A Positive Step for Science

A man holds a sign at the International Science March outside Humbolt University (Berlin) on April 22nd, 2017. (click for credit)

When I submit a paper to a scientific journal, it is reviewed by experts in the field before it is published. The experts might say that the paper should be published as it is. They might say that the paper should be published, but certain changes should be made to either make it more consistent with what we know or to provide better context for understanding the results that are being presented. The reviewers might say that the article shouldn’t be published, because it contains poor science or because the results aren’t important. This is the process of peer review.

I have been on both sides. I have submitted papers for publication that went through peer review, and I have been a peer reviewer for scientific journals in my area of expertise. Although neither process is particularly enjoyable, I think it is a very important part of science. Indeed, even though it is not required, I have all of my science texts reviewed by at least two experts before they are sent to the publisher. These experts often catch errors that I have made, and they also add valuable comments that allow me to improve the way I discuss certain topics. My textbooks are significantly better because they are peer-reviewed.

Of course, there is also a problem with peer review. It can lead to the suppression of scientific results for unscientific reasons. I have experienced this personally. I recall one paper that my collaborators and I submitted to a nuclear physics journal. It was rejected by the peer reviewers, and the journal said that it would not be published. We looked at the reports of the peer reviewers and showed the editor that the reviewers’ objections were without merit. The journal agreed to send it to two more peer reviewers, who both accepted it with only minor corrections.

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Sometimes, It’s the “Deniers” Who Are Right!

Nobel Laureate Dr. Daniel Shechtman
(click for credit)

Nearly six years ago, I wrote about Dr. Daniel Shechtman. He had recently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and I wanted to highlight him because had the term been popular in his day, he would have been called a chemistry denier. His own research demonstrated the existence of quasicrystals, despite the fact that the science of the day said (quite conclusively) that they couldn’t possibly exist. He faced a lot of opposition from his fellow scientists, even though all he was doing was following the data.

Although the term “denier” wasn’t fashionable at the time, two-time Nobel Laureate Dr. Linus Pauling famously said:

There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.

Despite the fact that the head of his own research group asked him to leave because of “bringing disgrace” to the team, Dr. Shechtman persevered, and he was eventually vindicated. Even though science conclusively said that quasicrystals don’t exist, Dr. Schechtman showed that they did.

I recently learned from one of my chemistry colleagues that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote an article about Dr. Schechtman’s story. It is called Crystals of Golden Proportion, and if you have any interest in chemistry, you might find it worth the read. I certainly did.

The article discusses the ridicule Dr. Schechtman received from his fellow scientists, and then it makes this statement:

Dan Shechtman’s story is by no means unique. Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions…Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character trait.

I have said the same things many times. Unfortunately, this obvious truth is lost on most people, including most scientists. If a scientist dares to question established truth, he or she is immediately labeled a “denier.” If you point out the uncertainty in our understanding of global climate, you are a “climate change denier.” If you question the “accepted” age of the earth, or flagellate-to-philosopher evolution, you are a “science denier.” As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences admits, however, the “deniers” are right in many cases, and established scientific “truths” are sometimes just incorrect assumptions.

Science would be better served if more people (including more scientists) understood this.

One of the Most Important Aspects of Global Climate Is Still Completely Undetermined

Proxy temperature record (blue) and this study’s projection (orange) for the Northern Hemisphere.

One of the least understood things about global warming (aka “climate change”) is how much of it can be caused by people. Several studies have attempted to answer this question, and they produce radically different results. Some indicate that human industry is one of the most important factors in how global temperatures are changing. Other studies conclude that human industry has a very small effect on global temperatures. Who is right? I don’t know, and I honestly don’t think anyone does.

How can I say that? Because I read the scientific literature and use the information I find there to draw my conclusions. The information in the scientific literature has little relationship to the nonsense that is peddled in the media and most of today’s institutions of education. The fact is that no one understands some of the very basic aspects of climate, and a recent study highlighted this in an enlightening way.

The study is interesting in its own right, because it attempted to use artificial neural networks (ANNs) to “learn” about how climate changes naturally. I have no idea how reasonable their method is, but it did produce some interesting results. More importantly, the paper presented a table that shows exactly how little we currently understand about the way carbon dioxide affects global temperatures.

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The Current Hurricane Activity is Not Unusual From a Scientific Perspective

NOAA’s GOES satellite image on Sept. 8, 2017. It shows Hurricane Irma (Caribbean Sea), Tropical Storm Jose (Atlantic Ocean), and Tropical Storm Katia (Gulf of Mexico).

Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, and hurricane Irma is currently pummeling Florida. In Texas, the death toll is at least 70, and so far, Irma has killed five people. In addition, two other tropical storms are brewing, one in the Atlantic ocean and one in the Gulf of Mexico. Reading social media and the less-responsible news outlets, you would think that this kind of weather is unprecedented. You would also think that it is all the result of carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming, aka “climate change.” While the human devastation is real and cannot be ignored, science tells us that these events are not unusual, and they are probably not related to human activity in any way.

