Archive for January, 2013

Appeal to Authority

January 31, 2013 2 comments

In the past I have discussed the logical fallacies which people often indulge in, specifically special pleading and ad hominem. Today I want to move on to the appeal to authority. I chose this primarily because it has come up in two discussions I am currently involved with: one against an anti-global warming organisation in Australia and the other against an anti-evolutionist from Brazil. Isn’t it great how the internet allows us to get into bitter and protracted pointless arguments with people from all over the world?

Both global warming and evolution deniers often accuse their opponents (in this case me) of succumbing to the appeal to authority fallacy. The first question I ask both of these groups is why the vast majority of experts (practically 100% in the case of evolution and in the high 90s for climate change) think the scientific consensus is sound.

There are really only two responses possible here (for my opponents). First, that there is a vast conspiracy and that huge group are all colluding to misinform the public. And second, that a consensus should be ignored because even an overwhelming majority view can be wrong and anyway, that is just an appeal to authority.

Actually there is a third possibility but that can usually be dispensed with fairly easily. That possibility is that the consensus doesn’t exist. This is usually supported by quoting people who present the alternative view. But in every case these represent either a fringe view of a tiny number of people, a view of a non expert, or a politically or religiously motivated personality with no scientific credibility in the area involved.

The problem is that, like many informal logical fallacies, this isn’t a simple black and white issue. Appealing to an authority can be a bad thing but it can also be a reasonable way to conduct a debate. It really depends on how the point is made. The same applies to other fallacies such as the ad hominem attack I have mentioned before, because in some cases attacking the person can be fair if that attack is relevant to their claims.

When I support evolution by invoking the fact that practically every working biologist believes it I am appealing to authority but in a fair way. Why do those people believe evolution? Because they know the facts and have investigated the evidence. Their opinion is relevant to the topic. Invoking the opinion of some random person with no formal background in biology, even if they have authority in some other area, would be a genuine fallacious use of the technique.

But once the consensus can be established (and it can, beyond any reasonable doubt) and the appeal to authority can be justified (which, as I said above, I believe it can) then the only defence left is the conspiracy theory. A lot of nutty believers in weird stuff (creationists and global warming deniers for example) don’t hesitate to use the conspiracy defence but many (slightly less nutty individuals) realise that does severely weaken their position so they try to avoid it.

The global warming deniers I am debating with have gone with the classic conspiracy theory which basically says that experts are pretending global warming is real to ensure they get research grants for their work in the area. This is so utterly ridiculous that it is laughable to anyone who knows anything at all about how science really works, but these people either have no idea or choose to use the technique anyway because it appeals to the biased views of a lot of the more ignorant sections of the public.

The anti-evolutionist (I suspect he in a creationist although he won’t admit it) I am debating with has taken a different course. He has just rejected what biologists think and accused me of the appeal to authority. Even though that is an invalid use of that criticism because the appeal is justified I moved on to something else. The consensus exists because of all the evidence, so if the consensus isn’t acceptable I just had to present the evidence directly instead. That’s what I’m doing and so far that seems to be far harder for my opponent to refute.

So in summary I think the appeal to authority should be used with caution. Anyone who does use it should be aware of why a consensus exists and should be able to support his view by presenting those reasons directly. On the other hand no one should reject a scientific consensus unless they have a very good reason. And creationists and global warming deniers most definitely don’t!


Favourite Things 3 Part 2

January 30, 2013 Leave a comment

In my last blog entry I started talking about another one of my favourite things: the Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately that headed off track a bit and finished as a discussion of Edwin Hubble, the famous astronomer that the HST was named after. So I guess I should finish off the original subject now.

The idea of a space telescope goes back almost 100 years and the advantages of having an instrument above the Earth’s atmosphere have been obvious for a long time. Apart from avoiding the constant dread for every astronomer – cloud on the night of an important observation – having a scope above the atmosphere also gives better results than even a “perfect” observing night on Earth because even under excellent conditions the Earth’s atmosphere both blocks some wavelengths of light (such as infrared) and distorts the light which does get through.

There was further discussion on the idea until 1968 when NASA began developing plans for actually building and launching a space telescope. There were numerous delays, especially after the Challenger disaster, but eventually the HST was launched on Shuttle mission STS-31 on 24 April 1990. At the time the original cost estimate of $400 million had increased to $2.5 billion.

