unixronin: Lion facepalm (Facepalm)
Thursday, March 25th, 2010 12:22 pm

Crank alert!

Yo, people.  If there was a hitherto unknown green, verdant landmass at or near the North Pole holding a polar opening 890 miles across into the interior of the hollow earth, we would have seen it from orbit by now.  (Actually, never mind orbit ... intercontinental flights cross the north polar region every day.)

Remember, kids, just because you saw it on the Internet doesn't mean it's true ... and this is a classic example.  This is so crackpot loony it's not even wrong.

unixronin: Richard Feynman (Richard Feynman)
Saturday, December 6th, 2008 10:22 pm

In the interview in the January 2009 issue of Discover Magazine, Stanford's Professor Robert Proctor (who teaches the history of science) submits creationists' rejection of the Piltdown hoax as an example of good science coming from a strong, although incorrect, ideology.  I submit that he is flatly wrong in, at the least, his choice of example.

Yes, creationists rejected the Piltdown skull as a fraud.  They also rejected, and continue to reject, every other piece of data and scientific theory that contradicts their dogma that the Universe was created in seven days by divine fiat six thousand and twelve years ago.  The mere fact that in the Piltdown case, they happened by sheer luck to be right that it was a fraud, doesn't make their rejection good science; in fact, it doesn't make it any kind of science at all, because their denial was based on dogma, not on scientific method.  Their judgement on the Piltdown skull was made not for scientific, or even non-scientific reasons, but for actively anti-scientific reasons.  It contradicted their dogma, and their dogma was by their definition unquestionably right, therefore the Piltdown skull was automatically and necessarily a fraud.  It was not the "missing link" because, to them, no missing link could possibly exist.

Being right by sheer blind chance, one time in a hundred, for totally the wrong reasons, can't be good science — because it isn't science in the first place.

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Thursday, October 9th, 2008 02:16 pm

Wen the Eternally Surprised has a major outbreak of highly persistent warts on her fingers.  We've tried all the over-the-counter remedies, and they've been frozen twice with liquid nitrogen to no avail.  As a last possible resort while we wait for the dermatologist appointment (the dermatologists are booked up four months ahead), the pediatrician suggested we try something called "thuja", a tree extract.

Well, I finally found the stuff today, at the health food store.  It turns out to be packaged as a homeopathic remedy, in half-ounce vials at either 12C or 30C "strength" (read: dilution).  This is probably a good thing, as it is generally stated that the primary active ingredient in "oil of thuja" is thujone.

Now, let's stop here a moment and do some simple math.  The molecular formula for thujone is C10H16O, and its molecular weight is 152.23.  Let's assume, just for the moment, that oil of thuja were actually pure thujone.  (It isn't, but the assumption gives us some actual numbers to work with instead of ballpark guesses.)  Using our old friend Avogadro's number (6.023x10²³), we can calculate that a half-ounce vial — call it 14 grams — of thujone contains about 5.5x10²² thujone molecules ... before dilution.  But remember those cryptic strength ratings?

Well, it turns out that 1C means a 100:1 dilution.  And it's geometric.  2C is 10000:1; 3C is 1000000:1.  Doing the math, 12C "strength" is a dilution of 1024:1.

But wait!  We only started out with 5.5x10²² thujone molecules in the first place.  That means that, statistically speaking, there is a chance fractionally better than 1 in 18 that any given 14-gram vial of 12C oil of thuja extract contains a single molecule of thujone.

But wait!  It gets better!  There's a 30C strength!  At 100:1 dilution each time, that is an additional 1036:1 dilution.  That means there's roughly one thujone molecule for every 5.5x1037 14g vials of the 30C extract.  That's such a huge number that not only are there not enough 14g vials on the entire planet for any one of them to have a statistically significant probability of containing a single thujone molecule, but I think I can say with good confidence that there is not anywhere on the planet a 14g vial of 30C homeopathic thujone extract that contains a single molecule of alcohol (thujone is soluble in alcohol, but not in water) that has ever been in the same container of any size with even a single molecule of thujone.

