More #AncientAliens Talk on Paranormal Review Radio with Me this Friday

I know everyone loved my talk at Illini about aliens, especially of the ancient sort, but unfortunately not everyone in the world could be there. But this Friday, Sept 26 at 10 pm EST, I will be on Paranormal Review Radio to talk about the subject and perhaps debunk the idea.

They have also produced a fun little promotional video.

I’m not totally sure what to expect, and I’ll be on my own as the skeptic. Jason Colavito was also asked to join, but he probably won’t be able to make it. Unfortunate, since he knows the material orders of magnitude better than I do. But at worst, I think this will be fun.

So, listen in or at least cheer me on.

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.
 

Been away from blogging, not going to be fixed soon

I have not had much chance to write much for a while now, as I have been very, very busy. I finished my previous job, moved back to Michigan, now getting a new job in Massachusetts, which means more moving. Oh, and did I mention having to get ready for a new job?

So lots has happened, along with talking at and preparing for conferences, a family reunion, and a whole lot of driving around from state to state to state. But in the future, I am planning on talking for a paranormal internet radio program, traveling to the Netherlands for a conference on the Star of Bethlehem, and getting into some educational research. But so much to do, yet I hope to get some interesting blog posts in soon.

Recent Math Book Reviews

Connecting to my previous post on the need to be well-read-up in order to do critical thinking, I am going to be doing a series of book reviews.

Here I want to discuss a few books published recently and which I have read in the last few months that are focused on math. They are not books on how to do math (i.e., textbooks), but instead they discuss mathematical concepts and their relations to ways of thinking about the world. Sometimes they touch on theological issues, sometimes a lot. But all three are good reads.

Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly 

Infinity is a really, really weird concept. It takes any intuitions we have and makes us say apparently silly things. But there are rigorous ways of dealing with infinity, but there are also limitations, even for the most brilliant mathematicians.

One of the points is that you never really reach infinity. No matter where you start on a number line or how long you count forward, you never even get closer to infinity. This means that it is not possible to use something finite to create an infinite set. That is, you cannot construct infinity from finite sets and operations. Hence we get lazy when writing a set that is supposed to go on forever with … (hence the title of the book). And yet we can talk about infinite sets. In fact, we can talk about different sized infinities. If that didn’t make sense to you, then you are getting the point about how weird infinity is.

In this book, mathematician James Lindsay shows many important points about how infinity is used and understood by mathematicians and how the terminology is poorly used in other contexts, especially when applied to God. In many ways the book is focused on problems with the infinite god concept, but what I found as one of the more interesting threads running through the book is the problem with mathematical Platonism. What Lindsay shows very well is how much math is a human project. We chose the various axioms and definitions, and those different choices can lead to all sorts of amazing conclusions. But showing how much math is a human invention, it shows that there isn’t really a “true form” of the set of all rational numbers and the like. We chose the rules. Historically, there have been arguments about whether negative numbers are really numbers, or if i is a number or not. Or even if zero is a number! Why do most people consider these objects numbers in the end? Because of what we can do with them. They are practical, even imaginary numbers (I couldn’t do the physics I learned in grad school without them).

Seeing the human side of math (rather than the human side of certain mathematicians) was excellent, especially when it comes to the sorts of concepts that bugger human comprehension. I value the volume for doing more than just showing what makes an infinite God incoherent, but it shows how much math is truly a human adventure and not simply that boring stuff forces on you in school.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives 

Infinity blows our intuitions away because of how far it is beyond our experience, but we live in a world where apparently random things happen. Nonetheless, we get confused and confounded by probabilities all the time. Here physicist Leonard Mlodinow shows many aspects of the historical threads that touch on how we developed and understand probability. There is plenty of talk about gambling with games of chance, but that’s largely because a lot of probability theory was first developed to understand just that. Sometimes we joke that lotteries are a tax on those that are bad at math, but really understanding math (especially statistics) belies that argument (a really good anecdote for that is talked about in the next book below).

