The future of science is… losing its reliability?

Unfortunately, almost none of my scientist friends will be bothered to read these articles. As a scientist though, it is important to acknowledge and confront problems in the field, not stick your head in the sand and your fingers in your ears.

So if you’re a scientist, do read this, think about it, and try whatever little you can to change it. The core of science – its trustworthiness – is at stake.

The main article in the Economist

Comment on the above article, also in the Economist

What’s wrong with the ‘left-wing’ newspapers recently?

Putting a DENT in Independent: in one week, Independent publishes outlandish attack on “new atheists” for their being “Islamophobic” and follows this up by giving a free, unedited, unbalanced platform to Andrew Wakefield, utterly discredited and dangerous MMR scare lunatic. Comments not allowed (anymore in either of the articles either.

The Guardian going down the same road, publishing one attack on new atheism after the other and publishing an uncritical “science” piece about a clearly bogus “remote hepatitis C detector”.

What is it about left-wing newspapers lately? Is it the humanities graduates running them? Who never learned to think critically? Who think that in every debate there are two, equally worthy, sides? There’s no need to suck up to religion, superstition and other woo. Leave it, please.

Jupiter + Venus… + the Moon!

Ah yes, another good night for stargazing and astrophotography. Slightly hazy, often actually helps as it means the atmosphere is calm.

Without further ado I present my trophy pictures for the night. The first is of the lovely triangle formed by Venus (top), Jupiter (bottom left) and the Moon.

(click to full size)

Unfortunately because Venus is so far up, this is zoomed-out far enough that the moons of Jupiter are not visible. Still a really nice shot, I think, especially getting all three objects within the dynamic range of a single exposure.

Zooming then – and helpfully using auto-focus on the moon, often a good trick when the moon is up – got this image off of the Moon and Jupiter being nice and close. Again this is from a single exposure, I like seeing the disk of the moon, I also like that this image displays objects so disparate in brightness as two of Jupiter’s Galilean moons and the moon, whilst retaining details (craters on the day/night border) on the moon. This would be my favourite shot of this night, despite Venus not being in it.

(click to full size)

For those too lazy to zoom in fully, here’s tonight’s close-up of Jupiter, this time only two moons visible, grmpf, lol two moons are easily visible below Jupiter: Ganymede closest and Callisto further out, and as I was informed by Stellarium, the two tiny tiny specks just top left of Jupiter (!) are, in fact, the other two moons, Europa just a little to the left of Io. Intat amayzing? I think so!

I’ve got a set of around 40-odd photos, some may be good for stacking and making into a composite, ‘astro-HDR’-like image. Unfortunately, I don’t have time for that tonight. Also, tomorrow the moon should be close to Venus, so I’ll have another go at getting some nice shots – although Venus isn’t as interesting as Jupiter, having no moons and all that. But I will have a go at the remaining photos, watch this space! Until then, enjoy these :).

Jupiter + Venus

You live, you learn (by trying)

A few years back (Nov 2008), Venus and Jupiter were also in conjunction. Back then, I just had my DSLR for a few weeks, knew buggerall about exposures, used the wrong lens and no tripod, and so my photos came out utter shit:

Venus + Jupiter not really in focus and weak









Jupiter, sharp nor clear, and no moons for sure

Later, I managed to get a decent shot of Jupiter plus its moons, however the quality (…lack thereof) of my telelens was not really up to scratch.

Not quite really in focus nor sharp, but for the record, Calisto is the moon to the left, and then to the right are Io, Europa, and Ganymede.

But now, I has learned! And I has a better telelens. So now, with another Jupiter + Venus conjunction, I managed to get this after just a few attempts – I could have optimised with a few dozen more photos with micro-adjustments in the manual focus but… meh.

This time, pretty good!

