Oh, Please. More Science! Foolishness

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science is true “whether or not you believe in it”

“Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world,” Tyson told Colbert. “What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.”

Quick: name the last (or any) game changing experiment in astrophysics. You know, one the results of which proved that the work of astrophysicists is true whether we believe in it or not.

Morton could tell you all about this guy. Sure, he’d be making it all up – but he was taken completely seriously by many scientists for a couple generations.

You know, I have a lot of sympathy with what Dr. deGrasse Tyson is trying to say here. We all hate spurious attacks on and dismissals of science. But there’s an unbridgeable chasm between claiming that science is the privileged approach to understanding the material world, the one that gives us the best and most useful, if necessarily contingent, knowledge, on the one hand, and claiming that “once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world”. Ya know?

I’m still waiting for the TV series that goes one by one through various consensuses formed and discarded over the years, explaining carefully how the scientists with a dog in the fight only very reluctantly came around to the new ‘consensus’ – or, more likely, did their best to assassinate the character of their opponents  until their dying breath, never abandoning their beloved theory.

Even more so, it would be nice to see a series on the sometimes subtle but often glaring differences in the degree of loyalty honest men owe to science. Clearly, I should have more confidence and owe more loyalty to the claim that water boils at 100 C under normal conditions – something I can roughly confirm experimentally myself – with the claim that various human species arose in Africa – no reason to doubt it, but it’s based on a pile of bones and artifacts that could fit on one large table, and lots and lots of less than certain theories and methods, and so has a lot of room for doubt. Then there’s the Big Bang – while it’s a tidy theory and may well be substantially true on some level, it’s not exactly a fact no matter how strong the consensus. Not to mention claims that science has shown that sexual repression is the root of all psychiatric issues or that when your brain light us a certain way in an MRI, you’re certainly a psychopath. All of these claims are viewed as ‘scientific’ by a least a large number of people, and the people making them have all at least figuratively donned the sacred lab coat of Science! when these claims were made. How is an honest layman to judge?

A truly cosmic TV series might just help explain all this. But that would lead people to think, instead of to automatically accept whatever dudes in lab coats are selling. And we can’t have that.

UPDATE:  It seems that, as sadly expected, the Dr. Tyson’s new Cosmos series played fast and loose with the truth, in the sense of outright lies and fraud.  One of those great ironies: Science great appeal, made above by Tyson himself, is to our desire for truth. Yet, its most public proponents seem to give not one whit about the truth if it doesn’t serve their purposes. So, what, exactly, are they appealing to, when they try to convince us to be more scientifilicious?

Sigh. Maybe They Wanted to Save the Good News Till the End?

Another tidbit from Google’s Science! news feed. We start with the fear-mongering headline:

Sea Level Rise Threaten Cultural Landmarks

And, indeed, the article starts out by telling us that cultural landmarks around the world, such as the Statue of Liberty (prominently pictured) are threatened by rising sea levels. Sounds serious – until the last phrase of paragraph 2: “…could be lost to rising sea-levels if current global warming trends are maintained over the next two millennia.”

As Billy says in the Fifth Element: So – we’ve got time?

Planet of the Apes (1968)
A lot can happen in 2,000 years.

“After 2000 years, the oceans would have reached a new equilibrium state and we can compute the ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica from physical models,” co-author Anders Levermann, professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a statement.

So, doc, how have those model predictions been working out for you lately? The predicted rise is 3 C – Greenland’s icecap has been as much as 6 C warmer for thousands of years at a stretch without significant melting, according to ice cores.  But it does melt every once and a while, so it might – but it’s been doing so since way, way before there were people outputting much carbon dioxide – in fact since before there were any people at all.

Compute This:

Via the great fun of Google’s Science! news feed, an article on today’s asteroid fly-by:

NASA, in October, released a report that another asteroid was passing close by Earth. That asteroid, 2013 TV135, was the size of about four football fields and came within 4.2 million miles of Earth, which is about three quarters of the distance to Jupiter’s orbit.

