Friday, September 17, 2010

Some Great Video Debunkings

One of my personal heroes, James Randi, debunks a mineral dowser.

The thing I find the most disappointing about mineral dowsing is that it doesn't work, actually. For a rockhound like me, I'd be the first to sign up for classes if it did! I've been rockhunting for some time and I've yet to find some natural New York State gemstones like flourite and sphalerite.

The depressing part here is that despite the fact that it was all well and truly debunked, this English fellow nonetheless finds work to this day as a mineral dowser despite being told his power just doesn't work. He seems like a nice older English "chappie." I strongly suspect he actually believes he has a power and isn't aware of the "ideomotor effect."

Another YouTube poster devotes himself to explaining the truth behind so-called "true" supernatural tales like the Bell Witch of Tennessee and the Philadelphia Experiment, stories that have long since been shown to be false but still remain in circulation for whatever reason. They're fun to watch.

This one is my personal favorite, the story of the Bell Witch:

In general, stories of this type don't do any harm (unlike, say, creationism, which is poisonous to scientific understanding). However, while fantasy and ghost stories are normal, healthy and lots of fun, it is vital to distinguish between the real world and fantasy and not confuse the two.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Wizard Did It: Creationism's Trojan Horse

If you're at all curious about the discussions of Intelligent Design vs. Creationism, check out "Creationism's Trojan Horse" by Barbara Forrest.

The main points of the book are as follows:

  1. "Intelligent Design" is a public relations movement as opposed to a scientific one.
  2. "Intelligent Design" is a fundamentally religious and philisophical position, not a scientific one;
  3. ...and that's the point. It is aimed at bamboozling and convincing non-specialists, designed to sabotage the teaching of evolution for religious reasons.
  4. The research isn't enough to change the mind or convince a single scientist or create new fields of research or testable hypothesis, but rather, is all designed to use public relations to sabotage and subvert the normal process of science.
  5. When having a dialogue with science, creationists and IDers create a "heads-I-win/tails-you-lose" scenario. If they are ignored by scientists, they yell about how science is unable to respond to their "A Wizard Did It" claims, and when scientists give their books criticism, they trumpet that science is finally giving them some attention.

The book often trotted out as Intelligent Design playing science with the big boys, their heaviest hitter, would be Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box. For those that haven't read it, the jist of his book is that there are some biological structures so complicated that if you remove one part, it stops working and thus, according to Behe, couldn't have evolved, like the bacterial flagellum "motor." It's essentially a rehash of the old rejected creationist argument that something like the eye couldn't have evolved on its own because it needs to be in its current form to work.

Behe in particular I always found especially silly. Consider that his book was written in 1996. I entered college in 2004, where I took Molecular Biology and Organic Chemistry. Since 1996, Genomics (the science of protein structure) has made wild contributions to evolutionary biology. Almost all the points Behe brings up in his 1996 book have since been explained (with satisfactory and more importantly, testable explanations), like the development of blood clotting and yes, even the flagellum motor.

That seems to be the Creationist/ID response to science: seize on an area that nobody knows much about and then say "A Wizard Did It." This is what happened when Creationists seized on the so-called "Cambrian Fossil Explosion," about the "sudden" and "unexplained" development of life in the early Cambrian. Since very few fossils exist from that period, there were a lot of gaps in our knowledge. Since the Creationists made that claim, new fossils have revealed what truly happened: slow leaps instead of a sudden explosion. But that's no big deal to these guys: move on to the next gap, which can easily be explained by A Wizard Did It. The genius here is that there will always be huge gaps in knowledge, which is the whole point of science. Let's be honest here: these folk don't really care about science. Not really.

The point of the book is this: "Intelligent Design" is creationism rebranded and not a true scientific position. There is zero real scientific controversy about evolution and natural selection, and the aim of the Intelligent Design movement is an end-run around science to directly influence public opinion among non-scientists and non-specialists by creating an ambiguity as to which theory is correct among laymen, an ambiguity that just doesn't exist. This, incidentally, is the tactic of choice among global warming deniers: insist that scientists aren't sure so you can just pick any theory you like. Tragically, it takes some extra type of self-deleusion to deny physical reality.

Incidentally, here's Kenneth Miller, a deeply religious Christian as well as a cellular biologist, and his instructive lecture that takes down Intelligent Design. The video is a little long but worth watching in its entirety as a companion to the book.