So the 30C, and even the 12C, thujone preparations are pure alcohol with a slight chance, at the 12C dilution, of being contaminated by a thujone molecule.  But then even that is processed and made into pellets.  Well, you can't make alcohol into a pellet; it's a volatile liquid.  I'd wager those pellets don't even contain any more than residual traces of the alcohol solvent — I'd bet they're composed entirely of binders and other non-active ingredients with possible trace impurities left behind by the alcohol.

The essence of snake oil, huh?  So why do I say this is probably a good thing?

Well, you see, thujone is reported to be "toxic to both brain and liver cells", and is widely classified as a neurotoxin.  So aren't you glad that when you buy the stuff for your health, you aren't actually getting any of it?

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 01:37 pm

Will Wright talks about design influences on Spore (from Seed magazine, which as far as I can tell gave me a one-year subscrtiption in hopes I'd renew):

The science in Spore can be seen as the offspring of two seminal ideas: Powers of Ten, a 1977 documentary film by Ray and Charles Earnes that first showed viewers the zooming perspective of the universe described above, and the Drake Equation, a controversial attempt by the astrobiologist Frank Drake to quantify the prevalence of intelligence in our galaxy.  "If you look at the terms of his equation," begins Wright, "he's trying to estimate how many intelligences there are out there — how many stars times how many planets times what proportion of those might have life, times what proportion of those might become intelligent — but those terms end up spanning all these different scales, from physics to chemistry and biology, all the way up to what we know as sociology and culture.  So in some ways, Drake's equation is a really interesting spine along which to attach all the other sciences."

I scarcely know where to start.  So instead of getting sidetracked into a discussion of the idea of sciences having some kind of orderable "scale", let alone being able to hang them all off the Drake equation, let's just look at the Drake equation.  But don't waste too much time looking at it too closely.  Because it's complete bullshit.

Oh, sure, the statement of the equation is basically sound, as far as it goes, if you accept its underlying assumptions.  But there's seven terms on the right-hand side of that equation, all multiplied together.  How many of those seven terms do we have hard data ... no, let me take that back — how many of those seven terms do we have a reasonably reliable estimate for?


Yup.  The first term, the average rate of star formation in our galaxy, is the only term in the entire equation that we have an estimate for that is backed up by observational data in which we have some kind of confidence.  Even the second term, we didn't have a prayer of backing with actual data in 1960 when the equation was proposed, because we didn't have the capability in 1960 to detect extrasolar planets.¹  (Heck, it took us until 1930 to discover what we thought were all of our own, and we're still arguing about the exact number depending on how we define "planet".)  Every star in the galaxy could have planets, or ours could have been the only planetary system in the Galaxy, and there's no way we could have known.  And the remaining terms just get worse and more abstract.

So in other words, what we have here is an "equation" that yields us the product of one number in which we probably, by now, have some reasonable grounds for confidence, and six more that were partly or completely pulled out of someone's ass (or several different people's).  The Drake Equation can give you any result you want – just make up numbers and plug them in until you get the result you're looking for.

In short, the Drake Equation has no predictive or analytical power whatsoever.  And that makes it pure noise.  Any time you see an argument for the prevalence of extraterrestrial life (or extraterrestrial pretty much anything else, really) justified by reference to the Drake Equation, you're talking to somebody who doesn't actually know, but likes to pretend he does.

Poor Drake.  Astrobiology can scarcely even really be said to be a science.  At the moment, it's purely a debating club of "what if" and "just suppose" and "I wonder", and it'll remain so until we actually have some hard observational data to base any conclusions on.  Until then, astrobiology is like the possibly-apocryphal Greek philosophers sitting in a cafe expounding logical arguments about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth.²

In an ironic way, the Drake Equation winds up being an oddly apt metaphor for the development of Spore, as the article goes on to describe how, in the interest of maintaining "Spore's broader potential to teach scientific principles", almost all of the actual science got left out.  Science came up against cute, and cute won.