After the delays and cost increases it was extremely disappointing to find after the launch that the HST was severely flawed. Although the images it created were better than anything from Earth at the time they were still much less precise than expected.

The fault was in the main mirror which was the most precisely made optical element ever, being accurate to 10 nanometers. Unfortunately, even though the mirror was an incredibly precise shape it was the wrong shape because of an error in the testing done by the American optics company, Perkin-Elmer.

Building and fitting a new main mirror was impractical so it was decided to correct the error by fitting a new secondary mirror (much smaller than the main one) and by changing the optics in the instruments attached to the telescope. Perkin-Elmer also did this work and this time they got it right! The corrected telescope delivered stunningly precise images of space.

Here’s a few basic facts and figures about the HST: weight 11 tonnes, diameter 4.2 meters, length 13.2 meters, orbit height 569 kilometers (orbits the Earth once every 97 minutes at a speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour).

So an 11 tonne instrument is flying around the Earth at 28,000 kph. How is it pointed at different objects and, more importantly, how is it kept pointing at them? That is one of the more amazing abilities of the instrument. It can lock onto a target without deviating more than 0.007 arcseconds. That is the equivalent of the width of a human hair seen at a distance of 1 mile. That’s quite an impressive feat of engineering precision, I think!

The pointing is done using gyroscopes. As a gyro (a heavy spinning wheel) spins in one direction it forces the telescope which it is attached to to move in the opposite direction. This is very precise but quite slow technique but using rocket thrusters would be far less precise, consume fuel when used, and leave gas around the scope possibly spoiling the imaging. The gyros are powered from the HST’s solar panels and suffer none of these problems.

By 2010 the total running cost of the HST was about $10 billion, which sounds a lot. But that is for over 20 years of operation of a superb instrument which has made so many great discoveries. It also includes upgrades for many of the instruments attached to the HST.

Is that a lot? The US spent $4.7 trillion on bailing out financial institutions after the financial crisis. They wasted 470 times as much as the cost of the HST on helping out a bunch of worthless parasites. And in half the time the HST has been run (the last 10 years) the US has spent over 140 times as much ($1.4 trillion) on wars. And what do they mainly achieve apart from killing innocent people?

So the HST, even with significant cost overruns, has been great value for money. It truly deserves to be one of my favourite things.

Favourite Things 3

January 26, 2013 Leave a comment

This blog entry continues my series on my favourite things. I want to do another with a technology, space-based theme. Last time it was the Voyager spacecraft, this time it is the Hubble Space Telescope.

The HST is nearing the end of its life and it could so easily have been a total failure from the beginning, yet it has provided some of the greatest pictures ever of space, from relatively nearby planets in our Solar System to galaxies on the very edge of the observable Universe.

These pictures have not only been of great scientific value but they have been both beautiful and awe inspiring to many non-scientists. They have increased our knowledge of the Universe and increased the enthusiasm the public have for both astronomy in general and the increasingly beleaguered space program.

So let’s start at the beginning. The facility is called the “Hubble Space Telescope” so who or what is Hubble?

Edwin Hubble was a great American astronomer who mainly worked around the 1920s. He made several incredibly important discoveries: first, confirming that the Milky Way galaxy isn’t the whole Universe (yes, that knowledge is less than 100 years old); and second, discovering that the more distant a galaxy is the more quickly it is receding from our galaxy (the Hubble Law), in other words that the Universe is expanding (up until then it had been assumed that it was static).

He was a brilliant and dedicated observer rather than a theorist but in astronomy (and most other sciences) observation both leads and confirms theory and the two branches are equally important in increasing our understanding of the universe.

Some of Hubble’s work was best described as gruelling. At the time a lot of information was gathered by taking spectra of distant galaxies onto photographic plates. But the plates had limited sensitivity, the galaxies were very faint because of their distance, and the process of creating a spectrum made the light even fainter. So it was necessary to expose the plates for a long time to get a good image.

Because of the Earth’s rotation the stars move across the sky and the telescope’s drive (which moves the scope to track the stars) needed constant correction by the observer. So the astronomer had to sit in the cold looking through an eyepiece and correcting the tracking for long periods of time.

