Wednesday, November 01, 2017

More Substandard Analysis from "Answers in Genesis"

Comets have always been a bit of a mystery. 

Danny Faulkner, a tame scholar who works for fundamentalist theme park boss Ken Ham, has written another article on comets, a phenomenon which he appears to think supports his boss's notion of a young cosmos (i.e.~ 6000 years).  I'm not at all impressed with Danny Faulkner's performance at AiG and I have written blog posts on his work before. See here:

The current article by Faulkner can be found here:

This is Faulkner's first paragraph in that article:

When I was growing up, the definition of science was simple: “the study of the natural world using the five senses.” This definition placed some limits upon science. For instance, science was restricted to the study of the natural world, so anything supernatural was out of bounds to science. Supernatural things include miracles, angels, souls, and God. Even if something is part of the natural world, it wasn’t considered scientific unless we could detect it with our five senses.

MY COMMENT: I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Faulkner hasn't advanced much beyond his childhood understandings of scientific epistemology.

Firstly, science is not just about our five senses based experiences; it's also very much about how we interpret our experiences by joining the "dots" of the "data protocols" with theoretical narratives; it is those "data protocols" which are based on our experiences, experiences largely (but not exclusively) collected from the "five senses"  (Like, for example, our observations on the type and frequency of comets) We then go on to interpret the deeper meaning of these experiences by embedding them in theoretical structures. Of course, this activity of interpretation is carried out with varying degrees of rationality, rigor, testability, tentativeness and uncertainty and is best advanced with a measure of epistemic humility (an attitude which fundamentalists would do well to emulate rather than identifying their opinions with the very Words of God - an attitude they need to adopt when also reading the Bible)

Secondly, the so-called "supernatural" isn't barred from scientific investigation in as much as the allegedly aberrational nature of paranormal phenomena nevertheless leaves erratic and intermittent data protocols which can be investigated in the spirit of science. e.g. Someone makes claim to a miraculous healing from cancer; this claim can be investigated both through observations of historical accounts and from observations on the cancer sufferer. Of course, the erratic nature of the miraculous (a nature which it has by way of definition) means that such cases are difficult to confirm either way and conclusions drawn are a sensitive function of one's world view synthesis.

Thirdly, a note on the word "detect", a word which Faulkner uses: "Detection" is a theory laden concept. When some people find a large footprint in the woods or see a film of a shambling figure in a shaggy coat they will claim that it's a "Big Foot" detection event. When some people observe the accounts from witnesses about the sudden healing of a cancer sufferer they might regard it as a "supernatural" detection event. For the Christian, Christ is the express image of the Supernatural God, but much of the Christian understanding of Christ comes through historical accounts which of course are observed via the senses thus facilitating cognitive engagement. The fact is, even the so-called "supernatural" can be at least investigated using data delivered by the "five senses" and whether this data is regarded as a "detection" event is a function of the theories and world view one holds. This is, in fact, also true of more prosaic detection events: When we observe fossils in the rocks we effectively "detect" the presence of certain kinds animals in the distant past. In this case the so-called detection event, however, will involve a certain amount of theoretical anatomical reconstruction in our imaginations.

Because Faulkner appears to retain a simplistic "five senses" view of scientific epistemology and fails to appreciate the complex interplay between theory and observation/experience his understanding of epistemology is weak. Take these sentences for example:

Can we see this Oort comet cloud? Hardly. Remember that comet nuclei are very small.

Since there is no detectable evidence for the Oort cloud’s existence, it fails to qualify as a scientific idea by the older definition of science [i.e. Faulkner's "five senses" understanding of science]

MY COMMENT: Faulkner's "five senses" epistemology potentially could lead us down the anti-theoretical road of "If you can't see it, feel it, touch it etc, then there is no evidence for it". Wrong; we can't see, touch or feel atoms and fundamental particles; all the evidence for them is indirect and interpreted, based as it is on theoretical conceptions, even the evidence provided by electron microscopes and cloud chambers. But, of course, there is so much indirect evidence for elementary particles that we are left with little logical maneuvering room to allow us to propose alternative theories (Of course, the Oort cloud doesn't have anywhere near as much evidence in its favour.)

Given Faulkner's "five senses" epistemology it is very likely he  has swallowed the line taken by his boss Ken Ham, a man who thinks there is a fundamental difference between observational and historical science and that somehow historical science isn't observational: (See here)

But let's recall that Faulkner's article is really targeted towards selling AiG products to AiG's fundamentalist readers who will hear what they want to hear from Faulkner; namely, someone who talks with the same faux categories used by his boss and head salesman, Ken Ham. As we will see below Faulkner also has a distorted straw-man view of the actual status of the Oort cloud among scientists, a straw-man he no doubt succeeds in conveying to his target audience. This inquisitional approach of stuffing straw-man "confessions" into the mouths of outsiders whether they be Christians or non-Christians is encouraged by the fundamentalist minds of people like Ken Ham and Jason Lisle.

