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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

SETI Guy's Errant Estimation

For so long astronomer Seth Shostak has been the face of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that you might call him “Mr. SETI,” just as we might call Tom Brady “Mr. Comeback.” A few days ago Shostak published an article entitled “Simple math shows how many space aliens may be out there.” The article contains both misinformation and poor logic.

First, Shostak commits a big factual error. He links us to a NASA page entitled “At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-Sized Planet.” But Shostak describes this as “recent research showing that one in six stars hosts a planet hospitable to life.” There's a huge difference between those two claims. Most of those Earth-sized planets referred to by NASA are not in the habitable zone, and are either too far from the star they orbit or too close to the star they orbit. And even many of the planets in the habitable zones of stars would not be hospitable to life, because they might lack water or suitable atmospheres.

An Earth-sized planet may not be Earth-like (credit: NASA)

This page lists the number of discovered exoplanets as 3588, but this page says the number of potentially habitable exoplanets is only 53, which includes "super-Earths" much larger than Earth. So the truth is that the number of stars hosting a planet that might be hospitable to life is less than about 1 in 60, a fraction ten times smaller than the 1 in 6 number Shostak states.

Then Shostak gives a very common argument for thinking that life should be common in the universe. He tells us this:

Life on our planet began quickly: random chemical activity in 350 million trillion gallons of ocean water spawned a reproducing molecule within a few hundred million years. So maybe biology doesn't need much of a goad to get started. I don't think it's unreasonable to figure that at least half of all planets suitable for life actually produce it.

Our planet is 4.6 billion years old, and claims are made that there are geological signs of life dating back to 3.5 billion years. But such claims are doubtful, as they rely on what are called stromatolites, unusual-looking geological features which some claim were formed by bacteria. We see no cells or biological structures in the oldest stromatolites. The claim that very old stromatolites (older than 3 billions years) are signs of ancient life relies on a rather complicated and debatable line of reasoning. It's quite possible that they are not signs of early life, and that there are alternate geological explanations. This scientific paper says the evidence for life older than 2.5 billion years is “meager and difficult to read.”

Moreover, as discussed here, many scientists think that the earth's oceans are almost as old as the earth itself, having been brought here by comet bombardments. If that assumption is true, there may have been as much as a billion years between the time when life first had a chance to arise on our planet, and the time that it first did arise. If the shaky claims about the oldest stromatolites are in error, there may have been as much as 1.5 billion years between the time when life first had a chance to arise on our planet, and the time that it first did arise. So Shostak's claim that life “began quickly” may be very wrong, even if we define “quickly” as within a few hundred million years.

Even if it were true that life on Earth arose 100 million years after it first had the opportunity to arise, this would not be a strong reason for thinking that life in the universe is common. The article here states the following by MIT professor Joshua Winn (referring to this scientific paper):

There is a commonly heard argument that life must be common or else it would not have arisen so quickly after the surface of the Earth cooled," Winn said. "This argument seems persuasive on its face, but Spiegel and Turner have shown it doesn't stand up to a rigorous statistical examination — with a sample of only one life-bearing planet, one cannot even get a ballpark estimate of the abundance of life in the universe."

It is easy to show the fallacy involved in this type of “if if happened relatively soon, it must been relatively likely” type of reasoning. Consider the assassination of President John Kennedy. On November 22, 1963 Kennedy arrived in Dallas at 11:38 AM. Within an hour he was assassinated. It would not at all make sense for us to reason like this:

  1. President Kennedy was killed within an hour after entering Dallas.
  2. So if a US president enters Dallas again, there will be a fairly high chance that he will be assassinated – at least 1 in 10.

Of course, such reasoning does not make sense. The length of time between when Kennedy arrived in Dallas and the time of his assassination is just a random data item that in no way suggests that there is a fairly high chance that a US president will be assassinated if he visits in Dallas.

Similarly, it would make no sense to use this reasoning about the tragic assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of John Kennedy.

  1. In 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy received a fatal wound very shortly after entering a hotel kitchen.
  2. So if a US senator enters a hotel kitchen, there will be a fairly high chance of him being assassinated.

Just as such logic is not valid, it is not valid to reason that there is a relatively high chance of extraterrestrial life appearing on a planet because earthly life supposedly arose relatively soon after it had an opportunity to arise.

Even the simplest living organism is an item of incredible complexity compared to nonliving chemicals. Based on the improbability of getting by blind chance the “organization explosion” necessary for life to get started, we should conclude that if nothing special is going on, the likelihood of life appearing on any particular extraterrestrial planet is incredibly small, less than a millionth of the “one chance in two” that Shostak estimates.

Let's imagine you were to go to a casino in Las Vegas, and you see a red gambling machine which has a slot where you can put in dollars. The machine is simply labeled, “Put in one dollar – you may get 1000 back.” You put in one dollar, and another dollar; but nothing happens. When you put in your third dollar, suddenly a thousand dollars pour out of the machine. You now have to judge: how likely is that this machine will give you a thousand dollars back if you put in a hundred dollars of your money?

If you only consider timing considerations, you might conclude that there is a strong likelihood of winning another thousand dollars after gambling a hundred dollars. After all, you won a thousand dollars relatively soon. But then you suddenly realize: there's a very strong reason for thinking the chance of winning another thousand dollars must be very low on each opportunity. The reason is: you are in a casino, which is a profit-oriented business; and the odds always favor the casino. So you sadly realize that the chance of getting another thousand dollar win is very low each time you try.

