January 6, 2006

Astronomical distances, and the death of young earth creationism

In a discussion forum I sometimes participate in, former young earth creationist Glenn Morton recently clued me in to a recent astronomy article about the determination of the distance of one of our Milky Way galaxy's spiral arms from the Earth.

Here is the article reference:

"The Distance to the Perseus Spiral Arm in the Milky Way"
(Science magazine, December 8, 2005)
by Y. Xu, M. J. Reid, X. W. Zheng, and K. M. Menten

The scientists state:

We have measured the distance to the massive star-forming region W3OH in the Perseus spiral arm of the Milky Way to be 1.95 ± 0.04 kiloparsecs (5.86 x 1016 km). This distance was determined by triangulation, with the Earth's orbit as one segment of a triangle, using the Very Long Baseline Array.

1.95 kiloparsecs is about 6,360 light-years, so what this means is that we're observing this location right here in our own galaxy (let alone all of the other billions of galaxies in our universe) from about 6,360 years ago.

Glenn writes:

This measurement has an error of 40 parsecs (130 lightyears), or 2% of the distance. This means, that the [spiral arm] lies between 6,226 and 6,487 light-years distance. The error is so small that there is no way that this very close [spiral arm] can fit within the 6,000 year universe of the YECs.

Here you can see a nice map of our Milky Way galaxy showing the relative positions of the Earth and the Perseus spiral arm:

The Universe within 50000 Light Years: The Milky Way Galaxy

This is just another example of the fact that right within our own galaxy, we're observing even relatively nearby parts of our galaxy from a time in the past BEFORE young earth creationists say that the Universe existed, thus proving that young earth creationism is false, and showing why young earth creationism is just as obsolete as geocentrism.

Just so everyone is aware of this, there are other geometric methods used to determine interstellar and intergalactic distances (i.e., they don't depend on magnitude measurements of Cepheids or other kinds of cyclically pulsating stars). They just don't happen to be the particular parallax method using the Earth's orbit as the triangle baseline, but the baseline is "in reverse" being at the location of what is being observed. Here are three examples of this, one in our galaxy, one in a neighbor galaxy (Large Magellanic Cloud), and one in a galaxy that's part of another galaxy cluster:

Star V838 Monocerotis
(about 20,000 light-years from Earth)

Supernova 1987A
(about 168,000 light-years from Earth)

"A 4% geometric distance to the galaxy NGC4258 from orbital motions in a nuclear gas disk"
(about 23,500,000 light-years from Earth)

Of course, according to young earth creationist rhetoric, astronomical science is really just a form of atheistic evolution, and astronomers are nothing more than evolutionists engaging in the worldwide evolutionist conspiracy.

Hmmm... I hope I don't lose my secret decoder ring!

Unsettling this settled dogma came Galileo and his telescope, a mere decade after Giordano Bruno (1548?-1600) was murdered by the Church in the flames of Campo dei Fiori -- for unorthodox opinions. In his Sidereus Nuncius or Starry Messenger (1610) Galileo announced his support for the Copernican view of the universe: the earth moving around the sun, and Jupiter circled by moons.

Blasphemy! cried the clerics. Not at all, replied the scientist. Look here and see for yourselves. It is impious to look, said some; these so-called moons are delusions of the devil, said others. Jesuit Father Christoph Clavius ingeniously argued that "to see satellites of Jupiter men had to make an instrument which would create them." Such a discovery contradicted the prescribed number of bodies in the heavens. Galileo counter-argued that a figurative interpretation of the biblical statements would save his observations from the taint of heresy. He wrote as much to his friends, Father Benedetto Castelli and the Grand-Duchess Christina -- but to no avail.

Father Tomasso Caccini, a Dominican, preached a sermon against him grounded in a tasteless pun (after Acts 1:11) on the scientist's name: "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven?." Galileo had said, "[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word," (Opere Il Saggiatore) so, not content with reviling astronomers, Caccini assured his flock that "geometry is of the devil" and that "mathematicians should be banished as the author of all heresies."

