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  • richardmitnick 9:15 am on June 23, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Scientific Method   

    From Nautilus: “The Lessons of a Ghost Planet” 



    June 23, 2016
    Thomas Levenson

    Vulcan shows us science beyond the scientific method.

    Sometime between November 11 and 18, 1915, Albert Einstein began a brief calculation. In 14 numbered steps he analyzed the orbit of Mercury to explain a minor anomaly that had defied astronomers for more than 50 years.

    Sorting out a tiny detail of celestial mechanics doesn’t seem terribly exciting—and yet Einstein reported to friends that when he saw the last numbers appear, confirming that his theory matched observation, he felt his heart literally shudder in his chest. The reason: Correctly analyzing the orbit of Mercury was the first confirmation of his account of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity. This is just as Richard Feynman would later say science works. It is, he would say, “a special method of finding things out.” But what makes it special? The way its answers get confirmed or denied: “Observation is the judge”—the only judge as the catechism goes—“of whether something is so or not.” [1]

    This is what every beginning scientist learns to call the scientific method, which goes pretty much as this online guide puts it: You “Construct a Hypothesis” to “Test with an Experiment” (or an observation), and then you “Analyze Results” and “Draw Conclusions.” If the results don’t match your expectation, it’s back to step one.

    Laid out like that, the scientific method becomes an intellectual extruder: data in one end, knowledge out the other. There’s only one problem: Science—even when it’s Albert Einstein at the controls—doesn’t work like that.

    To see why, consider those who worked on Mercury before Einstein solved the problem. Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier was the greatest mathematical astronomer of the mid-19th century. In 1846, he discovered Neptune “at the tip of his pen”—using Newton’s law of gravity to predict the existence of an unseen body, whose gravitational tug on Uranus could account for wobbles in the known planet’s orbit. Nine years later, he analyzed Mercury’s motion and found another anomaly—a tiny shift in its orbit that couldn’t be explained by Venus or Jupiter or any other object in the solar system. Using the same logic that had led him to Neptune, Le Verrier again predicted the existence of an unseen planet very close to the sun. That hypothetical object swiftly gained a name: Vulcan.

    No image caption. No image credit.

    The chain of reasoning was impeccable—and apparently confirmed when the first reports of Vulcan sightings arrived, just months after the prediction. Le Verrier himself validated the very first claim—and even though none of the dozen or more “discoveries” announced over the next two decades were replicated, he remained convinced of the reality of Vulcan until his death.

    The last person to be certain he’d actually seen Vulcan was famed asteroid hunter James Craig Watson, director of the Michigan Observatory. Viewing a total eclipse of the sun in 1878, Watson saw very close to the limb of the sun “a ruddy star whose magnitude I estimated to be 4 ½”—just where Vulcan ought to have been.

    Two years later Watson died, like Le Verrier going to his grave convinced that he’d found a new planet. Both men were good scientists, Le Verrier legitimately a great one. Le Verrier performed enormously difficult calculations that applied Newton’s theory to the fine-grained structure of reality. The logic behind his prediction of Vulcan was impeccable. His identification of the anomaly in Mercury’s orbit was and remains correct: Mercury orbit really does wobble, just as he said it did.

    Watson did what Feynman said should be done: Put theory to the test of direct observation of nature. But here the simple picture of the scientific method as a perfect machine for making knowledge breaks down: Neither man accepted the verdict nature tried to render. The case for Vulcan was too strong—it seemed—for mere observation to wreck such a beautiful idea. They wanted to believe, and they did, to the end.

    Why? Because, simply and unsurprisingly, scientists, like any human, both think and feel. They are subject to desire, ambition, pleasure in perceived beauty. In the long run—as when Einstein finally offered a new idea to replace Newton’s, and thus explained away the anomaly that seemed to demand Vulcan—science truly is self-correcting. Day by day, though, human hopes and expectations constrain what any single scientist can bring him or herself to accept—and that’s not an indictment of either the individual or the enterprise. Rather, it is how imperfect humans collectively (and fitfully) achieve a progressively more accurate grasp of the material world.

    That’s true even for the greatest scientists, and it holds even when what seems like a breakthrough really is one. In the cartoon version of the scientific method, Einstein’s pursuit of gravity should have begun from the realization that Mercury’s misbehavior suggested a problem with Newton’s gravitation. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Einstein noticed a contradiction between his first great result, the special theory of relativity, and Newton’s ideas. It was that conflict of ideas, and not some confounding observation, that led him to the ultimate prize.

    Vulcan in the 21st century is just another of the uncounted plausible ideas that didn’t work—and it’s mostly forgotten, along with those who championed it. General relativity stands as one of the greatest individual accomplishments in the history of science. And yet, Le Verrier and Watson each thrilled at the appearance of Vulcan in their mathematics and their telescope; Einstein’s heart leapt as he realized that he had just captured a piece of nature no one before him had seen. There’s no method in such moments. But there is a lot of science—as scientists live it.


    1. Feynman, R. The Meaning of It All, Basic Books, New York, NY (1998).

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  • richardmitnick 11:55 am on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NOVA: “Does Science Need Falsifiability?” 



    11 Feb 2015
    Kate Becker

    If a theory doesn’t make a testable prediction, it isn’t science.

