Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Self-Inflicted Rapture: How To Save The World If You're A True Christian Altruist

You're the most selfless person in history, who happens to be a devout Christian. You want to spare everyone on earth from the torment of hell, except perhaps yourself (an acceptable sacrifice for the sake of the world, you think). Also, you're extremely intelligent and clever, and you will not rest until you have accomplished your goal, no punches pulled. So how do you save the world?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Origin Summit: Hanlon's Razor

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
This past Saturday (1 November 2014) the Creation Summit, a non-profit organization based in Nevada and dedicated to the promulgation of (young Earth) creationist "science", hosted an event at the Michigan State University Business School, named the "Origin Summit".  The event consisted of several workshops led by four YEC scientists/professors, as well as an open question panel at the end.  Myself and several other members of the Michigan Secular Student Alliance attended the event, and I hope to write several more articles about the talks that I saw (and perhaps other articles will be written by some of my fellow attendees, too).

To kick this off, I'll actually start at the end: after the panel discussion, I joined another of our members Jon White to talk with one of the speakers—Dr. Charles Jackson—about more recent and numerous data that contradicts a concept he quoted in his talk.  That in particular will be the subject of another post; but, toward the end of our discussion, after I tried to yet again make a point he wasn't accepting, he asked me very pointedly,
"How important is atheism to you?"
This was rather out of the blue.  The discussion so far had been about a particular argument about a scientific concept, about data, and we weren't talking about religion.  I said it wasn't very important to me, it was more about the science, and he started to go off on a very defensive tirade about how he and other creationists were not stupid, and that we shouldn't believe what we were told about creationists: that they're uneducated, that they're ignorant, that they're stupid.  He brought up his collection of degrees from legitimate universities, and degrees other creationists there had; he mentioned the gene gun patent that Dr. Sanford (another presenter) had; he talked about how he was a professor at high schools and college, and that he had never attended a Christian university; so on.

He gave the impression that he thought my only experience with young Earth creationists was that day only, and that I only knew of them through other atheists and "evolutionists" that told me vicious lies about their intelligence.  I did not mention to him that I have in the past visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky, nor did I mention that I have seen plenty of debates between YECs and scientists, the most recent and popular being Ken Ham's debate with Bill Nye.  I also did not bother stressing the point that creationists have a very wide array of publicly available merchandise and "educational products" which contain all of their arguments, each and every single one of them debunked in only the most utter sense.  I don't need to be told anything about them: they speak for themselves.

All the same, Dr. Jackson insists that I do not think of him as stupid or uneducated.  And at that, I couldn't help but think of Hanlon's Razor, which I quoted at the beginning of this post.  If ignorance is not a sufficient explanation for the ideas he promotes, what shall be?  If his own admission to "not knowing" about the data we presented to him is not an admittance of ignorance, what is it?  Would it help you predict my stance if I said that his data is outdated by at least two entire decades?

Those familiar with YEC arguments will be well aware by now that most of them rely on either citations of "research" that they themselves conducted, all of which is quite bad, or rely on citations of research by other scientists that publicly state that their work is being misrepresented.  And therein must lie our answer.  It may be a matter of cautious character judgment that we take Hanlon's Razor seriously, but many of my next posts will illustrate that an assumption of ignorance flies in the face of very blatant evidence that the arguments presented by YECs are dishonest, misrepresentative, or—and I prefer this more succinct term—lies.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Rejecting Truth

It's the time of year again!  Our Diag Preachers are out in full force during the month of September, with their signs and milk cartons and business cards and pamphlets.  And let's not forget, of course, their preaching: we're all going to Hell.  What I find funny is that I think that I am getting more recruits than they are, during the time they're preaching.  I got 28 people so far in the past couple weeks to sign onto our email list from the crowds watching these guys vent.

