Can “science” explain what happened to flight MH370?

Malaysia-UFOI’ve long been intrigued by psuedoscience and conspiracy theories (ever since I took an undergraduate philosophy of biology class and read some exchanges between creationists and scientists). I’m particularly fascinated by what such accounts reveal about how we assess and deal with our own ignorance.

There are lots of things we don’t know. The important question (to this philosopher, at least) is is what conclusions we draw from our lack of understanding.

One of the features of pseudoscience/conspiracy theories/denialism is the tendency to draw some positive conclusion from our ignorance of some fact. This is is a fallacy known as an “argument from ignorance,” which at root has the following form:

  1. I don’t know that P is true.
  2. Therefore P is false.

This is often coupled with a another fallacy, known a “false dilemma,” which has this form:

  1. P is false.
  2. Therefore Q is true.

Obviously this is a fallacy when and only when the implicitly assumed disjunction (“either P is true or Q is true”) doesn’t actually hold — that is, when the supposed dilemma is a false dilemma.

We find an example of this sort of bad reasoning in many current discussions of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines jet. There was a roundup of some crazy conspiracy theories about the missing plane in my local paper the other day (My favorite on that list is that it was destroyed by a mini black hole, but they didn’t notice the even juicier theories that involve a time-travel portal.) There’s another, more politically themed, list here.

As I expected as soon as I heard about this case, the alien abduction crowd sees this as decisive evidence that a flying saucer has nabbed a plane full of Earthlings. See for example, here (and you’ll want to read the comments too):

There were no reports of bad weather and no sign of why the plane would vanished from radar screens almost an hour after it took off. There are reports of two oil slicks off the coast but absolutely no wreckage has yet to be found. Where did the plane go?

There is only one possible answer. Aliens.

“There is only one possible answer.” There’s your false dilemma in a nutshell.

Let’s bring this back to questions about science and denialism. Notice that we have a genuine mystery that standard accepted processes of reason and evidence has been unable to solve. Call that “science” if you like. Here’s something that science hasn’t explained.

But the denialist needs to go further. The denialist needs to say that we have something that science cannot explain.

Now it’s undeniably true that this is a case that is unexpected for those of us who don’t think that aliens visit Earth and abduct humans. We’d have thought that if a flight didn’t land where it was supposed to, we’d find the airplane (or what’s left of it) somewhere along the flight path sooner than later.

But it’s obviously not the case that all non-alien (or non-time-portal) explanations have been ruled out. We have no reason to suppose that science can’t explain what happened, and we have every reason to suppose that science will discover what happened eventually.

And what’s true for missing airplanes is also true for so-called “missing links” in evolution, and other supposed gaps in our naturalistic account of the world. There’s much that we don’t understand, but none of the mysteries we find give us reason to suppose that there’s something paranormal, or conspiratorial, or supernatural, going on.

Should I agree to appear on Ancient Aliens?

Pyramid RocketsI’ve never seen the show Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, but I recently received an invitation to be interviewed for an episode or two.

What should I say?

On the one hand, it would probably be fun. I do like to talk, especially about science and philosophy.

But on the other hand, a quick look on the internet reveals that the show seems to be mostly about promoting pseudoscientific conspiracy theories. Which is something I probably shouldn’t associate myself with.

I guessing that the general principle of don’t support the deniers by engaging with them will apply here.

Any thoughts?

Robot Suicide

Dead RoombaThe robots may be becoming human, but they don’t seem to like it. It seems that a roomba has committed suicide.

It sounds like they won’t be giving it a funeral, though.

The machines are becoming human

i-robot. . . or, at least, we’re treating them as if they are.

Funerals for fallen robots.

I know of at least one researcher on artificial intelligence who’s going to think this is a bad idea.

Popehat points out who’s not in prison.


QFT. Is that what the kids today say?

In Group A, we have people who are not in federal prison today:

NSA employees who abused national security apparatus to wiretap their wives and girlfriends in violation of federal criminal law are not in federal prison today.

[and on, and on. Go read it.]

Molyneux’s Problem answered?

Came upon the following story of a 68-year-old man who had his vision repaired after being nearly blind his whole life. Fortunately (?) he fell down some stairs and required major reconstructive surgery, during which they fixed his eyes as well.

(Story’s from here, where there’s a clearer version of the video too — I’m guessing YouTube is out of focus to get you in the mood for the story).

Being a philosopher, of course, I thought immediately of Molyneux’s Problem, posed back in the 17th century:

whether a man who has been born blind and who has learnt to distinguish and name a globe and a cube by touch, would be able to distinguish and name these objects simply by sight, once he had been enabled to see.

From M. Thomas’s account, it seems that Molyneux’s question should be answered in the negative. Once a blind person gains his or her sight, it seems that it still takes further learning/training to be able to associate the visual information with the tactile information.

Given my rationalist leanings (not in being committed to innate ideas, but in being inclined to think that reason plays a bigger role in knowledge than does experience), I’m mildly surprised by this. But it seems to be fairly well established empirically.

Here’s another case from a couple years ago that supports the claim that previously blind children couldn’t visually identify objects that they knew by touch.

I got Sully’s attention.

I have mixed feelings about Andrew Sullivan.

He’s one of the brighter writers out there who calls himself a conservative. But that may be damning with faint praise.

He’s clearly created a profitable niche for himself in the very narrow borderlands between the left and right wings of U.S. politics. He considers himself a conservative Catholic, and likes to take occasional shots at liberalism. But he’s also a gay proponent of gay rights, and holds a lot of the right-wing Republican craziness in disdain.

I do appreciate some of his writing and insights. But he’s often painfully wrong. He’s been known to come belatedly around to correct position on important matters (e.g., the Iraq war), but those of us who saw the rightness of the position all along are often unimpressed that it takes him months or years to see the light.

Anyhow, the latest bit of Sullivan being mostly wrong has to do with Snowden and Greenwald. (I’ve mentioned before that when Sullivan and Greenwald disagree, my money’s going to be on the latter.)

And this time I got to correct him in public: Continue reading