Theory

I sure wish more people understood the meaning of theory in science, but at least Piers Sellers does a good job of explaining the concept. I try to hammer into my students (as my teachers hammered into me) the primacy of evidence — observation and measurement — but evidence always has to be for or against something, and that something is theory. You can’t have a theory without evidence, and you can’t have evidence without a theory to give it meaning. So I’m always happy to see another explanation of this core concept of science.

Fundamentally, a theory in science is not just a whim or an opinion; it is a logical construct of how we think something works, generally agreed upon by scientists and always in agreement with the available observations. A good example is Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, which says that every physical object in the universe exerts a gravity force field around itself, with the strength of that field depending on its mass. The theory—one simple equation—does a superb job of explaining our observations of how planets orbit around the sun, and was more than good enough to make the calculations we needed to send spacecraft to the moon and elsewhere. Einstein improved on Newton’s theory when it comes to large-scale astronomical phenomena, but, for everyday engineering use, Newton’s physics works perfectly well, even though it is more than three hundred years old.

One danger of the public misunderstanding of this idea is that they do equate theory and opinion; they tear down successful theories with rhetoric and ignorance, and they also elevate nonsense by labeling it, without comprehension, a theory. And I could piss in the snow and call it a book, too.

But theories are abstract, after all, so it’s easy for people to get tricked into thinking that because something is based on theory, it could very likely be wrong or is debatable in the same way that a social issue is debatable. This is incorrect. Almost all the accepted theories that we use in the physical and biological sciences are not open to different interpretations depending on someone’s opinion, internal beliefs, gut feelings, or lobbying. In the science world, two and two make four. To change or modify a theory, as Einstein’s theories modified Newton’s, takes tremendous effort and a huge weight of experimental evidence.

This is something that should be explained to everyone visiting Answers in Genesis and their horrible dishonest “museum” and “ark park”. The central argument Ken Ham always makes is a demolition of the whole concept of theory — he claims that any alternative explanation, no matter how much it ignores the evidence, is a theory, and all theories are equal, and therefore, his bizarre, highly subjective and ideologically driven interpretation of the words of his holy book are just as much deserving of the title of “theory” as the hard-earned, constantly tested, well-supported by evidence theory of evolution.

And that’s dangerous. Ken Ham uses the degradation of theory to peddle nonsense to the rubes and make money and promote his narrow religion, but as the article explains, it’s also being used to corrupt decision-making about climate that endangers every human being on the planet.

Why present evidence when the critic ignores evidence?

How Brian Cox keeps his cool is quite impressive. Here, he’s arguing with an Australian senator and climate change denialist, Malcolm Roberts, who keeps insisting, quite rightly, that evidence is important, that evidence trumps opinion, that policy should be defined by empirical evidence…and every time Cox shows him the evidence, he simply rejects it, accusing NASA of faking the data, and arguing that the various climatoogical agencies have been colluding to “corrupt” the data.

I guess it’s a step forward that the kooks are at least acknowledging that real data is important, now we just have to carry it through to the next step, of paying attention when the data slaps them in the face.

Coal is only “clean” if you silence the scientists who say otherwise

Chalk up another black mark against North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory. His administration has been pretending that mountains of coal ash couldn’t possibly be contaminating drinking water in the state. Their obstinance has finally led to the resignation of one of the state’s leading scientists.

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist resigned Wednesday to protest her employer’s depiction that “deliberately misleads” how screening standards were created to test private wells near Duke Energy’s power plants.

Dr. Megan Davies’ immediate resignation after seven years on the job deepens a rift between Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and some of the state’s top public health scientists. McCrory is a former Duke employee who is running for a second term as governor.

The millions of tons of coal ash stored at Duke’s power plants has contaminated groundwater under them. State tests last year found that cancer-causing chemicals were present in hundreds of nearby private wells, although Duke denies coal ash is the source.