When it comes to thinking about things in the political arena, this book is great because of the focus it provides on judicial cases. There are plenty of ways that probabilities can be abused, where meager evidence is made to look extraordinary by making sins of probability calculation. In particular, not all probabilities are independent. Consider the following numbers that I have made up: 1/3 of men have a mustache, 1/3 of men have a beard. What is the probability of a man having a mustache and a beard? If you multiple those two fractions together, you get 1/9. However, these are hardly independent probabilities; if you have a mustache, you are more likely than average to have a beard as well. Heck, with current fashion trends as I have noticed it may be more rare to have a mustache without a beard–perhaps it makes people think porn-stache. Why would this sort of consideration be important? Well, suppose you have an eyewitness say a suspect has a mustache and beard. If you nab a person fitting that description he won’t be nearly as likely a suspect as you think; it is not 1 in 9. Moreover, considering that in a given city there could be a million people, then the chances of nabbing the right suspect by using these criteria are really bad. And yet a case like this (with some additional details) was used at first to convict a couple of a significant crime.

It’s number games like this that make it in fact difficult to know what are the real numbers if you are on a jury. You can be told that a DNA sample matching a random person is less than one in a million, and so you think a positive match in a court case means that person’s blood being at the scene of the crime is really high (more than 99.9999%). But a more relevant probability is the lab making a mistake, like mixing up which sample to test. That is much more probable. Still not likely (less than 1 in a 100), but not as super-solid as you think.

So if you are deciding a person’s life, an idea of what constitutes good evidence and what reasonable doubt would mean should be well-shaped. Even if you don’t have numbers, thinking about things in terms of less than, more than, equal, much less than, etc., is very important to making such decisions. And for a lot of other things. We live in a world that is governed by the unpredictable and probabilistic, and not just at the quantum level. Books likes this from Mlodinow help tune our probability intuitions. Also, Mlodinow is a great and humorous writer.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking 

The title is ambitious, no? But there is truth in how powerful thinking mathematically can be. A refrain of this book is that math is the extension of common sense. Instead of thinking of math as a bunch of algorithms to memorize and steps to get to the “right” answer, what math is supposed to do is model ones thinking. And if you model your thinking clearly and consistently, then you can more confidently achieve accurate results.

More importantly, though, it to see if you project your reasoning does it lead to nonsense? In the first section of this book by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg there is a lot of emphasis on how not all curves are lines. By that, he means that not all trends are so straight-forward as have more, get more. For example, there is the concept of the Laffer Curve. This is about what should the tax rate be if the government wants to maximize its income. Obviously if the tax rate is zero, then the government will take in nothing. If you raise the tax rate, then you can bring in more money. But does that mean a higher rate rate always brings in more? If you made the tax rate 100%, then no one would have an incentive to work since all of their money is taken from them. Might as well not work at all, or find ways of hiding it. So again, the government will take in no income. Thus, the optimum tax rate for government income must be between 0 and 100%. Where that is is an empirical question (and if that is a worthy goal is another question), but clearly increases the tax rate is not going to necessarily mean more income. And of course, if you absurdly make the tax rate greater than 100% then no way will anyone work since you will owe more than you have no matter how much you work. In other arenas, it is clear that following a linear model of the relationship between things is not reasonable and even ridiculous.

Now, there is some overlap between this book at the previous two above, but Ellenberg’s volume covers a lot of areas in math and its relation to arguments and concepts in the real world, sometimes with surprising results. Would you guess that using a finite geometry you can figure out what are the best lottery tickets to pick are, given certain lottery rules for winning? A group buying up tickets in Massachusetts did, and they pulled in some serious dough.

