Sunday, 24 May 2015

Lynne McTaggart's "The Field" - wrong, wrong and then wrong again

The Field (2001) is an attempt by the "investigative journalist" Lynne McTaggart to put a scientific shine on the turd that is pseudoscientific consciousness tosh, promulgated by a variety of sources but notably in the unscientific film What The Bleep Do We Know (2004).  There are some genuine, as opposed to gushing, fawning and sycophantic, reviews available online, most notably "The Non-Science Of Lynne McTaggart" by Dmitri Brant.  Most of the Amazon reviews haven't approached the book with anything like a critical mind.  I am guessing that most of those don't have a clue what quantum physics is.

For that there is no excuse.  There are a whole host of books available that one could refer to in order to check whether what McTaggart says about quantum physics is correct.  I list a selection that I have read in the further reading section at the end of this article.  I will also list some of the books that McTaggart refers to in her book. 

The Field came out when the Internet was already well established but before blogging had become commonplace.  Blogging has enabled much information to be disseminated, and much more disinformation in many areas, making checking somewhat more straightforward than it ever was.  But access to a decent library would have been more than enough for McTaggart not to get caught up in the disingenuous promotion of wild speculation as fact that she seems to have done. 

If a teacher somewhere needs a text to use as a basis for critical thinking exercises, here it is.  The Field is readable.  McTaggart's style is smooth but she also does what so many pseudoscientists do - they make up their own interpretations.  If you are not cued in to this, you will miss it.  It is the way Erich von Daniken worked all those years ago and it fooled millions then.  It fools millions now.

For instance, this list comes from a variety of websites and seems to be officially sanctioned by McTaggart or the blurb writers:

New Truths from The Field
What biology tells us
  • The human being is a survival machine largely powered by chemicals and genetic coding. 
  • The brain is a discreet organ and the home of consciousness, which is also largely driven by chemistry – the communication of cells and the coding of DNA. 
  • Man is essentially isolated from his world, and his mind is isolated from his body.
  • Time and space are finite, universal orders.
  • Nothing travels faster than the speed of light.
What biology tells us list is in some ways unarguable.  All living things, not just human beings, are survival machines powered by chemicals (and physics, let us not forget).   But this is also a statement that can be extended by adding a dig at Richard Dawkins in the pseudoscientific world.  McTaggart doesn't like Dawkins.  That is clear.

As for the brain being a discreet organ...   Like all discreet organs there is a slightly fuzzy edge - where does an organ actually end when you take into account the blood and nerve supplies?  But that is by the by.  The real thrust of point is the comment about consciousness.  I cannot think of reliable, repeatable evidence that sites consciousness anywhere other than the brain.  Injuries to the brain can, and do, result in temporary or permanent loss of consciousness. 

And is the mind isolated from the body?  Doubt it, mostly because, as I understand it, the mind and consciousness are totally linked.  Sounds a lot like a load of rubbish to state that man is essentially isolated from the world when clearly he is not.  His (apologies for the sexist language but I am continuing with the same gender non-neutral word used in the summary) sense ensure that he is not isolated from the world - he sees light that has travelled across vast distances, hears sounds, detects chemicals, senses thermal energy, etc.  Trivially and actually wrong, then.

As for time and space being infinite and nothing travelling faster than light, these are not the discoveries of biology.  They are the discoveries of physics and philosophy.  If space and time are not infinite, what are they?   I might be able to tell you once I have had the chance to read Lee Smolin's book Time Reborn and Sean M Carroll's From Eternity To Here, both of which deal with the nature and physics of time.  Other books on time are available.  Other books on the universe are available too.  I'll collect them together in the further reading section.

