Oct 062011
 

Neutrino TrackOn September 22nd a team of scientists working on the OPERA project (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) in Italy released results of their observations of neutrinos which apparently have travelled faster than the speed of light.  Anybody who has the most rudimentary understanding of physics knows that according to Einstein nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Not being a physicist what are we as lay people to make of such an announcement?  First, if true this would have tremendous implications for our understanding of the universe.  It would in fact rewrite the text books.  It would be a paradigm shift not seen since Einstein shook the world with his theory of relativity which overturned our Newtonian view of the universe.

Second, whether true or false it would give us further insight, not into the nature of physics, but the nature of science and the scientific method.

Every now and then we get announcements of fantastic claims from various fields of science.  In 1989 Pons and Fleischmann gave us the tantalizing hope of cold-fusion.   Barely two months after the announcement the press called the whole affair a circus and as far as the press was concerned cold fusion was dead.  After critical review by their peers, who were unable to replicate their findings, any last hope of room temperature nuclear fusion was lost.  The lead scientist’s reputations were severely damaged in the academic community.

The Italian scientists, in making public their results which would seem to be as controversial as cold fusion, have placed their reputations on the line as well.  There are significant differences in this case, instead of two scientists making the claim we have 174 authors to the discovery.  They are also reporting on data which they have observed over three years and have meticulously examined for error.  In posting their results they are being very cautious by not ruling out some form of error which they may have overlooked despite their caution.

To quote from the conclusion of their paper:

Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results.

This is what impresses me most and gives me hope for the future of science that even when faced with enormous pressure to dismiss the results they publish anyway knowing full-well that they have done their due diligence.  The results, if true, are apparently too important to sweep under the carpet for fear of harming reputations and losing grant funding.  There is more than a bit of courage here.

In what other field of endeavor do we see such a rigorous self-examination to ensure that what is being published is accurate and open to scrutiny by peers and the public?

The popular press is filled with pundits and politicians quick to jump on any statement by others and either take it as absolute fact or dismiss it out of hand without consideration for all the facts.  Almost any environmental movement of the day is built on a shaky foundation of questionable science and emotion.  For example, public health officials seem to constantly change their ideal government approved diet plans not out of a rigorous adherence to the scientific method but based on inexact science and powerful lobbying.

Science is all about the truth.  It’s about peeling away thousands of years of falsehoods and superstitions to arrive at truth.  Its methods are open for criticism and refutation.  In fact any good scientist will welcome criticism.  Science begins with the formulation of an hypothesis, and an hypothesis is an assertion which is capable of being proven false.  So at the outset of any experiment the scientist realizes that he may be wrong.  It is his job to prove his assertions.

For thousands of years our knowledge of the universe consisted of stories and anecdotes, fable and fairy tales told by witchdoctors, priests and shamans.  They received their “knowledge” of the universe by word of mouth, by hallucinations under the influence of drugs or severe physical stress, like spending 40 days and nights alone in a desert.

For the past 400 years scientists have developed the scientific method of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation and of formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses.  This enlightened method of seeking the truth has brought us out of the dark ages of ignorance and despair and given us a greater understanding of nature and ourselves.

Originally broadcast on Just Right #220, October 6, 2011.

Apr 082010
 

science vs religionSince Galileo there has been a battle between science and religion to see which is the better way to discover the truth about the universe.

Before I get into this I better clarify what I mean by the terms science and religion.  The word science comes from the latin “scientia” meaning “knowledge” and science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on a method of gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.

Religion is a bit more difficult to define succinctly because it can mean different things to different people but by religion I mean the belief without evidence, that there exists a personal God who created the universe and takes a direct interest in the goings-on of everybody on this planet.

Recently, we have seen attempts by both sides to blur the lines between the two views.

In an article in the Globe and Mail Saturday, April 3rd, by Erin Anderssen entitled “Scientists investigate if atheists’ brains are missing a ‘God Spot’” we find that

An international scientific network has been formed to collect research on atheism.  Pitzer College in Los Angeles is expected to announce the first secular studies department in the world this spring.”

It would seem to me that any University is a place of reason, insight, research, rationality and therefore is almost by definition a place of secular study.  To have to actually set up a department of secular studies only goes to highlight how universities are failing us and have, to an increasing degree, become places of mysticism and irrationality.  The lines are blurring.

From the same article

Last December social scientists gathered at the University of Oxford for a conference on atheism.”

It is well worth noting here that the vast majority of scientists are atheists.  Fully 93% of members of the Academy of Sciences in the US are atheists (meaning they don’t believe in a personal God which interacts directly with human beings).