One of the sections of the book I found most interesting is how our measure of public opinion can give contradictory results. Suppose on third of voters want to not cut spending, one third want to cut spending and cut it from defense, and one third want to cut spending and cut it from entitlements. If a politician doesn’t cut spending, 2/3rds will be unhappy; if a politician cuts spending in defense, 2/3rds will be unhappy; and if a polotician cuts spending on entitlements, 2/3rds will be happy. In other words, no course of action is the “right” one, as no matter what a majority will be against you. Now, you could instead rank priorities. For example, the first person may say their first choice is to no cut spending at all, but if spending had to be cut it should first come from defense before coming from entitlements. Another person can also rank their choices as they see fit. If you say the first choice is given 2 points, the second choice 1 point, and the third choice 0, then you can add up the choices of everyone and find where the ranked preferences lead. This method, called the Borda count, is similar to how your GPA is calculated (A = 4, E/F = 0), and it is used in some elections around the world. With it, you can get a different result than you would with the majority vote system. You could imagine how it would have affected the 2000 US Presidential elections; almost all of the votes for Ralph Nader would have gone to Gore and then Gore would have wold Florida (and thus the presidency), so a Borda count could have changes the history of the first decade of the 20th century (how much, I don’t know). But there exist other ways of potentially running a voting system, and they all have points to consider. If you consider all the options, you realize that it is possible to get different results with different polling/voting methods. So it’s almost like there isn’t really public consensus on issues, unless there is a significant majority.

I won’t get into everything Ellenberg goes into, and I want to leave his stories of the various mathematicians and statisticians as he tells them. But the key point is that you can see how you can build your own mathematical models of what you think is correct or fair and reasonable and see that it implies. Don’t consider math just stuff with calculators but a way of thinking. It won’t guarantee you are right, but it’s a far more useful and enlightening way to figure out the world. The real world, not just that of abstractions.

Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading

Faith-Based Initiatives for the Star of Bethlehem in Secular Places

One of the points I have tried to drive home with my research on the various hypotheses about what was the Star of Bethlehem has been that it is more a religious rather than scientific exercise. In my 2012 article for Zygon I showed how naturalistic explanations for the Star only started when miracles were becoming ridiculous to the scholarly and had to mad-dash for anything to save face. Now the project is in the hands almost exclusively of those that are not Bible scholars or historians. I also showed examples of how such research was directly said to be used for apologetic of faith-based ends.

In my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, I expanded a bit on this when I also looked at the use of the UFO explanation for the Star. An additional point was made by the author of my preface, Bob Berman. He noted how planetaria had been pushing this show for decades and either didn’t care or knew that it was impossible. It was popular and traditional, so that seems to be enough reason for these things to last.

I haven’t stopped looking for sources, and I just came across another one where the director of a major US museum states rather clearly that the presentations are, in part, to renew the faith in those watching or listening. The location in question is the Franklin Institute, a notable museum in Philadelphia named after its famous resident, Ben “100 Dollar” Franklin. The Institute has had a journal since a very early point in its history, going back to the 1820s and continues today. As is normal, the director of the museum can have some space to editorialize and the like.

In a Dec 1954 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, director A.C. Carlton provided a note about the museum’s Star of Bethlehem presentation. Among other things, he said

To those who see the demonstration for the first time there comes the awed realization that here is a new method for replenishing faith by reviving old traditions and investing them with new vigor.

Carlton noted that for those who had seen the show before only need to be reminded of its December traditional presentation. In other words, it is a show that brings in an audience and it does so because it “replenish[es] faith” in old traditions. That is hardly a secular goal, let alone a scientific one.

That it strikes a popular chord may also be a clue as to how this show became a part of the standard planetary curriculum since the 1930s. Instead of an astronomer or historian of science, it appears to be that the first planetarium show about the Star of Bethlehem came from a certain James Stokley (1900-1989). Educated with a bachelors in education and a masters in psychology from U Penn, Stokley became a science news reporter in DC for a while before visiting planetaria around the world and being inspired to become a director of such a place. The planetarium was hot and new in the 1920s in Europe and America, and considering how massive and amazing the Zeiss projectors were, no wonder it captured his imagination.