Let’s start with hurricane Irma. Unlike you may have been told, it is not the most powerful hurricane that has been observed. In fact, that distinction belongs to hurricanes Patricia (2015) and Nancy (1961), which each occurred in the Pacific ocean. Their winds of 215 miles per hour are the highest ever recorded. Of course, Pacific hurricanes do tend to be pretty strong, but Irma isn’t even the most powerful Atlantic hurricane. Allen in 1980 had the highest wind speeds of any Atlantic hurricane (190 mph). Currently, Irma (with wind speeds of 185 mph) is tied for second, along with Wilma in 2005, Gilbert in 1988, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

But what about three hurricanes in the Atlantic at one time. Surely that’s unprecedented! Nope. In 1998, there were four Atlantic hurricanes at once. Indeed, three hurricanes at once is something that happens roughly every 10 years. Why haven’t you heard that? One reason is that all three rarely make landfall in populated areas. The other reason is that it doesn’t help with the “global warming is going to kill us all” narrative.

But surely global warming is contributing to these hurricanes in some way. Well, if it is, there is certainly no way you could tell that from the data.

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These Footprints Will Probably Inspire Some Impressive Storytelling

Two of the recently-discovered hominin-like footprints that are thought to be too old and in the wrong place.

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History tells us the story of human evolution as if it has all been figured out:

One of the earliest defining human traits, bipedalism — the ability to walk on two legs — evolved over 4 million years ago. Other important human characteristics — such as a large and complex brain, the ability to make and use tools, and the capacity for language — developed more recently…Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, between 1.5 million and 1 million years.

Of course, any serious scientist knows that what little data we have on such matters don’t support the confident tone used by the Smithsonian. Indeed, a recent study published in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association indicates that at least some of what The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History says is wrong.

The study focuses on several footprints (two of which are shown above). The authors say that the footprints most likely come from a hominin, which is a general term that refers to humans and their supposed evolutionary ancestors. Why do they think the tracks belong to a human ancestor? They state:

The tracks indicate that the trackmaker lacked claws, and was bipedal, plantigrade, pentadactyl and strongly entaxonic.

As far as we know, this set of characteristics appears only in humans and their supposed evolutionary ancestors.

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Trigonometry from The 18th Century BC!

Plimpton 322, a mathematical table that is thought to have been made about 1800 BC.

Back in 1922, G.A. Plimpton bought the tablet shown above from an archaeologist named Edgar Banks, and it has become known as “Plimpton 322.” According to an analysis of the writing, it is of Babylonian origin and probably dates back to the 18th-century BC. It has been known for a while that Plimpton 322 is a mathematical table that contains ratios related to triangles. However, there were aspects of the table that didn’t make sense, at least until recently. According to a study published in Historia Mathematica, it is actually the world’s oldest trigonometry table!

For those of you who didn’t take (or don’t remember) trignonometry, it is a branch of mathematics that deals with triangles. I was first introduced to it in high school, as part of my “college preparatory” mathematics education. One thing that initially struck me about this branch of mathematics was the fact that there were times you had to use a lookup table (or a calculator) in order to get the results you needed. I had never before done math like that. Sure, calculators made some math faster and certainly cut down on errors. However, for some trigonometry problems, you simply couldn’t get the answer without looking up numbers in a table or using a calculator.

Once I studied chemistry and physics at university, trigonometry became a pretty constant companion. In physics, you use it to analyze vectors, which are one of the most fundamental aspects of that scientific discipline. In chemistry, you use it to study molecular structure. Over time, I got really adept at using my calculator to solve trigonometry-related problems. Interestingly enough, however, this tablet represents a completely different means by which you can do trigonometry.

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Knowing Science Doesn’t Mean Following the Scientific Consensus

The study being discussed indicates that people with a strong knowledge of science don’t necessarily follow the scientific consensus. (click for credit)

Some people get distressed over the fact that there are those of us who don’t blindly follow whatever is advertised as the “scientific consensus.” The distress becomes so great that such people often have to come up with some kind of explanation for this non-sheep-like behavior. For example, in response to a 2014 poll that indicated Americans are skeptical about human-caused global warming, evolution, and the Big Bang, Nobel Laureate Dr. Randy Schekman said:

Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.

I read and hear this idea a lot. If you don’t automatically accept what the High Priests of Science say, you obviously don’t know or don’t understand science. While such an idea might be comforting to those who don’t wish to think for themselves when it comes to scientific issues, it doesn’t have any basis in reality. Indeed, some of the most intelligent, well-educated people I know do not believe in evolution (in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense), do not think the earth is billions of years old, and do not think that humans are causing significant global warming.

