googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: The Use of Exotic Explanations to Perpetuate Flawed Theories

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Use of Exotic Explanations to Perpetuate Flawed Theories

In his reply to a recent post, a frequent visitor to my blog, Steven J, mentioned epicycles. It reminded me of another practice often engaged by scientists, namely the use of “exotic” explanations employed to prop up flawed theories. For people not familiar with epicycles, let me give you a thumbnail description of what they are. In the geocentric (earth-centered) model of the universe, Ptolemy used the notion of epicycles to explain the apparent motion of planets. If a planet simply circled the earth, it should appear to move across our sky in a straight line at a steady speed. However, the planets seemed to move at different speeds and sometimes even seemed to move backward. Ptolemy suggested planets also made smaller orbits around an invisible point called the deferent. It wasn't a terrible idea, really, and it seemed to explain the motions of the planets very well. After all, we could see the planet moving and sometimes it really seemed to be moving backward so the epicycles were “observed”. However, we've since learned that the planets don't circle the earth. What looked like changes in speed was caused by the differences in relative speed between us and the other planets. Epicycles and deferents did not even exist at all!

In a similar fashion, people once believed in a fiery element they called phlogiston. Objects that would burn easily were believed to be rich in phlogiston and objects that didn't burn easily were had little phlogiston.  As an object burned, the phlogiston was released into the air and the object was turned to ashes.  But if it was the phlogiston that allowed the object to burn, then why did objects considered rich in phlogiston not burn in an enclosed space? To explain this, it was suggested the air could only hold so much phlogiston and once the air was completely saturated, it could not receive any more, thus the object could not release any more and so would stop burning. Again, the theory seemed to explain reasonably well what was being observed but we've since learned that it is the oxygen in the air that allows objects to burn. Phlogiston did not even exist at all!

Things like epicycles, deferents, and phlogiston were the symptoms of flawed theories. They seemed to smooth out problems with the theories but the real problems laid in the theories themselves. Yet as long as the underlying theory persisted, more and more fanciful sub-theories had to be invented to keep the failed theory afloat. You might call it the “fudge factor.”

So where am I going with all this? Well, when it comes to secular theories of cosmology, I've seen a lot of same behavior among scientists. There are several crazy, er... I mean, “exotic”... explanations that have been invoked in order to hammer down stubborn difficulties with their theories. Actually, I'm only using the term “exotic” to be nice. These theories are so insanely ridiculous that I suspect that deep down even their most staunch proponents don't sincerely believe them. They merely cling to them because without them their entire worldview completely fails.

There are several crazy ideas put forth by the long-age scientists. If I wrote just a couple of paragraphs on each one, it would make one very long post yet would still not give each idea enough explanation. What I thought I would do instead is make a short series where I spend a few paragraphs discussing each one. Here are some of the ideas I intend to discuss:
  • The “balloon model” of the universe
  • Hyperinflation cosmology
  • Dark matter/energy
  • The Oort Cloud
If I think of some other, extreme examples, I may include them too but at the very least, I will include these. Keep checking back!!


Steven J. said...

"Epicycles" are an objection that carries more weight when a simpler hypothesis explains more of the data, or explains it more precisely. The Big Bang explains, e.g. the distribution of galactic redshifts, the relative cosmic abundances of hydrogen and helium, and the cosmic microwave background. No rival account offers an explanation of all these things, epicycles or no. And the idea that the universe is billions of years old explains why, e.g. we can see extremely distant galaxies, or indeed anything more than a few thousand light-years away.

Young-earth creationist attempts to explain these latter points are replete with epicycles, from unknown forces that altered radioactive decay rates by orders of magnitude (but by the exact same magnitude for every isotope!)to the idea that light moves at different speeds in different directions (or that time moves at different rates at different distances from Earth).

Worse than that, some means of removing epicycles from the Big Bang theory yield implications you would love less than the Big Bang itself (e.g. the Turok-Steinhardt model of the Big Bang gets rid of dark energy, and as I understand it one version of the multiverse as well, but in return you get the possibility of an infinitely old universe with no real beginning).