This situation with the red gambling machine is quite analogous to estimating the chance of life appearing on another planet. In both cases:

  1. There either was or may have been a “relatively early success” that might make you think the chance of success was fairly high on each try.
  2. Such a consideration is overwhelmed by a very strong reason that exists for thinking that the chance of success on each try is very low. In the case of life appearing on other planets, that consideration is the extreme unlikelihood of the occurrence of the “organization explosion” needed for any living thing to appear from lifeless chemicals.

Just as the user of this red gambling machine should actually judge that the chance of success is very low on each try (despite one case of an early success), based on blind chance considerations we should conclude that the chance of life appearing on some randomly chosen planet is very low (even if there was one case of an early success on our planet). Shostak has mentioned some minor timing consideration in regard to the origin of life, while making no mention at all of the vastly weightier consideration that should have been considered: the incredibly low mathematical probability of a transition from non-life to life, requiring a sudden leap in organization like a thousand logs transforming into a hotel made of logs.

Exactly the same error is committed on the FAQ of Shostak's SETI organization seti.org, which refers only to the timing consideration, making the extremely dubious claim that earthly life arose “100 million years after life was even possible” (for the reasons given above, the actual gap could easily have been a billion years or more). The same SETI FAQ tells us that “scientists have developed a theory of cosmic evolution that predicts that life is a natural phenomenon likely to develop on planets with suitable environmental conditions.” This is not at all correct, and Darwinian evolution theory makes no prediction at all about the likelihood of life appearing.

Let's consider only one of the innumerable difficulties in explaining the origin of life. In modern cells, proteins are synthesized by little units called ribosomes. But those ribosomes are themselves largely constructed from proteins. So it seems we have a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” problem in regard to the origin of proteins. We cannot simply say that first there were ribosomes, and later there were proteins.  Even the simplest life form requires many functional proteins, but we have no natural explanation for how any protein could arise from the "random chemical activity" Shostak evokes. Ditto for a genetic code and self-replicating nucleic acids.  None of these things has ever been produced by scientists simulating early earth conditions.  Shostak's claim that such things arose from "random chemical activity" is therefore a metaphysical article of faith without any scientific basis.  

In the rest of his article, Shostak continues to just arbitrarily pull numbers out a hat when he estimates that there is 1 chance in 100 that a life-bearing planet would bear intelligent life, and that extraterrestrial civilizations “continue to hang out for 10,000 years before self-destructing.” Given the reality that natural selection is a very poor explanation for the characteristics of minds like ours, the first number could easily be a million times smaller. Shostak fails to include the following relevant things that should be considered when calculating the probability of intelligent life on another planet:

  1. The probability of primitive prokaryotic cells ever evolving into the much more elaborate eukaryotic cells (there are reasons for thinking this probability is very low, and the current theory to explain it relies on a far-fetched kind of “sudden transition by ingestion” tall tale that is not at all Darwinian).
  2. The probability of unicellular life ever becoming organized into multicellular life, something hard to explain.
Shostak then says, “Do the arithmetic, and you'll find that one in 100 million star systems has technically adept inhabitants.” The arithmetic? There's a thousand different ways to do calculations of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, and the more realistic ones (assuming only blind chance) lead to estimates thousands, millions, or billions of times smaller than the estimate Shostak has made. It could be that intelligent life is common, but only if some special metaphysical or teleological factors are at play. Calculating only from physics, chemistry, and known biology, the odds are extremely poor. By suggesting that there is some clear mathematical rationale for some arbitrary number that he has picked out of a hat, Shostak resembles someone dogmatically declaring that the chance of you having a blissful afterlife is 57%.

Whenever we hear scientists make assertions about any debatable topic, we should always ask: what type of sociological factors, ideological factors or economic factors may be influencing these assertions? In Shostak's case, we know of a strong economic factor that may be influencing his calculations. Shostak is a leader of an organization (the SETI Institute) looking for extraterrestrials by using radio searches. If you think the chance of nearby extraterrestrial civilizations is high, you will be more likely to donate to Shostak's organization, which solicits donations.

Postscript: There are about 250 billion stars in our galaxy, one of billions of galaxies. Shostak's estimate of one technical civilization per 100 million stars amounts to an estimate of about 2500 technical civilizations in our galaxy.  But in this estimate, astronomer Carl Sagan said, "When we do the arithmetic, the number that my colleagues and I come up with is around a million technical civilizations in our Galaxy alone." Obviously Sagan's math was very arbitrary indeed, and Shostak's coming up with a number about 500 times smaller is just as arbitrary.  When we consider the organization miracle needed for abiogenesis (life appearing from chemicals), the likelihood of any extraterrestrials in our galaxy seems low. The only hopeful hint involves sightings of UFOs.  You would think Shostak would mention these to beef up his case for galactic extraterrestrials, but he always seems to refer to such sightings in a disparaging tone.  This seems like a case of not using your best ammunition.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Protein Folding Is 100 Times More Unsolved Than the NY Times Suggested

One of the principal unsolved problems of science is the problem of protein folding, the problem of how simple strings of amino acids (called polypeptide chains) are able to form very rapidly into the intricate three-dimensional shapes necessary for protein function. Scientists have been struggling with this problem for more than 50 years. Protein folding is constantly going on inside the cells of your body, which are constantly synthesizing new proteins. The correct function of proteins depends on them having specific three-dimensional shapes.

Last month the New York Times had an article suggesting that the protein folding problem had been solved. But this insinuation is not at all correct. Not only has the protein folding problem not been solved, but the most systematic assessment of progress on this problem suggests that scientists are light-years away from solving it.

In DNA, proteins are represented simply as a sequence of nucleotide base pairs that represents a linear sequence of amino acids. A series of amino acids such as this, existing merely as a wire-like length, is sometimes called a polypeptide chain.  


