Arsenic and old Universe

By Phil Plait | December 7, 2010 1:58 pm

Two news updates, both of which are pretty interesting.

1) The arsenic-utilizing bacterium is still in the news… because a lot of scientists are casting serious doubt on the results. Carl Zimmer, biology journalist (and Discover blogger) wrote a very interesting article about it for Slate (and has followups on his Discover blog). The criticism is not mild, either, with words like "flim-flam" being used. Carl approached the investigators who wrote the paper for Science, and they declined to comment — that’s usually an excuse, but in this case I think they’re right; they don’t want to engage in a scientific debate through the media. But I certainly hope the investigations continue.

I’ll note I reported the press conference results straight — at some level, I have to trust the scientists know what they’re doing, that the peer-review process is working, and the results reliable. In this case, with a result depending on some relatively complex biological and chemical arguments, I was acting out of trust. This trust may yet be proven to be borne out, or it may not. It’s possible the original researchers are correct, and it’s possible their critics are. The best way to find out is more science.

But when it comes to astronomy news…

2) Last week, a paper made the rounds on various sites that Roger Penrose and a collaborator had found circular patterns in the cosmic background radiation that might point to clues about what happened before the Big Bang*. As soon as I read the synopsis, my spidey-sense was tingling. I had an idea that the statistics they had done may not have been up to snuff; how do we know they aren’t seeing random patterns simply by chance? I didn’t have the expertise in cosmology or stats to do that analysis myself, so I decided not to write about the story, despite its potential appeal.

Turns out that was probably the right idea. Sean Carroll, another Discover blogger and an excellent cosmologist, has written up a post expressing skepticism by other scientists about this story. They were able to do the statistics, and find it likely that what Penrose saw was probably just a fluke of random noise, something of no real statistical significance. Looks like my intuition was correct. Sean’s writeup has some cool background (haha) info too.

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure; I’m parsing it myself. Clearly, my natural skepticism with astronomy news needs to be better applied when it comes to fields of science outside my comfort zone. I’m fine with that! I try to apply it to everything in life. It doesn’t always work, but practice makes nearly perfect.

One other thing that’s clear is this means science works. Someone claims a result, and someone else comes along, takes a look themself, and says, "Wait a second there, pardner…" Science is a self-correcting process, and sometimes it takes time for those corrections. The media interrupts that process, which I am not saying is a bad thing necessarily — I think people want to hear about interesting scientific findings, or else I never would’ve started this blog! — but it can throw a monkey in the wrench there. And, of course, showing something is wrong will never get the coverage that the initial finding does, but that’s human nature. And that’s something even science has to deal with sometimes.



* Someone call Nicholas Rush!

Comments (80)

  1. Joe Meils

    One nice thing that sets scientific dispute apart from that of religion? It’s doubtful anyone will be burned at the stake if they find evidence to the contrary. (Careers may end, but not lives.)

  2. Patrick

    They don’t want to do a scientific debate in the media…but they are doing science by press conference. NASA and co hyped this thing up to the stratosphere with their teaser and have ended up crying wolf. Refusing to comment now is just a cop out.

    Yes, more science should be done and it should be ultimately resolved that way. But they should respond to their critics. I think they are just using it as an excuse b/c they feel they are being picked on by evil bloggers (an irrelevant medium dontcha know…).

  3. @Joe Meils, ANOTHER really nice thing about science is that when there is ample evidence, they will say, “Hey, I guess it doesn’t work that way, but rather this way. I’ll have to change my mind.” Can’t really say that about dogma that relies on bronze age stories.

  4. I think the criticisms are what science is about. A theory should be able to stand the test of rigorous evidence, testing and criticism if it has legs. The only way to find out if has legs is to open it up the world in general and let them find the holes if they exist.

    Its the way its supposed to work. The problem is that the media and the public in general don’t understand the process and think it means something entirely different.

