You might think I'm biased when I say that science is important. After all, I'm a scientist. (Well, by profession I'm an engineer, but it's a moot point--I'm still biased.) While that's true, it doesn't change the fact that science is important. (It's not all that's important, of course; see the quote from Einstein below.) It has, however, made me hesitant about posting articles in this category, because I tend to get polemical when discussing these things. (If you've read some of the articles and comments in my Computers category, you'll probably think that I tend to get polemical when discussing that too--well, here it's more so.) But a news item in November 2004 pushed me over the edge (see the article link below), so now there are some articles.

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For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Richard Feynman
Appendix to the Presidential Commission's Report
on the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein


Creationism vs. Evolution: The recent (November 19, 2004) news that a school board in Pennsylvania voted to require "intelligent design" to be taught in biology classes prompted me to write this article. It's in support of evolution (which shouldn't be a surprise), and I make no compromises. For example, here's a tag line for the article:

Using disagreements over small details of evolutionary theory to argue that "intelligent design" is true is like using disagreements over small details of geography to argue that the Earth is flat.

Update (December 2004): The ACLU is helping parents sue the school district in question. And they're not the only ones weighing in (no surprise there)--here's Reason Magazine's take on it. Reason's article basically claims that everybody's wrong: the real issue is not creationism vs. evolution but the fact that the public education system we have forces people to take sides like this, because it can't possibly respect everybody's beliefs. I wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine about this aspect of the issue.

Further Update (December 2005): A Pennsylvania judge ruled against the school board and in favor of the plaintiffs in Dover, forcing the district to remove intelligent design from the curriculum. The actual text of the judge's decision is here, and the CSICOP website has an analysis of the decision here. Also this article on the National Center for Science Education website places the whole Dover sequence of events into the larger context of the creationists' strategy.

Needless to say, the few links above barely scratch the surface of the vast amount of content related to Intelligent Design (ID), both for and against, on the web. A couple of other interesting ones (at least to me) are this article on explaining how the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project isn't really consistent with ID, as some ID proponents have tried to claim (because SETI is "accepted science", so linking ID with it might make ID look like "accepted science" too), and this article on Talk.Design explaining the real meaning of "naturalism" in the context of modern science (ID proponents often claim, wrongly, that evolution isn't science because it rests on a philosophical assumption of "naturalism" which can't be scientifically validated).

Yet Another Update (April 2008): Ben Stein's movie Expelled has just opened; it basically claims that "Darwinism" is unfairly suppressing alternate viewpoints (i.e., Intelligent Design), and that this is bad because (a) it's against the American ideal of freedom, and (b) Darwinism doesn't allow for belief in God. Reason magazine has reviewed the movie, and, not surprisingly, finds it to be "all worldview and no evidence". I hope it need not be said that I agree with this assessment. However, reading about the movie did set me to thinking about the comparison between this situation and the current situation in climate science relative to global warming (which, as you can see from the next article below, I have also spent some time thinking about). As a result, I've added some additional thoughts to the end of this article.

Pascal's Wager and Global Warming (Revised): This was originally an article arguing that, even if we're not sure whether human-caused global warming is going to be a problem, the main thing we would do about it if it was (namely, switch to sources of energy other than CO2-producing fuels) is something we should be doing anyway, for a number of good reasons; thus, rather than argue about whether human-caused global warming is going to be a problem, we should just act as if it were, at least with regard to changing our energy economy. At the time, I thought one way of getting across the kind of point I was trying to make would be to point out that the logical structure of the situation I've just described is similar to that of the well-known philosophical argument, Pascal's Wager.

That was in 2002. Since then, the development of our national discourse in the US about global warming has forced me several times to post "updates" to this article, trying to clarify what I was not saying. For example, I was not saying, as Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth, that global warming is such a dire emergency that we should drop everything and emasculate the US economy in order to "solve" it. (My discussion of Gore's movie is here.) I was also not saying, as the third and fourth IPCC Assessment Reports (in 2001 and 2007) said, that the science is settled, or even that it's close to being settled; there is still way too much uncertainty in our understanding of the climate for us to be able to claim that global warming will be a problem. (My discussion of the fourth assessment report, AR4, is here.) I was only trying to say that, since weaning ourselves from imported oil is something we should be doing anyway, why don't we just do it, instead of arguing about whether it will prevent global warming?