So wait…where is the vanadium and hexavalent chromium, carcinogens that are found in relatively high concentration in coal ash, coming from? This is one that would be tough to blame on transgender men and women — they just don’t have the magic powers that would do that. If it’s not the coal ash, the only remaining possibility really is magic…which means we’re going to have to blame Jesus. Why does Jesus hate North Carolina? Logically, the answer must be that he hates them because they elected a wanker named McCrory.

Important questions, I hope someone tries to answer them

Every four years, Shawn Otto and his ScienceDebate organization politely suggest that science, engineering, tech, health, and environmental issues deserve a presidential debate, and every four years they’re ignored — largely because our presidential candidates are never really competent to discuss science in any detail at all (can you imagine Trump trying to bluster his way through a discussion of science and education policy?). But one thing that does get a regular response is the list of 20 science policy questions. Now there are a lot of questions I’d like to see both campaigns address.

It’s a rather quixotic effort, but it’s important to keep the pressure on. Go sign the petition at Sciencedebate.org.

A little skepticism about an extrasolar planet is required

Okay. It would be really cool if there were an earth-like planet orbiting the star nearest us. Now there’s news dribbling out about a putative discovery of a rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri. Except, unfortunately, the story is grossly premature and unreliable. A few warning signs:

  • It’s a rumor published in Der Spiegel, a news magazine, not a scientific publication.

  • The discoverers are unnamed. What science publication uses unidentified sources?

  • The general source is the La Silla observatory, which previously claimed to have found an earthlike planet around Alpha Centauri B…a claim that was later retracted.

  • The story gets stuff wrong.

    Knowing that there is a habitable planet that a mission from Earth could reach within our own lifetimes is nothing short of amazing!

    Whose lifetime?

    The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever fired off, Voyager, is traveling at about 17 km/sec, which is fast alright — but it would still take tens of thousands of years to get there.

Fraser Cain, usually a reliable source, has already made a video about the ‘discovery’.

Nope, I still don’t buy it. There’s no evidence there. You could make the same video with generic science-fictiony images declaring that scientists have discovered little green men on Mars, and it would be just as convincing, that is, not.

The video also mentions Project Starshot, which would be one way of getting man-made objects to velocities somewhat closer to the speed of light. This scheme involves building 100-billion-watt laser arrays and firing them at laser sails hauling teeny-tiny chips with built-in micro-gadgets to do everything our regular space probes do and transmit the data back to Earth. Project Starshot is the baby of a Silicon Valley billionaire, so of course it must be a good idea.

You know, we’re kind of in a golden age of space exploration, with all kinds of information coming in from robots on Mars or flying around Jupiter. The real data is exciting, but these impractical fantasies are not.

Quacks & creationists: heed this

John Timmer explains some experiments in physics that have exposed some unexpected behavior by protons. Read that article to get the story, but this little bit jumped out at me as universally applicable to all science.

This may sound like a minor puzzle, but remember that the proton’s radius is tied into theories like the Standard Model, so the result suggested that there might be something wrong with our understanding of some basic physics. Theorists, naturally, responded with enthusiasm and developed some new models that added an additional fundamental force that influenced the muon’s interactions with the proton.

Show a scientist a problem, a real problem with data to back it up, and scientists naturally respond with enthusiasm. That’s the Standard Model of Scientific Behavior.

When scientists respond with a groan and a facepalm when you tell them your new theory for how humans evolved, or how chi flows through the body, or how to cure cancer with mango smoothies, or worse, announce that your scientific explanation is invalid because it doesn’t include the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita, it’s because you don’t understand how science works. Real difficulties with an idea get us worked up and excited. Imaginary difficulties lacking in substantial evidence are uninteresting and mean we have to shoo away an annoying loon.

We’ve already confirmed that some people are irrational and ignorant. That observation has been replicated repeatedly and doesn’t enthuse anyone at all.


Related: here’s a professional physicist who consults with self-taught “theorists”.

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.

She charges $50 for 20 minutes of consulting, in which she directs them towards current literature and advises them on the deficiencies in their background that they need to fill. I’ve had so many of these kinds of people harangue me with their ideas and objections to evolution, but I never realized I should be charging for the service.

Except, for $50 they’d probably expect me to be nice.