Saturday, June 27, 2009

Geocentists, UFO's, and other Stupidities

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity -- and I'm not sure about the former. ~ Albert Einstein

The reader may have heard of the Flat Earth Society. These folks insist that, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the Earth is flat. You don't hear much from these people any more, not so much because we have all manner of pictures and scientific evidence showing that the Earth is in fact round, but because their founder passed away some years ago.

I always thought the Flat Earthers were actually being a bit tongue-in-cheek about their beliefs, but evidently some of them were quite serous. When presented with photos of the Earth taken from space, they announced that these were actually pictures of some of the many "non-luminous" bodies between the Earth and the moon. They didn't bother to explain how something non-luminous could show up when viewed from space but never be visible from Earth.

At any rate, they have pretty much faded away, but it seems like a new group has leaped into the fray to take their place.

I received a brochure in the snail-mail a couple of weeks ago from a group that asks, "Have scientists been wrong for 400 years?" Now the obvious answer to such a question is 'No." Even without knowing what these people are talking about, the answer is "no", because no one poses a question like that when they're about to say something reasonable. So what have scientists been wrong about?

The Copernican view of the solar system. Yes, friends, it seems that ever since Galileo (the group ignores Copernicus altogether in the brochure), scientists have erroneously had a "theory" that the Earth orbits the sun. Well, these geocentrists are here to set us straight. The sun goes around the Earth. Not only that, but the earth doesn't rotate at all. It is a fixed point in the universe.

Remember, you read this revalation here first.

Their proof? Why, the Bible, of course.

Now it would be easy to lump these guys in with Creationists and others who use the Bible as their source of scientific informaiton, but that's not my point here. It's not that people take the Bible literally. The problem is that people are willing to simply ignore physical evidence and the reality of the universe around them. In fact, within the same week, I saw another example of this that has nothing whatsoever to do with Bible-toters.

NASA recently lauched a dual-satellite lunar mission, which, in a few months, will monitor the impact of it's rocket stage into the moon. This isn't the first time humans have crashed things into the moon. The Ranger series, the first photographic surveys of the moon, were designed to crash into the surface, taking pictures all the way to impact. Clementine and, very recently, a Japanese satellite were deliberately crashed into the lunar surface to study the material that was kicked up(in Clementine's case, to look for possible water ice). The current mission is the first where orbiting saltellites would be in a position to study the impact in very close detail.

So, along comes this guy who decries the NASA "bombing" of the moon, because it will upset the extraterrestrials living on the moon.

Just chew on that one for a moment.

I have nothing against the idea of the existence of ET's. Nor do I argue that not everything people have seen in the sky over the years has been adequately explained. However, I don't believe aliens drop in and kidnap drunken backwoods yokels and take them on joyrides around the planet before dropping the off again. While I don't believe every UFO sighting can be explained away, I can't accept any of them as alien spaceships.

And, no I don't believe in Bigfoot, Nessie, OgoPogo, or any other fairytale monsters either.

As Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinay claims demand extraordinary evidence." What bothers me is that people will not accept the genuine evidence before them while accepting non-evidential sources (like the Bible or mythological sources) or dubious evidence (fuzzy picutres and transcripts that can't be documented).

The Bermuda Triangle has been debunked over and over again, but people will still quote the transcript statements of the Flight 19 flyers that appear nowhere in the Naval records. They will ignore the fundamental fact that more aircraft have been lost and never found in the continental US (where they're sitting on the ground, for crying out loud) than have been lost over the Bermuda Triangle. Heck, they can't even agree where the stupid triangle is, as it gets moved around a lot depending on what ship disaster or reminant of Atlantis you want it to include.

And don't even get me started about Atlantis.

I've never understood the desire of people to ignore the vailidity of factual evidence or theories supported by reason and observation while buying into the wildest, weirdest belief systems. The Internet has been no help in this regard, because many people will believe anything if it comes from the Internet. There's no other way to explain all those folks duped by Nigerian 419 scams.

