free debate

  • Fossil or Not?

    Identifying fossils is a more complicated task then you'd think. There are lots of different kinds of rocks, which can have their own unique patterns in them. Some of these patterns are the remains of ancient life; others are abiotic structures, chances of mineralization or later erosion that lead to pseudofossils...

  • Why Pluto Should Not be a Planet

    It was 2006 when the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto was no longer going to be considered a planet. Ironically, this was probably one of the best followed scientific controversies of my lifetime...

  • Dinosaurs: Now in Color

    A few months back, I talked about how scientists had found evidence of iridescence in fossil feathers. At the time, that was a huge step forward. We still didn't know what colors dinosaurs were, but we could find out something from microscopic structures in well-preserved feathers. Now, we've got something even cooler...

  • Life on Mars

    The question of how much life there is in the universe is one of the most fundamental questions in astronomy, and possibly all of science. While we are just now on the brink of finding Earth-like planets around other stars, the possibility of life existing on planets very different from our own still remains...

February 27, 2013

Arguing from Authority (and doing it well)

Skeptical websites and podcasts are always quick to point out when people make the informal logical fallacy of arguing from authority. I have done this myself when talking about the Cottingley Fairies. On those same websites, however, you will likely be able to find appeals to the scientific consensus or scientists who are experts in a given topic. When you break apart the argument, both of these are appeals to authority. So the question then becomes is there a difference, or are skeptics not following their own advice?

The argument from authority is considered one of the informal logical fallacies. An informal fallacy is roughly speaking one which occurs when someone is making a non-deductive argument. But enough with the logic class. Why is an argument from authority bad? I think when we really break things down it is not arguments from authority that are bad, but instead arguments from false authority. As a student, I recently had this difference driven home to me in two of my classes.

It is not uncommon for upper division science classes for professors to invoke basic principals or ideas from other scientific disciplines. I think this is particularly true in two fields as intimately related as chemistry and astronomy. While this connection might not seem obvious at first, it is a deep connection and may be the topic of another post. This brings me to my introductory astrophysics course this last fall. We were deriving basic equations to describe the interior of stars and as a starting point we took the ideal gas law. I asked my professor under what circumstances the ideal gas law was valid and they replied by saying it is valid so long as the substance in question is a gas. If you do some research you can find that this is not quite true. For example under high pressures you need to use a more complex equation of state such as the van der Waals equation. Analogously, my chemistry professor at the start of the semester, when discussing the diversity between the planets, claimed that the Moon and Mercury both don't have days. This would mean that they both would have a light side and a dark side. "The dark side of the moon" is certainly a great rock album, but it is also one of the more common myths in astronomy. In reality the Moon as a diurnal period of about 30 days and Mercury's is about 178 days.

So what can we conclude from this? Should we simply say that my professors are bad authorities on which to base knowledge? I don't think this is the case. Instead I think that we need to take the more nuanced position and say that no one, no matter how educated, is an authority in everything. My astronomy professors are strong authorities in their sub-fields of astronomy but beyond that, they likely only have the knowledge of an informed non-expert. If we really want to understand something, we should look to the people who have devoted their life to studying that particular thing or better yet, try to find a general consensus of the scientists who work in that discipline. For as much as we would like to, I don't think we can ever truly escape arguing from authority. So instead of trying to avoid the matter altogether, let's use it as a tool to expand our own knowledge and teach those around us.

April 12, 2012

Adventures into Creationism: Russ Miller

As a college student, I spend most of my time doing math, physics, and more math. Every once and while, I am able to break free from the daily routine. Recently, when I did, what did I find but that a creationist, Russ Miller, was speaking on campus. I am huge promoter of hearing all sides of a debate, so I felt obliged to go. I went with a group of people who all are large supporters of science and reason, though I'm not sure we truly knew what we were getting ourselves into.

The talk started off with a local pastor introducing Mr. Miller and asking everyone to have an open mind. Not a bad start. Then Miller stepped up to the podium. He started by explaining how both creationism and "Darwinism" are both religious beliefs. In fact, from what I understood, by Mr. Miller's definition of a religious belief it is impossible not to have a religious belief. Of course, using such a broad definition fails to acknowledge that religious beliefs are not formed in the same way as scientific views. Religious views are centered on faith, while science works on constantly adjusting its views to fit the evidence at hand. To call them equivalent forms of knowledge does both a disservice.

What followed after that, I can really only describe as a maelstrom of bad evidence, bad arguments, and attacks on science. It would be impossible to recount every point he made and why it's wrong, so here are some highlights. He stated that fault lines are where the water shot out of the Earth at the start of Noah's flood. As if to try and top that, it was during this flood that all of the layers of strata that form such iconic beds as the Grand Canyon were laid down, all fossils formed, and all those sediments hardened into sandstone. After all this sandstone was formed, the Grand Canyon was cut out as the flood waters receded.