    It’s a basic axiom of the scientific method, dubbed “falsifiability” by the 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper. General relativity passes the falsifiability test because, in addition to elegantly accounting for previously-observed phenomena like the precession of Mercury’s orbit, it also made predictions about as-yet-unseen effects—how light should bend around the Sun, the way clocks should seem to run slower in a strong gravitational field, and others that have since been borne out by experiment. On the other hand, theories like Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis failed the falsifiability test—in Popper’s mind, at least—because they could be twisted to explain nearly any “data” about the world. As Wolfgang Pauli is said to have put it, skewering one student’s apparently unfalsifiable idea, “This isn’t right. It’s not even wrong.”

    Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson, adapted under a Creative Commons license.

    Now, some physicists and philosophers think it is time to reconsider the notion of falsifiability. Could a theory that provides an elegant and accurate account of the world around us—even if its predictions can’t be tested by today’s experiments, or tomorrow’s—still “count” as science?
    “We are in various ways hitting the limits of what will ever be testable.”

    As theory pulls further and further ahead of the capabilities of experiment, physicists are taking this question seriously. “We are in various ways hitting the limits of what will ever be testable, unless we have misunderstood some essential point about the nature of reality,” says theoretical cosmologist George Ellis. “We have now seen all the visible universe (i.e back to the visual horizon) and only gravitational waves remain to test further; and we are approaching the limits of what particle colliders it will ever be feasible to build, for economic and technical reasons.”

    Case in point: String theory. The darling of many theorists, string theory represents the basic building blocks of matter as vibrating strings. The strings take on different properties depending on their modes of vibration, just as the strings of a violin produce different notes depending on how they are played. To string theorists, the whole universe is a boisterous symphony performed upon these strings.

    It’s a lovely idea. Lovelier yet, string theory could unify general relativity with quantum mechanics, solving what is perhaps the most stubborn problem in fundamental physics. The trouble? To put string theory to the test, we may need experiments that operate at energies far higher than any modern collider. It’s possible that experimental tests of the predictions of string theory will never be within our reach.

    Meanwhile, cosmologists have found themselves at a similar impasse. We live in a universe that is, by some estimations, too good to be true. The fundamental constants of nature and the cosmological constant [usually denoted by the Greek capital letter lambda: Λ], which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe, seem “fine-tuned” to allow galaxies and stars to form. As Anil Ananthaswamy wrote elsewhere on this blog, “Tweak the charge on an electron, for instance, or change the strength of the gravitational force or the strong nuclear force just a smidgen, and the universe would look very different, and likely be lifeless.”

    Why do these numbers, which are essential features of the universe and cannot be derived from more fundamental quantities, appear to conspire for our comfort?

    One answer goes: If they were different, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.

    This is called the “anthropic principle,” and if you think it feels like a cosmic punt, you’re not alone. Researchers have been trying to underpin our apparent stroke of luck with hard science for decades. String theory suggests a solution: It predicts that our universe is just one among a multitude of universes, each with its own fundamental constants. If the cosmic lottery has played out billions of times, it isn’t so remarkable that the winning numbers for life should come up at least once.

    In fact, you can reason your way to the “multiverse” in at least four different ways, according to MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s accounting. The tricky part is testing the idea. You can’t send or receive messages from neighboring universes, and most formulations of multiverse theory don’t make any testable predictions. Yet the theory provides a neat solution to the fine-tuning problem. Must we throw it out because it fails the falsifiability test?

    “It would be completely non-scientific to ignore that possibility just because it doesn’t conform with some preexisting philosophical prejudices,” says Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, who called for the “retirement” of the falsifiability principle in a controversial essay for Edge last year. Falsifiability is “just a simple motto that non-philosophically-trained scientists have latched onto,” argues Carroll. He also bristles at the notion that this viewpoint can be summed up as “elegance will suffice,” as Ellis put it in a stinging Nature comment written with cosmologist Joe Silk.

    “Elegance can help us invent new theories, but does not count as empirical evidence in their favor,” says Carroll. “The criteria we use for judging theories are how good they are at accounting for the data, not how pretty or seductive or intuitive they are.”

    But Ellis and Silk worry that if physicists abandon falsifiability, they could damage the public’s trust in science and scientists at a time when that trust is critical to policymaking. “This battle for the heart and soul of physics is opening up at a time when scientific results—in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution—are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists,” Ellis and Silk wrote in Nature.

    “The fear is that it would become difficult to separate such ‘science’ from New Age thinking, or science fiction,” says Ellis. If scientists backpedal on falsifiability, Ellis fears, intellectual disputes that were once resolved by experiment will devolve into never-ending philosophical feuds, and both the progress and the reputation of science will suffer.

    But Carroll argues that he is simply calling for greater openness and honesty about the way science really happens. “I think that it’s more important than ever that scientists tell the truth. And the truth is that in practice, falsifiability is not a good criterion for telling science from non-science,” he says.

    Perhaps “falsifiability” isn’t up to shouldering the full scientific and philosophical burden that’s been placed on it. “Sean is right that ‘falsifiability’ is a crude slogan that fails to capture what science really aims at,” argues MIT computer scientist Scott Aaronson, writing on his blog Shtetl Optimized. Yet, writes Aaronson, “falsifiability shouldn’t be ‘retired.’ Instead, falsifiability’s portfolio should be expanded, with full-time assistants (like explanatory power) hired to lighten falsifiability’s load.”

