I’m With PZ and Jane Doe

I’m on the side that openly denounces misogyny, racism, and rape culture. It disgusts me that this conflict has become necessary in the skeptical and atheist communities.

We’re supposed to be better than the dogmatists who set up the self-fulfilling inequalities in our culture. We’re supposed to strive for high moral standards, not merely settle for being slightly better than the invisible sky monsters and their idolators. We’re supposed to blame perpetrators, not victims. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to the oppressed because we’ve experienced oppression. We’re supposed to be self-aware so that we don’t become oppressors ourselves. We’re supposed to tear down pretty facades to uncover the ugly truths. We’re supposed to disrupt a bad status quo, even if it means rocking peoples’ boats. We’re supposed to judge people by their character and merits, not by their claimed affiliations and labels. We’re supposed to criticize our heroes when they make mistakes.

We’re supposed to look at the merits of an argument instead of dismiss them with convenient ad hominem appeals to popular stereotypes and absurd narratives that were invented to dismiss them. We’re supposed to exercise extra scrutiny when someone claims biology supports cultural stereotypes. We’re supposed to know that our experiences are biased, limited, and not the whole context so that we can listen to other people’s experiences, look at raw data, and examine the logic behind a position with a genuine open mind. We’re supposed to act like skeptics if we call ourselves skeptics. We’re supposed to continue improving ourselves rather than idly pat ourselves on the back just for being atheists.

Preparation: Atlas Shrugged, Part 2

UPDATE: I got a little too much into Cube World this weekend, plus I’m considering the possibility of having someone else to help me cover it on Skype. Drop a comment if you’re interested in being that other person. If I don’t get any volunteers, I’ll do it by myself on July 20.

Last year, I slogged through writing that stream of consciousness review of part 1. Part 2 has made it onto Netflix, but this time, I won’t have my brother to back me up. He just doesn’t think he’ll be able to stand it. I should probably get myself psyched up and prepared for the horror when I go through it this weekend. I’ve never read the book, so I don’t know the fine details of where the story will go. Or linger in tight circles. Whatever. Cue commentators jealous of my innocence, providing dire warnings about how even indirect exposure via adaptation will fry my neurons.

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Fun with Hydroplate Math

Over at Dispatches, Ed had a little something about the Hydroplate Creationist hypothesis invented to explain where all the water came from. In short, it asserts that there was a lot of water buried deep underground that somehow got forced up to the surface, causing the torrential flood rains, and for extra silly credit, created the comets and meteorites of the solar system. I had a request I thought would have a fun answer:

For the physics people who love to crunch numbers: Wouldn’t this catastrophe end up superheating the planet or something? I seem to recall a LOT of the flood theories would do that.

Robert B. took on that task and produced this comment:

Okay, so fun with numbers!

As best I can tell, the crust is supposed to have been one solid piece on top of the water. The weight of all that rock on top would indeed have put the water under enormous pressure, about 400 MPa (about 4000 atmospheres). Now, let’s open a one-square-meter crack in the crust of arbitrary shape, ignoring friction at the edges. The top cubic meter of water beneath that suddenly-opened crack is under a net upward force of 400 meganewtons. (Under the circumstances, the downward force of gravity on the water is negligible.)

We’ll guess that the force remained at that average for the whole distance through the crust, which in the mid-Atlantic is about 6 km, for a total work of about 2.5 terajoules on 1000 kg of water. The water is now rising at a hundred thousand meters per second. It will indeed escape Earth’s gravity. If the atmosphere didn’t get in the way, it would escape the sun’s gravity and splash Alpha Centauri. However, the atmospheric drag on an enormous supersonic jet of water that may be either a liquid or a gas or both is seriously complicated fluid dynamics, and I’m the kind of physicist who starts complaining when you put three whole electrons in the same problem, so I’m not really going to think about that much.

