Science champion wanted

I’ve gotten a few emails from people relating to science, so I think it would be beneficial to hash this out in public. I propose a Socratic dialogue to examine the following question: Is science self-correcting?

Whoever is nominated the Official Champion ofSpeaker for Science should at least be an enthusiastic believer in the scientific method, although an actual scientist would be preferred. Don’t forget to inform everyone of your credentials, as I’m told they’re very important! Now, this isn’t intended to be a debate per se, because I am not defending a position and I have nothing against the idea of science being self-correcting. If the matter is as obvious as my various emailers believe it to be, it should be no problem to successfully answer my simple and straightforward questions in a manner that will prove illuminating to everyone.

So, feel free to throw your name in the hat if you’re interested in educating me and everyone else can discuss who they believe would provide the strongest and most credible champion of science here.

UPDATE: We have several volunteers, two of whom stand out in particular. Matt is a Scienceblogger and PhD candidate for a degree in Physics, while 445supermag is a Senior Research Scientist with 15 published papers ranging from biophysics to quantum chemistry. Matt has suggested that the dialogue include both of them, seeing as they represent different disciplines within science, and I tend to agree with him. I think they will both make for excellent Speakers for Science, but feel free to share your opinon on the matter.

The source of evangelism

Christians are driven to evangelize out of duty or out of a sympathetic desire to prevent others from destruction. Other religions proselytize for similar reasons. But why do militant atheists evangelize so fervently? I suspect one reason may be from an instinctive demographic fear:

The World Values Survey, which covered 82 nations from 1981 to 2004, found that adults who attended religious services more than once a week had 2.5 children on average; while those who went once a month had two; and those who never attended had 1.67. Prof Rowthorn wrote: “The more devout people are, the more children they are likely to have.”

As Rowthorn notes, people do fall away from their childhood religions, although as I have shown in the past, this is also true of those with no childhood religion. But the demographic disadvantage means that the atheist community has to keep all of their children within the godless fold and deconvert one out of every three religious children just to keep pace with the growth of the religious community.

No wonder their evangelical efforts are so feverish. And no wonder their writings are so frequently tinged with despair, because their own children are converting to religion faster than religious children are converting out of it.

Shakespeare had it wrong

The first thing we do is bankrupt all the prospective lawyers.

YOU WENT TO LAW SCHOOL, YOU RAN UP A LOT OF DEBT, and now you can’t get admitted to the bar because having huge debts and no plan to pay them back fails the “character and fitness” test. What the hell kind of legal education system are we running where we charge people more than they can afford to get a legal education, and then prevent them from being lawyers because they can’t pay off their debts?

I don’t know, it strikes me as a rather good way of preemptively punishing those who thought to make a living by leeching off the blood of productive society. Since lawyers are literally officers of the court, which is to say the state, they’re just another unnecessary and unproductive layer of government. We’ve clearly reached that societal stage where, having plundered nearly as much of the private sector as possible, the various aspects of the public sector is now devouring itself.

Phantom income, real bonuses

You almost have to admire the insane insouciance of the bankers, who boldly invent fake profits in order to pay themselves gargantuan profit-shares as bonuses:

The giant US banks have been bailed out again from huge potential writeoffs by loosey-goosey accounting accepted by the accounting profession and the regulators. They are allowed to accrue interest on non-performing mortgages until the actual foreclosure takes place, which on average takes about 16 months.

All the phantom interest that is not actually collected is booked as income until the actual act of foreclosure. As a resullt, many bank financial statements actually look much better than they actually are. At foreclosure all the phantom income comes off the books of the banks.

This means that Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, among hundreds of other smaller institutions, can report interest due them, but not paid, on an estimated $1.4 trillion of face value mortgages on the 7 million homes that are in the process of being foreclosed.

That does explain the slowdown in foreclosures rather nicely, doesn’t it. This is amazing news and makes the Enron accounting look downright angelic in comparison. It’s the equivalent of Intel booking income from the sales of millions of chips, then admitting 16 months later that it never actually sold anything. And it would certainly be an incredible way to launch a startup and take it public, assuming you could get it done in 16 months.

