Category Archives: Science

The problem with materialism

Being as Communion by William DembskiAn article titled Astrophysicist Adam Frank: Materialism’s Fatal Flaw Is…Matter addresses the two greatest problems with thinking that matter is all there is. The first is consciousness. I have discussed it on this blog several times. The second is the increasing compelling idea that “information is poised to replace matter as the primary stuff of reality.” William Dembski discusses this idea in his popular level monograph titled Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. Dembski gives a short explanation of that in First Things here. I wrote about it here. As a corollary, Paul Davies has expressed the idea that the origin of life will be uncovered through information theory rather than chemistry.

I find both of these ideas both credible and incredibly interesting. The first, the hard problem of consciousness, is harder for me to get my head around and is a problem with which the greatest experts in the field struggle. The second idea, though, has lead to a lot of important work in a broad range of fields in the sciences. As a side note, I found it interesting that David Chalmers wrote Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, the article that started the consciousness firestorm while he was at University of Arizona and one of the main popularizers/proponents of information as the fundamental substance of the universe is a physicist at Arizona State University. Arizona State is where Christian is currently a PhD candidate doing all of his research in the area of Information Theory.

Evolution: Show us the numbers

Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed by Douglas AxeDouglas Axe is a highly trained molecular biologist (Cal Tech PhD, post-doc and research positions at Cambridge). He wrote a great article at The Stream about how facts get in the way of the (macro) evolutionary model as it is now taught in the vast majority of our academic institutions around the world. This has been known for decades and Axe calls out the evolutionary story tellers.

Here’s the steel-hard fact they most want to avoid:

The evolutionary explanation of life cannot stand up to NASA-style engineering scrutiny.

If you doubt this, please join me in testing it. Hand pick your Darwin sympathizers from the most esteemed places. It doesn’t matter who they are, because all the pomp and prestige of the academic world is powerless to change hard facts. All claims of Darwin having discovered the only scientifically valid explanation of life get torn to tiny bits when you put them in the grinder.

The response to this challenge is sure to be either silence or protest. There won’t be a nerdy evolutionary biologist who marches up to the chalk board and does the math that saves the theory. The math has been done; the theory undone. Nor will there be a lab test that shows natural selection to be a worker of wonders. We’ve been there. Too many tests to count, and the blind watchmaker never showed up.

It has gotten so bad and the fact that the emperor has no clothes is so obvious, Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities has written about it in his most recent book, The Kingdom of Speech. I wrote about that earlier (here). Wolfe seems to specialize in calling attention to false and/or base and repugnant ideas and people who are held in high regard by the so-called elites in our society. He does this masterfully one more time with the pompous Noam Chomsky and his take on linguistics as well as the false Darwinian zeitgeist of our day.

Douglas Axe has written a popular level book titled Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is Design on the subject, too. In addition, he takes on the idea that “regular people” just are not smart enough to understand why (macro) evolution did not happen. Axe’s article in The Stream, his book and Wolfe’s books are all great reads.

Sickle cell disease diagnosis project

HemexHealth sickle cell Anemia diagnosis deviceDown 7.4 of 60

After things started to settle down a little in our lives since the funeral, I had been trying to figure out what to do next. The folks were gone and the kids are on their own and are way too low maintenance for our taste (still going through withdrawal from their going off to college three years ago). Fortunately, I was recently selected to help a group of researchers at Case Western Reserve University and a company named HemexHealth develop a product with an incredible social mission. I really do not know much about how it all works (after all, I type for a living), but the product is designed to rapidly and inexpensively diagnosis sickle cell disease. I DO know how to do my part of the product and am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to such a noble endeavor.

It is going to be a ton of work, but this is exactly the type of project I love. If this is not a good hobby project, I do not know what is. The other thing it will do is take up enough time that maybe Lorena will fill some modicum of guilt about browbeating me into exercising so much. “It’s for a good cause honey and you know I program better with a belly full of biscuits and gravy!”

Succinct list of a few reasons why Earth is special

I follow a blog called Dangerous Idea that often has interesting comment conversations on a range of topics, many of them dealing with God and Christianity. One comment provides a list of some reasons why Earth, the only planet know to us that supports life, is very special indeed. I list the first five below, but you can read the rest here.