But, the Internet isn't to blame here. It just isn't helping make things any better. I don't know what the solution is, other than to do a better job educating our kids. With better education, it's possible that the people who are out of touch with reality will be outnumbered by those who have a clue. Trouble is, people don't want to spend money on education or support teachers who want higher standards (and the authority to discipline). If we continue down the path we're going, the geocentrists, the creationists, and the ufologists are going to get the upper hand.

On the other hand, the debate between the geocentrists and the UFO crowd over whether the alien planets don't rotate either ought to be hoot.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Not Worth the Paper ...

Science too often trivializes the profound, answering questions that are very different from the ones that were asked. To formulate a question suitable for scientific research too often requires us to forget what it was that we really wanted to know. ~Earon Davis

A couple of French astronomers with time on their hands and some computing power available have determined that it you tweak Mercury's orbit by very small amounts, chaos will ultimately occur in the solar system. Well, ok, and if I drop another planet in between the orbit of Earth and Mars, some bad things will also occur.

I'm not at all sure what the point of their exercise is supposed to be. Is this another one of those "had their been a slight variation in starting conditions, we wouldn't be here" scenarios? What is the mechanism for chaniging the semi-major axis of Mercury? And, since they were working in 5 billion year intervals, did they take into account that the sun will probably have gobbled up Mercury before it could pinballing around the inner solar system?

But the ultimate question is: What the heck was it they were trying to do in the first place?

There are lots of interesting questions about the solar system's orbital mechanics. For example, how did the asteroid belt come to be? Why didn't everything get kicked out of the belt by Jupiter's gravity? How did Uranus end up on it's side, and why is Triton orbiting in the wrong direction? Why do all the gas giants have rings while no rocky planet has them?

In other words, if you're going to spend a ton of time developing a program to model the solar system, why waste time fiddling with Mercury's orbit when you could be trying to determine the conditions that got the solar system to where it is now?

Well, maybe, just maybe because a couple of French astronomers were trying to get published in a prestigious magazine to enhance their own reputation. Of course, they submitted the information as a letter, not a paper, which I imagine avoids peer review.

Which brings us to a paper submitted by the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology (CRAP).

The paper, entitled "Deconstructing Access Points", was submitted for publication to The Open Information Science Journal by CRAP researchers David Phillips and Andrew Kent. And it was accepted for publication "after peer review", as long as Phillips and Kent supplied an $800 publication fee.

None of this would be hugely unusual except that Phillips and Kent were actually Phillip Davis and Kent Anderson, and their CRAP paper was actually a pile of nonsense generated by a computer program designed to generate phony research papers. The name of their "research" outfit was deliberately designed to send a huge hint to Bentham Publishing, the outfit responsible for the journal, that maybe their collective legs were being pulled.

Evidently, Bentham editors didn't care, as long as the check was good.

Bentham, of course, now claims that they knew it was a gag all along, and they were just stringing these guys along to find out who they were. Interestingly, the editor of the journal subsequently resigned. Evidently, he wasn't in on the investigation by his own staff.

Now, add these to the incident of the "missing link" fossil that was sort-of-but-not-very-peer-reviewed, and you have the makings of a disturbing trend.
The pressure to publish, as I've said before, is huge. There is a lot of competition for research dollars, and getting published is one way to get hold of them. The problem is that getting published may not require that what is published have any particular scientific merit. Or, as in the case of the fossil, it may have merit not but justify the hype-filled conclusions.

Then there is the reputation factor. Jorge Hirsch, self-proclaimed genius, has determined that scientific reputation is determined by where you get published and how often you get cited. Interestingly, the h-index, as Hirsch has dubbed it, gives Hirsch a very good rating. Even more interestingly, the h-index takes no account of the quality, validity, or originality of the publications.

What's frightening is that there appear to be scientists to take this nonsense seriously.

At least the attitude that publishing anything is all the matters goes a long way toward explaining some of the whacko theorizing that has become the hallmark of the 21st century so far.

It might even explain dark energy.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Making Excuses for Economists

Economics has never been a science - and it is even less now than a few years ago. ~Paul A. Samuelson

Any article that starts out with the sentence, "According to classical models of economics, financial crises don't happen," is bound to be a knee-slapper. Back in the Neolithic, after flopping at physics, I moved into Management Sciences, a very impressive-sounding way of saying "Business Major." Along the way, I managed to pick up a minor in economics, so I have actually studied the subject. And I can tell you, my professors could define any number of ways financial crises would happen.

