Prophets, Scientists, and Evolution

I’m not trying to pick any fights here, I’m just want to point out a difference between the people who tell us about God (prophets), and the people who tell us about the workings of the universe (scientists).

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are based on revelation. Revelation is when God communicates with someone, and if this person passes that info on to others, he (or she) becomes a prophet. When God talks to someone is ultimately up to God; there’s no way to repeat a conversation with God if God’s not willing. Also God typically communicates with only one person at a time; think of Joseph Smith by himself as he talked with an angel and received the Book of Mormon. This means that it’s up to that individual to pass the information on to others.

Being a prophet isn’t easy; a prophet has to overcome two main difficulties to be successful:

1) Getting people to believe him (or her).

The only evidence we have of the communication event is the word of the prophet. Although, sometimes God gives the prophet insight into a future event, and this can act as secondary evidence of the authenticity of the message. If our prophet is of good moral character, never lies, drinks, steals, etc., if he (or she) is all around moral and trustworthy, so much the better: we can believe what he (or she) has to say. But if there is some question of his (or her) morality or honesty, if our prophet turns out to be a drinker, liar, womanizer (manizer?), etc. then maybe he (or she) isn’t telling the truth, maybe he (or she) didn’t receive a message from God, but is just making stuff up. In many ways the message is only as “legitimate” as the prophet who delivers it.

2) Maintaining the message content.

This is a lot harder than you think. Go ahead and write down what you had for breakfast. Try to put in words the sight, smell, taste, and texture. Can you fully describe in words what your senses felt? For instance: the pepper you put on your eggs- how many grains did you write about, did you described how they were arranged? You saw and experienced the pepper in a way your audience never can through your writings. No biography could contain all that a subject experienced, no matter how thorough it may be. Just so, a prophet presumably received a message that is more than a verbatim essay, it may have included feelings, emotion, inflection, etc. The prophet has to summarize the experience to make it available to his (or her) audience. Necessarily when an audience interacts with a prophet’s teachings a lot will be left out from the communication event the prophet had with God. The audience will have to interpret the prophet’s teachings, study them, meditate on them, and even then they may not get it right. How the teachings are used is important. If they are used for bad purposes then this calls into question their legitimacy, because presumably, following orders or advice from God should result in good things.

One more thing to consider about what a prophet tells us about God is, for lack of a better term, the “quality” of information. The prophet had the initial conversation and there is no way anyone (even the prophet) can play back a recording to check any specific details, etc., it’s a onetime event recorded by the prophet and the record of it, after the prophet has died, can never be improved, edited, expanded, etc. expect by another revelation from God. Once a revelation is recorded, it’s done.

So it is with prophets and revelations. Now let us look at scientists and observations of the universe.

The scientist observes nature. This might be watching the nesting habits of birds, or recording the wavelength given off by rarefied hydrogen in an excited state. Because of the nature of nature, it’s all around us and always available, these observations can typically be made multiple times. When the scientist presents his (or her) findings he (or she) must provide a detailed, unambiguous account of how the observations were made, and it must be good enough that others may repeat the process so that they may make the same observations. Unlike the prophet, the scientist may ask the same question to nature over and over again. Others can join in, repeat the question and receive an answer, check their answer against previous answers, and/or modify the question and see how that affects the answer. Sometimes, you can ask a question in two very different ways and come up with the same answer. For instance, some wood of a certain age can be dated by 1) dendrochronology, counting and comparing the rings formed from yearly growth, and 2) by measuring the remaining amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14. Both methods give similar ages.

This ability for multiple people to check and recheck an answer, to observe and refine, to modify the question in light of new findings, to ask it using new technologies or techniques, means that there can be no prophets in science. Once our scientist has made his (or her) findings available to the public, typically by publishing in a journal, we are no longer beholden to the scientist that did the research. Now the audience, even you dear reader, have the ability to evaluate the findings of the scientist; to ask a question of nature and get an answer.