Hubble took some photos with exposures much longer than could be done in one night. He actually closed the shutter before sunrise and pointed the scope back at exactly the same place the next night and continued the same exposure on the same plate. In fact some exposures might have taken a week of all night guiding to get a single plate! It is an extraordinary example of skill and patience that he succeeded so well with these observations.

The big discoveries Hubble made settled some major questions at the time. There was a debate about whether our galaxy was the whole universe, because many people thought other galaxies were just smaller localised nebulae embedded in our galaxy. Hubble’s detailed observations showed the nebulae were really galaxies as big, and often bigger, than our own. So the size of the universe expanded by a factor of billions virtually over night.

His discovery of the expansion of the universe caused another even greater revolution. The spectrum for any bright object has a number of colours visible which show the elements it is made from (this explanation isn’t completely technically correct because I have simplified it here). Hubble found the pattern expected (because stars everywhere produce light through the same process) but in the wrong part of the spectrum. His conclusion was that the light was “red shifted” which is caused by an object moving away from the observer and “stretching” the colour of the light into the red.

He expected that he would find about the same number of galaxies red shifted (moving away from us) and blue shifted (moving towards us) but it soon turned out that almost every galaxy was moving away. Not only that, but the further away the galaxy was (determining distances in space is another complex and fascinating subject) the faster it was moving away.

The only logical conclusion is that the whole fabric of space is expanding. Note that any observer in any galaxy would see the same expansion pattern so this doesn’t mean that we are in a special place. The few close galaxies which are moving towards us are explained by the fact that galaxies also move around randomly but only with the closer ones, where the relative universe expansion is smaller, can the overall expansion be overcome by this smaller local motion.

And if the universe if getting bigger then in the past it must have been smaller, and go back far enough and it would have been zero size. So the potential for a beginning, which eventually lead to the Big Bang Theory, was then understood.

Even Albert Einstein had put a special factor into his equations for relativity to make the Universe static. Initially his work indicated it should be expanding but few people believed this at the time. So Einstein added the “cosmological constant” to balance gravity and make the universe static.

A few years later when Hubble showed that it was expanding Einstein admitted the constant had been “the biggest blunder of his career”. Ironically in the last few years it has become obvious that there is something very similar to the cosmological constant at work in the universe (so called “dark energy”) causing the rate of expansion to increase (it was previously thought it would decrease due to the effect of gravity) so maybe Einstein was right even when he thought he was wrong!

So you can see that the observations Hubble made really did revolutionise our understanding of the universe. Earlier in his life he was considering a career in law. What a waste that would have been!

I have just noticed that I have written a blog entry about Edwin Hubble, not the Hubble Space Telescope as I originally intended. It’s great the way one subject can lead to another, isn’t it? Since this entry is probably long enough already I will continue my thoughts on the HST in my next blog entry.

No More Compromise

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Most sensible people around the world were relieved when Barack Obama managed to narrowly win the US presidency last year. That was not necessarily because they thought he was the best person possible for the job, but more that he was a hundred times better than the alternative.

His first term as president shouldn’t be dismissed as a total failure although he certainly didn’t live up to the hopes of many more progressive people. I guess the big problem was that his emphasis at the time was cooperation and compromise in the hope of forging some sort of working relationship with the Republicans.

But you can’t create any sort of meaningful link with nutters whose primary purpose is your destruction whatever the consequences.

Not all Republicans are nutters of course, but a large proportion of them are, and at this stage of its evolution the party does seem to be under the control of some of its nuttiest members, especially fundamentalist Christians and ultra-conservatives.

The Republicans still control the House so Obama has major limits on what he can do and that has been a problem all along which has lead to the attempts at reconciliation. But those attempts have been ultimately harmful, I think, and it is now time for Obama to do what he has probably wanted to do all along: enact what in the American context could be called a liberal agenda (although in most other contexts it might be seen as fairly centrist).

Obama’s latest speech was full of signs that he intends to try to do what he originally promised: make some real changes. Of course all of this needs to been in perspective, by real change I mean doing the things that any reasonable society would make without any real thought.

