Uncommon Sense

April 1, 2023

Modernism and Postmodernism

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:03 pm
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I was reading a post about this topic and, being a philosophy geek, I was drawn to the two “philosophies.” Here are two quotes from that article:

Modernism is the assumption that the world is clearly-defined and measurable. There are facts that exist independently of any of us. Gravity will always be gravity. Two plus two will always be four.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, believes that certainty is impossible. No matter how many times you observe something, you can never know if it’s entirely true, mostly because the observer is always fallible.

Both of these “beliefs” are bogus and not at all steeped in reality. I seem to be writing more and more about our mistaking ideas about reality. Modernism is a hangover from the nineteen century leading into the twentieth. Over the preceding three or four centuries modern science birthed an explosion of knowledge and technology never seen before. There seemed to be nothing that science could not learn. Again, this is an absolute and if you haven’t heard me say it before but “there are no absolutes in nature.” (Wow, quoting myself; could hubris be far away!)

Postmodernism is an overcorrection, typical in human discourse. We go overboard in one direction, then we come back and go overboard in the opposite direction. The applicable aphorism is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Absolute certainty is possible, but ordinary certainty? Yep, we can do that.

Scientists are very acutely aware of their limitations. All measurements are subject to error, for example. Now, we don’t mean “error” in the sense of mistakes. Mistakes are things done incorrectly that can be corrected. Measurement error is inherent in the measuring process and translates as “measurement uncertainty.” All measurements are listed as something like “128 cm ± 0.5 cm.” By doing his we, using standard procedures, set rough upper and lower limits upon our measurements. But those are process limits. The actual value may be outside of those limits because of minute flaws in procedure or in instruments. (By actual value I mean a better measurement with a smaller measurement error.)

So, the scientific enthusiasm of modernists is misplaced to some extent. The over-reaction of postmodernists, claiming that all measurements are flawed because “because the observer is always fallible,” misses the mark entirely. It is not the fallibility of the observer that is a cause of weak measurements, although that is always involved, but the inherent nature of Nature. There are no perfect measurements. There never will be. And whether the researcher is fallible or not isn’t the issue.

Scientists are cognizant of their own fallibility. We know this because of the keystone of the scientific method, which is left out of all grade school discussions of “the method.” Scientists are in fact required to publish their work and in detail. They must include a description of the experiments conducted, listing instruments and equipment. All procedures must be listed so that another scientist could repeat the same experiment to see if the same results are acquired. So, if one scientist is fallible, what about ten? If you need a case study, go back and look at the brouhaha surrounding the announcement that “cold fusion” had been achieved (in 1989 a claim was made that nuclear fusion had occurred at room temperature — so “cold” fusion compared to the extremely high temperatures the process was thought to require). A major thrust from the scientific community centered on the announcement coming in a news conference and not in a peer-reviewed journal article. It took months for their procedures to be made available (under the guise of possible patentable processes worth billions of dollars) and a horde of scientists tried to reproduce their findings . . . and failed. People were still trying for years after the initial announcement and international meetings were had for researchers into the topic and the net result was <cricket, cricket>. Results that only one scientist or one team of scientist can get are not reliable and are rejected. Experiments should be repeatable, since the initial researchers repeat their own trials to make sure of that and then others are invited to join in if the doubt the validity of the findings.

So, Modernism and Postmodernism are not worth studying except as indications of how flawed our thinking is. Sure enthusiasm for science exploded in the nineteenth century, and you can see some of the rubble from that explosion in the form of bogus medical devices, strange scientific beliefs held by citizens, etc. But was that a philosophy? Who declares that something is a philosophy? (I certainly hope it isn’t philosophers—and I am a philosophy buff, as you know.) Since all measurements contain measurement error and we hope no mistakes, at least the possibility of fact checking exists. Subjects like philosophy do not have a final arbiter, like the natural sciences do in nature itself, and well Bill Clinton said it best “Mistakes were made.”

March 31, 2023

Scientific Suppositions

Filed under: Education,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:04 am
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I am puzzled at how many questions pop up on the Quora question and answer site about electron orbits in atoms. According to basic physics such orbits cannot exit, but apparently we are still teaching students that they do, in fact we are indoctrinating them with this sacred knowledge. I remember seeing a grade school “science” project in which students dyed some cotton balls various colors and then glued them to a piece of paper with concentric circles drawn upon them. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about this exercise is correct. But it does inculcate the idea in little minds that electrons (whatever they are) orbit around a nucleus, whatever it is.

