« November 2009 | Main | February 2010 »

Friday, January 29, 2010

'Scientific' Facts

MicroscopeSometimes, a term that you've heard your whole life suddenly seems strange, That's how it is for me and 'scientific facts'. When you think about it, that phrase seems a bit redundant. If something is true, it's a fact. It's that simple. It doesn't matter how you came to know it. If a statement lines up with objective reality, it's a fact.

What does it add to describe a fact as 'scientific'? I guess the first thing is to understand is what's meant by science. Generally, there are two related meanings to the word. The first is that it's a method. We should all know this method from grade school - come up with an explanation, gather evidence to test the explanation, refine your explanation, and repeat. The second is the body of knowledge we've learned through that method. But the thing is, everything that has an objective answer can be examined through science.

Consider an example. Some would consider the Earth orbiting the sun a 'scientific' fact. We as humanity may have learned about it through science, and we as individuals may have learned it in science class, but it doesn't change the fact that it's true. It's not as if the Sun used to orbit the Earth until Galileo came along. Can't we just call it a plain old fact?

There are a couple reasons I bring this up. One is for the people who like to point out that science can't tell us anything with absolute certainty, and therefore science doesn't deal in facts (like this exchange I had). When you consider things like solipsism and Last Thursdayism, you have to grant that for fact to have any meaning, it must mean very high level of certainty, and not 100% absolute certainty. Going by that definition, science certainly does deal in facts.

The other is for the people who think of science as something separate, as not really describing things as part of their world. To them, it may be a 'scientific' fact that evolution occurs, but but in their world, science is wrong, so describing evolution as 'scientific' means it may not have actually occurred.

Oh well, I'm not be expressing myself as clearly as I'd like, but it's late on a Friday, and I'm about ready for some supper and a beer. I guess the main point I'm trying to get across is something I already said in the first paragraph. Calling something a 'scientific' fact is redundant. Statements are either true or not, and if they're true, then they're facts. Since we can study everything with an objective answer through science, it really doesn't add anything to describe any facts as scientific. If they're not scientific, they're not really facts to begin with.

Added 2010-02-01 I thought about this a bit over the weekend, and realized that that last sentence might come off as a bit smug. So, I thought that maybe I should list a couple examples.

As the first example, consider the claim that Hawaii is the 50th state of the U.S. To look at this scientifically, we need to gather evidence to support that claim. We could start off by looking at current legal documents, which show that Hawaii is definitely a state. We could move on to archived documents, and find the Hawaii Admission Act, which shows when Hawaii became a state. We could move on to find documents of when each of the previous 49 states became states. We could study newspaper articles from each of those periods for additional confirmation. After studying all that evidence, then we could say that it is a 'scientific' fact that Hawaii is the 50th state of the U.S.

Next, let's move on to something that some would think was a bit more subjective. Consider the claim that I love my wife and daughter. To test this, people could observe my behavior around my family, and the actions I commit in relation to my wife and daughter. They could study my involuntary facial expressions, to see how I react around them. They could observe my behavior when they're not around, looking for signs of loneliness, or observing how I talk about them. So, even the claim that I love my wife and daughter can be considered to be a 'scientific' fact, since we can use the scientific method to investigate it.

That's what I mean when I say that all facts worth talking about are scientific. Sometimes, we only practice rudimentary forms of the scientific method to determine their veracity, but, at least in principle, the scientific method can be applied to them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Young Earth Creationism - Is It a Modern Phenomenon?

Note: I'd originally posted a lot of this information in a comment on Pharyngula, but I figured it was worth a blog entry, so I worked on it a bit and posted it here.

Adam & Eve with Some PterosaursI've been hearing a lot recently that creationism is a fairly modern American movement, and that Christians were more nuanced in their understanding of scripture before that. For example, there was a recent entry on Pharyngula, summarizing a lecture by Ron Numbers, describing how creationism is really the product of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism. I've also heard Richard Dawkins make the claim a few times that young earth creationism is something new. There are certainly quite a few Christians today who interpret Genesis figuratively or allegorically, and quite a few of those who argue that it's obvious that Genesis isn't meant to be interpreted literally.

But how true are those claims? I went to the first place that all of us lazy researchers go - Wikipedia. Granted, I'm aware with the problems of trying to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but it's usually pretty useful.

The Wikipedia article lists examples of Christian creationism going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity (as well as numerous flavors of creationism of other religions predating Christianity). Even Saint Augustine, so often quoted for telling Christians not to speak about natural phenomena of which they were ignorant, thought that pretty much all of Genesis except for the creation story was literal, and seemed to think that the Earth was still only a few thousand years old.

