Re-evaluation

I think that many people who are anti-science, or even just anti-my-pet-theory, have trouble not with the science itself but with their own inability to re-evaluate their position. You might remember a post I made awhile back called Cognitive Disfunction. It was about the inability to accept evidence contrary to one’s own belief regardless of the reason. As an example I used the Plane on a Conveyor Belt episode of Mythbusters. As I thought about it more I came to the realization that the major problem there was an inability to re-evaluate the original conclusion that they reached.

In part the problem arose because of that way that it was worded (which was most likely by design). Here again is the actual description of the problem.

[N]ormally a plane sits on the runway, spins up its engines, moves forwards gets enough air over its wings and takes off. But in this case, the plane is sitting not on the runway, but a huge conveyor belt that is matching the planes forward speed in reverse, and the grand question is can the plane take off? The myth is that it can’t

On first hearing it, the mental image that you might form is one of the plane standing still because the faster it moves, the faster the conveyor belt moves, thereby nullifying it’s forward speed and preventing it from getting any airflow over the wings so it can fly. It just remains stationary. I admit that this was my first impression and I was one of those people who were fooled by the wording.

The breakthrough moment comes when you realize that this conclusion is based on the false premise that the wheels are powering the forward movement of the plane. They aren’t. The forward movement comes from the propellers (or possible the jet), which is independent of the wheels. Therefore it doesn’t matter how fast the conveyor belt moves, the plane will move forward.

I think many of the people who were arguing against the Mythbuster’s conclusion were stuck with their first impression of the problem. Arguments that the wheels didn’t affect the forward movement of the plane weren’t even relevant to them because as far as they were concerned the description said that the plane was stationary, and a stationary plane cannot take off. The fact that you were arguing against that simple premise demonstrated that you didn’t actually understand the original description.

A similar problem seems to affect people who are dead set against the Theory of Evolution. I’ve been in many debates with anti-evolutionists who obviously had a great misunderstanding of how evolution works. For example they would say that mutations can only be detrimental, meaning that natural selection could only allow organisms to survive which couldn’t survive because of the mutations. The absurdity of that proves that evolution is false. Or they would question exactly who it is that is deciding which organisms live or die. Without someone to make that decision evolution simply cannot work. These are obviously profound misunderstandings of how evolution works, but of course from their point of view I am the one that doesn’t understand. And just like the stationary plane they are based on initial misunderstandings that they either can’t or won’t re-evaluate.

Scale

I think people automatically think on a kind of logarithmic scale when contemplating extraordinary distances simply because the analogies used by our intuition cause magnitude to be lost. The moon orbiting the earth is roughly analogous to the earth orbiting the sun and so our minds map the moon to the earth and the earth to the sun, and the difference in magnitude is lost. We look at a galaxy and it appears roughly similar to the solar system. We can tell ourselves that the galaxy is incomprehensibly larger, but in our heads we see a solar system and the size difference is reduced to “It’s like this, but bigger.” We look at the universe, at all of the galaxies out there, and it appears roughly similar to the stars in our own galaxy. “It’s like our galaxy, but bigger.”

My hope is that these resources might help you get a grip on the actual sizes involved when thinking about the universe.

First, this website (http://www.phrenopolis.com/perspective/solarsystem/) shows the solar system to scale. According to the site: “This page shows a scale model of the solar system, shrunken down to the point where the Sun, normally more than eight hundred thousand miles across, is the size you see it here [approximately 6 inches]. The planets are shown in corresponding scale.”

Next a comparison of celestial bodies, including the planets and various types of stars.

Finally, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3D.

All this really does for me in the end is highlight just how bad I am at imagining the sizes and distances involved in the universe. Even knowing it I find myself unable to do any better.

Agnosiophobia*

Roughly translated, agnosiophobia means “fear of not knowing” or “fear of a lack of knowledge”. Specifically this means the irrational fear of something not being known, not only personally but in general. This often results in an irrational assertion that in fact the thing being considered is actually known. When pressed the sufferer of this phobia will claim that they don’t have the knowledge themselves, but that they know where to get such knowledge. Most commonly this assertion refers to a deity of some sort, though in some cases the assertion that it is known is enough without also having to assert where and with whom such knowledge exists. In all cases contemplating the idea that the answer is not known by anyone is cause for great anxiety and is to be avoided at all cost.

*I “invented” this word, though I’m guessing it’s already been made up many times in the past already, so I make no actual claim of originality. A quick Google revealed the existence of the word (namely as a blog), but no concrete definition.

The Journey and the Destination

A friend recently stated that he thought that I was more intelligent than he was. I’m kind of embarrassed at the fact that I didn’t immediately deny it. First because I think it’s common courtesy to deny it initially, even if you think such a statement is true. Second because I don’t actually think that it’s true. Or rather, I think it’s only partially true. In the same way I think it’s partially true that he is more intelligent than I am. It’s basically the difference between the journey and the destination. Continue reading