Then we get the list of what The Field has learnt:
What The Field has discovered:
  • The communication of the world does not occur in the visible realm of Newton, but in the subatomic world of Werner Heisenberg. 
  • Cells and DNA communicate through frequencies.
  • The brain perceives and makes its own record of the world in pulsating waves.
  • A substructure underpins the universe that is essentially a recording medium of everything, providing a means for everything to communicate with everything else.
  • People are indivisible from their environment.
  • Living consciousness is not an isolated entity. It increases order in the rest of the world.
  • The consciousness of human beings has incredible powers, to heal ourselves, to heal the world – in a sense, to make it as we wish it to be. 
It is pretty much meaningless.  Communication between organisms does occur in the visible realm of Newton, and is the invisible realm of electromagnetic radiation.  Cells and DNA do not, so far as anyone but Jacques Benveniste, communicate through frequencies (it does not state which medium or which manner but a little research tells us it is electromagnetic waves).  Such radiation appears to be very hard to detect.  I bet it doesn't exist.

The latter list becomes increasingly fantastic, in the old sense of the word, as we go down it.  In the end it is not a list of scientific discoveries so much as a wish list for ageing hippies.  It should not be forgotten that, for all the pretences to being a record and interpretation of scientific discovery, this book is nothing of the kind.  It has all the hallmarks of the a posteriori wish fulfilment that pseudoscience throws up again and again.  Nothing in the science actually insists that McTaggart's interpretation is the only valid one.  Rather, the science says something entirely different.

There are little clues dotted about McTaggart's text that give away her understanding of science and the nature of scientific evidence.   I quote in full one paragraph and give my readers a challenge.  Spot where the paragraph turns from science to non-science.
If all subatomic matter in the world is interacting constantly with this ambient ground-state energy field, the subatomic waves of The Field are constantly imprinting a record of the shape of everything.  As the harbinger and imprinter of all wavelengths and all frequencies, the Zero Point Field is a kind of shadow of the universe for all time, a mirror image and record of everything that ever was.  In a sense, the vacuum is the beginning and end of everything in the universe.[23] (1st paperback edition, page 32)

Did you spot it?  It was the word "If".  That assumption about the interaction leads, somehow, to the idea that subatomic waves [sic] are imprinting a record on the universe [sic] of everything and anything.  Many have said that McTaggart has no idea about quantum physics.  I disagree.  I think she has some idea, in the sense that an elephant has some idea about gravity, because she has read something about it or seen a documentary on the TV.  But she truly doesn't understand what she has written, or she has wilfully misinterpreted it, because this paragraph takes a piece of evidence and takes it to a place where it doesn't belong. 

The Zero Point Field is the idea that there is a minimum level of energy permeating the vacuum of space.  It is something that arose early in our understanding of quantum mechanics and is generally ignored because there is something important about it that McTaggart doesn't grasp.  It is a minimum energy state.  There cannot be any energy taken from it or given to it.  The fluctuations that happen, the popping in and out of existence of particles and so on, do not alter the minimum nature of this state. 

By the way, the [23] refers to a footnote that says the ideas came from interviews with Hal Puthoff, a genuine physicist with some unfortunate ideas, who was once described as one half of the Laurel and Hardy of PSI by James Randi.  Gullible might be a more kind term.  Uri Geller did manage to fool a lot of people.

The key to understanding that McTaggart really doesn't get this zero point field thing is that she misses the quantum nature of it.  These tiny particles are jiggling around and will always jiggle around.  They do not behave in an orderly fashion on their own but have a randomness that precludes any sort of imprinting.  How do you imprint anything on energy?  Or on particles whose existence is measured in trillionths of a second?  A good scientist will stop and consider whether their ideas are physically valid, if they are consistent with all the other bits of evidence and known science that they can think of.  McTaggart is not, of course, a scientist.

I haven't mentioned McTaggart's application of the zero point field idea to biology.  The relationship between the quantum world and the living world is uncertain.  I have little sympathy with Roger Penrose's ideas on consciousness, for example, and less with those that claim that non-living things have consciousness or that consciousness permeates everything.  I am old fashioned enough to want to see evidence, and I am afraid the evidence that does get offered up is mostly rubbish.  And just waving the word quantum around does not make anything more physically real. 