But  a protein molecule isn't shaped like a simple length of copper wire – it looks more like some intricate copper wire sculpture that some artisan might make.

Below are two examples of the 3D shapes that protein molecules can take. There are countless different variations. Each type of protein has its own distinctive 3D shape.


The phenomenon of a protein molecule forming into a 3D shape is called protein folding. How would you make an intricate 3D sculpture from a long length of copper wire? You would do a lot of folding and bending of the wire. Something similar seems to go on with protein folding, causing the one-dimensional series of amino acids in a protein to end up as a complex three-dimensional shape. In the body this happens very rapidly, in a few minutes or less. It has been estimated that it would take 1042 years for a protein to form into a shape as functional as the shape it takes, if mere trial and error were involved.

The question is: how does this happen? This is the protein folding problem that biochemists have been struggling with for decades. It has been often said that when the protein folding problem is solved, scientists will be able to reliably predict the 3D shape of a protein from only its sequence of amino acids.

In December 2017 the New York Times had a story about attempts to create artificial proteins. The story seemed to announce a monumental success – that the protein folding problem had been solved. Here is what the Times article said:

But they’ve been stumped by one great mystery: how the building blocks in a protein take their final shape. David Baker, 55, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, has been investigating that enigma for a quarter-century. Now, it looks as if he and his colleagues have cracked it.

This claim in the article inspired computational biologist Mike Inouye to send out a triumphal tweet proclaiming: “Mind blowing...the protein folding problem is essentially solved.” But  there is a very elaborate systematic methodology in place for determining the progress made so far on the protein folding problem, and that methodology is currently telling us loud and clear that progress on this protein folding problem is very small, with the problem being 100 times more unsolved than the New York Times has suggested.

What is called the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) is a competition to assess the progress being made on the protein folding problem. They have been running the competition every two years since 1994. You can read about the competition and see its results at this site. The first competition in 1994 was called CASP1, and the latest competition in 2016 was called CASP12. Particular prediction models are used to make predictions about the 3D shape of a protein. The competitors don't know the 3D shape, but only are given the amino acid sequence. The competitors make their best guess about the 3D shape, using some prediction model that is often computerized.

The competition is broken up into two categories, one category in which "template-based" modeling can be used, and one in which the predictions are supposed to be “template-free” approaches (also called de novo approaches or ab initio approaches). The latter approach is supposed to be not depending on a large database of proteins or a database of protein fragments (something that a cell doesn't have when a 3D protein shape appears).

While looked at the CASP web site, I found the paper here, which gives a graph summarizing what kind of success level was reported in the CASP competitions up until the CASP10 competition in 2012. The graph is below.




The GDT_TS shown on the left is something called the “global distance test,” a measure of how accurate a prediction is. A GDT_TS of 100 means a relatively accurate prediction, and a GDT_TS of only about 20 means a poor, inaccurate prediction.

We can see from the graph above that the same failure has plagued the prediction models in all of the competitions: the models work well with simple cases (trying to predict the 3D shape of a protein with few amino acids), but do not work well with more complex cases (trying to predict the 3D shape of a protein with many amino acids). Moreover, it seems that while some progress was made between CASP1 in 1992 and CASP4 in the year 2000, little progress was made between CASP4 in the year 2000 and CASP10 in the year 2012.

The paper here summarizes the results of “template free” protein-folding prediction in the 2012 CASP10 competition. This is the harder type of prediction, in which you are not supposed to use templates that are kind of patterns derived from studying many different cases of proteins. A cell itself does not use any such thing, so anyone claiming to have an explanation for how nature folds proteins shouldn't be resorting to such meta-data.

The paper found that the results were poor: “Even the most suc-
cessful one submitted best models for only four of the 19 FM targets and eight of the 36 ROLL targets.” It also found that “Many, if not most, good models appear to have been produced by template-based modeling or the related technique of server model selection and refinement.” This amounts to basically an accusation of widespread rule-breaking that resembles cheating. This part of the competition was supposed to be for “template free” predictions, but many of the competitors used templates anyway (like some swimming competitor cheating by sneaking in some freestyle strokes during a breaststroke competition). Even with this rule-breaking resembling cheating, the prediction results were poor.

Looking at the results from the latest and greatest competition in 2016 (CASP12), there seems to be no big recent progress. The page here shows the same type of poor numbers as shown in the graph above. The GDT_TS numbers are almost all very low. 

From this examination, we can see that the New York Times story has misinformed us by insinuating that the protein folding problem has been “cracked.” Nothing of the sort has happened. Scientists cannot predict with anything close to accuracy the 3D shape of a typical protein from the sequence of amino acids found in a gene. Scientists have been knocking their heads on this problem for 50 years, and seem to be stalled at a very low level of success, in which only the shapes of very simple proteins can be reliably predicted. The median size of a human protein is 375 amino acids,  and scientists cannot predict the 3D shape of a protein with such a size.   

I may note that the small success that scientists have had in the area of protein structure prediction is based mostly on data-crunching techniques completely unavailable to a cell where protein folding occurs. The template-based approach involves pattern matching utilizing our knowledge of thousands of proteins. Even the techniques called “template-free” or de novo or ab initio do not live up to their original goal of being techniques using only the amino acid sequence. For these de novo or ab initio techniques also have a dependency on data obtained from analyzing many proteins, knowledge other than just the amino acid sequence. For example, the Rosetta technique makes use of a “fragments library” created by analyzing a large library of proteins. If scientists were to use the same knowledge limitations in a cell (having only the amino acid sequence and no other data), they wouldn't even be able to report the small degree of success in this area they have reported.

