Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dr. Science

I recently watched the first episode of the revamped Cosmos, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  I thought it wasn't bad.  It didn't say much I didn't already know, but it did give a nice summation of certain basics about the universe with colorful graphics.

But now there's this article by Hank Campbell (not to be confused with Hank Kimball of Green Acres) about the five things the show gets wrong.  It at a website called The Federalist, which isn't what I'd call any place that offers serious scientific criticism, but you never know what you'll get these days.  Campbell himself has written a book called Science Left Behind, an expose of bad science on the left.

Let's take his arguments one at a time:

1.  Venus Was Not Caused By Global Warming.

This surprised me, since I didn't remember this claim.  The show goes through the planets in the solar system (poor Pluto is mentioned but doesn't make the cut) and says something about how incredibly hot Venus is, but that's about it.  But then, here's how Campbell puts it:

...we have to ask why [Tyson] thinks Venus is the way it is due to the greenhouse effect — which is another way of saying global warming. Venus is almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the clouds are sulfuric acid. Even the most aggressive climate change models and their 20-foot ocean rises don’t predict that for Earth, no matter how many Chevy Volts we don’t buy.

So Cosmos apparently doesn't claim Venus was caused by global warming, but its weather is.  Okay, this is something we can check.  Venus is hotter than Earth, perhaps in part due to its proximity to the Sun, but as far as I understand there's also a runaway Greenhouse effect at work. (If this is wrong, I'd like a citation from Campbell--he does go on to claim, as doubters of global warming do, that the CO2 comes from the horrible conditions on Venus, not the other way around; this is what his side believes, I guess, but I don't think it's what's commonly believed among scientists who study this matter.) And it's just bizarre to claim that because the greenhouse effect won't be the same on Earth that the show gets something wrong.

Campbell goes on:

We can allow that catchy buzzwords make something timely and that they are a snapshot of the culture of the period. James Cameron used the term “shock and awe” in the futuristic “Avatar” film not because he actually believes solders will be using that term when we invade other planets, but because he was selling an anti-military message to viewers at a time when George Bush was president.

I quote this because Avatar was released in late 2009. "Shock And Awe" was undoubtedly taken from the Bush era, but Campbell's fast and loose concept of dates, while perhaps acceptable in a social critic, won't do for science.

2. The Multiverse Is Not Science

Tyson speculates at one point about a multiverse, but doesn't claim it as fact.  He's trying to discuss what may be.

Is this getting something "wrong"?  No. Even if it's not science, discussing it is not incorrect, it's a choice.

By the way, Campbell claims it's not science because "it can't be proved or disproved." How does he know that?

3. There Is No Sound In Space

Tyson travels in an imaginary spaceship.  Arguing that it wouldn't make sound is ridiculous nitpicking.  And who knows, since we're inside the ship with Tyson, maybe it would make the sounds we hear.

(There's a famous story about George Lucas at an early screening of Star Wars.  When the lights came up, the first thing he said was "yes, I know, spaceships don't make any sound.")

4. Giordano Bruno Was Not More Important To Science Than Kepler And Galileo

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. The show spends a fair amount of time discussing Bruno, whose story is told in animation.  He had cosmological beliefs ahead of his time, and was ultimately put to death for heresy.  He's generally seen as a martyr for science.

It seems quite likely the creators of Cosmos were trying to make a political point, but they certainly didn't say Bruno was the leading astronomer of his day--in fact, they admit he wasn't a scientist, but rather was a man who saw a new universe that most didn't imagine.

That was the central point of the tale--that scientific advancement often comes from thinking that others reject.  Today, that rejection is  more likely to come from other scientists (or people like Campbell), but 400 years ago it was the Church that could make life difficult.  (In some places religious authorities can still destroy your life if you don't profess certain beliefs, but the West has mostly moved beyond this.)

What does Campbell have to say about this?

First, let’s examine this freedom of thought concept. Yes, this was the time of The Inquisition — no one is defending that — but most people brought up on charges of “heresy” (a moving target, to be sure) apologized for whatever they did and went on their way. So in some cases The Inquisition suppressed freedom of expression, not freedom of thought. Bruno was excommunicated from three different religions, which means two of them accepted him after he had already been excommunicated from others. If freedom of thought was really suppressed, they wouldn’t have taken him at all.