Politicians telling scientists what to do: the Deutsche Physik movement

My favorite moment in the entire tragicomic saga of the Nazi-era "Deutsche Physik" movement was this: Heinrich Himmler was a grade school friend of Germany's greatest quantum and particle physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Yes, that Heisenberg.

So, Heisenberg's Mom called Himmler's Mom on the telephone and politely but firmly asked if she would please tell her son to leave Heisenberg alone! Not bad from someone that, because of his concern for his nation's loss of talented scientists, was labeled a "White Jew" that ought to be made to "disappear."

"Aryan Physics" was a movement in Germany to create a muscular breed of physics that eliminated the "Jewish" influence of Albert Einstein and his paradigm-shifting work with relativity. The thing I find shocking about all this is that it began with old-guard, reactionary old scientists that were outraged by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics (in other words, what today we'd call modern physics), paradigm shifters that did away with many darling and pet theories, like the Luminferous Aether, that many old-guard scientists were outraged by in a way that mirrors old geologists of the 1960s opposed to plate tectonics and continental drift. Quantum Mechanics, in particular, was a theory less than a decade old that explained that within an atom, the laws of classical physics don't apply but their behavior can only be described with probabilities.

Under the Nazis, old guard physicists found an ally, because science could play into the sort of political tropes the Nazis liked. The effect was astounding: out of the 26 known German nuclear physicists, almost half left Germany and defected. Many were Jewish, as under Nazi laws Jews were forbidden from holding posts in Higher Education, a position that echoes the paranoid, conspiratorial fears of anti-intellectuals on the right, who see centers of learning as hives of indoctrination. At the risk of Godwinning myself and thus failing the internet, the parallels just write themselves.

The American Operation: Paperclip, as well as the Soviet efforts to recruit disenfranchised German scientists, meant that Germany's loss was ultimately the Manhattan Project's gain. Otto Robert Frisch, for instance, was a Jewish refugee that after leaving Germany calculated the exact amount of Uranium needed to reach critical mass.

In the end of course, the Nazis eventually came around and realized they scared away an entire generation by putting political loyalty and ideology over the independent conclusions of science, but the damage was done: they suffered a colossal brain drain that cost them the atomic bomb.

Suddenly, the necessity for tenure becomes clearer: part of the reason it exists is that the only environment that honest science can be practiced is one with academic freedom and the ability to reach conclusions that are occasionally inconvenient to government and industry alike.

PAHs and the development of life

If you've ever been curious about the origin of life and how it arose from nonliving molecules, for the past few years there's a mindblowing new scenario on how that could have happened centered around Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as an intermediate "starter" stage that leads to life. Not because of PAH's complexity, but because of how durable they are, how simple they are.

PAHs, in short, are polycyclic because they are typically carbon atoms that form into extremely durable ring structures, connected to each other. As anyone that's ever played with a molecular model kit knows, carbon atoms connect at angles that result in a cyclic shape. Because the carbon atoms double-bond to each other over and over, they have a real toughness by sharing bonds, a property in chemistry known as "aromatic."

PAHs are found over and over on earth, and in fact are even one polycyclic aromatic molecule (though not a hydrocarbon), C60, was the first soccer-ball shaped buckminsterfullerine ever discovered in nature, a sexy kind of molecule that gets a lot of attention because of unique properties. Flatten a buckyball out into a sheet of graphene (well, more or less), curl it up and you get carbon nanotubes, a molecule with the primary property of creating tons and tons of work for sensationalist science writers prone to jumping the gun.

Amusingly enough, one PAH is Naphthaline, C10H8, which is the primary ingredient of mothballs.

Not only is C60 as well as PAHs found in interstellar space where the primary components of life are believed to be found, the strong bonded structure means it can tolerate resistance and survive untouched in space, surrounded by UV light that would break up and destroy more fragile components of organic chemistry, like amino acids. Likewise, they're far simpler, just basic ring-shaped hydrocarbons that because the cyclic shape repeats over and over, it remains intact even if blown apart. It is believed they could have formed primitive membranes that protected life, helped in metabolism, and can even hold genetic information...the only material known in the interstellar medium that meets all three criteria for life.

Because of their stability and resistance to temperature and radiation, if PAHs played a role in the development of life on earth, it would change the conditions that are required for life to form, which may mean that life can develop in environments more deadly and dangerous than previously thought.