The Archbishop of Florence called his discoveries unscriptural. A Father Lacazre claimed Galileo's researches cast "suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation." The word in clerical circles was that such a cosmology "upsets the whole basis of theology. If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it cannot be that any such great things have been done especially for it as the great doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's Ark? How can they be redeemed by the Saviour?" And, not surprisingly, one cleric, the Dominican Father Nicolò Lorini called Galileo's discoveries "atheistic."

From: The War on Galileo
by Ronald Bruce Meyer

In the "ID is just as scientific as evolution" blah-blah category

Online "colleague" Robert Baty just referred the following to me:

What Is Science?
Part II: Pennsylvania 's Intelligent Design case

By Lloyd Eby
World Peace Herald Contributor
Published January 5, 2006


If we make, for example, the scientific law-like statement "Pure silver melts at 961.78 degrees Celsius," we are necessarily going beyond our experience and observation because we have not tested every sample of silver in the universe to see whether that statement is true, nor could we do so.

So that statement, and every scientific statement like it, should be regarded as being metaphysical. Metaphysical claims go beyond scientific data itself into an extra-observable domain where statements or claims go beyond the evidence for them.

This is a beautiful example of the sheer obfuscation that creationists do so love to engage in, in their desperate attempt to either (1) pretend that ID is scientific, or (2) pretend that evolution is as unscientific as ID.

Any chemist or physicist or engineer today who made the statement "Pure silver melts at 961.78 degrees Celsius" should be placed in the stocks in the public square for ridicule. But again what we're seeing is a simplistic caricature of science, and of the philosophy of science, as given by creationism supporter Lloyd Eby, and right now it is ID advocates in the stocks in the public square being ridiculed – and quite rightly too!

In reality, we might have something like "Pure silver melts at 961.78 at sea-level pressure in a normal atmosphere of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon-dioxide, but in our experiments we have found that in an atmosphere containing at least 1.3% xenon at at least 10 atmospheres of pressure..." (this is a totally made up example).

In other words Eby pretends that scientists have a certain lack of conceptual sophistication. Of course, in the real world of science, it is ID advocates who have no sophistication at all since they don't even try to show up, since it is ID advocates themselves who refuse to participate in the world of professional science (or in the world of professional philosophy either, for that matter; e.g., ID advocate William Dembski does not even try to submit any articles to professional philosophy or philosophy of science journals).

But let me address, too, the claim by Eby regarding scientists making "metaphysical" rather than "scientific" claims. What we're observing is the typical creationist love of word games. "It's not really science, it's metaphysics, and ID is metaphysics so it's okay to say it's science too" is the form of Eby's argument. Well, no, it's not really "metaphysics," it's science, and, no, ID advocates are never as detailed and precise as that, and they don't engage in the scientific process which is a whole cycle of question-hypothesis-data gathering-analysis-conclusion-question-hypothesis-data gathering-analysis-conclusion that professional scientists engage in, along with the critical wrangling that scientists engage in all the time probing each others' data, probing their analyses, probing their conclusions, even probing their questions, and digging into more and more details ever more.

The statement "Pure silver melts at 961.78 at sea-level pressure in a normal atmosphere of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon-dioxide, but in our experiments we have found that in an atmosphere containing at least 1.3% xenon at at least 10 atmospheres of pressure..." goes beyond direct experience precisely because that is what science is for, to understand what is beyond our direct experience. We learned about and knew a lot about the atomic structure of matter and about atoms themselves many, many decades before we ever directly observed a single atom. The claims made about atoms were scientific claims precisely because they were and are always subject to the evidence, the relevant data. As scientists gather more data (dig into and gather more details), empirical claims always have the potential for revision. Any empirical claim may even be totally correct as far as it goes at a certain level of detail, and still be subject to revision - i.e., having further level of conceptual detail added to it - upon the acquisition of more relevant data by which we learn more about the empirical concept in question.