The article goes to say that the study of economics could benefit from methods developed in other sciences. Presumably, they're thinking of string theory, which also has no ability to predict anything.

They're missing the point. It's not that classical economics can't function as a guide and make general predictions. It's not even that the assumptions of classical economics are all goofy. It's that the actual economic systems in existence today have nothing to do with real market principles. And until the economists and the policy-makers get that through their thick heads (or stop accepting bribes from the market-wreckers), economic predictors will make the weather forecasters look like psychics by comparison.

For example, one assumption of classical economics is "perfect knowledge." That is, investors know everything there is to know about the supply and demand of a product. In the olden days, someone could create a market panic just by falsifying a report of floods in Paraguay destroying some crop or another. If anything, the knowledge level today should be better than it's ever been. However, when markets are controlled by a few large players, like, say, oil, then all bets are off.

The funny thing is that people all blame OPEC for their control of the oil supply. At one time, their control was probably impressive. When one looks at the profits now generated by Exxon, BP, and Dutch Shell, it should be clear that OPEC is just along for the ride. In fact, if anyone ever decides to actual investigate the books of those giants, I suspect they'll find that they were the big players in oil future speculation.

In case anyone wasn't paying attention, it was overpriced fuel that began the so-called financial crash. After all, someone had to be buying those futures that someone (most likely the oil companies) was selling. When fuel prices got out of hand, consumers had to start cutting back on purchases and began defaulting on credit and mortgages. Meanwhile, the financial folks who had bet wrong on oil futures going up indefinitely, which would be most of them, suddenly got cash strapped when oil began to fall, and they found themselves on the wrong end of the oil companies short-selling.

Then there's the general business of monopolistic markets. Everyone recognized for years that, if you didn't regulate monoplies, they would put the screws to everyone. Now regulated utilities worked fine for years. The "breaking up" of AT&T into little unregulated regional monopolies was the biggest absurdity of modern economic times. Most of those pieces are back together, and rates are going up while service goes down. Almost anywhere in the civilized world you can get better internet service than you can in the United States. With AT&T pretty much allowed to do what they want, it's not hard to understand.

Note: AT&T recently shed the last bit of regulatory control Alabama had imposed on them. They celebrated by raising dial-up internet access by 50%. Meanwhile, they do nothing to improve the availability of ADSL, meaning that they have a captive market. Doesn't exactly sound like a free market to me.

Another assumption of classical economics is that investors will act rationally. I'll wait while you stop laughing.

There's two things wrong with that. First of all, a huge amount of investing is actually being done by computer models that don't do anything rationally. The programs just follow rules. In many cases, those rules allow for a market to enter a death-spiral because, for instance, a drop in price can trigger sales, which trigger lower prices, which trigger more sales and so on.

There are so-called "witching days" where all the financial computer models trigger an activity based on whatever conditions are programmed into them. There are times that several of these witching days coincide, with all sorts of volatile results, almost none of which ever favor an individual investor.

Back in the 1920's, everybody was speculating in the market. Worse, they weren't investing for the long term; they were looking for the quick kill. The result was margin-buying and hot-tip buying, both of which are recipes for disaster. Now, we have endless ads from online investing outfits that purport to give you sophisticated tools to do quick-kill investing. If there's anything that a rudementary study of economics reveals it's that constantly going for short-term gain is a recipe for disaster, whether for individuals or for businesses.

The other thing economics teaches us is that the small investor is not a rational investor. They got into trouble in 1929, which is why the SEC came about and financial institutions got heavily regulated. The idea was to keep the small investor from betting the farm based on whatever any huckster tells them. Then the de-regulators started having their way. The banks could be stockbrokers, the stockbrokers could be banks, and small investors could go nuts once again on their own. Which is another reason 2008 looked a lot like 1929.

We don't need more science in economics because we haven't paid attention to what it already has taught us. If we won't learn from economic history, applying some theory from physics to economics won't help.