Huh?  Campbell seems to be agreeing with Cosmos--Bruno was punished for his ideas.  Yes, there's also the fact he wouldn't deny them, which Campbell apparently thinks was just part of doing business then--deny your basic beliefs and get on with your life.  If you can't express your thoughts, the freedom to think them (which no one can take away--not yet, anyway) is, to put it lightly, greatly diminished.

As for being excommunicated from three different religions, once again this shows the trouble Bruno's beliefs got him in, and how he still wouldn't give them up.  How this goes against his story in any way I can't see.

The cartoon we get about Bruno shows him getting run out of Oxford also, but the audience must realize he got invited to talk at Oxford even though they knew what he was about, so clearly they were not suppressing freedom of thought.

Once again, what's the point?  The point in Cosmos was that no matter where he went, his ideas, as commonplace as they may be now, were rejected.

Campbell goes on to list the odd and at the time heretical beliefs Bruno had beyond thinking our Sun was just another star--pantheism, various beliefs we now consider mythological and so on--but once again he misses the point.  It's worth knowing this, just as it's worth knowing that Newton believed a lot of odd things as well, but Bruno was still asked to give up his beliefs about the cosmos and he refused, even though it meant his life.

5. The Universe Was Also Not Created In One Year

While this Campbell complaint is a stylistic point, it's also so silly he should have left it out.  Maybe "Four Things Cosmos Gets Wrong" isn't as catchy as a title, but it would have saved him a lot of embarrassment.

On January 1st, we had the Big Bang and on December 31st, I am alive, less than a tiny fraction of a millisecond before midnight. That can’t be right — it took me a whole day just to write this article.

Oh, Cosmos is not being literal?  Oddly, a number of religious critics, Tyson included, insist that too many religious people believe the Book of Genesis is taken literally by people who read the Bible. Unless we accept that figurative comparisons help make large ideas manageable, a year is no more accurate than six days — it is instead a completely arbitrary metric invented to show some context for how things evolved.

It seems odd to be critical when religion does it and then invent a new timescale for how the universe came to be. It’s almost like we are to believe that short timescales are opiates for the masses.
While I have never met any, I know there are people who truly believe the universe was created in just six days, just like there are people who believe in the multiverse or that Bruno was a champion of science and free thought. But extrapolating the behaviors of individuals out to an entire culture is a mistake Sagan said we should be immune from making.

Complaining that Cosmos takes 14 billion years and shrinks it down to a year is just dumb.  Humans have trouble conceiving of what 14 billion years mean, but one year--far from being an "arbitrary metric"--is something we're used to and can appreciate; so when you realize how so much of life, and so much of human history, happens on the last day, even the last minute, it drives the point home.  Such analogies are quite useful in teaching.  Tyson certainly doesn't "invent a new timescale" in a literal way, he just uses it as a pedagogical tool. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans, at least, accept a literal Bible, including a young Earth.  (As to whether the original people who wrote down the Bible were doing it as some exercise in figurative comparisons, I'm not so sure.)

Campbell continues:
Rather than seeking to take jabs at religion, science should be embracing it. From a science perspective, religious people are involved in the largest ongoing experiment of all time. The major religions all disagree with each other in ways large and small and yet people are turning knobs in their lives and making adjustments to try and solve a grand mystery. What, if anything, comes next?  And they are persisting despite all obstacles. Fans of free thought should be inspired by that.

Religion may be a lot of things, but it is not a scientific experiment.  It is part of our past and present, and may be a way people struggle with grand questions--and as such is of interest to historians and anthropologists.  But scientists?  Religions, when they're trying to figure out most of these questions (and not fighting wars or suppressing heretics--this might seem like a cheap shot, but the fights that go on in the world of science, in contradistinction to religion, tend to be about scientific matters using the scientific method, so Campbell's analogy is not apt), are simply using different techniques, not generally those that would be recognized as scientific.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there an agreement in place to link to wacky websites?

10:34 AM, March 15, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the New York Times?

11:46 AM, March 15, 2014  

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