1. A star not in the central galactic bulge (most of which are “metal poor”, meaning they are incapable of spawning Earthlike worlds) – ours in nicely tucked away in a spiral arm.
2. A star not in the path of sprays of lethal Gamma radiation from the galaxy’s central black hole (which disqualifies maybe 1/5th of the stars in the Milky Way)
3. A non-variable star (the majority of stars are variable).
4. A planetary system capable of supporting stable orbits (most aren’t).
5. A planetary system with no worlds of Jupiter mass near to the star (Most of the discovered systems have such worlds. Ours is a rarity in that it does not.).
6. …

Gaugecam measures NC Hurricane Matthew Flooding

The following image speaks for itself. It shows the graph of water level from GaugeCam‘s camera viewing water level in a body of water near Goldsboro, NC at 6:30 AM yesterday morning in the face of flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew. There is an image that appears as you hover the mouse cursor (arrow) over the dots on the graph. It is an amazing visualization of the flood from which we are working on a video. The spikes in the middle of the curve are anomalies. On the far right side of the graph you can see the water rise dramatically.
Hurricane Matthew flooding captured by gaugecam in Goldsboro, NC

Social status and Tom Wolfe’s take on Chomsky and Darwin

The Kingdom of Speech by Tom WolfeI wonder whether I would really like Tom Wolfe very much in real life. I have always suspected I might not, but I very well could be wrong. My take on his writing is that he finds subjects that people out of vogue have screamed about for years, then very cleverly writes about those “insightful” things and gets many public accolades and lots of money. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is providing a great service and it is a good gig if you can get it. He started doing this with Radical Chic and has had many successes leading up to his latest take on the self-satisfied Noam Chomsky’s ownership of the “right” way to think about linguistics. David Klinghoffer does a stellar job of explaining it all in his post at ENV titled In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe Tells the Story of Evolution’s Epic Tumble. My favorite part of the article explains Wolfe’s game, seemingly every time he plays it–and it is a good game–exposing the pretensions of pretentious people:

Wolfe frames his story in terms of two pairs of rivals or doppelgängers — Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, on one hand, and linguists Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett on the other. As in every other book of his that I’ve read, Wolfe is sharply attuned to matters of status, rank, class — which explain so much not only in fashion or politics but in the history of ideas. In both of these pairs of scientists, one is the established figure, the man of rank and prestige (Darwin, Chomsky), while he was overtaken and nearly knocked from his pedestal by a field researcher of lesser cachet (Wallace, Everett), a “flycatcher” in Wolfe’s phrase.

Chomsky and Darwin “won” the game of science, not because they were right but because they had social, pop cultural cachet. I think that is exactly right. I think Wolfe has earned his place in society partly because he is such an engaging writer, but even more so because he, too, has the social, pop cultural cachet to not only say the emperor has no clothes, but to get people to actually listen to and consider the idea. That is something a lot of people knew all along. They  are mostly people who live in fly-over country and attended Big State U. as opposed to one of the Ivys.

Nothing comes from Nothing. Something NEVER comes from nothing.

Lots has been made about activist atheist Lawrence Krauss’s attempt to equate a quantum vacuum with nothing. Krauss was not mentioned by name in a post on a blog that is new to me named Popular Science in English and Divulgación de la Ciencia in Spanish. The author seems to be quite an impressive man with a long, very technical career as well as authorship of technical articles, musical pieces, poetry and even children’s literature. I am absolutely adding him to my list of blogs of interest. Here is his quote from the the article on “something” coming from “nothing”:

[Out] of nothing one can create nothing. Nothing does not exist, as we know since the time of Parmenides. As usual, nothing is confused with the vacuum. A vacuum is not nothing, because it has several qualities (space, time, energy, existence) that nothing does not have. Our current theories about quantum vacuum cannot be wholly correct, for they predict that the energy of the vacuum is infinite. Physicists solve this problem by a mathematical procedure called renormalization, a process that essentially involves dividing by infinity (which is forbidden by mathematics), equivalent to hiding the problem under the carpet.

Update: An insightful comment a day later from a blog that discussed the above post–

Even more basic, the quantum vacuum presumes quantum theory which is not nothing. In fact, all physical theories including quantum mechanics presume an existent universe of things. Physics is just accounting. It accounts for the correlation between things now and things later (or previously). It can not account for the things itself.