I don’t (usually) bother with what might be typos or mere carelessness – I like pointing out more egregious and less benevolent errors – but, given that this mag is aimed at computer people, who, as we all know, are the smartest people *ever* it seems fair to point out that:

– using a football field as a unit of measure is conventional for area, but doesn’t say much about 3-dimensional size, which seems to be what we would be interested in here;

– the scale of the Solar System is a bit grander than portrayed here, although if Jupiter were really only about 5.5 million miles off, our night sky would be much more interesting. Earth would be within the orbits of some of Jupiter’s moons – which could be exciting, depending on inclination of their orbital plane.

From childhood I remember that an AU (astronomical unit, defined originally as the mean distance from the earth to the sun) is just under 93M miles, and that gas giants are multiple AUs out (the exact multiples I’d have to look up – memory is not what it used to be.)  This has proven handy, sometimes, in spotting orders of magnitude errors regarding astronomical distances, which seem surprisingly common.

Solar System
All distances are approximate.

Social Slapstick

The NFL is considering banning the “N-word” on the field, even going so far as to consider it an offense worthy of a 15 yard penalty.*

OK, so the nanny state has given birth to a nanny league, where 6’5″ 340 lbs men who can bench press a Buick are going to have a bunch of middle-aged men – the on-field officials – intervene in order to protect their feeling from bad words. OK.

But wait! There’s more: the major push-back against this proposed rule change is coming from: black players. Because they use the N-word all the time in a completely friendly manner in playful banter – among themselves. So, it matters who says it – OK for one group, not OK for others. Maybe there are additional nuances, too.

The NFL being a business rather than a branch of government (for the time being), I do not suppose they will take the next logical step: if the term is truly so offensive to warrant action, they would penalize only non-black players for using the N-word.

And then, as an American of Bohemian descent (on my mother’s side), I would fully expect the full weight of the NFL’s enforcement arm to come down on ‘Bohunk’ when said by non-Bohemian-Americans in the heat of sports battle.** I don’t think this particular B-word has been used to insult anyone in over 50 years, but hey, they’re *my* feelings, and you have no right to tell me how to feel!

More seriously, of course in my household, as in all polite company, the use of the n-word is not tolerated, for the obvious historical reasons. I merely find this situation amusing.

* for the sports-impaired,  a 15 yard penalty is a lot in football.

** Popec/Polansky motherland was in fact Moravia, which is the next valley over from Bohemia in the current Czech Republic. Late 19th century East Texans were not aware of or didn’t care to make the distinction. Given the current level of geographic and historic knowledge, the distinction is too difficult to be maintained for racial-slur prevention purposes. Beside, I don’t think ‘Mohunk’ is a word.

NOTE: Add “oops” to “Amazon” as a word not to be Googled in polite company. I wanted a funny face or something to put here – I got images of a different sort entirely.

They’re Redoing Cosmos. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Note for newcomers: I love science and technology. That love makes me hate distortions and lies about my beloved. Which has resulted in me being a little put out with Sagan. And in writing an endless stream of blog posts here about the misuse of Science! 

It seems there will be a new, updated Cosmos series. The interviewer speaks in reverent tones about Sagan’s legacy. I’m hoping they don’t mean Carl’s legacy of making sh*t up if it furthers his two key goals of increasing his Q-rating and gee-whizzing the peons into a properly pliable state. But I fear that’s exactly what they’re after.

So now when you see Cosmos, it doesn’t just affect you intellectually, as it should, but also emotionally and spiritually. Spiritually with a small “s” — the awe and wonder of looking up. Because of this we have high expectations for the potency of the series.

I may throw up.

Absolute perfection. Do his fans understand it? That Carl is the magical hero of his own fantasy universe? A universe where a thin veneer of science-y looking magic is glued over an attempt to gain political power? I kind of doubt it.

Ooookay. Sounds like they are planning to follow Carl’s model of treating science as the religion that’s simply better than all other religions in every way.  Continue reading “They’re Redoing Cosmos. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”