Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Creation Science University Class?

A reader pointed me to a recent controversy about an astronomy class being taught at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  The topic is being discussed at Jerry Coyne's blog, Why Evolution is True: “Science” course at Ball State University sneaks in religion.

Dr. Coyne documents the contents of the course syllabus and reading list which clearly promotes an Old-Earth Creationism/Intelligent Design theology.  Dr. Coyne argues that this is a violation of  church-state separation since Ball State is a publicly-supported university.

However, Lawrence Moran @ sandwalk (Is It Illegal to Teach Intelligent Design Creationism in American Universities?) suggests this may not be a church-state separation issue as:
  1. the class is not a required class to graduate, so the analogy with American public schools breaks down, where often such a science class might be required to graduate;
  2. allowing the state to dictate content, even when it is nonsense, may be an academic freedom issue.
I found these good arguments, but the key decision point for me was PZ Myers' take at Pharyngula on the topic:  I have to disagree with Jerry Coyne.  Quoting PZ:
No, sorry, not right — academic freedom is the issue here, and professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective. The first amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’ss at a university, which students are not required to attend. It’s completely different from a public primary or secondary school. A bad course is an ethical problem, not a legal one. It’s also an issue that the university has to handle internally.
Myers raises the issue that these types of things happen occasionally at universities, where a (sometimes tenured) faculty member might go loopy and the university has to find the balance between preserving its reputation and its contractual obligations.

I've occasionally done some research on the professional history of the cranks I've dealt with or heard about through this blog.  I have frequently found evidence of the things PZ describes at these universities and professional institutions, where a faculty member goes off the deep end and the university can't fire them for contractual reasons.  The university often resorts to assigning the problematic faculty member to responsibilities where their craziness can't do much harm.

It is not an ideal solution, but it is a solution.

And on a different topic: Best Response to Creationism Ever!

This is a couple of years old, but it was recently sent around a skeptics list I'm on, and I don't think I've mentioned it before.  It is probably the simplest illustration of flawed creationist reasoning.

Think Outside The Box (The Cutest Response to Creationism Ever!)  Interesting that it appears on a site promoting christianity.   An earlier site: My [confined] Space: Religious Logic which has a link in the comments to the original image source

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Other projects...

I was recently quoted in Congressional Quarterly Researcher (CQ Researcher) as part of their article on Science and Religion.  While it's just one quote about geocentrism, the article interviews a great many of the big names in the science and religion conflict.

Public Talks
I'm tenatively scheduled to speak at Balticon, the Maryland Regional Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention  in Baltimore, Maryland, on Memorial Day weekend.  My talk is scheduled to be part of the Science and Skepticism track, sponsored by NCAS.  More details as the scheduling gets finalized.

Presentation/Talk Review
I wrote a short review of the science comedy routine "Feel The Power of the Dork Side" for the April 2013 NCAS Newsletter, Shadow of a Doubt.
Phys.Org: Teach science through argument, professor says
My greatest complaint about this article is that it describes scientific argumentation as if it is a purely rhetorical exercise, which is not the case - it must also adhere to strict standards of evidence, standards even stricter than those of a courtroom.  In the case of the physical sciences, the evidence primarily consists of models from which we can compute values of measurable quantities which can be compared to actual measurements.  Without that standard, you cannot move science into engineering practices.  We would never have successfully sent satellites and astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond without the detailed mathematical understanding of celestial mechanics developed in astronomy from Isaac Newton to the 1950s. 

Without the standard of linking the mathematical to the physical, science becomes indistinguishable from a political belief.

Not surprising, an Electric Universe advocate has jumped into the comment stream, arguing the problems with 'mainstream' models while ignoring the problems with their own (see Challenges for Electric Universe 'Theorists').  Naturally, I added some feedback to the comment stream.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Recent News on Antiscience Antics from Around the Web

Solar Neutrinos
Stuart Robbins did an excellent podcast on the solar neutrino problem.  While his focus was primarily on how creationists have used (and some continue to use) this claim, much of this information applies to Electric Sun claims as well.  Electric Sun supporters have been manufacturing all kinds of bizarre excuses of how the modern experiments on  Earth demonstrating that neutrinos oscillate (and therefore solve the solar neutrino 'shortage') must be wrong.

