An Exomoon, Science and Truth

Kepler-1625b, a gas giant more massive than Jupiter, may have a moon. A big one: nearly Neptune’s size.

Scientists still aren’t sure that the exomoon exists. If it does, they have another puzzle: figuring out how it formed.

I started talking about Kepler-1625b and gibberish published in academic journals. That reminded me of fake fossils, alchemists and honest mistakes. Also truth and perceptions, how I see the last half-century — and why paying attention makes sense.


“A Grain of Sand”

I think God’s right.

The reality we call home is “very good.”

It’s also vast: from our viewpoint.

I’m okay with that.

Even if I wasn’t, my opinion wouldn’t outweigh God’s. Not even if I started a crowdfunded letter-writing campaign.

And, although our lives are “like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,” God notices us — and is patient.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
“the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
(Psalms 19:2)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.
“For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.”
(Wisdom 11:2224)

“What are mortals? What are they worth?
What is good in them, and what is evil?
“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:811)

Since I think “the firmament proclaims the works of his hands,” I figure God doesn’t mind if we take an interest in this universe. If we’re doing it right, what we learn will lead us toward God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3135, 283, 341, 2500)

Maybe my breezy assertion that someone can notice this universe and take God seriously needs explaining. Maybe not, but I’ll do it anyway.

Knowable Physical Laws

I figure science and religion should both value truth. That doesn’t strike me as a conflict of interest. Neither does the belief common to both that truth exists.

Granted, the “sixth day” Geneses 1:31 isn’t “true” — from a metaphor-phobic contemporary Western viewpoint.

I figure it was written a few thousand years before Comte de Buffon’s experiments. I’ll get back to that, maybe.

Now, about God, the universe and getting a grip —

I think God weaves knowable physical laws into everything we can observe. Studying this universe helps us understand those laws. What we do with our knowledge is up to us. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

I’ve run across claims that science says God doesn’t exist. That’s an oversimplification, but I figure you’ve seen them too. I don’t agree.

Science studies this universe: the parts of creation we can see or measure with our instruments. We’re learning when and how we began, and how this universe works. That’s a good thing, and part of being human. Like anything else we do, we can misuse science. It’s our choice. (Catechism, 31, 158159, 282284, 22932294)

We can’t study God the same way we study a salamander or a star, because God isn’t “in” this universe.

The Almighty is “here” in every time and place, but not located in any particular spot. We can and should know what we can about God. But we won’t fully understand the infinite, ineffable Creator. (Catechism, 31, 202, 212, 300)

That hasn’t kept folks from making remarkable claims.

Someone could, in principle, say that God doesn’t exist because two and two equals four. Unless you’re talking about rabbits, and that’s not quite another topic.

That’d be daft, and I hope most folks wouldn’t take the ‘arithmetic disproves religion’ claim seriously. But a remarkable number think science and religion are at war, so maybe I’m overly-optimistic about common sense.

Dishonest scientists, flimflammers with a scientific facade and mountebanks with religious trimmings happen. But I don’t think the occasional scientific hoax means all scientists are con artists. The same goes for religion-themed malfeasance.

The problem isn’t science or religion. It’s us. We were “very good,” at first. We still are, basically. But something went wrong. (September 19, 2018)

Alchemy

Folks like Albertus Magnus studied alchemy because they wanted to learn more about the elements of this world.

Most of them, that is. A few too many started hawking elixirs and panaceas, which encouraged serious alchemists to start calling what they did chemistry.

Others may have believed they’d found an elixir of life. Their claim wouldn’t be true, but I don’t think they were lying either. (October 16, 2016)

I figure at least some slanted or simply wrong results, alchemical and otherwise, are honest mistakes: not deliberate hoaxes.


Kepler-1625b’s Exomoon: New Evidence and Analysis


(From Dan Durda, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: There’s nothing like this planet-moon pair in our Solar System”
(BBC News))

First ‘exomoon’ may have been found
Paul Rincon, BBC News (October 4, 2018)

Astronomers have announced the possible discovery of the first known moon outside our Solar System.

“This ‘exomoon’ is not like any in our cosmic neighbourhood: it’s the size of Neptune and orbits a planet the size of Jupiter – but with 10 times the mass.

“The object was spotted in data from Nasa’s Kepler spacecraft, and later observed using the Hubble telescope.

“Astronomers David Kipping and Alex Teachey have published their results in Science Advances journal.

“But they say that further observations are needed to understand the distant planetary system.

“‘We’ve tried our best to rule out other possibilities such as spacecraft anomalies, other planets in the system or stellar activity, but we’re unable to find any other single hypothesis which can explain all of the data we have,’ said Dr Kipping, from Columbia University in New York….”