Perhaps she doesn't know that she does it.  Perhaps Lynne McTaggart does not know that she repeats the old fallacy that Erich von Daniken did all those years ago: if you say the word "if", then make a conclusion that is not validated by the evidence, your readers will remember the conclusion and not the uncertainty.  So a few sentences down the line, you can repeat the conclusion without the doubt and proceed as if the conclusion were true.  The premise of McTaggart's book is that the zero point field can, in some way, be tapped for meaningful "things" by humans in one way or another.  Assuming that Puthoff and Targ's remote viewing is anything other than a conjuring trick, it does not follow that there is anything quantum mechanical about it.  And, of course, the first assumption is a massive one for which the evidence is hardly strong enough to withstand a collision with a quark.

There is an entire industry of new age wishful thinkers, brought up with some esoteric ideas that do not withstand scrutiny, that are not supported by established science, but which makes money through the publication of books, magazines and movies that pander to those people who won't or cannot get the idea that things happen without reason.  They don't like science because it provides answers that they don't like, but they cling to science because it has the power to provide evidence and to persuade people.  Science is extremely powerful as a tool for understanding the universe.  It has enabled us to describe the most likely beginning our universe had.  It helps us to understand the very small, the very big, and everything in between.  It uses a language that most people do not, themselves, understand.

Popular science books often try to make the nearly incomprehensible comprehensible to the masses.  A Brief History Of Time was, for a while, almost trendy, because it did just that, even though it soon became fashionable to own but to confess that you also could not understand it.  The ideas in it were not easy, but they were far from incomprehensible.  It required a few moments' thought.  It also included a section in which the zero point field was explained.  I assume McTaggart missed that when she said that the zero point field was almost unknown.  It wasn't.

Further reading:

John D Barrow The Book Of Nothing (2000)
Brian Cox & Geoff Forshaw  The Quantum Universe (2012)
John Gribbin  In Search Of Schrodinger's Cat
John Gribbin  In Search Of Schrodinger's Kittens
Manjit Kumar Quantum (2008)
Chad Orzel  How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog
James Randi Flim Flam (1982)
Simon Singh The Big Bang (2004)
Roberto Mangabeira Unger & Lee Smolin The Singular Universe And The Reality Of Time (2014)
Stephen Wilson (ed) The Bloomsbury Book Of The Mind (2003)
Robert Winston The Human Mind (2003)

and many, many more.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Tombstone Blues

Sou has the full story but there is still fun to be had.  Chrissy Boy Monckton is throwing another snit.  He got his name inscribed on a mock memorial of deniers that won an art prize.  Hence the snit.

And so is James Delingpole.  Well, who'da thought it?  Delingpole and Monckton seem to be on one continuous, never ending, snit.  Nanny must be chucking toys in their prams at an immense rate because the pair of them chuck them back out constantly. 
Calm down, he's not a scientist

Jimmy's best writing is reserved for those moments when his bile runneth over, as it does in this Shakespearean paragraph (I realise it would have been better in Iambic pentameter but the blessed Jim was probably a bit pushed for time and the editor of the Spectator was tapping his watch):

I wonder what deep background research led him to form this considered view. Actually, no I don’t, because it’s obvious. He’ll have got it from his science and geography teachers at school; from BBC nature documentaries and news reports; from comedians like Dara Ó Briain and Marcus Brigstocke; from celebrity mathematician Simon Singh, whispery-voiced gorilla-hugger David Attenborough and pouty-mouthed astronomer Brian Cox; from every other article in the Guardian; from the Science Museum in London; from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; from his fellow students and university professors; from the ‘97 per cent’ of scientists who, so legend has it, say the science on global warming is settled… .
So let's just examine this paragraph shall we.  First, Delingpole's credentials: English Literature, Christchurch College, Oxford.

Ian Wolter, the art student in question, may have got his climate science from those people.  His science and geography teachers will all have had relevant degrees.  And of the others...
This man can do more complicated sums than James Delingpole can, and he can read posh books by dead, white, male writers

 Dara O Briain has a degree in mathematics and theoretical physics.

