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Sep 11 2013

You can study the past scientifically

One of the most common rhetorical games creationists play, especially those influenced by those frauds at Answers in Genesis, is to erect a phony distinction between historical science, which they claim is not a science, and observational science, which they claim is the one true kind of science. It’s a way for them to deny claims of events in the past having any credibility unless there is a direct, eye-witness, personal, written account (a restriction they blithely ignore when it comes to things like the first five days of the creation week, or the life of Jesus, which is all by second-hand accounts).

So it’s always useful to collect good summaries of how you certainly can evaluate claims about the past, and how science can legitimately study historical processes. John Wilkins adds some more arguments.

To deny that we can know the past in any sense is not science. It is in effect an admission of failure, but we need not be so pessimistic. For example, we know Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions. We might not know how they were dressed or if it was raining that day, but we do know it happened. Likewise, we know the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened. The evidence is there, supported by experimental observations.

68 comments

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  1. 1
    steve oberski

    I tend to think of creotard claims that first person observation evidence is the only valid form of evidence as experimental evidence into the psychology of the fundamentalist mind.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    we know Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions. We might not know how they were dressed

    … probably in Roman military garb. Duh. Tunica, Gladius, Scutum, Lorica Segmenta, that kinda stuff.

  3. 3
    =8)-DX

    Heh, it’s funny reading back to this entry after getting lost in the billions of years of the postmodernist thread.

  4. 4
    janiceclanfield

    Marcus @2:

    You left out Lorem Ipsum, One of the fiercest of all.

  5. 5
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    Of course it is possible to analyze archeological and other material in a scientific fashion. It is even possible to form and test hypotheses. The longstanding theory that Richard III was not a hunchback and that was added in by Tudor propagandists recently took a step back when a skeleton that is consistent with being that of Richard III in every testable respect recently turned up in a Leicester car park.

    What you can’t do is to make absolute statements of fact about past histories. But that is what the creationists want to do rather than the scientists. The creationists are not interested in considering if the earth ‘may’ be six thousand years old, they are only interested in the absolute, indisputable certainty. Which is why they cannot do science.

    Obviously it is possible that the earth is 6,000 years old and that it was created by a God with a particularly warped set of moral values that led him to intentionally place clues making it appear that the earth and the universe is much older. But any God that would play such tricks would be unworthy of respect, praise, obedience or any other form of ‘worship’. Might as well praise Baal or any one of Yaweh’s old testament competitors.

    I do not accept Popper’s view of scientific method. He was not a scientist and he freely admits to having intentionally defined the bar for scientific method so as to be too hard for Marxists, Freudians and other charlatans to jump over. Real scientists can’t jump over it either, but that doesn’t matter as they don’t really care about the question of whether they are doing ‘science’, they are interested in finding out if they can get a better answer to a question. But there are certainly standards and expectations for how science is done.

    One expectation is that if you are arguing by citation then you are obliged to find the best citation. An apocryphal quotation attributed to Einstein is nowhere near as convincing as to Einstein’s opinion on some matter than a statement in a published scientific paper written by Einstein.

    So applying that criteria to the creationists we have two sources for determining the intent and method of a creator God. One of them is the bible, a work of dubious authorship whose canonicity is disputed by numerous other holy books. The other is the universe of which he is the purported creator. If you believe in a creator God then by definition, he is the author of the universe.

    Given an ambiguous, apocryphal citation and an unimpeachable one, only an idiot or a dogmatist asserts the primacy of the first over the second. To then assert that the creator God requires us to believe in the first over the second because the first says so is many things but scientific ain’t one of them.

  6. 6
    iplon

    PZ, can you really say for sure that Daedalus didn’t fly on a pair of makeshift wings? How do you *really* know that gravity was the same in the past? Perhaps there was once a time where gravity was so weak that people could counteract it by flapping their arms hard enough.

    I mean, sure, we can study gravity today, but the truth is, we have no way of *knowing* that gravity was the same historically for the ancient Greeks, so we can’t apply gravity in a historical sense to prove that Daedalus didn’t actually fly out of a tower to his safety with nothing but his arms, feathers, and wax.

    This is the main problem with trying to apply historical science like gravity. I mean, gravity isn’t even a *real* science, what useful things have ever been invented by studying gravity?

    Checkmate, gravitists!

  7. 7
    borax

    Love that ultimate creationist argument; were you there? I was born in 1975 and can distinctly remember being 4 years old, therefore the world began in 1979 Borax time. Any images or documentation of time beginning before 1979 are suspect.

