“Theoretically” is a Meaningless Word to Scientists

Posted on 20th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Ionian Enchantment - Tags:

It’s time we stopped using the word “theoretically,” the word is an oxymoron unto itself, at least in the way we use it:

  • “Is it theoretically possible for science to someday create a real lightsaber? (source)”
  • “Antimatter galaxies theoretically possible, but unlikely (source)”
  • “Critics say the White House’s theoretical arguments may fly in the face of empirical evidence. (source)”
  • “…academics/media do a big disservice by raising issues that are theoretically possible, but not at all important in reality. (source)”
  • “Are MMORPG goods theoretically taxable? (source)”
  • “A science is most exciting when there are two or more strong, competing theories. (source)”

In science a theory is a “comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time.” A theory is not synonymous with fact, but it is the best approximation to it.

The way everyday people use the word theory is synonymous with speculation, and this leads to much confusion when debating scientific issues. People who don’t understand science argue that evolution and Anthropogenic Global Warming are only theories, not realizing that what they have actually said is that Evolution and AGW are only practically facts.

The word people should be using in the above examples is hypothetically. In science, we move from hypothesis through experimentation to theory.

There is no such thing as “competing theories.” This is an oxymoron. If they are competing, then they are hypotheses. If you have to ask if something is “theoretically possible,” then it probably isn’t, it’s merely “hypothetically possible.”

Remember Gravity is only a Theory.

Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”

Posted on 18th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,

The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate

I love books that shake up my preconceptions, and reading Pinker’s book was like experiencing one big personal iconoclasm. The thoroughness with which he engaged gender, violence, intelligence, and other aspects of our social understandings unsettled my positions on much of the whole “Nature VS Nurture” debate. While it did not convince me entirely, it did work effectively to move me a few degrees along the debate spectrum.

Where Pinker and I were in full agreement was in rejecting the antiquated idea of the noble savage, the idea that we are born pure and innocent, living in harmony with nature and it is civilization that corrupts us. The fossil evidence shows human on human violence and environmental destruction in primitive times. The noble savage is an idealized concept that we need to put away in order to understand the histories of all the civilizations that have failed before ours.

Where Pinker’s arguments got weak is when tackling the role of media on our perceptions. He criticizes the logic behind political correctness and efforts to have minorities portrayed respectfully:

Since images are interpreted in the context of a deeper understanding of people and their relationships, the “crisis of representation,” with its paranoia about the manipulation of our mind by media images, is overblown. People are not helplessly programmed with images; they can evaluate and interpret what they see using everything else they know, such as the credibility and motives of the source. (pinker, 216)

Putting the obvious straw man aside (no one claims we are “helplessly programmed“), what are images and language but an effort to construct context? Why do people rally against the crass distortions of perspective on Fox News? What are political advisors, advertisers, artists, and opinion columnists of all types doing but to try and move the line of scrimmage?

Pinker’s writing suffers from a wealth facts that he takes for granted on subjects he obviously hasn’t looked into with much scrutiny. He dismisses the hypothesis that the United States Constitution was in part inspired by the Iroquois Federation as “1960s granola (Pinker, 296);” however, this is an unsettled dispute among historians, and the Smithsonian has admitted to striking similarities between the two government models. He makes the claim that people irrationally lobby to remove carcinogenic chloroform from drinking water, but peanut butter 100 times more carcinogenic. This statement is pure bullox. As is his use of the Darwin awards to argue that men are gender-biased to daredevil stunts (Pinker is very fond of anecdotal evidence throughout the book).

So Pinker is prone to some unsupported claims, urban legends, and exaggerations to make his case. Nobody’s perfect, but it does give us perspective on Pinker’s approach to his subject matter.

Where Pinker makes his strongest arguments, and justifies his book, is in arguing that, just because something isn’t Nurture, doesn’t justify eugenics, discrimination, and inequality. Wherever you fall on the NvN debate, Feminism was a good thing for women and society in general. Everyone deserves the same shot at an education because, even if intelligence were hereditary, everyone must still start on the same footing. Equality makes civilization stronger regardless of NvN

While Pinker makes great strides in banishing the false division between nature and nurture, he ultimately makes the mistake of estimating it at a 50/50 ratio (pinker, 388), keeping the false dichotomy firmly in place when he should have concluded it was time to do away with it. In psychology the whole NvN debate is considered naive since nature and nurture are so interwoven that their influences are ultimately indistinguishable.

