Thursday, June 28, 2007

What’s the Use?

I don’t normally get into discussions of my various theories with others. I learned a long time ago that just mentioning the possibility that Newton was incorrect in his conclusion that gravity is proportional to and therefore a property of mass gets me instant recognition as someone who not only doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but is also probably unstable.
Forget the fact that absolutely no one understands the importance of first saying “gravity is proportional to” before saying “it a property of,” in short, what the qualifier "therefore" means, and absolutely no one understands what the meaning of mass is, using it as shorthand for matter.
Both the qualifier and the word “mass” give the lie to Newton. The only way that Newton could prove that gravity was a property of matter (not mass) was to prove it was proportional to matter. To prove it was proportional to matter, he had to compute the amount of matter in the Earth and the moon, assuming that each were uniformly made up of the same particle, and then he used that computation to predict the orbit of the moon. Although he was off quite a bit, everyone accepted his theory and assumed that the orbit of the moon wasn’t, in the early 18th century, exactly computable. Royal Astronomer and lifelong Newton supporter Sir Edmund Halley took the fall for that one.
However, when Newton’s process was used on the other planets, it was clear that it didn’t work. This meant that Newton didn’t prove that gravity was proportional to matter, pure and simply. Of this there can be no dispute. Newton’s proof failed.
What is the early 18th century scientist do about this? Did they say, well, Newton is in the crapper, we better start over figuring out what gravity is? No. Scientists said Newton had to be right, after all he was Newton and universally thought of as the greatest genius of all time. It’s not our place to criticize Newton, especially with universal belief in his theory that gravity is a property of matter. What should we do?
What they did is to reverse Newton. Scientists concluded Newton, while wrong in his proof, was right in his conclusion. What science should do is use the orbit of the planet to compute the amount of matter in it. As the computations reflected the same error that computing the orbits by the amount of matter, science simply said we don’t know the amount of matter in a planet, so whatever Newton’s math computes it to be from a planet’s orbit is how much matter is in the planet. This matter is now called mass because some very big planets don’t have as much matter as their size would indicate (the origin of the gas planets).
It was foolproof because, while Newton’s computation of orbits could be verified, the amount of matter in a planet couldn’t, so there was no way to disprove the new mass gravity computations. This leads to two salient facts about the practice of science, at least on a theoretical level: First, science will never correct itself and second science does not follow its basic tenant that it never accepts as fact that which can’t be verified.
I have, of course, talked about this with some very famous physicists who I knew on a personal level, and while they all readily admitted that gravity was a mystery, none would accept it wasn’t a property of gravity (or was the result of what gravity was doing) simply because their lifework was based on the assumption. But as to talking to anyone without intimate knowledge of the subject matter, I kept my peace.
An opportunity, however, arose recently to get into another of my pet peeves, the handling of light. I was having lunch with several people, one a nonscientist who is very opinionated about the science he knows, textbook science, the other a preeminent practicing, as opposed to theoretical, scientist, the ultimate authority in his particular field. For some reason one of them brought up the subject of aether, and the scientist said, no one believes in aether anymore. That opened the door for me to discuss the Michelson Morley experiment, perhaps a bit too wide.
Reviewing the history of light, I pointed out that before Newton, the argument was whether light was a wave or a particle, and the knowledgeable community was leaning towards Huygens’ position of light as a wave. However, when Newton took over The Royal Society and had it publish his Theory of Colors, the view switched to the particle side where it stayed throughout the 18th century. Then, with Young’s two-slit experiment, which was taken to show wave patterns, light became a wave for the 19th century (hmmm, must be wrong about science being self-correcting).
Now, here’s where my scientific friend’s comment about the aether came in. Young was analogizing light to water waves. Water waves are a disturbance on the surface of water. They do not have an independent existence. Thus, the water is the medium though which the waves travel. If water waves have a medium and light waves are being analogized to water waves, then it only stands to reason that light waves must also have a medium.
Ever ready to create something that isn’t there, scientists made up aether, said everything was permeated with the stuff, and this was the medium through which light waves traveled.
Pretty heady stuff, no? Not one thinker has bothered to ask the basic question about light, how does matter produce it, but all the thinkers have gotten together and given a minute description of light as a water wave traveling through a medium no one knew existed, but which, because everyone now knew light was a wave, had to exist.
As science mulled this over in its collective mind for, oh, perhaps seventy years, a new question started puzzling these geniuses of rational observation: What is the absolute direction of the Earth as it travels in space? We know it travels around the sun, but we don’t know the precise direction it is traveling in, there being no east, west, north or south “out there.”
Now here is a really important question to answer. What better piece of knowledge to have than to know in what direction everyone is traveling? Michelson and Morley, one a theoretician, the other an experimental apparatus designer, sat down and attempted to answer this question. They concluded that because the Earth was traveling through the medium aether, the aether itself could be used to compute the direction of the Earth in space. Because light used the aether as a medium, it could be used for this purpose.