 Marcus Brigstocke studied drama but did not complete his degree (he's in the list not so much for his climate science claims but for his left wing comedy).
This man has proper science qualifications

Simon Singh has a PhD in particle physics.  He's here because he helped to change the libel laws which were being used to threaten scientific criticism of quacks and frauds.

David Attenborough has a degree in natural sciences (including geology) from Clare College, Cambridge.
This man is a scientist as well

Professor Brian Cox has a PhD in high energy particle physics from the University of Manchester.  He's in the list because Delingpole once sat and watched a programme Prof Cox made.

There is some hefty science learning here.  Perhaps an Eng Lit graduate could learn something.  But, alas, Delingpole, famously an interpreter of interpretations, prefers to go to see a bunch of, well, non-experts with some out of date qualifications at the Heartland Institute on their jolly to Rome to persuade the Pope that he is, after all, infallible:

At the Heartland event, on the other hand, a series of fascinating, erudite mini-lectures was delivered by a team including a meteorologist, a physicist, an ex-Nasa man who’d helped devise the landing gear for the Apollo project, and a theologian.

Wow, just wow.  Here's a list of the participants:
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation
Hal Doiron, former NASA Skylab and Space Shuttle engineer
Richard Keen, Ph.D., meteorology instructor at the University of Colorado
Christopher Monckton, chief policy advisor to the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI)
Marc Morano, executive editor and chief correspondent,
Tom Sheahen, Ph.D., vice chairman of the Science and Environmental Policy Project Board of Directors
Elizabeth Yore, J.D., former General Counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia
I leave it to you to work out the weatherman, the physicist, the man who worked on the landing gear for the Apollo project (note, Skylab didn't land and the Space Shuttle wasn't Apollo but you can't expect Delingpole to get everything anything right), and I think we can be certain that the theologian is of the distinctly unsophisticated kind (TM Jerry Coyne).  You can't be surprised that journalists had better things to do.

I'm guessing Delingpole will be attending the Heartland non-science event in June.  Here is the schedule.  Spot the non-denier competition has been cancelled.

Other people interested in real science will, of course, find something better to do.  Here's an example:

And this:

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne for alerting me to Philomena.

And if you think the title is familiar:

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Monckton returns from his stool - still talking, er, crap

Lord Monckton, who was last seen sloping off to the garderobe in his modest castle in the Highlands clutching a copy of the UKIP science policy document (it's so long and soft and absorbant, don't you know), leaving his flunky to hold the fort, has come back out and told everyone to give it ten minutes.

While he was in there, his mate, Willie Soon, was fingered (again) for having some undeclared financial interests or something like that.  Willie Few Mates has been roundly sent to Coventry by the scientific community yet somehow manages to get some papers with his name on past the sleeping reviewers and into benthic journals.

What his Lordship thinks would be a wonderful idea is to defend his friend, Mr Soon.  Took his time but then he was busy.  His Lordship is very busy.  His flunky says so.

So let's see what his Lordship has said.  You can find it here, at Anthony Watts's fantasy world site.  I've archived it so you don't have to give Watts the satisfaction of more hits.  He might want to get his science in order now that Google is changing it's policy on ranking.

The first thing to notice is the usual Monckton headline: "In defense [sic] of a scientist in the humble quest for truth".  Not having met Soon, I don't know if he is humble, but reports of his rants for the Heartland Institute suggest he has a modesty deficit.  Modesty is certainly something Monckton is not blessed with.

Monckton kicks off a long rant with this paragraph:
Recently the Boston Globe, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Scientific American and even Nature, as well as many other media outlets and environmentalist weblogs, have mounted what appears to be a costly, malevolent and carefully coordinated campaign of assaults on the reputation of Dr Willie Soon, falsely alleging that in several of his published scientific papers he had failed to disclose that some of the funding for his research has come from fossil-fuel interests.
This isn't unusual for the potty peer (copyright Sou).  He cannot see a jumble of articles without seeing a conspiracy.  And costly?  Don't know but my comment in a previous post cost precisely nothing and was funded by....wait for one but me.  As for Soon's reputation - his scientific one is minimal.  If his affiliation to Harvard-Smithsonian goes, even that reflected glory will be missing.  And failing to disclose is a question being asked rather than an allegation.  Not that it looks like he did disclose that which he should have disclosed.