    “I think falsifiability is not a perfect criterion, but it’s much less pernicious than what’s being served up by the ‘post-empirical’ faction,” says Frank Wilczek, a physicist at MIT. “Falsifiability is too impatient, in some sense,” putting immediate demands on theories that are not yet mature enough to meet them. “It’s an important discipline, but if it is applied too rigorously and too early, it can be stifling.”

    So, where do we go from here?

    “We need to rethink these issues in a philosophically sophisticated way that also takes the best interpretations of fundamental science, and its limitations, seriously,” says Ellis. “Maybe we have to accept uncertainty as a profound aspect of our understanding of the universe in cosmology as well as particle physics.”

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  • richardmitnick 5:06 am on February 5, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NatGeo: “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” 

    National Geographic

    National Geographics

    For publication March 2015
    By Joel Achenbach
    Photographs by Richard Barnes


    We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from climate change to vaccinations—faces furious opposition.
    Some even have doubts about the moon landing.

    There’s a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s comic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove in which Jack D. Ripper, an American general who’s gone rogue and ordered a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, unspools his paranoid worldview—and the explanation for why he drinks “only distilled water, or rainwater, and only pure grain alcohol”—to Lionel Mandrake, a dizzy-with-anxiety group captain in the Royal Air Force.

    Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?

    Mandrake: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes, yes.

    Ripper: Well, do you know what it is?

    Mandrake: No. No, I don’t know what it is. No.

    Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?

    The movie came out in 1964, by which time the health benefits of fluoridation had been thoroughly established, and antifluoridation conspiracy theories could be the stuff of comedy. So you might be surprised to learn that, half a century later, fluoridation continues to incite fear and paranoia. In 2013 citizens in Portland, Oregon, one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate their water, blocked a plan by local officials to do so. Opponents didn’t like the idea of the government adding “chemicals” to their water. They claimed that fluoride could be harmful to human health.

    Actually fluoride is a natural mineral that, in the weak concentrations used in public drinking water systems, hardens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay—a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone, rich or poor, conscientious brusher or not. That’s the scientific and medical consensus.

    To which some people in Portland, echoing antifluoridation activists around the world, reply: We don’t believe you.

    We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme. In the recent movie Interstellar, set in a futuristic, downtrodden America where NASA has been forced into hiding, school textbooks say the Apollo moon landings were faked.

    In a sense all this is not surprising. Our lives are permeated by science and technology as never before. For many of us this new world is wondrous, comfortable, and rich in rewards—but also more complicated and sometimes unnerving. We now face risks we can’t easily analyze.

    We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.

    The world crackles with real and imaginary hazards, and distinguishing the former from the latter isn’t easy. Should we be afraid that the Ebola virus, which is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids, will mutate into an airborne superplague? The scientific consensus says that’s extremely unlikely: No virus has ever been observed to completely change its mode of transmission in humans, and there’s zero evidence that the latest strain of Ebola is any different. But type “airborne Ebola” into an Internet search engine, and you’ll enter a dystopia where this virus has almost supernatural powers, including the power to kill us all.

    In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that method doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble, again and again.

    Square Intuitions Die Hard
    That the Earth is round has been known since antiquity—Columbus knew he wouldn’t sail off the edge of the world—but alternative geographies persisted even after circumnavigations had become common. This 1893 map by Orlando Ferguson, a South Dakota businessman, is a loopy variation on 19th-century flat-Earth beliefs. Flat-Earthers held that the planet was centered on the North Pole and bounded by a wall of ice, with the sun, moon, and planets a few hundred miles above the surface. Science often demands that we discount our direct sensory experiences—such as seeing the sun cross the sky as if circling the Earth—in favor of theories that challenge our beliefs about our place in the universe.

    The trouble goes way back, of course. The scientific method leads us to truths that are less than self-evident, often mind-blowing, and sometimes hard to swallow. In the early 17th century, when Galileo claimed that the Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun, he wasn’t just rejecting church doctrine. He was asking people to believe something that defied common sense—because it sure looks like the sun’s going around the Earth, and you can’t feel the Earth spinning. Galileo was put on trial and forced to recant. Two centuries later Charles Darwin escaped that fate. But his idea that all life on Earth evolved from a primordial ancestor and that we humans are distant cousins of apes, whales, and even deep-sea mollusks is still a big ask for a lot of people. So is another 19th-century notion: that carbon dioxide, an invisible gas that we all exhale all the time and that makes up less than a tenth of one percent of the atmosphere, could be affecting Earth’s climate.

    Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions—what researchers call our naive beliefs. A recent study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College showed that even students with an advanced science education had a hitch in their mental gait when asked to affirm or deny that humans are descended from sea animals or that Earth goes around the sun. Both truths are counterintuitive. The students, even those who correctly marked “true,” were slower to answer those questions than questions about whether humans are descended from tree-dwelling creatures (also true but easier to grasp) or whether the moon goes around the Earth (also true but intuitive). Shtulman’s research indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They lurk in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.

    Most of us do that by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer—and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous waste dump, and we assume pollution caused the cancers. Yet just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not still random.