To put this another way, we do not base the validity of scientific discoveries on the character of the individual who made them. Germ theory is correct whether or not Louis Pasteur crept through the city at night and stole women’s underwear from backyard clothes lines. Sir Isaac Newton may have been a proud believer in alien abduction, but this in no way takes away from his work in physics. Now certainly if the scientist in question turns out to be untrustworthy as regards to what they were researching, then we must be very skeptical of his or her findings. But in science we’re skeptical of everyone’s findings. This isn’t to say quality of research isn’t important, but even the greatest scientists know that their findings will be reshaped, altered, and ultimately added to an ever expanding body of knowledge as new discoveries are made. As for bad or poorly done science, well, we can rest assured that “truth will out”.

Remember that in religion the “quality” of the information decreases as it moves from God to the prophet to the audience (unless we have a new revelation event). But in science the “quality” of information can increase. Indeed that concept of “scientific progress” is the manifestation of that quality increase (greater accuracy and precision). This, again, reduces the role of the individual’s personality (moral or otherwise) in science.

A good example of confusion concerning prophets and scientists can be found in some evolutionary debates. This confusion belongs to both sides. Occasionally arguments against evolution take the form of specific criticisms of Darwin personally, of specific information in On the Origin of Species, or of actions supposedly taken in the name of Evolution (“Survival of the Fittest”). While these are perfectly sensible criticisms of prophets, this causes much confusion for the scientist. Scientists don’t understand why these questions are asked because the scientist is not interested in the person who made the discovery, and understanding that publications are “ephemeral,” looks beyond those as well.

While Darwin is celebrated for his discovery, subsequent observations of nature have provided us with a richer understanding of how nature works. Darwin was a scientist. Scientists say, “I made some observations of the universe and I think this is how it works.” They gather evidence for their ideas and then make this available to the community. The community is now tasked with further testing these ideas. If these ideas do not accurately describe how the universe works, they are discarded.

In the 150 years since Darwin first presented his ideas millions of scientists have performed billions of experiments testing those ideas. Criticizing On the Origin of Species is meaningless. One has to criticize all of the millions of experiments and observations that provide evidence for evolution and the mechanisms that drive it. The workers of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1940s found that Darwin’s ideas were incomplete and showed that modern genetics was the previously unknown mechanism of heredity. In fact, the greatest critics of Darwin’s idea of Evolution by Natural Selection have always been, and always will be, scientists.

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A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO SCIENCE

WHAT SCIENCE IS,
HOW IT WORKS,
WHERE IT’S POORLY TREATED,
AND WHY SCIENTISTS HAVE
THE RIGHT TO FEEL UPSET

___

FIRE YOUR DOCTOR

You’re sitting in an upholstered chair, there is a duck painting on the wall and a paper weight on the desk. Your doctor comes in, opens a manila folder, and looks at the papers inside. She set’s her face and with calm and compassion tells you that the tests indicate cancer. What do you do?

Quietly take the papers she’s holding, alter the test results with a pen (so they can’t be erased) and go home and celebrate. You beat cancer!

Right?

PRIMER ON SCIENCE

What Science Is: The dangerous idea behind science is that it’s a way of trying to understand how the universe (nature) works by actually studying the universe. Science can be used to answer big questions like the age of the universe, the origin and evolution of life, and smaller questions like Bilbo Baggins’ “What have I got in my pocket?” Because Science is based on looking at nature, it’s open to everyone: every gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) background, even bald people. We are all scientists. As we move through the day we are constantly erecting hypotheses, conducting tests, evaluating results. I grasp my coffee cup and use the external temperature of the cup to judge how hot the coffee is and how big a sip I can take. Science ten-thousand times a day.

However, at birth we humans are ill equipped to understand the universe, we are rife with biases and handicaps. It really seems like the Earth is sitting still while the sun moves across the sky. Calculus (calculus!) is required to understand that gravity is more than a series of random events. We wash hands and fruit to remove invisible bacteria. We lose at the casino, but remember winning. We hear something that confirms a strongly held belief and remember it, while we forget or deny those things that refute the same idea. (This last, known as “Confirmation-” or “Myside-Bias,” is the greatest demon of all scientists, professional and amateur alike. Certain recent geo-political events are almost certainly the result of this human defect.)