Consider the meta argument that ultimately everything is innately nature since we are ultimately products of the physical laws of our universe, and the same case is true for nurture, as we are ultimately products of the environment of those physical laws. Environment and genetics are wrapped up in one another, so let’s stop trying to pin one down as the root cause for what we are. So while Pinker is correct that Nurture is over-hyped, he is equally guilty of over-hyping Nature.

The Scientific Virtue of Being Wrong

Posted on 17th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment - Tags:

Every year Green Sea Turtles travel 1,300 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from their nesting grounds in the middle of the South Atlantic to their feeding grounds on the Brazilian Coast. Why do the turtles undertake this incredibly taxing journey each year?

135 million years ago, South America and Africa were a single super-continent called Gondwanaland. At this time, the turtles probably inhabited a small bay or sea, nesting on one side and feeding on the other.

Over time, a process known as plate tectonics split the continents apart at about the same rate your fingernails grow. The change was imperceptible to the turtles, who traveled a few inches farther each year out of habit until, millions of years later, they were migrating the incredible distances they traverse today.

Doesn’t the epic nature of this tale, crossing oceans of time, distance, and generations of turtles, just tickle the imagination delightfully? Isn’t this an absolutely fantastic hypothesis?

It’s also completely discredited1. We know this because the fossil evidence and geological timelines don’t match up. Sea Turtles didn’t evolve that way. Please don’t go around spreading this scientific urban legend.

The Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, once said, “The tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It seems like what science knows is always changing, and indeed this is the case. Every day new articles appear in peer-review journals disproving formerly established paradigms, rendering what we assumed were facts into falsehoods.

Just look at a decade’s worth of news articles on health and nutrition to see the wealth of contradictory information that field of research produces. Eat a low-fat diet. No, wait, eat a low-carb diet. Eat how many servings of meat? Dairy?

Many people characterize the mercurial nature of scientific knowledge as a weakness. Science is unstable, they argue, it claims to know the truth, but the truth doesn’t change. The fact that scientific knowledge is perpetually evolving is actually its greatest virtue, because scientists know how to admit when they are wrong.

The famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking published ground-breaking theories on Black Holes. Today we refer to the x-rays Black Holes emit as “Hawking Radiation” in his honor. In July 2004 Hawking acknowledge he was in error about a characteristic of black holes for 30 years.

The Biologist Richard Dawkins regularly tells the story of when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. A respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department there believed and taught that the Golgi Apparatus was not real. One day a visiting lecturer came and presented convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, Dawkins tells us, the elder statesman “strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said–with passion–‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red”2

Western Civilization once thought the Earth was the center of the Universe and that the stars, moon, and sun orbited around it. Then Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and other astronomers developed the theory of a Heliocentric (sun-centered) Universe. Today we know the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and our galaxy moves through the Universe as well. Because Science has the power to admit when its wrong, it has the power to grow and improve. Our understanding of reality grows and improves with it.

Daniel Dennet, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, New York, 1995. (footnote on p245)

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, United Kingdom, 2006.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences: Nature’s Explorers

Posted on 16th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Adventuring - Tags:
Fish Specimens in Jars
Fish Specimens in Jars

I have a morbid fascination with animals preserved in jars, and that’s what drew me into the Natures Explorers exhibit; however, it was not the Cabinet of Curiosities I expected to find. Instead, I met with an exhibit about the lives of those who assemble such cabinets and the history behind the practice of Naturalism.

Check out the complete flickr set here.

Response to a PLoS One Article

Posted on 13th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior - Tags:

My father, former head of the Microbiology Department at ODU, responded to an e-mail my hippie brother sent out about the recent Prozac debunking:

I seriously doubt that the PLOS Journal of Medicine, which I’ve never heard of in all my 35 years in the field, has any merit. If it even does exist, then I doubt that it is a refereed Journal which requires no less than three outside reviewers to substantiate the data, the statistics and the conclusions. While one cannot dispute the placebo effect, I wonder why this article was not submitted to a more prestigious journal.

