Science Marches On!

What’s wrong with this headline?

Evidence for ancient life on Mars could be just below surface, new study finds

formaldehyde in its native environment, not proving the existence of life on other planets.

So, are we talking about Evidence for ancient life on Mars? No, we’re talking about how evidence for ancient life on Mars could be just below the surface, along with my missing socks and Hoffa’s body – can you *prove* they aren’t, huh? So, maybe not what it’s really saying. Yep, finally, the last 3 words are what we’re really talking about:

Researchers say that evidence of ancient life on Mars could take the form of simple organic molecules lying just beneath the Red Planet’s surface, and that it could be detectable by NASA’s newest rover, which is scheduled to touch down on the planet next month.

Bunch of nested ‘coulds’ there. The real science here, if any, is that somebody traced a series of questions back, did a little research and maybe even ran a few experiments, to try to better focus efforts to find organic molecules on Mars, and concluded that some very simple molecules could survive for quite a long time just a few centimeters down in the dirt, despite the super-harsh conditions.  So, if you happen to have a rover on Mars – NASA is planning on having a new one there shortly – you could dig down a few inches and look for formaldehyde, which would prove conclusively that there’s formaldehyde in the dirt on Mars not too far down. Oh, and suggest that maybe some life processes created the formaldehyde – so – ready for some more nested ‘coulds’? – the formaldehyde could have been created by ancient Martian life, so life could have existed on Mars long ago.

I’m as interested in life on Mars as anyone, but sensationalist headlines over the possibility that there might be evidence of life somewhere on Mars seems, I dunno, a little breathless.


Will the Higgs Boson Change the Way We Understand the Universe?



1. Unless you are a high-end sub-nuclear physicist, you don’t ‘understand’ the Universe in any way such that the existence or non-existence of the Higgs boson means squat to you. From this perspective, your – and my – understanding of the Universe is a hopeless cartoon simplification of reality – if it even rises to that level. But more important –

2. ‘Understanding the Universe’ is a philosophical exercise that takes into account the latest discoveries of physics, on some level, but is hardly defined or constrained by them. For example, we will read or see many essays and fluff spots asking us to consider what the Higgs Boson means. The answer, from within the world of physics is – exactly – nothing. It just is (or isn’t). Even so small a claim that it helps us (if ‘us’ is limited to elite physicists) to understand other stuff only ‘means’ something if our understanding the Universe better means something – and that, my friends, is a philosophical question no number of massive super-cooled boondoggles will ever answer. By definition.

But is it cool? Sure! Waaaaay cool!

Christianity, Freedom, and All That

Just a ramble here: two things about Christianity that are both unique and endlessly fascinating – the sayings and life of Jesus and the Incarnation. One can ponder the Beatitudes, the Parables, the Cleansing of the Temple, the Birth or Crucifixion narratives, or Jesus’ burning questions, ‘Who do people say I am?’ and ‘Who do you say I am?’ for years and hardly scratch the surface of meaning and implications. In the same way, the idea of an Incarnate God – and not just any god, like a wood nymph or river god, but the One, the Creator, the Infinitely Divine God – that’s a head scratcher, to say the least.

Of course, Comparative Religions try to boil out the uniqueness of Christianity by a combination of magnifying the trivial in other ‘religions’ and glossing over the huge divide between any set of beliefs that came before or arose independently of Christ and all that has happened in His shadow. Thus, trivial harvest myths become the same as the story of the Resurrection, while creation myths involving endless gods and goddesses fighting, killing and fornicating with each other are seen as the same as the One God saying ‘Let there be light’ into the formless, dark void. And so on. Continue reading “Christianity, Freedom, and All That”

Falling Silent: Worse Than Yelling

Yesterday, took a look at a sterling example of the all-too-common approach to political discourse of yelling at your opponent to the cheers of your tribe, with not even the slightest attention paid to what your opponent is actually saying or to the accuracy or even reality of your own claims. This was contrasted to actual argument as pursued by level headed people who know how to argue.

Lat night, my wife told me of an encounter with a far worse approach than partisan haranguing: silence.

She attends a Bible study class as a favor to an infirm elderly lady who needs a ride. At this class, the discussion swung around to politics, and started getting heated. My beloved is the very picture of meekness – until you get her riled up. Certain people were espousing positions she found utterly ridiculous and false. Seeing as she is, in fact, one of those people trained in argument, she attempted to draw her interlocutor’s attention to certain factual errors and fallacies in her position. Her response: “I get my news from CNN” followed by – silence. My wife assures me that this woman is a fine and generous soul.

Setting aside the snide implication of the ‘CNN’ crack,  which, in my experience, is a way of dismissing your opponent’s views as reflecting ‘tainted’ media (Fox), withdrawing from the field when your assumptions are challenged is frankly tragic. Of course, with the rabble-rousers and demagogues who are passing for political commentators these days, it’s not hard to see why a gentle soul would simply flee – but that doesn’t make it a good thing.

Argument versus Yelling at People

Unhappily brought to my attention via the miracle of the interwebs, this fellow seems blissfully unaware of the old ‘better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool…’ dictum, and unleashes a monument to unreflective self-unawareness. I hate driving traffic his way, so please, if you go there, leave a comment that makes some rational counterpoint to his spittle-flecked ranting, or maybe point out where the stuffing is falling out of his straw men.

REMINDER: I am of the ‘Pox Upon Both Houses’ Party, and am not defending the GOP – the GOP can go waterboard each other. But I do care about idiotic diatribes that simultaneously violate every norm of civil discourse – let alone logical argument – while claiming the high moral ground. THAT does warrant a smack-down.

