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The Legislators’ Scientific Method

Via A Blog Around the Clock, the Anchorage Daily News reports on a polar bear study proposed by the Alaska legislature:

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon — researchers just have to fill in the science part.

Start at the end, keep going until you reach the beginning, then stop.

You know, you could save money and frustration if you dropped the “good scientists” part.

A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an “academic based” conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears’ survival.

Republican legislative leaders say a federal decision to declare the polar bears “threatened” by climate change would have troubling effects on Arctic oil development and the state’s economic future.

The $2 million is also to be used for a national public relations campaign to promote the findings of the conference.

And you could save money by just skipping over the “conference” part. A good PR firm can print up some nice brochures for a lot less than $2 million.

But the point is not to seek some non-biased measure of scientific truth. The point, said [House Speaker John] Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska’s interests.

“You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers,” Harris said.

Methinks Mr. Harris got through his science classes in school by getting a copy of the Teacher’s Edition of the textbook and looking up the answers in the back. He seems to believe that’s the scientific method.


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Straitjacketed by Reality

The physicist Richard Feynman occasionally led workshops at the Esalen Institute, which was attended by lots of people with “new age” ideas. The book No Ordinary Genius includes this brief exchange between a workshop member and Feynman:

You are an original thinker. I would like to ask you, how would you go about designing a miniature antigravity machine?

I can’t. I don’t know how to make any antigravity machine.

You would lick the world’s problems.

It doesn’t make any difference. I still don’t know how to do it. The game I play is a very interesting one. It’s imagination, in a tight straitjacket, which is this: that it has to agree with the known laws of physics. I’m not going to assume that maybe the laws of physics have changed, so that I can design something or other. I operate as if everything that we know is true. If we’re wrong, of course, we can redesign something with the new laws later. But the game is to try to figure things out, with what we know is possible. It requires imagination to think of what’s possible, and then it requires and analysis back, checking to see whether it fits, whether it’s allowed, according to what is known, okay?

In the case of an antigravity machine, I immediately give up, because my understanding of the laws of gravity are such that it doesn’t make sense for antigravity. The only antigravity machines, things which oppose gravity, that is, and which are very effective, are like you’re using now — a pillow, or a floor under your behind. Those are antigravity machines and they will support you in a space, above the earth, a few feet in this case, for a relatively unlimited time. Next?

See, there’s the bottleneck to human creativity. If we can just eliminate reality as a restriction, all sorts of wonderful things become possible.

Lots of prominent people have already managed to slip past this limitation, and they have been very successful, even if only in their own minds.

Airy Persiflage

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I read the news today, oh boy — that NASA will observe its 50th anniversary on Monday by beaming a Beatles song toward Polaris, the North Star. The song, of course, is “Across the Universe,” but the 431 light years to Polaris isn’t even across the galaxy. Gotta start somewhere.

NASA launched the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958, and that’s the anniversary which is being celebrated.

While we’re celebrating, let’s take a moment to remember the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on re-entry five years ago today.

Let’s remember the crew of the shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after launch on January 28, 1986 — 22 years ago last Monday.

And let’s remember the crew of Apollo 1, lost on January 27, 1967 — 41 years ago last Sunday. They died in a fire in the spacecraft during a “routine” test on the launch pad. Nothing is “routine” when you’re testing the limits of humans and their machines.

Apollo 1: Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee

Challenger: Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe

Columbia: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark

John Glenn, at a memorial service for Judith Resnik:

We hoped these past few days would never come. And for nearly a quarter of a century we pushed back the time we knew — intuitively — must sometime be, that day when despite all our best efforts, there would be a loss.

It has been my observation that the happiest of people, the vibrant doers of the world are almost always those who are using — who are putting into play, calling upon, depending upon — the greatest number of their God-given talents and capabilities. For them, curiosity is a way of life, and the quest for knowledge and the new is insatiable and exhilarating.

But it becomes many-fold more meaningful when put to use for a higher purpose, for something bigger than self, for a goal that calls on those individuals to dictate themselves to accomplishment for the betterment of our nation, and indeed for all mankind.

Let’s not forget all those, living and dead, who have given — and are still giving — their best for a higher purpose.