Michael Egnor: Ad Hominem Magnet

Michel EgnorMichael Egnor has been on my radar for several years now. I love the way he writes and most of what he says (latest example here). He is highly qualified to talk about the brain–he is, literally, a brain surgeon and a professor at a well-respected university (bio here). He frequently writes on the mind-brain problem, doubts the macro-evolutionary fairytale of neo-Darwinsim and disdains the idea that evolutionary theory as it is currently taught in any way informs the practice of medicine. The point of this email is not to write about the style and content of Egnor’s writing (here is a search on one of the places he writes in case you want to sample it yourself), but to note that people who disagree with him rarely engage with what he has to say. Rather, they attack his person. I have never seen anything quite like it. The ratio of ad hominem to substantive responses is greater for Egnor than virtually anyone else I follow regularly. So, next time you see his writing, if you make your way down to the comments or find a blog post or article responding to something he has written,  notice that about the nicest thing said about him is that he is a “creationist” (there is a lot worse), but almost nothing is said about the ideas he expresses carefully and cogently.

Juno

JunoJupiter
I have been having some very interesting email conversations with an old friend from Grants Pass, Oregon. Almost as an aside to those conversations, in an email he sent me on July 3rd, he mentioned he was excited about seeing the insertion of the Juno Space Probe into orbit around Jupiter on July 4th. The picture above is from the NASA website and features Jupiter on the left along with three of her moons. There is an amazing time-lapse video that shows four of the moons in orbit around Jupiter.

I have to admit I have gotten somewhat addicted to the whole thing now that it is on my radar. I can hardly wait until the “in orbit” videos start flowing back to earth. Amazing stuff.

Mocking Neil deGrasse Tyson

We, along with a gazillion other people on the Internet, have enjoyed mocking Neil deGrasse Tyson for his buffoonery. His self aggrandizing ways have turned him into such a caricature that thoughtful people pretty much just tune him out these days. Beside that, many people have realized that, all along, he is mostly just boring. Still, it is kind of fun to watch the mockery when he says something particularly boorish and inane. That happened again a couple days ago and the good people everywhere had fun with it. The links here, here and here speak for themselves. Enjoy.

Peer review

My buddy Andrew sent me a link that was so good, I have been saving it for a Friday to get the maximum impact. I do not think he will mind if I just paste it here cloth. Thank you Andrew, I have followed the twitter account and of course I am an avid fan of RetractionWatch.com–the site that tracks the people who get caught doing bad science.

I’m not sure who runs this Twitter account, so I’m not vouching for them, but they appear to post links to “peer-reviewed papers produced by the social sciences and humanities departments of western universities”… and their selections are simply ludicrous:

https://twitter.com/RealPeerReview

Apparently there was a different Twitter account that preceded this one, but it was shut down.  I think because the person running it was exposed or feared being exposed.  Here are a couple of articles related to one paper on “feminist glaciology” that the previous Twitter account put a spotlight on:
Knowing how you feel regarding certain fields of study in academia, I couldn’t resist sharing with you.
Best,
Andrew
[bctt tweet=”Ludicrous ‘scholarship’ that passed peer review in the social sciences.” ]

Who is the best arbiter of what is true?

Douglas Axe is a very bright guy. He wrote what I believe is a very insightful article about what amounts to be the priesthood of science thinks about mere mortals who do not do science for a living. He comments on a graduation address from a guy who gives advice to Cal Tech grades about how they might rebuild public confidence in that the scientific community. It is very interesting to me the guy does not have an academic doctors degree (he is an M.D.), nor even a masters degree in a scientific discipline. Beside being an M.D. and professor, it appears he is mostly a public policy guy who moonlights as a “contributor” at a pseudo-intellectual magazine in New York. With not a lot of scientific background nor close proximity to anything that is remotely like the general public in America, I am wondering how he thinks he might be qualified to talk on that subject. Maybe there is something not in the public record that gives him some knowledge that is not so apparent from the outside looking in.

Axe is a working scientist who is profoundly more qualified than the graduation speaker to talk about the scientific enterprise. He says some things that make one think he might have a much better grasp not only of science, but the caricature that much of the scientific culture of the day has become. The whole article is worth a read, but here is an excerpt from Axe speaking about his own graduation from Cal Tech back in 1990:

The “we” versus “they” stance that characterizes Gawande’s speech would have resonated with me then, I think. When he said, “People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs,” I would have understood the coded language. “People” here means mere people — those who haven’t been inducted into the superior scientific “way of being.” So, what are we scientists to do when those unenlightened outsiders don’t follow us? Using smaller words and speaking more slowly only goes so far, because “once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains — especially when they do not trust scientific authorities.”

Yes, indeed. People tend to be wary of that kind of brain surgery.

Maybe the better way to restore public confidence is to abandon the condescending mindset and embrace a much more radically inclusive view of science. Maybe the moms Gawande referred to–the ones who jumped to the conclusion that vaccines were dangerous — aren’t all that different from professional scientists who jump to the conclusion that public dissent is dangerous. Gawande gave five handy tips for writing people off as pseudoscientists, but instead of alienating people by dismissing them in this way, what if we were to view public opinion as the ultimate form of peer review?