 We may describe protein folding as a miracle of nature beyond any real understanding of science. It is comparable to the miracle of morphogenesis, the development of a full human form from a fertilized egg. In both of these cases we see a mysterious ordering, a mysterious assumption of structure and form, that is inexplicable from what we know about biology, physics and chemistry. Contrary to the erroneous idea frequently suggested, DNA does not contain three-dimensional information specifying the body plan of an organism. Given the limitations of DNA and given the other reasons discussed in this post, the 3D structure of an organism cannot be expressed in DNA.

Let us imagine that astronauts were to travel to some strange planet. On the planet they might notice a very astonishing thing: whenever the astronauts chopped down trees, and put the logs in a long row, the logs conveniently assemble all by themselves into log cabins. This would be an indication that something very dramatic was occurring on this planet: perhaps the action of some mysterious unseen force, one with signs of intelligence.

A planet like this has been discovered. It is our own planet. The only difference is that rather than rows of logs conveniently forming by themselves into log cabins through some mysterious unknown effect, we see linear sequences of amino acids conveniently forming into three-dimensional protein shapes often much more elaborate than the structure of a log cabin. We should not at all assume that it is ordinary chemistry that produces this astonishing protein folding effect. If it were mere chemistry, the chemical rules producing such an effect would have been discovered long ago, and the protein folding problem would have been solved long ago.

Just as astronauts witnessing this log-cabin marvel should suspect that some mysterious force with signs of intelligence was behind the marvel they were seeing, we should suspect that the marvel of protein folding is an indication of some great, mysterious reality of nature far beyond our ken – perhaps some mysterious life force involved not just in protein folding but also in the comparable marvel of morphogenesis, where a fertilized egg mysteriously progresses to the complexity of a newborn infant. DNA (which is essentially just a long set of lists of amino acids) has nothing that can explain either of these marvels.

No matter what marvel a typical scientist may observe, he will attempt to squeeze the wonder out of it by describing it as something explicable by ordinary laws of chemistry and physics. Let us imagine a planet named Volpurnia where a strange thing always happens: whenever anyone jumps off of a cliff or high building, they always decelerate and land softly on the ground, without any damage. Would the scientists of Volpurnia say this was a sign of some mysterious providential force at work? Of course, not. They might instead call this “the law of harmless falls,” and say that it was caused by just run-of-the-mill physics. They might say, “Give us a few decades, and we'll explain it.” If you then returned 40 years later, and asked if they figured out what is causing this “law of harmless falls,” the scientists would say something like, “We haven't quite figured that out, so give us 40 more years.” The scientists who have struggled for decades to explain protein folding, with little substantial success, are like these scientists of Volpurnia; and the marvel of protein folding is no less astonishing than such a “law of harmless falls.”  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Masquerade of the Multiverse Metaphysics

Physicist Sean Carroll has a new paper trying to drum up support for the multiverse, the groundless idea that there is some vast collection of universes outside of our universe. The paper is entitled “Beyond Falsifiability: Normal Science in a Multiverse.” 

In his introduction, Carroll states this:

Multiverse models are scientific in an utterly conventional sense; they describe definite physical situations, and are ultimately judged on their ability to provide an explanation for data collected in observations and experiments. But the kind of science they are is perfectly ordinary science. The ways in which we evaluate the multiverse as a scientific hypothesis are precisely the ways in which hypotheses have always been judged.

None of this is true. Specifically:
  1. Multiverse theories are not actually models. In scientific terminology a model is a simplified conceptual representation of a complicated physical situation. For example, the Bohr model of the atom involved a simplified representation in which the complicated reality in an atom was depicted like a simple solar system, with the nucleus being like the sun and the electrons like the planet. Instead of imagining something simpler than the known reality, as in a model, a multiverse is imagining some reality almost infinitely more complicated than our known observable reality.
  2. Carroll's insinuation that something is scientific because it describes “definite physical situations” is wrong. If I imagine there are mile-high dragons on the far side of the moon, I have imagined a “definite physical situation,” but my fantasy is not scientific.
  3. Typical multiverse assertions do not at all assert “definite physical situations.” Instead of precise descriptions, we get thinking along the lines of “maybe there are countless other universes, each with a different set of characteristics.” Such airy fantasies are not cases of postulating a definite physical situation.
  4. Science can properly be defined as either (1) the body of facts that have been established by observations and experiments; or (2) the activity of scientists gathering observations, performing experiments, and interpreting such results. According to neither of these definitions is the concept of a multiverse science. And it is certainly laughable to call this very bizarre and non-scientific idea of the multiverse “perfectly ordinary science.”
  5. We can hardly show that the multiverse is science by arguing that “the ways in which we evaluate the multiverse as a scientific hypothesis are precisely the ways in which hypotheses have always been judged.” You could use the same logic to argue that palmistry and magic spells are science, on the grounds that the way such things are properly evaluated is precisely the ways in which hypotheses have always been judged.
  6. Multiverse theories do not actually explain anything, and it is not correct that they are “judged on their ability to provide an explanation for data collected in observations and experiments.”

Carroll gets into a discussion of whether falsifiability helps us distinguish between science and non-science. Falsifiability means when we can imagine observations that might disprove a theory. Carroll tries to suggest that we should discard falsifiability as an acid test for whether a theory is scientific.

It is true that it doesn't make sense to say that distinguishing between science and non-science is as simple as asking whether a theory is falsifiable. There are actually perfectly reasonable scientific theories that could never be falsified, such as the theory that life exists on some other planet. Falsifying such a theory would require observing all of the planets in the universe within some short time period, which is physically impossible because of the vast number of stars that exist, and the difficulty of traveling between them. But the fact that falsifiability is not suitable as a sole determinant of whether something is scientific does not mean that we should go “beyond falsifiability,” and pay no attention to falsifiability.