More Young Blood Joining the Battle…
Zack Kopplin is a 19 year old sophmore at Rice University, Texas.  He has been gaining a lot of attention in a battle for good science.  He runs two websites, one devoted to Repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act.  The original 'science' act makes it easy for teachers to introduce creationism into science classes.  The other, Say No To Creationist Vouchers, is working to stop taxpayer-funded education vouchers being used for religious schools teaching creationism.
Fake Scientific Journals
I recently received an email through one of my work accounts advertising a new professional journal, claiming to be 'open access'.  Browsing the home site of the journal, I checked the titles and authors of some of the recent papers published in astronomy and physics.  A few of the authors I saw published were familiar from their history of somewhat questionable quality papers.

In the same week, there was a good post on SlashDot summarizing some of the problems of fake journals.  There are some publications, calling themselves scientific journals, where the primary condition for 'passing peer review' is if the author's check clears.  One emphasis in the discussion was this growth was actually an unintended consequence of the 'open access' movement in science publication.  Slashdot: Fake Academic Journals Are a Very Real Problem.

The article mentions the work of Jeffrey Beall, who maintains the site Scholarly Open Access, monitoring some of the activity in this new option for scientific publishing.  He maintains a list of journals with policies and procedures that are questionable at best

Nereid and myself collaborated on a number of posts pointing out some rather severe peer-review failures at Bentham Open Astronomy Journal (BOAJ) surrounding a bunch of papers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) promoting Electric Universe claims.   While there had been a comment that the journal had shut down,  their publication frequency has significantly decreased, they still appear to be in operation.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reading - Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology & Academic Science. Part 3.

Reading -  Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology & Academic Science.
by Halton Arp

Continuation from part 2.  The End is Near!

But the Cracks Started to Show Early

I've already noted how Noerdlinger demonstrated in 1975 that Arp's 1/z separation correlation was the result of a simple geometric sampling artifact in the cosmological redshift interpretation (see Part 1 of this series)

Another detail that Arp does not mention in his book is just how soon counter-examples began to arise that presented problems for quasar ejection interpretation.  Most problematic were galaxies being found near quasars with a similar redshift, back in the 1970s:
If Arp's interpretation was correct, how could a galaxy have the SAME redshift as a nearby quasar?  Perhaps they're chance alignments?  According to Arp, that is not likely!

In addition, other astronomers were beginning to detect structure around quasars consistent with a host galaxy (The Structure and Spectrum of Nebulosity Associated with the QSO 4c 37.43).

The observations that some quasars could have the same redshifts as normal galaxies was rather quickly acknowledged by Burbidge (see Redshifts and Distances, 1979), but apparently not by Arp.  But Burbidge did not recognize how damaging that fact was to the underlying model of quasars as ejected objects.  The flip side was that for the cosmological interpretation of redshifts, the quasar energy production mechanism became a challenge again.

By the 1990s, the Hubble Space Telescope was demonstrating that QSOs appeared to be in galaxies:
In Arp's book, he reports on a press conference where John Bahcall was announcing some of these early results (pg 55).  Rather than acknowledge this was a severe blow for his model, Arp emphasized that this could not be demonstrated for ALL quasars observed.  Arp's denial was in the same class as creationists complaining about gaps in the fossil record, who, when an intermediate is found, insists that evolution now has TWO gaps!

Caveat Emptor
As noted before, while reading this book, I took the time to read the references mentioned by Arp, as well as a number of papers which dealt with discordant redshifts NOT mentioned by Arp.
As a result, I came away feeling that Arp was selling this cosmological model like he's selling used cars.  It's what he's NOT telling you that's important.

When confronted with contrary evidence, Arp dismisses it in a fashion that suggests his own personal incredulity.  He can't believe that the contrary evidence could be this way, so it can't.

The cosmological model promoted by Arp and his supporters seems designed to evade any kind of laboratory testing.  The matter creation process advocated in the Narlikar model is claimed to be undetectable under laboratory conditions.  Meanwhile, many dark matter searches are taking place in Earth laboratories (see Dark Matter).  Which has a better chance of being demonstrated correct?