If you look close at this (click to open the full size), you will already see the four Galilean moons next to Jupiter (left). Zooming in a bit more, but as said, without much optimisation, this is what I got:

Not perfect but it will do! (from top left to bottom right the moons are Ganymede and Calisto further out and Io and Europa closer)

Wonders of the Solar System

The one thing that always fills me with wonder when seeing the four major moons of Jupiter, is to realise that one night, a few hundred years ago, Galileo was the first human to ever see this. To realise that I can replicate that, I can see what he saw (it works with a good set of binoculars, too), with just some stuff I bought for not a lot of money in a camera shop, is just… wow :).

Hope you like it too!

A comment on ‘nonmaterialistic’ science

I has commented on this rather shit opinion piece slash interview in the Guardian, who seem to be drifting into hippie-ish woo-woo lately (see also their silly support for building a Temple to Atheism, or whatever). This is what I said, I think it holds true in general so I’m putting it on my blog.

Oh dear. Two things.

First, there’s really no such thing as “scientific dogma”. <- That is a contradiction in terms. People and religions have dogmas, science doesn’t. Anybody can come up with a better theory of something unexplained, and if supported by experiment and observation, science will change its mind.

The reason there appears to be ‘dogma’ is that often a current scientific theory is based on numerous observations, and to be overturned, you often need again numerous observations. But as an example of ‘nondogma’ I would like anybody to look up the ‘experiment’ of the lightbeams of stars being bent around the sun during an eclipse in what, 1905? which was predicted by the newfangled Theory of Relativity of one Einstein, which in one fell swoop overturned what some ignoramuses would consider ‘dogma’. Science one, dogma nil.

Second, it is rather funny that science is accused here of not knowing something (the nature of dark matter) when science has 1) made the instruments to observe the universe, 2) measured dictances and speeds highly accurately across this universe, 3) invented theories that by and large accurately predict most of what is observed (see above as one example; look up the discovery of cosmic background radiation as another) 4) then – of its own accord! – found something at odds, admitted as much publicly, and then 5) tentatively suggested a working hypothesis to explain these observations, without resorting to rediculous explanations involving aliens or gods.

Nothing here has been thanks to these oh-we-are-so-clever ‘antimaterialists’ currently so highly regarded by, amongst others, The Grauniad.

Antimaterialism, at base, is non-falsifiable and therefore nonscientific.

Straw Dogs, a really REALLY poor book

Change of plan

Now, I was going to sort-of take apart the first few pages of this book line-by-line. However, after reading a few more pages – amusing in the same way that watching a car crash unfold on one of those police chase series is – I’ve decided to change that. (Because I’d already written that and I don’t like the fruits of my labour go to waste, I’ve put that part below the fold, just in case someone is curious.) The author, John Gray, just keeps repeating a handful of arguments, based on his wrong assumptions (either deliberately or because of ignorance).

Instead I’ll just point out the three (maybe four) things that are wrong with this book, before admitting that I do share one concern with the author.

1. He misrepresents humanism

Looking for salvation? Really?

Gray somehow has the idea that humanism is a post-Christian Quest For Salvation, preoccupied with liberating humans from the shackles that keep other animals down and aimed at realising some sort of Utopian Paradise On Earth.

Now I’ve read quite a bit about humanism, and by humanist authors – and I’ve never read anything that points towards such a quest, or paradise.

In my experience, to the vast majority of humanists, humanism means living a good, moral life without the need for supernatural beings or religious, dogmatic rules. If I pick up the latest copy of the British Humanist Association magazine, one random staff member says that to her, the most important thing of being a humanist is ‘living a good, rational life without the need for god or superstition’ and she says she supports campaigns ‘to ensure everyone is free from discrimination, on grounds of belief or any other aspect’.

Other items in the magazine cover topics such as protesting the pope’s visit to the UK, comments on homeopathy, reforming the House of Lords, sex & relationship education in the school curriculums, and comments on the government’s plans for religious education. All very much down-to-earth with not a trace of this Quest For Salvation that Gray tries to portray.

It barely needs pointing out that equating the christian salvation – gained after death by entry into an eternal kingdom of heaven and by virtue of adhering to a set of religious rules – can in no way be compared to any humanist endeavour – which would always be aimed at the here and now, with rules flexible by definition, and not aimed at pleasing a non-existent deity but fellow humans (and often animals, which brings me to the next point).