Science Advances published Kipping and Teachey’s paper on October 3, 2018. That makes what they say “news.” Finding evidence that a moon orbits an exoplanet, not so much.

J1407b and WASP-12b may have moons. MOA-2011-BLG-262, too, but it may be a brown dwarf; not a planet.1

It’s not even the first time someone said that Kepler-1625b might have a moon.

Scientists spotted the exoplanet on May 10, 2016.

Data from the Kepler Mission showed that Kepler-1625 dimmed every 287 days. 287 and a third, actually. It stayed dimmer for 19 hours each time. The most likely explanation is that something about Jupiter’s size orbits Kepler-1625. And, maybe, that something not quite as big orbits the planet.2

Transits

Astronomers call something passing between us and a star a transit.

Transits let scientists measure how big an exoplanet is. Sometimes they can learn about the planet’s atmosphere, too.

On the ‘down’ side, transits happen only when an exoplanet’s orbit happens to take it almost exactly between its star and our Solar System. The odds are about one half of one percent that astronomers in some random planetary system could detect Earth this way.

Not that planetary systems are “random.” What I mean is that we’ve got about a half-percent chance of a planet’s orbital plane lining up with our Solar System, with the star picked out of a hat. Not that stars would fit in someone’s hat. That’s another figure of speech and another topic.

Where was I? Kepler-1625, exoplanets, exomoons, Kipping and Teachey, stars and hats. Right.

Scientists designed the Kepler spacecraft’s instruments to detect changes in a star’s brightness. Analyzing the changes would sort out the ones caused by transiting planets. Only a couple thousand of the 150,000 stars Kepler observed have confirmed planets. A few more thousand ‘possibles’ may be planets, or something else.3

Unlike anything in the Solar System

Scientists have measured Kepler-1625b’s transits four times so far.

The first three gave more information about Kepler-1625b, including what Kipping and Teachey called “hints” that the exoplanet had a moon. They asked for, and got, time on the Hubble Space Telescope for Kepler-1625b’s next transit. That happened on October 28 and 29, 2017.

We’ve got a great deal left to learn about Kepler-1625 and -1625b: including exactly how big, bright and far away the star is.

We know that it’s several thousand light-years out, in the general direction of Deneb. It’s almost certainly closer to Deneb than it is to us, but we’re not sure by how much.

The last time I checked, Wikipedia’s Kepler-1625 page started by saying it’s “approximately 4,000 light years away.”

The same page’s Observation data table gave 2,182 parsecs as the distance. That’s around 7,117 light-years.

My guess is that the first sentence’s distance came from a less-precise analysis. Or it could be a typo. Maybe someone updated the page’s data table later, but hasn’t changed the introduction yet. Or maybe not.

Scientists have good reasons for studying Kepler-1625b. It’s a gas giant orbiting at or near the inner edge of the star’s habitable zone. There’s nothing like it in our Solar System. We didn’t know planets like that existed until recently.4

It’s probably a gas giant, I should say. Any more massive than what’s likely from current observations, and it’d be a brown dwarf. And that’s yet another topic.

If Kepler-1625b has a Neptune-mass moon, which still isn’t certain, scientists will have another puzzle on their hands. That’s helped make the last few centuries exciting for some, disturbing for others. I get the impression that at least one new puzzle shows up for every one we solve.

The Moon That Shouldn’t Exist

We’ve gone from seeing one planetary system to finding thousands, with more being confirmed almost as fast as we can update the catalogs. Faster, sometimes.

Some planetary systems look like our Solar System. Most, so far, don’t. That’s helping scientists learn more about how planets form. (July 14, 2018; June 30, 2017)

What we’re learning explains most of what’s being found. Most, not all. Scientists still haven’t worked out the math for accretion disk physics, for example. But considering that we’ve found protoplanetary disks, accretion disks, and what look like newly-formed planetary systems, my guess is that the nebular hypothesis isn’t far from the mark.5

Then there’s Kepler-1625b’s not-yet-confirmed moon. According to current models, it shouldn’t exist.

Maybe it doesn’t.

Kipping and Teachey say they made allowances for hardware and math glitches. They also say they can’t be sure they didn’t miss one. And that they’d found “evidence in favor of the moon hypothesis” — not proof that the moon is there.

I figure we’ll learn a great deal from studying Kepler-1625’s planetary system. More, if scientists confirm that the planet has a moon that shouldn’t be there.