The point of the experiment was to build on Young’s two-slit experiment to produce, or not produce, interference patterns. Light would be collected and sent down a course of a circular platform to the center, where it would be divided by mirrors. One path of light would go in one direction 90º, the other path the other direction, 90º. The light would be reflected when it reached the edge of the platform and sent back to the center, where it would be recombined and sent to an interferometer, a device that could compute interference patterns. As each path of light had traveled through the aether in different directions, and as the platform was moving through the aether, one path would take longer to reach the end than the other and there would be no interference pattern.
Because these enterprising men didn’t know which way the Earth was traveling in the aether, they place the entire apparatus on a bed of mercury so it could be rotated in any direction. As the apparatus rotated, the light would travel different distances in the aether, and the direction of travel could be determined by when there was and when there wasn’t interference patterns.
Everybody agreed that the scientific logic was foolproof, that the experiment would produce the desired results. However, no matter which way the platform was turned, the interference patterns always appeared. Thus, a foolproof experiment didn’t produce the expected result. In fact, it produced no results at all.
Oh my! Our open-minded, stalwart inquirers into the nature of reality would certainly sit down, like they should have done when Newton was found to be a failure, and said, wow, guess there’s no aether, light isn’t a wave, we’d better rethink our whole concept about what light is.
You think?
Actually, since the entire scientific community already knew what light was, it started looking around for an explanation that would explain the non-results of the experiment. And the answer was so simple, it just startled the world (and enthralls us to this day). The answer was reflected in something called the Lorentz Fitzgerald equations. You see, since there was an aether, and since the experiment was foolproof and since the experiment didn’t produce the expected results, there must be something about the physical equipment that was changing. Because it was known the light in the two paths was traveling different distances, there must be something that was counteracting that change in distance.
The only thing that could be counteracting the difference in distances was if the physical dimensions of the apparatus were changing in precise proportion to the change in distances caused by the apparatus’ movement through the aether. Thus, speed was causing the physical dimensions of the equipment to contract.
First these nitwits make up aether, then they use it as the basis of an experiment, and when the experiment doesn’t work, instead of rethinking aether, they make up something that is impossible to measure, measurements change with speed, the size of physical matter depends on its motion.
Although it gets very unclear at this point, Einstein’s theories employed much the same logic. However, Einstein disavowed the Lorentz Fitzgerald equations, and except for possible two times in his life, never mentioned aether, which is totally unnecessary in Einstein’s universe. This led to the gradual death of aether, at least until today, where zero point energy theorists like to trot it out, claiming its frictionless (that’s really confusing, a frictionless medium).
Einstein’s contribution to the light story wasn’t the death of aether, however, it was in his one solid discovery, the photoelectric effect. Now here’s science once again operating as science always operates. The photoelectric effect demonstrated once and for all that light was a particle. So, of course, science would now, after going back and forth between wave and particle to wave would now return to particle. Self-correcting, right?
Not on your life. Our stalwart thinkers said, well, isn’t that interesting, light is a particle. But we know it’s a wave. Therefore, isn’t it amazing, light has dual properties, it is a wave and a particle, a wave particle.
This stuff, delivered by a stand-up comic, would bring the house down.
So, I finally got off my high horse after delivering my peace. Was there discussion about all the untaken chances honest scientists had to revise concepts created in the light of newly discovered facts?
No, through dessert I had to enjoy a lively discussion between my two friends about how space travelers would stay young when compared to those remaining behind unless, of course, they used the newly discovered (read made up) worm holes to move from one end of space to another.
Ain’t science fiction wonderful?
What's the use in trying? The consequences of not trying!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Do We Expect Too Much From Science?

A traumatic even occurred in Milwaukee in the mid-90s. People started to get sick, with some of them dying. Before it was over, about 400,000 people took ill, with about a hundred of them dying. The dead were inevitably people with compromised immune systems. With such a widespread problem, many suspected the water supply. Because Milwaukee’s water supply is used to make a good portion of the beer produced in the United States, something had to be done fast to prevent this sickness from spreading beyond Milwaukee.
I like these medical detective stories because they show science at its best, with its nose to the grindstone dealing with real facts in the real world. The root of the word science is reality, and science should first, deal with reality, and second, leave questions that don’t have anything to do with reality alone. However, we tend to think that because science deals with reality, it should be able to solve all the problem of realty, and in the Milwaukee case, even solve them before they arise.
The first thing scientists did in the Milwaukee case was to plot the locations where people became ill. It turned out that the vast majority of victims was clustered around an area served by one water processing plant. The water was immediately tested for any impurities, and found to meet the EPA’s clean water guidelines. I should point out that having a national standard setting for safety levels is important. Some of the standard setters are associations of scientists, others government scientists such as those employed by EPA. It’s only by having one location where all the technical information can be funneled, evaluated and promulgated that we can expect the process of science, which is to gather and compare observations, to be accomplished.
The next step was to start to examine the material from the patients' intestines. Again, nothing showed up on the slides. The scientists were almost certain by this time that they were dealing with a parasite because of the nature of people’s illnesses, but parasites from sick patients normally show up as active on slides. After a period of frustration, one scientist remembered an axiom she had learned in school, that it wasn’t always what was obvious that was important, but sometimes what wasn’t obvious. She began to study the slices carefully, looking for something that might seem normal background, but which, if contained in all the slides, would be a clue.