Here are some of the changes I’m talking about: allowing government to participate in society in a positive way, avoiding war except as a truly last resort, trying to do something about the out of control gun culture in the US, giving gays the same rights as everyone else, and doing something about global environmental issues such as climate change.

All of those are reasonable and necessary yet his opposition opposes them for no real reason other than bigotry, ignorance, and superstition. How could anyone cooperate with a group so out of touch with what is really required in the 21st century?

Many might say that the Republicans control the House because they enjoy a lot of support, and remember that Obama did not win the presidential election by a big margin. Clearly those attributes I mentioned above (bigotry, ignorance, and superstition) are common in some parts of the US so it’s natural that leaders exhibiting those traits would be popular. But the tide is slowly turning and Obama gets more support from sections of the population which are growing so hopefully a more liberal agenda will continue to be supported in the future.

Whether the Democrats can win the House at the next election in just under 2 years time I don’t know but it would be great if it happened. Then Obama would have no excuse for not making some really positive changes.

But even if he is blocked by his opponents he must at least try to move ahead. The time for compromise is past. You don’t compromise with idiots or you’ll begin to look like one yourself!

Here, Have a Coke!

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

In my last blog entry I tried to dispel the idea that people dislike change in their work simply because they are averse to change. I argued that in reality it is more likely to be that the changes that are being forced on them are bad for them so of course they resist them.

Today I want to take up a similar theme regarding big business. The outgoing CEO of Coca Cola in New Zealand recently started a debate regarding what he sees as the “tall poppy” attitude towards corporations. He claimed that an unfair anti-corporate feeling has stopped business expanding and has been detrimental to the country.

So he thinks that corporations are unfairly seen as being nasty and untrustworthy just because of their success. In fact we see big business that way because they actually are nasty and untrustworthy! The parallel with the resistance to change phenomenon here is obvious: the people causing the problem are turning the blame back on the victims and trying to make them the cause.

It’s particularly ironic that the company involved in this particular case is Coca Cola. It must be the absolute epitome of capitalism gone wrong, because it produces a mediocre, potentially dangerous and addictive product, publicises it with a lot of dishonest advertising, and makes huge profits which it employs various tricks to avoid paying tax on.

I’m not saying anything Coca Cola does is illegal, but it is immoral because the system is immoral and wrong. We have a system which encourages and rewards the worst type of person and organisation so of course we will often (but not always) get the most mediocre, morally corrupt people succeeding.

It’s just a sign of the incredible arrogance of the corporate world that they would even make a comment like this. Does this clown really believe that Coca Cola is a company we should admire? What does it do? It produces flavoured sugar water which is largely responsible for many health issues and sells it at an extravagant profit. Then it doesn’t pay a fair share of tax to help fund the health system which tries to repair the damage done. Surely we should feel disgust rather than admiration for that!

There is another side to the story of course. Big companies do provide products people want (even if in many cases they probably wouldn’t want them if they were acting fully rationally) and they do provide employment for many people. But I don’t think even these doubtful arguments have a lot of merit.

For every big corporation there are dozens of smaller companies which have been driven out of business. Those smaller companies employed more people and often produced a better product. They failed not because they provided an inferior product or service but because they didn’t have access to the same range of dirty tricks as their bigger competitor.

And that leads to the real point I want to make about big business. I heard a commentator make a very insightful statement on this. He said something like “big business profits come at the expense of someone else”.

Yes, every dollar Coca Cola makes comes from someone else. It comes from us buying its rather unremarkable products, it comes from the “efficiencies” the company gains from employing less people, it comes from the demise of smaller competitors, and it comes from paying less tax than it should. So when we see a successful, profitable company it should be no surprise that we despise them rather than respecting them.

If I was the CEO (or ex-CEO) of a company like Coca Cola I would keep my mouth shut about this sort of thing because by displaying such an arrogant and callous disregard for the way the world really works rather than how the corporates imagine it they aren’t helping their cause!

Before I finish there are two issues the more astute of you might be thinking of here…

First, the title of this blog entry is very similar to another one I did recently titled “Have a Cigarette” criticising the tobacco industry. This is deliberate.