Airy Persiflage

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That, Nobody Asks

Via Corpus Callosum, here’s another way to handle uncertainty:

And the child asked:

Q: Where did this rock come from?
A: I chipped it off the big boulder, at the center of the village.
Q: Where did the boulder come from?
A: It probably rolled off the huge mountain that towers over our village.
Q: Where did the mountain come from?
A: The same place as all stone: it is the bones of Ymir, the primordial giant.
Q: Where did the primordial giant, Ymir, come from?
A: From the great abyss, Ginnungagap.
Q: Where did the great abyss, Ginnungagap, come from?
A: Never ask that question.

The author says we have lots of “semantic stopsigns,” signalling “do not think beyond this point.”

The stopsigns are up wherever the questions start to get hard. That’s where the most interesting answers lurk.

It’s not just the usual suspects that signal “no thinking”:

I know someone whose answer to every one of these questions is “Liberal democracy!” That’s it. That’s his answer. If you ask the obvious question of “How well have liberal democracies performed, historically, on problems this tricky?” or “What if liberal democracy does something stupid?” then you’re an autocrat, or libertopian, or otherwise a very very bad person. No one is allowed to question democracy.

I once called this kind of thinking “the divine right of democracy”. But it is more precise to say that “Democracy!” functioned for him as a semantic stopsign. If anyone had said to him “Turn it over to the Coca-Cola corporation!”, he would have asked the obvious next questions: “Why? What will the Coca-Cola corporation do about it? Why should we trust them? Have they done well in the past on equally tricky problems?”

The problem with blind faith — no matter what it is we believe in — is that we don’t even realize where we’ve stopped thinking. We’re blind to our own blind spots.


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That, Nobody Knows

Physicist Richard Feynman tells how his father taught him “the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something.”

The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and things that are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push on them hard. This tendency is called “inertia,” but nobody knows why it’s true.


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Moon Day

When the first live television pictures from the surface of the moon appeared on our TV screens thirty-eight years ago tonight, they were gray and grainy and, for a moment, upside down.

Even when that technical glitch was fixed, and the black-and-white picture was right-side up, the images were difficult to understand. The television networks had shown us ground-based simulations of the first moon walk, but they never showed us astronauts with reflective visors that prevented us from seeing their faces, and they never showed the lower stage of the lunar module wrapped in a protective covering that looked like gold foil, so nothing looked familiar in the pictures coming from the moon.

Bright objects burned their images into the camera’s video tube: when Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin walked across the moonscape, the burned-in background seemed to show right through the astronaut’s ghostly body.

That first moon walk lasted about two hours. Baffling as the video images were, I watched every minute of it, and only wished that I could better understand what I was seeing.

So I was thrilled, a few years ago, when a company called Spacecraft Films started to release multi-DVD collections with all the video and motion-picture film from the Apollo lunar missions. The Apollo 11 set includes three video options for the first moon walk: the video, just as it was originally broadcast, a slide show of still photos synced to the time each photo was taken, and a combination mode in which the video plays with the still photos showing up in little on-screen boxes. This third mode made it much easier for me to understand just what was happening throughout the entire time on the surface.

The Spacecraft Films videos are tailored for real space nuts. They don’t provide much “hand-holding.” They don’t explain the cryptic jargon used by the astronauts or the ground controllers; they just let us watch as events play out. But, particularly if you can borrow them from your local library, I highly recommend these video collections.

If you’re a real space nut, you will probably want to supplement the videos with the NASA Mission Reports published by Apogee Books, or go explore the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and the Apollo Image Gallery.

And if you really want to capture what it felt like to watch men walk on the moon for the first time, thirty-eight years ago tonight, you can stand on your head, squint, and view the pictures upside-down.


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Then There Were Two

The United States was introduced to the seven Mercury astronauts on April 9, 1959.

They were living symbols of American youth, energy, courage, and boundless possibilities. So it’s hard to believe that now there are only two:

Wally Schirra, one of the original astronauts in the Mercury 7 project, died Thursday at age 84, NASA officials said.

Schirra died in California, the officials said. He was the fifth American in space and the third to orbit Earth.

He was the only astronaut who flew in three of the nation’s pioneering space programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

The only surviving Mercury astronauts are John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.

Update: Wally Schirra never flew again after Apollo 7. Time magazine tells why.