    I was hoping that Penrose was right. I liked the idea of the theory. It made sense to my non-physics brain in a way the big bang out of nothing just doesn’t. I realize that the ‘out of nothing’ is plausible, but my brain just doesn’t wrap around it. Of course he could still be right, its just that the evidence he cites is apparently not valid. Maybe there will be some future evidence…she said hopefully.

  5. Finally a decent “Arsenic and Old Lace” reference.

  6. Shoeshine Boy

    Commenting on Item 1…

    So, scientific inqury has been reduced to this. Instead of simply pointing out how the original experiments are flawed and that that the results may be incorrect, critics resort to terms such as “flim-flam”, which imply deception. Yeah, disparaging people you disagree with is *always* a good way to win an argument. If someone wants to use those tactics, he/she should switch to politics.

    As I recall, a key feature of scientific investigation is that experiments must be reproducable. Time will tell if these results will go the way of cold fusion or not. I don’t plan to waste too much more time paying attention to a urination contest and will wait for additional peer-reviewed results.

  7. X. Wolp

    Coincidentally, this also cropped up as a plot device in Stargate Universe a few weeks ago.
    And I though “Project Lucifer” was uninspired…

  8. Prufrock

    Nice, Joe. ‘Cause we all know that people dying on burning stakes is a common experience among heretics, especially these days.

    Times have changed. Now, scientific contrarians have their livelihoods damaged. Religious heretics/skeptics suffer ~nothing.

    Think before writing. Parroting the easy lines is so sad.

  9. It’s not about nucleic acids, it’s about ATP. Arsenic anhydrides are fast kinetics hydrolytically labile (re arsenic poisoning). ATP anabolism and catabolism are large fractions of metabolism. THERE’s your problem.

  10. maybe… arsenic and old space ?

  11. when i read the article is was also skeptic. we find patterns in constellations too! either way, i think it should be mapped!

  12. Michael Swanson

    @ 10. TexasOdysseyCoach (Gene)

    “maybe… arsenic and old space ?”

    Now I’m sure scientists will be detecting a cosmos-wide, unified *GROAN*

  13. Thomas Siefert

    Love the title, one of my favourite films.

  14. I like your point that science is working well with the responses to the Penrose paper. However, I can’t help wondering if those responses were driven largely by Penrose’s fame. There are numerous cosmology papers posted on the arXiv every week that make dubious claims. It seems a shame that there’s not more effort, resources, or incentives to check these results as well.

  15. CB

    First time I’ve seen “throw a monkey in the wrench”. Now I wonder if I’ve been throwing monkey wrenches incorrectly all these years.

  16. Aleksandar

    I’m sorry Dr. Phill… but all in all we are talking about random bloggers vs. Big Names of Science. No matter how much your skepticism and wish for a boring universe are strong sometimes science does move beyond 1980′es stasis.

  17. I have to admit that when I saw that it was Roger Penrose claiming to have seen something that was outside the mainstream, I was *immediately* skeptical even without reading what it was (and as a result didn’t pay much attention). Penrose doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot of credibility any more, at least in my view. (The whole “quantum consciousness” stuff did him in, as far as I’m concerned.) I fear that he’s a classic case of “older scientist having gone way off the rails”.

  18. Leo

    I think it is hypercritical from the people who publicly announced a discovery on arsenic-base -maybe-life form, but decline to discuss it with the press. What was the press announcement to begin with?
    We need to wait and see what’s cooking!!

  19. Leo

    I think it is hypocritical from the people who publicly announced a discovery on arsenic-base -maybe-life form, but decline to discuss it with the press. What was the press announcement to begin with?
    We need to wait and see what’s cooking!!

  20. Joseph G

    As a non-scientist, I have to ask – what will be the consequences faced by the authors of this thing if their conclusions turn out to be wrong?
    I know that science as a whole is a great thing because isn’t dogmatic, and it’s considered perfectly normal to completely change your assumptions and lines of inquiry when better evidence comes along to support a different theory, but what of the scientists who arrived at the first, erroneous conclusion? Is your career in jeopardy if you publish something that turns out to be wrong, or only if you refuse to accept new evidence? Or are you judged not on the accuracy of your conclusions at all, but on the soundness of your research methods?
    Is the criticism that the authors of the mono lake paper are under right now fairly standard for a high profile paper like this, or did they really do something that’s obviously outside the realm of good science (premature publishing, bad experimental controls, etc)?

