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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Bad Argument Experts Keep Giving When Asked About Extraterrestrial Life

For many decades scientists have been asked about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Again and again they have been posed these questions:

  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • Is there life on other planets?
  • Is there intelligent life on other planets?
  • Do extraterrestrial civilizations exist?
It seems that a large fraction of the time that scientists are asked these questions,  they reply by giving a fallacious argument. One such argument may be called the "many chances equals many successes" argument. The argument may be stated like this:

"There are billions of planets in our galaxy, so there must be many planets on which life exists."
"There are billions of planets in our galaxy, so there must be many planets with extraterrestrial civilizations."
"There are a vast number of planets in our universe, so life must have arisen many times."
"There are a vast number of planets in our universe, so there must be very many civilizations on other planets."
"There are a huge number of planets in our universe, so there must be many other extraterrestrial civilizations."

A very similar  argument may be called the "many chances equals some successes" argument. The argument may be stated like this:

"There are billions of planets in our galaxy, so there must be some  planets on which life exists."
"There are billions of planets in our galaxy, so there must be some planets with extraterrestrial civilizations."
"There are a vast number of planets in our universe, so life must have arisen on some other planets."
"There are a vast number of planets in our universe, so there must be some other civilizations on other planets."
"There are a huge number of planets in our universe, so there must be some other extraterrestrial civilizations."

Let us look at some examples of experts using this very fallacious argument. In a recent article in The Conversation (reprinted here) asking scientists about whether extraterrestrial life exists, astrobiologist Jonti Horner stated this:

"Space is unbelievably big. In the last few decades, we've learned almost every star in the cosmos has planets. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is estimated to have up to 400 billion stars. If each of those has five planets, we'd have two trillion planets in our galaxy alone. And we know there are more galaxies in the cosmos than there are planets in the Milky Way. In other words, there's a lot of real estate out there. And with so much variety, I find it impossible to believe Earth is the only planet that has life – including intelligent and technologically-advanced life."

So Horner is arguing this: "many chances equals some successes."  In the same article, an equally fallacious statement of the same bad argument is given by astrophysicist Steven Tingay, who states the following, after answering "Yes" to the question of "Do aliens exist?":

"The Universe contains hundreds of billions of galaxies, each of which can be composed of up to billions and billions of stars. Most of these stars have at least one planet each. These planetary systems form out of a rich mixture of elements, including all the elements regarded as essential for 'life'. So, it is hard to believe that the particular mix of conditions that resulted in 'life' only occurred on Earth, and not on the trillions of other planets in the Universe."

So Tingay is arguing  "many chances equals some successes" and is insinuating "many chances equals many successes."  In the same article, an equally fallacious statement of the same bad argument is given by Rebecca Allen, who states this:

"There are more than 100 billion planets estimated to exist in our galaxy alone (with some six billion potentially being Earth-like). Therefore, the probability that life exists elsewhere is all but confirmed."

In the same article, scientist Helen Maynard-Casely gives the worst of the five answers by experts, by stating this:

"I'm of the opinion that it's only a matter of time before we find something that resembles biology somewhere other than on Earth. This is because we're increasingly finding various potential pockets in our solar system that may be hospitable to life as we know it."

This reasoning can be summarized as "some chances equals at least one success," which is like "many chances equals some successes," but even more fallacious. Similarly, in Scientific American the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb states the following, which states once again the "many chances equals some successes" argument:

"So if you roll the dice on life billions of times in the Milky Way, what is the chance that we are alone? Minuscule, most likely!"

Such reasoning is completely fallacious. It is not at all true in general that "many chances equals many successes." It is also not at all true in general that "many chances equals some successes" or even that "many chances equals at least one success." If the probability of something happening is sufficiently low, then we should expect many chances to yield zero successes.  So "many chances" does not necessarily equal "many successes," and "many chances" does not necessarily equal "some successes" or even one success. For example:

  • If everyone in the world threw a deck of cards into the air 1000 times, that would be almost 10 trillion chances for such flying cards to form into a house of cards, but we should not expect that in even one case would the flying deck of cards accidentally form into a house of cards. 
  • If a billion computers around the world each made a thousand attempts to write an intelligible book by randomly generating 100,000 characters, that would be a total of a trillion chances for an  intelligible book to be accidentally generated, but we should not expect that even one of these attempts would result in the creation of an intelligible book. 
  • If you buy a million tickets in a winner-take-all lottery in which the chance of winning is only 1 in 100 million, you should not expect that any one of those tickets will succeed in winning such a lottery. 

Below are some very general observations about probability:
  • It is not necessarily true that many chances (also called trials) will yield many successes. 
  • It is not necessarily true that many chances (also called trials) will yield some successes or even one success. 
  • If the chance of success on any one trial multiplied by the number of trials gives a number less than 1, we should not expect that even one of the trials will produce a success.
  • If the chance of success on any one trial multiplied by the number of trials gives a number greater than 1, we should  expect that at least one of the trials will produce a success.

Here are some examples illustrating the last two of these principles.  Let us suppose that the chance of winning a prize in a particular lottery is 1 in 1000. If you buy more than 1000 tickets in this lottery, you should expect to win a prize, because the chance of winning on any trial multiplied by the number of trials is greater than 1 (1.001 to be exact).  If you buy fewer than 1000 tickets in this lottery, it will be unlikely that you win. For example, if you bought 900 tickets in such a lottery, the chance of winning on any trial (.001) multiplied by the number of trials (900) would equal .9. Since that number is less than 1, you should not expect to win even once.  