This campaign of libels was calculated to damage Dr Soon’s reputation, to undermine the credibility of his research results, and to threaten his employment at the Center for Astrophysics by improperly suggesting that he has acted unethically and dishonestly. I propose to knock the worst of these libels on the head. This will be a long read, but well worth it.

Ah, the good Lord is back on form.  That nasty gastric incident hasn't dimmed his ability to perceive libel where none exists.  The documents were freed by FOIA leverage and demonstrate that Soon received funding from fossil fuel concerns.  It looks well established but there you go.  Far be it from Monckton to suggest anyone would ever have acted improperly.  Heaven forbid.  And, as I said, scientifically, Soon is a busted flush anyway.  No one in mainstream science bothers with him.  His science is debunked and finished.  His value is the Harvard-Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics label.  I don't want to see him in the street, just playing by the same rules as the rest of the scientists that Monckton has his snide and pernicious pops at.

Anyway, Soon is a scientist of the highest calibre so he is beyond criticism.  So sayeth the Doctors For Disaster Preparedness:
In 2004, Dr Soon received the Petr Beckmann award of the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness for
“courage and achievement in defense of scientific truth and freedom”. 
If it weren't so hilarious, it would be so funny.  This bunch of doctors give platforms to deniers on an annual basis.  They have, so far as I can tell, little to do with disasters.  In fact, they would rather not prepare for some.

To be honest, Monckton's drivel is tedious in the extreme but feel free to read it if you wish.  As usual, he cannot say in a handful of words that which can be described in a multivolume work.  And, as ever, Monckton lets us know what he thinks is the correct ethical way to behave while failing himself to uphold his own "high" standards.  It is typical Monckton.  And no doubt it will come with his usual threats to involve the lawyers attached.

Monckton brings attention to his widely criticised and widely discredited paper in a benthic Chinese journal:
Neither I nor any of my co-authors received any funding of any kind from any source for any part of any research conducted by us in the preparation and writing of this paper. The paper was researched and written entirely in our own time and at our own expense. As we correctly stated to the journal, therefore, we have no conflict of interest whatsoever.
I don't know about you but if my day job were paid for by someone who has a conflicting viewpoint, I would expect that any paper I wrote would need to mention that fact.  Does anyone other than Monckton and the Willard wailers think that the influence of funding stops the moment you walk out of the door, especially when you quote your place of employment as your affiliation.  Soon could have put the Heartland Institute as his affiliation.  After all, that's the people who issued his statement.

But there is nothing straightforward about this Monckton diatribe.  He writes this:
It is surely time to focus on the science itself. Using our model, anyone with a little knowledge of math and physics can determine climate sensitivity relative to CO2 concentration changes not unreliably by using nothing more complex than a pocket calculator. Within hours after the Daily Mail ran a strongly supportive news piece about our paper, an EU-funded environmentalist extremist group had telephoned round and obtained instaquotes from half a dozen rent-by-the-hour “scientists” about our paper, but, as our point-by-point refutation [Eds, link to attached document, please] demonstrates, several of them had not even read it and not one had raised a serious scientific objection to it. 
If you want to focus on the science, do so.  Don't moan that someone criticises you in such pathetically dismissive tone and complain that Soon is being smeared.  Monckton demonstrates the two faces he has long possessed.  Smiling with charm to your face but knifing you in the back.

I did wonder if Monckton might have something useful to say.  Rather, I think he is still at stool.


Monday, 23 February 2015

That buzzing sound is Willie Soon's defenders

You have to feel sorry for Willie Soon.  Don't you?

He's paid quite a pleasant retainer and has the luxury to produce scientific papers that, by all accounts, are fairly devoid of science and easily debunked by those with the talents and experience to do so.  As a result, his brand of science is pretty much ignored by just about every scientist on the planet.  You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps.