  21. Joseph G

    @#2 Patrick: I really wonder what the genesis of NASA’s embargo and press conference was? Did the researchers themselves advocate for it, or did NASA jump on it for them? Did NASA even tell them that they were going to hold a highly publicized press conference?

  22. Adam_Y

    “Is your career in jeopardy if you publish something that turns out to be wrong, or only if you refuse to accept new evidence? Or are you judged not on the accuracy of your conclusions at all, but on the soundness of your research methods?”

    Ehhh…. That is a really vague question from which the answer is simply it depends.

  23. Feoremar

    “* Someone call Nicholas Rush!”

    That was the first thing that popped into my mind. I love the show so much. How cool would it be if there really WAY something structural in the background radiation? O:

  24. Like the footnote, Phil. Would love to know your opinion of Stargate Universe.

  25. MichaelL

    This arsenic story is somewhat reminiscent of the Martian Meteorite from the ’90′s. Sometimes I think NASA are their own worst enemies in the way they announce these press conferences.

  26. Ian_G

    @Prufrock Wish what you’re saying was true, but its not. Plenty of nations on this planet currently demand the death penalty for blasphemy…Pakistan for example.

  27. Brian137

    As Sean pointed out in his article on cosmicvariance, Gurzadyan and Penrose have already responded to the critcisms.
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1012.1486

  28. Ron1

    For those who wonder if Penrose and NASA are being a little hard-done-by, they might want to take a look at one of PZ Myer’s recent blog posts about how scientists are trained to be critical of one another’s work. It refreshes my faith in science.

    ……………………………….

    “There are people meaner than I am.

    I got a surprising amount of criticism of my review of the arsenic-eating bacteria paper — some people thought I was too harsh and too skeptical and too cynical. Haven’t those people ever sat through a grad school journal club? We’re trained to eviscerate even the best papers, and I actually had to restrain myself a lot.

    Anyway, I’m a pussycat. You want thorough skepticism, read Rosie Redfield’s drawing and quartering of the paper, which rips into the hasty methodology of the work. Man, after that, the body ain’t even twitching any more, and they’re going to have to clean up the pieces with a wet-vac. It’s beautiful”

    PZ Myers – Pharyngula, Dec 7/10

  29. Mike Saunders

    One of the challenges that science has moving forward is the increasing width of fields. More and more every niche of the sciences become more specialized, and more niches are added every year. People will publish specialized papers, and very few people will be available to confirm the research, let alone do constant journal reviews. Apart from high profile journals and results, there’s not a lot of motivation to take the time and money to confirm a result beyond a thought experiment. In my own research, I have disproved a lot of sketchy results because I am looking to build on another researcher’s paper for my own work, but the people who pay me to do research won’t be very happy if I take the time to write up some sort retort.

    With many of the papers I’ve submitted to journals, it is pretty clear the reviewers have no idea what is going on 60% of the time. Even a lot of the Nature and Science papers, there is a disappointing amount of work that is never followed up with more results or retort.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    Off topic sorry, but also a recent news item of interest :

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11937467

    The Japanese space agency’s Akatsuki mission to Venus has arrived and is, hopefully, about to adopt a Cytherean orbit. :-)

    @26. MichaelL Says:

    This arsenic story is somewhat reminiscent of the Martian Meteorite from the ’90’s. Sometimes I think NASA are their own worst enemies in the way they announce these press conferences.

    Indeed – except this time it isn’t even Martian. Just odd forms of life and another bizarre and superlative extremophile species on Earth. It shouldn’t be a let down – it *is* intrinisically interesting news (if its valid) and does have some positive implications for astrobiology (if you stretch a rather long bow) but when expectations of a Reeeeallllyyy BIIIIG announcement are raised so high, yeah, not so-great.

