Galileo and the Debate Over Copernicus

From the always interesting Mike Flynn, background information on the debates surrounding the Copernican model championed by Galileo.

A brief snippet:

“Given the available scientific knowledge in 1651, a geo-heliocentric hypothesis clearly had real strength, but Riccioli presents it as merely the “least absurd” available model – perhaps comparable to the Standard Model in particle physics today – and not as a fully coherent theory.”

These kinds of things are rarely surprising to anyone with a toehold in the land of real history, but remain mysteriously unknown to the Galileo-as-victim-of-religious-stupidity crowd.

Group Selection versus Kin Selection: Evolutionary Biologist Bar Fight

Over at First Things, this blog post links to this article,  in which pretty much the entire profession of evolutionary biology comes down hard on one its brightest stars, E. O. Wilson, for insisting that the actual evidence and the math that purports to explain it do not support the theory of kin selection. What makes this more interesting is that Wilson himself is chiefly responsible for the prevalence of kin selection – he read a paper by a student that proposed it, and then spent years promoting and expounding on the theory.

Kin selection won out in large part because it logically falls out from gene selection. The danger here is that, given a good theory, the evidence tends to get found that supports it, while any evidence that confounds it tends to get explained away or ignored. That being said, I personally can’t see how group selection is supposed to work in the real world, or how, fundamentally, it differs from kin selection in practice if it did in fact work – breeding practices being what they are, your group is pretty much coextensive with your kin. But, not being a biologist or a mathematician (although I do often play one at work), I don’t have the chops to look at the actual evidence or math.

Funnier still – would Wilson call this consilience? – this issue comes to my attention just as I’m finishing reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn, in which he lays out the why and how of Normal Science’s reaction to anything that threatens it.

Anyway, my sympathies are with Wilson (read several of his books, he’s a sharp man) even though, logically, I can’t see how he could be right, because his opponents (including, of course, Dawkins – I’ve read several of his books, too – he’s very very bright) are snarling a bit more than is civil.

Gotta love cool, logical science in action!

The World is Made of Styrofoam Balls and Pipe Cleaners

Consider this picture:

These are Styrofoam models of a couple molecules, ubiquitous in grade school and high school chemistry classes, at least back in my day. Their usefulness as a teaching tool is evident – they show the elemental composition of the molecule and the relationships between the various elements. Balls of different sizes and colors represent the different elements. You can even get fancy, and use multiple silver pipe cleaners to show carbon bonds.

All and all, a young student can learn a lot about molecules via Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners.

Now, imagine if some angry pedant were to walk into a 7th grade classroom and start railing against Styrofoam ball molecules:

“Come on, you can’t really believe that the Universe is made up of Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners! Only an idiot could believe that! We KNOW that molecules are tiny, so tiny that it takes trillions of them to make even a single Styrofoam ball! And atoms aren’t different colors – they’re smaller than the wavelength of visible color, so it’s meaningless to even say an atom is red or blue or green! And molecular bonds aren’t solid like a pipe cleaner – they are electromagnetic phenomena! All of you Styrofoam ball believers are idiots!”

Now imagine that you, a startled 7th grade teacher, tried to reason with this guy, pointing out that the Styrofoam model is merely intended to convey a few basic ideas about molecules, and that no one believes that the world is made up of Styrofoam molecules, and that, while his observations were all quite true, in order to teach them the student would first of all have to have *some* idea of the basic properties of molecules so that they would have some idea what you are talking about – and that’s all the model was hoping to convey.

But, being angry and on his high horse, he won’t listen. Nobody goes away happy.

Absurd? OK, then check out this:

This is the beautiful image of God the Father creating Adam from the Sistine Chapel. God is depicted as a vigorous old man floating in the sky, attended to by angels, with Eve held beneath his left arm. This masterpiece is intended to convey a few basic ideas about God (and a couple more advanced ones, as well). First off, he is not a physical being – we know this because physical beings don’t float in the air. He is strong – look at those arms! He is Lord of Hosts – see all the angels. And, subtly, He has Eve in mind even as he creates Adam – Adam may be first in time, but he and Eve are essentially one idea.

Now our cranky critic walks in:

“You’re telling me God is some magical old man floating in the sky? What kind of idiot believes that? And he just floats on down and creates Adam and Eve? Come ON – you know that’s a myth! We KNOW man evolved just like all the other animals and plants! And isn’t obvious that, by making God a man, you are simply projecting your wishes into some daddy that will take care of you? You people are all idiots!”

You, a startled theology teacher, might say: Nobody believes God is an old man in the sky. We believe Him to be a spirit, outside of time and space, in Whom we live and move and have our being.  He’s not even a ‘he’ in any of the limited senses of masculinity we can understand. But, if you are going to paint a picture, the painting will be of something, and a powerful father figure is a very good way to get across some basic ideas – that God is powerful, that He is our father, that He created heaven and earth and everything that fills them.  Only once the student has those basic ideas in place can he understand what God is like, insofar as we can understand Him at all.

We know how this song ends.

A Paradigm Shift on the Term “Paradigm Shift”

Don’t use this term, unless you really mean: a mountain of clear data demands that we replace a well-understood and accepted scientific theory with a fundamentally different one that accounts for the newer clear data AND all the old clear data.

