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.

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.

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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Anti-Doggerel #1: “I Don’t Know”

The beginning of wisdom is, ‘I do not know.’ [gestures toward the “hole in space” on the viewscreen] I do not know what that is.

– Lt. Cmdr. Data, “Where Silence Has Lease

“I don’t know” is a phrase that probably should get more mileage. When used appropriately, it’s humble. It’s honest. It’s open. The universe is a big place with lots of tiny details, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still much that we don’t know as a species, let alone as individuals. Being aware of that ignorance inspires both caution and curiosity, virtues of science. We can devise hypotheses to explain unknown phenomena, but a scientifically minded person doesn’t jump to the conclusion that his hypothesis is true without carefully testing it. Sincerely admitting ignorance typically means being open to entertaining new ideas as well. Those ideas still have to be tested before they’re accepted as knowledge, of course.

There’s an annoying idea I’ve encountered with various pseudoscience trolls, quacks, and especially with Creationists. They treat any admission of ignorance from their opponents as a victory for their ideas. It doesn’t work that way. For an example, let’s say a particular type of cancer has no known effective treatment. Just because the scientific community doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean that we should accept a quack’s answer, especially if that answer wasn’t informed by scientific research into its plausibility.

Science is cautious by nature. The world is a complicated place, and there’s always the possibility of discovering new nuances and exceptions to the rules we’re familiar with. We can’t have absolute certainty in what we do know because of our human limitations. The language of scientists typically reflects this, since they will mention nuances, limitations, exceptions, and uncertainty from simple probability.

Pseudoscience doesn’t like humility or measured confidence, often characterizing it was “weak” language. Statements of absolute certainty and absolute rules are much more marketing friendly and easier to fit into a slogan. Religion is quite aware of this and sets up gods and holy books as absolute authorities with circular reasoning. Quacks and pseudoscientists often follow suit and enshrine their gurus and particularly the original creator and his texts. In either case, they often implicitly or explicitly claim they have all the answers in a convenient package. This tends to lead to stagnation. The scientific community knows that it doesn’t know everything. If they did, science would stop.

I think treating “I don’t know” as a concession taps on an unhealthy obsession with completeness and perfection that overrides the healthy desire to know the truth. One problem with many religious, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas is that they can explain anything. If you’re sympathetic to those sorts of hypotheses, that’s not a strength. If an idea can explain anything, that’s actually a big problem: It can explain things that don’t exist just as readily as those that do. It can explain failures and success equally. It essentially means that we can’t use it to make predictions to verify its accuracy. We can’t use it to make predictions or decisions. It’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Such ideas are essentially a way to deceive yourself with the comforting illusion of understanding without the practical benefits of real understanding.

There’s another idea that any answer is better than none. This is simply not true. Actions based on an incorrect idea can be more harmful than inaction. They can waste resources better spent elsewhere. I can understand desperation in the face of death and the desire to go down fighting, but that doesn’t mean I should rhetorically support those who can exploit desperate people just because I don’t know the true answer.

Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

It’s an old canard that popped into my mind recently. The vocabulary word for the day is “equivocation.” It’s slightly less direct than usual, but that’s what it amounts to.

First, we’re talking about the scientific definition of animal. I’m not familiar enough with modern taxonomy or cladistics to get the specific features that define animals and only animals, but the word amounts to a diverse branch of the tree of life. This branch includes vertebrates, which include placental mammals, which include primates, which include humans. We have a lot in common with our non-human kin, on the cellular level up to the anatomic level to varying degrees. We inherited animal features from our animal, non-human ancestors, therefore we’re still animals, though we have some polymorphism that makes us distinct from other animals. We don’t have any sort of difference that’s profound enough to place us into an entirely separate biological category, but thanks to that polymorphism, we do have enough to place ourselves in a sub-category: The species of homo sapiens.

The colloquial use of “animal” would be better described as “non-human animal.” In fantasy and sci-fi works, other sapient species also get excluded from the category. There is a pragmatic need for this version of the definition, since we place the needs and desires of human-level conscious beings over those of less conscious beings. Our higher level of consciousness means we can suffer in ways that other animals can’t. We also hold humans to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions because of that consciousness. Humans are moral actors who can understand the consequences of their actions.

The equivocation comes from the jump from the scientific definition to the colloquial definition. Funnily enough, it involves a contradiction in the process. The kids are human, therefore they can’t be non-human animals. If you choose to use the colloquial definition in both cases, that leads to essentially the same contradiction, since you’re including humans in a category that’s defined in part by excluding humans.