    The arsenic microbes news would have had more impact and been more exciting if the mystery press conference deal hadn’t been so hyped up and speculated about in preceding days. :-(

    The arsenic loving / DNA-arsenic-including life reminds me of this book :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Does_a_Martian_Look_Like

    ‘What Does a Martian Look Like?: / Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life’ by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart published in 2002 which was an optimistic – perhaps overly optimistic – view of alien life and the forms it may take.

  31. That bull’s eye graphic still gets my spidey sense going big time! That’s just the wrong way to illustrate the effect if there even was one.

    As for the arsenic story, PZ linked to a great take-down of the paper. Very flawed research. NASA should know better than to hang their exobiology hat on work like that. Bad PR!

  32. Hiro

    @4 “The only way to find out if has legs is to open it up the world in general and let them find the holes if they exist.” — Made me look twice!

    Jokes aside, great read, Phil. Thanks for being a good alternative to other media for keeping up to snuff on important things.

  33. Rider

    if they don’t want to have a debate in the media maybe they shouldn’t have gotten the media involved to begin with.

  34. “Carl approached the investigators who wrote the paper for Science, and they declined to comment — that’s usually an excuse, but in this case I think they’re right; they don’t want to engage in a scientific debate through the media.”

    And the press release was released through what medium … ‘the media.’

    Sorry. If you can’t take the heat …

    And also, so much for trying to popularize science and get it out from behind paywalls so the unwashed masses can get a glimpse.

    “No comment …” is not a good answer here.

  35. Mount

    Glad to see your watching SGU, but real science is also neat.

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    @27. Ian_G Says:

    @Prufrock Wish what you’re saying was true, but its not. Plenty of nations on this planet currently demand the death penalty for blasphemy…Pakistan for example.

    What Prufrock (#8) said was true for Christians and Jews and most folks in the civilised world – but in the Muslim world where fatwahs (Death sentences issued by religious leaders eg. the Ayatollah Khomenei against Salman Rushdie) and jihads (religious wars of conquest eg. those of AlQuaida, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc ..) are still seen as acceptable and widely believed to be legitimate and good things* – yeah not so much.

    Also it may be worth noting that atheist “Communist” China actively persecutes religious groups and people – the Tibetan Buddhists who support the Dalai Lama, the Muslim Uighurs, the Christan minority, the Falun Gong (spelling?) movement, etc ..

    I guess Prufrock could have noted that his / her comment applied specifically to the civilised Judeao-Christian Western world & cultures where her / his words are in fact, pretty much, true.

    * Of course Muslim immigrants have spread their intolerant values to the West also as witness the furore over the Danish cartoons and earlier Rushdie’s Satanic Verses satire where posters called for beheadings, executions and bloodshed against the non-Muslim “blasphemers” of the Prophet who Muslims worship.

    It sure does look like a clash of civilisations scenario here – or rather a clash between the civilised western world with its core values of freedom of speech, freedomof religion, free capitalist opportunity for all, equality of the genders & religions and sexual orientations etc . and its enemies eps. Muslims who believ in Sharia law and imposing the brutality and backwardness of darkAge Arabia upon everyone else on the planet.

    Don’t get me started on this. Really.

  37. Jamey

    You know, there’s a number of people here talking about how NASA hyped this press conference so big – but I don’t recall they did. They published a press release not much different from any of the others they do – with the standard, in the field of astronomy, broadness of terminology. Remember one a few weeks before talking about “our cosmic neighborhood”, which turned out to be a galaxy 300 million lightyears away? There was a lot of speculation here about what the press release meant about “ramifications for astrobiology” – I seem to remember some of them even suggested it might simply be some new form of extremophile, as it turned out to be. NASA didn’t do the hyping – the news media, needing something to fill in a slow news day for their science-oriented readers, took it and ran with it.

