Good Math/Bad Math

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No math is the worst math

As I've said many times before, one of the easiest and most consistent ways to spot a crackpot is through math. I've talked about a lot of folks who've used bad math to support invalid theories. But bad math like what's used by people like Berlinski and Dembski is really the best case for crackpot theories. What you'll often find is something worse: no math.

The explanatory power of science isn't just the ability to put together explanations that appear to fit observed phenomena. It's the ability to very precisely predict or explain real phenomena. It's very easy to make a prediction when you don't need to be precise. I can very easily say "the theory of gravity is nonsense. Everything has a natural place where it belongs, and things always try to move towards the place they belong. So things fall to earth not because the earth is pulling on them with some invisible magical gravitational force, but because they belong on the earth." And I can make endless arguments for just why my "natural place" argument works better than gravity:
  1. Flies wings don't produce any lift. But they don't fall to the ground when they're alive. Why doesn't "gravity" make them fall? Gravitationalists argue that they're so small that "brownian motion" in the air makes the aerodynamic principles of flight invalid for their size, but that's just handwaving to get around the fact that if gravity were true, they wouldn't be able to fly. Flies can fly because living flies belong in the air, it's their natural place.
  2. If you fill a balloon with helium, it will rise. But if gravity were true, it couldn't rise, because the same amount of gravity would still be pulling it towards the ground. Gravitationalists argue that there's some magical "buoyant" force created by the air around it that pushes it up. But look around you - if the entire earth was pulling down on something, does air really seem substantial enough to overcome the pull of the entire earth? Of course not! The helium in the baloon belongs above the ground, and so it pulls the balloon up to where it belongs.
  3. Why does water "find its own level"? Look at this picture:

    Why does the water stop at the same level in both containers? If this gravity nonsense was true, then the bigger quantity of water in the cone-shaped container would push out the water in the smaller rectangular one - after all, there's more of it, so according to gravity, it's heavier. But it doesn't! Gravity doesn't explain that! It works because water's it's just the natural way that water works: it's natural state makes it flow so that it forms a smooth level.
You find things like this all over the place; some of the very best crackpots use arguments very much like this. The problem with this kind of explanation is that it's just handwaving. You can take any bit of evidence, and say that it fits the theory. You can't precisely tell what's going to happen in new, novel situations. You can't even precisely explain what's happening in known situations.

Explanatory power comes with mathematics. Gravity has been described to quite a high precision by Newton's law, and refined by Einstein. We can predict with astounding accuracy exactly what will happen in a gravitational interaction. We can explain with near-perfect accuracy why our solar system behaves the way it does, why things fall the way that do, etc - because the theory includes precisely detailed mathematics that allow us to not just handwave, but to speak and predict with precision.


  • You need to insert why believing in gravity is evil. You won't top the Creationists or Time Cube guy if you don't.

    By Blogger Bronze Dog, at 11:44 AM  

  • bronze dog is right. Here's my go at this:
    Clearly gravity is evil since it is calculated based on the centre of the earth i.e. the location of Hell. It thus says that SATAN's influence is what keeps us on earth rather than G-D's will. And only a moron would think that SATAN is more powerful than G-D.

    By Blogger JP, at 2:20 PM  

  • bronze and jp:

    Crackpots aren't just fundamentalist religious types. The folks who are open fundies will usually tie the "current" theory to something evil. But there are a lot of secular crackpots as well; some of them (e.g., AIDS denialists) do the equivalent of "the prevailing theory is evil", but there are likewise many crackpots who just insist that their theory is wonderful and the other theories are just stupid; e.g., the electric universe/neocatastrophists, the panspermians, alt medicine types, etc.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 2:29 PM  

  • ...Does Time Cube guy count as "secular"?

    By Blogger Bronze Dog, at 5:00 PM  

  • I'm not sure of just what the time cube guy counts as. I think I'd probably put him into the religious camp, but over in the corner in a straightjacket, because even the luniest of the fundies would find him too crazy to deal with.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 5:08 PM  

  • Come on! I love the time cube guy. He's brilliant. He's managed to create something that litterally makes my head burst into flames whenever I read it.

    By Blogger Rev. BigDumbChimp, at 10:48 AM  

  • chimp:

    I honestly don't like the timecube guy that much. He's spectacularly wierd; but his gibberish is so densely incoherent that no one, absolutely no one, would ever be convinced that he's doing anything but spouting gibberish.

    I prefer wackos with a bit of coherence: the elaborate goofiness of the Velikovskians or the creationists; or the almost plausible sounding junk that comes from the best of the alt-medicine types. I find them much more fun than Mr. Timecube or Alex Chiu.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 11:22 AM  

  • I prefer wackos with a bit of coherence: the elaborate goofiness of the Velikovskians or the creationists

    Yeah I should have used the /sarcasm tag on that last post.

    You are correct, creationistas / IDiots truely are my favorite.

    By Blogger Rev. BigDumbChimp, at 5:25 PM  

  • You know who else believed in gravity? HITLER.

    By Blogger dorkafork, at 1:15 AM  

  • Creationists often claim that Darwin caused the Holocaust. By the same reasoning, the 911 attack was caused by Isaac Newton. After all, if you can go from "the unfit won't survive" to "we must make sure the unfit won't survive" (without analyzing what is meant by unfit), you can go from "things fall down" to "we must make sure things fall down" (without analyzing which things fall down).

    By Blogger Joseph, at 12:52 PM  

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