Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critical Thinking for the New Year

One of the things I've noticed about social networking sites is that they really cut down on the blogging, and a bunch of other things I should be doing as well, both on- and off-line. Once in a blue moon I make resolutions, and as it so happens, the New Year coincides with a "blue moon" (the second full moon December). The only resolution I have for this coming year is to try to meter myself and give balanced attention to all the pokers in my fire.

There are a number of things I've not blogged about that I've mentioned on Facebook or elsewhere. Among them are the large number of really interesting sites I've found on the web, like http://www.openfilm.com/. Imagine user-created content made by people who really know how to do it. Then you have some idea of OpenFilm.com... it's the open-ness of YouTube with the production standards of Hulu. Really awesome.

Here's one of the films I found there, by way of Brian Dunning's Skeptoid podcast:

"Here Be Dragons" is a 40-minute film by Brian Dunning about critical thinking, which should, in my opinion, be shown to every elementary school student. It's not a film that "debunks" anything... rather, it's about how to think logically and skeptically so that valid useful information isn't drowned out by a the cacophony of pseudoscientific and just plain bogus claims that bombard us every day. Dunning targets many of the "dragons" that plague modern thinking... areas of sloppy thought and pseudo-science that reflect thought processes stuck in the Dark Ages... a time when mapmakers annotated the unknown blank areas of the world with the titular label.

I've already heard criticism that the film doesn't address the biggest "dragon" of them all... religion. You can't be comprehensive in a 40-minute film, and Dunning deals with many, many more issues in his weekly podcast than in this film. Skeptoid is a fascinating podcast, well worth your time. Nevertheless, having been a long-time listener of Skeptoid, I know where Dunning's coming from, but I do wish he'd have given a more prominent mention of religion than he did in the film to make it clear.

In the film Dunning notes that not every belief needs to be debunked. Those that stand in the way of progress do. When you're looking at the "dragons" that are addressed in the film, note that they are measurable claims that are nonetheless unsupported by empirical evidence. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong; but that, to the extent they are measurable, they fail. This includes such things as palmistry, homeopathy, ghostbusting, etc. What it does not do is address those claims that are not measurable. I.e., matters of faith.

The mere claim of the existence of God cannot be disproved; therefore it is in no way productive to even attempt to "debunk" it. It's a matter of faith, and faith in no God has no argumentative advantage over faith in God. Where specific, measurable claims are made, however, Skeptoid is on it like white on rice. Does faith healing work? Psychic surgery? New Age energy fields? These are areas ripe for critical thinking.

Keep in mind that Dunning is not out to do your thinking for you. Instead, he's telling you about logical fallacies and questionable debating techniques used to obscure the truth. You are encouraged to research and think on your own. And this is another sense in which "critical thinking" is "critical"... if something is debunked for you, then you're no better equipped to avoid the next scam that comes your way. But if you are taught to think critically, then you are nobody's mark.

So does this film slay the "dragon" of religion? No, nor is it intended to. Not only is that "dragon" not slayable, there are many skeptics that would deny it is a dragon at all. And those that do fare very poorly in debate, as I had previously noted with regard to Michael Shermer's poor showing in a debate on that very subject. Even a highly accomplished skeptic flounders against the immeasurable. Shermer's first and last mistake in that debate was agreeing to it at all.

But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. The critical thinking techniques laid out by Dunning (and Carl Sagan, and Michael Shermer, James Randi, and others) are every bit as valid and useful to the clergy as it is to an atheist. Something that every human being on this planet should be aware of is that those things that are provable, measurable and demonstrable take precedence over those ideas that are purely held by faith. It's why the Vatican acknowledges a round Earth, heliocentrism, and evolution. So long as religion doesn't deny what is demonstrably real, there is no "debunking" to do.

And that's how it should be.

Do yourself a favor. Watch the film. Read the references Dunning recommends at the end.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Quantum Propulsion and other random thoughts

I'm really geeking out about something right now.

For a while I've had an idea for a sci-fi concept which I call a "vacuum propeller". The concept is that a ship can be propelled by exploiting the quantum fluctuations in empty space. Ever since Stephen Hawking wrote about the phenomenon I thought it was pretty cool, and that this would be a cool application for it if it could be exploited. The cool part is that since you're propelling yourself through a medium, you don't have to carry reaction mass, and your spaceship can be many, many times smaller. Look at how much larger a rocket is than a jet, and you get the idea.

Well, it looks like somebody else had the same idea (as they should... it's obvious), and took it way farther by actually working out how it would work. It's explained here in Technology Review.

BTW, I love just thinking about such stuff. For instance, with this technology I wonder, since quantum fluctuations are particle/antiparticle pairs, could you exploit it for both propulsion (particle) and fuel (antiparticle)? Would it leave a wake?

I LOVE old space operas (of the "Doc" Smith genre) and this has every hallmark of it. The very best science fiction, IMHO, takes ONE possibility and explores the ramifications of it. It keeps everything believable by grounding everything in real science except the one speculative bit. (That's what keeps Star Trek firmly in the fantasy genre for me... they can solve any problem whatsoever by making up a bit of jargon, and they do.) For me, real science fiction can "cheat" on known physics... but only once.

Here's one I'd like to see explored. What if a real force field were possible? The sci-fi staple applications are shields and jail doors (which are silly, IMHO... why burn the power when you could have just put a door in the hole?). What more unusual applications could result? Could you use it as a balloon by forcing air molecules away from your ship? Could this allow you to realize the old sci-fi achievement of apparently levitating your ship well away from the surface prior to kicking in the reaction engines (giving an advantage similar to the advantage that White Knight gives SpaceShipOne)? Could it take the place of your usual reaction engine by accelerating the propellant away from the ship? Would it give you "levitating" cars like Luke Skywalker's landspeeder? No antigravity here... just various applications of the one forcefield technology.

One that I'm absolutely sick of seeing is "magic gravity". The only way of achieving artificial gravity is to substitute mass with acceleration. It doesn't matter what kind of acceleration. So if you constantly speed the ship up you have apparent gravity. Spin the ship (or part of it) and you again have artificial gravity. But "gravitons" and "gravity deck plating" etc don't explain anything. In fact, it becomes a major problem if you consider that in most sci-fi tales the artificial gravity works even when all ship's power dies. And why don't people walk on the ceiling? They should be able to if the deck above you also has "gravity plating". Gravity isn't directional. So lay off the magic gravity. Also, I wish they'd lay off the complicated carousels when designing spaceships with plausible artificial gravity. It's safer, simpler, and more reliable to do away with all the mechanical hocus pocus and simply spin the whole ship. You don't want to have to try to replace or repair a monstrous carousel gimbal while you're a gazillion miles from home.