How Science Works: Coupling the two ideas—to understand the universe, study the universe; and that humans are prone to mistakes—results in the process we call Science. Every time we discover a new human failing, scientists incorporate that into the next round of tests to make sure results are less tainted by bias. The double-blind test, where neither doctors nor patients know who is getting the active medicine and who the placebo, is an important result of this rule. The very design of Science—rejection of arguments from authority, peer-review, public publications, reproducibility, falsifiability, and findings that are constantly subject to testing and skepticism—creates a system designed to remove human failings and provide accurate descriptions of nature. Whenever this process isn’t used, there is an enormous chance conclusions will not accurately reflect reality.

When a scientist tests an idea about how nature works they do not simply gather evidence for that idea. Rather they work as hard as they can to show that the idea isn’t an accurate description of nature. Only if they fail to show it doesn’t work (note double negative) do they reluctantly accept that it might be acceptable. It sounds counter intuitive until you put it to a test. In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42, an answer arbitrarily picked by the book’s author, Douglas Adams. Recently a fan compiled an entire book listing hundreds of instances where 42 is an “important” number. As a fan myself it pains me to say 42 isn’t any more magical than, say, 37. Imagine the Cult of 37 compiling their own list. Has the group with the longest list really found the ultimate answer? Conspiracy theories are created in this way, too, by only seeking explanations that affirm a preconceived notion, never being skeptical of them. An idea/ explanation/ description of nature only has merit if it can stand up to scrutiny, tests, and skepticism. Confirmation bias is simply the failure to be skeptical of your own beliefs. Many of the most spectacular failures in Science and Politics are the result of confirmation bias. We are very good at fooling ourselves.

What Science Isn’t: If you don’t do Science right—include ALL of the steps—then it’s not Science. Pseudo-science, non-science, and just plain lies presented as Science are not Science. Making random noises is not the same as speaking Mandarin Chinese. Science is not political. Tree growth, earthquakes, the energy required to boil water, in fact, all the known “rules” of the universe, are indifferent to, and unalterable by, human endeavors including politics, religion, charming ad jingles, hacktivism, etc. If a group holds that the moon is made of green cheese, it is not the moon’s responsibly to change. Science does not prove anything (talk to a philosopher about why not). Science is not perfect. Scientists are humans with all the usual human failings of lust, pride, greed, bad breath, etc. We realize this, and a major part of the scientific process is designed to remove those failings from research. (Science does seem to produce fewer felons than Politics, though.) Science doesn’t know everything. There is still a lot to learn, give us time or feel free to join in.

“Truth”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “right”, “wrong”, “real”, “fake”, “good” and “bad” are all words that work well in many everyday situations but don’t work well in Science. Those words are too generalized and can carry (often moral) connotations. (It might be right that you backed over the cat, but it’s not right that you backed over the cat.) The appropriate way to consider Scientific findings is to refer to accuracy and precision. As we develop better tools, technology, and techniques we can make finer measurements and more accurate models (think climate change). More accurate descriptions/ measurements do not invalidate past findings, they enhance them.IMG_1146cMorpho.jpg

The terms “accuracy” and “precision” also highlight uncertainty which is a real part of the real universe we live in. Scientists cannot say “absolute”, “100%”, “never”, etc. because all things carry uncertainty. We humans are very poor at dealing with uncertainty and probability. One way to think about it is to consider warranties. If a product has a warranty, the manufacture feels the probability of failure within that time is low. A lengthy (strong) warranty implies confidence that the product will be defect-free for a long time. A short (weak) warranty implies the product may break quickly. For example, scientists can offer a very strong “warranty” concerning the notion that human-caused global climate change is an accurate explanation of current climate events.

Abuses of Science: Current abuses of Science come in many forms, but two are the most pervasive. The first (and oldest) rejects the idea that the best way to understand how the universe works is to look at the universe (Science), and embraces the idea that the universe is best understood through interpretations of sacred literature. Creationism is a specific example of this larger issue (age of the earth, origin of languages, and rights for homosexuals are a few other examples). Creationism is based on the idea that interpretations of sacred literature are a better way to understand life than actually studying nature. That’s why groups with different sacred literature celebrate different creation stories (Genesis, Spiderwoman, Brahma) and why individuals that share sacred literature disagree over what it says (the vast majority of Christians see no conflict between evolution and their interpretation of the Bible, others interpret an old Earth, others a young Earth, etc.). Interpretations of sacred literature do not help us understand how nature works with any accuracy or precision and are often incredibly misleading if taken literally. If you disagree, complain to the universe, it’s the one that “made” the rules.