  8. 8
    Reginald Selkirk

    Just finished reading Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome by Dr.* J.C. Sanford. Of course he disrespects historical data. So what does he consider to be valid data? Figure 14 is a graph of “Declining lifespan – Noah’s descendants.”
    .
    * Yes, he identifies himself as “Dr.” on the front cover.

  9. 9
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    @Marcus,

    Yep, we do have a pretty good idea how they would be dressed given that one of the major distinguishing features of the Roman army was that it was one of the first to have uniforms. The dress of pretty much the entire order of battle was fairly closely defined by regulation.

    We can also be pretty sure that Caesar would not be crossing that particular river in the rain since it was the act of crossing the Rubicon that was the formal start of the civil war hostilities. Camping an army on the far bank of the Rubicon as he nipped off to Rome for a spot of R&R would not be unusual. In fact it would be exactly what the senate was expecting of a victorious commander coming to negotiate payment for his troops. So it would be poor tactical judgement to throw away the element of surprise by attempting to cross the river in anything other than ideal conditions.

    The army would have to be dressed in their military uniforms for the same reason. To march on Rome in civilian clothes would send a mixed message an accusations of deceit.

  10. 10
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    @borax

    Were you there for the sermon on the mount?

    @iplon

    The point of gravity is that it is a universal force that acts on all objects in the universe equally. So the orbit of the earth would have been different making it impossible to sustain life on the planet had gravity been so different as to make naive human powered flight possible.

  11. 11
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Well, yes. The legions would have been in the proper uniforms.

    But that doesn’t mean we know exactly how they were dressed.

    For example, was the guy who was in the second column of the third row of the second legion to cross the rubicon wearing linen undies that had been dyed or not? Was he carrying any religious symbols anywhere on his body? If so, what? Was he blond, brunet, redhead?

    That question is flatly unanswerable. And in the end, I don’t suppose it really matters what color of knickers Caesar wore on the Ides of March (though I approve of Kate Beaton’s hypothesis. But that doesn’t mean that we know everything.

  12. 12
    Christophe Thill

    If you couldn’t study the past scientifically then most murderes could never be arrested.

  13. 13
    mbrysonb

    Evidence for claims about the past is pretty straightforward: We have a lot of information about various processes that go on– sedimentation, erosion, volcanic eruptions, the life-cycle of stars (of varying masses), the growth,death, decay (and occasional, partial preservation) of living things, the formation and decay of radioactive elements, the writing and copying of various documents, etc., etc., etc. Knowing about those processes and the traces they leave allows us to make all kinds of inferences about the past. And we can cross-check these against each other: We compare different radiometric dates for the same geological formation, we compare the ordering of geological formations by superposition against radiometric dating and the known sequence of index fossils, we compare different documents, tracing their history and changes made in them over time and evaluating their reliability based on social and other factors involved in their preservation and transmission…the list goes on and on. The typical creationist line (‘were you there?’) is about as silly an objection to this as I can imagine, since human testimony is less reliable than most physical evidence (especially when it comes from interested parties and groups whose aims and values were shaped by prophecy and faith more than by a desire to write history). By comparison, a full-out skepticism about our knowledge of processes is at least consistent– of course it implies that we know nothing whatsoever about the past, and can’t even rule out Russell’s ’5-minute hypothesis’. (A deeper response to this puzzle might begin by pointing out that knowledge of the present doesn’t survive this move: if we have no evidence supporting our past reliability as observers and reporters of events and as calculators, we have no grounds for relying on present observations or mathematical reasoning either– so this position leads to total skepticism.)

  14. 14
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    we know Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions.

    We don’t. We don’t even know which river the Rubicon was. What we do know is that Caesar said he crossed the Rubicon with his legions. As well as being a great general, Caesar was a great publicist and his account of events- the main source we have- is meant to depict him in the best possible light.
    An excellent book which deals with the nature of historical knowledge when there is very little actualdirect information and evidence as to what occurred is Bloodfeud by Richard fletcher.

    Likewise, we know the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened. The evidence is there, supported by experimental observations.

    We don’t know that with absolute certainty. All the evidence we have makes it look very probable- certainly much more probable than that a hypothetical being created the earth and the universe in a matter of “days”- but we are less certain of that than of more immediate matters. The great physicist James Thomson, Baron Kelvin demonstrated the impossibility of Darwinian natural selection by proving that the temperature of the earth’s core meant that the surface of the earth could not possibly have been habitable for anything like a long enough period for life to develop the variety it shows by a process of natural selection through random mutation.

