Saturday, March 15, 2008

bad history on the History Channel

The History Channel is running a show on the history of astronomy. Wouldn't you think that someone who sets out to do a show on history would have read some of the historical scholarship on the issue? But no. This account of the history of astronomy is essentially the unmodified propaganda of the scientism movement.

First, they failed to distinguish between physical theories and functional theories, treating Ptolemy's astronomy as a successor to Aristotlean physics. This is not correct. Aristlean physics tried to explain how things are. This physics said that the planets occupied perfect invisible spheres. Each planet (including sun and moon) had its own sphere, all with the earth as center. The planets all moved in perfect circles.

Modern scientists laugh at this theory, but as an intellectual exercise the reasoning that led to this theory was no different in principle from modern scientific reasoning. It was an attempt to take an observed regularity and explain it in reasonable terms. Why would the planets move in partly regular, partly random motions? That would not make sense. They must follow some rule. They must actually move in perfect circles, but the relative motions are such that the circles don't look perfect to us. Why circles? Because it was a simple geometric figure. Why did Newton pick straight lines? Why did that seem so reasonable?

Ptolemy didn't have any intention of challenging this physics. Ptolemy's model was just to give accurate predictions of planetary motion. To do this, he added additional motions called epicycles that would not fit in the perfect spheres of Aristotle. Most people who used Ptolemy's model thought that it was physically false. The epicycles of Ptolemy's model were useful for predicting observed behavior, but not for explaining physical truth.

When Copernicus came up with a new model where the planets and earth circled the sun, Copernicus and many others of the time took this heleocentric theory in the same way that they took Ptolemy's theory, as merely a tool to predict planetary motion. There is nothing "ironic" about the fact that Copernicus was a devout Catholic as the show states. It only seems ironic to the show's writers because it doesn't fit their preconceptions. If they were scientific (according to their mythology of what science is) then they would take this observation as a reason to question their preconceptions, but there is nothing scientific about scientism.

Galileo's trouble wasn't that he liked Copernicus's theory, but that he claimed that the heleocentric model was not only a good functional model, but that it was physically true. He claimed that the sun actually was at the center of the universe. Although this wasn't really his problem either. As the show said there was no trouble over Galileo's first tract (the show stipulates that this was "surprising", assuming that their viewers share their own prejudices). In fact, Galileo's first tract was well-accepted by many leaders in the church, including the man who would soon become pope. According to the show, the Church only objected to the second tract because Galileo tried to interpret scripture. There is something to this, but an honest account would also mention that Galileo was abrasive and arrogant and had a habit of making powerful enemies. And that the second tract was personally insulting to the new pope, his former supporter. The Church was certainly not innocent in the Galileo affair, but this was not the one-sided courageous open-minded pure researcher against the evil dogmatic church.

More irritating than the predictable slamming of the Catholic Church, though, was the ridiculous assertion that with his telescope, Galileo "proved" that the heliocentric model was correct. They never explained exactly how the telescope could prove this. The telescope didn't actually give better information about the movements of the planets at all. I think the writers are just confused here. What Galileo did with his telescope is not prove that the heleocentric model is true; what he proved is that the Aristotlean concept of the planets was wrong. Aristotle said not just that the planets moved in perfect spheres, but that the planets were perfect and simple bodies. Galileo was able to make out the craters of the moon and the features of Mars and the moons of Jupiter. This pretty well destroyed that part of Aristotlean physics. So this damaged Aristotlean physics, but in no way proved that the heleocentric physics was correct. Galileo's later work on motion further discredited Aristotlean physics, but it's not fair to say that the Aristotle's theory of planetary motion was actually disproven until Newton came up with a better physical theory.

OK, I'll cut this short except for this mind-boggling statement later in the show: "Without Einstein, we might still be struggling to understand how the universe works." Because, I suppose, we now know exactly how the universe works...