Part of that company is Anthony Watts who has helped his cause no end by rushing to Soon's defence. You might think that Watts might want to keep his nose out but, no, he's up there on the barricades because, apparently, official documents released under freedom of information requests display to venality of Soon and question whether he has been totally forthcoming about his conflicts of interests.  It is a valid ethical question rightly being asked.  Let's consider how much dancing there would be if the boot were on the other foot.

Actually, let's not bother.  We know that if Michael Mann were caught taking cash from Greenpeace, there would be a huge hoo-hah from the denialati.  But that hasn't happened.  Instead, a denier has been found with fingers in the till of fossil fuels and has somehow forgotten to mention this fact.  You'd have thought that his co-author and expert on scientific ethics and the rules of academic discourse, the esteemed Lord Monckton of Brenchley, would have reminded him of this point. But, no, they appear to have forgotten to discuss it.  Monckton & al, 2015, the infamous irreducible stupid paper that found a home in a benthic Chinese journal, claims no conflicts of interests. Perhaps that is true.  It doesn't seem likely.

Still, the walls echo to the sound of stupidity.

From the comments:

The latest paper he did with Monckton et al was on their own time! What is so hard to understand? They got NO money from anyone.

I know. What is so hard to understand. The very idea that a scientist leaves his conflicts of interest at work and writes the same old discredited stuff down at Starbucks with his mates. That's what's so hard to understand.

Tom Trevor February 23, 2015 at 8:38 am If someone disagrees with Willy’s work let them find fault with the work, if all they can do is find fault with the person, then they probably can’t find fault with the work.

I know. If only we could find anyone who can find fault with little Willie's science.

Here's one.

There are more.

You'd think that, after getting rather eggy faces over Murry Salby, that Watts might keep his mouth shut, but the temptation to look, let's say, stupid is just too great. A skeptic worthy of the name would ask questions first, shoot later. But then again, Watts is not worthy of the skeptic name.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

You couldn't make it up

From the Guardian:

UKIP candidate asks what happens when renewable energy runs out?

Can anyone help her?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Carl Sagan and Denier Baloney

The late, great Carl Sagan was a hero to many.  This is hardly a surprise.  He was charismatic, highly intelligent and spoke of some of the most wonderful and awe inspiring things in nature - Mars, life on other planets and so on.  He made one of the greatest and most influential TV documentary series of all time, Cosmos, which was recently successfully updated for a new century by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. 

Sagan was also a leading light in the skeptic movement.   That's the real skeptic movement, not the fake one.  Shortly before his early death, Sagan wrote a classic book of the skeptic movement, The Demon Haunted World.  The most quoted part of the book is chapter 12, "The Fine Art Of Baloney Detection", and it seems deniers like it most especially. 

For example, Judith Curry did a post on the Baloney Detection kit on the occasion of what would have been Sagan's 80th birthday.  Jim Steele, a noted denier, brought Sagan up in a WattsUpWithThat post in December.  It is interesting how the fake skeptic movement likes to clothe itself in the genuine skeptic movement and uses as a semi-sacred text someone who would have laughed in their faces.

Let's examine what Sagan meant.  In the chapter, he gives a list of some of the tools ("Among the tools...) that a sceptical mind can make use of.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Multiple lines of evidence pointing to the same conclusion are good.  A small coterie of like minded mates asserting the same thing isn't.  And when someone says your conclusions are no good, independent verification is needed.  I don't know how many climate scientists there are in the world but I am prepared to bet that those in the 97% outnumber those in the 3%.
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Well, that's what happens at scientific conferences and through the publication of genuine scientific papers.  I am not sure we can agree that non-scientist Christopher Monckton, for example, acts to encourage substantive debate. 