  15. 15
    David Cook

    I work for a world class astronomical observatory.

    I wonder if they have taken astronomy into consideration – where we can indeed know what happened, say, 100 million years ago.

    Oh look, that star 100 million light years away just went nova… 100 million years ago.

    Dumb as bricks these people are… though that’s an insult to bricks.

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    Were you there for the sermon on the mount?

    Monty Python was!!!

    (nice to see you here, Phillip)

  17. 17
    robb

    observing something with your eyes involves photons coming from an object and interacting with the rods and cones on your retina. then your brain does some processing and voila! you can see the object. yay brain!

    therefore creationists are right. *all* observations are of the past and therefore invalid for the scientific method.

    oh, wait: http://xkcd.com/54/

  18. 18
    poxyhowzes

    @#14:

    Of course, Kelvin didn’t know anything about radioactive heat sources in the earth, and so was “off” by several orders of magnitude on his age-of-the-earth calculations.

    @#7:
    I too have what I call “memories” of things that happened when I was 4 years old, but strangely enough, what I “see” as I remember is not as though through my eyes, but as if through a third-party observer looking at me. I concluded a while ago that these “memories” were at least partly fixed in my mind by later interactions with adults (e.g., my parents), whose serious reaction to the events I “remember” helped shape these “memories.” OTOH, I can’t remember without looking it up which year during the past decade I had serious surgery. –pH

  19. 19
    twas brillig (stevem)

    Re Phillip Hallam-Baker @5:

    Obviously it is possible that the earth is 6,000 years old and that it was created by a God with a particularly warped set of moral values that led him to intentionally place clues making it appear that the earth and the universe is much older. But any God that would play such tricks would be unworthy of respect, praise, obedience or any other form of ‘worship’.

    We might not want to, but we’d better worship such a twisted “god” or else really bad things will happen. /snark

    I’ve always (even as a youngster) wondered why God would say “worship me or go to hell and burn in torment forever”. I’d even hear evangelists saying, “Acts can’t get you into heaven, only love Jesus will get you there”, and then they would damn Rosicrucians (or Masons or some such) for claiming that “good deeds” would “buy your way into heaven”. Even as a kid, before acknowledging atheism, I would say to myself, “I do good things, even if I don’t love Jesus (who is he anyway?), I’ll go to heaven anyway.”

    Religion is just such a scam, I can’t believe so many fall for it.

  20. 20
    consciousness razor

    … probably in Roman military garb. Duh. Tunica, Gladius, Scutum, Lorica Segmenta, that kinda stuff.

    I’m not sure the segmentata would’ve been used that early. Or they might have been wearing tuxedoes. We can’t be certain. Who’s to say? Were you there? What if we’re all brains in vats?

    We don’t know that with absolute certainty.

    Why would that matter?

    The great physicist James Thomson, Baron Kelvin demonstrated the impossibility of Darwinian natural selection by proving that the temperature of the earth’s core meant that the surface of the earth could not possibly have been habitable for anything like a long enough period for life to develop the variety it shows by a process of natural selection through random mutation.

    This is false. I know — I mean, really do know, with no doubt whatsoever– that nobody, no matter how great a fucking Baron they might have been, can “prove” any such “impossibility.” It’s fucking hilarious how often this kind of bullshit comes with claims about “absolute certainty.”

  21. 21
    consciousness razor

    Or they might have been wearing tuxedoes.

    For the record, I know better, but this might have been how the ancient Romans spelled it, while they rode their dinosaurs back and forth across the Rubicon, for all we know. Were you there? Anyway, I’m just trying to be accurate.

  22. 22
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Of course, Kelvin didn’t know anything about radioactive heat sources in the earth

    Of course, Poxyhowzes @18. However, there are many more unknown unknowns dealing with the universe than with human history. The current estimate that “the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened” may turn out to be mistaken. Almost certainly not as mistaken as Kelvin’s estimate of 20 to 40 million years, but we shouldn’t regard it as graven in stone.

  23. 23
    john cryan

    When I’m asked “Were you there then?” I’ll typically respond “Yes, and so were you– as events occurring in the past produce evidence which endures to be examined in the present, ‘then’ is effectively ‘now’.”