She finally found some inert dots that fit this bill and she went about seeing if she could activate them. This part of science I find the most fascinating. I don’t remember much of my high school chemistry, in which I got a perfect grade, but my, at least until this month, high school grandson can reel off bases and alkaline and acidic, what activates what, all the tools of a good chemist (which might be because his father is a chemist). Knowing what reacts with what and then being able to use the knowledge creatively to get real results in the real world is a trait I most admire about the practice of science.
After a number of failed attempts, she was finally able to activate (I’m not sure that’s the right word, might be identify) the parasite and it turned out to be called cryptosporidium or crypto for short because it was so rare and illusive. At the time, its only presence was known to occur as a result of runoff on cattle grazing land. Scientists reasoned that the heavy rains that had occurred around Milwaukee the prior spring had caused the runoff to be washed away in the tributary creeks of Lake Michigan where the intakes of the water purification plant were placed. The Milwaukee mayor had ordered water boiling early in the game, before this was all discovered, and has now undertaken a modernization of the Milwaukee water system that will kill the crypto. But the scientists hadn’t finished with their process yet. Something about the crypto mystified them because it didn’t seem to behave like any crypto that was on record so far. After doing extensive tests, they determined that the crypto wasn’t from animal feces, but rather from human feces, and they began to explore the sources of the intakes of the water purification plant. They found that a waste disposal plant had been located about two miles from the water purification plant. The waste disposal plant was dumping processed refuse into Lake Michigan just two miles away from the water plant’s intakes. Testing the refuse from the waste treatment plant disclosed the source of the crypto.
At that point, someone started in with, well, science should have known better!
Now this probably belongs under the heading, no good deed goes unpunished, but for the fact that here the good deed, finding out what was causing the sickness, was the job of the scientists doing the digging. However, there’s a difference between good science and sloppy science, and this definitely wasn’t sloppy science. Why would an attitude that science should have known in advance and prevented the sickness arise in the first place?
To answer that question, we have to focus on another area of science, probably the area that gets the most press, the area that deals with the things we can never know. When we get into areas concerning light, gravity, subatomic particles and the like, we have nothing that we can put under glass in the local museum to display. Everything we think we know about the subjects we can only know about indirectly is hypothetical, theory, made-up stuff if you will.
When a rational approach to the physical universe began to emerge from the dark ages, people wanted to experiment directly with reality in order to learn what that reality was. All the myths, primarily created by church authorities over the centuries, about how the way things were, were in the process of being challenged. Even Aristotle, whose worldview had been pretty much incorporated into church thinking, came under fire. Everything old was up for questioning, anything new and novel up for discussion.
The people doing the discussing at this time came from many areas of life. The only qualification to participate in the discussion was an active mind, the willingness to accept what was found in reality, and pretty much, a disdain for the unexamined thoughts that had been around for centuries. There were not many people that fit into this select group, and the educational backgrounds were many and diverse. William Smith, the man who mapped the stratiography of England and is therefore indirectly responsible for much of modern day geological thinking, was a surveyor. Others were explorers, or wealthy hobbyists who amassed large collections of artifacts and fossils. The atmosphere was open and honest.
Francis Bacon was the first to set out what should be the scientific method. He was the first to observe that there were physical phenomena that our senses did not have direct access to. His most famous quest was for the hidden source of the force that caused movement, objects to fall, planets to orbit and rotate. While he realized that the cause of some physical phenomena are not accessible to our senses, he said there is a way that we can reveal them. He said the more facts we had about a phenomenon, the more accurate our hypothesis of the phenomenon’s cause would be. Sooner or later, he ventured, we would collect enough facts to get a clear picture of the hidden cause.
The most important feature of Bacon’s process was that any picture we proposed from the facts be just that, a proposal, a theory, a hypothesis. He stressed that no theory, no hypothesis, no proposal to explain a set of fact surrounding a phenomena could itself be taken as fact. We always had to ensure that our theories remained theories and never became facts because if our theories became facts, then subsequent explanations for phenomena would incorporate among the facts things that weren’t a fact, things we actually made up.
Bacon was taken very seriously and in the early 1760s, when The Royal Society was formed in England to organize the exploration into reality, it’s motto, translated into English, was (and is) “nothing in word.” This underscored the thinking at the time that scientific exploration must be based on physical results and facts rather than theory. Theories were just words. Facts were facts. Facts should always trump theory.
The Royal Society was founded on royal patronage, and when, over the years, this dried up, it attempted to limp along on its inventions to no avail. In the meantime, the great battle between secular scientific thought and age old religious conclusions was starting to heat up, with the vast wealth of the pie that fed those that controlled society’s worldview, controlled by the church, starting to be nibbled at by science. Practically all of the questions addressed by religion had nothing to do with science. Even church authorities agreed that it didn’t make much difference whether the sun went around the Earth or the Earth around the sun when it came to religious questions, yet to call into question this belief was to call into question the faith. To call into question the age of the Earth as dictated by begats, the flood, or any aspect of the bible, was to call into question the faith, and this the church could not continence.