A related situation is not the rejection of Science itself, but the rejection of using Science. Kurt Vonnegut articulated this well in his essay, “Your Guess is as Good as Mine“. He pointed out that many decisions made in the past were guesses, simply because information and ability to know was lacking. “Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.” Today we have information. Today we have models. Today we don’t need to guess. Listen to representatives and pundits, when are they speaking from knowledge and when are they guessing? Don’t turn this into a drinking game.

Maligning Science for financial reasons is the second major abuse. “Skepticism” over global climate change is not based on lack of scientific rigor or clarity, it is simply a technique to reduce competition. Rejection of scientific findings in order to denigrate the EPA, OSHA, NOAA, NIH, and other organizations that rely heavily on science to set policy and make decisions to improve environmental and human health and safety is another red-herring argument. In both cases scientists should continuing to refute these red-herrings with evidence and rational discourse. However, much more time needs to be devoted to specifically pointing out that “uncertainty” in Science is used as an excuse to institute policies that specifically profit a small number of people while reducing the health and wellbeing of a much larger group. We could have cheaper food if companies weren’t forced to buy rat traps.

These and other abuses of Science and scientists are offensive. Scientists are professionals. The very nature of Science requires that it’s always open to review and scrutiny. No other institution and no participants in any other institution, political, religious, legal, artistic, etc., are subject to such public examination. While scientific fraud can and does happen, in the long run scientific fraud will always be discovered. As Richard Feynman put it, “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory.” Scientists are held accountable for their work and called upon to check the work of others. When levies fail, no one interrogates a religious leader, when health supplements are associated with heart attacks, scientists are called in to investigate. Scientists are working to describe the universe, a fixed element, and report what they find. Sometimes the answer is not what a particular person, group, industry, etc. wants to hear. Jon Stewart put it simply, “Reality has a liberal bias.”

A SCIENTISTS’ LAMENT

Science works: We went from walking behind a plow mule to walking on the moon, we eradicated small pox and have revolutionized medicine, we can look into the heart of stars, we can edit genomes, we have the internet and Angry Birds. By applying scientific principles to industry we’ve been able to take things that even gods and kings couldn’t imagine and make them available to virtually anyone: flying through the air, instant communication, air-conditioning.

It’s no easy feat. Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass-producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Science and industry have developed technological solutions to most of the problems associated with humans’ basic needs. The technological impediment to providing adequate food, water, shelter, healthcare, housing, transportation, and communication is gone. We know how to grow LOTS of food. We can purify and deliver LOTS of water. We figured most of this stuff out in the 1970s and have improved on it since then. Absolutely, Science has provided us with bulldozers, diesel fuel, pesticides, and loud speakers. Inappropriate and over judicious uses of technology have caused enormous environmental damage and human suffering. But here again, Science not only anticipates, detects, and measures damage, but provides technological solutions to these problems. For example, Science has been telling us for decades that the one and only lifeboat we have in the enormity of the universe is currently being radically altered by (among other things) over use of fossil fuels.Nallachius_americanus_Morgan_square_small.jpg

Natural Experiments: There are nearly 200 countries on Earth. Each one has a health care plan for its citizens ranging from full coverage to no coverage. Each one has air and water quality regulations, drug laws, and gun control laws that range from strict to nonexistent. Each action or inaction taken by each country represents an experiment, one that is freely observable, one we can learn from. Watching the United States flail about trying to enact adequate health care is both one of the greatest comedic farces, and one of the greatest tragedies, the world has ever seen. When others have gone out of their way to reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of their own experiments, why would we not want to learn from their experiences?

“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed.”: If Science and industry solved so many of the problems of human basic needs, then why do hunger, slums, and cholera still exist? Why doesn’t everyone have access to clean water? If Science anticipated and measured (and is measuring!) the maladaptive changes to the Earth due to fossil fuel use, then why are we still using so much fossil fuel when reasonable alternatives of solar, wind, waves, and biofuel are available?