Attention people who work at the Public Library of Science: You need to do a better job of getting the word out.

Attention Academia: You need get more involved with new media.

That is all.

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Movie You Should See: Quest for Fire

Posted on 10th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

While 10,000 BC was an over-hyped, glamorized, film that simultaneously gave too much credit to primitive humans and, at the same time, not enough, Quest for Fire takes place in 80,000 BC, at a time when there are scattered tribes of humans all at different levels of cultural advancement. These are dirty primitives, they appear parasite-ridden, some are lame, unkempt, and malnourished, as they would appear during such an era.

The film follows the Ulam tribe, which does not yet know how to make fire, and must continually feed their bonfire to keep warm. When another tribe attacks, the Ulam’s fire is extinguished, and three members of the tribe must venture out to find a flame and bring it back. Along the way these cavemen will face sabertooth tigers, mammoths, cannibals, cave bears, and tribes more advanced than their own.

Cavemen Adventurers in Quest for Fire

Cavemen Adventurers in Quest for Fire

As all dialogue is spoken in fictional languages without subtitles, we rely entirely on the actors’ actions to convey the social dynamics and primitive minds, and they are truly primitive, grunting and lurching on the screen like our primate descendents. The film is like watching a documentary with a dramatic plot, and it is rewarding watching human culture evolve on the screen as the cavemen learn concepts we take for granted.

So add this one to your netflix, it’s what 10,000 BC should have aspired to, a much more historically accurate film.

Roger Ebert also gave QFF a good review.

Movies You Can Skip: 10,000 B.C.

Posted on 10th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , ,

10,000 B.C. tells the story of a tribe of people living in what is, to my mother’s best guess, the Himalayas. All year long, the tribe looks forward to when the mammoths come migrating through their land, so they can hold their great hunt. This is actually right about the time Mammoths went extinct due to climate change and over-hunting by primitive tribes just like the one in this movie. These are hunter-gatherers, but we don’t see them do much gathering, which would have been their primary source of sustenance. I guess they focused on gathering after they finished eating all the mammoths.

Somehow this is a multi-cultural tribe, some members look Caucasian, others Asian, others North American Indian, but they all speak English with an inconsistent Arab accent in dialogue that is meant to be primitive, but is actually just really really bad. I cringed every time a character referred to a long time as, “Many Moons.”

One day a blue-eyed girl shows up, the local shaman looks into her mind and predicts “four-legged demons” would come one day, meaning men on horseback, 6,000 years before the domestication of horses. And they do come, taking much of the tribe as slaves, including the blue-eyed girl, who our well-waxed hero must go on a quest to save.

This quest takes him through the bamboo jungles of Asia and India, where he is attacked by Phororhacos, a giant predatory bird that not only lived in South America, not the Old World, but was long extinct by this time. He then somehow travels through Africa (before reaching the Middle-East), where he gathers up many African Tribes into an army, including one tribe with bones sticking out of their chins, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever (seriously, somebody please get a photo of it and explain how that works).

Eventually, they arrive at the Pyramids at Giza, which are nearly complete 7,500 years before they were actually finished, and located alone in a vast desert that was actually lush farmland, a fantastic metropolis, and one of the most advanced civilizations of the time. There are also Mammoths being used to build the Pyramids… but whatever.

The Pyramids in 10,000 B.C.

The Pyramids in 10,000 B.C.

Instead of being run by the Pharaohs, the pyramids are being built by people claiming to be gods whose city has sunk into the ocean. Thanks to my Mom the New Ager, I now know they were referring to Atlantis, a myth probably based on the Minoan civilization, which was wiped out by a volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago, 8,500 years after this movie takes place.

The slaves revolt, the oppressors are toppled with much slow motion dramatics (Yes, I know this is sort of a plot spoiler (If you’re one of those people who doesn’t know the good guys are gonna win.), but if you still plan on seeing this film after everything I’ve told you, then you deserve to have it spoiled.). The movie accurately depicts the pyramidion, the top of the Pyramid, was covered in gold leaf, but doesn’t bother to explain how the Pyramids were finished after the slaves push the pyramidion off to avalanche down one of the Pyramid’s slopes. I guess the Pharaohs could have come along thousands of years later and said, “Hey look at those half-built Pyramids! I know, let’s get some slaves and finish building them!”