If you choose to use the scientific definition for both cases, it simply makes the sentence a tautology instead of the ominous assertion they want it to be: Because humans are defined as animals, the set of human behaviors is included in the set of animal behaviors. Writing poetry, building skyscrapers, and arguing semantics are animal behaviors, though they are specific to humans. All human behaviors are animal behaviors, but not all animal behaviors are human behaviors. Of course, teaching kids that humans are animals does not imply that humans are not humans. It simply doesn’t make sense to assert that such a fact condones or encourages the kids to act like non-humans.

There’s something rather arbitrary about the assertion, arguing that our behavior and morality should be dictated by one particular definition of a particular scope about us. The extent of “humans are animals” influence on morality would be about biological needs. “Humans need food to survive, therefore it is moral to provide food to starving humans,” for a simplified example. I find this rationale to be disturbingly similar to science fiction villains who discriminate against sapient robots because they aren’t biological. “Animal” is only one term we can use to describe or define humans, and we don’t have to settle for any one term. The fundies who use this bunkum should get acquainted with the general concept behind Venn diagrams. Things can fall into the overlap between different categories, including irrelevant and impractically broad categories. The category created by the overlap may be significant, but the entities in that overlap don’t cease to belong to the parent categories.


Welcome to the next post in this little series of one-word-wrongness in religion.

To scientifically minded thinkers, authority is a shortcut for time and convenience. If I want to know the answer to a physics question, I can ask a physicist with appropriate letters after his name and published peer-reviewed articles attached to his name. A doctorate degree and peer-reviewed publications generally indicate that the person has done the hard work needed to understand physics and has demonstrated that understanding to the scientific community. So there is a basis for trusting in the accuracy of his answers if I want to save time and effort researching it. If I want to investigate deeper, instead of relying on the physicist’s authority, I can choose to read the accumulated literature to find a consensus or even perform the experiments myself if I’ve got the resources. If the physicist abuses his authority to push unproven or disproved hypotheses as if they were proven, he will be criticized by his peers, hopefully making people more hesitant to just trust his credentials.

To people with secular morality and politics, authority is generally given by social consensus. We vote for our leaders, and in theory, they are obligated to serve our interests. If they fail in that task, we can vote for a different leader next term. If a leader abuses his authority and works against the public’s interests, we can feel justified in resisting in various ways, whether it’s public criticism to sway voters and lower his chances of being reelected, mobilize other officials as checks against the abuses, or, in the most extreme cases, openly rebel against their authority.

In both these cases, authority is provisional and circumstantial instead of absolute, and the possibility of abuse is acknowledged. In religion, however, this often isn’t the case. Gods are often given absolute authority, and the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions are well-known for it. Being an American, and particularly a Texan, I’m pretty familiar with Christianity’s take on it, and there are a lot of recurring themes in attempts to justify it that are equally applicable in other religions.

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A Dream I Had and the Null Hypothesis

Last night, I dreamed I was having an argument with a theist about the existence of his god. I don’t remember much detail, but it came to the point that, unusual for a verbal debate, he started to suggest we write down our collective arguments. The point that angered me was that he asked me to list all the scientific evidence for atheism. He was missing a central point, so I ended up holding his face, which suddenly resembled a cross between a witch doctor’s mask and the face of a classic Cyberman, looked him in the empty eyes intently, and said, “I don’t base my argument on the evidence, I base it on the lack of evidence.”

That’s one of the ideas I really wish I could drill in their heads. If they don’t back up their assertion of an entity’s existence with good evidence, why should I have to do anything beyond pointing out that void? The burden of proof is theirs to overcome.

A trope comes to mind: The Complainer Is Always Wrong, applied to epistemology. They often act as if the unpopular idea has the burden of proof by default. Or they assume it’s the adversary’s job to do their work for them. The reality, as far as I can see, is that there is no justifiable reason to be a theist, and if someone wants to argue otherwise, they have to provide a justification. Atheism is a null hypothesis, and science works by assuming the null hypothesis until that hypothesis is falsified. That’s what Occam’s Razor is about, in a way. Don’t assume the existence of new entities until they’re shown to be necessary. The null hypothesis generally fails if there is an entity that isn’t accounted for, producing results it doesn’t predict.

All I’m asking for is a god hypothesis that makes true predictions that atheism and known science doesn’t.