Saturday, September 10, 2005

Scale 7 Artifact, part 11


Journey (part 1)

In the dim light of a distant alien sun, a daughter of Earth labored with the pangs of childbirth. The enormous starship began the birth with jets of flame to slow her end-over-end rotation. It took an hour to gradually slow the rotation of the ship to about a tenth of the normal rate. When this task was done, the ship paused for a time as though resting.

Suddenly a crack appeared in the hull. Brilliant light spilled out. The crack widened slowly as the enormous bay door opened, majestic and silent in the void. Soon there was a deep cavity in the side of the starship, an opening into the docking bay. The ship again rested from her labors.

Two parallel rails began to extend from the opening, gradually telescoping outward until they reached a length of fifty meters. Again the ship paused.

Like a ghost, a smaller spacecraft slid out of the bay, accelerating down the rails, to be hurled into space by the rotation of the mother ship. The daughter ship rested in silence for a moment and then cried out on the 2 meter band to reassure her mother that she was healthy: "Starship Santa Maria, this is Interplanetary Lander Enterprise. Launch is complete. All systems are go. Repeat, all systems are functioning within normal parameters."

The mother ship responded with a 2 meter bleat of encouragement: "Roger, Enterprise. We confirm: situation normal. You may proceed with your mission. Good bye and good luck."

When she had fallen to a kilometer away from her mother, the daughter ship spurt tiny jets to bring herself to the correct heading. Without warning the interplanetary lander flared with the white-hot plasma flame of atomic engines. She began to accelerate away from her silent mother.

After a few moments, the mother ship again fired her own attitude jets to bring the rate of spin back up. The child was on her own now.

Although Daniel was on the daughter ship, he had watched the entire birth from a camera on another starship. Better view that way. He watched until the white light that was his own ship reduced to a pinpoint and then vanished among the stars.

With a deep breath that was somewhere between a sigh and a shudder, Daniel switched off the video feed to go back to the database. He knew he was being compulsive, suspicious to the point of paranoia, but he couldn't help himself. There was something wrong about this entire mission. Something that he hadn't been told. So he was going back to review the situation once more.

Moon 3 had three different kinds of organism. One of them was Earth-like to the point of implausibility, down to the DNA. There were alien-looking organisms, but also many organisms that looked like Earth life, including specimens from different geological strata. There were dinosaurs and tigers. The only plausible explanations were (1) that Earth-like DNA was the only way to make organic life or (2) a space-traveling civilization.

Then there were the metaloids. Arguably another kind of life. The metaloids were creatures based on metals and ceramics that looked very much like small robots. There were metaloids that were analogous to plants; they used semiconductors to reap energy from the sun and generator coils to reap energy from the powerful magnetic fields of the planet. They apparently used the energy to build up structures from raw materials like factories. There were consumer analogs that stole power from the plant analogs and apparently, in some way, incorporated the structures of the plant analogs into their own bodies. These creatures emitted radio-frequency signals that were no more complex than the sounds produced by Earth animals. It was these signals that had first been detected by the starships. The only two plausible explanations of the metaloid ecology were (1) that metallic/electronic organisms could evolve or (2) a nano-technology civilization.

The third kind of life was the polymoids. Only a few of these had been seen, and only one analyzed. The polymoids were based on enormous fluorocarbon polymers. The material of their bodies was enormously complex, flexible, tough and temperature tolerant. If the sample hadn't come from a living organism, the natural assumption would have been that it was an advanced synthetic material. Again, there were two explanations: (1) it was possible for this kind of life to evolve or (2) a civilization with advanced chemistry.

And don't forget the "artifacts", the seven evenly space craters that were somehow interconnected beneath the surface. There were two explanations for those: (1) some unknown geological or orbital mechanism or (2) a civilization with very advanced engineering.

