The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘god of the gaps’

The Pentagon Acknowledges UFO Program

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 30, 2017

There was some interesting news a few weeks ago regarding a secret government program run by the Pentagon which was, apparently, researching UFOs. According to the New York Times…

… The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.

The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth. [emphasis added]…

I both agree and disagree with the last, bolded statement. I disagree that this is evidence of aliens existing; to me, the bar for accepting the existence of extra-terrestrial life is much higher than simply seeing things in the sky that are of unknown origin, which leads me to question leading into my second point.

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”.  A UFO is, by definition, an unidentified flying object.  This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus (but I highly doubt it is Santa Claus, for reasons outlined here).  It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!”  Right? Wrong. To claim that a UFO is an alien spacecraft is to identify it, which is a direct contradiction; you cannot claim that something is both unidentified yet identified simultaneously.

Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. In the past, strange and unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the god-of-the-gaps.  In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. But now we know better… or do we?

In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our reasoning, but the boogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance.  Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more and more of us are using a new pseudo-religion of UFOology to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology.  Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the god-of-the-gaps argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

Therefore, in the end, all this Pentagon program illustrates is something that really shouldn’t be that surprising: sometimes fighter pilots see things in the sky that are of unknown origin. That’s it.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as a funny object in the night sky?  In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

For some reason, those three words are very unsettling to many, but the acknowledgement of what we do not know is often the first step to attaining new knowledge.

Advertisements

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“Mysterious Planet-Sized Object” Is… A Planet!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2011

A couple of days ago I came across this article titled “Mysterious planet-sized object spotted near Mercury” and it contained some shocking images.  I reproduce some of these images and related commentary from the article below…

The mystery image of a “cloaked alien ship”… the Romulans, perhaps?

… Theorists have seized on the images captured from the “coronal mass ejection” (CME) last week as suggestive of alien life hanging out in our own cosmic backyard. Specifically, the solar flare washing over Mercury appears to hit another object of comparable size. “It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked,” YouTube-user siniXster said in his video commentary on the footage, which has generated hundreds of thousands of views this week. Now, how this user was able to determine that the object was “obviously” a cloaked spaceship with no other natural explanation remains as much a mystery as the object itself. …

Note the staggering level of argumentation from ignorance here.  I like to call this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that) from various UFOologists the “alien-of-the-gaps”, because much like the related “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, what they do is find some kind of strange image and/or phenomenon for which they do not have en explanation and then they immediately give it an explanation unsupported by evidence.  In short, because they don’t know what it is, they know it’s aliens!  Huh?!

This, of course, is a direct contradiction and points out just how ludicrous the general argument from ignorance can be.  If the object is an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), then by definition it is unidentified – which means that you admit right off the bat that you don’t know what it is!  So if you don’t know what it is then how can you suddenly turn around and, seemingly without any kind of scientifically-valid or evidence-based reasoning, state that it is an alien spacecraft?  Using such loose argumentation, I could just as easily claim the object in question is Santa Claus (but no, that would be silly).

Of course, a little more research shows that astronomers actually have figured out what this “mysterious planet-sized object” is hanging around next to the planet Mercury.  It seems the answer is that the object is… the planet Mercury itself.  Here’s a fuller explanation from the article…

Of course, there’s another scientifically sanctioned explanation for the curious images, though we’re not certain that skeptics and UFO enthusiasts such as SiniXster will endorse it. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries put the question to scientists in the solar physics branch at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). They’re the people who analyze data from the Heliospheric Imager-1 (HI-1)–better known in this context as the camera that shot the footage in question.

Head NRL group scientist Russ Howard and lead ground systems engineer Nathan Rich say the mysterious object is in fact Mercury itself. And what we’re seeing in the footage is the equivalent of Mercury’s wake, “where the planet was on the previous day,” as it travels through the solar system on its natural gravitational path:

To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible. They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day. Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME. The remaining light is then enhanced.

So there you have it.  The object in question is basically an artifact that results from the combination of taking multiple images of that region in space over multiple days, the planet Mercury moving in that time, and processing the light in the image to enhance the coronal mass ejection to make it more visible.

What stuns me about situations like these is just how quickly so many people are willing to invoke magical thinking and jump to conclusions (the “cloaked alien ship” explanation) in the absence of any real evidence.  What is it about openly and honestly admitting that sometimes the most truthful answer is simply “we don’t know” that disturbs so many people?  That, to me, is the real mystery.