There is no evidence that human endeavors are held back by lack of energy or materials. No evidence that lack of human imagination or ingenuity is keeping us from solving basic problems like adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and education for all humans on Earth. Nothing in the laws of physics says we can’t visit Europa, double our lifetimes, or even jury-rig a reasonable facsimile of a Woolly Mammoth or Dodo. And there is no reason to believe we have to poison streams or factory workers to achieve those goals.

So many times when we ask our political leaders to explain why they can’t solve these problems, their answer invariably is: “We can’t afford it.” But we can. Economy is a human creation, partially dependent on nature (there is only so much fresh water), but mostly one of our own making. What we can’t afford any more is guessing about how economies work. Science and Industry stepped up to the challenge and delivered, but Economy has failed. Economy has failed because those that institute it are not interested in discarding ideas that don’t work, but have become entrenched in dogma and ideology. It’s time we began treating Economy as what it really is, hypotheses and experimental statements, rather than an immutable ideals. It’s time economic practices had to withstand the scrutiny of Science.

The only way to truly solve the problems we face today is through economic and social change. For example, we need politicians brave enough to admit that a capitalist model that relies on profit will not work for a government service that should be available to everyone. We need to change the “moral” attitude we take when providing basic needs. For example, we live in communities where people are guaranteed a sidewalk but not food. No moral judgement is assigned to use of government-mandated and taxpayer-financed sidewalks, but a government-mandated and taxpayer-financed food assistance program comes with moral indignation, “my tax dollars,” “warm food not allowed,” etc. Science and Industry have given us plenty, we should not waste, but we are not without resources. We should be indignant when others lack basic needs, not when they receive them.

Economic and social policies are created by humans, for humans. We are in control, and those can easily be changed. What can’t be changed is the fact that one group of humans isn’t better than another, that pollutants cause damage, that climate change is happening, and that reality can’t be altered with paperwork, even if you use a pen.

Earth Day, 2017

Citizens_Guide_To_Science PDF

 

Science, Industry, and Economy

Science did it. In less than a century science: took us from discovery of vaccines and antibiotics to eradication of smallpox; from the first heavier than air flight to a rocket to the moon; from invention of the lightbulb to smartphones and the world wide web; from the discovery of the structure of DNA to sequencing genomes; from food shortages to food abundance; from discovery of radio waves to geosynchronous satellites.

Industry did it. In less than a century industry: mass produced lightbulbs, pencils, paper, cars, radios, TV, computers, vaccines, and virtually everything else imaginable; made air travel accessible to nearly everyone; developed multiple ways to clean and deliver mass quantities of water and store, process, and ship food; made communication nearly instant, cheap, and reliable.

Science and industry did their part. Imagine an alien in a little ship orbiting the Earth watching all of this unfold. Imagine a kindergartener learning about what science and industry have recently done. How do you explain to the alien or the child why all the ills that science and industry created technological solutions for (hunger, poverty, preventable diseases, etc.) still exist?

The answer invariably is: economy. “We can’t afford it!” How can this be?

Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Economics, however, is less constrained. It is a human construct, a delusion, a fantasy that exists in our own minds. Human delusions can be good. The shapes=letters=words=concepts you’re reading now only work in the light of the delusional aspect of our minds. Borders and laws are delusions as well, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. There are some real “economic” constraints. Not everyone can have all the water they want to fill pools and water lawns in the Desert Southwest of the United States. That constraint is placed on us by external forces (nature if you will). But everyone there could have one reliable car, adequate housing, health care, education, and appropriate nutrition. In fact, everyone on Earth could have have that. The reason they don’t is because the constraints created by our own delusions = economics.

Science and industry work, “economy” has failed. It is time for us to come up with a better economic system.

 

 

Professor J. Blucher and The Problem of the Classroom

I thought I would share a funny story of what recently happened to a colleague of mine. The fellow in question, Professor J. Blucher, was recently trying to schedule a room for his undergraduate class, Mastering Sextants. This year the class, which usually numbers only a handful of students, had nearly 150 sign up. Initially he surmised that perhaps people were finally taking global warming seriously and had decided to brush up on their nautical skills. However, it was later discovered that, due to certain constraints in the new course offerings software, the class was listed as: MASTERING SEX. So you can understand how some people might have been lead astray.