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Science proceeds according to the evidence, not who said so.  In the climate denial world there is a strange anti-expert view.  Because Michael Mann said so, they reckon, it must be wrong.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
This is crucial to the idea of scepticism.  Fake skeptics love to give one hypothesis and don't admit of any others.  In science, just as Sherlock Holmes said,  when you have excluded all the other possibilities, what remains is the truth.  At least until some more evidence is found.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
Deniers do this so much.  Real scientists do it too but real scientists know what happens when you get it wrong and will do what they can to avoid that possibility.  The fake skeptics don't care.
Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
That's why we measure things, like temperature, CO2 levels, sea levels, sea ice extents and thicknesses and the like.  The numbers give us a way to discriminate and there are statistical tests that enable us to compare with some sort of confidence.  This does not mean, however, that numbers can get tortured in order to extract from them what you want, or that some results can be ignored just because they don't confirm your conclusion.  In the UK, part of the skeptic movement has put its energies behind a campaign called AllTrials intended to secure the publication of the results of all clinical trials. Curiously, some parts of the alternative medicine world are not signatories.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise)—not just most of them
Now this is where the fake skeptics fail.  Every link.  Every link in the chain must work.  With climate science, even though it is complicated, there are plenty of links in the chain that have been fully verified and to deny any of them is just stupid.  Yet that happens.  Similarly with vaccinations - lots of research, huge piles of knowledge confirm that effectiveness of vaccinations yet there are still those that will deny this. 

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Isn't this where conspiracy theories go wrong?  To maintain the conspiracy, you have to keep adding layers of explanations that usually don't have any evidence or the evidence is open to simpler interpretations, often as a result of the ignorance of the conspiracy claimant.  Did we land humans on the Moon?  The simplest explanation is that we did.  To add layers of difficulty to the available explanation just makes the conspiracy more and more implausible.  Climate science deniers try the same trick - the word fraud is bandied about a lot.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
Human driven climate change is falsifiable.  If CO2 levels keep increasing and all other factors remain the same, falling global temperatures will falsify the premise.  It isn't a likely outcome.

I haven't said anything new here. 

But it is perhaps ironic that the deniers should have taken on the clothes of one of the most famous scientists on the planet, one who did much for the promotion of environmental concerns.  I didn't have to look too far to find this video, of a talk Sagan gave in 1990, in which he labels the deniers as such.

Sagan studied the greenhouse effect on Venus.  He did know what he was talking about.  He was concerned about environmental topics.  He was an advocate who spoke his mind and spoke it eloquently.  In other words, he is exactly the last person that deniers would have on their side.  And he would have avoided them.

Actually, I don't really think Sagan would have avoided them.  He would have patiently explained why they were wrong.  He would have provided evidence and explanations that they could have clearly understood.  He had already done so, in Cosmos

And if they really cannot accept that, there's always the edited for rednecks version:

In the meantime, buy Cosmos on DVD:

Monday, 26 January 2015

Who invented the scientific method? A response to a minor Monckton point.

This might sound pedantic but stay with me and you will see the larger picture.

Here is a quote from Lord Monckton's celebrated (cough) response to Naomi Oreskes piece in Nature about scientific consensus:
The celebrated mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of science Abu Ali Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen, is justly celebrated as the founder of the scientific method.
If you don't believe me, here is the pdf.  Treat with extreme caution.
A modern image of Al-Haytham

Here is a quote from the SPPI website:
Al-Haytham, unlike Naomi Oreskes, did not consider that consensus had any role in science.
Well, of course not, because at Al-Haytham's point in history the idea of even a group of scientists was non-existent.  There would be scholars and academics sending one another ideas and findings but scientists were so thin on the ground that there probably were fewer than 100 contemporaneous with Al-Haytham.  But that's by the by. 

Recently I came across a site on the history and philosophy of science written by someone who has more expertise than I, more knowledge that Monckton and a better seeker after the truth than His Lordship (or his factotum, Scrotum).  It is called The Renaissance Mathematicus and I have found it fascinating.  I found it even more so when I came across a post called Nobody Invented The Scientific Method.

