Friday, March 28, 2014

No, I won't just let it go

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in / and stops my mind from wandering / where it will go - Lennon/McCartney
If your job is repairing leaky roofs, you would not tolerate people who made a habit of attacking them with pick axes.

As I understand it, the human brain has a natural tendency to be leaky, letting in all sorts of nonsense. The methods we've developed over the past several hundred years of scientific investigation are the only ones proven to effectively separate the reasonable from the bunkum and allow us to patch the holes and keep the nonsense out.

In my role as a physics teacher, I have the opportunity to demonstrate that you can explore everyday phenomena through observation and analysis and discover the rules by which the universe operates. Things don't fall down because I tell you they do; instead, our experience demonstrates that they fall and our analysis tells us how they will accelerate. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation is not important because it came from Newton, but because anybody can derive it given sufficient data and math skills, and because we can make reliable predictions about the motion of objects from it.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, relies on unverified and unfalsifiable claims that go against everything we know about the world. Homeopathy relies on water molecules remembering where they've been (which they don't). Acupuncture relies on the flow of Qi (which is not detectable) through meridians (which have not been found). Energy bracelets release negative ions (they don't) that align your body's natural energy field (which doesn't exist). When tested in properly designed scientific studies, we find that these and other fantastic claims perform no better than placebo - and the better designed the study, the smaller any beneficial effect.
Some simple methods to identify questionable claims. 

But what's the harm? So what if you enjoy a palm reading or your daily gargle of coconut oil? Who cares if your uncle feels his power bracelet improves his golf game? What does it matter if your Facebook friends spend their weekends tracking Sasquatch in the woods of Vancouver? Why should it matter if Mayim Bialik refuses to vaccinate her kids?

There is financial harm. The incredible waste of money on sham treatments is vast and disturbing. Power Balance made enough in their scam to (temporarily) sponsor the LA Kings NBA arena. Purveyors of scam treatments cleverly advise that it may take more than one treatment or will recommend regular preventative treatments to maximize the money they can collect from their victims. Dowsers in California are currently collecting hundreds of dollars per visit to supposedly locate water for drought-stricken farmers.  And not to make a slippery slope argument, but the public acceptance of each pseudoscientific product encourages the creation of more scams.

There is medical harm. When people substitute sham treatments for proven ones, they fail to get the medical attention they need. Preventable diseases are on the rise due to unscientific fear of vaccines. And people are given false hope by sham practitioners. At the same time, beneficial products, such as Vitamin A fortified Golden Rice are delayed or blocked due to unscientific thinking.

But equally troubling is the long term intellectual harm that presents "magic" as a viable alternative to scientific understanding, threatening to roll back the progress we've made. In order to accept pseudoscience, you must reject science. Every false claim that is accepted without justification is another pick-axe hole in the roof that undoes the work that I dedicate every day to accomplish.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Science is not true

In the words of Indiana Jones: "If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

As I Understand It, science is not about discovering truth.  If we say it is, we run the continual risk of truth changing with each new discovery, and increased public misunderstanding and lack of trust in our scientific endeavors.  When people claim that Newton was proven wrong by Einstein, it belittles the incredible accomplishments of Newton and then sets the genius of Einstein up for failure when the next discovery is made.

Instead, we should promote the idea that science is all about development of increasingly useful models: Ones which are better at explaining the past and predicting the future.

As an analogy, my grandfather once told me that his first car was a Model A Ford.  Over the years, I've wondered about his car, so I found an old black and white picture of a Model A.  With this picture, I could see certain details and understand proportions of the car, but it only showed one side, so I had no good idea of the top, bottom or inside.  In order to better understand the car, I got a small scale model of the car.  It had working doors and you could open up the hood and trunk to see the engine.  The wheels turned and it provided a 360 degree view of the car.  This model was a lot more useful than the picture, but it did not prove the picture "wrong".  It also didn't tell me everything about my grandfather's experience.