However. The total mass ejected into space is claimed to have been 1% of Earth’s mass, about 60 yottagrams. If you are not familiar with the more extreme metric prefixes, suffice it to say, that is quite a lot of grams. To get that much mass out of Earth’s orbit, the pressure has done a rock bottom minimum 5 x 10^31 joules of work. We get some of that energy back from the gravitational potential energy of the Earth’s crust as it drops through the space left suddenly vacant by all that ejected water, a distance averaging somewhere in the tens of kilometers. But that’s only about 10^27 joules, which gets lost in all the flagrant and shameless rounding I’m doing. The net energy loss would cool the entire planet by an average of 10000 K… wait, say what?

*checks my math*

Yyyyyup. A ten thousand degree temperature drop. That number doesn’t even make sense. Even the inner core is only about 5000 K. If we very kindly assume that the temperature change was everywhere proportional to the current temperature, so that most of the heat was lost from the center of the earth, we’re still assuming that the entire planet was three to four times hotter before the flood than afterward. Presently the surface is about 300 K, so before the flood it would have had to be 900-1200 K. Hopefully Noah’s wife didn’t wrap his lunch in aluminum foil, because it would have melted and made his sandwich soggy.

Let’s go back to the part where the entire surface of the earth falls a few tens of kilometers, though. The energy of that falling will eventually end up as heat, the same heat that got lost in the rounding a few paragraphs back. Before it was heat, though, it would have been kinetic energy – motion, in the crust and in the water suddenly flowing on top of it. The wave action would have been inconceivable, in the very literal sense that I can’t think of what the wave action would have been. (See above re: complicated fluid dynamics.)

At a wild guess, at least one percent of the energy would have ended up transferred to the ocean, in exactly the same way that earthquake energy is transferred to tsunamis. That’s ten thousand joules of kinetic energy per kilogram of water, on average, over the entire ocean. (I’m assuming the ocean had the same mass then as now – as far as I can tell, Doc Brown is arguing that it’s not that the water was all that deep, it’s that the continents and mountains as we know them were upthrust late in this same event and so the flood didn’t actually have to cover them.) If all that energy was kinetic at the same time, the water would have been moving at an average speed of about 100 m/s, in nowhere close to all the same direction. If this motion took the form of waves like we’re familiar with (which I doubt it would) they would be hundreds or thousands of meters tall. That’s a pounding that nothing bigger than plankton would have survived.

If the kinetic energy was damping out to thermal almost as fast as it was being converted from potential, then we can save the fish, but (more wild guesswork) we’re still talking about forty days of the kind of sea you get in a hurricane. I doubt any modern ship could have survived that, let alone a wooden hull without so much as an iron nail to its name. And if the crash actually took longer then the flood, as Doc Brown implies, it’s even worse – once you’re on land, that kinetic energy takes the form of a whole series of colossal earthquakes lasting weeks or months. If you’re near the ocean – and for a while there wouldn’t have been anywhere that wasn’t near the ocean – those death waves are now tsunamis.

That’s about all the math I care to do on this, though if anyone wants to see my calculations I can probably reproduce them on request. And by the way, I didn’t use anything but basic mechanics and thermodynamics, plus wikipedia – certainly nothing a mechanical engineer wouldn’t know about. Brown has no excuse.

I just love reading debunks like that. It harkens back to one I enjoyed by Carl Sagan about Velkovski’s Worlds in Collision. One TV Trope that comes to mind is Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale. I think that also applies quite well to woos. People can make up just about any story they like and have it sound plausible to our monkey intuition, but physics and math are much stricter and have no sense of literature or style. There has to be enough material to work with and enough energy to do that work. After it’s all done, all the matter and energy you started with has to be accounted for. No addition or subtraction allowed unless you feel like demonstrating a perpetual motion machine or perpetual heat sink. We can let you get away with that stuff in comics, prime time TV, and the movie theater with an affectionate gentle ribbing, but once you’re talking about the real world, you’d better have a physicist doing your audit.


