Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Creationist "Journal" review

Although I'm not terribly active with it anymore, I do occasionally check to see if any new articles have been published regarding the research on solar type flare stars I began laying out my last year at KU. The main tool for looking up papers (the ADS) doesn't like the keyword "superflare". It apparently ignores the "super" part and just looks for "flares", and there's only a billion results for that.

So I tried Google Scholar. The first results were the original papers I've already discussed. There were a few articles on superflares on non-solar type stars. And then on page 2 of the search, I found an article with the title "The sun [sic] is not an average star".


One of the first things we teach in an intro astronomy class when we get to the section on the sun and stars is that the sun is boringly common! Is someone really presenting evidence to challenge this!?

Then I looked at the author: Jonathan Henry.

Hm. That name sounds familiar. Where's he from again?

Oh yes. Clearwater Christian College.

And what journal is he publishing in?

"The Journal of Creation".

And, since its publication in 2003, how many times has be been cited?


By himself.

Right. So what the hell is this nonsense all about and why is he citing Rubenstein & Schaefer? Let's go through it:

Henry's main thrust seems to be that our Sun is different from other stars in three main ways:
At present, it is possible to claim that, unlike most stars, (1) the sun is unassociated with nearby giant companions, (2) its planetary system seems to be a non-typical one, and (3) it is relatively stable.
Thus, magic man done it.
Who or what is responsible for these special features—God or evolution?
Not even off the first page and he's already conflating evolution with everything he doesn't like.

Off to a good start Henry immediately follows that with another logical fallacy:
The answer to this question is ultimately spiritual. The general revelation addressed in Romans 1:20 ‘consists only of God’s self-revelation. … After the Fall, man’s knowledge of God through general revelation has been darkened by sin, so that Scripture and the grace of the Holy Spirit are now needed for man to understand properly the message of general revelation’
That's right. Poisoning the well. He then makes some assumptions about why scientists don't like them much:
the real difficulty that many scientists have with creationists is not so much with the ad hoc nature of their theories as with their prior acceptance of the Bible and the restraints it imposes on theorizing.
You're right Johnny. We don't like Creationists because they claim to be doing science, yet already have "prior acceptance" of their conclusions. In other words, they're doing it wrong. But the ad hoc fallacies they espouse disqualify them too. It may solve their selectively compiled "evidence", but cannot be generalized to new evidence or even the full body.

Regardless, Henry somehow claims that this bit of persecution whining nullifies the Anthropic Principle. Furthermore, he claims that the "principle of mediocrity" also negates it since the Anthropic Principle requires special zones in which life can arise. This is really just a vaguer stating of the cosmological principle but the argument fails for the same reason: It's a matter of scale. In any random distribution, if you look on small enough scales, you'll find things that might otherwise seem to stand out. Such things are often referred to as "lucky streaks", but there's nothing statistically noteworthy about them unless they can hold out against the background noise on the large scale. Of course, if you do as Creationists do and selectively compile your evidence to only include these minor oddities, it's certain you'll see things incorrectly.

Henry goes on to make a very strange quotation:
We have no definitive proof that any planets exist beside the sun’s ... [but] we need … a second example to feel confident that our own solar system does not represent a cosmic anomaly, a unique (or nearly unique) circumstance.
Huh? I'm going to assume Henry at least read the Rubenstein & Schaefer paper which he later cites and given it explicitly discusses extra-solar planets, so why would he cite a source from 1985 saying there aren't any!? By 2003, when Henry published this article, numerous planets were already known, including some major ones (such as Upsilon Andromedae which was the first confirmed to have multiple planets and HD 209458 b which transits the star, giving conclusive evidence that it is indeed a planet)!

Henry admits a few sentences later that "planets have reportedly been detected" and waves them off because they're not likely to have life. This of course intentionally ignores the reason that, at that time, only super-Jovian planets with close in orbits, likely incapable of sustaining life were discovered: It's not because that's all that's out there. It's because the detection methods have a huge bias in that such planets are the easiest to detect! Only now are we truly getting down to the sensitivity necessary to detect Earthlike planets. Henry is either oblivious to all this, or willfully ignoring it in order to push his "prior acceptance of the Bible".