For example, 20 years ago (in the early 1980s) a few astronomers built up a general concept about the Kuiper Belt (also see Wikipedia entry Kuiper Belt) that was correct, but this concept was general and had little detail, whereas now after astronomical technology reached the point where astronomers could directly observe the relatively larger objects in the Kuiper Belt, on the basis of this newly acquired data they could add considerable detail to the general concept of the Kuiper Belt.

This is exactly how scientists work on various concepts about evolution in science as well. Which is why evolution is not somehow, magically, for-the-good-of-ID-rhetoric, any different philosophically from other areas of science, whether physics, or astronomy, or chemistry, or geology, and so on.

The task at hand for ID advocates is that they seriously need to stop jabbering with their word games, and just roll up their sleeves and get to work doing some real science work. And if they're not doing that, then they really just need to shut up and stop trying to deceive everyone.

January 5, 2006

On the Dover, PA Intelligent Design trial (1)

It's pretty incredible how creationists and ID advocates are spinning (i.e., twisting, distorting, misinforming, and outright lying, in their typical way) their total defeat in this trial.

For example, right off the bat we've had creationists all over the country, such as Phyllis Schlafly, lying to everyone by pretending that Judge Jones must be some kind of liberal activist judge ["False judge makes mockery of case for 'intelligent design'," townhall.com, 1/2/2006]. (No, according to these creationists, Jones couldn't actually just be taking science and the First Amendment seriously now, could he?) Of course, the truth of the matter is that Jones has a judicial record, and this record shows that creationists are just lying - and Jones himself explicitly discussed this very point in his ruling, predicting that this is one of the tactics of deceit that creationists would use, and he thus explained to creationists ahead of time why such an accusation would be wrong. But creationists didn't and don't care about the truth (which is, of course, one of the problems that provoked this trial in the first place), have ignored Jones' judicial record, have ignored Jones' warning about the error of this precise misrepresentation, and have been spouting this lie all over the country.

Look how these people are just foaming at the mouth over the ruling. Christine Flowers spins that the judge "believed that it was his duty to protect innocent children from a dangerous theory" ["Dover & the cult of science," Philadelphia Daily News, 1/4/2006]. The truth of the matter is that the judge - quite correctly - believed that it was his duty to uphold the Establishment Cause of the First Amendment and protect innocent children from religious zealots who would love to use public schools to force their religious beliefs down the kids' throats, and not only that but to falsely pretend that their religious beliefs are science.

Flowers spins that the Dover school board tried to "force science teachers to tell their students that evolution was not the only possible explanation for the origins of mankind," which seems like a pretty straightforward statement by Flowers except for the use of a single word that turns her statement into misrepresentative distortion. The school board tried to force science teachers to pretend to students that evolution was not the only scientific explanation of human origins. And that's just plain wrong, since evolution is indeed the only scientific explanation.

Flowers spins sarcastically that Jones with his ruling "put an end to the silly notion that evolution could be challenged in the classroom." Which is nothing more than a bald-faced lie. What Jones did very specifically was deal with the fact that ID is not scientific but religious, and thus is not a scientific challenge to evolution, and thus doesn't belong in a science class in a public school, and even when taught about in appropriate classes (such as social studies or religious survey classes) should be taught in a nonsectarian manner.

The profusion of misrepresentative distortions such as these that ID advocates and other creationists have built up for themselves over the years and decades has become such a standard part of their rhetorical vocabulary that they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the errors of their ways, even when such events as this trial forces them to confront those errors.

The one and only lesson that ID advocates and other creationists should have taken and learned from the trial and the ruling is that if they want to claim that creationism or some aspect of creationism is scientific, then they must actually, genuinely do some real work in real science and come up with some results that legitimately back up what they claim. Until then, all they have is deceitful rhetoric built into a house of cards, and it will continue to collapse every time someone like Judge Jones blows on it with the tiniest puff of rationality. Of course, since ID really is religious and not scientific in the first place, this is the lesson that ID advocates and other creationists are completely ignoring.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (Wikipedia)
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial transcripts and documents
Full text of Judge Jones' ruling (12/20/2005) [PDF document]