Saturday, January 28, 2006

Standard Accepted Knowledge

In my last article I commented on the differences in positions held by scientists and non-scientists on whether Earth had been visited in the past by intelligent extraterrestrials. I use the term scientists widely, not referring to an occupation but to a state of mind.

No matter what your occupation, I call you a scientist if you look for answers by studying the evidence; if you test to see if proposed explanations work; and if you assume that there are reasonable, physical explanations first, before resorting to magic or far-out justifications for an extraordinary claim.

I made a statement that there is near universal agreement among scientists on the big issues. Here is a list of what I consider those issues to be.

Earth is a speck in the cosmos. There are likely to be many small, rocky planets orbiting stars, some of which will be similar to our sun. There are so many stars, there are bound to me many Earth-like planets at suitable distances from their sun that conditions were similar to those on early Earth.

Earth is old and changing. Continents drift around and collide. Mountains rise. Rivers cut canyons. Lakes and oceans fill up with debris that eventually becomes sedimentary rock. As you dig down through layers you reach older and older rock.

Life processes follow the laws of chemistry and physics. There is no process that requires “magic”. We don’t know all the processes, but are confident that they are “knowable”. (Consider the opposite. If, for example, some magical process causes the heart to beat, then we might as well stop trying to understand how the heart works!)

Life evolves. Little changes in short periods add up to bigger changes over long periods.

The laws of mathematics and physics apply everywhere. The formula for a circle and value of pi is the same on Mars. Magicians don’t do true magic: they are still constrained by the laws of physics. (While watching a magic show, everytime you ask yourself, “How did he do that?” you are applying this concept. You feel that there was a physical explanation, a “trick”. You didn’t see true magic.)

Matter is particulate. Substances are made of atoms that join to become molecules. (Atoms themselves are made of particles.)

The properties an object possesses depend on the observer. (This claim, for which there is much evidence, arises from relativity and quantum physics. Relativity deals with the big concepts of time, space, gravity, matter and energy; quantum physics with the behaviour of matter and energy at the tiniest level.

I might as well mention the fringe items, too.

There are no ghosts, werewolves, vampires, living dead, mammoth spiders, King Kongs, Spidermen, invisible people, extraterrestrial aliens living amongst us.

Astrology is false.

There is no such thing as psychic ability. You can’t move objects by though alone. No one can actually read minds, see the future (rather than predict likelihoods), perceive present, past, or future events by other than the five senses.

Men HAVE landed on the moon (i.e. the landing in 1969 was not a hoax.)
Humans and dinosaurs did not inhabit the Earth at the same time.

I expect many to disagree with me on many of this last list. In particular, countless people will cite amazing occurrences, coincidences, anecdotes, and “facts”. I will leave it as this: I have seen no repeatable, non-controversial evidence that convinces me that, for example, ESP exists. A million dollar prize is available for ANY purported psychic who can demonstrate ANY psychic ability. No one has yet been able to do it.

As much as we, scientists included, might wish for exceptional abilities, extraordinary creatures, and assistance from the stars, there is just no good evidence for any of it.
Has Earth Been Visited?