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Forging Ahead

Via Boing Boing, computer scientists are developing software to spot fake photos:

Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth College … has created mathematical tools to determine whether a digital photograph was altered after being taken. His methods work so well that the Associated Press now asks him to scrutinize any photo that seems fishy.

“We’ve developed a bag of tricks,” Farid says. “Every time somebody tampers with a photograph, we try to understand what they did and how to detect it.”

[One] way to doctor an image is to piece together two separate photographs. For example, during the 2004 presidential campaign, an image surfaced on the Web showing John Kerry speaking with Jane Fonda at an anti-war demonstration in the 1960s, complete with an Associated Press insignia. Some veterans of the Vietnam War reacted with rage at seeing the presidential candidate sharing a stage with the controversial actress and anti-war activist. But the picture, it turned out, was a fake.

Forged photo: John Kerry and Jane Fonda

With computer software exposing faked photos, how will dishonest politicians stand a chance in future elections?

“Even after it was determined that it was a fake, people were still talking about Kerry at a war rally,” says Farid. “The power of the images stays with us.”

Oh. Guess the important thing is to get the image out there, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or fake. You can hear the Swift Boat crowd breathing a sigh of relief.

Airy Persiflage

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Who Can Understand Even One Little Bit of It?

My God — life! Who can understand even one little bit of it? — Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Some folks at Harvard, apparently.

Warning: the following video may be educational. It’s an eight-minute animation of the inner workings of a cell, down to the molecular level. Unless this is your field, you might not understand it all. I didn’t, anyway.

Some people believe the intricacy and complexity of the internal mechanics of life force us to one inescapable conclusion: that life was formed by an intelligent designer. That leads to an inescapable question: where did the designer come from?

Airy Persiflage

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Civil Liberty, Tolerance, Equality

The Scientific Indian paid a visit to the Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, D.C..


The quotes engraved on the bench on which Einstein sits:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion …

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

Einstein knew that the world is not pure. The United States he lived in was deeply flawed, but he knew there were places in the world far worse than this place. He knew he might not be free to choose where to live.

How do you suppose he would feel about today’s America?


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Everybody Has an Opinion

Via Framing Science, a Gallup poll about the effect of global warming on the strength of hurricanes:

[M]ost Americans believe it will be a decade or more before the manifestations of global warming begin to wreak havoc.

The only outcome that close to half of Americans believe is likely to happen sooner concerns hurricanes becoming more powerful. Forty-nine percent say this is either already happening or will happen within 10 years.

Effect of Global Warming on Hurricane Strength

However, there are major differences by political persuasion. A solid majority of Democrats say they are very or somewhat worried about all seven items measured. At least half of independents worry about six of the seven items. Meanwhile, no more than 49% of Republicans are worried about any of them. … [T]he average level of worry among Republicans is only 34%, compared with 59% among independents and 75% with Democrats.

What worries me about this poll is that, responding to a question that calls for considerable expertise, backed up with lots of factual data, only 1% of those polled offered no opinion.


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Corpus Callosum reports that the Union of Concerned Scientists has designed a cleaner car:

Automotive engineers at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) today unveiled a minivan design that shows automakers can build affordable vehicles with existing technology that would meet or exceed global warming pollution standards for cars and trucks adopted by California and 10 other states. Automakers are currently fighting these standards in court.

The minivan, dubbed the UCS Vanguard, features off-the-shelf engine, transmission and fueling systems and other technologies that would save consumers money, maintain vehicle safety and performance, and cut global warming pollution by more than 40 percent. All of the technologies in the Vanguard are in vehicles on the road today, but automakers have yet to combine them all in one single package.

Joseph at Corpus Callosum says:

[I]t is simply a proof-of-concept. Or more accurately, a disproof-of-concept: it disproves the notion that it is impossible to design a car that meets tougher standards.

That, of course, just makes the auto companies mad.

In the absence of federal policies to curb global warming emissions from vehicles, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have adopted the California clean car standard. Several other states, including Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas, are considering or about to adopt the standard. Combined, these states represent nearly half the U.S population.

In response, auto industry trade groups have filed lawsuits in California, Rhode Island and Vermont to block implementation.