A binomial probability calculator can be used to verify such principles. Such a calculator will use a mathematical approximation method to get a rough idea of probabilities, given a particular number of trials, and a particular chance of success. For example, using the binomial probability calculator at Stattrek.com, we find the following:


The last of these lines verifies that the likelihood of at least one success is slightly greater than 50 percent if there are 1001 trials that have each a chance of success of 1 in 1000. 

So how should we calculate the chance of extraterrestrial life existing on at least one planet revolving around any star in the universe? We should judge whether the chance of success on any one trial (the chance of life appearing on a random planet) multiplied by the estimated number of planets in the observable universe is a number greater than 1.  The number of stars in the observable universe has been estimated as a billion trillion. Given about 10 planets per star, we can estimate the number of planets in the observable universe as ten billion trillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). 

Roughly speaking, if the chance of life randomly appearing on the average planet is greater than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, we should expect that life exists on at least one other planet. But if the chance of life randomly appearing on the average planet is less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, we should expect (given only chance) that no life exists outside of our solar system. 

Unfortunately for extraterrestrial life enthusiasts, there is every reason for suspecting that the chance of life appearing on any random planet (because of accidental chemical combinations) is very, very much less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  Even the simplest microbe requires 50 or more types of functional protein molecules.  An average functional protein molecule consists of hundreds of amino acids arranged in just the right way to acheive a functional result.  It has been estimated that the probability of a functional protein molecule forming by chance is less than 1 in 10 to the hundredth power. 

Here the math tells a decisive tale.  It seems that by chance that nowhere in the observable universe would there form even one of the functional protein molecules needed for life. But more than 50 types of such molecules would be needed for even the simplest thing to exist. 

But there are two complications which cloud the issue. The first is the possibility that there may be unknown natural reasons why it would be inevitable that life appears whenever it has the chance. Materialists often appeal to such a possibility, but never have done anything to substantiate such an idea.  Such a possibility is simply a "magic lamp" conveniently evoked by many materialists. 

Another complication is that perhaps it is not mere chance that controls the odds of life appearing on other planets. It is quite possible that there is some divine force "loading the dice," making the fantastically improbable occur very often.  If there is such an ageny (which might be something that occurs through direct action or indirectly through special laws not yet discovered that increased the chance of life appearing), then "all bets are off" in regard to probabilities.  In fact, it is quite possible that despite basically impossible odds of life forming by chance on any planet, that the universe is teeming with life and possibly even intelligent life,  simply because some creative divine design force is at work in the universe. 

A further complication is that the chance of intelligent life appearing on some planet is not at all equal to the chance of some life appearing on some planet. The first probability may be a trillion or a billion trillion quadrillion times smaller than the first.  Contrary to the triumphalist boasts of Darwinism adherents,  no one has shown that intelligent life or even multicellular life inevitably follows from the existence of microscopic life, nor has anyone even shown that eukaryotic cells (the more complex kind of cells) should inevitably appear once prokaryotic cells (the simpler kind of cells) exist. 

Clearly estimating the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial civilizations becomes quite complex when we consider all of the factors that should be considered.  When asked about whether extraterrestrial civilizations exist, an intelligent answer for an expert to give might be something like this:

"Calculating the chance of extraterrestrial life or extraterrestrial civilizations is very complicated, and very dependent upon the assumptions made. Under one reasonable set of assumptions, there could be a great number of extraterrestrial civilizations. Under a different reasonable set of assumptions, there would probably be no extraterrestrial life anywhere in the universe."

Rather than giving that type of intelligent answer, we so often get the stupid little sound bite of fallacious reasoning equivalent to "many chances equals many successes" or "many chances equals some successes."  Our experts seem so often to go into "childish reasoning mode" when talking about the likelihood of extraterrestrials. On a NASA page we have some reasoning (based on the number of stars in the observable universe) that "human civilization is likely to be unique in the cosmos only if the odds of a civilization developing on a habitable planet are less than about one in 10 billion trillion, or one part in 10 to the 22nd power."  An astronomer then says this:

"One in 10 billion trillion is incredibly small. To me, this implies that other intelligent, technology producing species very likely have evolved before us."

Of course, reasoning based on a feeling or impression about whether a number is "incredibly small" (or a suspicion that "incredibly small" probabilities should not exist) bears no resemblance to scientific or philosophical reasoning.  There is no rule that probabilities cannot be incredibly small, and anyone should be able to think of thousands of real probabilities that are much smaller than 1 in a billion trillion.  In life and nature, there exist billions and trillions of probabilities very much smaller than 1 in 10 billion trillion.  The astronomer's reasoning is as silly as the argument below:

"Someone estimated that if I type random characters while blindfolded all day, the chance of me producing a best-selling book will be less than 1 in 10 to the hundredth power. Less than 1 in 10 to the hundredth power is incredibly small. So if I type random characters while blindfolded all day, I probably will produce a best-selling book."

When asked about whether extraterrestrials exist elsewhere in space, a scientist should tell us about the very high amount of organization and functional complexity in even the simplest living thing, and why that has that such a great effect on the odds of extraterrestrial life appearing. Virtually never will a scientist do such a thing. In this regard, our scientists act like someone who is asked, "What will happen if I jump from a flying airplane?" and who fails to mention the little detail that you will be killed. 