  24. 24
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    I know — I mean, really do know, with no doubt whatsoever– that nobody, no matter how great a fucking Baron they might have been, can “prove” any such “impossibility.” It’s fucking hilarious how often this kind of bullshit comes with claims about “absolute certainty.”

    The important thing is not whether you know something with no doubt whatsoever, Consciousness razor, but whether you are right. The important thing about Kelvin is not his greatness as a baron but his greatness as a physicist. Even his opponents, like Thomas Huxley, could not find effective arguments against him. It was not until the very bases of physics were transformed that the falsity of the assumptions Kelvin thought were truths could be revealed.

  25. 25
    cuervocuero

    #14 and #22

    So…where you trying to point out that Kelvin was mistaken in his certainty? You didn’t make that sarcasm clear in your words at #14 but your statement at #22 seems to indicate you found his calculations laughable.

    At what point does the inductive and deductive framework of research satisfy you as to an event happening and the manner in which it happened?

  26. 26
    MarcusC

    Was there anyone alive today who was around when the bible was written? Then how do we know it is the word of god? It may just be the accumulated and rewritten ramblings of a bunch of ancient priests looking for more ways to make money.

  27. 27
    Rob Grigjanis

    CR @20:

    It’s fucking hilarious how often this kind of bullshit comes with claims about “absolute certainty.”

    I’m having a hard time imagining Kelvin expressing “absolute certainty”. Citation?

  28. 28
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I’m having a hard time imagining Kelvin expressing “absolute certainty”.

    And even if he did, I have no trouble saying that he was wrong.

  29. 29
    consciousness razor

    The important thing is not whether you know something with no doubt whatsoever, Consciousness razor, but whether you are right.

    Even more important is how we go about knowing things. Generally, it’s not with proofs that something’s impossible.

  30. 30
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    I don’t find Kelvin laughable in his certainty, cuervodecuero @25. I think that the example of a great physicist who was so carried away by his certainty that he made an astonishing and egregious error is one we should all remember when we make absolute assertions. I didn’t emphasise his error in my first post because I thought it was so obviously wrong there was no need to say so.

    As for when the inductive and deductive framework of research satisfies me as to an event happening and the manner in which it happened, that is a problem. It isn’t the way I think, or the way most people think. In fact, like everyone else, I don’t know enough to exactly judge the truth of nearly all of what people say. When physicists say “we know the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened” I have neither the knowledge nor the skills to check on the claim. What I do know is the way physicists work and think, that other claims they make have been verified, that they have no reason to lie and that physicists check on the truth of one another’s claims. They may be mistaken- they probably are mistaken about some aspects of their claims- but there is no reason to think they are deluded or dishonest, so I accept their claims as nearer to “the truth” than other claims.

    To take the other example given- Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon- it is important not because it actually happened or didn’t happen but because it represents the moment Caesar turned against the Roman Republic. Caesar, his enemies and historians choose it as a symbolically decisive moment. The important thing about the Rubicon was that it was so unimportant- you could step over it without noticing. It was chosen as an arbitrary point, not because of its own importance. The age of the earth matters because of what it tells us about the universe. The crossing of the Rubicon matters because of what it tells us about Caesar, history and human nature.They are completely different kinds of importance.

  31. 31
    Rob Grigjanis

    Rob Grigjanis @27: Yeah, he did seem pretty certain as regards the age of the sun.

    That some form of the meteoric theory is certainly the true and complete explanation of solar heat can scarcely be doubted, when the following reasons are considered…

  32. 32
    Nick Gotts

    And in the end, I don’t suppose it really matters what color of knickers Caesar wore on the Ides of March – Esteleth

    I have read that there was “nothing worn under the toga”*. The garment was so ridiculously unwieldy, that relieving oneself while wearing it and without making an un-Roman mess of oneself would have been difficult enough without having to cope with knickers.

    *Reference to hoary Anglo-Scottish joke:
    “Is there anything worn under the kilt, Mr. McTavish?”
    “Och, noo, Mr. Cholmondeley, it’s all in purrrfect working order!”

  33. 33
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    Well, what we’re more likely to say is ‘According to current evidence X, Y, and Z the surface of the Earth has an age of 3.85 billion years (plus or minus some uncertainty value) and this is why.’