In the 1930s, it seems his dreams came true as he was a major presenter in planetaria such as the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute and later the Buhl Planetarium. According to his obit he had a column in Science News for over 50 years and spent most of the 1930s working at Fels. It seems there he developed the first Star of Bethlehem show, which proved to be very popular, as noted by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers and in Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970. It seems that Stokley, because of his journalism background, knew what chords would strike with an audience and how to be a good showman, so it seems that it takes someone of such background to present something that would be controversial to experts but great for laymen.

(Also of note, Stokley gave the first planetarium show even viewed by Albert Einstein, and Stokley later became a professor at my alma mater, Michigan State.)

You can read this good article on Buhl Planetarium’s Star of Bethlehem show and its history, again noting the influence of Stokley. I think I have a new line in researching the influence of the content of planetarium shows and how religion has become such a big part of what is seen during the holidays. At this time though, it seems that a significant reason why the Star of Bethlehem has become such as big part of early and recent holiday science shows is because it proved to grab an audience, especially when the show is well-crafted and pulls on the faithful heartstrings.

My Talk on Ancient Aliens and Modern UFOs is Now Up!

Good news, everyone! My talk for the Illini Secular Student Alliance at UIUC back in April is now up for everyone to see. In my presentation, I talk about the 20th century origins of the ancient astronaut hypothesis (now in its modern TV form, Ancient Aliens), the sorts of claims about the past and why they don’t hold up, and into the sorts of claims related to modern UFOs and alien visitations–that is, close encounters. I also get to bring up my research and book on the Star of Bethlehem.

You can watch the talk here (kindly recorded and edited by Illini SSA group members):

At the end I provided a bunch of links to useful websites, which I reproduce here:

If I made any significant mistakes, feel free to let me know. And of course, I don’t mind if you let others know about the presentation. :)

#Godzilla2014 — The New Cthulhu

Friday night I was able to see the new American kaiju film, Godzilla. It was a great film and I hope lots of people see it, otherwise there won’t be enough sequels. After the movie, I participated in a panel discussion with other scientists, comic experts, film critics, and Godzilla fans, in particular to talk about science, society, and film. The topic of the night was, in part, going to be about the sorts of monsters that science can and has produced. In particular, the foil would be the Frankenstein monster and the original monster. However, watching the film I realized that the proper hypotext for the scientific message behind the beast wasn’t that of Mary Shelly’s novel or the 1954 film where the monster is a product of atomic bomb testing. Rather, this is a creature more in common with Cthulhu.

Will this be the sequel? Fingers crossed!

Let me explain, but please note that there will be spoilers.  Continue reading

Death Star Physics — I Have a Bad Feeling about This

You may remember that last year there was a tongue-in-cheek petition to the White House to have the US build a Death Star in order to boost the economy. That petition was responded to in the most wonderful way. But besides the absurd cost and the stupidity of actually having a planet-destroying space station, there is the wonder of the limits on feasibility. Not just engineering, but what does the physics suggest. I am hardly the first person to look at the question, but the ones I have found online seem incomplete or have some small errors. So, using some basic physics and modeling, let’s see what we can say about the power of the Death Star. And given Darth Vader claims that it is nothing compared to the power of the Force, then we can put some lower limits on what the Force can do.

That’s no moon…

Now, the key thing your Death Star needs to do is deposit enough energy into a planet to cause it to explode. Continue reading

The Decline and Fall of Classical Education? MSU and the Future

The other day a post went up by the David Meadows (a.k.a., the Rogue Classicist) about a story from Michigan State, my alma mater. It was about the story of the last person to graduate from MSU in classics. That is because in 2009 the university decided to bring down the hatchet on certain departments for budgetary reasons. Sadly, one of those was the classics department, and now they are no longer taking on new majors. A search through the course catalog shows that they are still teaching Latin, but Greek has little to no presence now. Classical studies also shows nothing.

The full article from the Lansing State Journal included a few statements from one of my professors in Greek from MSU, William Blake Tyrrell.

