Science Headline: Might Unicorns be Shorter, More Off-white Than We Thought?

Something like that – as follows:

Amateur astronomer and metaphysician Mark Thomson makes the Procrustean statement: E.T. might be younger than we thought — and not as intelligent. While I applaud the inclusion of the single word ‘might’ which changes the headline from mere nonsense to mere untethered speculation, nonetheless, this topic is science in the same way that reconfiguring the main deflector array to emit an inverse tacheon pulse* is science.

The bed we’re trying to fit was inadvertently made up by Fermi decades ago, when he asked the Drake Equation crowd: well, where is everybody? Since then, SETI fanboys have had two options: 1) the dominant, every-popular ‘”la la la I can’t hear you” response, or 2) some flavor of modifying the Drake parameters to better fit the (lack of) data. Mr. Thomson, a TV personality, former insurance exec and would-be commercial aircraft pilot, takes door #2.

The headline I propose in the title to this post dances around the real issue: are there any unicorns? If so, we can take a poll and ask people (the ubiquitous yet mysterious “we”) how tall and what color they think unicorns are. Then, we can get us some unicorns, a tape measure and, oh, a color wheel, and, you know, answer the question.

If there are unicorns.

Simili modo, we speculate on the age and intelligence of extra-terrestrials, of which we have exactly the same number of specimens to examine as we have unicorns. If there are ETs, then, again, we could poll people (“we” again) and see what they think about the age and intelligence of space aliens, then we could look at our sample, and see if we can tell if we are right or wrong.

If there are ETs.

But there aren’t. At least, they have left zero – as in none, nada, bupkis – evidence of their existence. Very thoughtless of them.

So, we could insist, in the highest and best tradition of science, that we just don’t know anything about the existence of extra-terrestrials, and, further, given the complete and total lack of evidence, we don’t even know enough to speculate on the likelihood of their existence.

But that’s no fun! And some of us, for some reason, are really bothered by the idea that we human beings might be all there is, intelligent-life-wise, in the universe, even though the actual evidence we have suggests, if it suggests anything, that we are alone. So, like cartographers adding monsters along the margins of Terra Incognito, our SETI fanboys populate space with all sorts of beings who, for all sorts of reasons, remain invisible to us. It’s just short of a kind of conspiracy theory, like a Dan Brown novel of Science!

Here, Mr. Thomson speculates:

Trying to pin down exactly when our alien neighbors emerged is a little difficult because evolution is a gradual process.

Um, no, that’s not the difficulty – the difficulty is that no ‘alien neighbors’ emerged AT ALL – as far as we know. This sentence is a total non sequitur.  Evolution provides no difficulties at all, as it is utterly irrelevant in the face of NO EVIDENCE.

Then we get:

It seems that the evolution of stars precluded the formation of rocky planets much before the appearance of Population I stars. If that is the case, and adding a generous margin for error, it looks like the first planets like Earth would have formed no earlier than 8 billion years ago.

If that is true, then it may well be that we are not necessarily the first life, but perhaps among the first intelligent life (as we know it) to evolve.

The paranthetical ‘as we know it’ is a scream – NOW we’re going to start worrying about what we know? About evidence, data, facts? Funny, that didn’t bother us before.

But even just the theory Thomson propounds is preposterous on the face of it: Fermi’s observation was that, using just the technology emerging 50 years ago right here on earth, the entire galaxy could be explored and presumably colonized in about 10 million years. We appear to have evolved from slime mold to Lady Gaga in maybe 2-3 billion years. That would leave something like 5 or 6 billion years for intelligent life to evolve somewhere in our galaxy, develop rockets and slowly explore the galaxy – a thousand times over.

Shortening the time allowed for evolution to produce intelligent life (a pure metaphysical assumption, that) from 13.5 to 8 billion years doesn’t do anything to answer Fermi’s question: even if they are a little late, everybody STILL should be here by now.

Instead, I believe we must flee to the arms of  the much more scientific and rigorous Lex Luther Theorem.

* That’s from ST:TNG in case you’re wondering.

North vrs South; Leaving Doubts Unanswered

(Ancient draft that needed finishing up, never got to it, didn’t want to just toss it, so, here ya go.)

A while back, John C. Wright discussed two topics that triggered a funny twinge of recognition and regret: the difference between the north and south of Europe; and the need to not let challenges to the faith go unanswered.

