Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Skeptic's UFO Encounter

The week of Halloween I was at a local church for their annual "Trunk or Treat" event. There were about 4,000 people there (including 1,500 or so Elsa costumes). There was ample opportunity to stand in lines. During one of these waits, I noticed some people near me pointing in the sky so naturally I looked. Behold, in the night sky there was floating overhead 4 slowly rotating lights, 2 red and 2 green. The object was fixed in the sky. Several people were asking "what is that?" with mild alarm in their voices. It did not move from its spot for about 2 minutes, it just sat in place.

I shot a video of this thing and it can be found here. I'd recommend you give it a look before continuing your read.

After 2 minutes or so it started slowly moving across the sky and fixed itself into another position.  A few people starting becoming frightened. "Oh my gosh, that is totally a UFO!"

My heart racing and my rational mind freaking out. This is, without a doubt, the closest thing to a UFO encounter I can ever remember.  I cannot explain this. My mind was having a real freakout. I do not believe alien UFO's visit Earth, yet what am I seeing right now?

While the murmurings of the crowd began growing more uneasy, I forced my rational mind to take back over and started doing what any person should do. Instead of saying "this is a UFO!" and then running and telling this creepy story to everyone I know, I began calmly asking myself questions.

"What could this be? An airplane? No, it's stationary in the sky. A hot air balloon? No, it's too still and moves too deliberately and stops on a dime.  A helicopter? I doubt it, the lights on a helicopter flash in different points, and this thing doesn't seem very high up in the sky. A remote controlled helicopter? That's certainly possible, seems more likely than a UFO, but flying RC copters are really hard, especially at night when you can't see them. Oh wait, what about one of those quad-copter things? That would explain the 4 lights."

So I pulled out my phone and googled "Quad RC Helicopter."

It took some digging, but lo and behold! Our mystery UFO with red and green lights has been solved! You can buy this thing on Amazon for $499. It allows you to attach a go-pro camera on it, which is what was happening at this event.

What a neat experience this was for me and reminds me of just how susceptible our brains are to delusion.  Our minds have a tendency to jump to conclusions when we observe phenomenon we cannot explain. It would have been very easy for me to latch onto the UFO idea and ran with it.

This happens quite often. I have had people tell me all kinds of things about experiences they have had, brushes with the supernatural, encounters with UFO's, Bigfoot sightings, ghost encounters, psychic visions of the future, so on and so forth. I have a hard time believing them.  When people are recounting their brushes with supernatural phenomenon, I believe they're being honest and sincere. That UFO experience was very real for me and my emotions and confusion was also very real. The experience is genuine.

What I have trouble believing are people's assessments of the causation for these events.

My experience with the quad-copter gave me a unique perspective on this. I got the benefit of experiencing an unexplained event and all of the very real emotions that come with it, in addition to calmly and rationally seeking an explanation instead of latching onto one instinctively and refusing to stray from it.

So when Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, and New Agers all tell me they've had personal experiences with the various gods or powers they believe in, I accept their sincerity but not their conclusion. People are generally very bad at not only accurately recalling events, but also at applying a proper causal factor.

As a side note, a few days after the Trunk or Treat event, the church posted this photograph on their Facebook page, along with a thanks to the person who took the photo from their drone copter and emailed it to the church.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Evolution is an Unpleasant Fact

Evolution is a fact.

First and foremost, it's time for grownups in the 21st century to deal with and accept that evolution is true. And yes, I mean the big, scary "macro" evolution. Sometimes reality is difficult and unpleasant to deal with, that does not make reality any less true because it's unpleasant. You have probably been told your entire life by people you love and trust that evolution is fake. Here is a difficult and unpleasant truth I hope you can understand and take to heart; these people, while wonderful and well-intentioned, probably had no clue what they're talking about.

This is going to be a long blog post, but hang in there. Take the time to read and process this, it's written with the lay person who has an average science aptitude in mind.

In the first part I'd like to address some serious misconceptions about evolution, then in the second part I'd like to put forth why evolution is fact and that everything in your life from the breed of dog you own, to the food you eat, to the vaccines you put in your children exist because of our understanding of evolution, and without that understanding, we could not enjoy the health and prosperity we enjoy today.