Secular science was given a great gift at the beginning of the battle for control of society’s worldview. Newton had delivered his reflecting telescope to The Society in the 1760s to deserved acclaim. When he honored the society with his Theory of Colors a few years later, it was pretty much considered nothing but words and ignored, much to Newton’s lifelong anger. He attempted to set up a parallel society, but that crashed. Over the next twenty years, he built a core of powerful political allies and when he published his theory of gravity in an incomprehensible format using a form of math he invented, the description of what he had done, rather than the method that he used, was what sold the theory. After all, he was claiming that he described how the planets moved and how objects fell. Of course, at the base of his entire house of cards was a simple fact: God was what caused objects to fall and the planets to move. However, God was so far removed from his theory, that His presence in the theory didn’t have to be addressed until later in the next century, when Laplace replaced Him with the rotating mass of gas and theorists finished the job by pointing out that Newton’s math didn’t work anywhere in the solar system so, instead of using the math to have the “mass” of the planets predict motion, which was the only way Newton could give color of proof to mass gravity, his math could be used to predict “mass” from the motion of the planets.
In short, Newton’s proof was wrong, his conclusion correct!
At the beginning of the 18th century, Newton used his political connections to take over The Royal Society and for the next three decades used it to promulgate his view that theories could be demonstrated to be fact, turning Bacon and the society’s founding principle on its ear. It also allowed secular science to make pronouncements about all sorts of things that have no basis in reality, leading to today’s all seeing eye that can tell us when and how the universe began, how big it is, how long it will last and when it will end. Its latest fad is to come up with the TOE, the theory of everything, all of existence contained in a simple equation.
Because when it comes to this type of science, science that is not based in reality, science knows so little and is, in fact, totally ignorant, after all, it admits it doesn’t know what gravity is, and even goes so far as to put it low on its list of priorities, it has to constantly present a picture of itself knowing everything, one fact away from the TOE, the epiphany where we’ll all know everything in a flash and the world will become paradise on, well, this and other planets that happen to benefit from our knowledge.
Theoretical science with its quantum musings, its string theory, its dark matter and black holes, has been driven to present itself to the public as all powerful, all seeing, the Wizard of Oz.
Thus, when the poor scientists working on the ground dealing with actual reality uncover the cause for massive sickness and save countless lives, they’re accused of not knowing something in advance, something they, of course, couldn’t have known because there was as yet no science dealing with the illness.
But, hey, to the theoretical fantasists, that’s bull. Science is all-powerful, all seeing, all knowing, it can tell us everything there is to know about the universe.
Seems to me the millions of practicing scientists would want to get serious about doing some house clearing.

Friday, June 15, 2007

How Can Science Deny the Earth is Cooling?

One of the more technical questions I received over the years, or at least before I started The Real Skeptic Columns, was, why do I capitalize Earth? Before the Real Skeptic presence on the Internet, scientific bulldogs liked to email what appeared to be legitimate questions, and then proceed to attempt to entrap me. It didn’t take me long to determine which were the legitimate questions and which were the entrapments. For one thing, the legitimate questions usually were intelligent, while the entrapment questions soon led to a clear path of stupidity, ending usually in the use of the very definitions I was criticizing to prove that I was ignorant of the definitions of science.
But the Earth capitalization criticism seems to have some validity to it. Having been an English major in college, I am very familiar with the rules of whatever. However, I’m also an avid proponent of the living language because I know for a certainty that the language is what the majority of speakers say it is. Just like species, words and phrases are born and die, with the panoply of variety constantly changing. At the rate we’re going, “nuclear” will become “necular” in my lifetime (which pretty much means, it already has).
If I go out into the backyard to work on my garden (like I had one), I would be dealing with plants that were rooted in the soil, which is called earth. However, if I were coming to visit the solar system from some far-off system, one of the places I’d certainly want to visit would be the Earth. When the Earth is capitalized, we’re dealing with the planet, when it’s not capitalized, we’re dealing with the stuff that covers the planet. I imagine the Martians would have faced the same problem if their word for soil happened to be mars. Our commonsense ancestors simply named our planet after what produced their food.
One of our commonsense ancestors, a guy named William Thomson, found himself in a heap of hot water as a result of, well, using his commonsense. William Thomson was not one of, he was the most renowned all-around physicist of the 19th century, one whose name is probably repeated, everywhere but in the United States, billions of times a day. Otherwise known as Lord Kelvin, he set forth the heat scale that is universally used in scientific circles, and pretty much everywhere else, but in the good old English offshoots which still use the more practical mishmash of, let’s see, pulling up my conversion dashboard, fluid ounces to liters, miles to kilometers, pounds to kilograms, and yes, Fahrenheit to Kelvin. (I remember I was collaterally involved with the great, I think it was 80s, goal off converting the U.S. to standardized measurements. After all, if you think of the money lost in international trade, you’d croak. Every one I met doing serious work in the field, which I wasn’t, said, this is a waste of time, it’ll never happen. And it didn’t, with the current intermediate phase where both are printed on labels and boxes, serving hopefully for the arrival of a new generation.)