Data, Analysis and Noise


(From Alex Teachey, David M. Kipping; via Science Magazine, used w/o permission.)
(Five ways Teachey and Kipping adjusted to known errors, trends in this case, in Hubble data.)

Charts in Teachy and Kipping’s paper aren’t nearly as neat and clean as illustrations showing how transit photometry works.

Naturally enough, since they’re dealing with data from the real world, not simplified diagrams.

Other charts show how they handled oddities in Hubble data that “not yet been correlated to any physical parameter” in the space telescope’s observations.

Their paper’s attitude is pretty much the opposite of Lowell’s confident ‘Martian canal’ assertions, or Priestly’s diehard defense of phlogiston theory. I don’t blame them a bit for being cautious. If their analysis is right, Kepler-1625b’s moon is big. Very big.

“…One jarring aspect of the system is the sheer scale of it. … This Neptune-like moon orbits a planet with a size fully compatible with that of Jupiter at (11.4 ± 1.5) R⊕, but most likely a few times more massive….”
(Alex Teachey, David M. Kipping (October 3, 2018))

Folks studying Kepler-1625b are looking at subtle features in a weak and noisy signal. It’s sort of like listening to an AM radio station in it’s fringe area.

Only a little light from Kepler-1625 reaches our Solar System. The star’s light doesn’t change much, and there’s a lot of noise in the signal.

Observed changes in Kepler-1625’s brightness that aren’t obviously related to a planet, like sunspots.

Or something else orbiting the star: other planets, dust clouds, a clumpy asteroid belt or crowds of comets — or maybe a planet-size analog of our ISS.

That last isn’t, I think, likely.

But a few scientists who had been studying KIC 8462852, Tabby’s Star, said we shouldn’t ignore the possibility. Others have said maybe the KIC 8462852 object(s) is/are a big planet with really big rings. And maybe asteroid swarms. Or something else.

I like the ‘alien megastructure’ idea, and think the scientists who suggested it are right. Looking at the data makes sense. Dismissing explanations that fit the data doesn’t. (December 2, 2016)

Getting back to the challenges of observing Kepler-1625b, the telescope’s equipment adds still more noise. The problem isn’t unique to orbiting telescopes.

Folks at the Parkes, Australia, observatory picked up the same odd Fast Radio Burst at fairly regular intervals for 17 years. Someone eventually traced it to a microwave oven in the observatory’s break room. (July 28, 2017)


Gibberish Accepted and Published: Again


(From Mike Nayna, via The Atlantic, used w/o permission.)
(“James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, the scholars behind the hoax”
(The Atlantic))

What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia
Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic (October 5, 2018)

“Over the past 12 months, three scholars—James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian—wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions, and tried to get them placed in high-profile journals in fields including gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies. Their success rate was remarkable: By the time they took their experiment public late on Tuesday, seven of their articles had been accepted for publication by ostensibly serious peer-reviewed journals. Seven more were still going through various stages of the review process. Only six had been rejected.

“We’ve been here before.

In the late 1990s, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, began a soon-to-be-infamous article by setting out some of his core beliefs….”

I don’t know about Sokal’s thoroughly-bogus paper expressing “his core beliefs.”

He sent “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies — apparently to see whether they’d swallow the gibberish. They did. Hook, line and sinker.

In fairness, Sokal is a physics professor. Social Text was a journal focusing on North American cultural studies. Maybe the editors figured that they wouldn’t understand what a physics professor said about physics — and saw that he used currently-cool buzzwords.

But I’ll agree with Yascha Mounk. “We’ve been here before.”

Gibberish getting accepted as scholarship and research isn’t new.

I wrote about allegedly-scientific research with results that couldn’t be replicated last year. The good news was that quite a few scientists had noticed and were correcting the problem by the time it hit the news. (April 28, 2017)

I figure that academia has the same problem as science and fast food franchises. They all employ humans.

Some of us aren’t entirely honest. Some are too confident for our own good. We’re all humans, which is good news and not-so-good news. (September 19, 2018)

This is where I could lament those long-lost days of yore, when scholars were clothed in truth and scientists were free from human failings.

I won’t. My memory’s too good. Bogus claims are far from new. More about that later.

What Mounk called “the sheer craziness of the papers” reminded me of attitudes and beliefs I saw while in academia. They didn’t seem reasonable then. They still don’t.

And I’m pretty sure the crazy ideas don’t seem unreasonable to folks who sincerely believe they’re true. Or relevant. Or inclusive. Or whatever buzzword is currently in vogue.

Sokal Squared, Physics and — Feminist Astrology?!

Non Sequitur’s Danae has a point, sort of. The laws of physics aren’t ‘democratic.’ We didn’t vote on whether we wanted gravity.