There are so many mistakes, bad assumptions, etc. made in the development of early atom models it is no wonder that the quantum theory of the atom, what the quantum theory in general is based upon, is completely not understandable.

Allow me to step you though the development of these theories. Here are the years of discovery of the main characters:

The electron was discovered through a intense investigation of radioactivity. Radioactive substances were shown to emit three types of radiation (things that radiate outward from a point): alpha, beta, and gamma radiations. Obviously they knew little of what these things were because they labeled them a, b, and c (in Greek, of course). Alpha radiation turned out to be streams of positively charged helium atoms, gamma radiation tuned out to be a form of electromagnetic radiation, and beta rays turned out to be streams of electrons. The masses of the beta particles was so small that they had to be smaller than the smallest atom (at least lighter). This created an attention storm because the electron was the first “subatomic” particle ever characterized. By subatomic it was meant, less than the size/mass of an atom. Prior to that point it was assumed that atoms were “uncuttable” (what the word atom means in Greek) and that nothing smaller could exist. Very quickly, with no evidence provided, it was conjectured that the electrons were component particles of atoms. When we finally deduced the mechanism of the emission of beta radiation we found out that the electrons were created in the process and not part of the atom prior to that point. So, electrons were not a part of the atom, at least when it came to beta decay radioactivity. But. atom models containing electrons were immediately floated. Just like today’s news organizations, everyone wanted to be first rather than correct. When the proton was discovered, in 1919 (its charge-to-mass ratio was measured in 1898 indicting it had a very high mass) once again it was “discovered” based upon a radioactive process in which protons were emitted. Again, there was no reason to assume the protons existed prior to the radioactive event, but what the heck.

In 1911 Rutherford and his assistants did the now famous gold foil experiments in which alpha particles were “fired” against super thin foils of metals (not just gold) and most went through but a tiny, tiny fraction were deflected. And even more rarely some alpha particles bounced backward. From this Rutherford concluded that all of the mass of the atoms was concentrated in a very small central core, which he called a nucleus, and that core had to be positive because the positive alpha particles bounced off rather than stuck to the gold “nuclei.” Apparently the 197 to 4 weight difference between gold atoms and alpha particles was not enough explanation for why the alpha particles bounced off. And why did anyone assume the alpha particles would stick? And if the nuclei were positive, a negative component was also needed and voilà, the electrons were given a meaning for their little lives. This was also based upon the supposition, again not proven, that the atoms were touching. If the atoms were not touching, the nuclear idea was a nonstarter.

Immediately upon the “nucleus” being discovered (not) the planetary model of the atom was promoted. (Actually this model was invented years prior (in 1903) by Hantaro Nagaoka of Japan.) But the model met immediate opposition because electrons are significantly negatively charged for such a small particle and orbiting a positively charged nucleus would cause the electrons to lose energy (all charged particles undergoing acceleration in a charge field lose energy by emitting EMR—orbits involve a particle continuously changing direction and that requires a force and an acceleration because F = ma).

Bohr worked on this problem extensively and then announced a fix. His model has electrons in circular orbits, those orbits required electrons to have fixed energies, and therefore fixed orbit diameters which were said to be “quantized.”

Now the concept of the quantum of energy had been introduced in 1900 but that merely extended the idea that matter came in bits to electromagnetic energy coming in bits, too. Bohr’s model has the electrons being somehow fixed in certain “allowed” orbits. No reason for this “quantization” of atomic electron energies was ever offered. It just worked!

Now, as to “worked,” Bohr’s model “explained” why atomic emission spectra were how they were. Atomic emission spectra are the mix of various EMR “lights” given off when an element’s atoms are heated up enough to glow, or give off light. (The example you know of is “neon lighting.”) Those spectra, when spread out, showed that only a few colors of light were emitted. Bohr explain those colors as the energies of electrons as they transitioned from one orbit to another. So, no explanation was offered why the orbits energies were so constrained or how it was that electrons could “jump” from one orbit to another. But it worked they said. Closer inspection showed that the energies of the electron orbits in hydrogen were determined from those self-same lights of hydrogen’s emission spectrum so they damn well should have matched.

Bohr’s theory should have raised all kinds of alarms, but maybe there was so much going on that nobody bit. No explanation for the orbits being allowed at all. No explanation for the energies of the atomic electrons being restricted to certain quantities. And none of it was done to preserve some semblance of normal theory. It was all just pulled out of a hat.