Kelvin had a small obsession. He thought that he could take the size of the Earth, the assumed temperature of space (it hadn’t at that time been demonstrated that space approaches zero Kelvin, and, by assuming the Earth was as hot as the sun at one time, compute the amount of time that passed between the time it was molten hot and now, when balmy breezes across the oceans are broken by the occasional calved iceberg.
Could anything be more logical? After all, what is one of the basic facts, not, mind you laws, but facts about physical reality. Heat flows spontaneously from hot to cold. I’m not a cook, but I can cook eggs and I know that if I put the freshly cooked eggs on a plate and forget them, I’m going to have cold eggs. Hot objects seek out the temperature of the environment they occupy. It’s not rocket science (which by the way is engineering), it’s a simple fact of reality, physics if your will.
Although Kelvin could only assume the space around the Earth was close to zero, we now know that it is. Thus Kelvin’s notion that the Earth was hot and it was sitting in cold space was pretty reasonable given what we know about heat. I should mention that Comte du Buffon used heated balls to estimate the age of the Earth a century before. Kelvin came up with just under 100 million years to Buffon’s 75,000.
Now, bowing to science’s claim to using the best method available in order to compute difficult dates, we would all expect the scientific community to celebrate Kelvin, roll out the magic carpet, give him honors and awards, perhaps even attempt to fine tune the calculations or even find a more accurate way of computation.
Well, not if we actually knew how science operates. The scientific community demanded that Kelvin renounce his heresy or face public humiliation for being an ignorant, deluded, perhaps even insane, wannabe.
To make such a claim, the scientific community must have had an ironclad method to compute the age of the Earth, a method far better, far more accurate than Kelvin’s rantings, right?
And it certainly did. You see, a guy named Charles Darwin, a man who spent his life studying heat flows (I joke) published his theory of evolution. This theory was based on a theory of geologist Charles Lyell, uniformitarianism, that was simply a popularization of an idea expressed by Scottish natural philosopher James Hutton. (You can see the disciplined scientific thinking that went into all this, at least if you're blind.) That notion was that events on Earth only happened over extremely long periods of time. This allowed Darwin to propose his species evolution, which meant that fish turned into dinosaurs that became dogs, apes, and Lord Kelvin (never can get the sequence of wings to arms, fins to arms, legs to arms right).
You can see the strict scientific calculations clashing here. A philosophical notion against a reasoned computation. It took the nonscientific bluster of Thomas H. Huxley to defend Darwin. Who was Huxley defending Darwin against? Why, anybody that opposed Darwin was a religious bigot. When it came to Kelvin’s calculations, they simply weren’t correct because they didn’t provide enough time for Darwin’s beaks to become teeth.
So we have a scientific community balancing two proposals, one a philosophical idea that allowed for an explanation other than creationism, the second, a soundly reasoned scientific calculation. Which one were they going to accept? The one that opposed creationism, of course.
Before the 19th century, the religious authorities dictated everyone’s view of the world. The 19the century was witness to the great battle between so-called science and religion. Which one would dictate how everyone viewed the world?
To see how bitter the battle was, we have only to ask what was (is?) at stake in the battle. The answer is quite simple. Whoever or whatever dictates our view of reality reaps a substantial portion of society’s riches. Whether it’s the church selling indulgences for people who enjoy wine, women, and more women, indulgences that automatically freed the purchaser from guilt, or we have pseudoscientists selling carbon credits to people living in twenty-million dollar mansions and flying all over the world in jet planes preaching about how we have to give up our cars and bicycle to work so these hypocrites won’t have guilt feelings, controlling our worldview leads to lined pockets.
But the flow of money goes deeper, from glorious hundred million dollar churches to glorious billion dollar atom smashers and ten million dollar sculptures to many billion-dollar space elevators.
When that much money is on the line, people line up and when it looks like one authority is going to replace the other, they jump on board.
Thus, Kelvin was told in no uncertain terms that his name would be blackened in the history books if he didn’t come around, jump on board the gravy train. After much soul searching and prayer, Kelvin raised his estimate to between two and four hundred million years.
Not enough, his detractors yelled. We need more, much, much more (They were talking about time, not money). Huxley claimed Kelvin’s computation was based on unfounded assumptions To Darwin and his supporters, anything that disagreed with any part of the theory of evolution had to be based on unfounded assumptions. Much the same argument is used today to defend species evolution.
While Kelvin wouldn’t go further than four hundred million years, his reputation was saved by the discovery of French chemist A. Henri Becquerel, of radioactivity. To listen to mindless scientists today, one would think that Becquerel and Curie came upon this molten field of pitchblende. Puzzled by what was causing this massive amount of heat, they discovered radioactivity and the reason why Kelvin’s computations were off. Kelvin hadn’t added into the equation the massive heating effect of all these massive pitchblende fields that, to keep the Earth hot, had to be covering the Earth’s surface.
Or so the Darwinists, and every other dater that spirals off into the billions of years for the Earth, then jumps to precise dating for the universe, would have us believe.
The simple fact is pitchblende had been around for years, the pitch being its dark color, and the blende being the mixture of metals that scientists of the time had no way of analyzing. Miners didn’t have to use potholders to pick up a nugget of pitchblende. It was the same temperature as everything around it. It wasn’t heating up anything.