“The automakers are sticking to their traditional ‘can’t do’ philosophy,” said David Friedman, clean vehicles research director at UCS. “Years ago they cried the sky was falling when they were required to install seat belts and airbags. Now, instead of building cleaner vehicles like the Vanguard, they’re fighting global warming pollution laws in the courts. To get the job done, they should bench their lawyers and call in the engineers.”

Nah. Lawyers take orders. The engineers mostly seem to have a chip on their shoulders. Something about “reality,” whatever that is.


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From Deep Sea News: Global warming may be a terrible thing, but you can’t say the pictures aren’t cool.

Iceberg with columns

The image at the linked site is big — 1600 by 1200 pixels — but you’ll have to download it to see it at full size. The photo credit is: Craig R. McClain, Iceberg in Weddell Sea taken from the deck of R/V Polarstern.

Airy Persiflage

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Different Ways of Thinking

In two blog entries (one and two) Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel discusses the difference between scientific and non-scientific thinking.

First, here’s the process that no one thinks is a good description of how to come to a scientific conclusion:

Flowchart of belief

Believing something doesn’t make it so. Science is an endeavor that is not concerned with what a person believes about the world but instead with what one can establish about the world, usually on the basis of empirical evidence.

The second drawing is based on the late Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of science.

Popper didn’t see the problem of induction — that inductive inferences drawn from limited data could go wrong — as something that could be “solved”. However, he thought that the methodology of science avoided the problem by not identifying conclusions arrived at through inductive inference as “knowledge” in the strong sense of “there is no way this could fail to be true”. Here’s Popper’s picture of the process of building scientific knowledge:

Flowchart of scientific knowledge

Notice that Popper doesn’t think it matters all that much where your hypothesis P comes from. Maybe it comes from lots of poking around and observing your phenomena. Maybe it comes from that recurring nightmare of the snake biting his own tail. It’s not important. The thing that can make P a respectable scientific claim is that it is tested in the right kind of way.

In an earlier discussion of Popper, Stemwedel wrote:

The big difference Popper identifies between science and pseudo-science is a difference in attitude. While a pseudo-science is set up to look for evidence that supports its claims, Popper says, a science is set up to challenge its claims and look for evidence that might prove it false. In other words, pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications.

No wonder some politicians are at war with science. A big bag of hot air might not carry you very high if you keep looking for ways to poke holes in it.


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New Facts

What do you do when the facts don’t support your conclusions?

You get new facts, of course!

Ladies and gentlemen, the Conservapedia.

On unicorns:

The existence of unicorns is controversial. Secular opinion is that they are mythical. However, they are referred to in the Bible nine times, which provides an unimpeachable de facto argument for their once having been in existence.

On kangaroos:

After the Flood, kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land — as Australia was still for a time connected to the Middle East before the supercontinent of Pangea broke apart — or if they rafted on mats of vegetation torn up by the receding flood waters.

On the cactus:

Cacti are known for their high content of alkaloids, and have often been used in the sacramental rights of the Native Americans. Because of this, the early Catholic missionaries in the west thought the plants to be the work of Satan, and this is perhaps a preferable view to that of materialistic evolution since it is difficult to imagine how something like mescaline could have evolved by natural selection. Besides that, the psychoactive content of many cacti have inspired the writings of such ungodly men as Aldous Huxley and Albert Hoffman.

The entire entry on the Stone Age:

The Stone age is the prehistoric time before the Age of Metal. It is divided into two parts; Paleolithic and Neolithic. During the Paleolithic age, man harvested wild plants and animals for food. Agriculture began in the Neolithic age. The dates of the Stone age are debated. Biased historians often give older dates than can be proven by archaeology.

An early entry on the Theory of Relativity:

This theory rejects Isaac Newton’s God-given theory of gravitation and replaces it with a concept that there is a continuum of space and time, and that large masses (like the sun) bend space in a manner similar to how a finger can depress an area of a balloon. From this proposed bending of space the expression arose that “space is curved.” But experiments later proved that space is flat overall.

Nothing useful has even been built based on the theory of relativity. Scientists claim that this is because relativity only applies to extremely heavy or fast objects and rely on future scientists to finally come up with the proof that will vindicate their life’s work. Most conservatives are skeptical since science is supposed to be about finding proof before a theory becomes a fact, not after.

I found Conservapedia via a lot of blogs at ScienceBlogs, and found links to specific entries on many different blogs.