Over my long life I must have read 1000 answers by scientists when asked about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, but I cannot recall any of them ever giving the type of answer that should be given, which is an answer like the "under one reasonable set of assumptions" answer quoted above, or an answer something like this:

"Even the simplest living thing is so functionally complex and organized that the chance of life accidentally appearing from non-life is fantastically small, very much less than 1 divided by the number of planets in the observable universe. If there is some intelligent agency that has acted to help make life appear, life and perhaps even intelligent life could exist throughout our galaxy and throughout the universe. If no such agency exists, we should expect that life does not exist on any other planet in the observable universe."

In general, over the past 50 years expert responses to questions about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life have usually been of poor quality.  The two main relevant factors that need to be discussed are the difficulty and mathematical improbability of abiogenesis (life forming from non-life on a particular planet), and the number of planets in the observable universe.  Experts almost never discuss the first of these things, just as they almost never realistically discuss the gigantic degree of hierarchical organization and fine-tuned dynamism in large living things (just as if they were trying to make us think that living things are a billion times simpler than they are). Many of the answers given to "are there extraterrestrials out there" questions include misinformation, such as the untrue claim often made by Carl Sagan that the building blocks of life exist abundantly in outer space.  (The building blocks of microscopic life are functional proteins, which have never been detected in outer space; and almost none of the different building blocks of the building blocks of life have been found in outer space, since no more than about one or two of the 24 amino acids and nucleotides used by life have been found in space.)   The failure of decades of SETI efforts to pick up extraterrestrial radio signals is conveniently ignored by almost all experts asked about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.  Then there is a frequent use of "most experts agree" claims, which are never backed up by specific evidence that such a majority of opinion exists. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Why Do We Expect Rectitude From Experts Who Never Swore an Oath?

Let us consider certain types of oaths sworn by people. The most common type of oath is a marriage oath. Before witnesses, a person swearing a marriage oath may swear something such as "I, John, take you, Mary, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."  Although such a vow does not explicitly pledge exclusive sexual fidelity, such a vow implicitly suggests such a thing, and seems to imply that one partner will be faithful to another partner for the remainder of his life (or at least a good long time). So having heard her husband recite such an oath, a wife has at least some basis for thinking that her husband is not fooling aound with some other woman.  The marriage oath creates at least some expectation of good behavior that the husband will be expected to live up to. 

There is another type of oath sworn by public servants in the United States, people such as members of the House of Representatives,  senators and governers. The oath goes something like this: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter." Such an oath does not promise terribly much. But at least it creates an expectation that the person swearing will do the job that he has been given.  So if a newly elected US senator swears such an oath, we will have reason to expect that he will at least occasionally show up at the US Senate to cast votes, and that he will not spend the next six years only doing things like touring the world on his yacht or hanging out at posh luxury destinations. 

To become a President of the United States, you must swear an oath promising "I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Lyndon Johnson taking the Presidential Oath of Office

Then there is the oath sworn by doctors, the Hippocratic Oath.  There is a tradition of swearing such an oath, dating back more than two thousand years.  A modern version of the oath is below, and according to this page it is used by many medical schools:

"I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.

I will not be ashamed to say 'I know not,' nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help."

Rather than using this oath, quite a few medical schools use an oath from what is called the Declaration of Geneva. The current version of the oath goes like this:


"AS A MEMBER OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION:

  • I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to dedicate my life to the service of humanity;
  • THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF MY PATIENT will be my first consideration;
  • I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient;
  • I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life;
  • I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;
  • I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died;
  • I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity and in accordance with good medical practice;
  • I WILL FOSTER the honour and noble traditions of the medical profession;
  • I WILL GIVE to my teachers, colleagues, and students the respect and gratitude that is their due;
  • I WILL SHARE my medical knowledge for the benefit of the patient and the advancement of healthcare;
  • I WILL ATTEND TO my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard;
  • I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat;
  • I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely and upon my honour."

Knowing that doctors have sworn oaths such as these, it is may be logical for us to expect that doctors will follow high standards of moral behavior.  But anyone watching HBO's recent series The Crime of the Century will be shocked to discover that many thousands of doctors did not at all follow such high standards of behavior, and were some of the principal players in an opioid overdose epidemic that led to more than 500,000 unnecessary deaths by opioid overdoses in the United States alone.  

Besides these professionals, there are very many professionals who do the equivalent of swearing an oath, by signing contracts pledging that their behavior will be good. For example, if you arrange for some remodeling of your house, you may sign a contract, and when the contractor or electrician or plumber signs the same contract, he will typically pledge to do work according to the prevailing professional standards. Contract programmers often sign contracts with clauses that are pledges to do work according to industry standards.  

But what about scientists? Is there any oath that they swear to, one that should cause us to expect high moral behavior from them? It would seem that some oath of integrity would be even more necessary for scientists than for physicians. A physician has the power to control what you think about the state of your body, but scientists have a much broader power: the power to shape what billions believe about the basic nature of life, mind and the universe.  A physician doing the wrong things can damage a few hundred lives, but if scientists such as a nuclear physicist or genetic engineer do the wrong thing, they may imperil millions or billions of lives.  Nonetheless, the vast majority of scientists have never sworn any oath in which they promised to speak truthfully or act morally. 

In September 2000 a bunch of scientists got together for a day-long meeting in which they debated whether there should be some type of oath for scientists, and what it might be. The meeting is discussed in the long article here. It seems that no agreement was reached about any oath for scientists.  