My friend was now tasked with scheduling a room large enough to accommodate all these students, at least for the first class. I was in his office, admiring some pocket gopher bacula, when he made his call. I gather that he first spoke to a lady named Bethany. All seemed to be going well when suddenly Professor Blucher, who always seems a little lost but has his moments of lucidity, said, “I don’t want eight rooms, I only want one room.” After a bit of silence he then said, “I assure you ma’am, there are. May I please speak with someone else?”

Well, it seems, if I got the story straight, that Bethany was a bit of a history buff. Apparently she had been reading about a particular anti-bellum courthouse nearby and came across a mention of an old French law (from the late 1700’s) stating all government buildings were prohibited from having more than 20 seats in any given room. From this Bethany knew there weren’t any rooms large enough to accommodate a class of 150. So she must have first done some math and later said something like, “There aren’t any rooms with more than 20 seats at this university.”

Bethany handed Professor Blucher off to, maybe Carl?, I forget. Again, things seemed to be going well, Blucher even got a room, 515 Ferguson Hall, but then I realized I’d taught in that room and it had at most 30 desks. Professor Blucher mentioned this to Carl, went silent for a while, then said, astonished, “But it doesn’t work that way,” then, “Could I please speak with someone else?”

Well, again this is coming after the fact, but Carl was a senior supervisor. And as such he had access to the room profiles in the computer. So Carl signed Blucher up for the room, then changed the number of seats available in the room profile to 150. Apparently after Professor Blucher said “But it doesn’t work that way,” Carl replied, “I’m a senior supervisor. I know I can add seats to a room. ”

My poor friend, who is rather ill at ease using any communication device, was now visibly wavering like a parched man in desperate need of shade and water. The next person he spoke with was named Joan. Professor Blucher explained the situation: he was in need of a single classroom with enough seats to accommodate 150 students at one seat per student, etc., etc. Professor Blucher readied his pencil to receive a room assignment, then said, “Are you sure? How many seats does that room have?” Silence, then said, “Oh dear,” and gave the sigh of a man who has lost all hope.

Joan was going to assign Professor Blucher room 101 in Stephen’s Hall. Apparently, in response to his two questions, she replied that, while she didn’t know anything about the rooms in Stephen’s Hall, the building certainly was big on the outside, so she knew it had to have rooms large enough to hold 150 people. Insert “Oh dear,” here.

Suddenly Professor Blucher stood up, straight backed, shoulders square. He had a hard look in his eyes- focused on the opposite wall, oblivious to my presence. He said in a loud clear voice, not yelling, but with confidence and authority, “Get me a scientist!” It echoed around his small office. I’m sure Joan was nearly deafened.

The events of the next fifteen or twenty minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life. Luckily Joan was able to find a copy repair man and put him on the phone. Professor Blucher was a man afire, grilling the copy repair man on logic (inductive and deductive), observation, testability, falsifiability, evidence, and the pitfalls of tradition, authority, and guessing. He ran the man through inventive scenarios to test his ability to deal with rational evidence and discard irrational gibberish. Never have I seen a mind so quick and agile, poke and prod, teach and test. Finally, finally when he was content that he was speaking to man who could see the world through the eyes of a scientist, Professor Blucher posed his final question to the copy repair man, “How would you KNOW if a room had enough seats for accommodate 150 students at one seat per student?” The room went silent, I stopped breathing, time stood still. The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tiny to my ears half way across the room, “I would go to the room and count the seats.”

VICTORY!

Professor Blucher slowly lowered himself into his seat, his back still ram-rod straight. Finally he had found someone who was willing and able to use science, actual observations of the universe, to confront The Problem of the Classroom.

Ultimately a suitable room was assigned and the class size dropped to only a handful of students by the second week. Professor Blucher has returned to his passive, slightly lost demeanor. Sometimes, when I pass his office or see him in the halls, he’s mumbling to himself, running what happened over and over in his mind. What Professor Blucher had learned, but simply could not bring himself to accept, is that for some people there’s more than one way of knowing.

THE DUNG BEETLE: Cleaning up bullshit one idea at a time. This Week: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

We hear this all too often, but it is completely wrong. Of course it’s fun to say, mostly for two reasons: 1) it makes the speaker seem open-minded and wise, superior to the surrounding listeners; and 2) because it does that fun word flippy thing (which I’m sure has a specific name well known to literature teachers and poets).