Anywho, there's a particularly funny argument that I felt the need to write about, much like I did last year regarding Infinite Regress (precisely one year and one day ago, in fact!).  One of our preachers this year has come from Canada to espouse his arguments that he's detailed on this website,  You actually may have heard of it before, I stumbled onto it several years ago and had forgotten it since.  The MO of the website is a simple "choose your own story," and we're going to do just that, and discuss what we come up against along the way.  It's actually been a long while since I've done this, so—Scout's honor—I'm going to write as I click the buttons for my own journey through, and try not to spoil it by remembering too much.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Defense of Atheism Plus

Starting about a month ago, the atheist blogosphere became pretty wrapped up in a controversy over a video made by Youtube star Jaclyn Glenn. If you aren't aware of it, the normally pretty loopy Richard Carrier has done an excellent analysis here. In short, Glenn posted a video creating a strawman of the Atheism Plus movement, mocking them as being divisive, irrational, and "pussies," as she describes in the video's description. Gender politics issues like this one have given me concern about the atheist movement, a community which I grew up in and am intimately involved with.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Matt Rogers Can't Math

Another fake climate skeptic has published a misleading article, disappointingly this time in the Washington Post.  Matt Rogers says that there has been a deceleration in surface warming.  To show this, he gives the first difference graph of both surface temperature data from NASA (GISTEMP) and NOAA (NCDC).

His claim is false.  The standard errors of the trends in the first difference graphs are each greater than their respective trends, meaning you can't say even at 1-sigma that the trends are significantly different than zero (and you most certainly may not make a claim at 2-sigma).  For NOAA's data, the trend and standard error are -0.0043 and 0.0055 respectively; for NASA's data, the trend and standard error are -0.0055 and 0.0068 respectively.
NCDC: -0.0043±0.0110 (units ~˚C/year^2)
GISTEMP: -0.0055±0.0137

It is also unclear what data he is using for the GISTEMP dataset.  The 2001-2000 value should not be as low in his graph as it is; the one above is correct.  It's interesting that even with that correction, the trend is still very insignificant.

Rogers also tries to shield himself from criticism of cherry picking, by saying that he could have picked 1998 as a start year.  1998 was a very warm year, and Rogers thinks that this would have amplified the trend line.  As a fake skeptic, it is par for the course he would try to protect against accusations of cherry picking that dreaded year.

This is also a false claim anyway, and embarrassingly so.  If you start with a warm year like 1998 (contrasted to a cold year like 2000), and then do first differencing, you're going to start with a very low datapoint.  The result is not an amplified negative trend, but in fact a more positive trend.  Anyone that had actually graphed out the data would know that.  Anyone that can do basic math would know that, in fact.
NCDC: 0.0030±0.010
GISTEMP: 0.0023±0.0126
These are also not statistically significant.  In fact no first-difference trend is statistically significant, for at least a couple decades back.

Rogers doesn't know what he is talking about.  And this is a rather funny way of illustrating that fake skeptics in general don't know how to handle 1998.

[Edit: The extra attention this post seems to be getting has encouraged me to quickly add trend lines to these graphs.  Hopefully that helps make things a bit clearer!  I've also added indented "tables."  Thanks to Tom Di Liberto for the plug.]

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Philosophy of Mind, Part 1: What would a scientific theory of consciousness look like?

Recently, mathematician and physicist Max Tegmark proposed, in a highly technical paper, that consciousness can be thought of as a state of matter with particular informational properties. Although Tegmark has by no means solved the mystery of mental states, papers like this are a giant step in the right direction. At this point in human history, we know enough about the world to glimpse, if not the theory itself, at least the shape of a potential theory of consciousness. We can find our way down the path all the more easily if we have a sense of the destination.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Adiabatic Lapse Rate (Greenhouse v. Gravity, Part 1)

Take a box of gas*:
and crush it (increase pressure by a lot):
(*ideal) It's not really easy to visually show "pressure", but two things happen to the box of air: it will shrink (it's easy to show this), and its internal temperature will increase.