Unfortunately, many writers on the "alarmist" side have taken up Pascal's Wager to make precisely the argument I did not want to make: that the consequences if global warming is a problem are so severe that it is worth bankrupting our economy to try to prevent them. In particular, while these writers (like me) advocate moving away from fossil fuels, the methods they propose for doing so (e.g., imposing a "cap and trade" system for CO2 emissions) are economically unsound and will do much more harm than any potential good they might do. (I provide some links to these types of articles in my revised article.) All of this has convinced me that my original attempt to use Pascal's Wager in this context was mistaken: it doesn't really capture the situation correctly, and it takes a point of view that, in the light of subsequent events, was counterproductive.

So I've decided to withdraw the original article, and in its place I've put up a revised article that simply reviews the state of our knowledge about the climate, and discusses why the "alarmist" solutions are not only wrong, but dangerous. The revised article still contains most of the follow-on content I posted, to which I referred above, and it also retains all of the links I referenced in the original article, so the only thing you're missing is my original Pascal's Wager argument, and my brief summary of that, above, pretty much captures it anyway. And my fundamental conclusion hasn't changed, just the framework I'm using to present it.

The Case for Nuclear Power: Why we need it, and how we can use the knowledge we've gained in the past half century to ensure that it's safe.

The Classic Quantum Experiments: Brief discussions of the "classic" experiments in the development of quantum mechanics.

EPR, Bell's Inequalities, Nonlocality, And All That: A short article on this puzzling aspect of quantum mechanics--what it does and doesn't mean.


Usenet Physics FAQ: Good answers to basic (and not so basic) questions, and lots of good links to other sites. This is an excellent place to start if you're trying to bone up on scientific topics--and also if you're trying to find a good refutation of a misconception about science. The links to Ned Wright's Cosmology FAQ and Chris Hillman's Relativity on the WWW (update--this link has been taken down, see below) are particularly useful for the latter--it's amazing how much misinformation there is elsewhere on the web (and in books, newspapers, and just about everywhere), and the only antidote to it is the right information, which these sites present very well.

Update, June 2010: It turns out the relativity FAQ was taken down some time ago, as you will see if you follow the link above, which briefly explains why the author did so. (If you're wondering about the cryptic reference to the web not developing as the author anticipated, there is some reference to that made in the comments to this blog post which appeared the last time the relativity site was updated before being taken down.) While the loss of this resource is disappointing to me, there are still plenty of good (if short) discussions of key aspects of relativity in the Usenet Physics FAQ itself. Also, believe it or not, the website of Watch-Inc., a company that makes replicas of expensive designer watches, has a relativity page with lots of good links. (Thanks to reader Taryn Carmody for the tip!)

The Talk Origins Archive: What the above site is to physics, this site is to biology--an excellent source of good information to counter the deluge of bogus information that's out there. Since evolution vs. creationism is a topic that hits much closer to home for most people than the latest frontiers in physics, it's all the more important to weed out misconceptions and understand what science really says.

Eric Weisstein's World of Science: An excellent all-around reference site (I also link to the math portion of it on my Math page).

Physics 2000: A site by the University of Colorado at Boulder, with lots of good discussions and animations to help you visualize phenomena.

The Confrontation Between General Relativity And Experiment: An excellent summary by Clifford Will, one of the "giants" of relativity research, on experimental confirmations of GR. A very useful reference for debunking people who claim that GR doesn't have much experimental support.

CSICOP: The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. They publish the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and have a lot of good info about various pseudoscientific claims that have been debunked.

National Center for Science Education: A site devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools. See the article above on Creationism vs. Evolution for why I think that's a good thing.

The Skeptic's Dictionary: Another good "antidote" site and reference for debunking outlandish claims.

MIT Open CourseWare: My alma mater's contribution to sharing knowledge--if you want to test your knowledge in a given area of science, you can make a good start by taking a look at the basic courses in that area on this site and trying to work the problem sets. (The site isn't limited to the science and engineering courses at MIT--all subject areas are included. I just link to it here because the science and engineering courses are the ones of which I have such fond memories...)

Experiment in Physics: An article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Value of Science: An eloquent essay by Richard Feynman (actually an address given to the National Academy of Sciences in 1955).