I can imagine a good oath for scientists to swear.  It might have elements such as this:
  • "I promise to follow high standards of integrity, honesty and excellence in all experimental and observational activities, and in my reports about all such activities.
  • I promise never to do work that imperils my fellow human beings.
  • I promise never to claim understanding of matters I do not understand. 
  • I promise not to claim my team or my colleagues or my scientist predecessors have proven something that has not been proven. 
  • I promise not to describe speculations or theories as if they were facts.
  • I promise to make no false statements about scientific matters." 
But scientists swear no such oath.  I can understand why a careerist scientist might not want to pledge to do no work that imperils his fellow human beings.  Very much of US scientific funding comes from military spending or from corporations (some of which are more interested in making money than protecting the public from harm). 

Some of the worst inventions in history are the fruits of scientific activity. By inventing the atomic bomb and the far more dangerous hydrogen bomb, the physicists held a gun to mankind's head, a gun that is still pointed at mankind's head, since thousands of nuclear weapons still exist. Besides inventing Zyklon-B, the chemical that enabled the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the chemists created the unnecessary inventions of napalm and the defoliation agent Agent Orange, which produced millions of pointless deaths and birth defects in the Vietnam War.  The deaths coming from the sticky horror of burning napalm were some of the most painful deaths humans have ever suffered. 

The biologists may be the next group of scientists to hold a gun to mankind's head. By tampering with genes, there may come from some biology lab a danger worse than COVID-19 (something which mysteriously originated in a city with a large lab for studying viruses).  This should not surprise you when you consider that scientists do not pledge to avoid work that harms mankind.  A recent Scientific American article is entitled "Why Scientists Tweak Lab Viruses to Make Them More Contagious."

The oath of office of people such as US senators and US presidents does not involve any pledge of truthfulness. But while running for office, a candidate for the US senate or the US presidency will typically state that he or she will tell the truth.  In his or her speeches, the person may say something like this:

"I'm not like that other guy running. You can't believe that liar. But you'll get nothing but the truth from me."

But it seems that the typical person becoming a professor does not even informally promise to tell the truth. He may refer abstractly to "scientist codes of conduct."  But it is hard to remember any professor or scientist who even informally pledged to tell nothing but the truth.  Why should we not expect to get from materialist science professors behavior like that of the materialist communists of the Soviet Union, who had no regrets about lying whenever they thought it could be justified by some "ends justify the means" rationale?  The rule of such communists seemed to be that it is okay to tell any lie, as long as it promotes the glorious final goal of promoting the triumph and survival of communism.  We may wonder whether materialist professors think privately to themselves that it is okay to tell little lies whenever it promotes what they think is the "glorious final end" of getting people to believe in materialism or Darwinism. 

When a scientist appeals to "scientist norms" or "scientist codes of conduct," he is generally not referring to anything that has been written down.  It is not clear why something so nebulous should do very much to keep someone from going astray.  There seems to be no well-known book devoted to articulating a scientist code of conduct. 

Some of our scientists teach the appalling nonsense of free will denial.  You should never expect moral behavior from anyone who advances such a doctrine. Instead, because he thinks he is not to blame for anything he does, you should expect him to act immorally whenever it benefits him. 

I see that two people wrote a paper entitled "The Scientist's Pledge" proposing a pledge of rectitude scientists should make when getting a PhD. The paper states this:

"Medical students transition to their profession with the recitation of the Hippocratic Oath. However, no analogous oath has been widely adopted for students graduating with doctorates of philosophy (PhDs) in the various sciences."

As of this writing, the paper has been cited only one time. A similar paper entitled "A Scientist's Oath" has been cited only two times. It seems our professors are not very interested in affirming or pledging their good behavior.   

Ethics is not a branch of science, but a branch of philosophy (something many science professors wrongly scorn as irrelevant). Scientists often strive to make "value free" assessments of physical reality, and may regard a scientific paper as being "sullied" if it promotes a moral viewpoint.  It is not at all clear why we should expect high moral behavior from those who may regard moral standpoints as distractions from scientific objectivity.  The main operating principle of our scientists sometimes seems to be "behave and speak as your peers behave or speak" rather than "follow your conscience." 

We currently have an ecosystem in scientific academia that rather seems to reward shady behavior rather than stringent truthfulness.  The main performance metric used to judge professors is the number of published papers they have written and the number of citations such papers have got.  Such metrics are used to determine whether professors get promoted or get tenure. There is a "publication bias" that disfavors papers describing null results, and favors papers claiming interesting results.  The more interesting the claimed result, the more citations a paper will get, regardless of whether its research can be replicated. 

In fact, papers with results that cannot be replicated are (according to one study) about 153 times more likely to be cited than papers with research that can be replicated.  Such a system would seem to push  experts towards poor conduct and shady speech, in which they use questionable research practices to produce false alarms, and claim research accomplishments that were not actually achieved, for the sake of getting higher numbers of paper citations.  Given such an ecosystem, which seems to incentivize bad behavior,  we should not be terribly surprised by honesty shortfalls from our experts. 

Many scientists make statements that may have a corrosive effect on morality.  Explain to a man some of the very many reasons for thinking that both his multifaceted mind and the mountainous degree of hierarchical organization and purposeful dynamism in his body may have a divine source, and such a man may regard himself as someone who should live up to some transcendent moral ideals. But if you do your best to hide such reasons and tell a man that he is "just an animal" (a lie that many modern scientists are fond of telling), such a man may have no tendency to act in a particularly moral way. 

Instead of establishing a pledge of good conduct that scientists should swear, some of the science establishment these days is  promoting a dubious "Trust Science" pledge. The pledge states the following:

“Trust in evidence-based, scientific facts is essential for providing sustainable solutions to today’s challenges. By adding my name to this declaration and pledge, I recognize the key role that scientific research and discovery play in improving quality of life for all. I pledge to trust science.”

