Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Making the Kessel Run in Under 12 Parsecs

From xkcd, by Randall Munroe.

On the OPERA neutrino experiment, the conservative war on relativity, and the operation of science (with a nod to the biggest science boo-boo in Star Wars).

One can understand, if not necessarily agree with, the conservative war on the Theory of Evolution. If you believe that a specific book must be taken literally, and that book states that the Earth was created in seven days, then it is impossible for Darwinian evolution to have taken place. Either the book in question is not literally true, or the theory must be wrong. You can’t have both.

I must admit, though, to being perplexed by the conservative opposition to the Theory of Relativity. I first encountered this when one of my White House speechwriter friends asked me to review an unpublished manuscript ostensibly debunking Einstein. (It was written by a political science major.) The book was filled with bold assertions, dismissal of contrary evidence, and an ongoing hint that relativity was enthroned not because of its merits as a theory, but because of an ongoing conspiracy by what xkcd refers to as the “Science Thought Police.” In other words, it was just like the anti-evolution arguments.

The objection to relativity seems to rest on a semi-religious foundation: the idea that reality is in some sense objective, without uncertainty or variability. There’s an existential threat in the idea that some parts of reality are subjective, variable, or…well, relative. More importantly, the objection goes to the heart of the idea of science itself, the idea that the experimental method, peer review, and testable hypotheses can separate the valid from the invalid. For those whose authority rests on a foundation of “truth,” testability can be quite inconvenient.

Which brings us to the OPERA neutrino experiment, in which the underground Gran Sasso Laboratory measured the velocity of neutrinos from CERN at moving slightly faster than the speed of light (c). The difference is not great — 60 nanoseconds faster over a distance of 730 kilometers (with an expected error of ±10 nanoseconds) — but any evidence that a particle can exceed the speed of light forms a huge challenge to the foundations of modern theoretical physics. (For the curious, the official paper can be found here.)

Not so fast. The researchers themselves have not made any claims so bold. Before publishing, they looked for experimental errors. They re-ran the experiment. They looked at a variety of potential explanations and controlled for as many variables as they could. By publishing the results, they aren’t making the claim that they’ve refuted Einstein, but rather quite the opposite: they are appealing to the scientific community to repeat the experiment and see if they can discover why the OPERA results are incorrect.

That’s as it should be. Given the overwhelming body of evidence post-Einstein that confirms the principles of relativity, an anomalous result deserves to be treated with skepticism. Extraordinary claims, as they say, require extraordinary proof.

In fact, there’s already a strong experimental case that undercuts the OPERA results. On February 23, 1987, light from a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the two dwarf galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way, reached Earth after traveling approximately 168,000 light years. It was the closest supernova to Earth since Kepler’s Supernova of 1604, and the first since then to be visible to the naked eye.

About three hours before the visible light from SN1987A reached Earth, neutrino bursts were observed at three different neutrino observatories. This doesn’t mean those neutrinos traveled faster than light; the visible light produced by a supernova’s collapsing core has to travel upward to the stellar surface, while neutrinos zip right through the intervening material. If those neutrinos were traveling as fast as the OPERA observations indicate (60 ns per 730 km), the neutrino bursts should have arrived nearly four years before the visible light.

What, then, do the OPERA results mean? One possibility — the likeliest, according to most blogging scientists I’ve been reading in the past few days — is that a measurement error did in fact occur. If there’s not a measurement error, and it turns out that the neutrinos do move slightly faster than our current measurement of c, it still won’t “refute” Einstein -- our GPS units (which rely on relativity equations) still work. Einstein, after all, didn’t “refute” Isaac Newton. Newton’s laws work quite well in the majority of cases. It’s only at extreme speeds and under unusual conditions that relativistic differences matter.

What it will mean, if the results hold up under scrutiny, is that adjustments will be made. The models we use to understand the universe will require modification, becoming more accurate. There’s a small chance we’ll discover some important breakthrough that changes our understanding of the universe in materially significant ways.

In that case, the better parallel will be the 1887 experiments by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley involving the measurement of the speed of light in different directions, with the goal of measuring the motion of the Earth with respect to the luminiferous aether. They also didn’t get the results their theory predicted. The difference here was also small enough to be attributed to experimental error, but over time, as the results became more and more solid, it finally became clear that there was something wrong with the aether hypothesis. 

Although Einstein’s theory of relativity did not rest on “science’s most famous failed experiment,” Michelson-Morley did serve as evidence that helped the new theory of a constant speed of light gain widespread acceptance.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dives and Lazarus (Part 13 of Fallacies)

More red herrings, argumentative fallacies that distract from the argument rather than address it directly.

Argumentum ad crumenam

If you’re so damn smart, why ain’t you rich?

The argumentum ad crumenam, or argument to the purse, suggests that the truth of the proposition can be supported by the wealth of the speaker. If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? In other words, if you’re rich, you must be smart.

The rebuttal to this argumentative red herring can be made in only two words:

Donald Trump.

Argumentum ad lazarum

The reverse is known as the appeal to poverty. It takes its name from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), in which the rich man suffers the torments of Hades while the beggar Lazarus enjoys the delights of heaven.

While there’s significant Biblical support for the comparative virtue of poor versus rich (see Matthew 19:24, “And again I say to you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”), virtue and logical argument don’t necessarily correlate. If it’s not necessarily true because a rich person says it, it’s no more true if a poor one does.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Known by the Company We Keep (Part 12 of Fallacies)

In the next part of our continuing survey of red herrings (responses to arguments that don’t address the actual argument but merely distract from it, we’ll look at the two types of association fallacies: guilt by association and honor by association. Depending on your point of view, they can be one and the same.