Dark matter is bad enough; can you imagine "Dark Money"? It positively makes the blood run cold.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Missing Linkage

The evolution of the brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use. ~ Arthur Koestler

An interesting new fossil has been discovered that should have a lively discussion on possible hominid ancestors. Instead, thanks once again to the desire to publish quickly and the desire to make a buck by getting it on television, we have flawed science surrounded by a bloody circus.

The fossil is called Darwinius masillae, and it's 47 million years old. It is remarkably well-preserved and has been surrounded by hype worthy of a Simcha Jacobovic production. David Attenborough, who should know better, threw together a special program for the BBC, which I guess is the one that was shown on the History Channel. The National Geographic, who really should know better, whipped out this article, which was pretty typical of the hype surrounding the discovery made by Jorn Horum. The operative phrase in all of the articles was "missing link."

The funny thing is that no one could get hold of the paper written by Horum's "dream team", to use his phrase, to actually have it checked out by some experts in the field. Once it was, the hype began to die a prickly death.

Let's get something straight up front. As is pointed out quite correctly in this piece, there is no such thing as a "missing link." When people talk use this phrase, they are either talking about transitional species or, more likely, an early common ancestor of two or more species. But people, including many learned types, have been tossing around the phrase forever. The "discovery" of Piltdown Man really pushed the "missing link" idea into the forefront of public thinking, and it's been stuck there ever since.

Now, the use of an inaccurate phrase could be forgiven if the basic conclusions about the possible common ancestry to hominids and lemurs could be justified. The trouble is that it can't, no matter how many times they said it in the TV show.

What really stinks about this whole deal is that, once again, science has been folded, bent, stapled, and mutilated for the sake of television exposure. Horum, the star of the show, clearly has designs on becoming a media star. His employer probably got all glassy-eyed at the thought of grant money flowing in to support his coming researches. Sadly, a perfectly good discovery is now going to be ignored since it couldn't live up to the hype.

What is really sad is that at least one member of this "dream team", Phil Gingerich, had misgivings about the whole process. He is quoted in this story, which, by the way, does a good job summarizing the whole mess. Gingerich's says that there was time pressure because a TV company was involved. He says, "It's not how I like to do science." Well, sir, there was a simple solution to that problem: Don't do the science that way.

I have frequently complained about the nature of science and history programming. Sensationalism is what sells, not knowledge, so the more outrageous the claim that can be made, the more likely to garner viewers. The trouble is these viewers are going to leave this sort of program with misinformation, which will be retained because they don't take the time to check things out further.

Worse, it's almost a sure thing that the program will migrate from History to Discovery to the Science Channel, being shown over and over. If you don't think that's likely, just watch the endless shows about King Tut that still continue to prattle about assasination plots, despite the well publicized (on TV, no less) research that pretty much settles that Tutankhamun died as a result of a severe injury to his leg. Few if any assasins normally tried to kill someone by breaking his or her legs.

And yet, not half an hour ago, History or History International was rebroadcasting some canard about "King Tut's Curse", one of those half-baked "investigative" reports where some guy you've never heard of claims to have "solved" something that didn't need solving. In that program, they once again rolled out Tut's "murder", possibly making him the first victim of his own curse.

That's so stupid as to be laughable.

It's not that these channels don't come up with some good programming; they do. But, when you're claiming to impart serious knowledge, you have a responsibility to ensure that the information is accurate or at least clearly delineates which information is fact and which is speculation. Also, the programs need to be peer-reviewed as much as the research that inspired them.

There is quite enough ignorance and misinformation in the world already.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Mars Attacks - AGAIN!

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. ~Carl Sagan

Note: I published this originally in August, 2006. However, it appears that the marching morons have begun sending that stupid e-mail around again. So, in what is probably a vain attempt to keep at least one person from telling all their friends that Mars will be as big as the moon, here it is again.

The other day the son says to me that a friend of his has told him that, on August 27, Mars will be the closest it's ever been. It will be so close that it will appear as big as the Moon in the sky. Fortunately, the son said it sounded like bull to him, restoring my faith that he has some semblance of intelligence.