An online page asking you to pledge such a trust has got the grand total of 4566 people to sign such a pledge. Oops, it seems the public has no great eagerness to pledge a trust in scientists. 

Asking for "trust" is what goes on when you are not dealing with proven facts. No one would ever ask you to trust the belief that the sun is very hot or that microbes cause diseases or that planets have a gravitational pull.  But if someone is asking you to believe something that is not a proven fact, he might ask you for a pledge of trust. A wife's husband might ask her to trust that he is faithful, but would never ask her to trust that he is a male.  

The word "science" is defined in many different ways. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines science as "the careful study of the structure and behavior of the physical world, especially by watching, measuring, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities."  Theorists often go wrong, so there is no particular reason we should pledge to "trust science" defined in such a way. In fact, such a pledge would seem to be contrary to the true spirit of science, which is about trying to build up sufficient observations about a topic to eliminate a need for trust.  

Nowadays what we read on the most popular science web sites is a strange mixture of fact, observational results, speculation, hype, clickbait, triumphalist  legends, ideology, corporate propaganda and entertainment weakly rooted in observations. Rather than pledging to "trust science," people should pledge to subject the statements of scientists and science journalists to the same critical scrutiny they apply to the statements of politicians and political lobbyists,  always asking, "What part of this is fact and what part is not fact?"

As for the clause "I recognize the key role that scientific research and discovery play in improving quality of life for all," it sounds like something straight from a PR desk.  The quality of human life was not improved when atomic weapons or napalm were invented, and there is reason for suspecting that the qualify of life may have recently been very much harmed (or will one day be very greatly harmed) by reckless microbe research.  Rather than asking for "pledges of trust" which sound like authoritarian oaths of fealty sworn in dictatorships,  it would be better to work on improving scientist behavior and scientific truthfulness standards so that our trust in the work of scientists comes naturally rather than being ginned up by pledge-seeking sites. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

If Cosmologists Used Conflation Tricks Like Biologists Do

It is interesting to draw some comparisons between cosmology (the study of the universe as a whole) and biology. Both fields are dominated by very dubious speculations, with the very wobbly speculations constantly marketed as "science" rather than being honestly described as the speculations they are.  The two principal "sold as science" speculations of the modern biologist are (1) the speculation that the origin of species can be explained mainly by the mere accumulation of random mutations; (2) the speculation that human mental processes such as thinking, self-hood, consciousness, learning and memory retrieval can be explained by brain activity.  The main speculations of cosmologists nowadays are (1) the theory that most of the universe's matter is some invisible type of matter called dark matter; (2) the theory that most of the universe's mass-energy is some invisible type of energy called dark energy; (3) the theory that the universe underwent an instant of exponential expansion during a fraction of its first second, close to the time of the Big Bang.  The third of these theories should really be called the theory of PEE, since it a theory of Primordial Exponential Expansion.  But instead the theory goes under names such as "inflation" or "cosmic inflation."

There are no observations establishing any of these theories. But biologists are always trying to persuade us that this or that weak reason justifies a belief in the origin of species by random mutations, and they are always trying to persuade us that this or that weak reason justifies a belief in brains storing memories or brains being the source of human minds. Similarly, cosmologists are always trying to persuade us that this or that weak reason is a reason for believing in dark matter, dark energy or cosmic inflation, things that have never been observed. Cosmologists observe the universe expanding with ordinary linear expansion, not the explosively fast exponential expansion imagined by proponents of the theory of primordial cosmic inflation. 

But at least our cosmologists do not use a verbal trick very frequently used by biologists, the trick of trying to speak as if evidence for one type thing is evidence for something vastly different.  The biologist uses this trick when he discusses mere evidence for microevolution, and tries to insinuate that such evidence supports claims about macroevolution, something which humans have never observed.  

Microevolution can be defined as mere small changes in genomes, typically changes producing some minor or superficial effect that results in no big biological innovation.  Macroevolution is the claim that natural changes gradually transform some species into some very different species with visible new structural innovations or dramatic new anatomical features or vastly different mental powers. Claims that evolution produced better lactose digestion or a darkening of some moths are claims of microevolution. Claims that ape-like creatures evolved into humans or that dinosaurs evolved into birds are examples of claims of macroevolution.  

Tiny random changes that may produce microevolution do nothing to establish the occurrence of macroevolution (evolution producing major morphological novelties). In his paper Macroevolution: The Morphological Problem the natural history professor Keith Stewart Thomson stated this: "The origins of major morphological novelties remain unsolved...No one has satisfactorily demonstrated a mechanism at the population genetic level by which innumerable very small phenotypic changes could accumulate rapidly to produce large changes: a process for the origin of the magnificently improbable from the ineffably trivial.” Seeming to insinuate that microevolution does not establish macroevolution, Phillip Ball stated this in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:

"It is not obvious a priori that small mutational steps should permit adaptation rather than simply inevitable loss of function. Nor is it clear why such a mechanism should permit genuine evolutionary innovation rather than being confined to a sort of timid tinkering with existing functionality."

In the book Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life by Cambridge University biology professor K. D. Bennett, this mainstream authority comments on speciation (the origin of species). He says on page 175, "Natural selection has been shown to have occurred (for example, among populations of Darwin's finches), but there is no evidence that it accumulates over longer periods of time to produce speciation in the Darwinian sense." That's another way of saying that evidence for microevolution does not prove macroevolution. 

