Questionable Motives

April 12, 2011

What is Big History and why is it important?

In spite of never-ending creationist pushes into public education (the latest in Tennessee) to replace what is true and knowable with what is believed to be true and unknowable, Big History allows us to better understand how the universe operates and our place in it. Enjoy this TED talk from David Christian who wants everyone to know this story (it picks up speed at about the 4 minute mark).

April 22, 2010

Are scientific and supernatural claims compatible?

Over at ButterfliesandWheels, Ophelia Benson has posted her argument why the supposed wall of separation between science and the supernatural that allows them to be compatible is a “crock of shit.” She writes:

(T)here’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute.

Now consider astronomer Dave Chernoff’s response on “Ask an astronomer” about whether or not astronomers believe in astrology:

“No, astronomers do not believe in astrology. It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science, “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Clear, concise, and definitive: The burden of proof for people who claim that astrology is true lies on those who make that claim. Yet when it comes to claims that the supernatural is true under the heading of religious belief, let’s watch the wheels fall of this skeptical bus. Chernoff tells us that modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of god and that people who believe in god can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating contradictions. After giving a couple of examples of how this might be possible – the Big Bang does not contradict a Genesis equivalent (whatever that means) – Chernoff concludes that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of god and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t have anything to do with scientific reasoning. (Tip to commentator #4 Kenneth.Pidcock)

So what happened to skepticism as the default position – a very useful and beneficial guideline for examining any and all truth claims – when the truth claim fell under the category of religion? How can reasonable people like Chernoff suddenly have their reasoning faculties shut down and allow themselves to pile up banal excuses on behalf of favouring religious claims to be exempt from legitimate skepticism? Some may claim that god works in mysterious ways, but so too does the mind of religious apologists… very mysterious indeed.

I agree with Benson that this skeptical exemption for religious claims about the supernatural, which is necessary for the claim of compatibility with science to remain true, is a crock of shit. And it’s full of shit because the skeptical constraints are changed. That’s not compatibility: that’s an abdication of fair play, a failure to keep the rules of inquiry the same for both categories, resulting in an intellectual capitulation by those who merely want to believe that science and the supernatural are compatible when an honest investigation is subverted right from the start.

December 25, 2009

Evidence for dark matter… in Minnesota?

Filed under: Astronomy,Discovery,Physics,Science — tildeb @ 4:09 pm

Laurence Krauss is one of my favourite science writers because his writings are accurate, fascinating, and accessible. Read his entire article here.

In early December, the Cold Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment located in the deep Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota leaked a tantalizing hint that they may have discovered something remarkable. The experiment is designed to directly detect new elementary particles that might make up the dark matter known to dominate our own Milky Way galaxy, all galaxies, and indeed all mass in the universe—so news of a possible breakthrough was thrilling.

The actual result? Two pulses were detected over the course of almost a year that might have been due to dark matter, CDMS announced on Dec. 17. However, there is a 25% chance that the pulses were actually caused by background radioactivity in and around the detector.

So when the physics community heard rumors that one of these experiments had detected something, we all waited with eager anticipation. A convincing observation would vindicate almost half a century of carefully developed, if fragile, arguments suggesting a whole new invisible world waiting to be discovered.

For the theorist working at his desk alone at night, it seems almost unfathomable that nature might actually obey the delicate theories you develop on pieces of paper. This is especially true when the theories involve ideas from so many different areas of science and require leaps of imagination.

The reported results are intriguing, but less than convincing. Yet if the two pulses observed last week in Minnesota are followed by more signals as bigger detectors turn on in the coming year or two, it will provide serious vindication of the power of human imagination. Combined with rigorous logical inference and technological wizardry—all the things that make science worth celebrating—scientists’ creativity will have uncovered hidden worlds that a century ago could not have been conceived.

December 19, 2009

Six minute journey: do we have perspective yet?

Filed under: Astronomy,Education,Physics,Science — tildeb @ 3:30 pm

Makes one consider the grandiose arrogance needed to think that the covering of one’s head or dietary choices or sexual preferences is of cosmic importance to the creator god.

November 12, 2009


moonOver at the Neurologica blog is an article about the latest photographic evidence that debunks the moon hoax conspiracy and describes how the tracks and abandoned equipment newly photographed is evidence that is right where we thought it should be if the moon landings had actually occurred. One might be tempted to think that the truth of the moon landings was a no-brainer, but about 25% of people surveyed were skeptical that the whole thing was staged! The story reminded me strongly of the ID/creationist response to multi-disciplined evidence for evolution, which is right where it ought to be if evolution were true. What struck me is how similar remains the thinking of those who wish to deny… that no matter what evidence is provided, conspiracy theories are an exercise in cherry picking evidence that can be made to seem anomalous or sinister, without being able to formulate a coherent explanation or account for all evidence. I think the same kind of conspiracy thinking empowers CAM, anti-vaccination, magic, occult, and witchcraft, not to mention all mainstream religious belief in god. The cherry-picked evidence selected by such a thinker only bolsters the original claim and any and all counter-evidence is simply discarded by this slight-of-brain trick.

October 27, 2009

How can something come from nothing?

astronomyWonderful video that captures some of the excitement and wonder that comes through studying physics.


October 24, 2009

Perimeter Institute – Quantum to Cosmos Festival

Q2CWhat a feather in the Canadian science cap. Catch up on what’s happening here. Want to view some vidoes on various presentations? Click here. Many hours of terrific stuff available. Plan accordingly!

October 14, 2009

Doomsday is coming! In 2012! …maybe… well, actually …probably not…

Filed under: Astronomy,Humour,Science — tildeb @ 1:34 pm

Milky WayThe date of this apocalypse is based upon the Mayan Calendar, which allegedly ends on 12/21/2012. The Mayans were fairly advanced in their study of naked-eye astronomy and had a sophisticated calendar. Their “long count” calendar had, as its largest cycle, a period of 394.3 years known as a B’ak’tun. Thirteen was a sacred number to the Mayan, and counting 13 B’ak’tun from their presumed date of creation lands us in 2012.

But then there are Mayan writings the refer to future dates as late as 4772, so clearly they thought we would still be around then. Probably the Mayan version of Left Wing liberal bias.

Still, what about sunspot activity which is predicted to peak 2012? What do you mean it’s not?

The solar system will pass through the galactic plane in 2012, exposing the earth to life ending radiation! Okay, maybe not on the 21st… and I admit the plane in our galaxy is imaginary, but still…we do cross it. And then there’s this cool download. Did you know that our galaxy is filled with stars? Damn that Left Wing media bias. Who knew?

I’m pretty sure that if the killer planet that must be heading our way just so happens to miss us on the 21 of December 2012, the geomagnetic reversal will finish the job.

Such claims are good examples of retrofitting. Doomsayers start with the incorrect mythological interpretation that the world will end in 2012, and then search for something pseudoplausible and sciencey they can squeeze into this claim writes Steve Novella over at Neurologica. I think he may be on to something a bit more plausible than the next doomsday scenario.

Still, we can always enjoy the next doomsday movie.

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