encountered a logical fallacy.

An argument consists of 3 basic components: the precedent, the conclusion, and the connection between those 2 things.

The precedent: This is an assumption of truth that leads to the argument you’re making. For example, “The colored gas seeping into this elevator is poisonous.” (Trying not to make this too boring.)

The conclusion: This is the statement of your position that you’d like the partner in debate (I’m purposely avoiding the term “opponent” — debates don’t have to be fights) to agree with. For example, “We should leave the elevator immediately.”

The connection: This is the logic used to get from the precedent to the conclusion. For example, “Poison is deadly so if we stay here we will die.”

When the logic used in an argument is not sound, this is called a logical fallacy. The premise can also be faulty (a false premise). For example, maybe the gas is not poisonous. In these cases, the conclusion of the argument can be false. However, it is possible that the premise and logic they chose is false, but the conclusion is still true — just not for the reasons the arguer thinks. Thus, in an argument, evidence is important to demonstrate that a conclusion is true or false, outside of the argument structure alone.

This is how we learn how things work and why the argument “God did it” is not terribly alluring to skeptics who want to know more about the mechanisms behind things. For example, we know the sky is blue. So the conclusion “the sky is blue” is true. But the argument “God did it” is much less satisfactory than the argument “blue light is refracted down to our eyes more than other colors because of the curvature of the atmosphere”. Particularly as the latter argument is testable and backed up with evidence. Two true conclusions, two completely different arguments.

Here’s an example of a particularly bad argument, known as The Banana Argument or The Atheist’s Nightmare:
Bananas fit perfectly into human hands.
God designed the banana specifically for man.
Intelligent design is true.

The precedent for this argument (bananas fit into hands) is true, but it is based on false evidence. Bananas were genetically engineered by humans. They are a hybrid version of 2 naturally occurring inedible bananas. The modern banana is sterile and requires cultivation by us to continue. The logic (God designed the banana for man) is obviously faulty because man designed the banana. Thus, the conclusion (ID is true) is probably false. It could be true, but not based on this particular argument. One false argument does not mean the entire idea of ID is false. However, we do know ID is not true because mountains of evidence demonstrate that it is not.

So you will often hear skeptics “bleating” on about this fancy evidence. That is because evidence is an important component to an argument. Non-evidence (i.e., “holes”) is not an argument against anything. Anomalies are good to consider, but generally they represent 1) an avenue for further learning, and 2) a worthless distraction — depending on context.

I think that’s all I’ll say about this for today. So if anyone wants to discuss anything with me, they are more than welcome. However, I will hold that person accountable for being informed, intelligent, and evidence-based. Otherwise we are not arguing on scientific grounds and I will not argue science on non-scientific grounds.

She must be stopped

Jenny McCarthy is going beyond claiming that vaccines are dangerous, she’s claiming that her son has been “cured” of autism. As opposed to, say, “my son’s autism was not as severe as we previously though and with intensive sensory and neurodevelopmental treatment he has improved significantly compared to his previous functioning when he didn’t have any of those adaptations or treatments”.

Her claim betrays the assumption that autism is a static condition. That as a child ages and develops, the symptoms will be as severe as they ever were. This is not true of almost any disorder or illness. Especially considering that at about age 3, kids with autism begin receiving treatment that improves their condition. Some kids don’t get the intensive treatment that would improve them as much as possible because it’s expensive and time-consuming, so they have to settle for functional rather than global improvements. McCarthy however has the money to give her child everything he needs and more so.

Children with autism have seen improvements with occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, and other skills development and sensory interventions. That does not mean they have been cured of their autism. That means they have learned the skills necessary to adapt and have worked harder than children without autism to become functional in their daily life. In a family with plenty of time and money, and in a child who was low to moderate on the spectrum of autism (if at all), there can be vast improvements in their social and functional behaviour compared to when they were younger.

McCarthy has been promoting her son’s improvement in relation to changes in his diet. However what she’s not mentioning is the other treatments her son would likely have received — even if it was not from trained professionals. If she gave him extra help in learning to tie his shoes or write? Occupational Therapy. Extra help in learning his words? Speech therapy. It may not have been correct or efficient, but extra attention in any skill is technically “therapeutic”. Consider also the changes she would have made to his environment such as sensory-stimulating toys. I find it disingenuous and insulting that she would pretend that all she did was change his diet and — poof! — autism gone. This from a woman who allegedly tried her son’s medication and assumed it would have the same effect on her, an adult woman, as it would on her tiny male child. This is just silly.

She’s also assuming that her son has autism, which he may not have ever had. The mere utterance of one diagnosis does not mean that it is correct. It means that, at that time and given that particular information, he appeared to be following an autistic pattern. Parents have the right to second opinions and further tests if they feel their child has been misdiagnosed. Doctors are not 100% right 100% of the time — this is not a fault, it’s just reality. It is a parent’s responsibility to make sure that they get multiple opinions if they feel they should so their child received the correct therapy for their condition. If she thinks he was misdiagnosed, fine, but she shouldn’t pretend that he was cured of something he may have never had.