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Just stopped at Taco Bell after working out and I was wearing my workout shorts so the pockets are no good for change (too shallow) so I never carry it. The cashier gave me about twelve cents change and I told her to keep it because my pockets wouldn't hold it. Then I asked to use the restroom to wash my hands (don't want to eat other people's sweat) and she told me it was out back while she handed me a quarter.

I thought that she was just being nice and giving me a bigger coin for change (not entirely sure how she thought it would help...) so I took it and said thank you and dropped it in the charity change thingie by the register. Went outside and saw that the bathroom door was coin-op. You need a quarter to get in...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

conservatives can play the game too

[I've updated point 2]

It upsets me when I see people treated unfairly over politics. Usually this happens when leftists come down on someone who hasn't been politically correct. For example, Rush Limbaugh was fired from a sports-commentator job for saying something racist --except that what he said wasn't actually racist. It's common to read about people getting in trouble and being fired or being forced to take "sensitivity training" (actually leftist indoctrination classes) for saying or doing something that was --at worst-- rude and often was quite innocent.

Now conservatives have done it too. They've gotten Rebecca Aguilar, a local TV reporter fired for being mean to James Walton, an elderly man who was a conservative hero for killing two burglars. This story at NewsBusters is a typical description of the event (link from instapundit). And if the description were accurate, some discipline might be justified. The interview is described as "attack dog-like". They said that Aguilar "treated him as the criminal". The post accuses Aguilar of "keeping the poor fellow from shutting his car door as she accusingly asked the man if he was 'a trigger happy person'"

The problem is, this description is not accurate. Aguilar was determined, but not hostile. Some of her questions were pointed, but they were not asked in an accusatory form. Here are some points left out of the one-sided and dishonest description of Aquilar's actions:

1. Walton joked about using his new shotgun to shoot Aguilar. Aguilar did not use this joke, as she so easily could have, to question Walton's judgment. She just said (in the voice-over) that he joked about the shotgun.

2. Walton had the door open and was in his car while Aguilar was on the wrong side of the door to block it. Another car blocked her from getting around before Walton closed the door. Walton had a chance to close the door and leave, but instead he left the door open and told her that he would not talk to her as long as the camera was on. This implies that he would talk to her when the camera was off. The next sceen shows her standing in the door with the camera behind the car. But the most reasonable interpretation is that Walton agreed to give the interview as long as his face wasn't shown (this is what Aquilar says in the voice-over). There is no evidence at all that the Walton wanted to close the door and was prevented.

[update: I watched the video again after a comment from foxfier and now I see that you can't tell if Aguilar is blocking the car door in the shot where Walton says to stop filming. But from the proceeding video, I still don't think she could have blocked it.]

3. Aguilar points out that Walton has tears in his eyes and she prompts him to say that it is remorse for having to kill two men. If she really wanted to make him out as a bad guy, why mention his tears (the camera couldn't see them), why prompt him to say that it has caused emotional suffering, and why not cut out that section?

4. When Aguilar asks him if he is a trigger-happy person, she does it in a prompting voice, not a hostile one. She is inviting him to deny the charge, not accusing him. When you accuse someone, you don't ask, "are you a trigger-happy kind of person?". You ask "are you trigger-happy", or "weren't you a little trigger happy?". You can tell that this was an invitation to deny the charge by her wording, by her tone of voice, and by the follow-up"
Aquilar: Are you a trigger-happy kind of person? Is that what you wanted to do? Shoot to kill?"

Walton: No, no.

Aguilar: OK, so I won't...

Walton: I ain't shot a gun in forty-five years until ...

Aquilar: That's what I wanted the viewers to know. So basically, you were scared for your own life?
Is that an attack interview? I encourage you to listen yourself and judge the tone of voice also. You will see that Aguilar was aggressive to get the interview, but once she started interviewing him, she went out of her way to be nice.

That poor woman has been railroaded by conservative bloggers who have misused their power of opinion-making just as callously as the New York Times ever did. They should be ashamed of themselves.