Of course, the people I know don’t necessarily make up a representative sample of the population as a whole. As a result, I was very interested to read a study that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors of the study analyzed the 2006 and 2010 results of the General Social Survey, which attempts to determine the views of the American people on a wide variety of issues. At the same time, it tries to get a general sense of each individual’s level of education on those issues. The results of their study seemed very surprising to the authors, but they weren’t at all surprising to me.

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Thoughts and Pictures from the Eclipse

The International Space station (the structure in the center of the image) photobombs the 2017 eclipse. (NASA image)

I remember the 1994 eclipse. I was on the faculty at Ball State University, teaching chemistry and physics. I told all my students about the eclipse, and when it came time to view it, I joined a few of the university’s staff watching the eclipse with welder’s goggles, pinhole viewers, and even natural pinhole viewers made by the foliage of the trees. As we watched, a few people joined in. Most of them had no idea that the eclipse was happening until they saw us looking at it.

Well, the 2017 eclipse was very different! Because of social media, a lot more people knew about and planned for the eclipse, so my Facebook feed was filled with awesome photos of people watching the eclipse, the eclipse itself, and the effects that the eclipse had on the surroundings. While I agree that social media has a lot of negative effects on our culture, it also has some positive effects, and the eclipse highlighted one of those. Social media has made it much easier to “get the word out” on a variety of issues, including science-related events that people can experience.

I thought I would share some of my photos of the eclipse as well as some better ones, providing “color commentary” as I go. Before I do that, however, I would like to just make a comment about how some people, like Eric Metaxas, view an eclipse as evidence for God’s existence. The argument goes something like this: the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 389 times farther from the earth. As a result, they each take up roughly (not exactly) the same amount of space in the night sky. Without this pleasant “coincidence,” a total solar eclipse could not happen. Of course, it is no coincidence. It is another piece of evidence for the fact that our solar system is designed.

While I think that nature explodes with evidence of design, I am not sure this is really one of those evidences. Sure, it represents an interesting example of “balance” between natural variables, and it certainly makes for an awesome sight. But honestly, it’s only four parameters (two distances from earth and two sizes). It’s not all that improbable for four different parameters to be balanced as a result of mere chance. In addition, those parameters are somewhat constrained, because we need a large moon for healthy oceans that can support life and a reasonably small, “gentle” star for our energy source. So while I think that the moon and the sun both provide strong evidence for the idea that our solar system is designed, I don’t think the fact that they can produce a total solar eclipse does.

Now let’s see some pictures!

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One Reason The Argument from Morality Might Be Persuasive

Allegory of Goodness by 16th-century Italian artist Jacopo Comin, who became known as Tintoretto.

As I have noted previously (see here and here, for example), I consider the Argument from Morality a very, very weak argument for God’s existence. Nevertheless, many philosophers who are much deeper thinkers than me champion the argument, and in many of the accounts of atheists who became Christians, the Argument from Morality was at least a factor in them accepting the Truth.

I have read several books and internet articles on the issue, but I have not read a single defense of the Argument from Morality that has been even moderately convincing to me, despite the fact that I do believe that God is the only source of morality. As a result, I have often wondered why the Argument from Morality has so much apparent power. One possible reason is that I am totally clueless on what makes a good argument for God’s existence. However, I recently ran across a study that might provide an alternate reason.

It was published in Nature Human Behavior, and it explores the preconceptions that people have when it comes to morality. The authors studied nearly 3,800 people in 13 different countries, and they found that in the vast majority of those countries, the participants were much more likely to believe that an evildoer is an atheist.

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Resources for The Upcoming Solar Eclipse

The 1999 solar eclipse as photographed through a telescope (and then Photoshop enhanced) by Luc Viatour in France (click for full credit)

As most people are probably aware, there will be a total eclipse of the sun visible from many parts of the United States. It will occur on August 21st, but the exact times depend on where you are. I received a question about how to best enjoy it, so thought I would compile some resources to help people who are interested. First, you can find out exactly when to expect the eclipse by going to this website:

https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in.html

If you put in your city and state, it will tell you when to start viewing the eclipse, when it will be at its maximum, and when it will end. In addition, it will tell you the magnitude, which is the fraction of the sun that will be blocked by the moon. If it doesn’t have your city, just add a comma and the full name of your state, and it will bring up several other cities in that state. Choose the one closest to you.

The next thing to make clear is that YOU SHOULD NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE ECLIPSE! The sun produces a lot of light; too much for your eyes to handle. As a result, when you look directly at the sun, the light-sensing cells in your eyes can be overwhelmed. If they are overwhelmed for too long, they can die. Even though the sun is a lot dimmer during an eclipse, it still produces too much light for your eyes. However, it isn’t as difficult to look at as the uneclipsed sun, so you don’t notice that you are overwhelming your light-sensing cells. This can lead to solar retinopathy, which can cause serious vision problems.

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