Clearly there is a world of difference between microevolution and macroevolution. But biologists have constantly been guilty of the trick of conflating microevolution with macroevolution.  The trick is done by simply not using the words "microevolution" or "macroevolution," and by using the single word "evolution."  

Let us consider mutations in a virus or bacteria which may make them more resistant to vaccines or antibodies or antibiotics.  Such changes usually involve only very minor and unimpressive changes in the virus or bacteria.  Vaccines or antibodies or antibiotics may be fine-tuned to work with some exact structure of a virus or bacteria. A tiny change in that virus or bacteria may cause such vaccines or antibodies or antibiotics to stop working so well, just as changing one character in your login password may break some functionality.  So such changes are clearly an example of microevolution.   

But we often hear have reasoning like this:

"We should not doubt evolution, because it is fact. Right now the world is witnessing evolution, as the COVID-19 virus evolves.  Since evolution is fact,  you are a science denier if you doubt that men evolved from apes. "

This statement performs the sleazy trick of conflating microevolution and macroevolution.  Such microscopic microevolution (involving no visible structural change at all) is very much "small change" that does nothing to prove claims such as ape-like ancestors evolving into men or dinosaurs evolving into birds.  Similarly, if somebody shows you some small change in his pocket (a few quarters and dimes), that does nothing to prove he is a billionaire. 

In the case of the virus causing COVID-19 (which is SARS-CoV-2),  each person who gets the virus has between a billion and a 100 billion virus particles (called virions) during peak infection. The total number of COVID-19 infections has been about 170 million worldwide.  This means that there have existed more than 170,000,000,000,000,000 SARS-CoV-2 virions, any one of which could have  mutated. Conversely, it is believed that before recorded history the total number of humans who lived was no more than a few billion, with the average prehistorical population of humans or pre-humans being only a few million.  So given that there has been a number of SARS-CoV-2 virions more than a million times greater (and probably more than a billion times greater) than the number of humans living before history,  it is hardly fair to be presenting microevolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as something establishing the credibility of macroevolution claims about humans evolving from an ape-like or chimp-like ancestor.  The smaller the population, the smaller the chance of some very lucky series of random mutations. 

The same sleazy trick of conflating microevolution and macroevolution is used when biologists argue like this:

"We should not doubt evolution, because it is fact. For example, we know that humans can breathe better at high altitudes and digest lactose better than they could 5000 years ago. Since evolution is fact,  you are a science denier if you doubt that men evolved from apes."

Again, such minor microevolution does nothing to prove claims of macroevolution, something that would be a billion times harder to achieve. 

It's not just magicians who do tricks

A recent scientific paper has estimated the amount of evolution that is occurring in the human genome. The estimate is that only the faintest trace of adaptive evolution is occurring. The paper states, "We estimate that, on average across traits, about 1% of human genome sequence are mutational targets with a mean selection coefficient of ~0.001."  The selection coefficient of about .001 is a rate of increase in a trait that would take something like 500 generations to spread from a single individual in the population to the entire population.  According to the paper, only about 1% of the human genome is undergoing such an evolution, which is occurring at a glacially slow pace. In the 2018 book Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the author makes this revealing confession on page 9: “The sad truth is that it is possible to count on the fingers of two hands the examples like FOXP2 of mutations that increased in frequency in human ancestors under the pressure of natural selection and whose functions we partly understand.” Judging from this statement, there are merely 10 or fewer cases where we know of some mutation that increased in the human population because of natural selection. 

Similarly, the scientific paper “The Genomic Rate of Adaptive Evolution” tells us “there is little evidence of widespread adaptive evolution in our own species." In the study here, an initial analysis found 154 positively selected genes in the human genome -- genes that seemed to show signs of being promoted by natural selection (less than 1% of our genes). But then the authors applied something called "the Bonferroni correction" to get a more accurate number, and were left with only 2 genes in the human genome showing signs of positive selection (promotion by natural selection).  That's only 1 gene in 10,000.

The amount of evolution now occurring in the human species can honestly be described as being pretty much negligible. It is never justified to speak of so paltry a microevolution reality as something establishing macroevolution claims that gigantic morphological transistions occurred such as dinosaurs evolving into birds or ape-like creatures evolving into humans. 

What would it be like if cosmologists used trickery similar to that of biologists using the trick of conflating microevolution and macroevolution?  Then we would see arguments for dark matter like this:

"Dark matter is a very well-observed reality.  The undeniable fact that dark matter exists is shown by the fact that geologists have found many dark rocks, and the fact that there are many people with dark skin in Africa.  Since we clearly have seen many examples of dark matter such as tar, coal, ebony and dark-skinned Africans, we should not doubt cosmologists when they talk about the reality of dark matter."

Here we have a sophistical example of conflation. Committing a very obvious fallacy, the writer is conflating one type of thing (visible atomic dark matter such as coal) with a very different type of thing (the invisible non-atomic dark matter that cosmologists speculatively postulate).  We have plenty of observational evidence for the first of these things, and no observational evidence for the second of these things. 

We can also imagine cosmologists using conflation sophistry in regard to dark energy. Their fallacious reasoning might go like this:

"Imagine you are living in a large New York City apartment building during the winter. In your dark apartment at night, heat comes up through your radiator, but you don't see such energy. So it's an invisible dark energy.  Since we know that such dark energy exists, we should not doubt cosmologists when they talk about dark energy. Don't be a science denier by doubting that dark energy exists."