Next up was carbon 14 (C14). Carbon 14 is an unstable isotope of carbon with a half life that is about 5,730 years. C14 is used by scientists to date organic materials between about 11,000 and 50,000 years old. Russ postulated that after millions of years we should not expect any detectable amount of carbon 14 left in any samples we take and I think this is a good rule of thumb. Of course, nature is always a little more subtle and complex. The two main examples Mr. Miller used were carbon 14 in coal beds and in diamonds. As it turns out we do find noticeable amounts of C14 in some coal beds, particularly ones near large amounts of radioactive rocks. The reason these beds still have C14 in them is that as the surrounding rock decays the coal is bombarded by radiation producing the mysterious C14. For diamonds, the answer is actually is a little simpler. Usually only organic materials are tested for C14, so to even do this test they likely had to use higher temperatures to get the diamond to combust. Higher temperatures increases the amount of C14 you create just by testing a sample, in essence contaminating your result.

So after having bad philosophical arguments and using bad evidence to support his view of creation the next step was to attack legitimate science. His main focus was paleontology as it provides us with some of the most direct evidence of evolution. He explained how Piltdown man and Nebraska man were both hoaxes, a true statement. The problem is that he then didn't even pause to look at the myriad of hominid specimens that are not hoaxes. In an attempt to show how no species has ever evolved, he also made the claim that the famous (and awesome) transitional fossil Tiktaalik is really just a coelacanth. Personally I think the images of the two species are enough to show how ridiculous this is.
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia
Image credit: Ballista via Wikipedia

To conclude his talk Mr. Miller simply reiterated his main points and walked off. There was no questions, no chance for clarification, or for dissenting opinions to be heard. This act alone I think encapsulated perfectly what Russ Miller was all about. He is not interested in engaging in a quest for the truth because he already has it. He wants to tell you what he thinks and if you disagree, well then he knows where you will go when you die. He uses the science when it is convenient and ignores it when its not.

Admitting you might be wrong is humility. Looking at the evidence that doesn't support your ideas is intellectual honestly. Taking questions after a talk is a sign of respect for your audience. Russ Miller's actions speak for themselves.

March 26, 2012

Rocks on Mars

Garden of the Gods
We know a lot about rocks, and the ways they react to wind, water, sunlight, heat, and other factors. Geologists can look at a strange rock formation, such as Colorado's Garden of the Gods, at tell you exactly what happened to create these odd structures. However, as with all science, there's always more to discover. The newest discovery is of a completely new kind of landform... on Mars.

This new kind of structure is called a periodic bedrock ridge. This sounds quite technical, but in reality, that is exactly what the structures look like: ridges in the bedrock at a regular (or periodic) distance from each other. In fact, it looks quite similar to sand dunes, at a first look. However, instead of being grains of sand blown into piles by the wind, they are tracks eroded by the wind into the bedrock. 

Periodic Bedrock Ridges
From Science Daily
David Montgomery, of the University of Washington, suggested that these features formed because the rock has bands of softer material within it, and that the erosion is of an unusual sort, that works perpendicular to the wind direction. The hypothesis is that the high speed winds on Mars are thrown into the air when they collide with a solid land formation, and that these periodic bedrock ridges form when the winds return to the surface. In order to visualize this, imagine driving a remote-control car. Jump it off a ramp, and onto a memory-foam type surface. The place where it impacts will have deeper tire tracks than anywhere else. That car is like the wind on Mars, and that impact point is where Montgomery and his team believe the ridges form.

This research is particularly interesting because there don't seem to be any analogs, to date, of this kind of feature on our own planet. On Earth, the presence of water means that very rarely will bedrock be eroded by wind alone. This difference means that we can understand not only Mars geology better, by utilizing these landforms to look at the beds in the Martian surface and figure out more about the geologic history of the planet, but also understand better how erosion works and parse out, here on Earth, the differences between different types of erosion, and the characteristics that separate one from another.

March 19, 2012

TED-Ed and Scientific Unknows

Sorry for the recent silence. This is a crazy semester for me but hopefully things will lighten up soon. Anyways, I was recently perusing the interwebs and was pointed to a new TED initiative by Ron Garan on Google+.

From the website, TED-Ed's goal is to
...Capture and amplify the voices of great educators around the world. We do this by pairing extraordinary educators with talented animators to produce a new library of curiosity-igniting videos. A new site, which will launch in early April 2012, will feature these new TED-Ed Originals as well as some powerful new learning tools.
I think this is a wonderful idea. TED has the connections to bring together great minds and create a wonderful product. I was going through the videos currently up and couldn't help but watch one focusing on unanswered questions. I highly recommend it as it mirrors some of my own thoughts on why these mysteries need to be shared. After all it's questions, not facts, that drive curiosity.

I am really excited to see what results this project produces. TED is currently looking for teachers and animators so if you think you would be a good fit, or know someone else who would be, put in their name. To close here is another TED-Ed video about the awesomeness of science by Mythbuster Adam Savage.

February 13, 2012

Basic Rocket Science

Rocket science may not be as hard as you think. Check out this video to learn about how rocket propulsion works:

h/t to Henry Reich on Google+