Ed Brayton has a post today pointing to a particularly ignorant monologue by noted bigot Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. In it Fischer says that
- The strong nuclear force is what holds atomic nuclei together (true),
- scientists don’t understand it (more or less false for decades), so therefore
- the strong nuclear force is Jesus.
This seems to be a version of the “god of the gaps” argument, arguing that things we don’t understand must be due to divine intervention. This is recognized by most people as a logical fallacy. Obviously, when this is applied to things that we actually do understand, it looks bad for religion. It’s also a dangerous argument for science because it encourages people to be incurious about the world. If we ascribe a supernatural origin to everything we don’t understand then there is no need for science; we already have the explanation for any problem.
Just in case anyone wants a brief explanation of the strong force:
Nuclei are made of protons and neutrons. Neutrons have no electric charge while protons are all positively charged. So, the electromagnetic forces between protons tend to try to push them apart – to cause the nucleus to break apart. The nucleus is held together because there is another, stronger force (unimaginatively called the strong force) that pulls the protons together more than electromagnetism pushes them apart. In quantum mechanics (the nucleons are nonrelativistic), this can be roughly modeled as a deep short-range square potential well that replaces the usual 1/r Coulomb potential from electrostatics. The potential is generated by the other nucleons in a nucleus, so this is only a very simple approximation.
In more advanced (but still not fundamental models) the forces between nucleons can be modeled as an exchange of mesons (typically pions), similarly to how electromagnetic interactions are caused by photon exchange between particles. The fundamental interaction comes from the local SU(3) color symmetry of quark fields in quantum chromodynamics. There are 3 colors and 8 bosons (called gluons) that allow for exchange of color charge between particles. The strong force is also what holds the nucleons together – they are made of quarks and gluons, which are all in turn believed to be elementary particles. Calculations of the properties of hadrons (protons, neutrons, pions, etc) from first principles requires the use of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. That is a field called Lattice QCD.
Nuclei are complicated objects made of complicated composite particles, so we can’t feasibly calculate anything we want to arbitrary precision. The strong force is also difficult to deal with it because of it’s large coupling constant (becoming nonperturbative in many problems) and it’s non-Abelian nature (a math term related to the properties of SU(3) that here means that gluons can interact directly with other gluons). We do still have a pretty good understanding of how they work. Fischer only had to look up the nuclear force on Wikipedia if he wanted to get some idea of what we know.
In other TV news (though this is about a week old):
In a sign of the continuing decline of educational programming on basic cable, the Discovery Channel created another fake documentary about Megalodon sharks surviving to the present day for this year’s shark week. Megalodons have been extinct for millions of years so this was in no way educational.
It actually wasn’t that long ago when the Discovery Channel was mostly educational programming about science. Channels like Discovery, the History Channel, Animal Planet, and even TLC provided a great deal of educational programming that was also very appealing to children, getting them interested in these sorts of things too. There were always some programs about ridiculous topics like UFOs and conspiracy theories (though good programs on these debunking these and teaching people how to think critically about such topics are certainly possible and probably even useful to make).
It’s unfortunate that these channels – the main educational channels on basic cable – have declined so much. They’ve been mostly indistinguishable from any other channel for a number of years – airing mostly reality shows and cheap documentaries (real or otherwise)/.
In its July issue, pseudo-intellectual political magazine and occasional home of white supremacist commentators considered acceptable enough for polite society the National Review published a bizarre article focusing on Neil deGrasse Tyson. While the original article requires an account, there is a free version available. The article set off a firestorm of criticism, getting noticed even by major media outlets like the BBC and the LA Times.
The gist of the article – to the extent it exists at all in such a poorly thought out article – seems to be that getting the general public interested and informed in matters such as science and technology is a liberal plot to increase the power of the government. Given that this is the National Review, any kind of expansion of the government necessarily leads to tyranny. So, Cosmos is preparing us for the coming liberal progressive communo-islamo-fascist dictatorship. The seriously dated phrase “fellow traveler” makes an appearance, suggesting that the author never got over the paranoia and xenophobia of the McCarthy era. Given the amount of vitriol the author reserves for self-styled “nerds” who don’t have the proper nerd credentials (Star Trek and WoW but not Star Wars and Mario Kart), one gets the sense that maybe the author just can’t stand that some of these “nerds” are now more popular than him.
The author also complains about more liberal-leaning pundits trusting the opinions of scientists on scientific matters without truly understanding the material. This kind of criticism could be warranted in some cases, but fails as a generalized criticism because there’s simply no way for anyone to be properly informed on everything. At some point, people have to trust experts.
As the LA Times points out, this whole article is strange, particularly the focus on Tyson, whose public persona is largely apolitical. He tends to talk mainly about science and related topics, not electoral politics. This kind of article is likely to be damaging to the NR’s political project. It just makes them and their supporters look like anti-intellectuals who rather keep people uninformed if giving them information might lead them to the wrong political opinions. Apparently, the NR may have more in common with Communism (of the Cultural Revolution/Khmer Rouge type) than they realize.
Here is a great example of how not to support a cause. This guy managed to become a physics professor at Princeton but shows an appalling grasp of logic if he thinks trying to reduce CO2 emissions is equivalent to being a Nazi.
Also, it’s not at all clear if he even has any relevant expertise to talk about global warming. His current research doesn’t seem to have anything to do with atmospheric science. Just because he’s a physicist doesn’t mean he’s qualified to weigh in on any science question.