    Meanwhile, a medical researcher discovers an amazing new way to compute the area under a curve – called Tai’s Model, and it’s already been cited in 20+ other papers. Who knows if he can get a patent on it, though – there’s rumblings that Newton and other mathematicians are going to claim prior art in the form of the Trapezoidal Rule taught in college classes all around the world.

    http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/17/2/152.abstract

    In other news, one scientist sees 3 atoms of a super-heavy element in evaporating gold, and that’s considered so unlikely, hardly anyone wants to bother trying to replicate it, while researchers at the LHC are seeing 3 events, and claiming new particles have been discovered with 95+% probability…

    There’s this big claim that human knowledge is advancing at an ever-increasing rate. I am really starting to question that, as it certainly looks like scientists are making stew that a homeopath would call appropriate from tiny scraps of meat.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    Douglas Watts (35) said:

    “Carl approached the investigators who wrote the paper for Science, and they declined to comment — that’s usually an excuse, but in this case I think they’re right; they don’t want to engage in a scientific debate through the media.”

    And the press release was released through what medium … ‘the media.’

    Sorry. If you can’t take the heat …

    I’m not clear on what exactly happened. It seems to me that NASA (not the paper’s authors) called the press conference and made a big deal of this (were the authors of the paper involved in this decision?). Maybe the authors wanted their paper to go through the gauntlet of peer review and criticism before the press got involved but their bosses / paymasters said otherwise?

  39. Ray

    The thing that gets me about this issue is NASA’s involvement. Why exactly is NASA conducting research on terrestrial organisms? Isn’t that some other agencies job?

  40. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (37) said:

    Don’t get me started on this. Really.

    Amen to that! ;-)

  41. Nigel Depledge

    Ray (40) said:

    The thing that gets me about this issue is NASA’s involvement. Why exactly is NASA conducting research on terrestrial organisms? Isn’t that some other agencies job?

    IIUC, research into terrestrial extremophiles informs astrobiology (exobiology?), in terms of where to look and where not to look for life that we might recognise. Since NASA considers the search for life elsewhere in the solar system to be a big deal, it helps if they can rationally decide the kind of experiments and instruments to send to other bodies in the solar system.

  42. Brian

    @Prufrock: sure, heretics and skeptics aren’t dying at the stake in Judeo-Christian communities. But suffer “nothing”? Try running for president of the United States as an atheist.

  43. Ari

    I look forward to the “critics” replicating these results with salt instead of Phosphorus or Arsenic. Using words like “Flim-Flam”, “Desperate”, etc is not a scientific argument – replicating results through an alternative process is. *shakes head* at Phil giving this one credibility.

  44. Phil has been a little selective in using words like “flim-flam” which constituted perhaps 5% of the criticism and I think this is giving the misleading impression that a lot of the criticism was ad hominem. This is not true at all. 95% of the objections were purely scientific and dealt exclusively with the data. You should read Rosie Redfield’s blog post linked in Zimmer’s article. Sure, there were a few ad hominem-sounding adjectives thrown in but they don’t detract from the overwhelming scientific criticism.

  45. sHx

    Remember the picture you used to post of a squirrel closing his ears and singing “la la la”? That’s not what real sceptics do, but that’s what you have been doing with regard to climate science.

    Chicken is a dish best served warm, and hounds have come home to bite.

  46. John Baxter

    Tech News Today podcast title: Arsenic in Old Lakes

  47. Gary

    Nice to see you’re beginning to be more skeptical about this media-science-complex. It’s done damage to the progress of advancing scientific understanding by corrupting the process, which includes injecting politics into the major journals, professional associations, and peer-review. Science does indeed advance dialectically, but not very well when the system is gamed. As it is, people are too willing to make the big splash without enough due diligence.

  48. Item 2, comments multiple.

    Fortunately, I don’t think Penrose is afflicted with Hoyle syndrome. He has a malleable mind, and, should ‘the bullseye’ prove to be truly random noise, or indeed, an artefact, he’ll hold up his hands and say ‘yeah, it was a mistake’, then move on to the next ‘next big thing’.