While Bohr’s theory has been discredited, it is still taught in schools. It is taught for reasons I approve of and that is using intellectual history as a framework. Basically, this idea led to that one and that one lead to this new one and . . . which exposes people’s thinking as new data are made available. (It also exposes our propensity to get ahead of ourselves and make mistakes.) But it seems that many student’s educations didn’t involve getting to the point of the failure of Bohr’s atom model and the things that replaced it. Parts of Bohr’s atom model are included in today’s models, even though the thing proved to be wrong. So, Bohr’s quantized orbits are gone, only to be replaced by quantized orbitals (very poor terminology) with still no reason why there should be any restriction of what an electron’s energy might be. Taken out of atoms, electrons can be made to have any energy and even to sing and dance (well, maybe not the latter, but there is no restrictions upon what energies they might have).

And people still whine about how quantum theory math works but conceptually it is incoherent. Maybe if someone could come up with a physical mechanism by which atomic electron energies could be restricted, we might make some progress, but nobody s working on that. That is old hat! There is dark matter and dark energy to pursue!

There is an old saw about not confusing the edge of the rut you are in for the horizon. In this case we are not in a rut, but have gone down a rabbit hole.

The Mistake of Objective Reality

Filed under: Education,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:53 am
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Over at The Conversation, revelations about quantum mechanics are being made . . . not. Here is how the Science Editor introduced the topic:

Few theories are weirder than quantum mechanics, which governs the microcosmos of atoms and particles. It allows particles to be in “superpositions” of many possible states, such as being in several different places at once. But this is only when nobody’s looking. The second you observe it, the particle randomly picks a location – breaking the superposition.

Then came the article itself, which I didn’t read. I have had enough of people explaining things they clearly do not understand—“‘QBism’: quantum mechanics is not a description of objective reality – it reveals a world of genuine free will.

Too many false suppositions are made from what physical theory states in general, but it is rife in quantum mechanics. Consider the statement “It allows particles to be in ‘superpositions’ of many possible states, such as being in several different places at once.” Quantum mechanical wave functions are mathematical predictions, they aren’t real. Those superpositions are merely predictions of locations for particles which are not all that specific, they are not real positions of objects. and “The second you observe it, the particle randomly picks a location” is just plain woo woo silliness. It has nothing to do with the observer or an observation. It has to do with an interaction. Think of an action-adventure movie. The good guys are pinned down by the bad guys who are firing bullets at them. “Where are they coming from?” asks one of the good guys. “I don’t know they seem to be everywhere,” answers another of the good guys. The real hero, being very quiet up and fires his gun which is followed by the thud of a dead body hitting the floor. Now, would you presume that that bad guy was in many positions until he was shot? And then he was just in that one? This is about as silly as the so-called editorial writing QM experts providing this bilge.

It is our ability to predict which is compromised, not some mystical power of particles to be in multiple positions at the same time. And the so-called “looking” or “observing” by a human being has to involve an interaction of the quantum system with some particle. For example, we “see” by receiving light that has bounced off of the objects being seen. But particles so tiny to have QM consequences will be slammed off of their current position when hit by something like a photon. The rule of thumb is that for a ricocheting photon to be useful to observe anything, the wavelength of the photon has to be smaller, substantially so, than the diameter of the particle. But when you make photons, the smaller the wavelength the higher their energy. So, we end up trying to locate ping pong balls by firing AR-15 bullets at them and then seeing if the bullets are deflected.

So, we thought the bad guys could be anywhere but when I fired my gun I hit one, so it was right there, not any of dozens of different locations. This is closer to the reality of the situation than the idiocy above.

What was spot on was the article author’s first sentence: “It is hard to shake the intuition that there’s a real and objective physical world out there.” Don’t bother trying to “shake the intuition” of Objective Reality. It is an illusion, total imagination, human imagination.

If you think that reality is hiding out there and we just have to dig deeper to find it, you will just be disappointed. Yes, we do have discard mistaken observations/suppositions/conclusions but that just means were wrong before and we need to look again. What we will see is not a reflection of some core truth or core reality, it is just a measure of our reality.