During this conference they posed the question, “If religion or spiritual belief is the human default position, how does atheism happen?”  This question can only be gotten away with in Universities of today.  If there is a “default” position at all it is atheism.  A child is born with no inherent, or default, knowledge of any religion, God, or spirituality in a religious sense.  Newborns are cognitively tabula rasa.  They may, as they grow, develop a sense of wonder and awe at the world around them but that is not the kind of spirituality these scientists are questioning.  A child must be taught about a God.  Quite often religion is taught in a disciplined environment where any contrary beliefs are punished either physically or psychologically, for example you try to understand and adopt the beliefs of your parents in order to please them.  So religion is NOT the human default position.  To put It briefly we are born atheists and the majority of us are quickly indoctrinated into a religion by mere happenstance of where we are born.

With this faulty premise in hand the social scientists are asking such questions as “Do atheists’ brains work differently?; Are atheists smarter than people who believe in God?; Is religion innate?”  These questions point to a complete lack of understanding about epistemology.  Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with the science of knowledge and how we know what we know.  Higher order concepts such as God, religion, or spiritualism do not come from any special part of the brain.  There is no ‘God Spot’ any more than there is a Liberal spot or a Santa Clause spot.

This kind of research, while scientifically futile, is also understandable because it has happened before.  There has always been research to try and prove neurological differences in the races or the sexes.  Some of the research is actually valid but to suggest that that atheists’ exist because they lack a ‘God Spot’ in the brain is a futile attempt to dismiss the different philosophies without looking into why people believe the things they do.

Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md. has actually done research on believers while they prayed and found that the areas of the brain involved were the expected areas of memory and feeling; no special section was suddenly activated.  In other words there is no ‘God Spot’ no special part of the brain which distinguishes believers from non-believers.  Of course once you consider that since there are atheists who once believed in God and likewise believers who were once atheists you quickly realize that you could have easily predicted the outcome of Dr. Grafman’s experiment.

The question “is religion innate?” is interesting because it is not simply asking about belief in a God as such but in the common observation that people want to attach some kind of meaning to phenomena we can’t explain.   Of course it is only natural to want to attach meaning to the unknown and before science and reason it probably would have been natural to consult a priest, shaman or soothsayer to come up with the answer.  Before priests and shamans in would have been common to concoct some other fictional character as a causal factor in unexplained events like Apollo, Zeus, the angry volcano spirit.

Today of course science has provided us with many of the answers to many of our questions and has, as it should, come up with many more questions for us to answer.  But today we no longer find it natural to turn to mystics for answers but to science.  At least I would hope so.  Religion has historically been an invention of man to establish an order to society; to group individuals under a common set of values and moral codes in order to facilitate community.   For this I say that religion has served a useful purpose.  But to continue to use religion as a social ethical glue is no longer necessary and given our understanding of science and reality can be harmful.

Ayn Rand said that “Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.  But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy.  And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points.  They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very —how should I say it? — dangerous or malevolent base?  On the ground of faith.”

Current statistics on the growth of atheism prove that man can live moral, peaceful, cooperative lives without belief in a deity.

80% Swedish

50% British

33% French

23% Canadians

5-9% of Americans

If there is anything to learn from the growth of science and the increasing number of atheists it is that as a species we are evolving.  We are maturing philosophically.

Science trumps religion as a means of discovering the universe.  Religion is static, unyielding, resolute, fixed.   Like the 10 commandments holy books could be written in stone.  While certainly there are many Christians, Muslims and Jews who interpret ‘sacred’ writings in different ways there are billions of human minds closed off to science and discovery because they take the words in these books to be the ultimate in truth.  There is no room for discover, inquiry, or growth.

Religious people often describe atheists are being arrogant, know-it-alls who think they are superior and more intelligent than people who have faith in a personal God.  The exact opposite is true.  For any scientist to continue to go to work in the morning it is with the belief that they are ignorant, they lack knowledge, they have yet to answer a question, and they have yet to discover something.  This is a form of humility.  Contrarily there are legions of religious people who make it a career to preach to people, to convert, to proselytize.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #146, April 8, 2010.)

Jan 072010
 
Sun and Earth

Sun and EarthA recent Leger Marketing poll has revealed that 53% of Canadians believe that human-induced generation of greenhouse gases is a key driver of climate change and without immediate and significant action, the planet as we know it is in peril.

This shows a drastic need for immediate education of those 53% who apparently have been misinformed and because of the misinformation are urging the government to take drastic measures which have the potential of destroying our economy and threatening not only our way of life but our freedom as well.

What I hope to do is take on the falsehoods of the climate change fear-mongers in stages.  I want to challenge their science, specifically the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I want to show how acting irrationally out of fear and panic to false information can do more harm to humans and our planet more than any real climate change could do, and I want to hold accountable those individuals and groups, especially the United Nations, for their scare-mongering and out-right lying to the world.