    Though so far, he doesn’t seem to have recanted his views about Orchestrated Objective Reduction and Quantum Conciousness… maybe this is why psy-sceptics (Randi, Wiseman and Wiseman’s evil twin Plait ;) , etc) can always prove no paranormal ability… Heisenberg and Copenhagen come into play; the act of observation fundamentally alters the measurement… :P

  49. QuietDesperation

    Careers may end, but not lives.

    Why should careers end? Isn’t part of good science to accept when your results don’t stand up and you accept the peer review results graciously, and learn from the error? I thought science always railed against the concept of perfection.

    Here in the R&D engineering world, my bosses start to think I’m not pushing the envelope hard enough if I *don’t* have the occasional idea not pan out.

    How cool would it be if there really WAY something structural in the background radiation?

    You mean something like giant rings?

    http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/724/1/374

  50. Gary Ansorge

    18. Rob Knop

    “I have to admit that when I saw that it was Roger Penrose claiming to have seen something that was outside the mainstream, I was *immediately* skeptical”

    So, I guess from this authoritative statement you must be either a theoretical physicist or a cosmologist?

    As far as Penrose and quantum consciousness is concerned, that was a proposition by Penrose, ie, a possible scenario. Most people who disallowed quantum entanglement effects on the brain assumed they were too small to affect the large molecules responsible for neural transmissions from one neuron to another, then the Aussies showed quantum entanglement between molecules 123 “units” in length(meaning, the number of atoms in the molecule),,,one should note that N2O is an essential neurotransmitter and it’s only 3 units long. Quantum entanglement affecting neurons IS a distinct possibility ( if we don’t seek, we will not find). This is something worth seeking.

    Gary 7

  51. J

    What a bunch of science deniers. That paper was peer-reviewed!!!!!

  52. Joseph G

    It’s stuff like this that really makes me shake my head at the “Global Warming is a hoax” conspiracy nuts (and gives me comfort in those very, very rare occasions when they give me pause).
    So lemme get this straight – somehow tens of thousands of scientists are going to publish blatantly fraudulent papers and then fail to get ripped to shreds by other scientists?
    “They” say it’s all about grant money – well, seems to me it’s easier to deconstruct someone else’s research then to write an original paper from scratch. If scientists really are only motivated by selfish self-interest, and if they’re all competing for the same grant money, why go along with the charade?

  53. Chris Winter

    QuietDesperation wrote: “You mean something like giant rings?”

    Looks like an interesting paper. From the Abstract:

    We argue that a cosmic defect seeded by a pre-inflationary particle could explain the giant rings, the large bulk flow, and their alignment.

    One of the more effective “hooks,” in my opinion. :-)

  54. Tribeca Mike

    Sadly overlooked in this “controversy” is the discovery of an old lace-utilizing bacterium.

  55. Ray

    55. Gary Ansorge

    not that advanced degrees and professorships are exactly required to figure out that Penrose has a history of making extraordinary claims on less than extraordinary evidence, but if you had even done the minimal research of checking Rob’s profile you would have figured out that he is in fact a fully credentialed cosmologist.

    On Penrose’s quantum brain idea. There’s a lot more wrong with it than just the size of the structures involved.

    1) It’s motivated by a misapplication of Godel’s theorem.
    2) If brains did what Penrose claimed they could do (verify the consistency of mathematics rather than just assume it) quantum computation would not be sufficient to explain the effect — hypercomputation would be required. Hypercomputation requires either closed timelike loops or a violation of unitarity/linearity. Both are pretty far out there as far as physical plausibility is concerned.
    3)quantum effects are not the same as quantum computation. The Aussies showed the former, not the latter. This is interesting but not exactly earth shattering — heck, you can’t even understand blackbody radiation without taking quantum effects into account.

  56. Gary

    It’s ALH84001 all over again, another foot-bullet for NASA.

  57. Brian137

    Here is an easily readable synopsis of the point-counterpoint-response sequence between Penrose et al and their critics.
    http://physicsworld.com/blog/2010/12/_by_james_dacey_roger.html

  58. Gary Ansorge

    60. Ray

    As I said;

    “So, I guess from this authoritative statement you must be either a theoretical physicist or a cosmologist?”