Again we have a sophistical example of conflation. The writer is fallaciously conflating one type of thing (normal heat energy which can be measured by using a thermometer) with a very different type of thing (the utterly mysterious dark energy that cosmologists speculatively postulate, something that cannot be measured by any known instrument).  We have plenty of observational evidence for the first of these things, and no observational evidence for the second of these things. 

We can also imagine cosmologists using conflation sophistry in regard to their theory of cosmic inflation, the theory that the universe underwent exponential expansion during a fraction of its first second. Their reasoning might go like this:

"How can you doubt the theory of primordial cosmic inflation? Each of us has observed inflation with our own eyes! Remember when you blew up a balloon when you were a child? That was inflation. And ask your parents about how rapidly prices rose during Jimmy Carter's presidency. That also was inflation. So do not be a science denier by doubting claims of primordial cosmic inflation.  We know that inflation occurs."

Here the writer shamelessly conflates three things that have nothing to do with each other: (1) the expansion of a small balloon; (2) rises in consumer prices; (3) the speculative claim that in its first second the universe underwent a brief instant of exponential expansion unlike anything ever observed by humans.  The first two things do nothing whatsoever to support claims about the third of these things. 

We do not hear cosmologists giving arguments like the ones I have stated above. Although they make many misstatements and very often try to pass off groundless speculations as science, our cosmologists at least have enough scruples not to use such obviously fallacious sophistry as I imagined above.  But many biologists act as if they had no such scruples.  Again and again they use the most blatantly fallacious conflation sophistry, by trying to pass off mere evidence of microevolution as if it proved something very different and a billion times harder to achieve, the never-observed phenomenon of macroevolution.  

We often read some authority trying to speak as if microevolution proves not just that macroevolution occurs, but also that all species have a common ancestor (which is the claim that all the main biology wonders arose by macroevolution).   This is like someone showing a few coins in his pocket to try to prove his strange claim that he is a billionaire, and that every one he knows is a billionaire. 

Speaking of cosmology, recently cosmologists claimed to have detected an "arc of galaxies" spanning one fifteenth the radius of the observable universe. If this observational claim holds up, it means a bedrock assumption of modern cosmology and the cosmic inflation theory (that the universe is homogeneous at large scales) is false, that the theory of primordial exponential expansion cannot be true, and that modern cosmologists are explanatory bunglers mired in great error. We read this:

"Lopez ran three statistical tests to figure out the odds that galaxies would line up in a giant arc by chance. All three suggest that the structure is real, with one test surpassing physicists’ gold standard that the odds of it being a statistical fluke are less than 0.00003 percent." 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Do UFOs Come From a Paraverse?

UFOs are in the news because of some upcoming government report on them, and some very hard-to-explain footage and accounts released by government sources and employees.  The mainstream media is doing what it so often senselessly does in the rare cases that it covers reports of paranormal phenomena: getting quotes from professors who show no signs of having studied the relevant phenomenon.  So, for example, a recent USA Today article quotes an astronomer dismissing UFOs as "strange reflections" or "atmospheric phenomenons."  That's just what someone might say if he had spent zero time studying UFO reports.  The same article quotes another astronomer talking about UFOs, showing zero signs that he has studied the evidence for such things.

Why is it that when mainstream sources quote professors dismising the paranormal, such sources never ask questions such as, "Please tell us how many hours you have spent studying such reports, by examining original source materials," or "Have you actually spent a sufficient time studying such evidence and accounts to have a well-informed opinion"?  It is usually the case that the professors being questioned have never bothered to seriously study the reports they are being asked about.  So asking for their opinion on such reports is like asking a philosopher about how to fix your car, or like asking a professor of medieval history to analyze an IPO investment offering.  

When people think of an explanation for hard-to-explain UFO sightings, they tend to think of "nuts and bolts" spaceships from another planet.  But while there are quite a few very hard-to-explain UFO sightings, which may be signs of some utterly paranormal phenomenon, the evidence for UFOs specifically being spaceships from other solar systems seems weak. 

If UFOs were physical spaceships from other planets, we might expect to observe one or more of these things:

(1) Physical evidence of intelligent life in other solar systems, such as signs of distant "technosignatures" or distant "astroengineering." 

(2) Deliberately designed radio signals from other solar systems.

(3) Evidence of some type of spaceship entering into our solar system. 

(4) Evidence of some type of spaceship entering into our atmosphere from outer space. 

But the things above have not been found. It has been pointed out by many that a craft for traveling between stars would probably be much different from a craft for exploring a planet's surface or atmosphere.  But no astronomer has ever detected a "mother ship" in our solar system that looked like an interstellar spaceship. Searches for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations (conducted for decades) have come up empty, as have searches for optical signals from such civilizations. No sign has been found of "technosignatures" or god-like "astroengineering" in other solar systems. 

Supposedly some US intelligence report on UFOs will be delivered to the US Congress next month.  We read this in an Associated Press story:

"Investigators have found no evidence the sightings are linked to aliens — but can’t deny a link either. Two officials briefed on the report due to Congress later this month say the U.S. government cannot give a definitive explanation of aerial phenomena spotted by military pilots."

The quote is consistent with my comments above. Something inexplicable seems to be involved in some UFO sightings, but there is little evidence connecting the phenomena with visiting spaceships from other planets in our universe. 

Why do we always assume that UFOs are metallic spaceships from other planets? They might be from some realm of existence unobservable by our telescopes.  UFOs might be from some mysterious unobservable realm of existence that can be called the paraverse. 