I suggest you go over there and read the full post but one thing that pricked my ears up was this:
Aristotle, Archimedes, Ibn al-Haytham, Galileo, Bacon (both Roger and Francis), Descartes and Newton are just some of the more prominent historical figures who invented the scientific method. Makes for kind of a crowded field doesn’t it?
There's that chap, al-Haytham, that Monckton mentions.  The one he insists upon whenever talking about the scientific method.  But he's in with a bunch.  How are we going to pick?  They are in chronological order so that might help.  But there has always been a question in my mind, and having read reasonably widely on this subject over twenty or so years, there is something that the Renaissance Mathematicus and I can agree upon and it is in the very next paragraph:
The real problems start when one tries to define what exactly “The” scientific method actually is. In reality there isn’t any such animal. There are a related family of methods and practices that have been used over the centuries to produce, test and question scientific hypotheses and theories, not one single golden method. 
It is the major problem in the philosophy of science, in my view.  Lots of philosophers have tried to identify what science is.  Karl Popper thought he had the answer but he didn't.  His falsification is not the entire answer and for a long time he was wrong on evolution.  You might wish to know that Monckton, in his SPPI nonsense, likes Popper (well, he would because Popper is something of a libertarian, though that might be stretching things somewhat):
Karl Popper formalized the scientific method as an iterative algorithm starting with a general problem. To address it, a scientist proposes a falsifiable hypothesis. During the error-elimination phase that follows, others demonstrate it, disprove it or, more often do neither, whereupon it gains some credibility not because a consensus of experts endorses it but because it has survived falsification.
I am not sure I agree with Monckton here but this is not the point.  There are plenty of bits of science that have no hypotheses.  Lots of natural history is hypothesis free. 

Anyway, back to Al-Haytham.  If there is no one thing which we can say is the scientific method, there can be no one who invented it.  But why does Al-Haytham have any claim in the first place?

The Renaissance Mathematicus has an answer.  His answer is somewhat negative. 
This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) 
Now it takes a bit of searching and reading on the Internet to find the other side of the hagiographic coin that Monckton seems to have taken.  There are plenty of, mostly cloned, pieces that push Al-Haytham's claim to be the father of the scientific method.  I posit that Monckton doesn't have the historical or scientific understanding that enables him to be sceptical of the claims for Al-Haytham to be anything on the scientific method, other than that he had a quotable quote:
“The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them," the first scientist wrote, "but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. he should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” 
 Curiously, if Monckton had followed this, he might not have fallen into the lazy interpretation of the idea of scientific method and might have learned a whole lot more.

But Monckton doesn't do that.  He is very rigid about rules.  The number of times he whines about the behaviour of scientists, their supposedly transgressions of academic behaviour and so on, is immense.  I won't bother cataloguing any.  They are not hard to find.  Monckton has a childish belief that science should be done one way and one way only.  He clings to this Platonic ideal and when it doesn't come up to his standard, he cries foul. 

I actually began to write a different post.  I was thinking about explaining why fake skeptics are fake.  Monckton's love of rules is one way (just think his inability to accept that he is not, no matter how one looks at it, a member of the House of Lords, especially when the keeper of the rule book has said he isn't).  Fake skeptics (let's call them deniers) seem to think they are the referees in a game that is called science.  They are not.  The scientific method, whatever it is, changes, evolves and mutates as new techniques arise.  Is theoretical physics science?  Is string theory science?   Is astrology science?  Popper tried to deal with this demarcation dispute and didn't succeed. 

Just as art is indefinable yet we recognise it when we see it, so is science to a large extent.  It is not an algorithm or a single way of doing things.  It is a way of thinking.  It is scepticism with limits.  Those limits are defined by the evidence available.  The fake skeptic, the denier, do not see those limits.  Instead, they try to break them, bend them and twist them to fit the result they have predetermined.  And when that doesn't work, they cry foul.

Monckton doesn't understand the scientific method.  Now there's no surprise.  Now if Monckton wants to see what real scholarship can achieve, he could do better than read what I have been reading.

Sort of conflict of interest:  the author of the site quoted on Al-Haytham went to the rival school to the one I attended.