In each case, the most plausible explanation seemed to be an advanced civilization. Except that there was no other sign of civilization beside those four striking things. There were no other large-scale structures, no cities, no roads. Not even ruins. There was no sign of industrial pollution besides what the metaloids would put out. There was no sign of intelligent broadcasting. There was no sign of space travel. And most significantly, although the starships had arrived from Earth more than three years ago, there had been no attempt to communicate with them or to attack them.

The debates were hot and furious over how to explain these mysteries. So far the naturalists were dominant. They were working very hard to make the implausible explanations that didn't involve an alien civilization more plausible. A smaller, but just a dedicated camp, was constantly searching for more evidence of an alien civilization.

And that's where Daniel and his team came in. Their job was to investigate the planet and try to, at the very least solve the question of whether there was an alien civilization, past or present, on Moon 3. That was the reason for the odd collection of talents that they had.

But that didn't explain what the rush was. The starships had been in orbit around the sun for three years. Why did they suddenly need to wake up a set of completely new people and send them out with only a few days of preparation? Had something happened that Daniel didn't know about? Some sign of civilization? Some threat? And why was the data so sparse? Dozens of probes had been sent out, and there was very little to show for it. Only six remote samplings and dissections and all of those seemed incomplete. Only a few hundred hours of film and instrument readings. There should be an order of magnitude more data available. Where was it?

"You're just a suspicious kind of guy, aren't you?" Daniel looked up to see Jackie grinning at him from her acceleration couch to his left. "You just keep worrying at that data like a dog at a rawhide strip. You're not going to rest till it's all shredded."

Daniel grinned back. "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me. But I know. I haven't been able to convince anyone else to be concerned."

"Zareda didn't say much, but I could tell that he was taking your worries seriously."

"Well he's a cop," Harold said from his own couch across the room. "Paranoia comes with the badge, I guess."

"Seriously, Daniel," said Jackie, "You don't really believe that there is some kind of grand conspiracy directed against little 'ol us. If you did, you never would have come along. Or if you did, you never would have let Sarah come; you're too protective of her. This is just your mind trying to come up with explanations for the inexplicable."

"How was he going to stop me?" Sarah asked from Daniel's right.

"Sarah has a point," Daniel said. "But so do you. So let's say that I'm only paranoid in the abstract sense."

Suddenly a voice spoke from the loudspeakers, "OK, the gyros have spun up and all systems are normal. You can get up and move about the ship now."

"I get dibs on the porthole!" shouted Sarah as she bounced up in the low gravity. The other three got up more carefully.

Jackie said in a low voice to Daniel, "So how many plans did you come up with that would have kept Sarah on the Santa Maria?"

"Four." said Daniel with a grin. "If you count one that would have gotten her sent to another starship. But I couldn't do anything underhanded like that."

"Not to Sarah, anyway."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I believe you are the kind of man who would have no problem doing underhanded things, Dr. Greaves, you just couldn't do it to Sarah."

"You wound me, Dr. Walenski."

"You'll heal, Dr. Greaves." Jackie patted him on the forearm and wandered over to the porthole.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Creationism is falsifiable

A lot of otherwise empirically-inclined people think they can dismiss Creationism by an entirely nonempirical and a priori argument. They say that it isn't falsifiable and therefore that it cannot be considered by science. But Creationism is falsifiable. In fact, it has been falsified. Here are five general observations which could potentially falsify Creationism: (1) the nature of the fossil record, (2) the flexibility of reproduction, (3) the beneficial quality of mutations, (4) the possibility of making life from non-life, and (5) the age of the Earth. I'll discuss each in turn.

(1) Creationism postulates that God created individual creatures whole and that he created them to reproduce after their own kind. This postulate could be falsified by the fossil record. If the fossil record were to show relatively few long-lived distinct species and relatively many chains of species where one is clearly developing into the later species, then this would tend to falsify Creationism. A creationist would expect to find primarily distinct species, repeated at many sites, and very few apparent chains of ancestry where one species seems to be developing into a later species. The fossil record in fact shows 0 such chains of ancestry and many distinct species that lived for millions of years.