Simple caveat: “Absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence” is absolutely correct. I think this is what most people mean when they use the other phrase.

Second caveat: An “argument from ignorance” is different beast all together. I’m interested in situations where good observations have been made, tests have been run, etc.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” —let’s state that a different way. Failure to find evidence for thing X cannot be used as evidence that thing X doesn’t exist. Let’s apply this to a real word situation and see how it turns out.

Is there an elephant on campus? We have no sighting’s, no prints, no poo, no damage to vegetation, no noise. If “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” then how do we comment on the probability of the presence of an elephant on campus? In fact, all we have is “absence of evidence”.

Now let’s try the unicorn. Do unicorns exist? Should I be scared of a goring when walking home late at night? Should we put aside some unicorn habitat so they can run free and mate and have baby unicorns? There is an absence of evidence for a real unicorn, so again, how do we go about gathering evidence of its absence?

All this does not mean, however, that later evidence may come to light and we must refine our ideas about the universe. That is an understood aspect of the Thing we call Science. But as it stands, if we go looking, and don’t find anything, then yes, we can use that as evidence (but not proof) that what we’re looking for isn’t out there.

Mike Solves the Mysteries of the Ancients. This week: Stonehenge

Here’s a way they could have put the big pieces on top of Stonehenge.

Let the giant rock lay on the ground.

Dig a hole in the ground under each end.HowTheyBuiltStonehenge

Build a giant wheel around each end so the rock goes through the wheel about halfway between edge and center. The distance from the top of rock, in this position, to the top of wheel should be greater than the end height of the bottom of the rock above the ground when it’s in place.

Put an axle through the center of the wheels. If the wheel is a clock, the axle is where the hands attach and the rock is at 6 o’clock, put in poles between the wheels at 9, 12, and 3.

Attach to the extra poles a trough that can rotate around the pole.

Fill all the troughs with rocks and water until you get even mass all the way around the axle. As the wheels rotate the troughs rotate to stay upright and don’t spill.

Roll the rock into place. In fact, it might be easier to place the top piece first, then set the bottom pieces and dismantle the apparatus later!!!!!!!!!!!

With the right kind of launch pad they could have locked up two pieces (positions 3 and 9) or even three (positions 3, 6, and 9), but getting them unloaded would have been difficult.

The Explorers Club: From Mountains to Mites

Visit an undiscovered country in your own backyard!

 

EquipmentCalosoma
String or rope 10 meters long
Meter stick
Small clear ruler with mm gradation
10x jewelers loupe
Dissecting microscope (30x or greater) (optional)
Note pad, journal, etc. for each participant
Pencils and drawing paraphernalia

 

Participants
Ages 5 to retired. Works well in urban and rural settings, any time of year, with participants of multiple ages, abilities, and skill levels.

 

Activity
Seek out, sketch (don’t photograph), list, and ID items at each of the scales below. Start with the biggest and work your way down.

  1. Decameters (10+ meters)
  2. Meters (1–10)
  3. Decimeters (10 cm–1 meter)
  4. Centimeters (1–10 cm)
  5. Millimeters (1–10 mm)
  6. Micrometer!

The activity can be done in groups or by individuals, and it is size/time flexible. For example, if only an hour is available, each participant could be asked to find 2–3 items at each scale. If 6 1-hour meetings are available, each participant could be asked to first find 10 items at the decameter-scale during the first meeting, 15 at the meter-scale during the second meeting, etc. If the exercise is long term and participants are independent the number of items could be increased greatly: 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 50. In this case certificates could be awarded at each level. For example a participant who completes the centimeter-scale could be inducted into the “Centimeter Circle” and be awarded a 10x jewelers loupe to help with the millimeter scale search. Those that become a “Millimeter Master” are awarded a microscope. Don’t make it too easy, there is virtue is completing a monumental task.

As items are discovered they can be discussed. Is the item alive: a plant, animal, or fungus? Is the item abiotic: a geographic formation, a river, a building, a lake? How do the big things affect the smaller things, and vice versa?

The overall lesson/point of the activity is help participants appreciate small things. Exploration is taking place, not by traveling to a different land, but by visiting the small spaces in this one.