Take for example dogs. Dogs can see only two colors and so see in duotones. So, our ability to see three colors is the real reality and dogs see only part of it, right? Wrong. Dragonflies see 16 million colors. So is their sensory information correct and our ability to see reality compromised? Only if you really, really want to believe there is a reality just outside the reach of our senses, which means you are mystic, probably a religionist, and deluded as well.

Simon and Garfield said it best: “We see what we want to see and disregard the rest.” We create our own reality, which is shared by shared experiences and through teachings.

There are no absolutes in nature, no objective morals, no objects which are perfect off in some Platonic realm. We interact with nature and whatever we learn, we use to our benefit or not.

Since that is all there is, then just keep dancing.

Postscript I just learned that about 1% of all human beings have a fourth color cone in their retinas that allow them to see 100 million colors. Do you think with that superpower they can see objective reality?

March 28, 2023

Wuhan, Wuhan, the Story Continues

Filed under: Culture,Politics,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:24 am
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The question is: was the Corona Virus responsible for the pandemic a natural thing or was it a virus being studied by Chinese scientists and then accidentally released from a lab?

The second supposition is linked to the conjecture “the Chinese did it on purpose.” To me this latter conjecture is idiocy and only to be expected from people who absolutely, positively need someone to blame for anything that goes wrong.

An article in The Guardian describes one bizarre aspect of this investigation. A French scientist found DNA evidence that had been posted online by a team of Chinese scientists. These came from swabs taken from the now notorious market that peddled exotic meats. These were taken after the outbreak. The French scientist contacted the Chinese scientists and asked for permission to analyze the raw data and receive permission. Then they published preliminary findings . . . and all Hell broke loose. From the same The Guardian article:

“Since the publication, Débarre has been set upon by online mobs and received threats to her safety. ‘Last night, I was crying over the horrible things I’m reading about myself on social media,’ she says.

“Most concerning has been a threat by a stranger who claims to know where Débarre lives. But she is also stung by the accusations that she, as a scientist, might be disloyal to the truth. ‘It’s horrible to have people discuss the fact you may be lying, when you’re not lying,’ she says. ‘When you have a profession in which being truthful is essential.’”

I have little to say about the brouhaha but something to say about scientific sensibilities. Why would a serious scientist get hurt feelings, to the point of tears, about mean things said about her on social media? Why would she be consulting social media at all? Obviously a death threat should be reported to the authorities, but she wouldn’t know whether that was serious or some 11-year old goofing around.

Also, why would people “discussing the fact you may be lying” upset you when these are people who do not know you, nor are they fully acquainted with your field. I could understand if it were colleagues making these claims, or worse, supervisors, but strangers? What do they know and why should she care?

The Internet has become a cesspool of negativity in which people say mean things for sport. It is a wonder people take things stated here seriously.

March 17, 2023

What the Heck is Scientism?

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:59 am
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I am a scientist (and a student of philosophy to boot) and I had never heard the term “scientism” until quite recently. What the heck is it? By implication it seemed to be a term used by theists of the same ilk as those who referred to those who accepted the theory of evolution as “evolutionists.” It was at least mildly disparaging and carried the implication of, “you scientists don’t know all that much.”

So, off the ‘Net I went and gathered some quotes:

The term scientism was popularized by F.A. Hayek, who defined it as the “slavish imitation of the method and language of Science.” Karl Popper defines scientism as “the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science”.

Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination.

The 19th century witnessed the most powerful and enduring formulation of scientism, a system called positivism. Its founder was August Comte, who built his positive philosophy from a deep commitment to David Hume’s empiricism and skepticism. Comte claimed that the only valid data is acquired through the senses.

But the core of the resurgence of this obscure philosophical term showed up finally in this quote:

Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” –Stephen Weinberg, The First Three Minutes

“We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.” –E.O. Wilson, Consilience

While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation.

Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.

Ahah! Consider “the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society.” Since when has a large segment of American society paid any attention to science or the philosophy of science and what causes the alienation? Is it the arrogance of scientists like Carl Sagan?

I suggest that you need look no further than religious apologists. They contend that science is at war with religion because science keeps showing how wrong many religious “understandings” are.

And the eighteenth century in “philosophical matters” in the West was dominated by a gigantic battle between deism and traditional religion. Many deists (not all) claimed that nature was “god” and to show piety was to learn as much about nature as possible. This is supportable even in traditional religion who believed that their supernatural entity created all of nature and so to study “god’s creation” was to get somewhat closer to god, even to traditionalists.