    Sure, we can get caught by our axioms, and there’s probably a few still waiting there to bite us. (Been lecturing on the law of equipartition this week… there was one that went down a century ago). So, we try to state all the assumptions that we’re making, and gather the data as best we can, and analyse it as best we can, and acknowledge that this is our best value for X at this time. And try to come up with other experiments that can get it with even less uncertainty and control any other factors we haven’t thought of.

    And given that even the fastest thing that reaches us does so at a finite speed, anything we see, we are seeing how it is in the past. Admittedly the past that is an infintesimally small time ago. But still the past.

    Some things become obscured, like the signal can in the noise, but those with expertise can do their best to get data that gives accurate information about the past.

  34. 34
    David Marjanović

    I do not accept Popper’s view of scientific method. He was not a scientist and he freely admits to having intentionally defined the bar for scientific method so as to be too hard for Marxists, Freudians and other charlatans to jump over. Real scientists can’t jump over it either

    We can’t? Please do explain.

    How do you *really* know that gravity was the same in the past?

    If it hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here.

    Literally. The Earth would be zooming straight out of this solar system.

    Next question?

    I approve of Kate Beaton’s hypothesis

    *nodnod* :-)

    We don’t even know which river the Rubicon was.

    Indeed. There’s a river in Italy called Rubicone, but it’s only borne that name since the Fascists gave it that name in the 1920s or 30s. It’s possible they picked the right one, but who knows!

    (Source: Latin textbook.)

    The current estimate that “the earth is 3.85 billion years old since the surface hardened” may turn out to be mistaken.

    It’s already been disproved, if you interpret it that way, which is a mistake.

    It’s a minimum: the oldest known rocks formed on Earth are 3.85 billion years old. Even older rocks may be buried somewhere, or may have been destroyed by erosion or subduction.

    Indeed, in younger sediments, there are zircon crystals that are as old as 4.4 billion years. And the isotope ratios in them indicate that continental crust and oceans already existed.

  35. 35
    David Marjanović

    “nothing worn under the toga”

    Well, the tunica; but there was, by all evidence (little as it is), nothing worn under the tunica.

  36. 36
    David Marjanović

    …Uh. I should mention that, from what I’ve read, Popper swept parsimony under the rug. There’s a lot of parsimony hidden within falsification.

  37. 37
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    While Popper didn’t dwell on parsimony, he did consider it an important criterion in that simple hypotheses were more falsifiable than complex ones.

    This discusses how the problem of induction is mitigated by Occam’s razor. It seems intuitive.

  38. 38
    cuervocuero

    The age of the earth matters because of what it tells us about the universe. The crossing of the Rubicon matters because of what it tells us about Caesar, history and human nature.They are completely different kinds of importance.

    So, are you making the same distinction that historical science is not the same as observational science as mentioned in the OP? You seem to be saying that the crossing of the Rubicon doesn’t need to be proven in the same way as the age of the earth because the species-centric event is only a representative metaphor of people’s feelings about a political moment.

    Cannot the scientifically determined age of the earth matter because of what it confirms or falsifies about the veracity of other declarative stories interpreting natural/human history and human nature?

    Cannot the crossing of the Rubicon by a Roman army being proved, on a Bayesian level at the very least, as an actual event at an actual geographic location, by a variety of scientific methods beyond one written account, enhance veracity of those methods when they’re applied to discovering the wherewithal of other events and locations less politically ‘important’?

  39. 39
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Here’s the quote I was looking for:
    “We prefer simpler theories to more complex ones because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable”…I think this is in Logic of Scientific Discovery, but its been quoted on the interwebs so often that it will take time that I do not have to find the original source.

  40. 40
    mbrysonb

    @18: Actually, Kelvin’s real mistake was neglecting convection (he thought the earth was solid right through, in fact). The discovery of radioactivity was widely taken to undermine Kelvin’s case (as Rutherford pointed out in a famous little incident), but convection in the mantle is the main cause of the continuing high temperature gradient near the surface, and John Perry (an assistant of Kelvin’s, ironically) had shown that it could do the job. (There was a nice historical paper on this issue in American Scientist a few years ago.)

  41. 41
    Rich Woods

    @Marcus Ranum #2:

    … probably in Roman military garb. Duh. Tunica, Gladius, Scutum, Lorica Segmenta, that kinda stuff.

    I think 55BC was a little early for lorica segmentata, by about 60-70 years; Caesar’s Marian-reform legionaries would have had mail and/or leather as torso armour. There are accounts of lorica segmentata being distributed (in place of mail) to the four legions which made up the 43AD invasion of Britain, because their standard of equipment was seen as a necessity given the circumstances.