    I don’t usually click on a posters name, so no, I didn’t KNOW he was such but from my statement you might surmise I was willing to ALLOW he might have some knowledge of what he spoke.

    ,,,but dissing Penrose merely because he has made some speculative proposals does a disservice to Penrose, implying he’s gone “round the bend”. From MY point of view, he’s just exploring strange possibilities, some of which might just be “crazy enough” to be true.

    ,,,and I don’t recall that Penrose was saying anything about quantum COMPUTATION, he merely proposed that there may be some kind of quantum influence(such as entanglement) that could determine the structure of consciousness.

    Gary 7
    PS Have you ever noticed the similarities between the quantum “foam” and the US political system?Lots of random noise, with the occasional rise of some kind of self sustaining structure.

  59. viggen

    This trust may yet be proven to be borne out, or it may not. It’s possible the original researchers are correct, and it’s possible their critics are. The best way to find out is more science.

    The worth of the work NASA presented has been way overblown, but it isn’t bad science, I don’t think. Regardless of the quality of science, I think it’s been politicized in order to help garner interest in NASA. I personally have to question whether the result advances NASA’s objective given that it really doesn’t change where or how we will be looking for life on other worlds since it shines basically no new light on the origins of life.

  60. Gary Ansorge

    60. Ray

    ,,,then, of course, there’s this,,,(by; Your Move: The Maze of Free Will
    By GALEN STRAWSON”)

    “It may be that we stand condemned by Nietzsche:

    The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far. It is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness … (“Beyond Good and Evil,” 1886)”

    ,,,and this is the part I like,,,

    “to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness …”

    Perhaps, IF quantum mechanics has anything to do with it, that’s exactly how consciousness gets its start,,,

    Gary 7

  61. Ray

    Gary Ansorge

    Now it is you who are giving Penrose too little credit. The argument you are attributing to him basically boils down to the pseudo-syllogism

    1) Consciousness is mysterious
    2) Quantum effects are mysterious
    3) Therefore consciousness is a quantum effect.

    Penrose’s argument is a lot more sophisticated than that. It just happens to be wrong.

    His claim is basically that our brains can do something Godel’s theorem says is beyond the capabilities of a Turing machine (i.e. a classical computer.) If this were true, it would in fact require physics beyond the classical. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics as it is presently understood is insufficient for the job — the best QM can do is speed up certain problems like integer factorization that are intractable under classical assumptions (There’s no evidence we can factor 300-digit numbers efficiently either.)

    And since you mention it, even if everything Penrose claimed about the human mind was true, it still wouldn’t make Libertarian free will a sensible or even coherent idea (which you should already know given what you’ve been reading.) But perhaps you think quantum mechanics offers a way out. This, to me, indicates that you have no understanding whatsoever of quantum mechanics and because of this you think it’s the same as magic. It’s not. There are plenty of known macroscopic systems where quantum effects are extremely important: High-T superconductors, liquid helium, even F&#$@ing magnets. Do you think these somehow come closer to conscious behavior than any of the programs written by AI researchers on oh so ordinary semiconductor technology? (Transistors also use quantum effects in important ways if you must know.) Oh well. If you really are a die hard mystic it’s no use arguing against you. If you truly understood what you believed, it wouldn’t be mystical, and if you don’t understand what you believe how am I supposed to convince you it’s false. If your actual motivation is to learn something rather than to justify your vague intuitions about consciousness being “something special” or whatever see: http://www.mth.kcl.ac.uk/~llandau/Homepage/Math/penrose.html

    Anyway, Penrose’s great sin was not so much proposing the idea (which is superficially promising, but doesn’t actually work when you fill in the details) but in refusing to abandon the idea when it was shown repeatedly to be unworkable — although he has of late tended to increasingly label it as pure speculation rather than the sound argument he originally presented it as, either that or he avoids discussing it entirely.

