Monday, November 9, 2009

Billions and billions and billions...actually just 62 years

Carl Sagan
November 9th, 1934 to December 20th, 1996

This is the birthdate of Carl Sagan. Say whatever negative you like about Carl Sagan he did a tremendous justice for popularization of science. Kind of like Einstein...a very productive period and then bask in the limelight. I never thought much of his obsession with aliens and the SETI program, but he did provide, based on his book The Demon Haunted World, his "Baloney Detection Kit".

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

*Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
*Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
*Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
*Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
*Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
*Quantify, wherever possible.

*If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
*"Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
*Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are...

*Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
*Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric...

*Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
*Argument from "authority".
*Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
*Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
*Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
*Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
*Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
*Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
*Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)
*Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
*Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
*Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
*Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
*Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
*Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
*Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
*Confusion of correlation and causation.
*Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack..
*Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
*Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

Bill Ashworth in the Linda Hall Library Newsletter wrote:

Carl Sagan, an American astronomer and author, was born Nov. 9, 1934. Sagan was a planetary scientist at Cornell and a principal adviser at NASA during the early years of the space program. Sagan was largely responsible for ensuring that every spacecraft destined to leave the solar system carried a message about earth to any interested readers; Pioneer 10 and 11 both display plaques, and Voyager 1 and 2 carry long-playing records with encoded sounds and images of earth. Sagan also wrote and narrated Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a 13-part PBS special that aired in the fall of 1980 and is still today the most watched PBS special in the world. In addition, Sagan wrote and published a science fiction novel, Contact, in 1985, which was made into a fairly good movie starring Jodie Foster.

The Carl Sagan Portal


Popularization of science

Brian Greene:

"Put a Little Science in Your Life"...please

Freeman Dyson:

A birthday celebration today-- Freeman Dyson...#85

Freeman Dyson--optimist

Lawrence Krauss:

Krauss & Jeremijenko on a date and discuss science

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Neil deGrasse representative

Neil deGrasse Tyson..."NOVA scienceNow"--2nd season

Pluto, Tyson, CNN lecture

"The Pluto Files" by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson, Weintraub, Tombaugh & Pluto

Tyson's interview with "Time" on Pluto and planets

Stephen Hawking:

Another review of Stephen and Lucy Hawking's children's book

"George's Secret Key to the Universe"--Stephen Hawking & daughter Lucy

Hawking, Einstein, Africa

Hawking--England or Canada...makes no difference

Job application...Lucasian professor of mathematics

Peter Higgs vs Stephen Hawking

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

S. Hawking documentary

S. Hawking to Canada

Stephen Hawking's warnings

Space exploration?...Stephen Hawking's perspective

Stephen Hawking..."Master of the Universe"--documentary


Timothy said...

yeah i liked him too....SETI was a bit much as you say but he did do a lot for science...sad we did not get another 20 years out of him

Anonymous said...

If you never thought much of SETI and extraterrestrial life, then you are dismissing a large part of Sagan's life and work.

Sagan did more for science than a lot of his fellow scientists, and he paid the price because they don't like anyone looking bigger and better than them.

Mercury said...

"If you never thought much of SETI and extraterrestrial life, then you are dismissing a large part of Sagan's life and work."

Time, talent, and money are wasted on such endeavors. Philip Morrison followed the same path. Did Einstein or Hans Bethe become involved--no. I don't find chasing aliens science.

"Sagan did more for science than a lot of his fellow scientists, and he paid the price because they don't like anyone looking bigger and better than them."

Depends on what you mean by "science". Sagan was good at popularization.