  42. 42
    epweissengruber

    I find it odd that religous thinkers would devolve to a weak version of empiricism. They are, after all, invested in the belief in real relationships that are, somehow, not available to the senses. In historical studies we look at the enduring effects of real events, even if the actual event cannot be recreated here and now in some kind of experimental test. The absence of a Carthaginian Republic in Northern Africa in 2013 is the real result of a tussle between Rome and Carthage, even if I cannot send observers to check that such an event really happened.

    Hume and Popper seem to get a free pass from Anglo-American fans of science. But there are some logicians who feel that popular empiricist philosophers do not provide a philosophic foundation for scientific practice and theory. Martin Gardiner covers them here: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gardner_popper.html

  43. 43
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Cannot the scientifically determined age of the earth matter because of what it confirms or falsifies about the veracity of other declarative stories interpreting natural/human history and human nature?

    Yes, cuervodecuero, I think that what we think the scientifically determined age of the earth matters for what it says about the way we think as well as for what it says about the universe. That was why I cited Kelvin’s disproof of evolution: at the time it looked like a scientifically certain statement about the nature of the universe. Now- looking at both Kelvin’s opponents and his supporters- it tells us something about the way people think.

    You seem to be saying that the crossing of the Rubicon doesn’t need to be proven in the same way as the age of the earth because the species-centric event is only a representative metaphor of people’s feelings about a political moment.

    No, Caesar’scrossing of the Rubicon- if it happened- can’t be proven that way and doesn’t need to be proven that way. If it was somehow shown that Caesar’s march on Rome involved no river crossings, no matter how insignificant, it wouldn’t make much difference to our view of Caesar or Rome. However, if it was shown that Hannibal didn’t cross the Alps or that he didn’t have any elephants with him it would raise direct questions about large areas of history and indirect questions about the way early history happened and what we know about any of it. I think that many details of the Carthaginian campaigns in Italy- and Roman campaigns against Carthage- are confirmed archaeologically; there is no evidence that Hannibal crossed the Alps or that he had elephants, but other claims by historians who say he crossed the Alps and had elephants are confirmed and increase their general credibility. I don’t know if this counts as Bayesian evidence- i’m still working out just what Bayesian methods are and how they work!

  44. 44
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Thanks, mbrysonb @ 40.
    It seems I’ll have to find another example of a great scientist reaching wrong conclusions for entirely logical scientific reasons now

  45. 45
    Rob Grigjanis

    sc @44: Ariaflame @33 mentioned the equipartition theorem as an example.

  46. 46
    Ichthyic

    it tells us something about the way people think.

    and yet, you seem to imply that somehow major discoveries have the exact same probability of being overturned in the future, as Kelvin’s were.

    but you’d be wrong.

    I wonder if you know why?

  47. 47
    Ichthyic

    again, this is what I find troubling about your “analysis”:

    That was why I cited Kelvin’s disproof of evolution: at the time it looked like a scientifically certain statement about the nature of the universe.

    I have heard creationists actually use the same logic to suggest that evolutionary theory itself will be “overturned in the near future” (Dembski, Wells, Behe, innumerable others).

    but they are wrong of course.

    There is a large degree of difference between what is behind the modern theory of evolution, and the “science” Kelvin used to reject it.

    in fact, modern evolutionary theory itself will never be rejected, and that has fuckall to do with “how people think”. the only things that will end up being modified are the percentages of specific mechanisms we find contributing to the shifts in specific gene frequencies in specific populations.

    that’s about it, really.

    don’t overestimate the role “how people think” plays in science, either.

  48. 48
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/geohist.html

    1862 Lord Kelvin: On the Secular Cooling of the Earth. Using thermodynamic principles and measurements of thermal conductivity of rocks, Kelvin calculated that the earth consolidated from a molten state 98 million years ago. In 1897, he revised his estimate to 20-40 million years. Dalrymple says that Kelvin’s estimates were “highly authoritative” for three decades, but notes that they were challenged by people from several fields, including T. H. Huxley, John Perry (a physicist), and T. C. Chamberlain (a geologist). All of them challenged the likelihood of Kelvin’s assumptions.

    Authoratitive, but not, it seems, proof. Scientific discourse, how does it work?

    1911 Arthur Holmes publishes several uranium/lead ages based mostly on measurements taken by Boltwood and an improved value for the uranium decay rate. These range from 340 million years (a Carboniferous sample), to 1,640 million years (a Precambrian sample)

    Not far off!