(2) Creationists believe that animals reproduce after their kind (a kind may or may not be a species) and that they cannot evolve into a different kind. This belief could be falsified by taking a some rapidly-reproducing species and using selective breeding and (possibly) the use of artificial mutation to artificially "evolve" a new, viable kind. I'm not talking about breeding within a species like breeding wolves into little yippy dogs; what would falsify Creationism is a demonstration of a distinctly new and healthy species with distinctly new and functional structures. To really be convincing, the new species must be more complex than the original species.

(3) If you can't breed a new kind within a few years, you could at least make it plausible that it is possible for a new kind to evolve by showing mutations that are beneficial to the organism. Nearly all significant mutations are harmful to the organism (at least for higher-level organisms), but if you could show a process that produces some reasonable chance of a significant and favorable mutation, that would tend to falsify Creationism.

(4) Creationists believe that only God can create life from non-life. You could falsify Creationism by demonstrating the creation of life in the laboratory --not the creation of amino acids, but the creation of living cells.

(5) If it were possible to prove that the Earth is older than 6,000 years, that would tend to falsify Creationism. But wait! Radiological dating has proven that the Earth is older than 6,000 years. By doing so, science has falsified Creationism. Creationists had to adapt and change their theories in response to this technology. There are still some young-Earth creationists, but they are not nearly as dominant as they once were, and those that still exist do have some rational, maybe even plausible, arguments for not accepting the results of radiological dating. They don't just ignore the scientific evidence, they address it on empirical grounds just like a scientist would do.

Wait, if Creation is falsified, doesn't that mean it is unscientific to continue to be a Creationist? No, scientists very seldom give up a broad theory on the basis of a few falsifications. Take Evolutionism for example (I'm using "Evolutionism" in contrast to "evolution". Here, evolution is the theory that species can evolve by natural selection; Evolutionism is the theory that all life originated and evolved through purely physical processes). Of the five observations I listed above, one of them has falsified Creationism and the other four have falsified Evolutionism. In each case, Evolutionists predicted the opposite of what Creationists predicted, and so far, a century and half later, the Creationists are proven right, four out of five.

Does this mean that Evolutionists are compelled by the scientific method to give up their theory in the face of falsifying evidence? No, science doesn't work that way. When observations don't come out like you expected, you don't just throw out your theories, instead, you make the minimal changes to your theories that are necessary to make them consistent with the observations. For a long time, physicists accepted Newtonian mechanics even though it failed to adequately explain the orbits of a couple of planets. Eventually they discovered that one of the orbits could be explained by the existence of another planet. The other one they never did explain. Then Einstein came along and threw out Newtonian mechanics. So, eventually the theory was abandoned, but it was kept around for two centuries after it was falsified.

But let's be honest. Creationists have a strong non-empirical reason to believe their theory and this is going to trump just about any observations. It's hard to imagine an observation (other than time travel) that would make committed Creationists give up their belief in Creationism. But as long as we are being honest: honestly, what observation would turn a committed Evolutionist away from Evolutionism? It's equally hard to imagine. The truth is that Evolutionists don't believe in Evolution because of the overwhelming evidence; they believe in Evolution because they can imagine no alternative that is acceptable to them. It is no different with Creationists.

But there is a difference! Creationists can always appeal to miracles to get out of any observations! That makes them unscientific! Well, of course, if a Creationist uses the "God is just playin' with you" defense, then that Creationist has taken himself out of the realm of scientific discussion and can be reasonably ignored. There are some Creationists that have done this. For example, some Creationists argue (I use the word loosely) that God put fossils in the ground just to make the Earth appear old. I am by no means defending this form of Creationism. That truly is unfalsifiable.

But most Creationists do not appeal to such sledgehammer tactics and it is not reasonable to ignore the reasonable Creationists just because there are unreasonable Creationists. Most Creationists are willing to make substantial modifications to their beliefs in response to evidence. A century ago, most Creationists believed the Earth was only about six thousand years old. Today, I think the majority have accepted the findings of radiological dating and have made major changes in their understanding of Genesis. As long as Creationists are willing to engage in scientific debate, only a religiously committed Evolutionists would refuse to debate them.