A reasonable program for judging whether an idea is scientific would be to have a kind of six-point system in which multiple criteria were considered. It might work like this:

  1. Your theory gets one point if there are possible observations that could verify the theory.
  2. Your theory gets one point if there are possible observations that could disprove the theory (meaning the theory is falsifiable).
  3. Your theory gets one point if there is substantial evidence suggesting the theory is true.
  4. Your theory gets one point if there is not substantial evidence that the theory is false.
  5. Your theory gets one point if it makes precise numerical predictions that can be tested.
  6. Your theory gets one point if it is simple and economical, and consistent with the long-standing scientific principle of Occam's Razor, that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

This type of evaluation algorithm makes sense. It includes the idea of falsifiability, but only as one of multiple things that will be considered. We may note that according to such a reasonable evaluation algorithm, the idea of the multiverse scores only one point (as does the theory that there is somewhere a planet ruled by purple unicorns). The only one of these requirements met by the idea of the multiverse is number 4: there is no substantial evidence that there is not a multiverse. The multiverse fails all of the other evaluation criteria. It certainly fails requirement 1, as there are no observations that we could possibly have that could show there are other universes. Anything we might observe in our telescopes would be something part of our universe, not some other universe.

Conversely, a real scientific theory will score at least 3 points under such an evaluation system.

Most absurdly, Carroll attempts to persuade us that postulating a multiverse would be a case of “inference to the best explanation,” sometimes called abduction. He states the following:

Abduction lets you go the other way around: if you get sick, and there are no other obvious reasons why, you might conclude that you probably ate some spoiled food. This isn’t a logically necessary conclusion, but it’s the best explanation given the context. Science works along analogous lines....The multiverse, therefore, is a case of science as usual: we evaluate it on the basis of how likely it is to be true, given what we know on the basis of what we actually have observed.

This comparison is highly erroneous, and calling a non-scientific multiverse fantasy “science as usual” is preposterous. In the case of drawing a conclusion about a stomach pain, the numerical reasoning occurs like this:

  1. We consider the most common causes for a stomach pain – what percentage of the time it is caused by food, what percentage of the time it is caused by cancer, what percentage of the time it is caused by a kidney stone, etc.
  2. If one of these causes is more common than any of the other causes, we might deem that as the best explanation.

But no such reasoning can possibly can go on in regard to a multiverse. For we have no data at at all about anything caused by a multiverse, nor do we have any evidence that a multiverse exists. So there can be no “inference to the best explanation” comparable to what goes on in assuming that a stomach pain was probably caused by food. Inference is based on observations, and there have been no observations about a multiverse – no observation of other universes. It is wrong for Carroll to claim that a multiverse theory is evaluated “on the basis of how likely it is to be true, given what we know on the basis of what we actually have observed.” To the contrary, multiverse theories are speculations involving other universes very different from those we have observed. 

 There is a perfectly good term that has been used for centuries to describe speculations about that which is not observable. The term is metaphysics. Metaphysics is what is going on when you speculate about the nature of God, angels, life after death, and unobservable universes beyond our own. Multiverse speculations are properly classified as metaphysics. A multiverse speculation isn't science, which is properly defined as facts established by observations and experiments, or the activity of making observations and doing experiments that try to establish facts (or interpreting such observations and experiments). If you try to put a mask of science on the multiverse, such a ruse is best described as a masquerade. A multiverse speculation masquerading as “perfectly ordinary science” is as outrageous an impostor as some escaped convict masquerading as a doctor by putting on a white coat and a stethoscope.


Postscript: We had some more inane reasoning from the multiverse fantasists in this post by cosmologist Ethan Siegel. He reasons as follows:

Why must the Multiverse exist? Quite simply: there must be more Universe than the part that is observable to us.  

This reasoning is silly. If there is more of the universe than we can observe, that simply tells us something about the size of our universe, not that there are other universes beyond our own. 

On the same day I wrote this post, philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci put up a post saying, "Indeed, at the moment, at least, the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics." That's the same conclusion I reached.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I Thought It Was a Nuclear Bomb Exploding

Recently people in Hawaii had a nuclear scare, as a false alert went out warning of an incoming missile. Those to blame for this event include a person operating a computer system, and the designers of the computer system, who made it too easy for such an operator to make a mistake. The incident reminded of the time I thought I was actually witnessing a nuclear bomb going off.

I have lived through two different terror bombings of the World Trade Center in New York. The first occurred on February 26, 1993 at 12:17 PM. I had a 12:30 lunch date with the woman who was then my fiancee and is now my wife. The lunch date was in the Sbarro's restaurant on the ground floor of the World Trade Center.

What occurred was an interesting illustration of how people will misidentify something they have never seen before, interpreting it as something they have seen before. Upon entering the World Trade Center, I saw a huge cloud of dust in its halls. The bomb had gone off a few minutes before I came in. At this time almost no one was thinking about any chance of terrorism in New York. So I did not at all think to myself: this must be a terrorist attack. Instead, I said something like, “Wow, I can't believe how careless those construction workers were – look at all the dust they kicked up.” Even with this huge cloud of dust in the halls, the food servers at Sbarro's kept trying to do their jobs. The police then told everyone to leave the building.

The first bombing of the World Trade Center did relatively little damage. People kind of said, “Those clumsy terrorists – their attempts at destruction are a joke.” Only a few years later, the people at the company where I was working had the idea of moving to a new building, and they chose the World Trade Center, which would turn out to be a horrible mistake. It's amazing how everyone paid little attention to a threat that had been clearly announced by the 1993 bombing.