    1953b F.G. Houtermans uses Patterson’s (1953) data and the lead isotopic ratios of young terrestrial sediments, to compute a rough age for the Earth of 4.5 ± 0.3 billion years.

    Bingo.

    So 150 years ago, Kelvin was persuasive but wrong, 100 years ago, Holmes was homing in, and 60 years ago we basically got the current, consistent (and let’s face it, right) answer.

    I fail to see a problem here.

  49. 49
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Bingo.

    So 150 years ago, Kelvin was persuasive but wrong, 100 years ago, Holmes was homing in, and 60 years ago we basically got the current, consistent (and let’s face it, right) answer.

    I fail to see a problem here.

    Nor does any scientist. Certain newagers/creobots/sophists try to pretend science never gets anything right, and everything will be drastically overturned in a few years. Funny how all their evidence dates back greater than 50 years ago, and most facts are very similar since. The maturing of science….

  50. 50
    Amphiox

    If it hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here.

    Literally. The Earth would be zooming straight out of this solar system.

    Next question?

    That, or plummeted into and swallowed by the sun.

    Or pulverized into an asteroid belt by a collision with Venus.

    And of course there’d be no moon, or the moon would be bigger, or smaller, or farther away, or closer. Or maybe we’d have two of them.

    If gravity did not work in the past the way it does now, we might not even have had a sun at all….

  51. 51
    Amphiox

    And all those fossil sediments that show the action of the tides? They’d all look different too if gravity worked differently in the past than it works now.

  52. 52
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Analogous to gravity, what would the distribution of elemental isotopes be if the weak and strong force were changing with time. This could be calculated, and the fact that no creobot tries to do so says loudly that the answer isn’t what they want to hear….

  53. 53
    Ichthyic

    If gravity did not work in the past the way it does now, we might not even have had a sun at all….

    why, surely that’s all the evidence we need of FINE TUNING!!111!!

    ;)

  54. 54
    Ichthyic

    So 150 years ago, Kelvin was persuasive but wrong, 100 years ago, Holmes was homing in, and 60 years ago we basically got the current, consistent (and let’s face it, right) answer.

    I fail to see a problem here.

    that’s a nice concise summary.

  55. 55
    ftltachyon

    Asimov’s “The relativity of wrong” always seems relevant to bring up when there’s people around who say that since science changes its mind then it must all be bunk. http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

    “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    No, we don’t know the age of the earth exactly. But we know it far better than we did 150 years ago.

  56. 56
    chigau (違う)

    So do you Smartypantses have anything to say about…..magnets?
    I thought not.

  57. 57
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    There’s a giant one at the heart of our planet?

  58. 58
    mykroft

    Well, the Koran was written by people way back when, who were supposedly there when Mohammed did his thing. Therefore, everything in the Koran is true. Checkmate, creationists!

  59. 59
    Ichthyic

    So do you Smartypantses have anything to say about…..magnets?

    I hear juggalos are experts on magnets.

  60. 60
    cuervocuero

    No, Caesar’scrossing of the Rubicon- if it happened- can’t be proven that way and doesn’t need to be proven that way. If it was somehow shown that Caesar’s march on Rome involved no river crossings, no matter how insignificant, it wouldn’t make much difference to our view of Caesar or Rome. However, if it was shown that Hannibal didn’t cross the Alps or that he didn’t have any elephants with him it would raise direct questions about large areas of history

    If it was somehow shown that JCaesar’s rise to power didn’t involve crossing the boundary marked by the Rubicon, an act of revolution against Roman law and custom, and that the lie that he did was put about to sanctify his murder as the opening act of the age of Imperial power, then would that not be a significant impact on what we should trust about history?

    You seem subjective on what is and isn’t important to be discovered as being historically factual as opposed to accepted narrative. What is different if we don’t care what the truth is in the Hannibal story? If he did not accomplish what he is said to have accomplished but later generations acted upon the story as if he did, what difference that to the story of Gaius Julius not crossing actual geography treated as sacred boundary with an actual army with actual intent.

    In that vein, why should we worry about finding out the truth of the start of the Christian religion and the historicity of the messiah Yeshua ben Yusuf and his miracles if what we’ve been told is what we can settle for because the actual truth makes no difference…to someone?