The first effect may seem obvious, but why the second one?  In the particular action we took of crushing the box, we performed work on the box (so we did something that changed its internal energy) but did not add or remove heat from the contents.  And, if we assume that the box is a thermal insulator, then we know that the gas cannot respond to being compressed by radiating away energy.

Thermodynamically, a change of a box of air's internal energy is related to the amount of heat that is transferred into or out of it, and the work performed on the box to change its volume.


Where U is the internal energy of the box, Q is the heat that is added to the box, and W is a work term that is equal to PdV, such that an increase in volume is seen as a loss of internal energy (the box expends energy to push its walls out).  Conversely, pushing on the box to make it smaller is an addition to the internal energy.  Broadly speaking, if you do work on the box (shrink it) without letting it radiate, then its internal energy will increase; and internal energy is a function of the temperature of the gas.  This type of action on the box—this type of transformation—is called an adiabatic transformation.  "Adiabatic" means "without transfer of heat."

Why does this matter?

Consider the atmosphere: due to the weight of the air above you, there is higher atmospheric pressure at the surface of the planet than there is, say, 10 kilometers above us.  If we are very sloppy in our treatment of what we just learned, we might conclude that the very fact that pressure at the surface is higher means that the temperature at the surface is higher.

And believe it or not, this is something that is used (again, sloppily and erroneously) by some to deny that the greenhouse effect causes warming on the surface of our, and frankly any, planet.  Because if gravity can cause pressure change and high pressure is associated with high temperature, then who needs a greenhouse effect, right?

The problem comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the above equation represents.  The above equation (and all of the ones I will include soon derive the "adiabatic lapse rate" in the title) describes changes in variables of a box, or parcel, of air that is undergoing a transformation.  It does not describe a static system; but, the pressure gradient caused by gravity describes a static system (it actually holds in a variety of dynamic systems as well).

The article linked above tries to make an argument that the temperature profile in the atmosphere with height, which we will call the environmental temperature lapse rate (the rate at which temperature lapses, or falls, with height), can be described merely by gravity.  How?  By thinking that because adiabatic lapse rate, the rate at which a parcel of air will cool as it rises adiabatically (i.e. as it goes through a pressure change adiabatically), can be, then the environmental lapse rate can be.  But these are not the same thing!

To derive the adiabatic lapse rate (skip to equation [14] if you wish), consider our above thermodynamic equation, and plug in the work equivalence:


Let's define a term that we'll call "enthalpy," H, as:


so a small change in enthalpy is:





We can also define the heat capacity of our system as being the amount of heat we need to add (remove) to (from) a system in order to increase (decrease) its temperature by a certain amount.  Typically, we would have to restrain certain parameters of our system in order to measure such a heat capacity, for instance the pressure of the system.  If our system is at constant pressure (dP = 0), and we define constant-pressure heat capacity as below:


then it follows


And so, in an adiabatic lift of a parcel of air, where heat exchange is zero:


If we divide by the mass of the system, we can obtain the specific heat capacity and the specific volume, which are, respectively, the amount of heat needed to cause a temperature change per unit of mass, and the amount of volume a unit of mass occupies (inverse of the density).  These variables will be in lowercase from the uppercase above.  And finally, we can use the hydrostatic equation to finish our derivation of the adiabatic lapse rate:





Here, g is a negative quantity (which I find exceedingly more appropriate than how it's treated as a positive variable with a negative sign attached to it, as in the Wikipedia link above).  On Earth, this adiabatic lapse rate value is about –9.8˚C per kilometer in height.  In other words, for every kilometer you adiabatically raise a parcel of air, it will cool by 9.8˚C.

Pay close attention to how the equations still describe the parcel of air, and are under the framework of literally moving a "piece" of air through a medium that has reached a pressure equilibrium with gravity.  We do not know anything about the temperature distribution in this medium, I never had to reference it.  We only know (or at least presumed) that it is stable.