So, this somewhat obscure philosophical term has been resurrected by those wishing to keep science at bay, to keep science from running amuck, to keep science from intruding on the theist’s bailiwick.

Scientism is not a term invented by scientists. It was invented by philosophers actually wanting to overthrow the tyranny of traditional religion.

A side effect of this battle was the creation of the Great Experiment in Democracy, the United States. (More on this later.)

Postscript The Sagan quote “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” basically follows from the definition of universe: “The universe is all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all other forms of matter and energy.” (Source: Wikipedia) I do not think this shows an overweening “faith” in science or its methods. It is simply how we defined things. So Sagan may have sounded arrogant but this hardly “blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation.”

The Natural and Other Sciences

Full Disclosure—I was trained as a chemist, so I am by definition a natural scientist. S

The successes of the natural sciences have led other disciplines to adopt the methods and approaches of those sciences for various reasons.

The first scientists were physicists and chemists and a few biologists who built scientific edifices atop the wealth of knowledge collected by various trades. The physicists studying the stars built upon a vast store of knowledge built up by and for mariners. The chemists built upon quite a store of knowledge built up by dyers, embalmers, painters, etc. The botanists started with quite a store of knowledge built up over millennia by ordinary people, especially herbalist “healers.” I say this out of humility. Science wasn’t begun by scientists, it was continued, with methodological advances, from long traditions of studying their topics.

Today we find all kinds of disciplines adopting scientific methodologies; not just using them for support, like archeologists use carbon-14 dating, mind you, but structuring their studies as if they were actual sciences. We have history, psychology, economics, sociology, politics and more all becoming very sciency. And there are benefits to some of those approaches, but not so much so that they could not have been acquired through other techniques.

The difference between the natural sciences and the “others,” is that the natural sciences have a final arbiter of all disputes: nature. None of the others do. Economists talk a lot about “natural experiments,” which are histories of events in which a certain economic concept was engaged. So, they can “test” out their ideas. One example is studies of the impact of raises in the federal or state minimum wage. Some political entity raises its minimum wage, and right nearby another political entity does not. So, what happens? Do people leave the low wage area to get the higher wages? Do business fold under the higher costs of employing their employees? What happens? The problem is establishing cause and effect. The difference in minimum wage is not the only difference between the two regions. (In the “hard sciences” we spend a great deal of effort “isolating variables,” which means establishing what things are changing and which are not. All to establishing that the only things changing are causes and effects.) As a consequence, there is still a major debate, even after numerous studies and “natural experiments,” over what the impact of a change in the minimum wage will be. It also shows that economics is heavily contaminated by politics. Economists with views  popular with one group of politicians get mentioned, asked to speak for fees, prestigious chairs at certain universities, and grants to do their “research.” That’s a kind of natural experiment, too.

In the natural sciences, as I say, if you get out of line Mother Nature ups and bitch slaps you back into line. We have a direction for our questions: we ask nature and nature replies. Those replies are not always unambiguous, so some questions get answered wrongly, and corrected (or not) later.

Consider one simple aspect of the theory of evolution. That theory early on claimed that evolution occurred over vast amounts of time. A very prominent scientist, Lord Kelvin, calculated that the Earth, had it started from a ball of molten rock, exposed to a vacuum, would only take around 500 million years to cool to its then state. This was not enough time for the scheme in the theory of evolution to have acted. So, the question was: how old is the Earth and the answer was “not old enough.” Later it was discovered that the Earth contained significant amounts of uranium. When the Earth was molten, the more dense materials sank and the less dense materials floated. The uranium, being very dense sank out of sight and the radioactivity of that uranium accounted for the rather much slower rate of cooling that Lord Kelvin had supposed. So, the age of the Earth is now thought to be 4+ billion years, which is quite long enough for evolution to have done its work. (Oh, and the material that floated to the surface of “Molten Earth?” That scum contained all of the elements needed to make us and the rest of the biosphere. Yes, we are the Scum of the Earth.)

It is clear that economists “scienced” up their field to make it appear to be more substantial than it really is. (If you want details, read Yves Smith’s quite brilliant book, “Econned.”) Many economics majors are now required to pass calculus in their math studies whereas the economists who came before barely used high school algebra. Having “higher standards” to qualify as an economist makes the field seem more prestigious.

Economics papers now are larded with higher math, making them quite opaque to the general public. This is not unlike philosophers retreating from address ordinary people to addressing only other philosophers through the use of complicated (and unnecessary) jargon.