    We have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning. Science warns us, however, that we can deceive ourselves. To be confident there’s a causal connection between the dump and the cancers, you need statistical analysis showing that there are many more cancers than would be expected randomly, evidence that the victims were exposed to chemicals from the dump, and evidence that the chemicals really can cause cancer.

    Evolution on Trial
    In 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, where John Scopes was standing trial for teaching evolution in high school, a creationist bookseller hawked his wares. Modern biology makes no sense without the concept of evolution, but religious activists in the United States continue to demand that creationism be taught as an alternative in biology class. When science conflicts with a person’s core beliefs, it usually loses.

    Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe. But unlike the rest of us, they submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them. Once their results are published, if they’re important enough, other scientists will try to reproduce them—and, being congenitally skeptical and competitive, will be very happy to announce that they don’t hold up. Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.

    Sometimes scientists fall short of the ideals of the scientific method. Especially in biomedical research, there’s a disturbing trend toward results that can’t be reproduced outside the lab that found them, a trend that has prompted a push for greater transparency about how experiments are conducted. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, worries about the “secret sauce”—specialized procedures, customized software, quirky ingredients—that researchers don’t share with their colleagues. But he still has faith in the larger enterprise.

    “Science will find the truth,” Collins says. “It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth.” That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with. To some climate change skeptics, for example, the fact that a few scientists in the 1970s were worried (quite reasonably, it seemed at the time) about the possibility of a coming ice age is enough to discredit the concern about global warming now.

    Last fall the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which consists of hundreds of scientists operating under the auspices of the United Nations, released its fifth report in the past 25 years. This one repeated louder and clearer than ever the consensus of the world’s scientists: The planet’s surface temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years, and human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels, are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the warming since the mid-20th century. Many people in the United States—a far greater percentage than in other countries—retain doubts about that consensus or believe that climate activists are using the threat of global warming to attack the free market and industrial society generally. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the most powerful Republican voices on environmental matters, has long declared global warming a hoax.

    The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another. It’s very clear, however, that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.

    The news media give abundant attention to such mavericks, naysayers, professional controversialists, and table thumpers. The media would also have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that it usually advances incrementally, through the steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years. So it has been with the consensus on climate change. That’s not about to go poof with the next thermometer reading.

    But industry PR, however misleading, isn’t enough to explain why only 40 percent of Americans, according to the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center, accept that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming.

    The “science communication problem,” as it’s blandly called by the scientists who study it, has yielded abundant new research into how people decide what to believe—and why they so often don’t accept the scientific consensus. It’s not that they can’t grasp it, according to Dan Kahan of Yale University. In one study he asked 1,540 Americans, a representative sample, to rate the threat of climate change on a scale of zero to ten. Then he correlated that with the subjects’ science literacy. He found that higher literacy was associated with stronger views—at both ends of the spectrum. Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus. According to Kahan, that’s because people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview.

    Americans fall into two basic camps, Kahan says. Those with a more “egalitarian” and “communitarian” mind-set are generally suspicious of industry and apt to think it’s up to something dangerous that calls for government regulation; they’re likely to see the risks of climate change. In contrast, people with a “hierarchical” and “individualistic” mind-set respect leaders of industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; they’re apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to—some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions.

    In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.

    “Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina,” Kahan has written. “Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.”

    Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”

    Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for climate skeptics and doubters of all kinds to find their own information and experts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions—elite universities, encyclopedias, major news organizations, even National Geographic—served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democratized information, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, it has made it possible to live in a “filter bubble” that lets in only the information with which you already agree.

    How to penetrate the bubble? How to convert climate skeptics? Throwing more facts at them doesn’t help. Liz Neeley, who helps train scientists to be better communicators at an organization called Compass, says that people need to hear from believers they can trust, who share their fundamental values. She has personal experience with this. Her father is a climate change skeptic and gets most of his information on the issue from conservative media. In exasperation she finally confronted him: “Do you believe them or me?” She told him she believes the scientists who research climate change and knows many of them personally. “If you think I’m wrong,” she said, “then you’re telling me that you don’t trust me.” Her father’s stance on the issue softened. But it wasn’t the facts that did it.

    If you’re a rationalist, there’s something a little dispiriting about all this. In Kahan’s descriptions of how we decide what to believe, what we decide sometimes sounds almost incidental. Those of us in the science-communication business are as tribal as anyone else, he told me. We believe in scientific ideas not because we have truly evaluated all the evidence but because we feel an affinity for the scientific community. When I mentioned to Kahan that I fully accept evolution, he said, “Believing in evolution is just a description about you. It’s not an account of how you reason.”

    Maybe—except that evolution actually happened. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines really do save lives. Being right does matter—and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right.

    Doubting science also has consequences. The people who believe vaccines cause autism—often well educated and affluent, by the way—are undermining “herd immunity” to such diseases as whooping cough and measles. The anti-vaccine movement has been going strong since the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet published a study in 1998 linking a common vaccine to autism. The journal later retracted the study, which was thoroughly discredited. But the notion of a vaccine-autism connection has been endorsed by celebrities and reinforced through the usual Internet filters. (Anti-vaccine activist and actress Jenny McCarthy famously said on the Oprah Winfrey Show, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.”)

    In the climate debate the consequences of doubt are likely global and enduring. In the U.S., climate change skeptics have achieved their fundamental goal of halting legislative action to combat global warming. They haven’t had to win the debate on the merits; they’ve merely had to fog the room enough to keep laws governing greenhouse gas emissions from being enacted.