[1]  We're starting to be able to detect extrasolar planets possibly as much as a couple of hundred light-years out, now.  We think we may soon be able to detect Earthlike planets around the nearer stars within that range, and we believe ourselves to be on the edge of being able to detect known biological molecules in the atmospheres of [relatively] nearby extrasolar planets.  We still have no idea whether alternative biologies are possible, though, or what their "fingerprints" might be.  And the rest of the terms continue to be pure guesswork, based at best upon partial data with a sample size of one.

[2]  The big blind spot of the Greek philosophers was they were so convinced of the supremacy of pure reason that many of them refused to sully their hands with actual experimental data.  As the story goes, these philosophers were sitting around debating how many teeth a horse had, and were unable to come to a consensus, so they called in a random passer-by off the street to judge them.  The man, an Arab trader, sat and let them buy him wine while he patiently listened to all their arguments, then excused himself.  A few minutes later, he came back to the table and told them the correct answer, which happened to be a number that two of them had arrived at, although by different means, leaving the question still unresolved.

"But whose reasoning was correct?" they asked the Arab.  "Whose logic is the sounder?"

"Logic be damned," says he, "I've just been around the back to the stable and counted them."

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Monday, September 25th, 2006 06:38 am

A letter to New Scientist, regarding the recent article by Justin Mullins on Roger Shawyer's supposed "electromagnetic relativity drive":

Dear Editors,

I am forced to admit gross disappointment with the fact-checking on the article about Roger Shawyer's so-called electromagnetic drive.  To cite simply the most egregious of the problems with the article, Shawyer's device could operate as described in the article only by violating the principle of conservation of momentum.  It appears Shawyer has neglected to consider, in his calculations, the axial component of the radiation pressure vector against the conical side of his microwave vessel.  I have more than a slight suspicion that when the complete vector sum is calculated, the overall net thrust will turn out to be zero.  The handwavium about reference frames is exactly that: empty hand-waving, pure smoke and mirrors.  Relativity is not applicable here.

It's rather like the Far Side cartoon showing three scientists standing around a whiteboard filled with calculations, interrupted in the middle by the words "And then a miracle happens".  One of the scientists is saying, "I think you need to be a little more specific here."  That's pretty much what's happening in Shawyer's explanation of his device:  Relativity and reference frames are being invoked in place of "And then a miracle happens."  It betrays a complete lack of understanding of relativistic reference frames by either Shawyer or Mullins -- or perhaps both.

Still, I'm sure Shawyer could probably get the US Government to throw money at him and his device, just as they've been throwing money for ten years into the bottomless hole of the supposed "hafnium grenade" based on "nuclear isomers".  Even if the science behind that idea worked (which there continues to be no evidence it does), who but a jihadist suicide bomber is insane enough to volunteer to carry and throw a hafnium grenade with a fifteen meter throwing range and a five hundred meter lethal radius?  Perhaps more importantly, given that only jihadist suicide bombers are insane enough to use such a weapon, exactly who in the Pentagon was insane enough to think that trying to develop one could ever possibly be a good idea?  And can we fire him?  (Right now, please, before he approves anything else.)

I started reading New Scientist nearly thirty years ago.  Back then, it was a solid scientific journal for the educated layman.  It's slipped downhill since, more to the level of Scientific American; that is sad, but forgivable.  This article, however, is on the level of Popular Science; and that is a gutter into which New Scientist cannot sink, and survive.

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Wednesday, April 12th, 2006 09:56 pm

The most recent edition of New Scientist (or maybe it was Scientific American, at this precise moment in time I'm not certain) Discover¹ magazine carried a story which mentioned a researcher who was "simulating the tobacco mosaic virus in unprecedented detail to find out how it reproduces".