And second, what about the big corporations which I support in some way, Apple being the most obvious example. Yeah sure, I would be very happy if I got to work with products made by smaller innovative companies but that’s just not going to happen. If I want to work in IT I do have to work with products made by big companies. I also give Apple special dispensation to some extent because their products are just so good. I realise I am maybe being a bit hypocritical there but in the real world I can be an idealist to a degree but I also have to be a realist.

And yes, I also drink Coke sometimes, but I hate myself for it!

Don’t Like Change

January 18, 2013 Leave a comment

If you have read my previous blog entries you will be very aware of my lack of respect for the process of management in general and most managers in particular. In fact I have been discussing this with my colleague Fred (not his real name) again and he has made some interesting observations which certainly have some resonance for me, specifically on the topic of change management. Here are some of his more astute comments…

When he debates (I get the impression these “debates” are often more like arguments) with the management team at his place of work an accusation often made against him is that he can’t cope with change. In fact this seems to be a very common criticism of anyone who is hesitant to endorse a new way of doing things. I’m sure that in some cases it is true, because many people really don’t like change, but I think more often this is just an excuse used to try to justify new policies and procedures which really don’t have a lot of merit.

In Fred’s case for example it seems counterintuitive that he would reject change when he works in an area (computing) where constant change is the norm. Where else is it necessary to be so open to change or be left behind? So the simple accusation that he doesn’t like change in general is ridiculous. In fact what he doesn’t like is change for the worse, or change for no good reason, or change without consultation.

But the problem with most conversations between a manager and a worker is that the manager doesn’t have to justify anything they do. Generally they initially go with the old justification of “you just don’t like change” and if that fails there’s always the classic follow up of “you could always work somewhere else”.

How would the manager feel if they had a complaint about a staff member’s work and the only response they got was “you just don’t like the new way I do things” or “you could always manage someone else”. They would find that unacceptable wouldn’t they? Yet they think the staff member should accept it when they use exactly equivalent statements. If anyone doesn’t have a good way to justify their conclusions then maybe they should re-examine them.

I guess every organisation does need some ultimate way to make decisions and enforce necessary change but if that is going to happen I think it’s really important that the change be open to criticism and should be able to be defended. Most people’s experience with change in bureaucratic organisations (and that is basically every organisation) is that it is forced on staff against their will, is unsupported with any real proof that it is necessary or advantageous, and is never properly evaluated later to see if it has been successful.

So let’s look at some of the changes Fred has had to endure in recent years to get an idea of why he might be resistant to them…

His salary in real terms has gone down, allegedly because funding is decreasing, but at the same time there is always plenty of money for managers and bureaucrats. Is this the sort of change anyone should be happy with? I can imagine being unhappy but accepting of sacrifice of that sort if it was applied fairly and gross waste wasn’t obvious elsewhere, but when it’s just a cynical ploy like this why should anyone accept it?

Fred has worked at the same organisation for many years and has noticed a lot of change over that time. In general the change has been in the direction of a huge increase in administration and loss of independence. A significant part of his time is now spent filling in time sheets, completing charging forms, attending meaningless meetings, and other activities which aren’t really part of his job. Interestingly the people who forced the cost recovery system on the technical staff are never required to work that way themselves, maybe because they do nothing so would never charge out any time! Is forcing a skilled professional into doing a lot of meaningless administrivia the sort of change which he should be happy about? I don’t think so.

When Fred started work at his organisation his professional skills were quite trusted. It was assumed (quite rightly) that he knew how to solve the problems he encountered and could consult with colleagues where necessary. But over they years his work has been forced into more of a “template”. Now he has to follow policies formulated by people who have no clues at all about the real issues he encounters. Is trusting a bureaucrats opinion instead of a professionals the sort of change he should be happy with? Who would be?

I’m sure Fred’s situation isn’t unique and, as I said earlier, I can identify with why he is frustrated with the types of changes that have been inflicted on him.

Finally, to emphasise my point, imagine the following imaginary situation…

Manager: Hello Fred, I’ve asked for this meeting so we can discuss the new corporate direction and policy framework the management has been working on.

Fred: (extremely worried about what nonsense is about to ensue) Err, OK, what are these changes?

Manager: Well we have decided the professional staff should be paid more and we are going to fund that by reducing the number of administrators in our organisation. Also, we trust your professional skills so you can use our policies as a guideline but bypass them where that will get a better outcome for the client. And we also are throwing out the cost recovery system, the inefficient user pays mechanism, and we will have an administrator to do any of the remaining paper work for you.