    Perhaps I’ve watched one too many seasons of ‘Time Team’ but the use of scientific methodology and multidisciplinary co-operation between geology, archaeology, historical narratives, hydrogeology and on and on to more accurately determine events in times past is helping our modern times, for humans and everything else. Testing what *really* happened or what really happens inside us and around us everyday shifts who controls narrative and survival.

  61. 61
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Testing what *really* happened or what really happens inside us and around us everyday shifts who controls narrative and survival.

    In other words, you say that liars and bullshitters who are loud can drown out the real facts….

  62. 62
    mbrysonb

    @sc_770d, 44: Kelvin is still a pretty good example, really: he had arguments for the solid earth (transverse earthquake waves) though the seismological data wasn’t nearly as rich / well analyzed then. The rest of it was fine, except for the assumption that the main source of energy (for the earth and the sun) was their original heat (produced by gravitational collapse), which turns out not to be that critical to the case of the earth. Come to think of it, he was in much better shape on the issue of the sun (which was a closely related issue– see “On the age of the earth as an abode fitted for life” (~1895?).) The total energy available really looked to be limited to 100 MY of sunshine– less at current output. With the discovery of radium, people started looking at implications for solar energy right away (and the American Geologist, T.C. Chamberlain, in replying to Kelvin, argued directly –before radium’s discovery– that some process on the atomic scale might power the sun). I’m pretty sure Kelvin would have been confident than any energy stored in atoms must have been ‘put there’ by some very energetic process (sort of like tiny batteries)– but then, I guess we’d say he’s right (between the big bang and subsequent supernovae).

  63. 63
  64. 64
    Amphiox

    Of course, when it comes to right and wrong numbers, quantities, measurements, and values, modern science fudges everything with those dastardly error bars that make it so much harder to demonstrate the claim to be wrong.

    Sneaky scientists, tricksy they are….

  65. 65
    raven

    If nothing in the past can be proven, it is the xians who have a lot to worry about.

    1. How do we know jesus even existed, much less was crucified?

    In point of fact we don’t know that. No one alive is an…eyewitness.

    2. Xians always claim the bible.

    It doesn’t work. How do we know the gospels aren’t just fiction?

    3. In point of fact, we know they are largely fiction. We don’t even know who wrote them except it wasn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The big debate among biblical scholars is whether they are mostly fiction or all fiction.

    4. The xians claim jesus isn’t dead at all, He is rather, god, the creator and ruler of the universe. If that claim is true, he could, you know, show up once in a while and prove it. If jesus isn’t an eyewitness to his own death, then who is? He never does show up.

  66. 66
    David Marjanović
    1911 Arthur Holmes publishes several uranium/lead ages based mostly on measurements taken by Boltwood and an improved value for the uranium decay rate. These range from 340 million years (a Carboniferous sample), to 1,640 million years (a Precambrian sample)

    Not far off!

    340 is indeed in the Carboniferous. (And 1,640 is indeed in the Precambrian, but that was a long timespan…)

    Holmes was homing in

    Heh. :-)

    and 60 years ago we basically got the current, consistent (and let’s face it, right) answer.

    Yep. We’re not going to fall out of the error bars of “4.5 ± 0.3 billion years”. 4.8 and 4.2 are both out of the question beyond reasonable doubt.

  67. 67
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re “Rubicon”:

    The Rubicon Julius crossed, how do we know it was a real river and not just a metaphor for “this is the line an army cannot enter into Rome”? Somewhat like the “red line” that Assad just crossed using chemical weapons (on his own people!). Of course there is no “red line” drawn on the ground that he would have to have actually stepped over, but it is very clear that he crossed that red line (and must face the consequences). What’s wrong (or non-scientific) about accepting that explanation for the whole “Rubicon” myth|story?

    re “science is always wrong”:

    How many times have I heard the “anti-science” crowd complain, “Yesterday they [scientists] tell us eggs are bad, today they say eggs are the ‘perfect food’, Science is always changing”? “They never say ‘absolutely’ they always hem-and-haw with ’95% certain’ or ‘with 10% margin of error’, can’t they get anything right with 100% certainty?”

  68. 68
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Odd, isn’t it, that so much of entertainment, CSI, detective shows, Mayday, Antiques Roadshow for FSM’s sake, is based on examination of historical evidence from the recent past and evaluation of its reliability; or that American culture is obsessed with the historical events of the American Revolution and its Civil War. It’s only when evidence and facts might affect public policy that they are unwelcome.

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