The one thing the film does get right is that blue eyes was a genetic mutation that appeared between six and 10K years ago; however, this film was made before the fact was known. The director got lucky, which does give 10,000 BC one redeeming quality: proving the hypothesis that even a blind squirrel can find an occasional acorn.

Future Wonder of the World: Three Gorges Dam

Posted on 6th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment - Tags: ,
Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam Before Filling Reservoir
Image Courtesy Wikimedia
Click for a Larger Image

When Three Gorges Dam goes fully online in China in 2009, after 17 years of construction, it will be 607 feet high and 1.4 miles long. Its reservoir will be 410 miles in length and 3,700 feet in width. It will be the largest dam on Earth, and probably the largest dam our planet will ever see.

The dam’s reservoir will require the relocation of over 1.5 million people. 13 full-sized cities were leveled by the people who lived in them, brick by brick, to prevent the buildings from interfering with boat traffic. Some 1,300 archaeological sites will also be submerged.

The dam also contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin. The weight of the dam and reservoir can cause induced seismicity, or earthquakes. Over the fifteen days it took to initially fill the reservoir, there was a measurable wobble to the Earth’s spin.

Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam 2006 (top) 2000(bottom)
Image Courtesy NASA

According to a Chinese official, the dam has three main functions:

The first is to avoid floods. That’s the most crucial function. The second is to generate electricity. The third is to improve transportation.

In 1954, the river flooded, killing 33,169 people and forcing 18,884,000 to relocate. The dam will prevent such events from occurring in the future. The dam’s 32 generators will produce 700,000 kW of electricity, with a total capacity of 22.4 million kW, which will reduce coal consumption by 31 million tons per year, cutting the emission of 100 million tons of greenhouse gas. In the educational video game, Civilization IV, the dam is a World Wonder, providing power to the entire continent.

All of this comes at the astoundingly low price of 180 billion yuan ($25 billion dollars).

So remember, when talking heads say humans are too tiny and insignificant to impact the environment, refer them to Three Gorges Dam, a project with many pros and cons that has literally made the Earth tremble.


  • Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, 2006.
  • Wikipedia Entry for Three Gorges Dam.

Hey Everybody! It’s Another Global Cooling Report!

Posted on 5th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior - Tags: , , ,

I’m sure this one, unlike the last one and the one before that is for really real this time. Really. This one even made Digg, Drudge, Faux Noise, etc, etc… meaning it’s totally got legs for absolutely certain this time. Right?

The article in question openly admits that they’ve had nothing but anecdotal evidence to support their “Global Cooling” hypothesis for the last few months, but then tries to lay claim to some hard scientific evidence with the fact that there was a sudden global temperature drop in January. From this fact, they make a claim that is pretty bizarre:

The total amount of cooling ranges from 0.65C up to 0.75C — a value large enough to wipe out most of the warming recorded over the past 100 years. All in one year’s time.

Uh…??? The meteorologist and AGW Skeptic, Anthony Watts, who brought attention to this unusual, sudden temperature drop with a collection of charts surveying four sources, takes issue with this claim:

There has been no “erasure”. This is an anomaly with a large magnitude, and it coincides with other anecdotal weather evidence. It is curious, it is unusual, it is large, it is unexpected, but it does not “erase” anything. (Emphasis mine.)

DailyTech’s statement is completely nonsensical, and something only a dittohead could uncritically swallow. While I disagree strongly with his methods and reasoning, I do appreciate Anthony Watts’ urging his commenters “Don’t rush Science,” when they try to make some unsupportable leaps of logic to their conclusions.

Thirteen Month Global Temperature Drop
Global Temperature

(Red Line Added
to show the Mean)

Where I take issue with Watts, is in his repeatedly saying “12 month period,” when he is, in fact, referring to a 13 month period. February 2007 to January 2008 would be 12 months, and would have returned a slightly less dramatic delta. This is important, because Watts has moved the field goals by one month to score a bigger talking point, but is framing it as a year to match the real science.