Don’t make me stop this car!

If what you mean is: I like looking at things in a new way because I really didn’t like looking at things the old way, regardless of the lack of data supporting this new way and ignoring data that doesn’t really fit the new way – then Do Not Use the phrase ‘Paradigm Shift’ to describe your mood-driven flip-flop. This would mean sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, among others, are forbidden the use of this term, as their sciences do not have a body of data, let alone a coherent theory, about which anyone other than members of their own schools agree.

For example, there are around 16 different schools of psychology out there, each one of which claims to have the theory that best explains what makes people tick. Practitioners retreat to incoherence, saying they take a smorgasbord approach, just using whatever they find true from whatever school strikes their fancy. This strategy, while perhaps allowing practitioners to do some good for their patients, ignores the fundamental incompatibility of, say, Freud and Jung and Skinner, in effect admitting that their theories are unconvincing and ultimately trivial – they don’t make a difference in the real world. Therefore, one cannot have a paradigm shift in psychology – what paradigm? Psychological paradigms metastasize, they don’t shift.

Better yet, since so few people have even a faint grasp of what we’re talking about here, how about we just retire the phrase to the ‘once useful, now just a smokescreen’ Hall of Fame?


Science was my first love. Was fortunate enough to go to school in a time and place where, as long as you were keeping up and weren’t distracting other students, the teachers were willing to leave you alone. Got to spend grades 5 – 8 basically reading stuff while making a very occasional and token contribution in class.We had a pretty decent little library for a small working-class Catholic school – at least, it kept me happy for a couple years. The public library was only a couple blocks from school, so, when I was ready, I ‘graduated’ to it.

Worked my way through the Time-Life science series first. In the one on electromagnetism, there were instructions on how to make a working electric motor out of paperclips, tacks and wire. I made one for the science fair – it worked great, but was very fragile. I failed to make sure that the teachers saw that it worked when I dropped it off, because, by the time the show came around, it didn’t – don’t know why, something was out of alignment or the batteries died, who knows. It didn’t do well, which irritated me, because *I* thought it was cool, and way fancier than most of the stuff the other 10 year olds were making, but to the judges it must have looked like a pile of wires.

I relate this story only to give some idea of why, despite my great interest in science, I never studied it formally outside of a few classes in high school and college – I lack something, call it the experimental knack. In college, I once caused the evacuation of the science lab by failing to consider that, once I’d reduced a liquid to powder in a crucible over a Bunsen burner, it would be a good idea to let it cool before titrating some nasty chemicals into it. Sigh.

But the theory – man, I was all over it. Unlike many famous scientists today, I understood instinctively and from a very young age that there were things science could tell you and things science could not (which, I think, is why I ended up studying philosophy).

So, for the last 35+ years, I’ve been very suspicious of anybody who figuratively (and sometimes literally) stands up at the podium, looks down his nose, and pronounces that science has shown this or that. Similarly, the phrase ‘scientific consensus’ sets off all kinds of alarms – I’d like someone to point out to me some great scientist, someone whose contributions reverberate around the world and fundamentally affect what people do and think – Newton, Einstein, Planck, that level of scientist – saying ‘the scientific consensus’ somehow settled something. I’d think, rather, that claim would merit a sneer or a laugh, for one very good reason – these are the very guys who made their marks by *upsetting* the consensus of their day.That’s often how science works.

Experiment, data, falsifiable theory – that’s science. Browbeating questioners with claims that the *real* scientists all agree is not, especially when the argument is fundamentally circular: real scientists are the ones who agree.

The point isn’t that claims of ‘consensus’ prove any wrong, but rather that they prove nothing at all. There’s a scientific consensus, for example, that water boils at 100c at sea level and under normal pressure. It’s a consensus *because* anybody so inclined can check it out for themselves. The experimental data backs it up.

In an earlier post, I discussed how people with an agenda, if they are at all smart, are always on the lookout for their Guy Fawkes – that guy on the other side who behaves so egregiously that he creates sympathy. “See! See!”, you can claim, “our opponents are dangerous lunatics!” In Guy Fawkes’s case, he stands in for all the perfectly sane and reasonable people willing to die for the belief that the Crown of England was not and could not truly be the head of the Church in England. When admired judges, bishops and young mothers are willing to die for this belief, it makes the other side look bad – and so, in the nick of time, mad bomber Fawkes appears, to supply the kind of opponent the Crown needed.

In the same way, Andrew Wakefield is useful – see, he’s a fraud! See the kind of people who oppose the scientific consensus! And look at all the gullible people who follow him!  And, it’s all true – Wakefield is a fraud, and millions of gullible people still follow him. And Fawkes really did want to blow up Parliament. But what none of this proves is that those who oppose a scientific consensus are, by that fact alone, shown to be frauds or nuts. Only the data can do that.

What pains me is not when some nut or suffering parent is wrong, but when scientists who should know better start playing the ‘we know better’ card. So often, it’s a guy like Wakefield, who’s in it for the money, or Sagan, who was in it for the fame, who use science as a club to beat us lesser mortals into submission.