Humans versus animals? Really?

On top of that he portrays humanism as somehow putting humans ‘above’ other animals and creating some ‘conflict’ between them. Again, funny that, but the most staunch defenders of animal rights tend to be humanists and assorted rationalists – correct me if you’ve got evidence to the contrary.

The various world religions all provide handy phrases that put humans above other animals; anyway all of them say it’s OK to eat animals (how about the animals’ right to live?).

In contrast, it is precisely because humanists free themselves from these dogmas ,and they know about Darwin (see below) that they can see animals as related and therefore worth giving rights to.

2. He misrepresents ‘Darwinism’

‘Darwinism’? Really?

To start off grumpy, there still is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’ – just like there is no ‘Galileism’ to describe planetary motion or ‘Einsteinism’ as a synonym for relativity. However it seems it’s increasingly common for people either pro or contra evolution to use this term, so I have to forgive the author formally

‘Darwinism’ is actually meant to provide our lives with meaning? Really?

Unfortunately his use of the term seems deliberate (whereas in everyday use it is just a ‘mimic’, because people pick it up from teh interwebs or their peers), because to Gray, Darwinism is not the scientific theory that explains how lifeforms came to be. Instead it is just another way of looking at the world, giving meaning to our place in it; he makes direct comparisons to Shintoism and animism (to which I shall return in a bit).

I can’t even begin to explain how WRONG that view is. In fact, Darwin’s theory couldn’t be further removed from the mystical hand-waving of these religious worldviews and ‘explanations’ of our place in it all – and ‘after Darwin’ they made no sense anymore – so to lump it in with them shows that the author just doesn’t have a clue.

3. He misrepresents science

It’s not just ‘Darwinism’ he gets wrong, it’s science in general.

Science is EVIL, don't you KNOW!?

Humanism versus science? Really?

This one just has me baffled. I honestly don’t know where he gets the crazy idea from that these two are somehow at odds with each other. Science has always been the main ally, or tool, for humanism in the fight against religion.

(And since Gray tries to portray both humanism and science as faiths, he should even reach the conclusion they are two of a kind :p.)

Science is a faith? What the…?

In another amazing feat of mental acrobatics, gray represents science as a faith, including him using the eternal ‘scientific fundamentalists’ (that is getting sooooo tiring, it having been used by creationists, climate change sceptics, alternative medicine proponents and who else).

Like he does with humanism (see the bit below the fold), he basically redefines science to fit his terms, then proceeds to attack that particular image of science. This is logically called a ‘straw man’ fallacy and I can’t help but think this is weird irony given the title of the book).

He starts off by claiming ‘scientific fundamentalists [note the loaded wording] claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth’. I challenge him to find a ‘non-fundamentalist’ scientist to disagree with that. Apparently I’m fundamentalist – because that is indeed what science is.

Then he replaces this with his own arbitrary, straw man definition of science: ‘Among us*, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship’. (*his use of ‘us’ is baffling throughout the book, see also the example below the fold).

Er, hope, well, sure, if you say so, but hope has little to do with the everyday of scientific experiments (aside the hope that they work :p). But censorship, that just cracked me up laughing. The argument from Gray to support that ludicrous claim is hilarious (and later on he gets even more loopy, near with me):

Science alone has the power to silence heretics. (…) It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians [note again the use of loaded words] to Lovelock)

I won’t go into too much detail, but this, as well as the recent climategate scandal, only shows that science is done by human beings. Time has shown Freud to be mostly wrong, scientifically; Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis has in modified form reached considerable acceptance among science, albeit without any of the vagaries like a planetary consciousness that some hippies want to ascribe to Earth). Science itself IS indeed the search for truth; it cares not for the humans and their opinions.

Gray makes this mistake even more grotesquely a bit further on, but first I’ll continue the quote of this bit, where Gray explains what he means by censorship:

In fact, science … by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.

Excuse me while I HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAWHAAWHAHAHAA HAH oh stop I’m dying HAHAHAHA WHAHAHAHa oh fuck man that’s hilarious.