When I was young, there was a field called “Social Studies.” Today we have the “Social Sciences.” Has this made for any outward improvement in those studies? Maybe so, but I haven’t noticed it if it has.

Now, you may take this as one of the “natural scientists” all puffed up about his own importance. Instead please accept the fact that I loathe when my fellow citizens receive a shuck and jive as opposed to honest treatment. Can history or politics be turned into sciences? I doubt it. No matter how hard they try (and I am not including using scientific tools to reinforce timelines, etc.) they have no final arbiter and so they may end up with the trappings of science (Hey, gang, try on these cool lab coats and safety glasses!) but not the substance.

March 16, 2023

Drug Names

Filed under: Business,Culture,language,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:34 pm
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Humans are fond of naming things, even when they already have a name. Take for example marijuana, also known as: pot, grass, weed, mary jane, ganja, herb, reefer, Aunt Mary, skunk, broom, and many, many more names. Now some of this can be laid at the feet of that drug being made illegal and so references to it were often made in code, but this is not an isolated case.

I assume you have heard of vitamin C. This chemical also has the chemical name of L-ascorbic acid. But that is just one of its names. It’s name according to the official naming rules for chemicals is (5R)-[(1S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one. With a name like that, you can easily see why nicknames are often employed. (Chemists often refer to substances obliquely, such as “How’s the research going on your compound?” to avoid such problems.)

But if you look up vitamin C you will find it has over 200 names given to it! Most of those names are “patent names” which are names which are patented, not the substance itself, just the name for it. Super Ingredient X-7 is a name which can be patented (and many like it have been), so that businesses can advertise that their products now contain “Super Ingredient X-7! (and no one can use that name).”

The naming practices that I cannot defend are patent drug names. Now that the chains have been taken off, TV and the Internet are awash with ads for drugs, drugs with names like: dupixent, rybelsus, and humira, rinvoq, ozempic, trulicity, jardiance, skyrizi, rexulti, and tremfya. Recognize any of them? Those are the ten most heavily advertised on national TV in 2021 (ranging from 105.7 to 287.6 million dollars annually).

Now, here is the thing. Do you know what any of them do (not those you happen to be taking, but the others)? My point is that those names do not help “customers.”

My suggestion is that all drugs should be named according to the disease they treat. So, all high blood pressure medicines would be named “High Blood Pressure #(insert number here).” Their numbers would be determined by when they were certified by the Food and Drug Administration. For example, recently the drug cialis was certified as helping with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), otherwise known as an enlarged prostate gland, so it would have the names “erectile dysfunction #3” and “benign prostatic hyperplasia #12.” (I made up the 12 as I don’t know where in line it would be.) Same drug, but different names for different uses. (Oh, and the #3? I assumed oysters were #1 and viagra was #2.)

Cialis shows the problem. It also goes by the generic name tadalafil, which sounds like a dish served in a gyro shop. Neither name gives you any idea what they are for, no? (When I hear “cialis” I think of open air bathtubs, hmmm.)

Aspirin, which also has a plethora of names might become “headache #1,” and so on. At least the name of the drug would contain some information and dissuade people from taking drugs for purposes other than they have been certified. (Ivermectin, otherwise “roundworm infection #z,” anyone?)

Currently it seems that drug names are created to serve hypochondriacs and marketing agents, not the people they are supposed to help. (It seems to me that hypochondriacs thrill in being able to pronounce the names of the diseases and drugs they are attracted to.)

Postscript All of the drug names were assumed to have been misspelled by my spell checker (except viagra) which tells you something.

March 15, 2023

Jump on that Pony and Ride!

You know I have a philosophical bent. So when I read the following quote, I definitely had a reaction:

Postmodernism, on the other hand, believes that certainty is impossible. No matter how many times you observe something, you can never know if it’s entirely true, mostly because the observer is always fallible.
Postmodernism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to a number of havoc-wreaking discoveries in the hard sciences.
• Einstein’s relativity showed that, in fact, gravity is not always gravity.
• Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem showed that mathematical systems are self-contradictory.
• Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that it’s theoretically impossible to measure anything with complete accuracy.

My reaction: philosophers are like children who finally twig to the fact that Santa Claus isn’t real. Yet the philosophers, unlike the children, do not seek a new equilibrium, they double down insisting that Santa Claus is real.