Everything I thought I knew about the left brain/right brain thing is wrong

It appears the idea that right-brain people are more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective while left-brain people are more logical, analytical and objective is just wrong. It is a complete myth that came out of work performed by Robert Sperry, a Nobel prize winning neuropsycologist who got his undergraduate degree in English and his PhD in Zoology. I think Sperry probably did some pretty good work in his day, but we also got saddled with this left-brain/right-brain meme and a gazillion pop psychology books that are based on a premise that is almost completely misplaced. It seems like Neuropsychology might be a lot like Evolutionary Psychology and much of what passes for Neuroscience (see here and here) where it is OK to just make stuff up. At any rate, here is a great article on the subject from the Wall Street Journal. The following is an excerpt from another article titled Left Brain vs. Right Brain, Understanding the Myth of Left Brain and Right Brain Dominance:

In psychology, the theory is based on the lateralization of brain function. The brain contains two hemispheres that each performs a number of different roles. The two sides of the brain communicate with one another via corpus callosum.

The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body while the right hemisphere controls those on the left. This is why damage to the left side of the brain, for example, might have an effect on the left side of the body.

So does one side of the brain control specific functions? Are people either left-brained or right-brained? Like many popular psychology myths, this one grew out of observations of the human brain that were then dramatically distorted and exaggerated.

James Tour on Abiogenesis

I just finished a totally fascinating series of linked posts by and about a scholar from Rice University here in Texas on how difficult, impossible really, it is to make claims about abiogenesis based on the current state of human knowledge. Abiogenesis and the mind/brain problem are two of the greatest mysteries of our age. Honest people know that we do not know enough about either of them to even know how to to study them. I have written about the mind/brain problem on this blog in the past because it fascinates me. Here is one of my posts with links to articles that describe the mind/brain problem.

I have not really written that much about abiogenesis because it so far out of my areas of expertise. I have had a passing interest in the topic, but not enough skill or knowledge to talk about it coherently. Today, though, I ran into an article titled On Prebiotic Chemistry, Synthetic Chemist James Tour Urges an Admission of Ignorance that lead me to several other articles that provide what appears to be a pretty good overview of our current state of knowledge on the topic written on a level most laymen could understand. For giggles, you can see some of the cat fight that occurs when claims are made about this type of topic. I might note that Tour, who is about as good as it gets in describing difficult material to a lay audience,  is not completely innocent of staying in his own domain–he makes a a statement about whether Intelligent Design falls within the realm of science, a question that could probably be best answered by someone who works in information theory and philosophy of science, which are well outside Tour’s area(s) of professional and scholarly expertise.  That is a very minor quibble as the articles were fabulously interesting and informative. I list them below in the order I read them:

Information theory and content

We had an interesting conversation about Intelligent Design on the way home from church today. Christian’s research is in the area of Information Theory. I tried to explain that the presence of information was only half of the Intelligent Design equation. The content of the information and its contingency are just as fundamental to Intelligent Design as Information Theory which says nothing about content or contingency. I found a great article by William Dembski titled Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information that describes these concepts in terms that laymen can understand. Dembski starts the discussion of what he calls complex, specified information like this:

Given a means of measuring information and determining its complexity, we turn now to the distinction between specified and unspecified information. This is a vast topic whose full elucidation is beyond the scope of this paper (the details can be found in my monograph The Design Inference). Nonetheless, in what follows I shall try to make this distinction intelligible, and offer some hints on how to make it rigorous. For an intuitive grasp of the difference between specified and unspecified information, consider the following example. Suppose an archer stands 50 meters from a large blank wall with bow and arrow in hand. The wall, let us say, is sufficiently large that the archer cannot help but hit it. Consider now two alternative scenarios. In the first scenario the archer simply shoots at the wall. In the second scenario the archer first paints a target on the wall, and then shoots at the wall, squarely hitting the target’s bull’s-eye. Let us suppose that in both scenarios where the arrow lands is identical. In both scenarios the arrow might have landed anywhere on the wall. What’s more, any place where it might land is highly improbable. It follows that in both scenarios highly complex information is actualized. Yet the conclusions we draw from these scenarios are very different. In the first scenario we can conclude absolutely nothing about the archer’s ability as an archer, whereas in the second scenario we have evidence of the archer’s skill.

