Saturday, February 27, 2010

Science is Flattening

Science is Flattening, at least that what the Flat Earth Society would have us believe. 
John Lynch links to this Guardian article about the resurgence of the FES, which is actually a very fair and open treatment of the topic. Here is a tidbit from the front page of the Flat Earth Wiki:

Throughout the years it has become a duty of each Flat Earth Society member, to meet the common Round Earther in the open, avowed, and unyielding rebellion; to declare that his reign of error and confusion is over; and that henceforth, like a falling dynasty, he must shrink and disappear, leaving the throne and the kingdom of science and philosophy to those awakening intellects whose numbers are constantly increasing, and whose march is rapid and irresistible. The soldiers of truth and reason of the Flat Earth Society have drawn the sword, and ere another generation has been educated and grown to maturity, will have forced the usurpers to abdicate. Like the decayed and crumbling trees of an ancient forest, rent and shattered by wind and storm, the hypothetical philosophies, which have hitherto cumbered the civilized world, are unable to resist the elements of experimental and logical criticism; and sooner or later must succumb to their assaults. The axe is uplifted for a final stroke - it is about to fall upon the primitive sphere of the earth, and the blow will surely “cut the cumberer down!”
The FES is nothing if not ambitious. Their Wiki contains a number of interesting explanations of common arguments against the Flat Earth hypothesis, of which I shall present a few:

On High Altitude Photography

Most amateur pictures of the earth are not doctored. Flat Earth Theory holds that there is elliptical curvature from the edge of space, one hundred miles in altitude. Any photograph showing a curved elliptical horizon from very high altitudes poses no affront to FE.
Curvature results from the fact that on a flat earth we are looking down at the circular spotlight of the sun. A circle is always curved in two dimensions. When looking down at the circular area of the sun's light upon the earth we see elliptical curvature.

On Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor asks us which explanation makes the least number of assumptions. The explanation which makes the least number of assumptions is the simplest explanation. Occam's Razor works in favor of the Flat Earth Theory. Several examples exist below.

What's the simplest explanation; that my experience of existing upon a plane wherever I go and whatever I do is a massive illusion, that my eyes are constantly deceiving me and that I am actually looking at the enormous sphere of the earth spinning through space at tens of thousands of miles an hour, whirling in perpetual epicycles around the universe; or is the simplest explanation that my eyes are not playing tricks on me and that the earth is exactly as it appears?
When I walk off the edge of a chair and go into free fall while observing the surface of the earth carefully the earth appears to accelerate up towards me. What's the simplest explanation; that there exists hypothetical undiscovered Graviton particles emanating from the earth which allows them to accelerate my body towards the surface through unexplained quantum effects; or is the simplest explanation that this mysterious highly theoretical mechanism does not exist and the earth has just accelerated upwards towards me exactly as I've observed?

On Undersea Cables 

Q. If a cable company put down a cable its length would have to be longer than predicted (by round earth geometry) if the world were flat. If somebody put down a bunch of cables and found that they were longer than they'd expected, wouldn't they tell somebody?

A. But the cables are always longer than expected. It's just explained by underwater currents, soil irregularity, winds and errors in placement, et cetera. And somewhere in that is lost a mistake caused by a slight misunderstanding of the Earth's shape

This last one is actually quite testable. All it would take is a bit of data about undersea topography, the chord length between points on a sphere, and the actual amount of undersea cable laid down. I wonder if anyone in the FES has bothered?

[Coincidentally, the beautiful image on the left is currently on my computer desktop.]

On The Burden of Proof

Q. Isn't the burden of proof on you to prove it?

A. No. You're the one claiming that NASA can send men to the moon, robots to mars, and space ships into the solar system. We're not claiming those things.
You're the one making all of these fantastic claims. You're the one claiming that earth orbit exists, government contractors can land man on the moon, send robots to mars, and that we can do all of these amazing never before done things.

The burden is on you to prove these things to us. You're the one making the claim. The simplest explanation is that NASA really can't do all of that stuff.

If two people are having a debate, should the burden of proof rest on the shoulders of the person who make the most complicated claim, or should the burden of proof rest on the shoulders of the person who makes the simplest and easily observable claim?

In a discussion on the existence of ghosts should the burden of proof be on the group mumbling "just because you can't see something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," or should the burden of proof be on skeptics to prove that ghosts *don't* exist?
The burden of proof is always on the claimant and never on the skeptic. The burden of proof is on you.

I'll answer that. You don't get to be a skeptic just because you do or don't believe in something. Skepticism requires honest understanding of the facts; it requires credible hypotheses; it requires evidence that rises above a reasonable threshold of crackpottery. It is not the burden of the skeptic to explain to every crackpot why the pot is cracked. Indeed, answering an irrational query with rational arguments can be something of a fool's errand. That doesn't mean the skeptics shouldn't try, just that the skeptic is not responsible for the willful irrationality of the crackpot.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Coffee and Breast Size, the Saga Continues

 Improbable Research presents the latest in ongoing research on the link between Caffeine and Breast Shrikage. The real story is that in women that carry a certain allele (CYP1A2*1F, if i grok), caffeine plays a role in regulating a hormone associated with both breast size and cancer risk.

See Coffee and Breast Size at Improbable Research, or you can skip the fun and go straight the grounds of the matter (pdf).

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Deniers != Skeptics

Author David Brin has a nice essay up about the difference between Deniers and Skeptics of Human Generated Climate Change. Here's an intro:

What factors would distinguish a rational, pro-science "skeptic" - who has honest questions about the HGCC consensus - from members of a Denier Movement who think a winter snowstorm means there's ni net-warming of the planet?

Is such a distinction anything more than polemical trickery?

Well, in fact, it happens that I know some people who do qualify as climate change "skeptics." Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by curiosity than partisan rigor. One who I could name is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

(In fact, if truth be told, there are some aspects of HGCC that I feel I want clarified -- that seem to be poorly-justified, so far. I am an ornery, contrarian question-asker, of the first water!)

After extensive discussions with such folk, I found a set of distinct characteristics that separate thoughtful Skeptics from your run of the mill, knee-jerk Denier dogma puppet.

Here's the first one:

The first, second, and last, can be found at Contrary Brin.
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Space Elevator Oops

Tensile versus Shear Strength, from XKCD

Don't forget to click thru for the mouse-hover message!

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Arthur Benjamin and Mathemagic!

Celebrity for the math-geek, and some good advice for students (quoting from memory):

Arthur Benjamin: "The number of math courses you take in college is the single best predictor of your future income."

Steven Colbert has an answer for that too, but he always has an answer*.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arthur Benjamin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

* Always, except maybe for that time when Jane Fonda was on the show. ;-)

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