Today I’ll just address some of the poor science the IPCC and Al Gore have been using to push their anti-human agendas.

Very quickly those pushing for the reduction of CO2 have taken this line of reasoning”

Global temperatures are rising,

CO2 is a green house gas,

Man produces CO2,

Therefore the climate changes or global warming they say we are experiencing is due to Man.

Their final conclusion and marketing point is that the science is settled, irrefutable and agreed to by all scientists.  Anyone who disagrees is disreputable, a climate change denier, a heretic.

I want to tackle that particular marketing point first.  A group of independent scientists which used to call themselves the Science and Environmental Policy Project but who now call their group the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change have produced a report with a petition appended to it.  The petition said the following:

We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.

The petition was signed by 31,478 American scientists.  Compare this to the fewer than100 individuals who had a direct hand in crafting the United Nations IPCC report.

While truth should not be a popularity contest this clearly demonstrates that the UN’s and Al Gore’s assertion that nobody refutes the science is patently false.

Regarding the science itself, the report by the NIPCC took apart every assertion made by the United Nations government picked scientists.  Here are some of the highlights:

Global temperatures rise and fall all the time.  In fact global temperate have been seen to fall for decades even though we see CO2 levels rise during the same time. The earth is currently nearing the end of a 10,000 year period of global warming.  About every 100,000 years there is about a 10,000 year period of warming clearly documented to be due to the changing radiance from the sun due to both the natural cycles of the sun itself but more importantly by several cycles the earth goes through as it orbits the sun and spins on its axis.  These cycles are called the Milankovitch cycles, the combined effects of the earth’s orbital shape or eccentricity, it’s axial tilt or obliquity, its axial precession, its apsidal precession, and its orbital inclination.  All of these characteristics of earth’s movement in its orbit are well documented and are known to drive earth’s climate from ice age to warming to ice age again.

As for the CO2, yes CO2 is a greenhouse gas but it is an insignificant one compared to water vapour which accounts for the vast majority of any green house effect.  Also the amount of man-made green house gas is again insignificant to the amount of CO2 release by nature.  The release and capture of CO2 by earth’s oceans account for the vast majority of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Even then we must remember that CO2 is only a very small component of the atmosphere being only about .05% of the total volume.

All greenhouse models show an increasing warming trend with altitude in the troposphere, peaking around 10 km in altitude.  However the temperature data from balloons gives the opposite result, no increasing warming, but rather a slight cooling with altitude.  This is clear evidence that any warming at the surface is not due to greenhouse gases including man-made CO2.

Anyone inconvenienced by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” would remember his graphs of global temperature changes over the past 400,000 years and his graph of CO2 changes over the same period.  Did you notice that he showed the graphs separately, the temperature graph higher than the CO2 graph?  He did this because he was hiding his own inconvenient truth.  If he had superimposed one graph over the other everyone would have noticed that the CO2 levels follow the temperature changes with a gap of about 800 years.  Yes, temperature changes precede CO2 changes.  CO2 changes are caused by temperature changes and not the other way around.  And the temperature changes themselves are caused by the variability in solar radiation.

The reason there is an 800 year gap is that it takes that long for the oceans to heat up or cool down and when the oceans heat up and cool down they release or absorb CO2 respectively.   This one fact alone should cause anybody to dismiss Al Gore’s hype and the United Nations’ anti-human fear mongering.

The report by the Nongovernmental IPCC goes on to cover all aspects of climate science making the following conclusions:

  • The evidence that the cause of current climate warming is anthropogenic is very week.
  • There is very robust evidence that the causes of current warming are natural.
  • The computer forecasting of future climate change the UN relies on are unreliable.
  • Sea-level rise is not significantly affected by rise in greenhouse gases.

And what I find to be particularly interesting are some of the report’s final conclusions:

  • Higher concentrations of CO2 are more likely to be beneficial to plant and animal life and to human health than lower concentrations.

And,

  • The economic effects of modest warming are likely to be positive and beneficial to human health.  There would be longer growing seasons in temperate climates, benefitting agriculture and forestry industries and lower heating bills.  One study estimated that there would be 41,000 fewer people who would die each year from respiratory and circulatory diseases and that the overall benefit to the US economy alone would be $104.8 billion in 1990 dollars.

How should we hold accountable those nations among us who would send billions to other countries to prevent them from prospering and using fossil fuels to grow their economies much as Canada did?  We should throw out of office any politician like Prime Minister Stephen Harper who propagates the false belief that man-made CO2 is going to destroy the world.  This is a perfectly good example of why we should not trust the United Nations and why Canada should leave it.

(Originally aired on Just Right Show #134, January 7, 2010.  You can listen to the show by visiting http://wwww.justrightmedial.org.)