By interesting coincidence, Mike Flynn does the heavy lifting of spending some time on the internet attempting to get to the bottom of one of the outrageous stories Whittaker tells to support his handy, all-purpose contention that people who disagree with him are stupid, illustrating the difference between argument and yelling at people.

Here is an obvious point that separates the greenhorns from the playas, argument-wise: you must state your *opponents* position in terms he would agree with *before* you attack it. Note how Mike Flynn posts the link to the story, so that we know – in the words of the people who wrote the story – what he’s talking about. At each point in the essay, when he seeks to introduce a new bit of information, he quotes or links – AND refrains from putting words into the mouths of his interlocutors.

When you are yelling at people – like I am in my first paragraph – you start with your conclusions, complete with a restatement of your opponent’s position in terms he would never agree with, in terms, in fact, calculated to generate the maximum amount of outrage in those you are attacking while generating the maximum amount of head-nodding among those in your bandwagon. Too bad I don’t have a bandwagon. Yet.

An argument, in the hands of a pro, looks like this:

Statement of the general issue

Restatement of the position or positions contrary to the one you hold, in terms those who hold those positions would agree with. Otherwise, you are just talking to yourself and your sycophants.  (a subtle point: there actually must be people holding the position you are arguing against – no fair making up position held by no one.)

Present the arguments used by the holders of the contrary position(s) as strongly as possible, again in terms they would accept.

Now, at last, present your position.

Present arguments that support your position.

Answer each of the arguments supporting the contrary position. It’s nice and honest to acknowledge whatever points in the contrary arguments you agree with.

Once you’ve done all this – which, for political arguments, often only takes a minute or two – you can get down to what you really disagree about and why.

Note that facts may or may not be a part of an argument, but are never arguments in themselves. You can assert that the world is about 4.5 billion years old, or that the Bible is the inherent word of God. So? What’s the argument? It is common nowadays to simply pile up facts and state a conclusion – this practice is not an argument. The argument takes place when you logically explain why your conclusion falls inevitably out of the facts (employing the metaphysics that allow you to say those facts mean anything at all – but that’s another topic)

The point here is that when people start with conclusions calculated to outrage their opponents and then list ‘facts’ that would almost never be accepted as stated by their  opponents, they are doing the 2-part dance of yelling at their opponents and firing up their tribe. No argument is taking place.

Pet Peeve # 7,347: X-Men, and why aren’t certain people more upset?

The kids thew on an X-Men III DVD,and I peeked in on it a bit. Can’t really watch it because the X-MEN CONCEPT IS SO STUPID. It’s not just that they get evolution wrong, but they get it wrong in the worst sort of way: the opening voice-over explicitly claims to be talking about ‘Eeevolution’ and asks us to accept that they’re like all scientific and stuff, while then going completely off the rails about how natural selection works.

This makes midichlorians seem a completely reasonable bit of storytelling by comparison.

‘Eeevolution’ is not waiting around for some cosmic mad scientist to roll the mutation dice. Evolution isn’t even, strictly speaking, a theory – it’s more of an observation. The characteristics of groups of living things appears to change over time in a peculiarly orderly way. The theory is, as Darwin so nicely put it, that species arise from natural selection in a manner parallel with how farmers and breeders ‘improve’ their crops and stock.We’ll call this theory ‘Natural Selection’ for short.

Key points of the theory of natural selection that are contradicted by X-Men:

– there’s no such thing as ‘progress’: cows are not intrinsically ‘better’ than dinosaurs, which are not better than slime mold. Dinosaurs and cows and slime mold would each almost certainly die if thrust into the environment for which either of the other 2 species is adapted. There is simply no place to stand *within the theory* from which to judge ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Natural Selection does not ‘leap forward’.

– Mutation are not directed. Mutations are ‘mistakes’ that are fatal or crippling about 99.99% of the time, indifferent about .009% of the time and potentially helpful maybe .001% of the time. In the X-men, there’s an unacknowledged *somebody* causing mutations that 1) are not fatal or crippling; and 2) clearly intended to be advantageous.

– Mutations do not, as far as is known, cause full-blown functional capabilities not remotely foreshadowed in current functionality. In other word, fish don’t suddenly, in a generation, go from living in the murky deep to breathing air and nesting in trees. X-Men do.

– Finally, natural selection works within the laws of the material world. Nothing ever evolves to the point where it can violate the laws of physics. X-Men are utterly unencumbered by any natural or logical law. Create mass (as wolverine does when heals without eating or getting smaller) out of nothing? Control non-ferrous metals using some mysterious power that doesn’t seem to need any power source other than a vivid imagination? Control the weather without even standing in front of one of those accu-forecast thingies? Not a problem for X-Men.

As my kids say; Dad, it’s just a dumb comic book. And so it is. But it speaks volumes that very very few people – I’m the only one I know – have their suspension of disbelief ruined by this utter misrepresentation of science. That’s why we hate midichlorians, after all – in a fairy tale, you don’t explain the structural engineering that allows the bean stalk to reach the sky or the aerodynamic properties of  flying brooms.

Where are those people, I wonder, who are so deeply concerned that some religious person might not accept evolution that they feel obliged, one assumes in charity, to attempt to browbeat and humiliate creationist bumpkins? Why aren’t they picketing theaters for the crime of X-Men, which presents evolution as magic, and scientists as magicians, and logic as unimportant, and the laws of nature as more like guidelines than actual rules? If they were really concerned about Science(tm), X-Men is a much bigger and more damaging challenge than mere creationism – because creationism doesn’t usually pretend to be science.

maybe promoting science isn’t really the motivating factor?