    Some environmental activists want scientists to emerge from their ivory towers and get more involved in the policy battles. Any scientist going that route needs to do so carefully, says Liz Neeley. “That line between science communication and advocacy is very hard to step back from,” she says. In the debate over climate change the central allegation of the skeptics is that the science saying it’s real and a serious threat is politically tinged, driven by environmental activism and not hard data. That’s not true, and it slanders honest scientists. But it becomes more likely to be seen as plausible if scientists go beyond their professional expertise and begin advocating specific policies.

    It’s their very detachment, what you might call the cold-bloodedness of science, that makes science the killer app. It’s the way science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be. Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else—but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.

    Scientific thinking has to be taught, and sometimes it’s not taught well, McNutt says. Students come away thinking of science as a collection of facts, not a method. Shtulman’s research has shown that even many college students don’t really understand what evidence is. The scientific method doesn’t come naturally—but if you think about it, neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse, doing things pretty much as our ancestors did.

    Now we have incredibly rapid change, and it’s scary sometimes. It’s not all progress. Our science has made us the dominant organisms, with all due respect to ants and blue-green algae, and we’re changing the whole planet. Of course we’re right to ask questions about some of the things science and technology allow us to do. “Everybody should be questioning,” says McNutt. “That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.” We need to get a lot better at finding answers, because it’s certain the questions won’t be getting any simpler.

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  • richardmitnick 1:57 pm on January 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Scientific Method,   

    From NPR: “The Most Dangerous Ideas In Science” 


    National Public Radio (NPR)

    January 27, 2015
    Adam Frank, University of Rochester

    Some physicists are pushing back against ideas like string theory and the multiverse. Here, we see a computer-generated image of a black hole, which might, ultimately, be explained by ideas like string theory.

    There’s a battle going on at the edge of the universe, but it’s getting fought right here on Earth. With roots stretching back as far as the ancient Greeks, in the eyes of champions on either side, this fight is a contest over nothing less than the future of science. It’s a conflict over the biggest cosmic questions humans can ask and the methods we use — or can use — to get answers for those questions.

    Cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole: its structure, its origins and its fate. Fundamental physics is the study of reality’s bedrock entities and their interactions. With these job descriptions it’s no surprise that cosmology and fundamental physics share a lot of territory. You can’t understand how the universe evolves after the Big Bang (a cosmology question) without understanding how matter, energy, space and time interact (a fundamental physics question). Recently, however, something remarkable has been happening in both these fields that’s raising hackles with some scientists. As physicists George Ellis and Joseph Silk recently put it in Nature:

    “This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.”

    The root of the problem rests with two ideas/theories now central for some workers in cosmology (even if they remain problematic for physicists as a whole). The first is string theory, which posits that the world is made up not of point particles but of tiny vibrating strings. String theory only works if the universe has many “extra” dimensions of space other than the three we experience. The second idea is the so-called multiverse which, in its most popular form, claims more than one distinct universe emerged from the Big Bang. Instead, adherents claim, there may be an almost infinite (if not truly infinite) number of parallel “pocket universes,” each with their own version of physics.

    Both string theory and the multiverse are big, bold reformulations of what we mean when we say the words “physical reality.” That is reason enough for them to be contentious topics in scientific circles. But in the pursuit of these ideas, something else — something new — has emerged. Rather than focusing just on questions about the nature of the cosmos, the new developments raise critical questions about the basic rules of science [scientific method] when applied to something like the universe as a whole.

    Here is the problem: Both string theory and the multiverse posit entities that may, in principle or in practice, be unobservable. Evidence for the extra dimensions needed to make string theory work is likely to require a particle accelerator of astronomical proportions. And the other pocket universes making up the multiverse may lie permanently over our “horizon,” such that we will never get direct observations of their existence. It’s this specific aspect of the theories that has scientists like Ellis and Silk so concerned. As they put it:

    “These unprovable hypotheses are quite different from those that relate directly to the real world and that are testable through observations — such as the standard model of particle physics and the existence of dark matter and dark energy. As we see it, theoretical physics risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics and philosophy that does not truly meet the requirements of any.”

    What they, and others, find particularly worrisome is the claim that our attempts to push back frontiers in cosmology and fundamental physics have taken us into a new domain where new rules of science are needed. Some call this domain “post-empirical” science. Recently, for example, the philosopher of physics Richard Dawid has argued that in spite of the fact that no evidence for string theory exists (even after three decades of intense study), it must still be considered the best candidate for a path forward. As Dawid puts it, such arguments include “no-one has found a good alternative to string theory. Another [reason to accept string theory is] one uses the observation that theories without alternatives tended to be viable in the past.”

    Sean Carroll, a highly respected and philosophically astute physicist, takes a different approach from Dawid. For Carroll, it is the concept of falsifiability, which was central to Sir Karl Raimund Popper’s famous philosophy of science, that is too limited for the playing fields we now find ourselves working on. As Carroll writes:

    “Whether or not we can observe [extra dimensions or other universes] directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

    Thus, for Carroll, even if a theory predicts entities that can’t be directly observed, if there are indirect consequences of their existence we can confirm, then those theories (and those entities) must be included in our considerations.