UPDATE: From Dean I just found this article about mice that can regenerate. The mice were discovered by accident, and if their genetic advantages turn out to be a mutation, that's another one for the Evolutionist side.

funny blogging

The latest Carnival of Comedy is now showing at Rapid Politics Dot Com.

The host, Dan, didn't have the cojones to call a spade a weird and not-very-funny entry. The lowest category he would admit to was "mildly amusing". However, like former presidents, there is a Code among former Carnival of Comedy hosts that one is not supposed to criticize ones inept successors like Dan, so I'll say nothing about it. But if it weren't for the Code, I'd point out that when you take the Carnival of Comedy oath of office you swear to do two things: first, rate the entries into three categories, one of which is "not so funny" and second, provide content warnings. Dan violated his oath on both counts and someone, not me of course, should be calling for his impeachment.

Anyway, it's a great carnival this week; go check it out.

the story continues

After a long hiatus for computer repair, Sheya is back to writing The Child.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


People like to throw the word "falsifiability" around as a way to explain how evolution is better than intelligent design, but too many of them don't understand all the implications. The word was invented by Karl Popper to help distinguish science from pseudo science, and what respectability it has is derived from his arguments. So if you are going to rely on falsifiability as a criterion, you have to use it in Popper's sense. The alternative is to spend years writing books to argue that some new meaning of the word is also useful as a criterion.

Popper used Marxism and Freudian psychology as two examples of pseudo science (he had a third example but I don't recall what it was). What he observed about these two schools is that they claimed that their theories could explain things, but there was almost no possible outcome that they could not have explained in some way: this man is obsessive because he was potty trained too early as a child. This other man is obsessive because he was potty trained too late and he is over compensating for the feelings of insecurity from that. Marxism has very similar explanations for economic conditions, but in neither theory is it possible to take a set of conditions and predict a specific outcome. All reasoning is post hoc --they first look at the entire case with the outcome and then explain the outcome based on the conditions.

I think most people would agree that there is something wrong with a "scientific" theory that works like Freudian analysis or Marxism, but people who study these things (as opposed to armchair philosophers of science) generally agree that Popper's theory of science failed. Two reasons come to mind. First, in contradiction of Popper, science doesn't typically abandon a theory just because it has been falsified. It's much more common to look for extensions to the theory that explain the new data. A contradiction is sometimes around for decades before it is explained, and scientists don't seem to have any trouble with the fact that they are working with a falsified theory.

Second, theories do get confirmed. Regardless of the logical arguments that Popper made, real scientists certainly act like they are working with confirmed theories. Try suggesting that Special Relativity, Quantum Uncertainty, or Evolution is false and see how many scientists tell you "well, we can't really ever confirm a theory but it hasn't been falsified as yet." Far more will respond with hostility at you for not recognizing the obvious truth of the theory.

Third, there are scientific projects that don't make falsifiable theories. Or rather, there is a broad range of scientific endeavors from those where theories are easily and quickly tested to those where testing is practically impossible. In these latter areas such as astronomy, archeology, and paleontology, scientists readily accept other criteria than falsifiability to evaluate theories.

According to Popper the theory must predict basic facts --specifically-observable instances. A theory is not falsifiable just because it can contradict another theory. Since Popper's foundation for science doesn't allow for a theory to be confirmed, only falsified, you get no information when one theory contradicts another that is specific to either theory.

Now let's get to evolution, by which I mean the theory that all life originated and evolved through purely physical events. This theory is much more like Freudian analysis than like physics. It doesn't make any hard, testable predictions, all it does is explain things after the fact. You see this structure in an animal? Well it might have evolved like this. You can't find any evidence that it evolved like that? Well, maybe it evolved in some other way. Who knows? Of course, like Freudian analysis, evolution does give some very neat explanations for certain things like the fact that animals that originated in isolated areas tend to be unable to compete with animals that originated in very large areas, but those are after-the fact explanations. According to the falsification criterion, those don't count. (and by the way, one can accept the existence of natural selection without the broader theory of evolution).