Um, no he wasn't.  Pardon me, but I'm going to be a little bit pedantic here.:  There's a difference betweem simulation and modelling, and they're not interchangeable.  Specifically, you cannot find out how something works by simulating it, because to accurately simulate it, you have to know how it works.  What he's doing is modelling the virus, and tuning his model until it matches as closely as possible the behavior of the real tobacco mosaic virus, then trying to draw inferences from the model about how the real virus does what it does.  This can be a valid technique, if you then take the mechanisms that you believe from your model to exist and check to see whether they do in fact exist, and work the way your model seems to indicate, in the real world.

But you can't use a simulation to figure out a mechanism, because you can't simulate an unknown mechanism.  You can only simulate what you already know.

OK, before anyone says it, "What about space-combat simulation games that simulate technologies we don't have yet?  How can that be a known mechanism?"  Answer:  That's not simulating an unknown.  That's simulating something where the game designers sat down and said, "OK, we're going to have this technology in the game, and it's going to work like this."  It's still a "known" mechanism ... it's just a made-up known mechanism, defined for the purposes of the simulation to work in a certain way.

[1] My memory came through eventually.

(Crossposted to [livejournal.com profile] snobss)

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006 07:05 pm

I was very disappointed to see in New Scientist, of all places, a full-page ad for a book by Anatoly T. Fomenko (an ad across which is "stamped", in large red letters, "SOLD 3.8 MILLION COPIES IN RUSSIA") titled "History: Fiction or Science?"  The gist of the ad is that Fomenko, self-proclaimed "leading mathematician of our time", "proves" that history as we know it is lies from end to end, and "demonstrates", "armed with computers, logic, astronomy and statistics", that the history of humankind is "both dramatically different and dramatically shorter than generally presumed".

(I'm awfully curious to know how you can prove historical dates using statistics.  But we'll let that go for the moment, because it gets much better.)

Among Fomenko's assertions:

  • All methods of dating of ancient sources and artifacts are erroneous.  (Interesting claim.  One wonders how he derived correct dates, since he can't have used any method, since all methods are erroneous.  Wait, I have it -- he made the "correct" dates up!  What genius!)
  • Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt were crafted during the Renaissance.  (And then, presumably, placed in their "correct" places in the historical record using a time machine built by Leonardo da Vinci....?)
  • Jesus Christ may have been born in 1053 and crucified in 1086 AD in Rome.  (Uh-oh.  Then what were all those early Christians worshipping?  I'm sure the compilers of the Domesday book in 1066 would have been greatly surprised to find that none of the Christian churches whose parishioners they were so busy taking census of actually existed, because the savior they were dedicated to hadn't actually been born yet.)
  • The Apocalypse was written on the Isle of Patmos after October 1, 1486 AD.  (Wait .... historical revisionism in the Bible comes as a shock to him?  No wonder the poor man's confused.)
  • The Old Testament was compiled after the New Testament as a rendition of mediaeval events.  (Odd how it doesn't actually match any mediaeval history accounts, isn't it?  Oh, wait -- of course, I understand: All those mediaeval accounts were actually written in 1920... presumably by Fomenko's father, following in his unborn son's footsteps.)

In summary, I suspect the only true words in the entire ad are the ones stating it sold 3.8 million copies in Russia.  There's got to be at least 3.8 million ignorant suckers in a country that big.  Gospodin Fomenko, I strongly suspect, is one or more of a complete charlatan and fraud, utterly deluded, or straight-out barking mad.  Mr. von Daniken, paging Mr. von Daniken, your dinner guest is here.

unixronin: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove)
Friday, September 23rd, 2005 10:32 am

A New Scientist article (available online to subscribers only) talks about caffeine and health effects, and in so doing, raises a broader question.

Perhaps the most notorious study came in 1980 when Thomas Collins of the US Food and Drug Administration linked caffeine to birth defects in rats.  The study sent shock waves through the drinks industry and led the FDA to warn pregnant women to cut down on coffee and tea.

In the study, Collins gave pregnant rats enormous doses of caffeine, equivalent to 200 cups of coffee or tea in one gulp, via tubes inserted down their throats.

The problem with this, of course, is that nobody drinks 200 cups of coffee at once....

(Go to [livejournal.com profile] snobss for the full post and comments)