Of course this is bull. To begin with, if Mars came close enough to the Earth to look as big as the Moon, we'd be too busy dealing with earthquakes, volcanoes, and high tides rolling inland about 20 miles to notice what Mars looked like. Secondly, right now, Mars is on the other side of the Sun, so, unless Mars knows a shortcut, it's going to be about as far away as it gets from us on August 27.

How does this nonsense get started? In this case, we can probably trace the misinformation back to some correct information.

A Martian year is about two terrestrial years long. This means that, about once a year, we overtake Mars. At this point, Mars is as close as it will get for that period. But, planetary orbits are elliptical, so the spacing between them varies. If the Earth overtakes Mars at the right point, the two planets will be much closer than at other times. It turns out that on August 27, 2003, Mars and Earth got to their narrowest separation in 60,000 years. This was a boon to amateur astronomers with small telescopes (like me) because it was possible, even with a 4-inch reflector, to make out patterns and blotches on the Red Planet. Very cool.

At any rate, an e-mail began circulating a few months before the close approach which gave the information above and added that Mars would be very bright, second only to the Moon. Now Mars was bright, although it wasn't as bright as, say Venus, or probably even Jupiter, but I don't recall if either was visible at the same period, so the statement may well be accurate. Somewhere along the way, as the e-mail made the rounds, “almost as bright as” became “almost as big as.” And, boy, did this get legs.

I don't know how many people, aware that I like astronomy, stopped by to tell me about the huge Mars that was going to be hanging in the sky. I would patiently explain that, even at closest approach, we're talking a long way off. Mars would be nice and bright, but not very huge. Science sites all over the Internet explained this endlessly, yet the e-mail outranked the science.

August, 2003, came and went, but the e-mail carries on. All that changes is the year. It's still floating, but now it claims August 27, 2006 is the big day. You'd expect that by now, some of the folks who get this thing would walk outside and wonder where the huge planet is.

This sort of ignorance is not new, but, thanks to the connected world, it certainly spreads farther and faster than ever before. What amazes me is that people are willing to believe an e-mail, which contains those deadly words “send this to everyone you know”, is somehow going to tell them about a near apocalyptic event when normal news and science outlets have nothing to say about it.

What makes the son's friend's ignorance more poignant is the announcement from Michael (Launch that sucker!) Griffin's NASA people that, to make up for budget shortfalls, all science on the ISS should be shut down. Frankly, I haven't heard about a lot of science coming from the ISS, since most of the time the astronauts are repairing things and trying to stay alive. But, apparently, there is actually some research being done, and NASA wants to dump what little is being done to concentrate on manned missions to the Moon to build our launchpad to Mars.

What for? If you're not going to do science, spending billions to go somewhere to say you got there is a waste of time and money. There is so much to learn, especially about possibly escaping to Mars to escape climatic catastrophe on Earth. Yet the guidance from our leadership is aimed at going and planting the flag.

An oft-used theme in science fiction involves the fallen “galactic empire” where the technology still exists to flit from planet to planet, but no one knows how it works or how to fix it. Isaac Asimov's “Foundation” series tells it best, but others have dealt with the possibility as well. There are times I think we're heading in that direction, without ever even having a galactic empire.

I don't know why people think research is useless, even though they use things every day that came from pure research conducted at Bell Labs or that were developed to get us to the Moon in the first place. It's unsettling to see a trend to try to paint the original Apollo missions as just lucky, but that's what's happening these days. Much is made of the lack of computer power available to the mission, as though there was something else available. In fact, the computer technology used by NASA to make the missions work was beyond state-of-the-art at the time. Yes, it's primitive compared to today's desktop computers, but, thanks to the work done in the 1960's, we have those desktops today.

And let's not forget that the Internet was originally created for researchers to share information, first Defense Department researchers, then a more open network of university and corporate researchers. Today, however, the researchers have left the Internet to form their own network away from the spam, shopping sites, online lonely hearts clubs, and porn that the Internet has become.

So science is taking a back seat to technology. Worse, the efforts that got us here are downplayed at times on what little science programming is available. We're a society that loves whiz-bang toys and believes anything we read in our e-mail, but we don't want to have a basic grounding in the sciences that got us where we are.

This continuing ignorance of the importance of scientific inquiry and research is going to kill us yet.