“…In the months after Sokal went public, Social Text was much ridiculed. But its influence—and that of the larger ‘deconstructivist’ mode of inquiry it propagated—continued to grow. Indeed, many academic departments that devote themselves to the study of particular ethnic, religious, and sexual groups are deeply inflected by some of Social Text’s core beliefs, including the radical subjectivity of knowledge.

“That’s why Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian set out to rerun the original hoax, only on a much larger scale. Call it Sokal Squared….

“…The sheer craziness of the papers the authors concocted makes this fact all the more shocking. One of their papers reads like a straightforward riff on the Sokal Hoax. Dismissing ‘western astronomy’ as sexist and imperialist, it makes a case for physics departments to study feminist astrology—or practice interpretative dance—instead….

“…Like just about everything else in this depressing national moment, Sokal Squared is already being used as ammunition in the great American culture war….”
(Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic (October 5, 2018)[emphasis mine])

I’ll be talking about what Mounk calls “Sokal Squared,” but not as a partisan in America’s “culture war.” I’m not a gung-ho supporter of either side.

Maybe that’s why I don’t quite see today’s America as a “depressing national moment.”

Part of the reason, anyway. I’d be considerably more morose if I wanted more of the last few decades — or felt that America must return to the 1950s.

We’re experiencing change on a scale that reminds me of the 1960s. It’s an edgy era.

I think that’s true of any time when folks experience rapid change.

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’…”
(Grace Hopper; quoted in “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper,” Philip Schieber, OCLC Newsletter (March/April 1987))

“Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”
(Richard Hooker, quoted in Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755))

I’m a very emotional man. Changes, particularly those affecting something I care about, can be unsettling. Even when they’re changes I like.

There’s nothing wrong with emotions. Experiencing them is part of being human. So is thinking, using reason. Feeling nervous may tell me that something needs my attention. But feelings aren’t good or bad by themselves. It’s what I decide to do that matters. (Catechism, 17621770)

Feeling uncomfortable is nearly inevitable if I pay any attention to current events. Letting those feelings take control is an option, but not a good one.

I see no problem with having well-defined beliefs and acting like they matter — if I remember that loving my neighbor also matters, and that everyone’s my neighbor. Even folks who disagree with me.

Feeling that anyone who doesn’t share my beliefs must be Satan incarnate, a Nazi, or an intolerant and intolerable bigot? That could be a problem. And yet again another topic.

“The Radical Subjectivity of Knowledge”

What’s true for me may not be true for you. Sometimes.

Take driving on the right-hand side of the road as an example. Right-hand driving is legal for me. That’s true for folks living in many countries. But it’s not true for places like Australia, Bhutan or Suriname.

Right- or left-hand traffic is a rule folks make up to make driving safer. It’s not on a par with scientific laws. But it matters.

I doubt that even the most dedicated denizen of academia’s outer limits would say ‘designated parking is subjective, do whatever you like.’

Not after the first undergrad parked in the faculty lot, at any rate.

Some truths are even more subjective than traffic and parking regulations. Like which movies and books are “good” in the sense of being worth seeing or reading.

I have a pretty good idea of what makes a book or movie “good.” That doesn’t make “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ngaio Marsh mysteries “good” for everyone.

I figure that personal taste, social and legal rules, and scientific laws all reflect truth. But they don’t all reflect the same facet or layer of truth. (April 28, 2017)

Some “truths” are unique to an individual or a culture. Some are always true, no matter who I am, how I live or what I believe. No act of Congress could nullify the law of gravity or make Earth flat. That’s beyond even the United States Supreme Court’s authority.

The “truth is subjective” bandwagon might look good to folks fleeing “God agrees with me” zealots. But losing track of distinctions between personal taste and God’s unchanging laws isn’t a good idea.

About those unchanging laws: the ones involving me are simple. I should love God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

That’s it: simple, easy to remember. And incredibly hard to do.

I suspect that old-school zealots and today’s “subjective truth” scholars have more in common than their knack for annoying unbelievers. They’ve known and enjoyed success.

“…success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary.”
(Akiro the Wizard, “Conan the Barbarian” (1982))


Science and Faith — Pursuing Truth

The scholarly editors who published gibberish weren’t scientists. It’d be nice if scientists didn’t make mistakes like that, but they’ve occasionally blundered too.

I figure that’s because they’re human, not proof that science and scholarship are bad.

Liberal arts scholars and scientists share some traits. Or should.

When they’re doing their job, they pursue truth. I think that’s a good idea.