After 2 1/2 pages of beating around the bush, Henry finally starts getting to his main point:
Is the sun really of ‘middling size’ and ‘middle age’? Is it really ‘ordinary’, ‘run-of-the-mill’, and ‘mediocre’?
First Henry addresses the "middle age" claim.
The suspect nature of such characterizations is apparent when one reflects on the fact that calling the sun ‘middle age’ is a deduction based on nothing more than evolutionary scenarios of the sun’s history and operation. The sun is typically taken to be some 5 billion years old, with a presumed lifetime of the order of 10 billion years, placing the sun in the middle of its presumed lifetime at ‘middle age’. Clearly, if the evolutionary presuppositions behind this characterization are wrong, the description of the sun as middle aged is also wrong.
No reasoning behind why these "evolutionary scenarios" might be wrong. To Henry, they just are. What a shame for him that numerous times in this blog I've discussed how observations support them.

So what of the notion that the Sun isn't a middle-mass star?
The other characterizations of the sun just quoted are derived from the fact that the sun lies in the middle of the range of stellar types plotted on the Hertzsprung–Russell (H–R) diagram. This means that the sun occupies a median position of possible stellar types in the H–R diagram. However, the median of a population corresponds to the mean only if the population follows a normal distribution, but the distribution of star types does not follow a normal distribution.
This doesn't really solve the problem with with poor Henry is faced. He's just quibbling about definitions. In a normal (read: Gaussian) distribution, the middle of the range will correspond to the median. As he points out, the distribution of stellar masses is anything but Gaussian. This can be clearly seen from the initial mass function (IMF), which is generally stated as a series of power laws.

But so what? Even if Henry wants to quibble about the usage of the word "middle" it doesn't fix that looking across the ~1011 galaxies in the observable universe, that's still going to add up to billions and billions of solar type stars. It may not be the definition of "middle" Henry wants to use, but it certainly doesn't suddenly make the Sun "unique".

Another oddity in this part of the discussion from Henry comes this bit:
As an example, consider ‘the 100 stars closest to the sun. Stars at this range are near enough for us to measure accurate distances and to detect even very faint examples. They are also numerous enough to provide a good sample. Stars in such a random sample are believed to be representative stars—that is, a representative sample of all stars in our general neighborhood of the galaxy.
While I agree that the mass distribution is not Gaussian, does Henry really think that in what's supposed to be a "technical journal" that appealing to "the 100 stars closest to the sun" is the best way to prove his point? I suspect he's never heard of the IMF. Not surprising since it's discussed in junior and senior level astrophysics classes and Henry apparently has no training as an astronomer (he's apparently a chemical engineer).

But even more worrying is his claim that 100 stars is a "representative" sampling. Just looking around the galaxy shows it's far from accurate. We live in a nice quiet, happily evolved neighborhood in which there's not too many stars crowded around us, the older stars that would blow up at us have already died off, and also, in the plane of the galaxy. There are major differences between the distributions in the disk and the halo of the galaxy to which Henry is stunningly ignorant. Oddly enough, Henry's "citation" for this is the "Chemical Engineers' Handbook". I strongly suspect the book talks about what makes up a representative sample and Henry is blatantly misconstruing it. Regardless, Henry is failing basic statistics here.

He continues to wave numbers around without realizing the importance of them:
the sun is a type G star, a distinction held by only 9% of stars generally.
Yes. Nine percent is a minority, but minority doesn't mean or even imply that stars like the Sun are as exceedingly rare as Henry's trying to claim. After all, 9% x ~1011 galaxies x ~1011 stars/galaxy = 9x1020 G class stars! Rare indeed....

Henry again equivocates trying to pretend that if it's not the majority of cases that the sun must be stunningly unique in other ways. There's several paragraphs devoted to the fact that stars not in binary (or even trinary or more) systems are in the minority. Again, it's a sizeable chunk that aren't so it doesn't really further Henry's main point. It's just throwing out numbers without appreciating the scale of the universe.