If the pitchblende, and for that matter, any material from which radioactive material could be isolated, wasn’t hot, how did these scientists come to the conclusion that they were heating up the Earth.
Well, here’s a source of energy, and energy heats things. Evolution had to take billions of years, so the Earth has been here billions of years, The Earth would have cooled off long ago, but because it has been here long enough for species evolution to occur, something must be heating it. Therefore, we have conclusive proof that radiation is heating the Earth.
Calculations? Don’t need them, the facts speak for themselves. The mechanism by which the radiation heats the Earth? Why bother to examine something that’s self-evident, after all, gravity is a property of matter isn’t it, and heating up the Earth is the result of the Earth having radioactive materials.
One of the more amusing aspects of science’s abysmal ignorance, its refusal to face answering simple questions, involves the explanation for gravity I posted in earlier entries. Without going into the details, my view is that gravity is not a static property of matter, it is the dynamic result of what matter is doing, cooling.
What would be one way to demonstrate the planet is cooling?
Well, if the planet were cooling, the gravity would be lessening, something that would not necessarily be measurable because everything is calibrated on a relative basis. However, one thing that would certainly happen would be that the water on the surface of the Earth would decompress. The water pressure at ocean level is the result of gravity, and if there were less gravity holding the water down, the water would decompress and its level would rise.
What do we find when we measure ocean levels?
We find that they are slowly rising.
What does this mean?
Well, because we know gravity is a property of matter, we know that gravity can’t change, so lessening gravity isn’t causing the ocean levels to rise.
Could only be one thing.
The water is rising because the ice caps are melting, and thus, our problem is our planet, sitting in the zero temperature of space, is getting warmer.
And we’ll gaily skip along, delusional, as the heat slowly escapes us and, as the life that evolved on this planet (by characteristic, not species evolution), freeze to death in the belief that we are roasting.
We may not be getting much of value from the people we pay to provide us with our worldview, but if we’re looking for humor content, we’re underpaying.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Do Honest Scientists Deserve Blame?

Talk about mad! My parents moved to the Washington D.C. area when I was 7 and it didn’t take me long to discover the historic Little Tavern hamburger chain (since bought by a Congressman who immediately closed the stores and sold the real estate they were on). I had never had a hamburger before and my Father used to joke about the dollar dinner, 19 LT hamburgers and a coke. They were about 4 bites, although you could get a larger size for a dime. Cheese was an extra penny or two, depending on the size.
I’d never had either a hamburger or a cheeseburger and when I got my first taste of what were widely call death balls, I fell in love. As the years went by, my tastes turned to big, juicy, rare cheeseburgers, a heavenly treat, and I spent a lot of time finding the restaurants that knew how to cook them. Then a catastrophe occurred. A dozen or so kids fell ill, one of them dying. A background check for commonalities led to the conclusion that all the kids had eaten at a Jack-In-The-Box fast food restaurant. It was speculated and widely reported as fact that undercooked hamburgers were the culprit because they had a high incidence of e coli, which is what the kids were sick from.
All of a sudden, finding anyone that would serve a cheeseburger less than medium was next to impossible. While there are still a few restaurants that buy their own cuts of meat and grind them up into hamburger, and therefore have no danger of e coli, these establishments are few and far between. As far as getting a rare cheeseburger anywhere but at home became too much of a chore, so one of my greatest enjoyments bit the dust.
That was then, and now I find out the real story of the kids' sickness. It wasn’t hamburger at all, and therefore, I had been deprived simply because of speculations that were reported as fact. The real story is one that demonstrates how real science works and how intelligent, inquisitive, painstaking and challenging its practice can be. It also shows that there are certain aspects of our life here on Earth that science can’t, and for that matter, shouldn’t deal with.
The first clue came when a person that should have been in the population of hamburger eaters wasn’t, and it turned out that person was not only the sickest, she was the only one that died. That person was a baby, and she had never had a hamburger nor eaten at the suspected restaurant. However, while she lived several states away, her parents had just moved, and they had moved from the affected area.
This meant that something else caused the e coli, and because it was something else, its source had to be identified quickly or others would become infected. The public, of course, never heard a word of this and newspapers aren’t in the habit of making their mistakes of haste front-page news, so I’ll forever be out my rare cheeseburgers. Researchers went to the parents of the sick girl and started the exhaustive process of retracing their every step before they left Washington State, where the incident was occurring. Eventually, the mother remembered an incident in a grocery store where the girl had wanted a drink, and she’d taken a small carton of apple juice. She remembered the design on the carton because it was so unusual and the researchers quickly identified the apple juice’s maker. Although all apple juice was pasteurized, companies weren’t required to do so by law, and this brand was marketed to the new market for health foods by stating that it was natural, that it wasn’t pasteurized. When notified the company immediately emptied the shelves of the product. It was quickly established that the juice was the source of the e coli.
Next, the scientist in charge had to determine where the e coli originated. They reviewed all the contracts the company had with apple producers, and all the contracts required that only apples picked from trees be included in any purchase. This was because it didn’t want to take a chance on apples lying on the ground subject to the environment polluting the purity of its juice. The scientists then visited the apple providers and found that they were using unregulated and unsupervised help to fill the apple orders. As the orders were for the bushel of apples, workers were picking up apples from the ground to more quickly fill the baskets.