  62. Messier Tidy Upper

    @47. Brian Says:

    @Prufrock: sure, heretics and skeptics aren’t dying at the stake in Judeo-Christian communities. But suffer “nothing”? Try running for president of the United States as an atheist.

    Well, I dunno, Obama didn’t have many problems getting in despite being a Muslim did he? ;-)

    (Joking!)

    Or a member of Jeremiah Wright’s crazy “G-d d-m America” cult. Which is true & not so funny. :-(

  63. Messier Tidy Upper

    @50. sHx Says:

    Remember the picture you used to post of a squirrel closing his ears and singing “la la la”? That’s not what real sceptics do, but that’s what you have been doing with regard to climate science.

    Your basis for this claim and your expertise in the field climatology are what precisely, please sHx?

    Yes, real skeptics are skeptical and look at the evidence for things closely.

    However, if the evidence *is* there and does show conclusively that something *is* really happening they don’t keep refusing to face reality.

    For that reason, there aren’t any genuine skeptics who refuse to accept the reality of Newton’s theory of Gravity, Darwin’s theory of Evolution or Einstein’s theories of Relativity – nor for the same reasons are there any serious qualified skeptics of the idea of Human Caused Global Over Heating.*

    Want to see some of this evidence and assess it for yourself?

    Take a lot at this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9SGw75pVas&p=029130BFDC78FA33

    & this :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/10/26/climate-change-the-evidence/

    and also this :

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/

    Which should provide enough facts and resources to show you what the real skeptical and scientific arguments and evidence for Human Caused Global Over-Heating are.

    —-

    * In the interests of accuracy & clarity – also known as Anthropogenic Global Warming.

  64. Dave

    “It’s possible the original researchers are correct, and it’s possible their critics are. The best way to find out is more science.” Abso-diddly-utely!

  65. Dave

    @69 Too bad the climate hate sprayers can’t adopt that reasonable position. Instead, they attack skeptics and call them deniers. They talk about educating the masses to critical thinking, while they kick, beat and burn their own strawmen. More science is needed all around.

  66. Gary Ansorge

    66. Ray

    Nowhere did I say consciousness was “mysterious”.

    I am familiar with the basics of Penrose’s proposition. I am also familiar with the basics of quantum mechanics.

    Further conversation is pointless.

    Gary 7

  67. Nigel Depledge

    sHx (50) said:

    Remember the picture you used to post of a squirrel closing his ears and singing “la la la”? That’s not what real sceptics do, but that’s what you have been doing with regard to climate science.

    Put up or shut up, you illiterate* mouthpiece.

    Where, when and how has Phil done what you claim?

    *Because, in English, proper nouns should be capitalised.

  68. Messier Tidy Upper

    I’ve just seen the best Youtube clip about this arsenic extremophile which has a great take on this isssue :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z08_gtMz4EU

    Which I thought I’d share. Enjoy. :-)

    ***

    PS. No reply from sHx (#50) to my #68 or Nigel Depledge (#72) yet. Why am I not surprised. :roll:

  69. sHx

    Just read it! It looks like until now you were been yelling at an empty chair.

    @68 Messier Tidy Upper
    You sound like a Medieval ‘thinker’ who sub-contracted his critical faculties to the priestly class. You don’t have to have a degree in theology or physics to figure out whether god exists or not.

    @72 Nigel Depledge
    Thanks, Pedant! Would you like to lie down while I fetch the picture I was talking about? Phil posted it several times, you know? Must be your short attention span again?

    @73 Messier Tidy Upper

    You can’t say “I am surprised” now, can you?

  70. ND

    “You don’t have to have a degree in theology or physics to figure out whether god exists or not.”

    And how do you go about figuring out if god exists? And which god?

  71. sHx

    “And how do you go about figuring out if god exists? And which god?”

    You need evidence. Lots of evidence, including the very last bit of evidence possible or imaginable. And no room for uncertainty whatsoever.

    As to which god, I’d say the cheaper the better.

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