He goes on to extend the scenario to an archer who shoot an arrow at a blank white wall, then paints a target around it post hoc and why the information content of that scenario does not meet the criteria for complex, specified information. Dembski, who holds a PhD in Mathematics from University of Chicago has spent a good chunk of his career adding rigor (in the mathematical sense) to this proposition. No one has refuted him in any meaningful way although you can not tell that from what it says about Intelligent Design from its Wikipedia article nor other such agenda driven outlets. The article is pretty long but well worth the read for people on both sides of the Intelligent Design divide.

Betty Blonde #452 – 04/11/2010
Betty Blonde #452
Click here or on the image to see full size strip.

What is science?

There is a very vigorous conversation that is occurring right now in the world of “science.” I put the word science in scare quotes because the very thing under discussion is whether much of the research performed in Physics today could actually be called science. A long and very interesting article in Quanta Magazine titled A Fight for the Soul of Science starts out like this:

String theory, the multiverse and other ideas of modern physics are potentially untestable. At a historic meeting in Munich, scientists and philosophers asked: should we trust them anyway?

It has always been my understanding that if something is not testable or falsifiable in Popperian sense, it did not mean that that something could not lead to truth. It did mean, however, that that something could not be defined as science. Now, a group of scientist want to morph the definition of science to include untestable theories such as String Theory. A conference was held to discuss the issue and that is what this article is about. For those interested in this question, it is a very interesting article. I read through it once last night, but plan to read through it more carefully over the holidays. I am not sure what I think about this, but it is an emotional and important issue for people her earn their living in Physics research.

Betty Blonde #446 – 04/01/2010
Betty Blonde #446
Click here or on the image to see full size strip.

The mind-brain problem

In 1994 a secular guy named David Chalmers, then at University of Arizona, got famous because he characterized something that had been known and discussed for centuries. He described a problem James Trefil, a Physics professor at George Mason University described this way:

It is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.

In a couple of papers, he described why the mind-brain (spirit) problem is no where close to being answered in any meaningful way. There is nothing religious in this article nor is David Chalmers friendly in any way toward Christianity–he is an atheist. Much deeper thinkers than he had said this same thing year after year for many years, but for some reason, he got famous for it. Here are his articles and a lengthy 2015 article on the subject in the Guardian.

  • The Hard Problem (1994)
  • Consciousness and It’s Place in Nature (2003)
  • An article from 2015 on why there had been virtually no progress on the problem even though we know a lot more about the brain (what part of the game attracts us to gambling, the part of the brain that causes different kinds of problems, etc.
  • They even did a TED talk on this thing.

I even wrote about it in my blog.

It caused an uproar in the psychology, philosophy and neuroscience worlds, maybe because he did such a good job of describing the problem. People have been trying to find ways to work on it much more aggressively ever since. I say they have been trying to find ways to work on it because they are not really working on the problem itself because it is not amenable to science. They are just trying to figure out a way to work on it.

This is all interesting stuff.

Betty Blonde #430 – 03/10/2010
Betty Blonde #430
Click here or on the image to see full size strip.

The presentation at Asilomar went well

Eating lunch at Boston Market in Cupertino after meetingChristian gave his paper at the Asilomar Conference on Signals, Systems and Computers in Pacific Grove California yesterday. It was a scary deal being the first time he has done it, but it went well. Now all he has to do is enjoy the rest of his conference, visit a buddy at UCLA on the way home and get ready to go on to the next thing.

The picture at the left is one I took after church when we ate lunch at Boston Market in Cupertino before Christian dropped me off at the airport to fly home to Oregon. We had a great time. It was especially good to be “stuck” in a car for twelve hours or so just to talk stuff over. This is a trip we will remember.

Betty Blonde #420 – 02/24/2010
Betty Blonde #420
Click here or on the image to see full size strip.

Intelligent design in real life

$5 of coffee for free!An amazing thing happened yesterday. One of the managers at my work won a $5 Starbucks gift certificate for getting a correct answer on a safety question. In a classy move, he did a “guess the number” raffle with his team. About seven people participated. The number was 43. Two of the guessers got it right. We were pretty sure no one cheated. I was one of the guessers how picked 43. I picked it because 42 is the answer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I hate that pretentious, badly written tome so I one upped it to 43. What are the odds? My immediate thought is that my picking 43 was definitely not random. Actually, whether the reason for picking 43 was overt or subliminal, I am pretty confident the other two who picked it (the raffle organizer and the other guesser) did not pick it randomly either. But then what could be the cause?

Betty Blonde #393 – 01/18/2010
Betty Blonde #393
Click here or on the image to see full size strip.