I got into work at 7:00 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, and took the elevator up to the fortieth floor of the World Trade Center. I was completely absorbed in what I was doing on my computer when the first hijacked jet liner crashed into the building. There was a very loud noise, and a tremendous jolt, like some giant hand was shaking the whole building.

I jumped up to look out the window, and then immediately saw a huge fall of flaming debris. It looked rather like a huge chunk of the upper building was collapsing in flames. Terrified, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Get the f*** out!” I then ran for the stairs.

As I started to run down the stairs, I had a fleeting thought that a nuclear bomb had exploded. People had long feared that someone would sneak a small nuclear bomb into the city. What I had witnessed up until this point was consistent with a small nuclear weapon going off at ground level.

My chances looked good after I had passed down a few flights of stairs. There was no one in front of me. Then I encountered some smoke on the stairs. I remember thinking: this is it, I'm going to die. But the smoke cleared as I passed down several floors lower. At some point I encountered lots of water pouring out into the stairway. But after passing down a few more floors, I passed through the part that was flooded.

Eventually the stairs started to fill up with people exiting the building, and the stairways become clogged with people. The downward flow of people stopped entirely. I thought to myself: what could be causing the delay? It turned out to be a delay caused by people letting firefighters walk up the stairs. What went on at this time made no sense from a safety standpoint. No one should have tried to walk up the stairs until they had become uncrowded, so that as many people as possible could have exited. I will never forget the worried, tired look of the brave firefighters as they walked up those stairs. Many of them never made it out.

Finally, after about 20 minutes, I got down to the ground floor. I was now in the elevator lobby of the World Trade Center. I looked in amazement at one of the elevator entrance doors. They were all charred and black, as if someone had torched them with a flame thrower. This could have been flames traveling down the elevator shaft.

I made it into the shopping mall area of the World Trade Center, and was drenched by sprinklers that had been activated by the fire. Finally I made it out of the building. When I looked up at the top of the building, I saw a huge column of black smoke rising up from the top of the building. I walked home all the way from lower Manhattan to the Jackson Heights neigborhood of Queens. While passing around the Times Square area, I saw some giant TV screen showing the World Trade Center buildings collapsing. I was dumbfounded. I thought the buildings would last for a thousand years.

I knew one person who died in the attack, a very smart young man named Scott. Scott first appeared on our work scene in a rather lowly position, but later I overheard him interviewing for a programming position in a cubicle near mine. I was amazed by what I heard – it was like he had an encyclopedic grasp of the technology we were using. I wasn't surprised at all when he was hired as a programmer, nor was I surprised when he started rising up in the company as a technical manager. Apparently he had risen rather high in the company by September 11, 2001, for he worked on one of the high floors of the World Trade Center where pretty much only the upper echelons worked. It was, tragically, a case of rising too fast and too high in the organization, because nobody on those highest floors of the World Trade Center made it out.

They have made an impressive memorial to those who died in the World Trade Center attack. It is a beautiful and dignified monument. But in a book of alternate designs submitted for the memorial, I saw a design I liked a lot more. The design proposed a structure consisting of thousands of suspended bells, each with the name of a person on it. The great thing about such a design is that it could have turned the World Trade Center area from a place of sorrow to a place of joy – because children would have taken great delight in ringing all the suspended bells. 

Memorial at the World Trade Center

Sadly, there is a substantial risk of another terrorist attack, perhaps one much worse than the September 11 attacks. The problem is that the materials to make nuclear bombs are scattered all over the world. If you are in a skyscraper, and you ever think a nuclear attack has occurred, don't look out the window like I did – for it could be a flash that could blind you. Instead, run for the stairwells, and try to stay there as long as you can, doing what they call “shelter in place.” The area inside a stairwell of a skyscraper offers excellent shielding against radiation. The radiation from a nuclear bomb would decrease by about 50% every day. So anyone willing to wait several days in a stairwell could then emerge into an environment with much less radiation.

Postscript: Several months before September 11, 2001, I had a dream the World Trade Center was collapsing. In my dream I started out inside one of the WTC towers, and the floor underneath me gave way, and I began a long plunge. I told my wife the day of the dream that I had dreamed that the World Trade Center had collapsed. I have never had any other dream of a building collapsing. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pom-Pom Journalism of the Mainstream Science Writers

There is a certain viewpoint about US Presidents and military actions that cheerleaders for the President and the military like to present. The viewpoint is a kind of rose-colored viewpoint that is highly idealized. Below are some of the ideas that we might find in such a viewpoint.
  1. The President of the US always acts as a benevolent or fair figure who metes out kindness or justice to foreign nations.
  2. If a US president ever decides to take military action against a foreign nation, it is because he was forced into such an action, and such a nation (or people in it) deserved such a response.
  3. The US president never authorizes or continues military actions mainly or largely because such actions might benefit himself, his friends, or his party.
  4. Once the US military has been ordered to engage in military action, they engage in this violent activity with great reluctance, and take great care to minimize enemy deaths and civilian deaths.
  5. The military acts to keep any military engagement as brief as possible, and keep US soldier deaths to a minimum.