Note: For the remainder of the article "evolution" will be understood to mean big, scary macro evolution as well as micro.

Part 1: Misconceptions About Evolution

Misconception 1: You Cannot Believe in Both God and Evolution or Evolution is Atheism.

This is patently false. In fact, more Christians accept evolution than there are atheists that exist (1). And not all atheists accept evolution.  Dr. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian, former head of the Human Genome Project, and author of the book "The Language of God." Regarding evolution, he is quoted as saying thus:

"As someone who's had the privilege of leading the human genome project, I've had the opportunity to study our own DNA instruction book at a level of detail that was never really possible before.
It's also now been possible to compare our DNA with that of many other species. The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming.
I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that."

The Reverend Billy Graham had this to say on the subject of evolution.

"I don't think that there's any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we've tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren't meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. ... whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man's relationship to God."

Leading Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, while not convinced evolution is true, explains why it's not a problem for a Christian to believe it and why he believes if evolution is true, that's even a greater evidence for God's existence.

Other notable Christian scientists who accept common ancestry among species: George Coyne, Darrell Falk, Robert Bakker, Simon Conway Morris, Michael Behe, Ronald Fisher, John Haught, Carl Giberson, Denis Lamoreux, C.S. Lewis, Ian Barbour, Alister McGrath, Kenneth Miller, Thomas Jay Oord, R.J Berry, Joan Roughgarden, Pierre Telhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Keith Ward.

Misconception 2: If We Can't Directly Observe it, it's Just a Guess

Imagine what would happen in a court of law if this misconception were true. In the American court system, guilt must be demonstrated beyond all shadows of doubt. How is this even possible if prosecuting attorney or Crime Scene Investigator never directly observed a murder? Can this be done through DNA evidence? Can it be done through tracing a person's location through cell towers? Can it be done through collecting fingerprints at the crime scene after the fact? Can it be done by casting fresh tire and shoe tracks at the murder scene that match the suspect?

We can accurately determine past events through present evidence. It's done every day, all the time in homicide investigations and the same process gives us accurate results about the story of our ancestry.

Let's talk about tree rings for just a moment. Tree rings form at a rate of about 1 per year (season) in most areas on Earth. That means you can expect 1 ring for every year of age the tree has. Not only that, you can also tell other things about the life of this tree. You can inspect the rings and find years of abundant rain or excessive drought. You can determine if there was a forest fire and during what year of the tree's life. You can determine if this tree ever survived a fungus in the past. You can determine if something like a rock pressed against the tree, causing asymmetric growth. In some species of tree you can even get an accurate reading on the average temperature or snowfall for that year of the tree's life.

Pluto was discovered in 1930. It has an orbital period around the sun of 248.68 Earth years. We know Pluto's orbital period around the sun even though we have not fully observed it. This is how science works. It's taking present data and extrapolating a result both backwards in the case of evolution, crime scenes, and tree rings, and forwards in the case of things like Pluto, and weather forecasting.

Misconception 3: It's Only a Theory

Words have multiple meanings. When you say you love ice cream or that you love your favorite sports team it does not mean the same thing when you say you love your children.  When you have a tennis match, that's not the same thing as striking a match, or saying those two would be make a cute match.

This is part of the confusion with scientific theories. In everyday language, a theory means a guess or a hunch.  People errantly assume that theory being attached to a concept in science also makes it a guess. This is not the case.

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of the natural world that is repeatedly confirmed through observation, testing, and peer-review. A scientific theory is the highest possible goal in science. The model of our solar system places the sun at the center and all planets revolving around it. This is called heliocentric theory. The idea that all matter is made of small particles called atoms is atomic theory. The idea that all bodies of mass have a mutual attraction is called the theory of universal gravitation. The idea that some diseases are caused by microorganisms is called the germ theory of disease. Like evolution, we know all these theories to be fact because multiple lines of evidence independently and repeatedly confirm them.

By the way, a "law" in science suffers from similar confusion about terms. In regular language a law is something that is unbreakable.  In science a law is a simple observation, usually expressed in a mathematical formula, which has no explanatory power.  Laws are subject to change in science with newer, better data. A theory never graduates to a law. In fact in the hierarchy of science, theories are held in higher esteem than laws, but they do have different functions. 