The statement “No matter how many times you observe something, you can never know if it’s entirely true, mostly because the observer is always fallible” shows a complete lack of understanding of what it means to observe or measure something.

I am a scientist. I taught measurement science back in my day and I often started out addressing the simple fact that all measurements contain uncertainty. Uncertainty is not mistakes and not due to human fallibility. It is and always has been part of the universe.

The example I used was I asked my students to estimate the length of a lab table (it was about 6 meters). So, various students would take a whack at “eyeballing” the length of the table. I then held up a wooden meter stick and said, that estimate wasn’t good enough, what if we were to use this (meaning the stick). So, I got a student to slap the stick down a number of times and she would come up with a better estimate. But multiple uses of a wooden stick makes for a difficult process, leaving us still with uncertainty, albeit less than before. So, I held up a metal tape measure and asked “How about this?” Again a student employed the tape measure and got a better value, but there was still some uncertainty. Then I said that we could go over to the physics department and borrow a laser interferometer, which would enable us to make length measurements to a fraction of a wavelength of light. Would that then tell us how long the table was? Of course, they bit on that.

But there was still a fly in our ointment. How do we know that the two ends of the stone countertop were exactly parallel? Odds were that they weren’t and the length of the table would differ depending on where we took the measurement. (Careful, now Ruis, the natives are getting restless.) But if we took multiple measurements across the length of the table with the interferometer and got the same number each time, wouldn’t that prove the ends were parallel and give us an exact length of the table? The students were starting to issue sighs of relief. (If I was feeling at all sadistic, I could state that the ends of the table were parallel at the top buy each end surface was slanted to the vertical. Bwah, hah, hah!)

But, no, it is not to be. I slapped a photo of the surface of the end of the table, under very high magnification, showing the end of the table wasn’t all that smooth and under high magnification it looked like a range of mountains. Then, I said, we would be faced with the problem of where does the table start (at one of those peaks, or one of those valleys, or the average of the highest peak and the lowest valley) and where does it end.

My point was that perfect measures are not going to be made. All measurements come with some degree of uncertainty, and that extends to all of science, based as it is on measurements—there are no absolutes in science/nature.

Philosophers, however, are wedded to absolutes. They throw around concepts like “perfect,” “certainty,” “perfect accuracy,” and “truth,” none of which exist in nature. And I wish that we would go back to labeling things like physics and chemistry and biology as natural sciences, because so many other fields, e.g. politics and economics, are adopting scientific methods to add credibility to their studies (it won’t by the way). Maybe we could call those others unnatural sciences.

The author of the quotes above goes on to say “To put it succinctly, modernism is the assertion that truth can be known definitively. Postmodernism is the assertion that truth can never be known definitively; it can only be guessed at and approximated, at best.” To put it succinctly, both of these are quite wrong. The postmodernism definition comes closer to the “truth,” but errs in using the word truth. “Truth can never be known definitively” is just another way to state that the concept is wrong. What we need to focus upon is reliability, not truth. Can we rely on the Sun coming up tomorrow? Yes, I think we can. Then that is reliable, but it is hardly “true” as most people think of it.

March 14, 2023

Patches, Patches, All Fall Down!

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:06 pm
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Since various attacks on the theory of evolution have exposed a lack of understanding of what scientific theories (and laws) are, I offer the following post.

Scientific theories have a life cycle, at least they have so far. When they are first promoted, there is a great deal of skepticism, certainly from advocates of the then current theory. If the theory is tested and acquires support, then there is enthusiasm as the new theory provides better explanations and better predictions than the old theory. Then, over time, weaknesses show up in the not-so-new theory and what I call “patches” are applied. These re usually applied with regard to special circumstances, but sometimes generally. For example, when Bohr’s Theory of the Atom started being balky, the orbits were adjusted from being circular, to being elliptical. (When orbits in their entirety were thrown out, so was Bohr’s theory, although elements of it survived in the theories that followed.)

Again, over time, if too many patches need be applied, the theory is showing its age and it is ripe for replacement.

The Life Cycle (So Far) of the Big Bang Theory
When the BBT was first suggested (it was not called that at the time) even Einstein rejected it, out of hand. But over time it has been accepted as being “supported” and has been incorporated into the Standard Model of the Universe.

