07 November 2011

Are those things really stars?

I have written before about the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists.  It's bad enough that members of the anti-science movement cannot seem to distinguish between those three concepts.  But even within a single concept, it seems that many ignorant and malevolent people seem to get utterly lost.

I recently came across a post on Google+, consisting of an exchange by such an anti-science idiot (identity unknown), and Tris Stock, someone who understands science very well.  The argument, it seemed, revolved on whether stars are real.  (I know - try not to laugh too hard.)

You can see the original conversation, and a series of comments by others, at https://plus.google.com/109717575157128771241/posts/869gP2699hr.  As far as I'm concerned, the person arguing against stars being as scientists describe them is just a troll.  Nonetheless, the argument is so similar to so many other anti-science arguments, that I really wanted to write about it.

First, let's get specific.  The argument isn't about science - i.e. the endeavour and process of acquiring scientific knowledge - but rather about the qualities and extent of scientific knowledge.  That is, the troll does nothing to argue against science, but rather suggests that science cannot be trusted because of the nature of scientific knowledge.  That's like saying that someone who's never seen an orange tree must assume that, unlike other trees, an orange tree must be orange in colour.

The troll's arguments hinge on a few key points.

The troll has never seen a star. That is, he has seen those points of light that normal people call stars; he just is unconvinced that they are as scientists claim they are.  This is puerile.  He's saying that the thousands of scientists who have devoted their lives (totalling millions of person-hours at least) to studying the nature of stars have been unable to convince him of their nature.  If the troll is aware of the evidence, then he is obviously suffering from either a massive superiority complex or paranoid delusions.  If he is not aware of the evidence, then is here exhibiting the very worst kind of arrogance: he's not only ignorant, but he's also too stupid to recognize his own ignorance - basically, a textbook study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as it applies to the unskilled and incompetent.  Either way, he's a troll.

"Theory" and "evidence from technology" do not guarantee validity. When Tris calls him on his first inane claim about stars, the troll retreats to a weaker position.  Here the troll argues that only his own eyes and mind are trusted sources of knowledge, and that external sources (theory and evidence from technology) are not so trusted.

The "theory" of which the troll presumably speaks are the bodies of knowledge known as astronomy and cosmology.  However, everything we think we know is also just a theory.  Since we can only perceive the objective universe via our senses, our entire mental content is basically just a big, rather vague, grossly incomplete, and error-ridden theory of the universe.  So when the troll complains about the suspect nature of theory, is he also complaining about the human mind?  Presumably not, because he seems to afford human beings a special privilege of understanding the universe.  This is called a contradiction.  It signifies that he is wrong.

The same error - logical contradiction - permeates his notion that evidence from technology is suspect.

We use optical telescopes to study stars.  If the technology of telescopes is suspect, so must be the field of optics (a theory), and therefore so are contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors.  Yet I can only assume that the troll would accept that contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors work.  Therefore, contradiction.

We also use spectroscopes to study stars; so, spectroscopy (a theory) must be suspect.  But you can demonstrate spectroscopic principles in any high school physics lab.  Therefore, contradiction.  He's also casting doubt on chemistry, so he's denying everything from internal combustion engines to batteries.  More contradiction.

We use radar, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and infrared telescopes to study stars; so, our theory of electromagnetic radiation must be suspect.  But surely he would accept microwave ovens, radar-based aircraft navigation, medical imaging, radiation therapy, and TV remotes as real, functioning things.  Therefore, contradiction.

The point here is that the scientific body of knowledge is not a collection of disparate claims.  It is a single, massively interconnected collection of facts.  True, at its edges there are some hypotheses - things we're currently studying - but all those hypotheses are firmly rooted in scientific fact.  And as the scientific body of knowledge grows, it becomes more and more robust.  One cannot just pick and choose whatever bits of science are convenient, and ignore the rest.  It's an all or nothing deal.

In any case, our sensory organs are really nothing more than "technology" of a different kind that the stuff we make.  He trusts his eyes, but not a telescope.  Yet what is the eye but an organic camera?  (And it's a pretty piss-poor camera at that.  By some estimates, as much as 90% of the information received by the eye never gets to the brain.) If he doubts technology, then he must also logically doubt his eyes; yet he obviously places special privilege on his eyes' ability to see real things.  Again: contradiction.