Evolution seems to make some general predictions, but in those cases it has sometimes been wrong. For example it should be possible to find evolutionary tracks in the fossil record that show the evolution of a particular species. Peleontologists don't find these tracks, but they don't think that this failure falsifies evolution, it just shows how sparse the fossil record is. Of course this sparse fossil record stills lets them find certain dinosaurs all over the world in many different digs, but somehow the intermediate stages got lost. Yet although this could count as a falsification, scientists don't acknowledge it as such. If all falsifications are ignore, how falsifiable is the theory?

The purpose of this post is not to argue that the idea of falsifiability is useless --it's not. Falsifiability is a very valuable rule of thumb when applied correctly. But it is not an absolute demarcation of science and it cannot serve as an argument-stopper. When you say that evolution is falsifiable and intelligent design is not, you need to explain exactly how evolution is falsifiable in a way that intelligent design is not, and you need to show that this is relevant and that it does not lead to absurd results.

More on the absurd results later...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Donald is accepting entries for the one-year-anniversary Storyblogging Carnival. If you've been thinking about entering but haven't bothered, I encourage you to enter this one. Let's try to make it the biggest yet.

Meanwhile, I still don't know what I'm going to enter...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

is evolution scientific?

Dean has sparked another discussion on evolution vs. intelligent design. Nothing brings in the commenters like evolution. As always, there are people in the discussion who think they can wave the question away by claiming that evolution is scientific and the alternative is not.

How can it be that the theory of evolution, by which I mean the theory that all life originated and evolved by purely physical processes, is scientific but the negation of that theory is not scientific? Suppose Fred and Barney find a funny-shaped rock and Fred says that the rock is natural while Barney says that it is man-made. Fred can't just end the argument by saying, "I'm sorry, the theory that the rock is man-made is not falsifiable so that is not a scientific theory."

That is exactly what many people do in response to anyone who rejects the theory of evolution. This amounts to the position that there is an a priori (that is: not empirical) test for certain questions about the world. It rejects a fundamental premise of science: that to answer empirical questions you need to make empirical observations.

Did life evolve by accident or design? According to many people we can answer this question without actually doing any scientific investigation because one answer is scientific, rational, respectable and the other answer is unscientific, irrational, religious. They know this a priori and no further argument is warranted beyond waving their hands and chanting "not falsifiable, not falsifiable".

Does that sound like a scientific position to take?

A commenter with the handle TallDave claims that my "analogy" is flawed because Barney doesn't require divine intervention. As another commenter points out, ID does not require divine intervention either, but that is not really relevant since I wasn't arguing by analogy but by logical form.

This is very common in logic. Suppose Fred tells Barney that he can prove that dinosaurs are birds. He says "All dinosaurs lay eggs, right?" Barney agrees. He says, "All birds lay eggs, right?" Barney agrees. Then Fred concludes "Therefore all dinosaurs are birds."

What Barney can do to refute this reasoning is to come up with another syllogism that has the same form but that Fred agrees is wrong. Barney says "All men are people, right?" Fred agrees. Barney says "All women are people, right?" Fred agrees. Then Barney concludes "Therefore, all men are women."

If Fred sees the flaw in Barney's syllogism then he must agree that his own syllogism was flawed. Alternatively, he can deny that the two syllogism's have the same form, but to do so, he must provide some logical rule for distinguishing the two kinds of syllogism.

TallDave has not done this. Nor has anyone else who claims that they can decide between evolution and design simply on the basis of a priori reasoning. TallDave thinks that he can just say "divine intervention" and that settles it, but divine intervention is not a logical feature, it is a material one. And until someone can give an account of the special faculty by which human beings can know by sheer intuition that divine intervention does not exist, that is not a valid objection to my analysis.