I’ve been reading the most excellent An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, specifically the chapter on the pre-Salamancan scholastics, and I have to admit that the medieval anti-usury arguments Rothbard criticizes are looking more and more reasonable in the light of the way modern banks have taken the core concepts of credit and interest that were originally derived from natural law and private property rights and turned them into a fraudulent and usurious monstrosity that completely defies reality, reason, and logic.

By the way, there will definitely be a future Voxiversity on Rothbard’s History. It is approximately 61.8 times more interesting and informative than AGD was.

Precision in biology

Only a 67% error rate. Why is that so completely unsurprising? I continue to find it remarkable that biologists insist on inserting their uneducated noses into other fields of study when they quite clearly have no idea what they’re doing in their own scientific discipline:

The world’s plant life is far less diverse than previously thought, with a review of about one million named plants finding that only one third of them are unique. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in southwestern London, has published “The Plant List” online Wednesday, updating a project conceived 130 years ago by the British naturalist Charles Darwin.

The list attempts to identify every plant known to science, and was begun in the 1880s with the help of a bequest from Darwin. The review found 300,000 unique species, and 480,000 synonyms for those species, meaning that many had been “discovered” and named several times by botanists. Another 260,000 names were listed as “unresolved,” meaning that botanists have so far been unable to determine whether they are a separate species of a duplication of one of the 300,000.

In the immortal words of Bill Belichick: “Do your job.” And yes, in answer to a question from one previous commenter, the fact that biologists can’t even be relied upon to correctly define a “species” or reliably identify them does very much call into serious question their various theories regarding the origin of those species. Or, you know, whatever they are.

“Well, we can’t tell you what it is, or even what “it” means, when we are examining what is right in front of us. But we can tell you with complete and utter confidence exactly how, and from what, these things that we can’t define or identify were developed thousands of years ago. And if you don’t believe us, then you just don’t understand science.”

Mmm-kay. I have come to the conclusion that many, if not most, biologists not only don’t grasp basic logic, they are not terribly clear on the concept of history either. Most people understand that if they said X yesterday and Y today, others will tend to find them less than perfectly credible and rather expect them to say Z tomorrow. The biologist, on the other hand, insists that X is really Y if you just squint hard enough and denies that there could ever possibly be Not-Y, not infrequently prior to Nature publishing an article declaring that Y, formerly believed to be X, has now been replaced by Z… or amusingly, in some cases, a new variant of X. And, as this botanical news yet again confirms, you don’t have to know what the variables are in order to recognize the dynamic pattern.

This was my favorite part: “Despite the surprising lack of diversity among plant life, the botanists and scientists associated with the project all hailed it as a milestone achievement for many different reasons.”

Congratulations, you finally figured out just how wildly inept your colleagues have been for the last 130 years. No doubt this very brief interregnum of inaccuracy will be rapidly and scientifically swept beneath the historical carpet. In fact, the error rate is worse than reported two-thirds; they were only able to specifically identify 29 percent since 25 percent are still “unresolved”. Now, no doubt this incident will tempt some intrepid devotee of Science Reason to resort to one of his favorite mantras: “science is self-correcting”. But as JQP has pointed out, this touching religious claim notwithstanding, science is not “self-correcting” in any way, shape, or form. Accountants also audit each other’s work and actually do so much more often than scientists attempt to replicate other scientists’ experiments… to the extent that scientists even do any experiments in the first place. And yet we don’t consider accounting to be “self-correcting” simply because the books may be audited at some point in the future. As for peer review, that is more commonly known as “editing” by the rest of the publishing world. There is a word that best describes any field in which news reports regularly involve the words “than previously thought”. That word is “unreliable”.

Even economists, whose imprecision borders on legendary at this point, usually manage to do better than this. Can you imagine if the quarterly GDP revisions reported $14.4 trillion for Q4 2010, subsequently revised to $4.2 trillion? (The scary thing is that’s not actually unthinkable if one considers the amount of credit supporting those numbers.) Or if Bloomberg reported that the Dow dropped from 11,755 to 3,391. The only reason biologists can get away with this astounding level of imprecision is that their butterfly collecting and theoretical fairy tales don’t have much material significance in the real world.