There is no conclusive evidence that our sun is a star.  Near the end of the exchange, Tris attempts to explain things by reminding the troll that our sun is just a star.  The troll then writes "You can alter the example if you like."  This indicates that the troll does not believe that the sun is like the points of light we typically call stars.  And yet all the same tests and experiments one can perform on the stars, one can also perform on the sun - and get entirely consistent results.  The only truly substantive difference between the sun and other stars is that the former is billions of times closer to Earth than the latter.

Finally - and this is what really pushes me over the edge - the troll suggests that Tris (and others who think like him by extension) is intolerant and dogmatic because he is unwilling to accept other belief systems that "don't hurt others."  This claim is typically used to put the speaker on the moral high ground.  The attempt is cowardly because the troll should have just had the cojones to claim his own moral superiority.  Furthermore, the discussion is not about beliefs but about facts.  The troll clearly thinks of science as a series of beliefs that can be used or ignored as required.  One might argue that facts are a type of belief and thus as strong (or, more importantly, as weak as beliefs; but that would be like arguing that skyscrapers are as weak as termite hills because they're both "structures," or that serial murder is as mild as jaywalking because they're both crimes.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Scientific knowledge is a collection of facts, claims that have been demonstrated true in so many ways that the odds of any of them being false are infinitesimal.  Scientific knowledge is the best, most robust knowledge that humanity has at its disposal.  There is absolutely nothing that can compare.  If you need proof, look around you.  Everything humans have added to the Earth is based on it.  To dismiss scientific knowledge as just a "belief system" is an argument intended to lower science to the level of superstition and legend.  I really, really hate that kind of lie.

Now, of course, as is so often the case with anti-science cowards, they choose words that are ambivalent and might be subject to diverse interpretation.  For instance, the troll's remark about altering the example could be taken to suggest that the argument is not about questioning technology vis-a-vis the sun.  However, there are two problems with offering this kindness to the troll.  First, it behooves him - indeed, it behooves us all - to speak plainly and clearly.  It is evident that the troll has a reasonable grasp of english.  It is therefore not too much to expect him to be specific and precise.  Second, the entire discussion is so glaringly typical in style and form of anti-science jerks that can be found trolling on any social network that it is rather natural to infer that he is as he presents himself.  If he has any interest in science, he would know this because the evidence is so readily available.  So either he has no interest in science - in which case one must question why he even bothers to engage Tris (unless he is a troll) - or he's staggeringly ignorant - in which case he is a troll and an anti-science prats.

Now, to his credit, Tris mentions in a comment to his post that his investigation suggests the troll may have in fact just had a momentary brain fart (my words, not Tris's).

This may well be, but I stand by my assessment.  Whoever it was who argued with Tris assumed the posture, language, and style so very typical of anti-science gits.  His arguments are so fetid and ridiculous that he must either be an utter moron (with good language skills - therefore, unlikely), or a malevolent prick trying to undermine science.


  1. Do they do this for sport or is our education system failing so dismally that they really believe this nonsense?

    Whilst I think that people should be allowed to believe in god, eternal life and all the other nonsense I propose that the law be changed to that anyone who does should be outside of its protection. If they get killed, they get to meet their god earlier so they should be grateful. If they get robbed they must be going against their god's creed because they should already have given it to the poor, so no need for action. Given a good beating for saying stupid things like science it rubbish and stars are not stars, well, their god wants to test them and we're happy to help.

    Do I have a seconder?

  2. I second that. But we don't need to invoke the (non-existent) god to make it work.

    I think that people who don't believe in science should not have any benefits of it. No health care, no computers, no cars, no Kindles, no newspaper or books, no electricity, etc.

    Of course, that would be traumatic to society in general - I mean, these people actually do things for their day jobs after all.

    So an alternative approach would be to define a new mental disease to cover these losers. Let's get them the help they need. I'm sure the *sciences* of neurology and psychology could help them. And the irony would be pretty sweet too.