Fred: That sounds fair, I am happy to fully cooperate with the new direction.

Manager: Excellent, I had heard you don’t like change but clearly that’s not true.

Fred: Not like change? Where would you get that idea?

But that wouldn’t happen, would it. Because change is almost never positive. It’s always the opposite of what this manager was proposing. But Fred lives in the real world where change is (almost) always bad. It’s not the change which is the problem, it’s the type of change.

Science and Fiction

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a podcast (you will probably not be surprised to hear) which made some interesting observations about the Fermi Paradox. While the podcast primarily deals with truth and is specifically against unsubstantiated beliefs I do need to say that the person being interviewed, David Brin, is most well known as a science fiction writer. But he is also a published scientist so while his ideas can be extremely speculative, you would also hope his speculations might have some basis in reality.

The Fermi Paradox is an idea I have discussed in previous blog entries but I will quickly describe it here again. Basically the paradox is that it seems that life should be very common in the universe and because of the great age of the universe that life should often become intelligent, yet we see no signs of intelligent life anywhere (except Earth presumably).

The universe is very big and it has become increasingly obvious that planets – and planets with roughly the right conditions for life – are very common. In the last few years the total number of known planets has increased from 9 (the planets of the solar system which included Pluto at the time) to over 1000 today (now only 8 in our solar system but many more orbiting other stars).

If we can find a thousand planets so quickly by looking at a tiny part of just one galaxy imagine how many there must be in the universe as a whole. If there are 10 planets orbiting each star and 100 billion stars in a galaxy and 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe there are a lot of planets out there (about 100 billion trillion according to my estimate based on these conservative numbers).

We have known for some time that the universe is very old: about 13.7 billion years by modern estimates. It is also known that the Sun and Earth, while still being very old, are much younger than the universe as a whole. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. So it follows there are potentially planets many billions of years older than ours which might have life billions of years more advanced.

I know it’s not that simple because first generation stars can’t form solid planets and life might require a whole series of fortunate accidents to get started, plus some of my numbers above are very rough guesses, but in general it seems reasonable to assume there should be billions of civilisations at least as advanced as ours out there.

So where are they?

Some people think intelligent aliens have visited Earth already which explains many UFO stories, but no UFO story has been positively proved to be an alien visitor and the phenomena described by people who have seen UFOs seems very unlike what we would expect from real extraterrestrials.

Maybe they might not be that obvious. Maybe we need to look systematically for alien intelligence. Well that has happened to a limited extent with various SETI projects which are mainly searching for radio signals with appear to have an artificial origin. So far there has been no result which can really be taken too seriously although there have been a few interesting findings, including the “Wow signal” which I might discuss in another blog entry.

So that’s the Fermi Paradox. What is Brin’s explanation for this apparent paradox?

He basically says that the assumption that life naturally proceeds to intelligent life then to a civilisation with advanced technology isn’t necessarily true.

He thinks civilisations on this planet have primarily followed a dominant pyramidal, oligarchic structure which represses progress in science, and is hyper-conservative. Currently most countries are democratic and encourage technological progress but that is the exception in the history of the world, not the rule. Look at how Rome and Greece ended after encouraging starts and how the Dark Ages held back the advances started in earlier times. It is rather depressing.

And look at the popularity of the crazy, superstitious, anti-scientific conservatism in the US today if you want a modern example. It’s certainly conceivable that the US could go the same was as those previous empires.

So Brin thinks a similar process might be common on other planets where intelligence gets started. Since similar biological and social evolutionary processes might happen everywhere the idea has some merit although it’s clearly highly speculative. The problem with the study of life in the Universe is that we only have one example (Earth) to draw conclusions from!

If advanced technology is rare then it makes our responsibility to pursue it even greater. Brin thinks it might be humans responsibility to rescue the rest of the universe from anti-progressive, ultra-conservatism! Yes, I know this is really drawing massive conclusions from almost no evidence, but it is an interesting idea.

I’m not sure if he’s ever written a science fiction novel based on this theme because I haven’t ready many of his books. But he has such an interesting way of thinking about this subject that I think I might put some of his books on my reading list!