Hey, Deniers: It’s the Same Science

by dhovel 8. October 2012 21:02

There has again been much press about prominent figures in American life (read: politicians) who deny facts.  They deny Evolution, the Big Bang and Global Warming, among other things.  A few years ago, I personally woke up to realize that both my dentist and my CPA were “Young Earthers”, a position which I find laughable.  Possibly a CPA might have never have been exposed to in-depth information about biology or geology, but was this possible for a dentist?

Denying scientific theories such as Evolution in their totality is the same thing as denying cell phones, computers, space travel or jetliners.  What is the basis for this statement?  It’s the same science.

The “scientific principle” is the idea that true knowledge is only obtained through a process of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and discarding and improving them.  These tests might entail actual laboratory work, experiments in the “wild”, wind tunnels, swimming pools or today’s modern computer simulation environments.  Often, as was the case with Darwin and Einstein, it may involve only “Gedankenexperiment” or thought experiments: reasoning that can be performed by a knowledgeable person in an armchair.

Given that there are few differences between the science that allows jetliners to stay aloft and the conclusions of modern geology and biology, those who deny Evolution, the Big Bang and other well-established theories are, in essence, denying heavier-than-air flight and cellular telephony!

Darwin’s theory was based on a lifetime of observation and experimentation, adjoined with the work of hundreds of others.  Due to societal pressures, he declined to publish his work until Alfred Russell Wallace was about to publish his own results which almost exactly paralleled Darwin’s own.  This was a classic example of Sherlock Holmes’ principle that what remains after all the impossible and unlikely events are removed must be the truth.  Two men from opposite ends of the earth had arrived at exactly the same intellectual juncture.  At roughly the same time, Gregor Mendel was performing simple, daily experiments with pea plants.  Though largely ignored in his lifetime, his results would establish a mathematical basis for inheritance long before they could spell DNA.

Geologists Charles Lyell and Georges Cuvier, although differing in their theoretical approaches, strongly established the principle that “the rocks don’t lie.”  The full normalization of the seemingly competing theories of uniformitarianism and catastrophism did not occur until early in my life, during the 1960’s, when the theory of plate tectonics was propounded and elaborated.  Once again, the proofs were obtained by using chemistry, atomic physics and rational analysis using the enormous mountains of evidence (literally) to be found all over the earth.

The theory of the Big Bang was first formulated by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, early in the 20th century.  As developed through the work of Edwin Hubble and George Gamow and the scientific discoveries of Penzias and Wilson, the nascent Big Bang theory was validated to the point that it predicted not only the elemental composition of the universe but the numerical value of the background temperature of the universe!

So we come to Global Warming.  Mathematical modeling of weather is a very difficult and ongoing theoretical effort.  As with any theory, not every observable phenomenon can yet be predicted by current models; however, the extent and nature of the changes in the world’s macroclimates are reproduced faithfully in computers around the world by scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds and approaches. 

Boeing corporation, as an example, has computer models sophisticated enough to predict the behavior of huge new jetliners under almost all possible aerodynamic conditions without ever building a single plane.  When the U.S. Department of Defense issued a challenge to the aeronautical industry to build the next generation fighter plane, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter, both Boeing and Lockheed-Martin designed their planes entirely on computer.  Both resulting planes were constructed as complete, ready-to-fly prototypes based on the computer generated plans.  These prototypes flew and met almost all of the mandated specifications, which were complex and demanding.

This same approach has been applied to earth sciences.  Yes, there are more variables.  No, you cannot re-run history to see how changes in variables change outcomes.  However, every model carries with it a level of confidence.  This level is based not only on how closely a model matches observations but on how often the model, re-run with changes to initial conditions, reproduces a result similar to previous runs.  Almost all research in nuclear weaponry has used and still uses the same modeling methodology.

The truth is that those who deny these proven theories always have another agenda.  In the case of Evolution and the Big Bang, the agenda is almost always the fear that acceptance of the truth will somehow undermine religious belief.  I find this hard to accept, since during my extensive Catholic school education, I never once heard a priest or other teacher challenge these theories.  Recently, a world-wide conference on the Big Bang was held at the Vatican.

The deniers of Global Warming have a different agenda.  They fear that accepting anthropogenic global warming will result in trillions of dollars being spent on unproven mitigation techniques.  Some, it may be said, are merely angry at the notion that humans can have such a deleterious effect on the earth.  I personally don’t think that fear of the consequences of the truth should be a rationale for denial of the validity of a theory.  We cannot “cherry pick” science and accept what we chose simply because it’s all the same science.

It is time to treat deniers as the crackpots they are.  I, for one, intend to use a litmus test when choosing professional assistance in the future.  If I’m planning to use a lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant or other professional in my life, I will ask that person if she believes in Evolution or the Big Bang.  If the answer is in the negative, I will decline to use her services.  This is simply because anyone who can compartmentalize reality to such a degree as to deny proven science is to be suspected of a form of modern neurosis that could have negative consequences in the performance of her duties.