 

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How’d the Moon Get There?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 2, 2011

Recently, I’ve posted about how Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly displayed a great deal of scientific ignorance when he tried to argue that God exists because “we cannot explain the tides”.  Of course, scientists do know how the tides work (as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states: it’s gravity from the Moon, duh); but rather than admit his error, Bill O’Reilly has decided to double down on the stupid.  Just watch this…

Once again, O’Reilly makes the all-too-common argument from ignorance, specifically the god-of-the-gaps argument. Of course, we actually do have scientific answers to many of the questions brought up by Mr. O’Reilly.  Let us examine some of his statements/claims… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly’s “Tides = God” Argument is Demolished by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2011

As a humorous follow-up to my recent post called God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly, I just wanted to share a hilarious clip from The Colbert Report with you.  In it, Colbert does a marvelous job of, in his satirical way, calling Bill O’Reilly to the carpet on his god-of-the-gaps argument when he says:

Now, like all great theologies, Bill’s can be boiled down to one sentence: “There must be a God, because I don’t know how things work!”

In addition, Stephen Colbert is surprised when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson drops by for a visit and explains why the tides actually work 🙂 …

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2011

Oh man.  As a high school & college physics professor, I have to say that I’ve heard some pretty bad arguments regarding physics in my day, but I think this one is worth a mention: Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly displays his gross ignorance of basic physics by… well, by ignoring gravity.

Bill O’Reilly on Science: You Can’t Explain the Tides

Apparently, Bill O’Reilly has never heard of the moon. In a debate Tuesday with Dave Silverman, head of the American Atheist group behind this, the Fox host tried to prove the existence of God by citing the unknowable mysteries of the tides. “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion,” he told Silverman. “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.” …

Yup, he’s ignoring gravity and replacing it with God.  Just watch the video for yourself (the relevant part begins at the 1:40 mark)…

Wow… just, wow.  Apprently, Mr. O’Reilly has never studied the universal law of gravitation (which is standard in any high school physics class) which explains quite clearly – without any mention of God, Zeus, Thor, or Santa Claus – where tidal forces come from.  Essentially, tides in Earth’s oceans exist because one side of our planet is closer to the Moon (or the Sun, both exert tides) than the other.  Thus, the side closer to the Moon (Sun) is pulled slightly more than the side further away from the Moon, resulting in the tidal bulges which lead to the rising and falling of the oceans.  This article on Wikipedia (ever heard of Google, Mr. O’Reilly?) and graphic can help illustrate the point I’m making:

Graphic of tidal forces; the gravity field is generated by a body to the right. The top picture shows the gravitational forces; the bottom shows their residual once the field of the sphere is subtracted; this is the tidal force. Source: Wikipedia

Essentially, O’Reilly is making a stunningly stupid argument from ignorance (in this case known as the god-of-the-gaps) by saying that just because he doesn’t know how the tides work, then that must mean that his version of God is real.  Of course, it might be interesting to ask Mr. O’Reilly’s feelings on the matter after he’s had a lesson in basic physics – would he then conclude that the tides are evidence against the existence of God?  That precarious position is precisely why serious theologians & philosophers do not engage in arguing from ignorance.

Such ham-fisted arguments are also why natural science separated itself from supernatural causes back in the 19th century as natural philosophy transitioned into what we now call modern science.  It seems that O’Reilly is still stuck in the 1800s.

In closing, despite my atheism, if Mr. O’Reilly or anyone wants to believe in God, that’s fine by me I suppose, just so long as they don’t piss all over science in the process.

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 30, 2010

A couple of weeks back, a bombshell of an announcement hit the scientific world: the first artificial cell has been synthesized in the lab. Needless to say, this is a big deal, because it not only has vast implications for bio- & genetic engineering, but the discovery can help fill in gaps in our knowledge of how life evolved naturally from non-life (see my previous blog post on this issue – The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter)

What’s also interesting is the reaction from some religious & creationist circles concerning this discovery.  First, there is the response from the Catholic Church warning scientists not to “play God”…

Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

“It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told Associated Press Television News.