The next step was for the scientists to determine how the e coli got into the apples on the ground. Like most western states, and many others, impeding the movement of wild animals was strictly forbidden. I remember visiting some friend in 70s California. They were spending vast amounts of time trying to landscape in a way that would keep deer from eating the product of their work, but they were about to give up because everything that was effective had been prohibited and everything that was not prohibited was not effective. It turns out that deer are a major carrier of e coli, and upon examining deer droppings in one of the apple orchards, the scientists found what they were looking for, the source of the e coli.
I think this is absolutely remarkable and certainly the practice of science in all its glory. Both my son-in-laws do the same sort of work, and over the years, I’ve had many friends who practiced science. They have to have unique knowledge in their fields, and when it comes down to it, they become the only source of that unique knowledge. One group of scientists might spend their days performing trial and error work on possible drug cures while others spend years testing different artificial threads to determine quality in order to produce better products. As each scientist in each field does so, the store of knowledge related to the area of expertise is collected, processed, and added to. It’s a great system. I wasn’t surprised one day when I found out that there are men and women who devote their entire lives to the nature of rope. It sounds silly, but the body of knowledge that has grown up over the centuries dealing with this common product has produced all sorts of improvements. Technology marches forward on the shoulders of unsung scientists working in isolated fields on practical problems.
And with the technology, our prosperity increases, our lives grow easier, and we have a lot to thank them for.
It harkens back, in my mind, to one of the earliest assignments of The Royal Society, one that occupied Robert Hooke for many years. This assignment was to produce a spring for a horse drawn coach that would make riding in the coach comfortable. Much of the early work of the society was devoted to projects of this type because wealthy people were willing to subsidize the projects in the hope that the results would make their life, and everybody else’s who used horse drawn coaches, better (and in those days, horse drawn coaches were the means of transportation for everyone).
I guess the question I have to ask now is, why haven’t I heard of any of this before? Why do I have to still be subjected to restaurants serving my cheeseburgers ruined? It doesn’t have anything to do with science, or the practice of science, and I point it out to underline my point that there are certain subjects that can be approached on a scientific basis, and there are certain subjects which can’t, which, in fact, have no place in the scientific community.
The e coli outbreak, and the death, was the direct result of certain social movements. First, with prosperity, people were able to transcend the basic need we have for food. When we lived in feudal societies, we’d eat anything we could get our hands on, and risked limb, and even life, to obtain food for our family. With prosperity, we are removed from our food source and work for paychecks that in turn are traded for food and other necessities. When this situation arose, scientists added preservatives and color fixers to increase the time available to move the food from the ground to our tables. Some of us didn’t trust these additives and started a health food movement. While pasteurization is a proven method to make food safer, the pasteurization laws don’t encompass everything, and in this case, apple juice slipped through. However, the industry, due to the possibility of ground apples, knew the dangers of e coli and voluntarily pasteurized its product until one discovered a good market for “healthy” unpasteurized apple juice. How was the buyer to know? The buyer was focused on the “unpasteurized’ as a good thing because it was an intermediate process between production and consumption, and the health food movement objected to all intermediate processes (just listen to the fear of irradiated food as if it were going to explode in the stomach or cause radiation poisoning).
The health food social movement is relatively harmless and only affects its practitioners. The animal preservation movement is an entirely different story. When the number of deer killed by motorists approaches the number shot by hunters, not to mention the number of motorists killed by deer, something is wrong. However, the deer preservation (and now pretty much any wild animal preservation) has stretched from the West to the East coast. When I moved to Washington in ’46, we could swim in the Potomac and the tributary streams. By the early ‘50s, we couldn’t and later in the decade I would lifeguard Potomac cruises with specific instructions to only throw lifesavers to anyone who drunkenly fell overboard.
The environmental movement of the sixties changed all that and we spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving both the water and the air quality. By the late ‘70s, we could water ski on the Potomac and children could play in the tributaries. Then in the ‘90s water pollution warnings were once again posted, only this time there was no environmental movement to correct the situation. Why? Because the pollution was from wild animals that were using the tributaries, much as the deer were using the apple orchard, as toilets.
Any society that doesn’t take steps to protect its urban population from the diseases wild animals carry is not a society, but a shambles. However, the scientists that tracked down the e coli, while knowing the cause, could not take any scientific steps to correct the situation. If they felt the situation should be corrected, they could, on their nonscientific time, attempt to form social movements to pen deer out of places where food for human consumption was grown, but it wouldn’t have been successful because environmental groups would contact the association that provided the scientist with credentials and the association would bring pressure on the scientist to stick to science.
The third societal pressure that led to the e coli outbreak was the use of uneducated, migrant labor to harvest farm products. It doesn’t do much good to sign a contract saying all apples will be picked from the tree if the signer has no intention of supervising the work force to ensure that no apples will be picked up from the ground. I’d hate to be either the company that made the apple juice or the company signing the contract to pick only from trees because any jury is going to see that, under the situation, its foreseeable that the contract is going to be breached.