Given this sketch of Faulkner's confused understanding of scientific epistemology I'm now in a positon to comment on the following:

Why do so many scientists treat the Oort cloud as fact?

Since there is no detectable evidence for the Oort cloud’s existence, it fails to qualify as a scientific idea by the older definition of science.

Something (the Oort cloud) which we have no evidence for—except the imagination of evolutionary scientists who are desperate to defend their unfounded beliefs—is treated as fact because it’s “natural.”

MY COMMENT: As I keep saying evidence is never direct; it always has to be interpreted. In this sense there is "detectable" evidence for the Oort cloud in as much as the continued appearance of comets is interpreted as an observational support for the concept. However, these observations are currently not enough to raise the Oort cloud proposal above hypothesis level. Certainly, Faulkner is wrong in suggesting there is a wide spread scientific conspiracy to foist this hypothetical object upon the scientific community as a "fact".  Let's look at the Wiki entry on the Oort cloud (My emphases):

The Oort cloud (named after the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort), sometimes called the Öpik–Oort cloud, is a theoretical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals believed to surround the Sun to as far as somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 AU (0.8 and 3.2 ly)

Astronomers conjecture that the matter composing the Oort cloud formed closer to the Sun and was scattered far into space by the gravitational effects of the giant planets early in the Solar System's evolution. Although no confirmed direct observations of the Oort cloud have been made, it may be the source of all long-period and Halley-type comets entering the inner Solar System, and many of the centaurs and Jupiter-family comets as well.

The Oort cloud is thought to occupy a vast space from somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly)[3] from the Sun. Some estimates place the outer edge at between 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The region can be subdivided into a spherical outer Oort cloud of 20,000–50,000 AU (0.32–0.79 ly), and a torus-shaped inner Oort cloud of 2,000–20,000 AU (0.0–0.3 ly). The outer cloud is only weakly bound to the Sun and supplies the long-period (and possibly Halley-type) comets to inside the orbit of Neptune. The inner Oort cloud is also known as the Hills cloud, named after Jack G. Hills, who proposed its existence in 1981. Models predict that the inner cloud should have tens or hundreds of times as many cometary nuclei as the outer halo; it is seen as a possible source of new comets to resupply the tenuous outer cloud as the latter's numbers are gradually depleted. The Hills cloud explains the continued existence of the Oort cloud after billions of years.

Unlike Faulkner's distorted straw-man depiction we note here the very tentative and scientific tone of this article: There is no dogmatic assertion as to the existence of the Oort cloud: It is regarded as a theoretical and conjectural construction which provides a possible account for the continued existence of commentary ephemera. Notice the language used by the Wiki article: "Theoretical cloud", "Astronomer's conjecture...." "possible source of new comets", "may be", "proposed its existence".  Notice also that Oort cloud models are used to make predictions which wait for the all important observational testing; if such is possible in this case. But of course these scientific nuances are lost on Faulkner and the audience he is selling to. Instead he points to a piece of conjectured science, in this case the Oort cloud, and attempts to convey the idea that scientists are trying to pass it off as "fact".  But if the Wiki article is anything to go by then contrary to Faulkner's bland and simplistic assertion, the Oort Cloud proposal is typical of the scientific epistemic process. Faulkner appears not to understand this process. 

It is often remarked that anti-science evangelicals and fundamentalists spend most of their time in the negative pursuit of ferreting out the weak points of established science without proposing any positive ideas of their own. This is true and it is also true of Faulkner's article. The nearest Faulkner comes to proposing an alternative to the Oort cloud is this cryptic statement:

If the solar system were only a few hundred million years old (that’s nowhere near the supposed age of the universe), no more comets would remain.

MY COMMENT:  What's Faulkner trying to tell us here that we don't know already? We would only have a problem with the persistence of comet visitations if we knew for a fact that the supply of comets was, from the outset, very limited. But we simply don't know the origins of comets: That's why the Oort cloud only has tentative theoretical purchase. But neither does Faulkner know. And yet from the above statement he appears to be claiming he does know!  For it almost looks as though he may be trying to pass off the theory that God made such a limited supply of comets that even if the Solar System was just a few millions of years old this God ordained supply would be used up. But where can we observe in the Bible claims that God created a supply of comets which might be exhausted inside a few million years? The fact is we don't possess all the facts; we don't know how many comets are out there, or how many were there from the beginning, or even if they are being generated in someway; and this includes Faulkner himself. So in short Faulkner has no basis for hinting that the supply of comets should be used up in a few million years; he's just plucked this out of his authoritarian fundamentalist imagination.

There is little to be gained in writing any more about this incompetent article other than to point to my blog post where I give further comments on Faulkner's views on comets  See here:

Ham has turned Faulkner into a woolly minded scientific dunce and that is how Ham dearly wants all Christians to be. And if Christians don't accept the divine authority of Ham's opinions he is apt to spiritually abuse them.

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Relevant links: On epistemology:

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