Misconception 4: A Lot of Scientists Reject Evolution

There are trained, educated scientists on this planet who believe the Earth is flat, ( about 500 or so according to the Flat Earth Society website.

The level of support for evolution in the science community is over 97%. The level of support for evolution among biologists in science is over 99% (Level of support for evolution).  The Discovery Institute is a group of 700 scientists worldwide who are openly skeptical of evolution, about 450 of which are American.

So yes, while strictly speaking 700 is a fairly high number, there are 2.5 million scientists in the United States alone, and an estimated 12 million scientists worldwide.

Now, a level of support does not make an idea true. But a level of support does make 700 scientists who are skeptical of evolution not an impressive number to consider. Nor do 500 scientists who believe the Earth is flat make it a credible idea to consider. Yes lots of intelligent people are skeptical of evolution. A lot of intelligent people are skeptical the Earth is round. Intelligence and belief are separate cognitive functions.

Misconception 5: We Cannot Find a Missing Link

Ah yes, the missing link. It's important to understand that the missing link is not a scientific concept, it's one that was invented by evolution-deniers. In other words, evolution-deniers have erected a set of goal posts called "the missing link" and set them outside the stadium on which the game of scientific inquiry is being played.  First and foremost, fossilization is a rare event. So scientists don't use fossilization as a means of confirming evolution. This is an important concept to understand. The truth of evolution does not rely on the fossil record. However, the fossil record is all evolution-deniers talk about for some reason.

That being said, the fossil record strongly supports evolution but it's not needed. As referenced earlier, Dr. Francis Collins (remember the evangelical Christian and head of the human genome project) says this about the fossil record.

"Even if no fossils existed, the DNA record alone confirms common ancestry among all species."

But to reiterate, there is a fossil record and it strongly supports evolution. The above photograph is a set of primate skulls that range from very primitive to modern human. Several of the skulls have brain cavities larger than modern apes, but smaller than modern humans indicating a progressive growth along a continuum.

Part 2: Why Evolution is True

Understanding why evolution is true boils down to understanding how science works (something which most people are woefully bad at).

How Science Works

Imagine a game on a field with a 100 participants. All of whom, regardless of their race, education, background, religion, have an equal chance (per the rules) to control one ball.  Only one player can possess the ball at a time and all the other players are trying to gain possession of the ball.

Here is one caveat. Each time a player tries to take the ball, successful or not, all the other players learn something about the proper technique for securing the ball. Therefore, each time the ball changes possession, or someone unsuccessfully attempts to take it, the ball becomes harder and harder to take the longer the contest runs. Because it becomes increasingly more difficult, the longer the game goes on every change of possession that occurs becomes more spectacular and the player who took the ball gains more money, fame, and recognition than all the players that came before him or her. Thus, even though difficulty increases the rewards and motivations for the players also increase.

Players can also voluntarily check themselves out of the game, and new players can come in. When new players come in, they learned and observed all of the ways the ball was taken prior to their entry into the game. Thus, the fresh new players enter the game with the same knowledge of ball possession that all the other participants have.

This highly-competitive and imaginably brutal scenario describes how science works.  Every scientist in the world wants to put forth the next best brightest breakthrough in science. They attempt this by publishing scientific papers which highlight their ideas and experiments to support their ideas. When they do this, all other scientists in the world check their work, methodology, honesty, bias, and results in an attempt to prove them wrong (take the ball away). If a scientist can prove another scientist wrong, then he or she will gain a tremendous amount of respect for themselves, the university they may be employed by, and also money and tenure. Scientists are in direct competition with other scientists for ideas and also to overturn existing ideas.  Ultimately this benefits humanity. Each time a scientist is proven wrong about an idea, we can scratch that idea off the list of possibilities which puts us one step closer to discovering the truth.