And, here’s the kicker: it has always been thus. The history of science is full of grandstanding self-promoters (Galileo, for on  prominent example), petty back-stabers (Newton) and frauds (too many to list – how about Freud and Kellogg?).

The data is sacred. Bad data yields bad science. Theories only mean anything when based on good data. Problems with the data result in problems with the theory. And the frequency of saints among scientists is no greater than among financial advisers.

Yet More on Science

Science has shown that the most misused phrase in the English language is:  Science has shown.

– if the proposition has ‘ought’ in it, science remains silent. All arguments about how morality evolved and can therefore be explained mechanistically are malicious word games. At best, evolutionary biology explains what has happened, not what you or anyone else ought to do.

– if the proposition has metaphysics in it, science is silent. Metaphysics is not a bad word, despite the best efforts of number of scientists to prove, metaphysically, that metaphysics doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, isn’t needed. Metaphysics is just that class of things that are required for *anything* to be true.  To even state that no metaphysics are required is to – ready? – make a metaphysical statement.

Just using these two handy rules alone, you can properly dismiss as hokum any assertion that ‘science has shown’:

– that people are altruistic because evolution made them that way;

– that God doesn’t exist;

– that people are animals, and nothing more. (people are mammals = scientific observation; that people are no different than cows or slugs = huge metaphysical leap, plus abuse of logic and observation)

– that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Really? How would one observe or measure that?

– that there is no free will, since everything can be explained mechanistically.

for starters.

Finally! Stem Cells Save Social Lives!

Hurray! Stem cell therapy might cure baldness! Of course, they’re talking about activating the stem cells already present in a man’s scalp, not adding stem cells from another source, so this has no bearing on embryonic stem cell research, a point that will be steamrolled in 3… 2… 1….

Disclosure: I’m bald. I can’t imagine lifting a finger to do anything about it. To me, the weirdness of having my hair grow back after having noticeably been absent for the past decade would far outweigh whatever the theoretical benefits. Are my friends and family going to love me better with hair? If so, maybe I should stop worrying about my mop and start worrying about the quality of my interpersonal relationships.  The only exception I can think of is if I needed to get a job – then, looking a little younger might make some tactical sense. But if I grew hair to get a job, I’d do it grudgingly.

But, clearly, this is big news – just like Viagra and its, if you’ll excuse the expression, offspring have spawned (just can’t stop!)  an entire industry of solving a problem that, in the vast majority of cases, is NOT a medical problem, so this ‘cure’ for baldness will, in the frankly unlikely case that it actually works, enrich big pharm by addressing the baldness crisis that now besets our great nation. If only our men, and, one supposes, women, had the virile, lion-like manes that it is our  sacred right to possess, well, I’m sure World Peace would break out like the measles all over the world’s pasty behind! At the very least!

And think of the pranks! No longer would frat boys be limited to writing on their passed-out brothers – they could cream ’em up, spell out words in hair on awkward parts of their anatomy. Hilarity is sure to ensue, and who doesn’t need some hilarity in this vale of tears?

Adventures in Medicine

Two notes:

1. Unless your problem is pretty straight forward, like, say, a piece of rebar protruding from your chest,  DON’T mention it to the doctor. He will send you in for tests. You may come out alive, but your dignity will not survive. And let’s not even talk about money.

2. Speaking of money: I saw four no doubt well-compensated (as they should be) health professionals in the room while the doctor administered the tests using an array of fancy equipment. These professionals handled everything from hooking up tubes and needles (I want the people poking me to have attended Needle Poking School and to have taken lots of tests involving making cadavers look like cheesecloth) to putting my personal items in a plastic bag.

Having gotten vocational training as a finance guy, I quickly figured that these tests were going to run well north of a grand, and maybe a lot more, just based on paying the pros in the room and overhead for all that fancy equipment and the nice hospital to put it in.  You want good health care? You want well compensated, well trained pros to handle the injecting, inspecting and rejecting? OK, but it’s gonna cost ya.

Conclusion: unless you’re actively hemorrhaging right there in the doctors office, figure it’ll heal if you just ignore it for another couple months, and avoid forays into the medical establishment. How could it hurt?

Will the Real Skeptic Please Speak Up? Another Ramble

In college, many years ago, I once read a little pamphlet that contained some exchanges between Martin Luther and Erasmus, occasioned by Luther’s publishing of a paper called ‘On the Bondage of the Will’. It was a fascinating read on several levels, but one item in particular has stuck in my mind all this time. Erasmus makes the point that, if Luther truly believes that the human will is not free, why in the world would he bother talking about it? Learning about the abject slavery of the human will isn’t needed by those Christians who by the sole grace of God and through no merit of their own have gained freedom, and it won’t do any good for those other poor souls, who are utterly enslaved by sin and are incapable of doing anything at all to change that situation.

It seemed like a pretty good point to me at the time, and still does. However, history shows that Luther did not, in fact, stop talking about it. Score 1 for passion, 0 for logical consistency.

But then again, those who think consistency is some sort of hobgoblin must take some comfort in how few people are afflicted with it. Continue reading “Will the Real Skeptic Please Speak Up? Another Ramble”