Cargo Cult Science: Another Feynman classic, about why "pseudoscience" isn't real science, and why the difference is important. You can also find a PDF of this speech, with a couple of pictures of Feynman orating, at the Caltech Library.

The World As I See It: A passage from the book by Einstein on the relationship between science and religion; the passage itself is more general, summarizing Einstein's deepest values and beliefs about all aspects of life. (It should be noted that Einstein uses the word "religion" in a wider sense than usual; by "cosmic religious feelings" he means feelings of awe when contemplating the universe, but these feelings need not fit into any "traditional" religious scheme, as he notes in the essay. But it's still a very interesting description of what motivates scientists.)

The Relativity of Wrong: An essay by Isaac Asimov on how there can be varying degrees of wrongness. If you looked at the bookshelves in my house, you would see a lot of Asimov's essay collections; this essay illustrates why.

Pale Blue Dot: A passage by Carl Sagan, from the book of the same name. Quoted on the website of the Planetary Society.

Excerpts from a review of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Steven Weinberg: I was going to write a review of this book myself, chiefly because I wanted to debunk the idea of "Kuhn losses" as they are called--Kuhn claims that in any scientific revolution, any paradigm shift, the old and new paradigms are incommensurable: there are always problems that the old paradigm solved that the new one does not. I can't say whether this happens in the social sciences, but in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) it never has happened since each of those fields became mature. For example, Kuhn spends considerable time discussing the switch from Newtonian physics to relativity, as if it supported his point: but as Weinberg says in the review, to say that Newtonian physics and relativity were "incommensurable", that somehow there were problems that Newtonian physics solved that relativity does not, is a complete misunderstanding of both theories, as well as the paradigm shift from one to the other. Until I found excerpts from this review online (the full text is on the New York Review of Books site and requires a paid subscription to access), I was tempted to explain all this in an article to cut off the postmodernists at the pass, but Weinberg says it all better than I can, so I'll leave it to him.

What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove: A piece by Alan Sokal, who wrote a article that was an intentional spoof and got it accepted as a supposedly serious critical piece by the postmodernist journal Social Text, about what conclusions he thinks can and cannot be drawn from his "experiment".

Voodoo Science: An article by Jerry Pournelle about "wannabe sciences" like sociology or macroeconomics.

Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology: A number of theists have made the claim that the Big Bang cosmology is actually a point in favor of theism, because there is no obvious non-theistic cause for the Big Bang itself. This article debunks that claim.

Telekinesis And Quantum Field Theory: A blog post that does a fairly good job of answering, in layman's terms, the question of why scientists, and scientifically knowledgeable lay people, are so skeptical about paranormal phenomena.

Is Science Faith-Based?: Another blog post, this one from the "Bad Astronomy" blog (lest you mistake the meaning of the title, its purpose is to debunk bad astronomy, not promote it), explaining why the claim that "science has to accept things on faith, just like religion does" (for "religion", you may substitute "my particular pet anti-scientific belief") is false. (Creationists in particular are fond of making this claim as a way of deflecting argument when scientists point out the flaws in their reasoning.)

The Single Greatest Misconception About Religion: A page from Professor Steve Dutch's website that serves as something of an antidote to the previous one (i.e., to keep a scientifically minded person from getting too complacent about the advantages of science over religion). I should note that this page is not a refutation of the previous one--not just that it wasn't written as such, but that it doesn't argue a contrary point. Prof. Dutch says the following:

It is simply not true that religious faith has no counterpart in science. Scientists routinely use their personal experience, subjective appraisal, hunches, and intuition as guides for selecting research directions. Indeed, when the outcome is unknown, as it must be in choosing a fundamentally new direction for research, subjective thinking must dominate, sometimes even a faith-like insistence that there must be a pattern to phenomena. So the subjective decision to interpret the Universe as containing a God is not fundamentally different from the subjective decision that it's worth investing a career in, say, searching for extraterrestrial life.

There are valid points here, but saying that religious faith has a counterpart in science is not the same as saying that science is faith-based. The details are left as an exercise for the reader.

Einstein, Heisenberg, and Tipler: A bit of science humor.

Choosing a Major: Some more humor about choosing a college major.