Scientists, worldwide, have a tremendous amount of motivation and financial backing to overturn evolution. Can you imagine the amount of fame, prestige, money and instant-hero status a scientist would gain who conclusively proved evolution false? He would be lauded as a hero by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.  Darwin put forth his work on evolution 150 years ago (analogous to taking the ball).  Since that time millions, yes millions, of scientists have tried to disprove evolution for a multitude of reasons (religious and otherwise). For 150 years, evolution has stood and grown stronger because each failed attempt to dislodge it has furthered our understanding of it.

But that's still not a good enough reason to accept it as true.

Evidence Is Not Good Enough In Science

While the evidence for evolution is strong, science has such a high standard that evidence alone is not good enough to elevate evolution to the coveted status of scientific theory. Evidence is one part of the equation.  The other two parts are application and predictive power.

If an idea in science is true, it can make accurate predictions about future events and findings. Evolution has excelled at this, again, for a very long time. When DNA was discovered, evolution predicted that human DNA would be most similar to the great apes, then lesser apes, then monkeys, then land-based mammals, then sea-based mammals in that exact order. That was the prediction. So the fact that humans share 98.5% of our DNA with chimpanzees is not relevant. The fact that evolution predicted that we would find exactly that, and in what order, and to what degree, and the fact that what we found was exactly that makes the predictive power of evolution and DNA similarities relevant.

Dr. Kenneth Miller is a Christian and evolutionary biologist. In this video he explains how mapping the chimpanzee genome in 2004 nearly disproved evolution. But again, evolution made a prediction about what geneticists would find in the human genome, and we found it.

But that's still not a good enough reason to accept it as true.

Predictive Power is Not Good Enough In Science

Predictive power is not good enough in science. It's strong, but it's not adequate alone to establish something as true. Ok so we have an idea, we have evidence for it, and it's making accurate predictions. What can we do with this knowledge? If evolution is true, how can we use that knowledge to make the world a better place?

Our understanding of evolution has had direct application in understanding how and why parts of our anatomy (and animal anatomy) work or don't work. The application of evolution has helped us with selective breeding of animals, plants, food, quite literally everything. Entire species of wheat that are resistant to heat and able to grow in harsh climates like Sub-Saharan Africa have been developed and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Our understanding of evolution is essential to staying ahead of evolving microorganisms, which are harmful to humanity. Our understanding of evolution is just now allowing us to isolate genes which are harmful to humanity like cancer-causing genes. Evolution has also had a direct impact on computer science. Computer engineers create better, more efficient computing networks. In addition, computer scientists have applied evolutionary approaches to complex engineering problems and have been able to solve the previously unsolvable.

Evolution has a direct application, and it works.

But that's still not a good enough reason to accept evolution.

Application is Not Good Enough in Science

Science does not accept evolution on blind faith, as some deniers assert. A direct application to demonstrate that our understanding of evolution works is relevant, but not good enough for science. What makes evolution a fact is not the evidence, or standing up to a battery of scientists trying to disprove it, or its predictive power, or its application. Evolution is a fact because it performs seamlessly in all four categories.  Multiple lines of evidence, predictive power, application, and testing independently converge to the same conclusion; common ancestry is a fact.

Evolution is an Unpleasant Fact

Evolution is an unpleasant fact. It's not unpleasant because it means I have to abandon my religious beliefs in order to accept it. Clearly I don't have to do that. It's not unpleasant because humanity shares a connection with all life on Earth, I happen to think that's amazing and makes me feel more connected to everyone and everything. Evolution is not unpleasant because it devalues humanity, quite the opposite. Evolution demonstrates that there virtually no difference in human beings at the DNA level. Our genome reveals that no race of humanity is "more evolved" than any other. We are more similar and equal than we ever imagined before evolution. We are all truly equal and should all be valued, loved, and respected.

Evolution is an unpleasant fact because it means that humans have fragile egos and will do anything, including lie and misdirect, rather than accept reality. It's unpleasant because it means an entire culture would rather reject something that is valuable, applicable, and relevant than to destroy their malformed presuppositions towards a subject. It means that humans put a greater emphasis on the comfort of believing what they like rather than accepting something as true they don't like.  It means our nature is to get upset and angry when we read something that challenges us rather than absorb it and ponder it.

The tremendous irony, of course, is that we evolved to have these cognitive hangups.  It's human nature, both unpleasant, beautiful, and amazing at the same time.