Last night I was reading Discover, a science magazine. The cover story dealt with the new, mammoth telescopes presently under construction that may actually show us planets about nearby stars.
Presently we know of over a hundred extrasolar planets, as they are called, but detect them by looking at wobbles in the position of the star. We haven’t actually seen them. From our distance, the dots would be too tiny, lost in the glare of the star that is their sun. A sentence in the article stuck me. While describing the discoveries the next giant telescope might make, the author wrote, “For now, we know of life on just one planet around just one of the [billions of billions] of stars in the known cosmos.”
I paused, and reflected that almost everyone reading the article would agree. Although we reason that there is a high probability that life exists elsewhere in the universe, scientists are still awaiting concrete evidence. I asked myself, however, what the majority of people not reading the article thought.
Having been a secondary school science teacher, I know what many high school students would tell you. With great excitement, they would announce that alien spacecraft make crop circles, that stone-age paintings on cave walls show spacemen, that there are dead aliens in an air force hanger near Roswell, New Mexico.
Many adults believe these tales, too. While scientists spend time and money searching for life, even mere microbial life, off the Earth, vast numbers accept that Earth has already been visited by alien life forms.
Four hundred years ago, learned people considered Earth to be in the centre of the universe. Now, astronomers teach that Earth is a small rock orbiting an average star in the outskirts of a spiral galaxy that contains billions of stars. Decades passed, though, before most intelligent people stopped saying, “I still believe Earth is in the centre.”
Two hundred years ago, many intelligent, learned people had no trouble accepting that the Earth was about six thousand years old. Scientists universally accept that the planet has been around for billions of years.
Sixty years ago the concept that the continents are moving was taken dubiously, but continental drift is standard policy now. The motions of the great land masses are measurable, and their collisions cause mountains to rise and the earth to quake.
Are there people now who reject the changed perspectives, people who consider the Earth to be young, in the centre of the universe, and composed of stationary continents? If so, would they be reading science magazines? And if so, would they be continually shaking their heads over the hundreds of incorrect statements from the world’s astronomers, biologists, geologists, chemists, and physicists?
I don’t maintain that all scientists agree with each other on every topic. Part of the fun of science is the constant debate, the tussles over the details and explanations. There is near universal agreement, though, on the big issues, one being that there is no good evidence for life off the Earth, now or in the past.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I had a discussion recently with members of my writer’s club. A small group of us meet regularly to exchange critiques of our developing novels. Two involved forms of ESP. In one, a character had the ability to picture previous inhabitants of a house and, specifically, “feel” terrifying experiences that happened to others. Another novel featured a scene in which a character was awakened in the night at a crucial time via a “signal” from her distant mother.

I’m a physics teacher and sceptical of the these phenomena. No, I’ll be honest, I’m not just sceptical, I don’t believe ESP exists. I’m careful not to let this disbelief affect my critiques of the novels. After all, my novel-in-progress uses parallel universes, a concept no less dubius.

I made the mistake, at the end of the evening, of mentioning my scepticism. Jim, one of the authors, was incredulous. “You don’t believe in ESP?” he remarked.
Me: No. There’s no good evidence that ESP exists.
Jim: You don’t think people can read minds?”
Me: Of course not. Nobody has been able to demonstrate that ability when examined carefully.
Jim: How about Edgar Cayce?
Me: Are you kidding? Magicians can do that stuff.
By this time Jim was laughing. At first I thought he was just having fun. But he was laughing with disbelief that I could be so mistaken.
Jim: How about astral projection?
Me: For heaven’s sake. There’s no evidence for that.
Jim: [laughing harder] Uri Geller bending spoons?
Me: URI GELLER!!! He couldn’t do it on Johnny Carson. Magicians can bend spoons. They aren’t using any special powers.
Jim: Astrology?
Me: Jim, astrology and horoscopes are demonstrably false.
Jim: [laughing uproariously at my ignorance] Alien abductions?
Me: No way. There’s no evidence for that.
Jim: Have you read about Betty and Barney Hill.
Me: I’ve read about them, and am satisfied that alien abduction is not the explanation for Barney’s drawing.
Jim: Well, they’re my aunt and uncle. They believe it.

At this point, the teacher of our little group spoke up passionately.

Lynda: What about when a little girl at home sees her Dad in the doorway waving goodbye when he was actually in the hospital, and her Mom next to her in bed awakens and says “You just saw your Dad, didn’t you?” and the Mom telephones the hospital to find out that he just died?

I wanted to respond with some more old saws (like “when my grandmother died, her picture fell off the wall”) but bit my tongue, for Lynda was talking from personal experience.

Me: I accept that you experienced what you say, but my explanation might be different from yours.

Suffice it to say that I took quite a roasting for expressing strong doubts about ESP and its kin. There is not much you can say when honest, intelligent people give testimonials. When I related this story to my friend Bruce, he pointed out that my disbelief in ESP’s existence is a belief in its non-existence. So I’m expressing a belief just as ESP’s proponents are.

Me: But there’s evidence that supports my position.
Bruce: But believers consider anecdotal evidence to be of equal value to scientific testing.
Me: But it’s not.
Bruce: That’s your BELIEF. You believe that the scientific method is the only way to truth. They believe that there are other ways to truth for some phenomenon that science just can’t catch reliably.

Bruce was not necessarily defending ESP’s existence, only arguing for the equality of belief for and against, given different background beliefs in the validity of the scientific method for determining truth. Interesting.

More on that in the next article.