However, I’m not going to use Global Warming as a litmus test simply because it’s a very complex topic with many aspects that are poorly understood.  For example, I don’t believe that we can or should spend those trillions of dollars mitigating CO2 emissions with suspect methodology, at least until more evidence is gathered; we should, however, do everything we can to use proven mitigation techniques.  I doubt very much that “cap and trade” will prove to be a viable mitigation technique, and evidence accumulated since the Kyoto treaty seems to bear out my opinion.

In summary, then, science is science.  It’s a process, and some theories are currently more complete and powerful than others.  Those who deny Evolution or the Big Bang should immediately stop flying on airplanes, using cell phones, watching TV or surfing the internet.  That would only be consistent with their worldview.  Those who deny Global Warming should read the latest evidence closely: it’s all there.  The problem is the commingling of science with public policy.  We should accept the results of science and base our policies insofar as possible on results that are proven well enough to support significant investment. 

Remember that no theory, even gravitation, can produce an “exact” answer beyond about 17 significant digits.  However, such an answer allows us to fly rockets to Mars and use Global Positioning Satellites to discover our location to within a few feet.

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Your Dog

by dhovel 27. December 2011 13:40

Your dog is not particularly cute.

Dogs can be very cute, but they are similar to people in that only about one in twenty is genuinely attractive.  If others find your dog to be cute, that’s great.   But it’s not a good topic of conversation.

Your dog is not particularly smart.

Most dogs are of roughly the same intelligence.  They can do certain clever things but are usually blissfully ignorant of the obvious.  Unless you have a trained Border collie, your dog is probably just average.  Please remember the “Lake Woebegone” effect: they can’t all be good-looking and above-average.

Your dog is nice—to you

Dogs have been bred for 70,000 years to distinguish between those who feed them and strangers.  Your dog’s behavior toward you is no indication of how it will behave toward others.  Only training and monitoring will make your dog a truly safe member of society.

Your dog is not a child.

If you want to carry your dog in a belly pack or a stroller and coddle it all day, that’s your prerogative.  However, please refrain from recounting all the myriad ways your dog is like your child.  It’s not.

If I’m in busy traffic and I see a dog in my car’s path, I will try to avoid hitting it.  But I will not deliberately collide with nearby cars or risk a rear-end collision to avoid the dog; doing so might cause an injury or risk a human life.  If, on the other hand, I see a child in my car’s path, I will do everything I can, including jumping lanes, to avoid her.  After all, the nearby drivers and I are protected by tons of steel, seat belts and air bags.  And, after all, it’s a child.

Your dog is an “it”.

Most dogs these days are neutered, and dogs, as a species, are not dimorphic.  I am not interested in whether your dog used to be male or female.  Please do not correct me if I get the gender wrong, since I just don’t care.

Yes, your dog’s bark is annoying.

Every dog’s behavior is a reflection of its owner.  If you would not personally bark at people the way your dog does, remember that we’re all thinking it’s really you doing the barking. 

Please don’t expect that others can distinguish all the marvelous nuances of your canine’s self-expression (playfulness, uncertainty, boredom, etc.) because they vary by dog and are mostly just the owner’s interpretation.  Almost all barking sounds aggressive because it’s supposed to.

Dogs are wonderfully trainable.  Many attack dogs are trained to approach an intruder completely silently.  If a Rottweiler or Doberman can be trained that way, your dog can be trained not to bark at strangers from the back seat of a parked car.

Yes, your dog needs a leash.

Voice command is generally a myth.  Given the right temptation, almost all dogs will dash off after a rabbit, another dog or just because of high spirits.  If the law or common sense says use a leash, do so.

If I’m walking, running or riding my bicycle, I don’t want to have to pay laser-like attention to your dog to make sure I don’t stumble over it.  And please keep your leash out of the path of others.  Imagine blocking other people’s path with a long stick—it’s the same thing.

No, your dog can’t come in my house.

I really don’t care if your dog just came from the beauty parlor, I don’t let dogs in my house.  That is my right.  Whether or not you allow your dog into bed with you, or allow it so sit on your lap while you drive is entirely irrelevant to my decision to exclude animals from my house.  I won’t take offence at your driving with a pooch in your lap if you don’t take umbrage at my decision to not clean up after your dog in my own home.

When you go to other peoples’ houses, please be prepared to keep your dog in your car during your visit or to tie it up outside. 

Yes, I do like dogs

I like dogs; I always have.  But like everything else in life, I appreciate the good ones and regret the bad ones.  And I don’t really want to know every aspect of your dog’s importance in your life.  I understand what having a dog means—it’s a roughly similar experience for everyone.  Dogs are pleasant adjuncts to the lives of many people, but they are only a part of life.  If you find yourself droning on incessantly about your dog, please take up knitting, computer programming, gardening, French or scuba diving.  Life is short.