Pioneer Anomaly: New Physics or Bad Maths?

1972 and 1973, NASA sent two unmanned spacecraft on a one-way trip to the edge of the solar system and beyond, Pioneer I and Pioneer II. These two spacecraft were sent to take pictures of the gas giants and give us insight into their structure, they did their job, scientists oohed and aahed at the results, updated all the relevant textbooks, and moved onto the next big project in science. But because scientists are inquisitive, and care about the well-being of the Pioneer craft, they kept tabs on them, to make sure they stay fit and healthy. This was meant to be just a routine check-up every now and then, just to see how far they go, but physicists discovered something strange. The distance between where Einsteins physics predicted the spacecrafts should be and where they actually were was different. Somehow, the crafts where slowing down. Now, they amount of deceleration was very small, less than one nanometer per second per second, but this was enough for scientists to really consider revising physics books, because nobody could think of anything that would cause this extra deceleration.

For scientists, this was a prime time to witness a paradigm shift, something key to the process of science. Some may think that science is just a steady progress of learning about nature, but its not. It actually involves rapid changes of ideas most of the time, in so-called paradigm shifts. This is a stage in science which occurs when evidence comes up which is contradictory to current science. After new evidence shows up, there will be further investigation from scientists to try to figure out what is the correct model, if the first evidence is overturned, and science stays with the current theory, this is not a paradigm shift. When the evidence is confirmed and new evidence supports it, scientists will formulate a new model which accounts for this evidence, and this is known as a paradigm shift.

Paradigm shifts are very important to science, as they mean deeper knowledge of the universe. But a possible paradigm shift which turns out not to be one is good too, because it means that our current model is pretty good. Pioneer was worthy of study to find out if the physics textbooks needed a re-write.

For almost 30 years, there hasn’t been enough evidence to formulate a hypothesis either way, and it has been an unsolved mystery to science, often called the Pioneer Anomaly. But now, a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have an answer. The team published a paper in Physical Review Letters in which they demonstrated that some electronic components on the craft where producing small amounts of heat, and the force imparted on the craft from this heat was enough to cause the deceleration. “I think it is solved for good” said lead author of the report Slava Turyshev.

Great! The mystery is solved. Just put this down as another proof of Einstein’s Gravity. As a good scientist, you should know that any result is a good result. Confirming evidence just means one more piece in the puzzle which proves our theories, contradicting evidence means new physics, which is also good.

Is Democracy What people Think it is?

Hallo Skeptics,

Today’s post comes to you from a quote I read from Isaac Asimov recently which got me thinking about democracy. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This quote is an extremely well written way of saying what has been said for a long time by skeptics. When I saw it, it made me think about what democracy truly means. For obvious reasons, as pointed out by this quote, ignorance and knowledge are not equal in a good society.

A meme around in the religious/atheist interplay is the notion that in most cultures, the percentage of people who believe in god, and those who believe in creationism is extremely high. A study in the United States showed that 43% of Americans believe the earth was created in its current form less than 10 000 years ago. Apparently, to the religious, this points towards the truth of creationism. They say “Surely 43% of Americans can’t be wrong!”, as a good skeptic, you would immediately point this out as an argument from popularity, ad populi (latin makes you sound much smarter). No amount of belief makes something fact. The universe doesn’t care what people think, it just does what it does.

The view that many people have of democracy is that everybody has an equal say in the running of a country. However, as highlighted by Isaac Asimov’s quote,  this doesn’t seem like the right think to do. If 40% of the population believe in a talking snake, oh wait, they do, bad analogy, if 40% of  the population believe that the best thing to do in today’s evil society is flood it… Damn it, another bad analogy… if 40% of the population believes that toothpicks would be the best weapon for army soldiers, it is the job of the logical people in society to tell them that’s retarded.
A real democracy is not about having an equal say, it’s about having a fair say. And what is important about a fair say is open discussion and debate. It doesn’t matter what 40% of the population think, if they can’t defend what they think in a debate, then their fair say shouldn’t be as much of a say as those who are better at defending their position.

The ideal democracy is one with plenty of open debate and criticism of all views and opinions, and this is how society should be run.

Fallacy Frenzy: Moving the Goalposts

Hi there, follow skeptics,

I am going to continue my on-going run of logical fallacies. Today I am going to be talking about a very common logical fallacy, not only used in discussions involving skepticism, but in everyday life. It is the argument called ‘moving the goalposts’. It is essentially a dirty, intellectually dishonest tactic to ensure that your opposition never reaches the full set of criteria for approval. It is not technically a logical fallacy, because there is no fault in logic in this argument, but it is usually counted as a fallacy because it is a common tactic, and it is not a very honest one at that.

The basis of this debating tactic is that you can always ask for more and more proof of something, all the time knowing that you will always be able to ask for more proof without ever having to concede defeat. I will explain it using the evolution/creation argument because it is a very common use of this arguing tactic.
A creationist states to an evolution proponent that there is a big gap between whales and land mammals, which must be filled in order to prove evolution.
The evolution proponent then proceeds to go out and do all the work, and manages to find a transitional fossil between mammals and a whale.
The creationist then has two options, he can either ask for a transitional fossil between two different species, or he can ask for fossils between the whale and the whale-mammal hybrid, or between the whale-mammal hybrid and the mammal. (notice this is also a god of the gaps argument in this case, I will deal with that logical fallacy later)
This is a moving the goalposts fallacy. This process can continue on for ever, with the creationist just asking for more and more proof, and the evolutionist providing it, and then the creationist asking for more.
No matter how hard the evolutionist works and how much proof he finds, it will always be just below the creationists criteria.

Another common example of this argument tactic is used by proponents of god in general. However, despite being a moving the goalposts strategy, it works in reverse to the previous example. God is usually described as the gap in our knowledge about the universe. This has been the general theory of god since its beginning.
When it was not understood how lighting and thunder was made, god was accepted as the creator of this thunder. An atheist at the time would have said that lightning is natural, the normal response would be “prove it.” So the atheist goes out and proves that lightning does not need god to explain it away. The god-believer will then say, “god makes the planets go around.” The atheist goes out and proves that there is no need for god to explain the planets motions.

This process continues to the stage where god is just the so-called ‘writer-of-the-rulebook’, and he decided upon the physical laws, and now just sits back and watches the action unfold. According to god proponents, god still exists, so they are happy, despite the fact that god is being pushed into an ever smaller corner. This is also an example of moving the goalposts.

That’s all for today, I will leave you with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “Logical errors are, I think, of greater practical importance than many people believe; they enable their perpetrators to hold the comfortable opinion on every subject in turn.” Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, logican, mathematician, historian and social critic of some note.