McCarthy is diverting attention away from genetic research that could tell us more about the causes and treatments of autism by assuming she already knows the cause. Nobody knows the cause yet, although vaccines have been essentially ruled out. This is because there has been no association in vaccine rates and autism rates, despite her saying otherwise. Autism rates appear to be rising because of certain changes in its diagnosis: 1) realizing it is a spectrum disorder thus allowing low-spectrum children to be diagnosed; 2) early screening for autism which helps prevent children from going their lives without a diagnosis ,which can happen in mild cases; 3) the necessity of a diagnosis to qualify for funding (meaning that children with a delay not otherwise specified may be diagnosed “autistic” when their symptoms don’t technically qualify as autism proper); and 4) increased general awareness.

McCarthy is not doing parents any favours by making them distrust modern medicine and health care practitioners. Her assumption is that her personal research and “mommy instinct” trumps years of medical research, years of training and studying to become a health care practitioner, and years of experience in interpreting scientific literature. Not that I want to use an ad hominem, but it angers me when people who used to pick their nose on MTV for a living go on TV spouting nonsense as if my 6 years of training in science research and 2 years of graduate training in [a health profession] means nothing. I’m also angered by her assumption that I’m ruled by some “model” of medicine due to my association as a health care practitioner, as if I don’t have the skills to critically evaluate evidence for myself. Or as if my skills as a dispationate and hopefully objective evaluater are less than her emotional mommy evaluations.

I may not be an expert and I don’t pretend to know everything, but I know that I am much more qualified than her to evaluate the evidence on autism and vaccines and come to a sensible conclusion. On television she is emotional, she is dogmatic, and she is often yelling about how angry she is and how doctors tell her she’s imagining things. She is not contributing to furthering autism research. She is stifling it by ignoring the evidence she doesn’t like and yelling misinformation to vent off a soapbox. She has the freedom to believe and say anything she wants, but she is not doing anyone any favours by being ignorant.

Miller-Urey revisited

Years ago (in 1953) there was an experiment to determine how life could have originated on Earth. In a nutshell, Miller and Urey of the University of Chicago simulated the chemical environment of early Earth, added some heat and some electricity, and then — viola! — organic compounds came out. Much more complicated than that, but remember we’re in a nutshell here.

This finding was understandably controversial, especially in creationist circles. For example, many creationists point to flaws in the experiment (a valid concern). Some interpret the experiment differently with sometimes wild conclusions (I say “wild” because the opening sentence to the linked paper is “Contemporary research has failed to provide a viable explanation as to how abiogenesis could have occurred on Earth.” — a little strong perhaps?) to support their own preconceptions. Some flatly deny that the experiment has any scientific value at all.

In my opinion there may be too much stock placed on this one experiment by scientists and creationists alike — we all know one experiment does not an ironclad theory make. And there have been other supporting experiments. Focusing on this one makes it seem like it’s the only gun in the arsenal. However, it is the most elegant/classic and famous of the experiments. Moving on.

Two scientists, Bada (a student of Miller’s) and Scripps of the Institution of Oceanography in California revisited the old samples from the original experiment for re-analysis. Due to better technology to perform the analysis, they were able to find new compounds that Miller and Urey couldn’t originally detect.

Bada also found some information on an experiment that Miller was working on that was never published. Apparently Miller had set up several versions of his chemical flasks, one of which simulated a volcanic environment and produced even more amino acid (organic) compounds.

Why might this be a big deal? Some of the main criticisms of the Miller-Urey experiment involve the composition of the “atmosphere”, stating that the experiment did not accurately represent the atmosphere of early Earth. The new (old?) findings show that the experiment may better replicate atmospheres near erupting volcanoes, lending support to theories that volcanoes may have been a sort of “nursery” for Earth life.

Obviously there needs to be further study (preferably in other labs) on this before this can be 1) a solid argument in support of the volcano nursery theory and 2) further support for the legitimacy of Miller and Urey’s original experiment, but the new analysis suggests that an outright rejection of the Miller-Urey findings may be unfair.

If this information is publicized enough in the creationist circles, I expect that there will be a resurgence in complaints/analyses/punditry surrounding the topic. So skeptic powers activate! Stay on alert.

UPDATE: PZ has also commented on the new findings on his blog.

MythBusters does the moon hoax

I caught MythBusters last night (note that the episode description for that episode is not up as of this posting — original airdate 27 August 2008) to see their take on some of the common claims of moon hoax conspiracy theorists. [Trailer here.] As always they did a lot of things right and some things wrong. My thoughts after the fold.

I’ll start with what they did right.

1) They covered some of the most basic arguments for the moon landing being hoaxed: the astronauts in shadow shouldn’t be so bright in the pictures, the flag shouldn’t be “waving”, footprints shouldn’t leave clear imprints in dry sand, and the videos of the astronauts are just slow-mo. Those are pretty common and easily tested, so kudos.