That's why all companies had been pasteurizing apple juice.
While the scientific process shone bright when it came to tracing the source of the e coli, it can do absolutely nothing about the social movements that brought the e coli into the marketplace. Some things are just beyond the realm of the scientific process.
Like what else?
Well, a lot of things science claims do fall under the scientific process.
Let’s start with the easiest one, gravity. Manipulating gravity is clearly a part of the scientific process. However, saying what causes gravity is not, simply because there is no scientific process that can tell us what precisely it is that causes gravity. The cause of gravity can only be theorized.
A better example is the age, size, origin and possible ending of the universe. Science has no process to tell us what the universe is, yet it claims to know how it started, how it evolved and how it will end, as well as where the physical end of the universe is (and what’s outside of that?).
None of use, least of all scientists, are in a position to say, adding preservatives to food is dangerous to our health, allowing wild animals to roam in our cities is more amusing than dangerous or that migrant labor can no longer harvest because it is a dangerous practice. Everybody is capable of disagreeing with just about everything but cold hard facts.
Gravity may be a cold hard fact, but what causes it isn’t. The origin of the universe is not even a cold hard fact, so it’s just not a fit subject for science.
I could go on. We can only speculate at what causes the planets to orbit and rotate, or what the nature of light is, or what makes it move, or what electricity is, or what magnetism is. We will never know.
But, and this is a big but, we need to speculate on the nature of these phenomena if we want to conform our technology to reality. We have no other choice.
However, we live in a world in which the scientific establishment has co-opted the explanation for things we can only speculate about. Explanations for gravity, planetary orbiting and rotation, light, electricity, magnetism, were all created before there was an organized science and definitely before there was the technological society in which we live today.
However, because all the answers to questions that need open speculation were set in stone, our technology had to conform, not to reality, but to the ancient answers to the questions. Mass gravity doesn’t just provide an explanation for why an object drops, it closes off technological inquiry into the possibility that gravity, like electricity, might be able to be manipulated. Celestial Mechanics provides an iron clad navigational system to guide our rockets in space, and when it doesn’t, when sunspots make satellites drop from orbit, we make up all sorts of frosting on it to ensure its failure is not recognized.
All of these laws and conclusions are learned early in a scientist’s educational process. There’s really no one responsible for altering or updating them. They just hang in history, passed down from mind to mind, mindlessly believed and mindlessly followed. Associations work to protect the knowledge in their field from encroachment, but at the same time, they are subject to the discipline of the overall scientific community, which enforces its collection of mindless laws and conclusions, and yes, assumptions, vigorously, because everything that has been done in every field of science has been done with these laws in mind. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can oppose the laws.
Thus, the brilliant scientists that traced the e coli have been taught these mindless laws and know them by rote, even though mass gravity has nothing to do with the scientific process in which they are engaged. Their association officials are the gatekeepers who ensure that no one in the field does anything that would oppose any of the mindless laws that might affect that field. Supra gatekeepers on a national and international level monitor associations to ensure that they don’t adopt any theory or attempt any process that violates the mindless laws.
Can an honest scientist, a category that pretty much makes up all scientists, do anything about these mindless memes?
I started writing The Real Skeptic columns in October of ’04. During the time I was writing them, I found out, through email correspondence, that there are at least 3 disciplines in which the rank and file members are trying to clear out the unproven assumptions that formed the basis of the field. This isn’t done without pain. There are meetings at which dissidents get ignored, or more often, booed. It’s just the nature of consensus thinking. But in each of these three fields, a significant minority position has been established that it is now given the respect all opposing factions to a mere idea deserve (to give you an idea without naming disciplines, one of the disciplines is finally throwing off uniformitarianism, that unfounded belief that the Earth formed over vast eons without any significant disruptions).
But these incremental advances won’t touch the heart of mindless scientific belief, the gravity is a property of matter, the light is a wave, solar system motion is not the result of current forces, simply because there are no disciplines that are in a position to challenge these ancient assumptions, and there is no one willing to face the catcalls and boos that actually challenging these core consensus beliefs produces.
In addition, even though we find daily that our technology doesn’t match our concepts, we simply move forward, stumbling all the while over the ancient, unfounded beliefs. Just as Edison’s direct conversion of electricity into light didn’t change the view that electricity and light were different things, just as Einstein’s discovery of the photoelectric effect didn’t change the view that electricity and light are different things, there is nothing that anyone can do that will change these useless beliefs.
But it wouldn’t be a problem if the beliefs were simply useless. They are harmful, because they block creative investigation into all sorts of technologies because the investigations are ruled impossible by the ancient beliefs.
We live better lives than out ancestors simply because the inventors among us ignored the ancient beliefs and forged into new territory. But other than isolated successes here and there, we're just as ignorant as our ancestors when it comes to viewing how the world we find ourselves in works.
So, do honest scientists deserve blame for the situation?
No, but they can open their minds to the mindless memes that were inculcated in their youth and start to recognize the limitations of science. Then perhaps the black and white of these gray subjects can start to enter the popular literature and textbooks.
Maybe, over the years, things will start to change.