Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The magic eye

Many of you may remember a number of years ago when those "Magic Eye" pictures came out. For those who don't, they're semi-abstract patterns of colors and shapes that, when viewed properly,* will produce an emergent 3D picture. It's a fairly cool concept though, to be frank, I am almost entirely unable to see them myself.

I was reminded of these pictures the other day when taking a look at Conservapedia's mainpage. Since that page has expired, I include a handy screencap with the relevant passage circled in red. As always, click the below for a larger version:

For those too lazy to look yourselves, the text reads:

Shut down government science research, now that science research can be funded through the internet. See how the American government refused to fund a small test that the public wants done here. Is the problem that government will not fund anything contrary to the Theory of Relativity? [links original]

The story that the Conservapedia folks refer to is about John Cramer, a physicist and science fiction writer, who wants to test a theory of "reverse time." Cramer developed his approach as a way to resolve the inconsistency between relativity theory and quantum mechanics- the brief version is that relativity asserts that the speed of light is the fastest information can travel. At the same time, quantum mechanics has shown that a pair of particles that is "entangled" will respond synchronously to events regardless of distance, which implies the transmission of information at faster than light velocities. Both theories are highly successful, but their direct contradiction of one another is problematic at best. What Cramer hopes to do is explain it using some sort of time reversal which, as it happens, is not explicitly prevented by relativity. It just seems unlikely since, so far as we can tell, we never observe it. In any case, having been denied funding through traditional sources, Cramer is now essentially taking donations from private citizens via the internet. It's an interesting approach that has, so far, garnered $35,000.

There's a lot that I could say about this issue, but I'll limit myself to just a few remarks. First, this research isn't really a challenge to relativity. The disagreement with quantum mechanics is the challenge and this research will hopefully resolve it in a way that creates fewer problems for physics than it solves. As such, if scientists thought there was a real chance this approach would work, it would receive funding rather than be panned.

Secondly, funding agencies declined to supply Dr. Cramer with cash probably for the simple reason he himself recognizes. Specifically, that it's not very likely to work out:

"I'm not crazy," he confirmed. "I don't know if this experiment will work, but I can't see why it won't. People are skeptical about this, but I think we can learn something, even if it fails."

This is viewed as a longshot project and in an environment where there are far more grant-seekers than grants, long-shots will be at a disadvantage. I have no qualifications to judge Dr. Cramer's ideas, but his colleagues don't seem terribly hopeful. In any case, there's no conspiracy here.

Third, I have no problem with what Cramer is doing and I hope he gets the opportunity to test his ideas. My guess is that they won't work but, really, I'm rarely against inquiry in principle. I do, however, suspect that if I were to have to make the call about where to direct scarce research funding, I would probably go with the best balance between payoff size and probability of success that I could find- which likely wouldn't favor Cramer.

Fourth, if you're wondering why the Conservapeons making snide remarks about relativity, I can enlighten you. See, relativity provides part of the basis for concluding that the Universe is really, really, really friggin old. So, if you're a young Earth creationist** (i.e. YEC) relativity is right up there with evolution in terms of arousing fear and hatred. I'd feel sorry for the YECs but, hey, it's hardly my fault that their worldview is so screamingly inconsistent with observable reality.

Fifth, I know Republicans favor reducing the size of government,*** but do we really want private citizens deciding what science to fund? I mean, no offense, but a sizable proportion haven't quite adjusted to the falsification of geocentrism yet. Do we really think that the average plumber or tax attorney is qualified to judge the merits of a study on dopamine inhibition for treatment of muscle spasms in patients with brain trauma?

Sixth and finally is the slight issue of scale. Our comrades on Conservapedia are suggesting that the government doesn't need to be involved in science funding anymore because the internet can do it, and offers as proof the $35,000 raised for an experiment. This screams that the Conservapeons have no more idea how science is funded than they do about how good science is conducted. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, cost six billion dollars over 30 years. Think we're going to get that kind of generosity, over that span of time, via the internet? The human genome project? Try $2.7 billion dollars. The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, a step on our way to sustainable fusion power? It cost upwards of $560 million dollars. In short: $35,000 may sound like a lot but, judged against the total expenditures on scientific research across multiple fields,***** it's a pittance.

If nothing else this experience just demonstrates, once again, that the folks on Conservapedia view the world as though it were a magic eye picture: if they cross their eyes and try hard enough a nice picture of a sailboat pops out, yet they can't see what's right in front of their faces.

* "Properly" in this case meaning "With crossed or unfocussed eyes."

** i.e. a flaming nutball who should not be permitted to play with sharp objects.

*** Specifically, they're for reducing the size of those portions of government that don't use sophisticated multi-million dollar weapon systems. When it comes to things that go kerblooie, Republicans are like pedaphiles in a preschool.****

**** Yes, I am a horrible human being for making that analogy. At the same time, how positive an analogy would you construct about folks who get so excited by the chance to build bigger and better ways to maim and destroy others?

***** You know, like epidemiology, cancer research, materials science, electronics, physics, psychology, sociology, etc.

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