2) They proved that there’s man-made technology on the moon by demonstrating that a laser pointed at a retroreflector returns a signal that is distinct from a signal returned from a generic point on the moon’s surface. Pretty hard to refute that unless you’re completely deluded (yes, I know, some people are that deluded).

3) They explained why their results made sense (i.e., the scientific principles behind why the astronaut is illuminated, etc). I won’t go into these here, as Phil Plait already did a great job of this. Explaining why something is is as important as explaining why it isn’t. So…awesome.

What they did wrong.

They ridiculed. It was mostly subtle, but it was there. I get that they aren’t trying to convince the true believers, because you pretty much can’t. However, I hear lots of otherwise intelligent people express doubts about the moon simply because of a poor understanding of science, not because they’re crazy. I’m sure they would benefit from a show like this, but I doubt they’ll like it much if it makes them feel stupid. I get that the myth is perpetuated by conspiracy theorists, but it’s believed by relatively innocent (albeit somewhat ignorant) people. If this show was aimed at the fence-sitters and not-quite-convinced, they probably should have toned it down a little so as not to be too off-putting. When battling the conspiracy theorists, ridicule away — it’s not like they’re going to change their mind anyway. But we want more people interested in this stuff, so in the context of a show on Discovery aimed at the mainstream, nicer is better.

Interesting foibles.

My partner coyly pointed out to me that what the MythBusters essentially did was demonstrate convincingly how the moon landing could have been faked — retroreflector notwithstanding. For example, they set up a perfect replica of the moon’s surface and found that yes we can see the astronaut in the shadow. Say I’m a conspiracy theorist. You know what I’m thinking? “Ok fine, we were wrong about why the picture was a fake, but you just showed how they did fake it.” I don’t know how to solve that problem, except that the subsequent demonstration with the laser blew everything else out of the water anyway. But all I could do was sigh because I know he’s right.

Ultimately it was a good job. It could have been improved with them providing other resources for more information (such as Phil Plait’s site) — I didn’t see that, but I may have missed it. I also would have preferred a more reasoned and inquisitive tone. They myths are ridiculous, but their show is supposed to be “we don’t just tell the myths, we put them to the test”. It’s not a true “test” when you’re cocky about the results. From a conspiracy theorist perspective, that attitude just proves they’re not giving the hoax “theory” a fair chance. We want to eliminate that argument from their repertoire — the moon hoax has been given too much consideration already, let’s not let them so easily dismiss what’s been done by spoon-feeding them criticisms.

My nit picks are really nitpicky, so I hope I didn’t give a bad impression. I just have high standards. See it, love/hate it, read about the topic further. I’ve provided several links above. I won’t link to the conspiracy sites themselves in this case, but if anyone wants a laugh/cry just Google “moon hoax” and click away.

Busy Day

It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye landlubbers.

And Adam West be 80 years old on this scurvy morn.

I’ve got more of today’s tidbits that’ll really shiver your timbers below the fold.

Scientists be imagin’ extrasolar planets! Go have a look see at the portrait.

And Bill Gates ends his wormy campaign with Seilfeld with this salty piece of sea garbage. (Ahoy! Deepak Chopra alert — he be particularly up his own backside in this one, mateys).

UPDATE: Bahahahahahahaha!!! Yarrrrr!

Open Letter to Discovery Channel

Dear good folks at the Discovery Channel,

Over the years I’ve enjoyed many programs on your channel. (now Daily Planet), Mythbusters, and occasional documentaries on such topics as astronomy, archaeology, history, nature, and paleontology.

Recently I have noticed a significant decline in the quality of your programming. Once a bastion of popular science, Discovery channel has become a breeding ground for mainstream pseudoscientific nonsense – assuming the show is at all scientific. Most shows now on Discovery are things like Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, Storm Chasers, Future Weapons, and other such high-octane non-scientific programming. I no longer see as many thought-provoking and educational documentaries as I once did. Many documentaries are CGI speculations of what might have happened with this or that dinosaur or they are absolute drivel.

“Mystery of the Crystal Skulls”, for example, was a documentary that I had a slight interest in because of the recent Indiana Jones movie, as you were no doubt counting on for most of your audience that evening. I thought it might be interesting to see what the real-life thoughts were from archaeologists on that topic so I tuned in. It took only 30 seconds for my hopes to be dashed. Within that time, the show managed to reference the 2012 end-of-the-world “prediction” of the Mayans – utter and total nonsense. Following that was an interview with Richard Hoagland of all people. A man so thoroughly debunked, he is a laughingstock even within the pseudoscientific community. The show had the audacity to say that he “gained credibility” through his discovery of the face on Mars. Once again, a topic so thoroughly debunked it’s absolutely incredible that in 2008, I still have to hear about it.

The only saving grace for the channel is Mythbusters and even that gets sketchy at times — going after explosions and not taking the 2 seconds it would take to explain that they did, say, 100 trials rather than the one they happened to air for the show.

I simply can’t take it anymore. So, I’m sad to say that I’ll be leaving you, Discovery Channel, and I won’t be back until you shape up.

An extremely disappointed scientist.