They are deceived . . . by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed. (City of God)

Sure, there were people that thought the Earth was much older, but young earth creationism doesn't appear to be a particularly new phenomenon.

I think that when people talk about creationism being a modern phenomenon, they're actually referring to a modern resurgence. By the 1800s, geologists were starting to learn enough about the history of our planet that it was pretty obvious that it was very ancient. They didn't have the techniques to pin down the age as well as we do now, but their estimates ranged from millions to billions of years. For anyone who studied the evidence, it was no longer possible to be intellectually honest and still maintain a young earth perspective. So, educated Christians who hadn't already done so switched to non-literal interpretations of Genesis. Day age and gap theories were among the popular interpretations.

It was in response to this 'liberalizing' of Christianity, as well as in response to the Enlightenment, that fundamentalist Christianity sprang up. And it was against this backdrop that young earth creationism had its resurgence, including the visions of Ellen White.

I think another point that's worth bringing up is the difference between what educated and uneducated people believe. I don't mean for this to sound condescending - merely factual. As I bring up over and over on this site, just look at the Science and Engineering Indicators put out by the National Science Foundation. One in four people in this country don't realize the Earth orbits the Sun (it's even worse in Europe), and one half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms. Of course, practically anybody with a good education knows those simple facts. But, consider what future historians would think about our society's understanding of those facts. If it wasn't for polls like those, all they would have to go on would be books, articles, and other written records. And it's mainly people with good educations who leave those records. Outside of polls and similar research, written records are biased towards the educated. Now, considering young earth creationism, I think there might be a similar bias going on when we try to figure out what people believed in the 1800s and even earlier. What gets recorded in books written by educated priests is not the same thing as what was believed by the uneducated population.

So, it seems a bit misleading to claim that young earth creationism is a modern phenomenon. You could get away with talking of a modern resurgence, but young earth creationism appears to be as old as religion itself. And to claim that Genesis is clearly figurative or allegorical seems a bit of a stretch, as well, considering how many intelligent people accepted it as literal before we knew enough about the history of our planet to know otherwise. It's tough to know what people were thinking thousands of years ago concerning the creation stories now recorded in Genesis, but it certainly seems possible that they were accepted at face value.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Explanation of Image File Types

I often get asked about image file types – mostly which formats are best for which applications. So, I figured I’d type up something to give a quick explanation of how graphics are handled on computers, and how the different file types actually store their information. I've saved the whole thing as a pdf, for anyone who's interested. I know you could find more detailed explanations other places, but I think this is a good, short summary.

Explanation of Image File Types.pdf

I'm Back

Boy, have I been I busy for the past month and a half. With the new contract at work, we had a ton of work to do to get ready for a big meeting. I was so busy I didn't even get a chance to do Christmas shopping, let alone keep up with this blog. Then, with Christmas and traveling, and then another big project when I got back to work, I just didn't have time to write any blog entries in December and the first couple weeks of January. Well, I'm pretty much caught up, now, so it's hopefully back to blogging as usual.

I mentioned that I did some traveling for Christmas. We flew up to Maryland/Pennsylvania to visit with my family for a few days before Christmas. We got there just in time for a big snow storm that dumped over a foot and a half of snow. Living in Texas, I thought that that was exciting enough, and that even though we wouldn't be up north for Christmas Day, at least we'd gotten to see snow during the Christmas season. When we flew back to Texas, it was 70º when we got off the plane, and we had a bit of a laugh at how different the weather was. That was before Christmas Eve. We had a freak snow storm hit us - a lot of snow. I know the official reports were for 4 to 6 inches, but it sure seemed like more. Maybe some of that had to do with snow drifts, or the ice that was already on the ground from a previous ice storm. The roads were horrible. A lot of people say the drivers down here aren't used to the snow, but I think it's much worse because the counties just don't have the equipment to handle the snow. The drive from Ft. Worth to Wichita Falls, which usually takes us a little less than two hours, took 9 hours that Christmas Eve. And we were lucky. Some people got stuck in a huge traffic jam that kept them in their cars for over 24 hours.

Here are a few pictures from my holidays - the first is from Pennsylvania, and the second two are from Texas. I had a white Christmas all the way around.

Snow in Pennsylvania
Snow in Texas
More Snow in Texas

« November 2009 | Main | February 2010 »