The Sciences

Ignorance is blitz

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMar 8, 2008 2:37 PM


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I happened to notice I was getting some traffic sent my way from Voxday, an ultraconservative blogger who has a history of saying ridiculous things -- sometimes so ridiculous it's indistinguishable from satire. Unfortunately, of course, willful ignorance has quite an audience these days, and just in case it's not satire, I decided to reply. He was writing about my blog post where I discussed the WMAP results showing the age of the universe, and that normal matter and energy are only 5% of what we can directly see:

The Bad Astronomer doesn't realize that science is undermining the basis for materialism:

In other words, even by its own lights, science and rational materialist philosophy is only relevant to five percent of what we currently consider to be all known Creation. Combined with its complete inapplicability to abstract concepts such as justice, equality and freedom, this shows that even attempting to build a social order on a secular basis is not only doomed to failure, but is quite arguably insane.

Insane? Only if your grip on reality is tenuous in the first place. I wrote a comment back to him on his blog entry. Here is what I said:

The energy budget of the Universe is the total amount of energy and matter in the whole cosmos added up. Together with some other observations, WMAP has been able to determine just how much of that budget is occupied by dark energy, dark matter, and normal matter. What they got was: the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% normal matter. You read that right: everything you can see, taste, hear, touch, just sense in any way… is less than 5% of the whole Universe.

Your conclusions are way off the mark, for two reasons: you misinterpreted/misunderstood what scientists did, and then you misapplied it. First, 5% of the Universe is normal matter and energy. About 23% or so is dark matter. While we don't know precisely what it's made of, its existence has been conclusively proven, and it was using scientific methods that proved it (its existence was speculated due to odd motions of galaxies, its impact on observations predicted and then confirmed). Same with dark energy. We don't know what it is, but scientific observations and prediction show us it exists. We have independent lines of evidence for it now as well. It's not just to balance the equations. We have actual observations showing these things exist, just like we have observations that electrons and neutrinos exist. So actually, "science and rational materialist philosophy" applies to the whole Universe. Second, evolutionary biology does in fact explain our concepts of justice, equality, and freedom. Just because you say it doesn't doesn't mean it doesn't. We evolved these concepts as prehistoric humans and the species we evolved from developed into tribal cultures. Those concepts helped ensure our survival, so we adapted to include them in our daily lives. Third, about building a secular society... The US, despite claims by the far right, actually was and is built on a secular basis, and that is not only written in the Constitution, but in the very first right it lays out. Secular in this case doesn't mean non-religious, it means not favoring any particular religion. That's the way it should be. It's clear to me that you don't really understand anything at all about science, the scientific method, and how successful it is in understanding the world and universe around us. There are many books and websites devoted to just these topics; before drawing wildly inaccurate conclusions based on scant reading, you should research these topics.

Some of his commenters on that post basically parrot his own words, and grossly misunderstand what the WMAP results mean, so it'll be be interesting to see what they reply.

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