But sadly a great deal of historical evidence argues against this idealized outlook, and favors a more realistic outlook. If you take a close historical examination of the US military actions in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, Cambodia, and the Philippines, you might adopt a very different perspective with some of these ideas:

  1. The President of the US often initiates or continues military action largely for selfish reasons, to benefit himself, his campaign donors, or his political party – partially to make himself look strong or decisive or heroic, in a way that improves his election prospects, and partially to help corporate interests that may contribute to his re-election campaign.
  2. A US president may decide to order US military force when no such action is forced on him, and no such action is deserved by the nation that suffers from the military action.
  3. Once they are ordered into action, a very tiny fraction of the soldiers in the US military may proceed with excessive brutality, having little concern for civilian casualties.
  4. Rather than trying to minimize the damage and deaths in the country under attack, some untypical members of the military may attempt with relish to maximize such damage and deaths.
  5. In some cases, members of the US military may act to prolong or escalate a war, for doubtful reasons such as vengeance, achieving a more resounding victory, terrifying the enemy into subjugation, proving the prowess of particular weapon systems, or justifying the sacrifice of those already dead.
  6. Some untypical officers in the military may recommend particular attacks for dubious reasons such as winning medals, getting promotions, demonstrating their executive prowess, or testing their pet theories.

There is a great contrast between these two viewpoints. Just as it possible to view the activity of the US president and the military in two very different ways (one idealized and another more realistic), it is possible to view the activities of scientists in two different ways: one viewpoint that is very idealized and another viewpoint that is much more realistic. It is much more common for people to be exposed to the idealized, rose-colored viewpoint about scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of this viewpoint:

  1. Scientists are people who judge truth in the same disinterested and dispassionate way that judges or jurors consider court cases.
  2. A scientist's statements on a scientific question are always dictated entirely by the relevant facts, and such statements are not heavily influenced by the scientist's ideology or by selfish considerations having to do with the scientist's economic interests or career prospects.
  3. Scientists are very careful about only making statements that are warranted by facts and observations.
  4. When a theory gains popularity among scientists, it is always because a great mass of evidence has accumulated showing that such a theory is very probably true.
  5. Unlike people in religion, scientists do not believe on the basis of authority.

The viewpoint above is a kind of an idealized rose-colored viewpoint that puts scientists on a pedestal, and attributes to them a kind of intellectual virtue that few humans have. There is a more realistic viewpoint you can have about scientists and scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of that viewpoint:

  1. While most of the assertions of scientists are well supported by observations or evidence, it is also very common for scientists to assert claims that are not well supported by observations and evidence, particularly speculative theories that have gradually spread among scientist communities through a kind of bandwagon effect, a social contagion effect.
  2. Scientists often describe as “science” or “scientific” doubtful claims that are not actually science in the strictest sense, because they have not been well established by observations or experiments.
  3. Because there are very strong financial and professional penalties for being a “renegade” scientist who disagrees with the majority on some topic, scientists are under strong peer-pressure to conform to community norms of belief, even when such norms are unwarranted.
  4. Conformism and yielding to authority are very strong factors influencing scientific assertions, with scientists being under great pressure to conform to the opinions of revered scientific authority figures, living and dead.
  5. There is great overconfidence and hubris among many scientists, who often claim to understand things they don't understand, partially because such assertions enhance their prestige or the prestige of their group, making it appear they have a topic mastery that is not actually possessed.
  6. There are many problems in current science practice, including excessive jargon and obfuscation, research results that very often are never reproduced, and excessive hype of marginal results.

To do intelligent science journalism, a writer should at least occasionally take a viewpoint like the second of these viewpoints. Such a viewpoint involves some of the sociological insight that is needed for realistic analysis. But such a critical perspective is very rarely taken by our mainstream science writers, who seem to almost always be taking “looking up from under the pedestal” viewpoints toward the modern scientist. These pom-pom writers seem to act more like cheerleaders than journalists.


Let us imagine a country in which the press reported uncritically the assertions of the government. In this country, each time the leader of a country stated something, it would be reported as gospel truth by the press. In this country when some group of government officials such as a Senate committee came to a decision, the journalists would report that decision as if it were something that could scarcely be doubted. And whenever a president wanted to start a war, the press would publish the White House spin without criticism. Now clearly in such a country the press would not be doing its proper job. The proper job of the press is to not to just report what authorities in power are saying, but to subject such claims to critical scrutiny.

Thankfully we do not live in a country with a press that is a lap-dog to authorities in government. But we do live in a country where the press is pretty much a lap-dog to authorities in academia. Our science writers typically treat the pronouncements of professors with kind of the same  reverence that North Korean journalists treat the utterances of government officials. 

Mainstream science writers seem to think that their mission consists of the following:

  1. To get the public interested in science papers that are written in prose that is typically rather boring.
  2. To get people to understand scientific progress that may be written up in some jargon-filled prose that is hard for the layman to understand.

But there are additional important roles that science writers should be undertaking:

  1. To subject the claims of science authorities to critical scrutiny, which may involve sometimes pointing out that the evidence does not back up the claim being made.
  2. To point out inconsistencies, weaknesses, implausibilities or unwarranted assertions in the claims of science authorities, whenever such things occur.

But these two roles are hardly being performed by mainstream science writers, who seem to typically act like cheerleaders, like people no more prone to challenge the pronouncements of authorities than journalists in China or North Korea. 

Let us look at an example of how pom-pom science journalists failed to do their job. A scientific paper was published claiming to have produced evidence for memory traces in the hippocampus. Some mice were trained to fear an electric shock delivered in a particular spot. Then some fancy gizmo was hooked up to their brains, which supposedly delivered a kind of energy burst in some particular area of the brain where the scientists thought the memories were stored. The "fear freezing" behavior of the mice was reported as being different when such a burst was delivered, and the scientists reported this as evidence that parts of the hippocampus contain "contain memory traces for fear-inducing contexts." 