“If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

I’m all for proceeding cautiously in this particular research, because there is the potential for abuse, just as there is with any kind of new technology.  But read between the lines of what the Vatican is saying – they seem to be implying that, somehow, this artificial life is fundamentally different from “normal” life simply because of the manner in which it was created.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 20, 2010

If you’re familiar with various creationist arguments, you will no doubt recognize the infamous god-of-the-gaps argument. This is basically a variation on the classic logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance, which basically states that if we don’t understand some phenomenon with 100% clarity (such as the origins of life), then that must mean that “Poof! God did it”…

There is one fatal flaw with this kind of argument, which begs an interesting theological question: what happens to the god-of-the-gaps when we do come up with evidence & naturalistic explanations for the gaps in our knowledge?  Most scholarly theologians disdain the god-of-the-gaps argument precisely to avoid this trap, because they don’t want their god somehow diminished as science marches ever forward.

But not creationists, who usually take the intellectually lazy & dishonest route by simply dismissing the evidence filling in said gaps.  Only by ignoring and distorting the science can their god-of-the-gaps be maintained, so while the rest of us learn more and more about our universe and our place within it, creationists insist upon wallowing in their ignorance, content that their twisted reading of a 2000 year-old holy text (only one of many different supposedly “divinely inspired” holy texts out there) has revealed to them the truth.

So here’s the big news, and why the god-of-the-gaps just got a lot smaller: scientists have discovered a missing link between life and inorganic matter…

Philosophers and scientists have argued about the origins of life from inorganic matter ever since Empedocles (430 B.C.) argued that every thing in the universe is made up of a combination of four eternal ‘elements’ or ‘roots of all’: earth, water, air, and fire, and that all change is explained by the arrangement and rearrangement of these four elements. Now, scientists have discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life.

“This is a boon to our understanding of large, structural assemblies of molecules,” says Emory Chemistry Chair David Lynn, who helped lead the effort, which were collaborations of the departments of chemistry, biology and physics. “We’ve proved that peptides can organize as bi-layers, and we’ve generated the first, real-time imaging of the self-assembly process. We can actually watch in real-time as these nano-machines make themselves.” …

… The research is part of “The Center for Chemical Evolution,” a center based at Emory and Georgia Tech, for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy have funded the research.

Many groups studying the origins of life have focused on RNA, which is believed to have pre-dated living cells. But RNA is a much more complicated molecule than a peptide. “Our studies have now shown that, if you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution,” Childers says.

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Google-of-the-Gaps Logical Fallacy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 23, 2009

I just saw this funny little cartoon – hat tip to the Friendly Atheist – and had to share it with my thoughts…

0023dt2s

I like to call this the “Google-of-the-gaps” logical fallacy, which is a humorous version of the classic god-of-the-gaps fallacy. Essentially, the god-of-the-gaps is a logical fallacy which is an argument from ignorance: it states that because we lack the knowledge to draw any kind of reasonable conclusion upon a particular question (such as life after death, for example) then in our ignorance some stat that God (or gods) must be the solution.

Of course, the god-of-the-gaps is a silly argument to make, because with just a single change in wording, by substituting something else for the word “God”, one could argue that the explanation is Santa Claus, unicorns, leprechauns, space aliens, or numerous other silly things which are wholly unsupported by any evidence.

As I tell my students: you must make conclusions based upon what you do know, not upon what you don’t know.  And lacking substantive evidence to draw a conclusion, simply state the most obvious truth: “I don’t know.”

But I bet Google knows 😉

Posted in humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Crop Circles Predict… The End of the World?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 17, 2009

Every now and then you run across a really silly bit of woo cross-fertilization.  Such is the case with a recent article in the UK’s Telegraph wherein the reader is told, in no uncertain terms…

Crop circle experts believe the latest pattern to be discovered, a phoenix rising from the flames in Wiltshire, may give a warning about the end of the world.

Are you kidding me?!  No, really… you must be kidding… right?  Because, knowing how these crop circles are made, no one in their right mind could seriously mean this.

Sadly, they aren’t kidding:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

It’s Crop Circle Season!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 14, 2009

Well, most of us in the northern hemisphere would call it summer, but when it comes to woo, that’s the time of year that supposedly other-worldly crop circles start to pop up.  These wonderfully wrought works of purely terrestrial art often appear overnight in farmers’ fields, yielding a variety of incredible designs…

More interesting than the designs that various (completely human) circle-makers are able to come up with and implement is the fact that many people consider crop circles to be definitive evidence of visitations to Earth by aliens! Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
%d bloggers like this: