Thursday, March 6, 2008

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

When I was a college freshman in Honors Chemistry, we had a very smart guy in the class. He went by his initials, and he was a bit of a pest, so I’ll call him DW. When we began the unit on Quantum Mechanics, we got into a lot more mathematical detail than a normal frosh Chem class. Most of the geeks who got into honors just ate this up with a soup ladle. We would sometimes digress into the philosophical implications of QM, including the Copenhagen interpretation and the anthropic hypothesis versus the Manyworlds theory.

As we progressed through the unit, DW made an absolute nuisance of himself. He had a constant chorus of “why”? “Why are we using this equation?” “Why is light both a wave and a particle?”. “If this is true, why isn’t that true?” DW was one of those Einsteinian “God does not play dice” people, and he was trying to constantly pick at the mathematical underpinnings that led to the Copenhagen interpretation. The problem was that he was a freshman Electrical Engineer. A bright one to be sure. But still. He seriously thought he was going to poke holes in the theory that people with names such as Heisenberg, Einstein, Schrodinger, Dirac, Pauling, and Fermi had green-lighted with only one year of undergrad to his credit? Sure there are arguments about QM – at the unified theory level - but you need to be well into graduate school in order to even understand the issues, to say nothing of posing intelligent questions.

This is not to say that you should not ask questions when the material does not make sense to you. And engineers are famous for saying “give me the formula so I can crank out numbers” rather than understanding the deeper implications of the theories they are using – that is a major divider between the engineering mindset and the mindset of a pure scientist. But the kinds of questions you ask, and the attitude behind them are different from DW’s when you are trying to understand the subject, rather than trying to pick it apart.

New Agers and Creationists ask questions from the point of view of having a belief and then looking for phenomena or theories that might bolster that belief – the same thought process as DW, and just as wrong.

A good modern example was our C student back at the creation museum. He didn’t even understand the basic foundations of Evolution, he started from the proposition that evolution is untrue, therefore he did not need to understand the very good reasons why other people believe it to be true. So he turned his brain off during the units on evolution and got a C. By not understanding the debates that went into the formation of the theory, he wound up raising issues that have been dealt with decades ago. Giving a point-by-point rebuttal, such as I did, is an exercise in idiocy, because he is, quite frankly, a self-admitted idiot on the subject. And he’s not in the debate to learn anything. I actually went over Dembski’s probability papers in the original to see if I could learn anything from the other side. THAT is the scientific mindset in action.

I am a seeker after truth.

I am a scientist.

Unfortunately, those are not always synonymous, but they should be.

So here is the first problem I have with Creationists and New Agers who come up using lines such as “I’m not interested in the answers, I just value questioning”. We all value questioning. In order to play in the game and ask valid questions, you have to have read the history of your field. Most ascientific questioners are asking questions that have been answered multiple times in the past. Some relevant pontificating from Professor Dutch on how atheists do the same thing in religious debates:

Consider the following often-posed questions:

How can a good God allow evil to happen in the world?

How can religious believers reconcile war or capital punishment with the commandment "thou shalt not kill?"

Why can't evolution simply be God's way of creating new life forms?

If you have ever asked any of these questions, or if you can't summarize the major schools of thought on these questions, you are theologically illiterate. You have no business in any debate involving religion because you simply know nothing at all about the subject.

He’s talking to you, Dawkins.

But back to the subject of pseudoscience, the first counter I have to the New Agers who “value questioning” is – why do you question? Do you know anything about the subject you are musing about? The answer, in my experience is uniformly: NO. The scientifically illiterate are welcome to their bull sessions with like-minded people, but once they step on the public stage, they are fair game for my derision.

Scientists value questioning. Scientists go to bed every night intoning the agnostic equivalent of prayer that one of their questions breaks down an accepted premise in their field so that they can win a Nobel. But scientific questioning comes in 2 forms The first is that a new phenomenon is observed that can not be explained by the current theory. Back in the 17th century, Newton and Huygens argued over the nature of light, but Huygens’s wave theory had a lot more going for it that Newton’s corpuscular theory, so light waves were accepted. Then late in the 19th century, the photoelectric effect was discovered, and Einstein came along and said that both Einstein and Huygens were right. But Einstein didn’t come up and say “well, Newton seemed to like ‘light particles’, and I like the idea, too, so lets try to cherry pick all the evidence that points towards light particles and ignore the wave stuff”. Physics didn’t tackle the problem until the photoelectric effect could not be explained by the wave theory.

I’ve heard (especially from New Agers touting “ancient wisdom”) that the Greeks discovered the atomic hypothesis. Horse shit. There was so much unknown at the time that multiple theories could and did adequately explain all of the known physical phenomena in the ancient world. It was not until careful measurements (with the aid of precise balances) were made in the 17th and 18th centuries that someone could propose a scientific atomic theory. Before that, there was no reason to privilege atomic theory over other explanations. Democritus was right, but for the wrong reasons. His world view was no more “scientific” than bull session on Science Fiction tropes so prevalent in college dorms today.

The second means of questioning in science is by taking a theory and using it to predict something that has not yet been observed. The very basis of chemistry is a classic example of this: the periodic theory of the elements predicted new elements as yet undiscovered when Mendeleev’s proposed their existence. But they were discovered.

Note that neither method of inquiry starts, as the New Agers do, with “well, this seems nice, so it ought to be true.” Take the effects of human thought on the physical world. We know a lot about how thought happens on a biochemical basis. We know a lot about the actual energy required to stir the chemical soup that comprises what we humans call “thought”. New Agers suggest that human thought can physically affect, among other things, the crystal structure of ice.

Let’s look at that hypothesis from both legitimate means of inquiry in science. First, what theory predicts such action? The known forms of energy in the brain – electrical and chemical, do not generate the kinds of electric, magnetic, or other fields that could even have an impact by direct action on anther part of the brain, let alone on external objects. So there is no prediction from the current theories of Neurology that would lead one to expect that human thought would influence external objects. One can argue that humans developed language as a thought amplifier precisely because we can’t influence the external environment with thought alone.

Most New Agers, because they have not bothered to do their homework, make do with the second method – experiments that seem to contradict prevailing theories. So then the question becomes: if you are making a claim that is not supported by current scientific theories, have you made an observation of physical phenomena – THAT CAN BE REPRODUCED UNDER CONTROLLED CONDITIONS - that can not be explained by science today? Scientists can make this claim. That is at the root of the debates about Unified Field Theory and String Theory. Can New Agers? The answer thus far is NO. James Randi will pay them one million dollars if they can.

However, “Dr.” Emoto claims that he has conducted such experiments. Why has he not applied for Randi’s million? Because he has ignored fundamental principles of chemistry and good laboratory and scientific practices in making his claims. Let’s rip that one apart, shall we?

First, one has to know something about how water crystallizes. The chart here shows a nice diagram of different types crystal formation at different temperatures. The claimed temperatures in the experiments do not match the crystal morphology in Emoto’s photos. That is enough to refute his entire experimental method and cast aspersions on his honesty, but let’s go on and give him the benefit of the doubt that he can’t read a thermometer correctly.

Other experimental problems include failure to control for humidity, aspirated air, and levels of pollutants in the “polluted” water – pollutants or air bubbles will seed ice crystals and have definite effects on crystal morphology. The experiment using music shows even more of this: loud low frequency vibrations in “heavy metal” will create more disturbances in ice crystal formation than lower intensity vibrations from classical music. All of this falls under the heading of “isolation of variables” a basic principle of experimental science of which Emoto seems entirely ignorant.

Finally, there is the macroscopic view of crystal formation. Ice is made of many tiny ice crystals. As an ice crystal forms, it spreads out until it meets another spreading crystal. In any pure water sample with beautiful crystals on aggregate, there will be portions of ugly interstitial regions - regions where 2 growing crystals meet, but don't match up their edges exactly - where the ice looks irregular or “ugly”. I guarantee you from personal experience that each sample will contain both ugly and pretty regions.

A genuine experiment would contain hundreds of photographs with a nice statistical algorithm to average some clearly defined measure of regularity (regular crystals are more beautiful, as defined by Emoto) of each crystal in each photograph, with an average of those scores into an aggregate score for each sample. In addition, each photograph would contain the focusing and camera setting data, as well as the time of exposure to the light that does begin to melt the crystal as it sits on the microscope.

However, this quote explains why I do not “value questions” from the likes of ignorami such as Emoto:

In fact, in the Maui News interview, Dr. Emoto specifically stated, “I do not require any blind tests on any samples,” but rather he believes that “the researcher’s aesthetic sense and character is the most important aspect when taking crystal photographs.”

So we are to believe that the photographer did not search for a crystal of the “correct” appearance in each sample.

Horse shit.


Janiece said...

Oh, C'mon, John. You know you love her and her perfectly defensible scientific claims.

::Ducks, Runs Out::

John the Scientist said...

FAAAAAAARRRRK! I had not seen that before.

Thanks A LOT Janiece. I would have been content to stay blissfully (heh) ignorant!

I have work to do, stop distracting me!

Janiece said...

Sorry. I just couldn't resist after seeing this drivel over at Bad Astronomy.

What a twit.

Random Michelle K said...

Never ask a question unless you're really willing to listen to the answer, and have your own beliefs disproved.

Random Michelle K said...

Notice, that last post was not a question.


Nathan said...

Ahhhh! Now I get it.

Can I be an Indigo?

Random Michelle K said...

You killed his father! Prepare to die!

Random Michelle K said...

Oh. Sorry. That was Indigo.

Derailed a perfectly good thread for nothing.

Anne C. said...

Cool (wink wink) post, John. I want to look at the links more before commenting, but thanks for posting it!

Jim Wright said...

Great post, John, very well said.

And folks? I know you all have your cherished beliefs, but it's Inigo Montoya, not "Indigo," just saying. My proof (because this is a scientist's blog after all)is here.

Jim Wright said...

Oh, and Janiece? Yeah thanks for that link. Really. Urf. I had to go back and reread John's post to wash the stain out of my brain.