To quote Dara O’Briain:

Science doesn’t know everything. And it knows that it doesn’t know everything – otherwise it had stopped.

We, the scientists, know what we do know, too. Everything that is ‘too far from current orthodoxies’ […trying not to get annoyed by all these loaded words] is wrong, because we know it’s wrong. It may be very free-thinking and unorthodox to propose that the sun is made of orange ice cream… but you’d be wrong.

Fortunately for me, Gray goes on to flat-out contradict himself only a couple of pages later, when he writes

According to … Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence.

Never mind that he is factually wrong again at several points  – where were these theories at odds with available evidence? Plus he doesn’t get the concept of falsifiability – but he doesn’t see that a few pages earlier, he complained that thinkers that stray too far from current orthodoxies are censored by science. Now he complains… that they weren’t.

John Gray is a very confused man.

Science is determined by rhetorical skills? Really?

Even funnier, and another occasion of mixing ‘science’ (objective increasing truth) with ‘scientists’ (subjective human beings), is in between these passages, when he tries to argue that science is really based in irrationality. I’m getting bored with debunking all his crap, so I’ll give that pass whilst saying that THAT IS WRONG, and go straight to this:

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’ [oh god I can’t let this one pass either – that would be because in these days that concept had yet to be developed – oh why do I even bother, it’s like shoving shit with my bare hands]. (…) he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society.


Just WOW.

It may just have slightly helped in the very short time span around the emergence of this theory that he was a savvy writer, but apart from that… his theory survived because it was correct, full stop.

Galileo could have been the best persuader in Earth’s history, but if he’d argued that the Sun went around Jupiter in a square orbit, he’d not have won for longer than, I don’t know – well actually I think he wouldn’t have won at any time.

Gray seems to buy into the nowadays oft-heard idea that science somehow calls for ‘equal representation’ and that the best ideas then win not because they are true, but because the majority of people agree with one theory or the other. This, of course, is getting the horse behind the cart.

4. He supports some vague form of animism

Throughout the book he keeps giving nods to animism, that vague hippie belief that We Are All One, or something, but I’m getting a bit bored with all the debunking, so I’ll just throw up my hands here and say ‘whatever’.

Summary please, Marcel?

Well, funnily I do agree with the author on the points where he considers humans dangerous and destructive animals, and to some extent I agree that it will be difficult to save our planet from all sorts of self-inflicted disaster.

However, why he specifically picks on humanism and science is beyond me; it’s science that have been warning against overpopulation, global warming, energy crises and suchlike disasters for decades; and it’s non-scientist humans, overwhelmingly non-humanists too, that have been deaf to these calls.

On top of all that it’s difficult to take a book and its message serious when it gets so many of its facts and premises so amazingly wrong.

The author, John Gray, knows fuck-all about either humanism, science or ‘Darwinism’ and that shows on every page (multiple times) yet he pretends he does. He has clearly done his ‘research’ in a very blinkered manner, only reading these sources that confirmed his preconceived notion of what he wanted to conclude (I’m sure his intended audience will be just as preoccupied and will swallow this crap hook, line, and sinker). These are all pretty cardinal sins in what pretends to be a non-fictional book, but because of these errors would better be classified under fiction (I just realise that indeed, it was in the religion section, so Brighton Library has got that right).

Avoid this piece of subsubstandard writing, it’s really not worth it, apart from having a laugh.

Continue reading

Small (6)

and large, too.

Things I learned or re-remembered:

  • That the Oort Cloud is so large (I read that but had forgotten) (won’t say how large, look it up)
  • That after Tera (1012) come Peta (1015), Exa (1018), # (1021) and # (1024) (won’t say which, look it up)
  • Not much happens in the small end of the Universe
  • Uranus is pronounced ‘YER uh niss’
  • Eyelids have the thinnest skin (won’t say how much, look it up)
  • LOL at water molecule (you gotta look that one up, too!)

And last but not least:

  • We’re probably not in the centre of the Universe :p