He said MSU was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

I can very much get behind that sentiment. It’s symbolically sad also given that the mascot of MSU is the Spartan; now Spartans have to go somewhere else to learn the language of the Spartans (or at least one of its variants).

For a bit of personal background, I took a year of Greek and Latin at MSU in my senior year because I wanted to have greater access to ancient sources, in particular related to my interests in biblical studies. By no means am I anywhere near the fluency of my professors, but I certainly believe I learned a lot from them. Strangely, that has also helped me in my physics research since I also had to look at Greek and Latin sources when examining physics concepts through the ages. So I may be a bit biased. Then again, the chopping block had also come down on the geology department, and I think that that was a poor idea as well.

But it is worth reflecting on the need for such a field of study in modern universities. It is not possible to have all possible departments at all universities; for example, MSU doesn’t seem to have had anything in Assyriology or anything with cuneiform studies–a script that had been used by several civilizations for thousands of years, longer than has the alphabet. And it’s not like there aren’t more things to discover in that field (I’m currently reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark before Noah who shows great passion for the subject and that the British Museum has plenty more even in its cabinets to discover and translate). Even besides having the money to fun every such academic pursuit, there also needs to be student demand. When I took Latin, we had about a full class, and the second semester was still pretty full; in Greek, the first class was relatively small and the second semester was less than ten (I think about five at the end). That won’t be reflective of all places (I have been told that here at OSU there are about 50 people in classical studies majors right now), but it is a reality that there isn’t a groundswell of student demand for dead languages.

Along with that, there is the question on how to make sure that what you learn with a degree in classics translates into making a living. Outside of academic pursuits, it is hard to directly translate ones ability to read archaic Greek into cash or employment. Is it the case then that learning these things is really just for those with the extra time and money to take the classes rather than it being something that has a demand in itself from society? Is this little more than something for the privileged?

I would like to argue that that isn’t (totally) true, and there is reason to have such studies in universities even if other possible pursuits are not also included. The primary reason is that it is really impossible to understand so much of the modern world Americans (and Europeans) live in and how it was shaped. Whether we are talking about how the Founding Fathers came to their political ideas (they read their Cicero, for one thing), or much of modern literature that is filled with allusions to Greek and Roman myth and history, or, even more fundamentally, understanding our very language. While learning Akkadian would be necessary to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, it has much less impact on our way of speech than does Greek, let alone Latin. Personally, I think I have been understood the structure of English better by learning these languages, even more so than when I have been taught modern ones.

Now, why teach the Greek myths rather than, say, Chinese ones? Why consider the poetry of Homer necessarily more highly than an African or Far Eastern authors? To this, there is not a good response. I would be hard-pressed to claim that Homer and Virgil were the best poets in the history of the world, better than what any other culture had produced. On the other hand, it is the case that in the West we are much closer to the myths of Homer than of anything from China, be it phrases such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or our awareness of the names of the Greek gods even in a non-pagan, Christian (or secular) society. My physics students know when I am referring to the Odyssey (they can just barely remember the name of the cyclopes, Polyphemus). Our heritage is still the most bound up with the Mediterranean and its ancient peoples and stories. There is still the pull from legends of Jason and his Argonauts, or the intrigue of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. It is not because these civilizations were the best ever, or even the best in their time, but because they are the ones that still echo to us in this day and age. That should be reason to know what was written by these people–they in effect made us the way we are. That isn’t to say we should not learn Chinese stories or the language, just that our cultural heritage should prioritize knowing itself.

I don’t know if petitioning MSU will have any effect, but all I can do is encourage people to know their own pasts. To be fair, learning these old languages is hard (I am no master, not by a long shot), but to understand the cultures that produced them and produced the myths and stories that make our current cultural background should be rewarding to all. And sometimes fun (my favorite sentence from Latin: malo malo malo malo). And not having people knowing this fills me with μήνιος.

Okay, time for some preposition exercises with a lion.