So I tracked down a fully restored Model A.  Now, I could sit behind the wheel, drive the car and see how it handled around corners, smell the exhaust and experience the rattling of the steering wheel. It was the best guide yet to what my grandfather's car must have been like, but still, if I were to take a DNA sample of the leather in the seat, it would not match that of his original car.  It was a better model than the last one, but didn't prove the old ones "false" and neither was this model "true".  Instead, I had developed increasingly detailed models that were useful for different needs.

Our scientific endeavors are the same.
Improving models
of the atom

If we look at the history of atomic theory, we find a series of models of the atom.  J. J. Thomson's plum pudding model explained the presence of electrons, which Dalton's model did not.  Ernest Rutherford obtained data with his gold foil experiment that was not explained by the plum pudding model, so he developed the planetary model. Atomic spectrum were not consistent with the planetary model, so Neils Bohr developed an atomic model with electron shells, which better explained the spectra. Despite this "progress", we still use an old billiard ball model of atoms to explain thermodynamics and ideal gases.  Each model is useful for a different set of circumstances, yet we should not be so arrogant as to claim that even our current model is "true".

When some students in biology class feel that evolutionary theory contradicts their religious views, perhaps an understanding that evolution isn't "true" would help to ease their objections.  Instead, evolution provides us with an incredibly useful model.  It helps to explain the common properties of life on earth and allows us to predict where to find the next transitional fossil -- things that a six-day-creation model may not be entirely useful for. But just because it is useful doesn't make it true.

Another obvious risk to claiming scientific truth is the all too common case of groundbreaking discoveries that reshape our understanding. We should avoid the arrogance of thinking that what we understand today will be looked upon as anything more than quaint to scientists a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand years from now.  And yet, some of our models may still prove useful to our distant descendants.  Remember, we needed little more than 300 year old Newtonian mechanics to calculate the trajectories that would put humans on the moon.

At least that's How I Understand It.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What we can learn from Adam's bellybutton

Recently, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, accepted a challenge and debated Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis. The topic: "Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?"  Reviews of the debate generally award victory to the debater that shared the reviewer's point of view. This is not a review of that debate, but instead presents a point of view that may make the question moot and foster mutual interest in the conclusions of mainstream science, As I Understand It.

There was an old joke about an archaeologist who discovered the mummified remains of a male and female and claimed that he had found Adam and Eve.  How did he know?  Because they did not have bellybuttons.  The question of bellybuttons is actually one that Ken Ham has answered on his website, and he concludes that since they were never attached to an umbilical cord, they would not have the scar associated with one.

from Wikimedia Commons
Brueghel's Creation of Adam
A literal reading of Genesis provides few details and leaves many such questions open to interpretation. However, the details we are given tell of a single week of creation during which plants, land animals, sea creatures and flying birds as well as all the stars and galaxies in the universe were created each on a specific day.  Within the garden of Eden, the animals were paraded in front of Adam and given names and finally Eve was created from Adam's rib as a companion for him.  By exploring the subsequent genealogies in Genesis, these events can be traced to a time roughly six thousand years ago

However, discoveries of modern science point out some apparent difficulties of this account. 
from Wikimedia Commons
Map of Nearby Stars
Astrophysicists can accurately measure the distance to many stars, which range from as little as four light years away to more than thirteen billion . If we take the Genesis account literally, then the skies above Eden should have begun quite dark, with only our sun, moon and five nearby planets visible on the first night.  It would take a little over four years for the light of Proxima Centauri to make its debut in the night sky, as the light given off by that initial burst of fusion in the first week of creation finally completed its journey to Earth. By the end of the sixteenth year of creation, only an additional eight stars would be visible, and even today, we should be able to see no farther than the nearby arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

Clearly, this is not the case.  