    Other scientists, however, are not convinced. High-energy physicist Sabine Hossenfelder called Dawid’s kind of post-empirical science an “oxymoron.” More importantly, for scientists like Paul Steinhardt and collaborators, the new ideas are becoming “post-modern.” They use the term in the sense that without more definitive connections to data, the ideas will not be abandoned because a community exists that continues to support them.

    This is the possibility that troubles Ellis and Silk most of all:

    “In our view, the issue boils down to clarifying one question: What potential observational or experimental evidence is there that would persuade you that the theory is wrong and lead you to abandoning it? If there is none, it is not a scientific theory.”

    String theory and the multiverse are exciting ideas in and of themselves. If either one were true, it would have revolutionary consequences for our understanding of the cosmos. But, as debates about post-empirical science and falsifiability demonstrate, critics of these untested theories fear they may be leading the field down a difficult — and ultimately damaging — path. That’s why, one way or another, they may be science’s most dangerous ideas.

    See the full article here.

    My indebtedness to Don Lincoln of FNAL for pointing out this article using a Facebook post. Thanks, Dr Lincoln

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    • s7hummel 1:48 am on January 29, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      was a little empty without YOU! Welcome back!


    • richardmitnick 3:51 am on January 29, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I don’t understand your comment. I approved it just to ask you what you mean. I have been posting constantly.


    • s7hummel 2:03 am on January 30, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      seemed to me that a few days there was no your entries. But maybe i missed something. Indeed, what can YOU expect from a stupid Pole. Sorry!


    • richardmitnick 4:34 am on January 30, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Hey, no problem. I am glad to have you aboard. I hope that you continue to find articles interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  • richardmitnick 7:21 am on January 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Scientific Method,   

    From Byron Jennings at Quantum Diaries: “String Theory and the Scientific Method” 

    Jan 9, 2015

    Byron Jennings, Triumf Lab

    It seems some disagreements are interminable: the Anabaptists versus the Calvinists, capitalism versus communism, the Hatfields versus the McCoys, or string theorists versus their detractors. It is the latter I will discuss here although the former may be more interesting. This essay is motivated by a comment in the December 16, 2014 issue of Nature by George Ellis and Joe Silk. The comment takes issue with attempts by some string theorists and cosmologists to redefine the scientific method by eliminating the need for experimental testing and relying on elegance or similar criteria instead. I have a lot of sympathy with Ellis and Silk’s point of view but believe that it is up to scientists to define what science is and that hoping for deliverance by outside people, like philosophers, is doomed to failure.

    To understand what science is and what science is not, we need a well-defined model for how science behaves. Providing that well-defined model is the motivation behind each of my essays. The scientific method is quite simple: build models of how the universe works based on observation and simplicity. Then test them by comparing their predictions against new observation. Simplicity is needed since observations underdetermine the models (see for example: Willard Quine’s (1908 –2000) essay: The Two Dogmas of Empiricism). Note also that what we do is build models: the standard model of particle physics, the nuclear shell model, string theory, etc. Quine refers to the internals of the models as myths and fictions. Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) talks of conventions and Hans Vaihinger (1852 –1933) of the philosophy of as if otherwise known as fictionalism. Thus it is important to remember that our models, even the so-called theory of everything, are only models and not reality.

    The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

    Partly filled valence orbitals for both neutrons and protons appear at energies over the filled inert core orbitals, in the shell model of the atomic nucleus

    It is the feedback loop of observation, model building and testing against new observation that define science and give it its successes. Let me repeat: The feedback loop is essential. To see why, consider example of astrology and why scientists reject it. Its practitioners consider it to be the very essence of elegance. Astrology uses careful measurements of current planetary locations and mathematics to predict their future locations, but it is based on an epistemology that places more reliance on the eloquence of ancient wisdom than on observation. Hence there is no attempt to test astrological predictions against observations. That would go against their fundamental principles of eloquence and the superiority of received knowledge to observation. Just as well, since astrological predictions routinely fail. Astrology’s failures provide a warning to those who wish to replace prediction and simplicity with other criteria. The testing of predictions against observation and simplicity are hard taskmasters and it would be nice to escape their tyranny but that path is fraught with danger, as astrology illustrates. The feedback loop from science has even been picked up by the business management community and has been built into the very structure of the management standards (see ISO Annex SL for example). It would be shame if management became more scientific than physics.

    But back to string theory. Gravity has always been a tough nut to crack. [Sir] Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) proposed the decidedly inelegant idea of instantaneous action at a distance and it served well until 1905 and the development of special theory of relativity. Newton’s theory of gravity and special relativity are inconsistent since the latter rules out instantaneous action at a distance. In 1916, Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) with an honorable mention to David Hilbert (1862 – 1943) proposed the general theory of relativity to solve the problem. In 1919, the prediction of the general theory of relativity for the bending of light by the sun was confirmed by an observation by [Sir] Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944). Notice the progression: conflict between two models, proposed solution, confirmed prediction, and then acceptance.