Guilt by Association

Association fallacies take the following form: (1) A is a B. (2) A is also a C. (3) Therefore, all Bs are also Cs. (More formally, (∃x ∈ S : φ(x)) → (∀x ∈ S : φ(x)), which means “if there exists any x in the set S so that a property φ is true for x, then for all x in S the property φ must be true.”

Of course, that’s not at all a necessary condition. The classic rebuttal goes like this:

(1) All dogs have four legs.
(2) My cat has four legs.
(3) Therefore, my cat is a dog.

The PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter recently gave a “Pants On Fire” rating to an August 17 blog post by Texas radio host Dan Cofall, which read in part, “The magic number ‘70’ is the number of members of the 111th Congress who are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). These are not just politicians who vote left of center; these are card-carrying members of ‘The Democratic Socialists of America.’” (The "70" to which Cofall refers is the membership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — though I do not believe they actually issue membership cards.)

There are two guilt-by-association attacks here, one direct and one indirect. The indirect attack is in the term “card-carrying,” an echo of McCarthy-era HUAC anti-communist campaigning. The implication goes like this:

(1) Dues-paying members of the Communist Party carry cards.
(2) Members of Group X (Democratic Socialists, ACLU, etc.) carry cards.
(3) Therefore, members of Group X are Communists.

The direct attack takes this form:

(1) The  Democratic Socialists of America have a platform with a number of ideas.
(2) Some members of the Congressional Progressive Congress have ideas that overlap with some items on the DSA agenda.
(3) Therefore, all members of the Congressional Progressive Congress are "card carrying" members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Of course, liberal Democrats and Tea Party members also share some specific ideas (they both like the idea of voting, for example), but it hardly follows that all liberal Democrats are Tea Party members, or vice versa.

The Democratic Socialists are somewhat chagrined. “If we had formal political relationships with 70-odd members [of Congress], we would be making a lot more money” from dues. And as far as they’re concerned, the problem with the Congressional Progressive Congress is that the members aren’t nearly socialist enough — they prefer a third party movement.

Whether it’s “guilt by association” or “honor by association” may depend on your point of view. When Bill O’Reilly said on his January 19, 2005, broadcast, “Hitler would be a card-carrying ACLU member. So would Stalin. Castro probably is. And so would Mao Zedong,” I decided to look at it this way:

(1) Bill O’Reilly and George Bush say bad things about “card carrying” ACLU members.
(2) I think O’Reilly and his fellow-travelers are jackasses.
(3) Therefore, I joined the ACLU…just so I can carry my card.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hunt/Liddy Special Project 1 (Watergate Part 3)

Here’s the third part of my occasional series tracing the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal.

As noted previously, a big motive in the Watergate cover-up had nothing to do with the actual burglary, but rather with the previous activities of the White House Plumbers Unit. Their first operation, “Hunt/Liddy Special Project 1,” was part of the Nixon Administration’s response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by one of its contributors, Daniel Ellsberg, Ph.D. (Ellsberg has appeared in this blog before, in our discussion of the ambiguity aversion effect, better known as the Ellsberg paradox.)

Ellsberg, a former military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation, was one of 36 members of the Vietnam Study Task Force, established by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to produce an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War.” The report “United States—Vietnam Relations: 1945-1967,” was so secret that it was kept from President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. The final report contained 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents published in 47 volumes. It was classified “Top Secret — Sensitive,” meaning that the reason for its classification was that the publication of the study would be embarrassing. The print run was 15 copies.

In October 1969, Ellsberg, who had grown to oppose the Vietnam War, along with Anthony Russo, photocopied the study and showed it to Henry Kissinger, William Fulbright, George McGovern, and others. None was interested. It was not until February 1971 that Ellsberg first discussed the report with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. In March, Ellsberg gave Sheehan 43 of the 47 volumes, and the Times began publishing excerpts from the study starting in June 1971. At that time, the nickname “Pentagon Papers” first came into use.

The reaction was much the same as that which followed the WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department cables. While numerous claims of damage to US military and intelligence operations gained headlines, the reality was that the Papers talked about events that had happened years before. Nixon Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold later called the Papers an example of "massive overclassification" with "no trace of a threat to the national security.”

The Papers effectively became public knowledge when Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) entered 4,100 pages from the report in the Congressional Record. Richard Nixon originally wasn’t interested in prosecuting Ellsberg or the Times, because the study only embarrassed the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, but Henry Kissinger argued that this would set a negative precedent, and Ellsberg and Russo were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

In order to come up with more evidence to discredit Ellsberg, the Plumbers received their first mission, which took place on September 3, 1971. It was a burglary operation, targeting the office of Daniel Ellsberg's Los Angeles psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding. The break-in team reported they couldn’t find Ellsberg’s file, but Fielding himself later said that not only was the Ellsberg file in his office, but he had also found it on the floor the morning after the burglary. Someone had clearly gone through it.

John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, reported to Nixon, saying (on tape), “We had one little operation. It’s been aborted out in Los Angeles which, I think, is better that you don’t know about.” Later, when the whole story came, out, the case against Ellsberg turned into a mistrial because of government misconduct, and all charges were dismissed.

What’s fascinating to me in all this is how unsuccessful the Plumbers Unit actually was. Far from achieving its goal of discrediting Ellsberg, the burglary (and related wiretapping) actually contributed to the dismissal of the case.

You can download the complete Pentagon Papers (including the parts Ellsberg didn't release) from the US National Archives here.

For more on the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, stay tuned.