As we can see on all the charts he provides, January 2007 was an unusually warm peak in global temperature and January 2008 was an unusually cold drop (although still above the mean). He then subtracts the extreme low from the extreme high, and… Voila! A global temperature drop.

So… big whoop. There are highs and lows all over the chart, I could subtract any of the lower temperatures following 1998’s peak and claim a global temperature drop. Would that mean a Global Cooling trend, as the dittoheads (Not Watts) are claiming? No. That would just be more anecdotal evidence. The dittoheads are cherry-picking data out of the larger trend to support their claims.

And what is that trend? Even the briefest glance at HadCRUT’s, NASA’s, UAH’s, and RSS’s hard data plainly illustrates the trend, a steady, gradual increase in temperatures. Not anecdotal evidence from comparing two Januaries, but a trend encompassing more than a century of measurements in some cases.

Even with a dramatic temperature drop over 13 months, 2007-plus-Jan08 is still an above average warm 13 month period. According to NASA’s GISS, 2007 tied for second warmest year on record, and according to the NOAA, 2007 was the fifth warmest worldwide, but then, they didn’t include January 2008, did they?

Trend VS Anecdotal Evidence
Trend VS Anecdotal Evidence

Phil Plait, the Daily Kos, Misanthropic Principle, Climate Progress, and others have all posted responses to this latest bit of pure rhetoric, but I thought it important to throw my own critical explanation for why this latest dittohead attempt to subvert science was so disingenuous.

The good news is that the Main-Stream Media wasn’t fooled for a second, which, of course, the Dittoheads took as evidence further validating their position, because we all know newspapers, news broadcasts, wikipedia, books, and scientists are all part of a vast librul conspiracy.

I wish the “liberal” media was this sloppy and illogical, then they’d link to my blog as a reference. Maybe I should switch sides and blogwhore myself out to the dittoheads. It can’t be that difficult. Lobotomies are still legal, right?

Boo-Yaaa! Janet D. stemwedel’s on my Facebook!

Posted on 28th February 2008 by Ryan Somma in Social Networking Scientists - Tags: ,

Behold the latest addition to my Facebook trophy friends!

Dr Janet D. Stemwedel
Dr (X 2) Janet D. Stemwedel
Photo by base10

Janet Stemwedel (Bio here and homepage here) has two, count ’em, two Ph.D’s. One in chemistry from Stanford University, and then went for another in Philosophy from San Jose State University.

This consilience of academic disciplines gives Dr (X 2) Stemwedel incredible powers of scientific philosophication, which she applies to her thought-provoking blog Adventures in Ethics and Science, and articles for other sites and publications, like “Getting ethics to catch on with scientists.” She also has the power to teleport ninja stars into the large intestines of her enemies, but she’s too ethical for such undistinguished tactics.

Dr Janet D. Stemwedel on my Facebook
Dr2 Janet D. Stemwedel
on my facebook

She also set up the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki, which I thought was cool, even if it was quickly forgotten and only three authors contributed to it. The issue of Opportunities for Educational online dialogues came up in her 2007 SBC talk, and are theme in her writing, like when Dr2 Stemwedel provides an example of using the Socratic Method with her kids, in an article titled Kids and Combustion, where I learned something myself. I pity any fool who would dare slur the Stemwedel family name, for Dr.2 Stemwedel would quickly harness the power of her twin doctorates and dispatch the adversary with a deadly Occam’s Razor attack, which makes even Ryo from Streetfighter tremble in fear.

Janet Stemwedel, Ph.D (X 2)’s Tribe of Science posts interest me most, delving into issues of scientists policing one another, science culture, and provides a continuing line of thought about what science is and what are the best way to bring out its best qualities. I think this dialogue, like the dialogue with her children, is the best method (however cool the ninja-Ph.D. thing would be). So she is highly successful in her efforts to promote ethical science, education, and blogging by simply keeping people thinking and discussing it.

Can you believe there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for this remarkable blogger??? I hypothesize early wikipedians were struck with sudden amnesia from out-of-nowhere psionic-attacks for daring to reveal the identity of Dr. Free-Ride as she was known in her former, anonymous blog-life. Don’t let the sweet, motherly façade lull you into a false sense of security. : )

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