Then problems cropped up. The predicted early qualities of the universe’s expansion lead to disaster, so the rate of expansion of the universe was increased and all was well, thus was “Cosmic Inflation” created (Patch!). Somehow, magically, the universe expanded extremely rapidly from the get go and then settled down to a much lower rate of expansion. How this was supposed to happen was addressed with a great deal of “quantum effects,” and mumble, mumble, mumble. That the problem as solved was true, but the solution was very iffy at best.

Recently studies in the rotation rates of galaxies and others suggested that there wasn’t enough matter in those galaxies to account for their rotation rates, by quite a bit. Thus was born “Dark Matter” (Patch!). Since we couldn’t see or detect this matter we called it “dark” because it didn’t emit or reflect light, so this matter doesn’t interact with electromagnetic radiation, but does interact through gravity. How anything could do this has yet to be explained.

Then data were acquired that indicated that the expansion of the universe was accelerating! It was thought that gravitational attractions would act as a drag on any expansion and so it was expected that the expansion would be slowing, if anything. There being no obvious cause of such an acceleration, “Dark Energy” was invented (Patch!).

Not only were these newcomers to cosmological theory unpredicted, they also are now claimed to constitute the majority of the energy and matter in the universe!

Recently, the James Webb telescope has been peering farther back into time than ever before. Do realize that the unit of distance measurement “light-years” measures just not distance, but time. A galaxy 2 million light-years away is at a distance that would take light 2 million years to traverse, were there a perfect vacuum between here and there, which there is not, but close enough for government work. So, the light we are receiving today from that galaxy left 2 million years ago so we are seeing what it looked like 2 million years ago. If the universe is expanding, we would expect that the farther back in time we looked, the less well developed things would be. The James Webb telescope is seeing galaxies so far back that they are in the earliest stages of galaxy formation and as one astronomer put it, “We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time . . .” but (you knew there was a but, didn’t you) “. . . but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.” (Patch Pending)

Most people are unaware that there are more than a few theories that compete with the BBT, and one of them may be taking over soon, because in the life cycle of theories it is “patches, patches, all fall down.”

The article here is well worth reading if you are interested in this topic: What if the Universe Is NOT Expanding?

Pantheism, Why?

I am reading a wonderful book on the religious stances of the founders of the US. In that book it is claimed that many, probably most, of the key players in the American Revolution were deists, which should be shocking because to those in mainstream religion, that is almost all other Americans, considered deism a form of atheism, which was a punishable crime in many places in the Colonies.

The deism most popular at the time would probably called pantheism today.

pantheism (noun) the doctrine that the universe conceived of as a whole is God and, conversely, that there is no God but the combined substance, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The book’s title by the way, is “Nature’s God, The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.”

This post is about pantheism (I will report on the book later). I can’t help but wonder why anyone would even bother. It seems that nature has already been labeled and calling it “god” doesn’t change anything. At first I was supposing this equation was because people were brought up with a concept of a god or gods and they just could see the universe without a god in it (or of it) somewhere.

Then I thought that this could be a form of weapon used against traditional religion. There are some advantages. The Abrahamic gods were claimed to be omnipresent, which makes no sense as I have written before. (A god which is omnipotent and omniscient need not be anywhere anywhen to observe or act. It already has seen and heard all there is to see and hear and can act from anywhere.) But if nature is your god, you can make a good argument for omnipresence, because it just is. No matter where you go, there you are, as the saying goes. Omnipresence is a brute fact of pantheism.

The book’s author, however, makes another argument, which seems plausible. He states “Radical philosophy really begins with the intuition that the great problem with the common religious consciousness is not that it thinks so highly of God but that it thinks so little of nature.”

Clearly we are completely dependent upon nature. Were major natural systems to collapse, whether any of us could survive is a real question. The Judeo-Christian religion gives nature to us as “something inherently inert, passive, mechanical, and therefore unable to give life meaning, and it congeals its nihilism in the hallucination of an otherworldly God.” We are told to go forth and multiply and nature is there to do with as we choose. And our exploitation of nature’s “resources” is unbridled and, we now see, doing real damage to our ability to survive.

Were we to consider nature to be god and therefore sacred, would we treat it differently? Possibly the Native Americans have shown us that we would have, as they did.

I am uncomfortable with this as it seems a form of self-delusion—“Hey, guys, I have an idea, let’s pretend nature is God!”

As you can see I see pantheism as an unnecessary complication, but it may be a useful interim weapon to use against traditional religion’s rape of nature. Obviously if we do not survive any fine points in this argument are moot.

What do you think? Are you a pantheist? (How about you, John?)

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