NASA Image. Spitzer/GALEX
Helix Nebula
There is another issue with the stars.  Our catalog of heavenly objects includes stars at all stages of their life cycles.  Based on analysis of the light emitted from each star, we can understand the elemental composition of each sun and the nuclear reactions taking place within it. Based on the known rates of reaction, the age and remaining life of each star can be determined.  Some gas clouds are known stellar "nurseries" giving birth to new stars, while others are clearly the remnants of ancient stellar explosions.  How are we to reconcile stars at all stages of their billions-of-years life cycle with a six thousand year old universe?

If we were to take a Young Earth Creationist point of view, we would have to accept that the variety of stars created on the fourth day included some young, some old and some already exploded.  He must have provided a variety of objects representing the entire life cycle of stars, both ready for our enjoyment and available to our analysis.  Despite being only six thousand years old, the stars would tell a story of thirteen billion years of history. This story is written in the heavens.  And since we can see these objects, despite their great distance, then perhaps God also created the beams of light between the stars and Earth, so that they would be visible on that first evening, displaying the majesty of the night sky.

A similar argument could be made for the first plants.  There is no indication in Genesis that the first trees in Eden started as seeds and had to grow to their full height over decades.  On the contrary, we are provided an image of a full grown forest, likely with trees at all stages of their life cycles suddenly appearing. Would those that began their existence full-grown have no growth rings? Or, as we see with stars, would the tall trees contain a growth record for time that did not exist, with rings consistent to their growth?  I don't recall anything in Genesis that would contradict this conclusion.

That which is true for plants and stars would extend to animals.  Young and old created all at once, with the old bearing a non-existent history of time that never existed: Lions with full-grown manes and elephants with well-developed wrinkles as well as fish with growth rings on their scales and shellfish with well-developed layers of calcium carbonate.

Grand Canyon from NASA's Terra spacecraft
Similarly, glaciers would exist at the end of the first week with hundreds of thousands of years worth of annual growth layers, available for discovery by today's scientists studying ice cores.  Mountains would be created with billions of years of sedimentary layers consistent with an old Earth.  Grand canyons could be created within the first week without having to wait for meager rivers to carve their steep banks.  Using this logic, fossils could have been scattered throughout layers of rock telling an evolutionary story of life's origins consistent with the old appearance of the Earth.

And, yes, Adam would have a belly button.

Under this scenario, scientists could continue to look at all the converging lines of evidence and conclude that we live on a four and a half billion year old Earth that in the midst of a thirteen billion year old universe.  At the same time, creationists could look at a six thousand year old earth and universe, but study side by side with scientists to read the rich history written by the hand of God in the details He provided at creation.  In addition to reading the Word of God presented in the Bible, creationists could read the Word of God presented in the universe that tells a story of thirteen billion years of history, including our rich evolutionary past.

There doesn't need to be any conflict.

At least As I Understand It.

About me

A blog?  Sure, why not.  Welcome to "As I Understand It", where I'll ponder and pontificate on things scientific.  I'll challenge pseudoscience, promote critical thinking and hopefully avoid arrogance and ridicule (of myself and others) while doing so.

For the past ten years or so, I've been living my lottery dream.  In the years after getting my MBA and working as a marketing strategy consultant, I had the dream of winning the lottery and giving up business to become a high school physics teacher. I didn't win the lottery, but got to make the transition all the same, and despite the 3/4 salary cut, it was the best career decision I could have made.  I taught for four years in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, and for the past seven have been doing so in Williamsburg, Virginia.

I majored in physics at Brandeis University, having always had a knack for math and science. I also was active in theater and spent every summer through high school and college working as a camp counselor.  Teaching high school physics ties these three loves together to some degree as I get to share my love of physics through the occasional "performance" of teaching, while having a positive influence on kids.

I've always been one to ask questions to understand the world around me.  If you've ever been on a group tour where there is someone at the front monopolizing the tour guide's time with question after question, that's me.  I'm THAT guy. It doesn't matter if it is a brewery tour or a Ranger program at the National Park, I can't help it but to ask questions.  Hopefully, through all that questioning, I've learned a thing or two, and I'm always looking to learn more.

So I'll be blogging about things "As I Understand It", and I hope to learn more along the way.

Please be kind.