I'll wait for further posts to attempt to address your specific points, except for two points here: first, I'm pretty sure that the "balloon model" is a loose analogy, not a detailed theoretical model (also, it's not an epicycle; it's an analogy for the key point of the explanation for the distribution of galactic redshifts).

Second, what is bizarre about the Oort Cloud? The universe is full of stuff. The sun's gravity is strong enough to hold objects in orbit at very considerable distances. There's nothing very bizarre about supposing that there could be, in the solar system, billions of tiny, icy orbiting bodies too far away to see through telescopes. Yes, you don't need them to replenish the supply of comets if the solar system is really only thousands of years old (instead, you need some really bizarre explanation for phenomena ranging from radiometric dates in the billions of years to angular unconformities in the geological strata). But why do creationists take such delight in positing that God cobbled together some crappy Yugo of a universe that falls apart after a few thousand years of normal use? You should want to believe in a solar system that could last for billions of years even if you denied that it would actually last that long; that would be a creation fit for a God worthy of worship.

Carvin said...

As usual, Steven has the science well covered, so I don't need to add to it.

Have you ever considered that you may just be redirecting your insecurities about the this flawed model on established and well documented science? I mean, what is more exotic than anything you can see in the Creation Museum? I've heard things about all animals being herbivores at one point, essentially magical non-degrading DNA that would allow 8 humans to procreate the entirety of the human population without the gene pool stagnating, however the stars are explained... not to mention dinosaurs living while humans did without any evidence of it ever being found. Exotic is what the Creation model is, in and out.

Seems odd that you keep trying to describe established scientific theory in ways far more fitting for the Creation model. Seems like a lot of denial, honestly.

RKBentley said...

Steven & Carvin,

You've both seemed to touch upon the idea that belief in creation – by itself – is an “exotic theory.” Such a broad statement strikes me as an argument of incredulity and is hardly compelling. I could say, “Evolutionists believe in the strange theory that tiny changes each generation over millions of years can turn dinosaurs into birds.” I've not really said anything against evolution except to call it a strange theory and express my personal disbelief.

In my upcoming posts, I don't intend to simply describe evolutionary theory overall as strange. I'm going to avoid abiogenesis because scientists really have no particular idea about the origin of life. Instead, I will talk about a few very specific points that seem to me are born out of a belief in long age cosmologies and seem to be unnecessarily complex.

I did want to comment on the distant starlight problem mentioned by Steven. In my blogging career, I'm almost embarrassed to say I haven't written about what is probably the best object to a young universe. It's not been because I'm afraid of the subject. Rather, I like to only write original material and all I can really say about this issue is to repeat the compelling arguments that I've heard made by others. Let me think about it for a while and see if I can come up with some interesting thoughts without plagiarizing other people's ideas.

Keep visiting. God bless!!


Carvin said...

Well, at this point you've removed any meaning to 'exotic explanation' as a term. Everything in existence is complex when you get down to it.

I'd think that exotic explanation seems most accurate when an explanation goes against anything we would expect or currently understand through science. Evolution isn't that hard to picture- ever since we learned breeding we knew that parents determine the child's characteristics. We can see how mutation can get involved too. Some humans have a mutation that has made us more able to survive colder climates: the ability to consume lactic acids after the age of three. Since vitamin D is much more scarce in colder climates, like Europe, the mutation has be passed around quite a bit. Something of 90% of European descent are lactose tolerant, but Africa and Asia are in the 20% area.

Now, exotic explanation can be true. The relative length of your fingers predicting homosexuality is very exotic. Nothing in science, before the research, would suggest such a silly thing could be true. Turns out, it is true. One of the better predictors, and one of the few that work to predict female homosexuality. Although, I think to truly be an explanation, you'd have to say 'my sexuality explains the relative length of my fingers', which is basically true, but doesn't strike me as super useful. Anyway, hopefully the point is made and not lost on the example used.

I guess in the end it comes back to the idea that exotic explanation, as a term, is useless... other than as an insult at someone's ideas.