The more I read Arp's cosmology description, the more I felt I was reading something akin to a Medieval cosmology (Wikipedia), where the sky (in this case the Cosmic Microwave Background) was a distant shell and the planets (or galaxies) where mounted on 'quantized' crystal spheres around the Earth!

Please Don't Feed the Cranks

The final chapter of Arp's book concentrated on Arp's views of academic science and other odds-n-ends.

Dr. Arp complains that the Big Bang is treated as 'unquestioned dogma'.  This is the same expression used by Biblical Geocentrists, Creationists, Electric Universe and Plasma Cosmology supporters, and others, about many of the same aspects of modern astronomy and cosmology.  Of course, each of these groups advocate their own cosmology different from the others, so who is arguing dogma?

Arp claims that the Big Bang model has so many parameters that anything can be made to work (pg 257).  While Big Bang Cosmology does have a number of parameters, today there is a lot more data in the form of galaxy and cosmic microwave power spectra and polarization info that constrains the values of those parameters.  Max Tegmark has generated a set of movies on his web site that illustrate how the model matches with the data for different values of the cosmological parameters. This is a very cool demonstration.

While Arp complains about creationism (pg 270), a large fraction of 'creation scientists' invoke his work as evidence that Big Bang cosmology is wrong.  When reading this book, I realized that large sections of Barry Setterfield's 'science' of a decaying speed of light seems to be based on Arp (see A Changing Speed of Light?).  Arp even collaborated for publication with one Young-Earth Creationist, John Hartnett (see Analysis of the 2dF Deep Field).

It is difficult to find a crank cosmology claim that DOESN'T invoke Arp's observations at some point.  Many of these alternative cosmologies fly completely contrary to Arp's work if the Arp's  interpretations are correct.  I've heard that Anthony Peratt remarked that if Arp's model for quasars were correct, his Birkeland current galaxy model (see Scott Rebuttal. II. The Peratt Galaxy Model vs. the Cosmic Microwave Background) could not be correct (it is clear that Arp and Peratt's galaxy models have structures that are mutually exclusive).  I have yet to find where or if Peratt actually said this and would appreciate details if anyone can clarify the issue.  The contradictory nature of these two radically different galaxy models seems lost on Electric Universe supporters who routinely invoke Arp's observations.

Arp has become one of the darlings of the pseudo-astronomy community because he is one of the few promoters of these types of claims that has done a lot of legitimate astronomical research.  Most of his papers today seem to make it through peer review not because of Arp's discordant redshifts interpretation, but because the paper includes observations of particular objects which have not been published before but which are of value to other researchers. 

Claims of Abuse
Arp tries to get sympathy - often mentioning how he has been 'mistreated' by the astronomical community (pg 21, 74-75).  Yet he never acknowledges his errors nor their impact on his interpretation of observations while he continues to try to access multi-million dollar facilities to continue his quest.

Science has established a set of general rules, called the Scientific Method (Wikipedia).  While few successful individual researchers strictly follow this methodology in a systematic fashion, the group self-policing activity of peer-review and reproducibility in science does a good job of making sure the rules are followed and bad science eventually gets rejected.  While abuses do take place (wikipedia: Scientific Misconduct), it is often on a signifcantly smaller scale than in other professions.

But the fact that these rules exist, however informal, means there are penalties for those who don't want to follow the rules, or insist that they are subject to a different set of rules.  Many of the pseudo-sciences dealt with in this blog insist that science must adopt a different set of rules so that their claims can become accepted science.

What would you do if a mathematician insisted that (in base 10) 1 + 1 = 3?

Suppose they continued to insist on this even after you gave them marbles for a counting demonstration?

Suppose that instead of demonstrating with the marbles, they accused you of discriminating against them?

Additional Resource: AstronomyCast: How to Be Taken Seriously By Scientists

Cosmology After Discordant Redshifts...
With the discord amongst the redshifts largely resolved - astronomy has moved on…
A handful of researchers still pursue aspects of Arp's model, but it appears their numbers are declining as improving astronomical technologies turn ambiguities in astronomical observations into observational facts.

Additional Resources
Update, April 9, 2013: Fixed a number of typos.