It is also completely worth pointing out that if this was indeed the environmental lapse rate here on Earth, then our environmental lapse rate should equal –9.8˚C/km, no?  But it does not, the environmental lapse rate is instead roughly –6.5˚C/km, up until you hit the tropopause.  This is not a simple "well they're close, it's just an error between measurement and theory"—no, theory actually dictates that in our atmosphere the environmental lapse rate cannot be as negative as the adiabatic lapse rate.  While I will not go into that in particular in this part, allow me to show how a "shallow" environmental lapse rate is still completely compatible with a "steep" adiabatic lapse rate.


Equation [14] describes how the temperature of an air parcel will change when it rises to a particular height.  Consider what will happen to it if it does: once it reaches that height, it will have the same pressure as the pressure of the air around it, and one of three things will happen.

• The air parcel will wind up being colder than the surrounding air, which means it is denser, and thus will sink.  This is a condition where the environmental lapse rate is "shallower" (lower in magnitude) than the adiabatic lapse rate, a condition of stability where vertical motion is hampered.  A stable atmosphere will stay the way it is.
• The air parcel will reach the exact same temperature as the surrounding air, which means its density is equal, and thus it won't experience a force stopping its motion (but also not helping it).  The environmental lapse rate and the adiabatic lapse rate are equal, and this is a condition of neutrality.  Neutral atmospheres are "stable" in that when you move an air parcel adiabatically, you are not convecting heat from one location to another.  So, the environmental lapse rate will not change.
• The air parcel will be warmer than the surrounding air, which means it is less dense and will accelerate upward further.  The environmental lapse rate is "steeper" than the adiabatic lapse rate, and the atmosphere is unstable.  In an unstable atmosphere, these adiabatically rising air parcels are carrying hot air upward—this will lead to warming higher up, which makes the environmental lapse rate more "shallow".  It will work its way to a stable condition.

This implies an important point: an atmosphere with a very shallow environmental lapse rate is stable and can coexist with a steeper adiabatic lapse rate.  In fact, an atmosphere that has no greenhouse gases, or in other words does not have gases that can react with thermal radiation, will be isothermal with no environmental lapse rate at all.  This is again something in particular I will not explain in this part.

The next statement necessarily follows: the fact that the pressure is higher at the surface does not dictate that the temperature will be higher at the surface.  (You need to have a radiatively-interactive atmosphere, one with greenhouse gases, in order to have temperatures higher at the surface.)

If you're still not convinced, allow me to derive the temperature-dependent pressure profile of the atmosphere.  In other words, the pressure at a given height that has a given temperature.  That given temperature will depend on the environmental lapse rate.

Starting with the hydrostatic equation, and soon using the ideal gas law:










In these equations, in particular our final one, tau is our environmental lapse rate (see the substitution from equation [19] to equation [20]), and variables that have zero subscripts denote values at the surface of the planet (or any surface, so long as that surface remains the same in the problem).

The real question: if we give our tau variable a value very very close to zero, does that make our pressure profile very wonky?  In particular, does it imply that our pressure profile won't be "high at surface, low up above?"  The graph below shows that the answer is no.  In fact, the pressure profile corresponding to a near-zero temperature profile (–0.01˚C/km) is very close to the pressure profile corresponding to an environmental lapse rate close to our adiabatic lapse rate (–9.8˚C/km).  For this graph, the temperature and pressure at the surface for each scenario are the same, and are 14˚C and 100,000 Pa respectively.


So, not only does the adiabatic lapse rate not describe a static system, instead the change that an individual air parcel experiences when you move it up or down, but the suggestion that a pressure gradient must cause a temperature gradient is unfounded as well and has many mathematical counterexamples.  In the next post, I will offer up a couple theoretical examples to direct how we should think about energy transfer in a simple atmosphere, and why radiative interaction (i.e. greenhouse gases) is needed for the convection that drives our actual environmental lapse rate.  I'll also briefly discuss some of the published science on many of these scenarios.