Background: an intelligent atheist friend asked me to read a book; I said yes, provided he read the Gospels, on the premise that any attempt to understand the western world without reference to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is like going into a fight blindfolded with your good arm tied behind your back.

File:Alarich steel engraving.jpg
Big Al, as imagined many centuries later.

He never read the Gospels, as far as I know. I, however, read Sagan’s Demon Haunted World.*

Here’s the thing: I knew the answers to Sagan’s challenges. I knew, on some level, that he was playing fast and loose with the truth, and using some subtle and not so subtle rhetorical tricks to steer the conversation away from reason and toward knee-jerk emotionalism. But reading it nonetheless caused great discomfort, and contributed to a bout of serious depression that lasted years. Two things I regret: that I didn’t recognize my unbalanced emotional state before I started, and that I failed intellectually to say: wait a second! That’s not quite the whole story, there, Carl! Instead, I let those challenges become the sort of emotional doubt that cannot be answered intellectually, that is a species of irrational despair. It was only by means of a miracle that I ever got out of it – God dramatically and instantly answered a prayer of desperation. Later on, once I was freed from evil influences much like Theodin was freed by Gandalf, I was able to see clearly what was going on. That’s the trick: our enemy does not want us to see things clearly or approach things rationally, because clarity and reason do not further his cause. He will do anything he can to create miasma and despair.

Mr. Wright’s thoughts and quotations brought all this back. So here’s a concrete examples of what Ms. O’Connor was talking about in her letter, using the point made in the essay about Northern versus Southern Europe as the point of information that answers the particular objections. Continue reading “North vrs South; Leaving Doubts Unanswered”

Education History Reading, Continued: Pestalozzi, Part 1

Did manage to find some Pestalozzi on the web: How Gertrude Teaches Her Children. Am about 1/3 through.File:Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.jpg

Recap: We start with the current graded classroom model, and ask: how did this way of educating our kids come to be so much the dominant model that it is generally considered by definition ‘school’? Anything else is ‘alternative’ school.

Any trail you choose quickly runs to Horace Mann, the first great American hero of institutionalized education reform. In the 1830s, Mann fell in love with the Prussian model of education as instituted by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 1810s – by the 1830s, Humboldt’s reforms were hailed as great successes, since – and this is critical – everyone could see that German industry and military might were taking the lead in Europe, despite the crushing defeat Germany had suffered under Napoleon. Von Humboldt, in turn, based his reforms on the proposals contained in Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, which we’ve reviewed here on this blog.

Fichte, in turn, claims to base his proposed reforms on the work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a German-speaking Swiss educator. Pestalozzi comes off as a well-intentioned man with great committment to his cause, a secular saint, even, yet dogged by failure most of his life. He did manage to run a couple different schools for a good number of years where his methods were used, and through which he made a number of devoted disciples and eventually attracted the favorable attention of the state. In his 50s he wrote How Gertrude Teaches Her Children in yet another attempt to explain what his method is. For the most curious thing in reading *about* Pestalozzi is how nobody seems quite sure what he meant or what he was doing. You can find some brief summaries, yet in every case those summaries, like the summaries of Hegel created by his  fans, seems to generate more controversy rather than actually explain anything.*   So, we here take the only approach acceptable under these circumstances: read what the author has to say for himself.*

This work is a collection of letters written by Pestalozzi to a Heinrich Gessner, in which he begins by explaining how people have misunderstood him and how Krüsi, Tobler, and Büss, three of his key disciples, came to work for him at Burgdorf, his first truly successful school. He then proceeds to reminisce on his experiences and to expound on his philosophy of education. I’ve only just started to get into that part.

What is immediately obvious from the first few letters is the source of the confusion over Pestalozzi’s method: it is Pestalozzi himself. Just about the only clear functional ideas in the first third of the book are contained in the extensive quotations Pestalozzi inserts from one of his critics, a dude named Fischer, in Fischer’s letter to a Steinmtiller. Pestalozzi’s quotations from this letter with his remarks goes on for pages without making Pestalozzi’s approach any clearer. It is a remarkable feat. Within the first 100 pages, which are taken up with the translator’s introduction and Pastalozzi’s preface, we learn a smidgen over nothing about what he’s up to.

For example, here is how Pestalozzi describes his Method: Continue reading “Education History Reading, Continued: Pestalozzi, Part 1”