Scientists sometimes imagine the existence of many other universes, none of which interact with our own universe. Such a concept is sometimes called the multiverse.  Since it imagines causally disconnected universes that do not interact with each other, the concept of a multiverse is of no explanatory value.  Those who claim that the concept can help explain the seemingly fine-tuned fundamental constants of our universe are very much mistaken.  You do not increase the likelihood of any one random trial succeeding by increasing the number of random trials. So if you imagine that there are a million billion quadrillion other universes, or an even an infinite number of other universes, that does not affect the likelihood that our universe would by chance have the conditions necessary for it to be habitable. Similarly, if you spend years buying lottery tickets, that does nothing to increase your chance of winning when buying any one of those lottery tickets. People who think the concept of a multiverse has some explanatory value tend to be people who make the simple mistake of confusing the concept of "the likelihood of some universe being habitable" with the concept of "the likelihood of our universe being habitable."

The concept of a paraverse is very different from the multiverse.  A paraverse may be imagined as some mysterious realm of existence that is not normally directly observable from our universe.  But there may rarely or perhaps even frequently occur interactions between our universe and such a paraverse.  Such interactions may consist of an agent from such a paraverse visiting or contacting or influencing someone or something in our universe.  Such interactions might also consist of someone in our universe briefly visiting (in some mystical or psychic experience) such a paraverse, or perhaps permanently migrating to such a paraverse (by means of a soul passing from the earthly realm to the realm of the dead). 

The term "paraverse" is best used in a general and non-committal way. The term does not presuppose any belief about what happens after death. The term simply means some other universe or realm of existence not normally observable by people in our universe, which can interact with our universe in some way.  When we adopt the concept of the paraverse, we throw away the never-justified dogmatic principle of "there can be no mysterious invisible or spiritual influences," and perhaps (after sufficient scholarship) acknowledge that possible signs of such influences have been extremely widely reported for centuries by a host of respectable witnesses. 

The diagram below illustrates the difference between the multiverse concept and the paraverse concept.  The arrows represent causal interaction. There is no causal interaction between any of the universes in a multiverse, but there may well be causal interaction between our universe and a paraverse. 

paraverse

How might UFOs fit into the paraverse concept? UFOs may be manifestations of mysterious powers existing in some paraverse that can interact with our universe, powers that might either be influencing matter in our universe, or briefly visiting our universe. A paraverse power producing a UFO manifestation might be divine, angelic, psychic, spiritual or material.  Such an idea is consistent with the fact that observations of UFOs seem to usually report something that does not look technological. A UFO will be typically described as a sphere of light or a bright light or a disk or something else that does not particularly look like some "nuts and bolts" flying machine. 

Rather than entering our atmosphere from outer space, UFOs may instantly enter our skies through some type of instantaneous appearance process, or through some gradual materialization process.  The history of paranormal phenomena (senselessly ignored by most of our professors) is filled with very many hard-to-explain or inexplicable cases in which inexplicable material phenomena and strange energy phenomena seemed to occur through some mysterious interaction between our reality and some eerie other reality. 

When we examine the records of seances (often recorded in credible publications such as the Journal or Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research), we can find many cases of inexplicable lights moving about indoors, and also many other phenomena far stranger.   When we examine modern photographic records of indoor photographic anomalies, we find many inexplicable things, such as 800+ photos of mysterious striped orbs, 700+ photos of mysterious speeding orbs, and thousands of photos of massively repeating orb patterns.  UFOs may have a source similar to such phenomena. They may all be cases of some mysterious unseen mind or minds reaching out to us to produce a sign of their existence. Both UFO sightings and Bigfoot sightings may be manifestations of some unfathomable intelligent influences from some mysterious paraverse.   

A very rough analogy might be a man throwing a little rock into a pond.  A fish in that pond may experience that little falling rock (or its ripples) as a rare strange anomaly.  But that fish would be unable to fathom the mind that threw the stone, just as we are unable to fathom the source of manifestations from some mysterious paraverse. 

ripples

There will be some who recoil at such a comparison.  They may say something like, "I'm only interested in baffling inexplicable lights darting around in the sky, not baffling inexplicable lights darting around indoors."  The rationale behind such a distinction is not very clear, and such a statement sounds rather like saying, "I'm only interested when bears and cougars stray into my front yard, not in other weird events like when walruses or giraffes stray into my front yard."

What kind of observations might allow us to distinguish between UFOs coming from other planets in our universe and UFOs coming from some mysterious paraverse, perhaps instantly? We would not be able to distinguish between the two ideas merely by verifying something physical associated with a UFO.  That is because the idea of a paraverse does not specifically entail a purely spiritual, non-physical realm, or some realm producing only spiritual effects in our universe. A paraverse might be largely material, and manifestations from such a paraverse might consist of physical, tangible evidence.  In fact, the history of paranormal phenomena includes many reports of tangible evidence produced by some mysterious spiritual or invisible reality (examples include the widely reported phenomena  called materializations and apports).  

On the other hand, you might be able to distinguish between the competing UFO explanations if a UFO encounter included some extraterrestrial claiming to have come from some specific other star in our universe, and producing evidence for such a claim, such as photos or videos of the cities on a planet revolving around such a star. Even in the case of such evidence, it would not be sufficient to rule out either the "UFOs from other planets" or "UFOs from a paraverse" explanations for other UFO sightings.  It would still be possible that some UFOs are produced by spaceships from other planets, and other UFOs arise from some mysterious paraverse, a reality capable of instantly producing physical effects in our universe.