You could call me a “materialist,” but I think that dilutes some of the point. I happily use materialist language because, let’s face it, the advocates of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the Platonic ideals simply don’t have the language it takes to describe the everyday world with a useful level of accuracy, precision, and detail the way materialistic science can. They have a hard enough time getting their stories straight when it comes to their alleged specialty. Still, being labeled a materialist risks catering to a dualist misconception: That people like me say the supernatural is categorically impossible.

To condense the point: My problem is not that I think the supernatural is categorically impossible. My problem is that dualist categorization doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t understand how or why scientific methodology should adapt to their asserted categories.

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An Old Metaphor

I don’t know the original source, but it popped into my head yesterday:

“A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs.”

It touches on another important metaphor that’s useful for understanding evolution: The selfish gene. I haven’t read the Dawkins book myself, but I think I’ve got the general idea down. Evolution is more about genes than organisms, which is part of why altruism shows up in nature. Kin selection is where animals seek to aid members of their families. Your siblings likely share many of the same genes you do, so if there’s a gene or combination of genes that causes its organism to have protective instincts toward its siblings, the gene sequence is “selfishly” protecting copies of itself, even though they’re in an entirely different organism. Altruists can form trust among each other and join into groups, which gives them abilities they wouldn’t have as individuals. They can end up becoming dependent on being in a group, which means the altruism will be a conserved trait, since losing it means losing the group they’re dependent on. Groups can tolerate some selfish behaviors, but there’s going to be a limit of some kind enforced, whether it’s through punishments for selfish individuals or social breakdown.

The fun part is that, with our large brains, humans are capable of taking altruism and running with it. We can consciously appreciate the benefits detached from genetics, ironically rebelling against the evolutionary “purpose” in being altruists. We’ve ended up as memetic specialists: A huge chunk of our survival ability is based on our cultural heritage and modification, not just our genes. We value people for their individual character, not their reproductive potential. We can appreciate people for the ideas they can pass on. We can appreciate the value of alternative perspectives, including those that come from the disadvantaged. We can afford to be generous toward so-called “inferior” people because culture is such a huge benefit to our species, and you don’t need to be disability-free to contribute to that culture.

Good News/Bad News

You may have heard about a woman who recently decided to try living on solar power, tea, and water, instead of food. Good news: She’s stopped. Bad news: She lost about 20% of her weight in the experiment, and she’s rationalizing. One sentence in particular got me annoyed:

“I was just asking a question, but there was just so much negative response that that means the question can’t even be asked,” she said.

This is the sort of tepid excuse I’ve come to expect from a lot of woos regarding scientific questions. They can’t handle adversity like adults, and science is pretty adversarial. You don’t just dismiss criticism for being “negative.” You deal with criticism as rationally as you can, using logic and evidence to answer it. That’s a part of what it means to ask controversial questions. Criticism is supposed to be expected. Brainstorming without criticism is good for generating new ideas, but sooner or later, you need to sort the good ideas from the bad, and that typically means having a two-way conversation with critics. When you speak, you are not entitled to uniform cheering.

A lot of the time, people with the consensus view reacts negatively because the idea in question has been tested and failed or is implausible for well-established reasons. And with ideas like hers, the most likely outcome was that she’d harm herself. I care about people, even if they do stupid things. I criticize precisely because I care and want to dissuade them from harmful action.

Here’s the kicker: If you don’t have answers to criticism, question the value of your idea. You might be the one who’s wrong.

I’m glad she stopped, though I’d prefer if she did so for rational reasons.

Answering Theists #1

There are a lot of theists out there who type up what they think are “gotcha” questions for atheists. Theist trolls absolutely love these lists and to copy/paste them, often on a hit-and-run basis. Judging from the newlines I’m cleaning out, Michael Benson Ajayi copy-pasta’d such a list in a Pharyngula comment thread. (Or he wrote it in Notepad or something and word wrap tweaked it.) So I’m starting this series here.

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