    Like special relativity and Newtonian gravity, general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible with one another. This has led to attempts to generate a combined theory. Currently string theory is the most popular candidate, but it seems to be stuck at the stage general relativity was in 1917 or maybe even 1915: a complicated (some would say elegant, others messy) mathematical theory but unconfirmed by experiment. Although progress is definitely being made, string theory may stay where it is for a long time. The problem is that the natural scale of quantum gravity is the Planck mass and this scale is beyond what we can explore directly by experiment. However, there is one place that quantum gravity may have left observable traces and that is in its role in the early Universe. There are experimental hints that may indicate a signature in the cosmic microwave background radiation but we must await further experimental results. In the meantime, we must accept that current theories of quantum gravity are doubly uncertain. Uncertain, in the first instance, because, like all scientific models, they may be rendered obsolete by new a understanding and uncertain, in the second instance, because they have not been experimentally verified through testable predictions.

    Cosmic Background Radiation Planck
    Cosmic Microwave Background per ESA/Planck

    ESA Planck

    Let’s now turn to the question of multiverses. This is an even worse dog’s breakfast than quantum gravity. The underlying problem is the fine tuning of the fundamental constants needed in order for life as we know it to exist. What is needed for life, as we do not know it, to exist is unknown. There are two popular ideas for why the Universe is fined tuned. One is that the constants were fine-tuned by an intelligent designer to allow for life as we know it. This explanation has the problem that by itself it can explain anything but predict nothing. An alternate is that there are many possible universes, all existing, and we are simply in the one where we can exist. This explanation has the problem that by itself it can explain anything but predict nothing. It is ironic that to avoid an intelligent designer, a solution based on an equally dubious just so story is proposed. Since we are into just so stories, perhaps we can compromise by having the intelligent designer choosing one of the multiverses as the one true Universe. This leaves the question of who the one true intelligent designer is. As an old farm boy, I find the idea that Audhumbla, the cow of the Norse creation myth, is the intelligent designer to be the most elegant. Besides the idea of elegance, as a deciding criterion in science, has a certain bovine aspect to it. Who decides what constitutes elegance? Everyone thinks their own creation is the most elegant. This is only possible in Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average (A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION – Garrison Keillor (b. 1942)). Not being in Lake Wobegon, we need objective criteria for what constitutes elegance. Good luck with that one.

    Some may think the discussion in the last paragraph is frivolous, and quite by design it is. This is to illustrate the point that once we allow the quest for knowledge to escape from the rigors of the scientific method’s feedback loop all bets are off and we have no objective reason to rule out astrology or even the very elegant Audhumbla. However, the idea of an intelligent designer or multiverses can still be saved if they are an essential part of a model with a track record of successful predictions. For example, if that animal I see in my lane is Fenrir, the great gray wolf, and not just a passing coyote, then the odds swing in favor of Audhumbla as the intelligent designer and Ragnarok is not far off. More likely, evidence will eventually be found in the cosmic microwave background or elsewhere for some variant of quantum gravity. Until then, patience (on both sides) is a virtue.

    See the full article here.

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    Brookhaven Lab


  • richardmitnick 10:28 am on December 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Scientific Method,   

    From Ethan Siegel: “Does the Scientific Method need Revision?” 

    Starts with a bang
    Starts with a Bang

    Dec 18, 2014
    Ethan Siegel

    Does the prevalence of untestable theories in cosmology and quantum gravity require us to change what we mean by a scientific theory?

    Theoretical physics has problems. That’s nothing new — if it wasn’t so, then we’d have nothing left to do. But especially in high energy physics and quantum gravity, progress has basically stalled since the development of the standard model in the mid 70s. Yes, we’ve discovered a new particle every now and then. Yes, we’ve collected loads of data. But the fundamental constituents of our theories, quantum field theory and Riemannian geometry, haven’t changed since that time.

    The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

    Everybody has their own favorite explanation for why this is so and what can be done about it. One major factor is certainly that the low hanging fruits have been picked, and progress slows as we have to climb farther up the tree. Today, we have to invest billions of dollars into experiments that are testing new ranges of parameter space, build colliders, shoot telescopes into orbit, have superclusters flip their flops. The days in which history was made by watching your bathtub spill over are gone.

    Image credit: © NEWSru.com, via http://www.newsru.com/world/07mar2006/otkrr.html.

    Another factor is arguably that the questions are getting technically harder while our brains haven’t changed all that much. Yes, now we have computers to help us, but these are, at least for now, chewing and digesting the food we feed them, not cooking their own.

    Taken together, this means that return on investment must slow down as we learn more about nature. Not so surprising.

    Still, it is a frustrating situation and this makes you wonder if not there are other reasons for lack of progress, reasons that we can do something about. Especially in a time when we really need a game changer, some breakthrough technology, clean energy, that warp drive, a transporter! Anything to get us off the road to Facebook, sorry, I meant self-destruction.

    Images credit: Pawel Kuczynski, via http://www.pawelkuczynski.com/Strona-g-owna/Home/index.php.

    It is our lacking understanding of space, time, matter, and their quantum behavior that prevents us from better using what nature has given us. And it is this frustration that lead people inside and outside the community to argue we’re doing something wrong, that the social dynamics in the field is troubled, that we’ve lost our path, that we are not making progress because we keep working on unscientific theories.

    Is that so?

    It’s not like we haven’t tried to make headway on finding the quantum nature of space and time. The arxiv categories hep-th and gr-qc are full every day with supposedly new ideas. But so far, not a single one of the existing approaches towards quantum gravity has any evidence speaking for it.