Our pom-pom science journalists reported such a result uncritically. But adequate coverage of this paper would have put such a paper in a proper light by discussing all of the following things:

  • The results were produced testing a number of mice, but the paper doesn't tell us how many mice were tested. If only a few mice were tested, we should have very little confidence in the results.
  • A mouse receiving a burst of energy may freeze not because some previous fear-training memory was activated by the energy, but because the mouse is responding to a novel, unexpected stimulus.
  • The paper was based on judgments of fear-freezing in mice, which is a very subjective thing to judge, the type of thing where an experimenter bias could easily have crept in.
  • The paper was experimenting with mice, but no such results have been produced with humans; so the result may not reveal anything about human memory.  
  • The result suggested by the experiment contradicts the result produced over many years of experiments by Karl Lashley, who did all kinds of experiments testing memories in animals after removing or damaging parts of their brains, and could find no evidence that any particular memory was stored in any particular part of the brain.
  • The leading journal Nature published an article entitled “Brain-manipulation studies may produce spurious links to behavior,” pointing out that shooting energy into one part of a brain (the technique used by the paper) may cause other parts of the brain to fire off, resulting in unpredictable effects.
  • The graphs of the scientific paper show only very small differences between the behavior of the mice that received the burst of energy and those that did not. After 10 or 20 tries, any experimenter could have probably produced such marginal results testing with a meaningless stimulus such as saying the word “Abracadabra,” because of mere chance variations.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

He Tries to Pump Some "Star Wars" Glamour into Panpsychism

In his post “Why Panpsychism is the Jedi Philosophy,” BigThink.com columnist Scott Hendricks starts out by describing the Force, the mysterious cosmic energy source depicted in the Star Wars movies. Here is how Obi-Wan Kenobi first describes the Force in the first Star Wars movie:

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

Yoda the Jedi master of the Force explains it this way: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us."

After describing the Star Wars depiction of the force, Hendricks says, “There is a name for this philosophy in real life, panpsychism.” But Hendricks errs. The depiction of the Force in the Star Wars movies is not any statement of the philosophy of panpsychism.

Panpsychism is the idea that all matter is to some degree conscious. But the Star Wars idea of the Force is not an idea about matter.  It is an idea about a cosmic energy. No one in the Star Wars movies ever makes the panpsychist claim that all matter is conscious, nor does any such character claim that any nonliving material thing is conscious.

Hendricks incorrectly describes how the Force is depicted in the Star Wars movies. He tells us, “While only some things, notably Force-sensitive characters, can manipulate the Force, every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force.” He provides a link to try to back up this claim, which merely takes us to the first description of the Force in the Star Wars movies:

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

But that quote does not at all back up the claim that “every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force,” an idea never presented in the Star Wars movies. To the contrary, the two quotes above (by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda) tell us that the force is created specifically by living things, not by material things in general. 

Poster of the latest Star Wars movie

In the Star Wars movies, the Force is associated with psychic powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis. The masters of the Force known as Jedi can influence the minds of others through thought suggestion, as Obi-Wan Kenobi does when he gets out of a jam by telepathically influencing the mind of a security guard. A Jedi can also sense distant important events by sensing a disturbance in the Force, as Obi-Wan does when he detects a “great disturbance in the Force” when the Death Star destroys a distant planet. A Jedi can even use the force to move objects such as a light saber. Someone can also use the Force to achieve things he could never normally do, such as when Luke Skywalker uses the Force to help him perform the difficult task of blowing up the Death Star.

None of this has anything to do with panpsychism, and panpsychism is not associated with any claims or beliefs about psychic powers. Panpsychism has never been associated with any types of claims about a cosmic force, mysterious or non-mysterious.

From the table below we can see there is basically nothing that panpsychism has in common with the Star Wars concept of the Force.



Panpsychism Star Wars concept of the Force
Make a claim about matter? Yes No
Claims all matter is conscious? Yes No
Makes a claim about a cosmic energy field? No Yes
Makes a claim about psychic powers (telepathy, psychokinesis)? No Yes
Differentiates between living and non-living things? No Yes (the Force is described as a product of all living things, not all matter)
Suggests some cosmic will? No Yes (“will of the Force” in episode 1)
Associated with post-mortal survival? No Maybe (ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi twice seen)

Although the Star Wars movies tell us nothing about how the Force might relate to life-after-death, the movies hint that there may be such a relation. In Episode 4 we hear the voice of the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to “use the force.” In Episode 5 we see the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appearing to Luke Skywalker. In Episode 6 we the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Yoda all appearing to Luke Skywalker. Since these were all great masters of the Force, we can infer some relation between the Force and their post-mortal survival.

Hendrick's attempt to glamorize panpsychism by calling it “the Jedi philosphy” is erroneous. If we want to find philosophical ideas that partially mirror the metaphysics of Star Wars, the two below are much better matches:

Vitalism: Vitalism is the idea that there is some mysterious life force involved with all living things. This sounds a little like the claim twice made in the Star Wars movies that the Force is created by all living things.
Spiritualism: Spiritualism is the idea that people survive death, and can communicate with the living. When the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi communicates to Luke Skywalker in Episode 4 and Episode 5 of the Star Wars series, this is very much a fictional expression of the idea of spiritualism. 

Panpsychism is largely an attempt to help deal with the problem that there is no apparent reason why the neurons in a brain could ever generate a mind such as humans have.  The panpsychist kind of tells us that such a thing is not so unthinkable, because every little neuron (and every other little thing) is a tiny bit conscious. The problem is that similar reasoning would lead us to believe that the boulders at the seashore or the trees in the forest have bigger minds than we have, since they have even more material particles than are in our brains.  A better way to deal with the "How could minds arise from brains?" problem is to simply conclude: they don't.  The claim that minds arise from brains has been asserted countless times, but never proven.  There are good reasons for doubting such a claim, as you will sometimes read about on this blog.