Additionally, Henry discusses the variability of stars. The Sun has some inherent variation to it, but it's small (<1% on average). Henry claims "[s]uch variability is too insignificant to directly affect life on earth." I think I know someone who'd disagree with that.

But the main thrust of this section is that there are, "superflares in most sun-like stars". To justify this bizarre claim, he cites the papers that I'm so familiar with by Rubenstein and Schaefer discussing the superflares on solar type stars. Here's the quote Henry pulls out:
We have traditionally assumed, for instance, that if a star has roughly the same surface temperature and luminosity as the Sun, is a single star and rotates at a speed similar to that of the Sun, it will likewise have only modest levels of chromospheric activity. Such stars are commonly called Solar analogues. The unspoken assumption that all solar analogues are, in essence, interchangeable underlies much of the thinking about habitable worlds, and perhaps life, existing elsewhere in the cosmos.
What a glorious Creationist quote mine! What Henry strips from the paper is two things:

1) The likely cause for these superflares is a condition that does not exist in the solar system, or even around most G class stars!
2) These flares are exceedingly rare only ~10 in the past 100 years in the entire galaxy!

(See this post of mine regarding the papers in question for a more thorough discussion of what they actually say.)

Henry is obviously lying here.

The final section is devoted to the lithium abundance of the sun and the angular momentum as being supposedly contradictory to models of stellar evolution. As used, both are arguments from ignorance (I've discussed lithium and how it confirms the stellar evolutionary models here).

Finally, after all this blundering, Harry still audaciously claims, "it is clear that the earth is the object of God’s providential care." He again sums his "reasoning" in the conclusion: The Sun isn't the most common type of star, thus is somehow exceedingly rare and "[a] special, or even non-typical, sun can be taken as evidence of God’s provision for life on earth..." (Emphasis added because it's just.that.wrong.)

So the paper is crap from top to bottom. But let's look at the really final bit: The References and see how they stack up:

Reference #1: An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Really? He's going to cite a dictionary for technical jargon? Oh.... wait. He's just citing it for the definition of "special" so he can equivocate. Pretty expected for a Creationist, but something I've never seen in a peer reviewed journal from a respectable source. And to drive it in, he cites it again so he can be vague about "average".

Out of the 55 References listed in the relevant section well less than half (22 to be exact) actually come from peer reviewed journals. Of those 22 references, they come from a total of about 4-5 actual papers.

Twenty citations are to popular media (books, magazines, newspapers, websites) intended for laymen and hardly scholarly. Many of these are horribly outdated (think Sagan era).

Introductory Astronomy Textbooks are cited six times. Again we see the depth of Henry's study of Astronomy. Furthermore, all of the textbooks cited are at nearly 20 years old! Again, no points for up to date material.

Henry often points citations to other citations (a common practice), but the actual citation list stops at 55 even though two citations (#52 and #53) point to #58 for the full source, so I can't comment on them. Additionally, numbered citations in the actual text go all the way up to #64! Nine of his sources seem to be completely missing. This clearly shows you how much of a "peer-review" and editorial process such papers go through.

In conclusion, I find this bit of Creationist writing the same as Abbie did for the work she reviewed: Semi-Technical and Completely Worthless.

Digg this


Paper Hand said...

Wow ... that really is a bad paper. And even if the Sun *were* exceedingly rare, what would that prove? If we could only have evolved under a Sun-like star, then ... you'd expect to find us around a Sun-like star!

TheBrummell said...

This is one of the more blatant examples I've seen of creationists whining "I'm special! I'm special! Don't tell me I'm not special!".

I've seen plenty of overblown, overexcited talk about "scientific revolutions" (apparently there were many), each of which moved humans (i.e. adult, white, male humans living in western Europe or North America) one step further out from the center of the universe - round Earth, Earth goes around the Sun, all humans are basically equal and races don't drive differences in intelligence, humans evolved just like everything else, and something about Freud I can never remember. But this cretin's whining really supports such a simplified view of history.

Paper Hand said...

Wow ... that really is a bad paper. And even if the Sun *were* exceedingly rare, what would that prove? If we could only have evolved under a Sun-like star, then ... you'd expect to find us around a Sun-like star!