    Image credit: Brianna T. Wedge of deviantART, via http://briannatwedge.deviantart.com/.

    To me the reason this has happened is obvious: We haven’t paid enough attention to experimentally testing quantum gravity. One cannot develop a scientific theory without experimental input. It’s never happened before and it will never happen. Without data, a theory isn’t science. Without experimental test, quantum gravity isn’t physics.

    Image credit: CERN / IOP publishing, via http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/28263/1/cernphysw1_7-00.

    If you think that more attention is now being paid to quantum gravity phenomenology, you are mistaken. Yes, I’ve heard them too, the lip confessions by people who want to keep on dwelling on their fantasies. But the reality is there is no funding for quantum gravity phenomenology and there are no jobs either. On the rare occasions that I have seen quantum gravity phenomenology mentioned on a job posting, the position was filled with somebody working on the theory, I am tempted to say, working on mathematics rather than physics.

    It is beyond me that funding agencies invest money into developing a theory of quantum gravity, but not into its experimental test. Yes, experimental tests of quantum gravity are farfetched. But if you think that you can’t test it, you shouldn’t put money into the theory either. And yes, that’s a community problem because funding agencies rely on experts’ opinion. And so the circle closes.

    A theory is only scientific if it useful to describe nature. Image source: http://abstrusegoose.com/275.

    To make matters worse, philosopher Richard Dawid has recently argued that it is possible to assess the promise of a theory without experimental test whatsover, and that physicists should thus revise the scientific method by taking into account what he calls “non-empirical facts”. By this he seems to mean what we often loosely refer to as internal consistency: theoretical physics is math heavy and thus has a very stringent logic. This allows one to deduce a lot of, often surprising, consequences from very few assumptions. Clearly, these must be taken into account when assessing the usefulness or range-of-validity of a theory, and they are being taken into account. But the consequences are irrelevant to the use of the theory unless some aspects of them are observable, because what makes up the use of a scientific theory is its power to describe nature.

    Dawid may be confused on this matter because physicists do, in practice, use empirical facts that we do not explicitly collect data on. For example, we discard theories that have an unstable vacuum, singularities, or complex-valued observables. Not because this is an internal inconsistency — it is not. You can deal with this mathematically just fine. We discard these because we have never observed any of that. We discard them because we don’t think they’ll describe what we see. This is not a non-empirical assessment.

    A huge problem with the lack of empirical fact is that theories remain axiomatically underconstrained. In practice, physicists don’t always start with a set of axioms, but in principle this could be done. If you do not have any axioms you have no theory, so you need to select some. The whole point of physics is to select axioms to construct a theory that describes observation. This already tells you that the idea of a theory for everything will inevitably lead to what has now been called the “multiverse”. It is just a consequence of stripping away axioms until the theory becomes ambiguous.

    Image credit: Moonrunner Design, via http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140318-multiverse-inflation-big-bang-science-space/.

    Somewhere along the line many physicists have come to believe that it must be possible to formulate a theory without observational input, based on pure logic and some sense of aesthetics. They must believe their brains have a mystical connection to the universe and pure power of thought will tell them the laws of nature. But the only logical requirement to choose axioms for a theory is that the axioms not be in conflict with each other. You can thus never arrive at a theory that describes our universe without taking into account observations, period. The attempt to reduce axioms too much just leads to a whole “multiverse” of predictions, most of which don’t describe anything we will ever see.

    (The only other option is to just use all of mathematics, as [Max] Tegmark argues. You might like or not like that; at least it’s logically coherent. But that’s a different story and shall be told another time.)

    Now if you have a theory that contains more than one universe, you can still try to find out how likely it is that we find ourselves in a universe just like ours. The multiverse-defenders therefore also argue for a modification of the scientific method, one that takes into account probabilistic predictions. But we have nothing to gain from that. Calculating a probability in the multiverse is just another way of adding an axiom, in this case for the probability distribution. Nothing wrong with this, but you don’t have to change the scientific method to accommodate it.

    Image credit: screenshot from Nature, via http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535.

    In a Nature comment out today, George Ellis and Joe Silk argue that the trend of physicists to pursue untestable theories is worrisome. I agree with this, though I would have said the worrisome part is that physicists do not care enough about the testability — and apparently don’t need to care because they are getting published and paid regardless.

    See, in practice the origin of the problem is senior researchers not teaching their students that physics is all about describing nature. Instead, the students are taught by example that you can publish and live from outright bizarre speculations as long as you wrap them into enough math. I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?

    Schematic illustration for the circle of continually testing and improving scientific hypotheses. Source: Backreaction.

    The scientific method is often quoted as a circle of formulating and testing of hypotheses, but I find this misleading. There isn’t any one scientific method. The only thing that matters is that you honestly assess the use of a theory to describe nature. If it’s useful, keep it. If not, try something else. This method doesn’t have to be changed, it has to be more consistently applied. You can’t assess the use of a scientific theory without comparing it to observation.

    A theory might have other uses than describing nature. It might be pretty, artistic even. It might be thought-provoking. Yes, it might be beautiful and elegant. It might be too good to be true, it might be forever promising. If that’s what you are looking for that’s all fine by me. I am not arguing that these theories should not be pursued. Call them mathematics, art, or philosophy, but if they don’t describe nature don’t call them science.

    See the full article here.

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    Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible.

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