Valuing truth isn’t just my preference. It’s something I must do if I’m going to take my faith seriously.

Because I’m a Catholic, I must willingly accept and embrace truth: all truth, including truth we find in the natural world. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 142150, 2500)

Folks can be “Catholic” without sharing my fascination with science. But I don’t see a point in ignoring the wonders surrounding us, including those we’re finding today.

Sometimes we find something that doesn’t fit what we thought was true. That’s been happening quite a bit lately.

Studying God’s Work

Benjamin Franklin and Pope Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing about truth:

“…truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

“…Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”
(Benjamin Franklin (1725))

What physical science and archaeology were showing us in Pope Leo XIII’s day made some folk uneasy.

Particularly what we were learning about evolution. Our new knowledge didn’t fit what many had thought was true.

Leo XIII pointed out that God is “Creator and Ruler of all things” and “Author of the Scriptures.” If we don’t understand how new knowledge fits what’s in the Bible, we’ve got a new puzzle to solve. And we will solve it, eventually. Without chucking our faith.

Some folks, including some Catholics, disapprove of evolution. And science in general. I’m not sure why.

I suspect punctured pride accounts for some anti-evolution sentiments. That, and a Gnostic diffidence toward physical realities. (April 21, 2018; March 26, 2018)

Finding truth in this universe shouldn’t surprise Christians. Genesis 1:131 says that it’s made by God, and that it’s all “very good.” I don’t see a point in disagreeing with God’s assessment — or ignoring what we’ve learned since the 1860s.

I figure learning more about our physical origins means that we know more about the “dust” we’re made from.

Like I said earlier, all truth points toward God. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

Finding new-to-us signposts pointing towards God shouldn’t be a problem.

I don’t know what’s behind ‘old is good, new is bad’ sentiments. Or the unwillingness to learn new views.

Folks were skittish about science and their Biblical assumptions long before Darwin. Some folks, that is.

Albertus Magnus, I mentioned him earlier, got a posthumous reputation as a magician. The ‘summon demons’ sort, not a performer who pulls rabbits out of hats.

Folks using his name to boost the reputation of books like “Secreta Alberti” didn’t help.

Neither, I think, did the silly sides of cultural and intellectual upheavals we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Or folks who seem convinced that their favorite English-language Bible translation is the only “real” one.

I’m not bothered by the idea that the Bible wasn’t written by Americans or Englishmen, and that we’ve learned a bit since Mesopotamian astrologers were studying the stars.

I figure God’s large and in charge. What we learn, anything we learn, isn’t going to threaten an informed faith — or God.

Now, finally, about the “sixth day” thing in Genesis — and what we’ve learned since the 17th century.

Ussher’s 1650 Bible study pegged Creation’s date and time as near the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC.

About a century later, the Comte de Buffon published results of his experiments, along with an analysis that said Earth was about 75,000 years old.

The Sorbonne promptly condemned his analysis. It was insufficiently “Biblical,” maybe. As it turns out, the Comte de Buffon was wrong.

Earth is lots older, by several powers of ten. (November 3, 2017; March 10, 2017)

The Comte also had ideas about human origins that likely made more sense in 18th century France than 21st century America. That’s a can of worms I’ll leave for another day.

I figure Ussher and de Buffon both believed what they wrote. Their publications weren’t hoaxes. They were, I think, honest mistakes.

Hoaxes, “Sea-Dragons” and Imagination

Johann Beringer’s “Lithographiae Wirceburgensis” started as a hoax. Or maybe a practical joke. One that led to an honest mistake; followed by more fakery, and tenacity — or something — above and beyond the call of reason.

The trouble started in 1725.

Two of Beringer’s colleagues made little critter carvings from limestone.

They inscribed some with the name of God, in Hebrew: planting them where Beringer went fossil-hunting. Beringer found and studied the fakes, publishing a book about his discoveries in 1726.

Nobody knew much about fossils at the time. That may explain why he didn’t realize they were phony.

And maybe why he thought God had signed some of them. Maybe.

He kept insisting that he must be right, even after the hoaxers left increasingly blatant fakes and finally told him what they’d done.

I don’t know why Beringer seemed so unwilling to re-think his original idea. Sliding from confidence into mulish stubbornness seems likely. Maybe because I’m stubborn. I could be projecting my problems.

Beringer wasn’t the last to try mixing science and faith. With regrettable results.

Thomas Hawkins probably meant well when he wrote “The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons….” (May 5, 2017)

His florid prose may have influenced H. P. Lovecraft. Not Hawkins’ style — Lovecraft is positively terse compared to Hawkins’ 1840 exercise in grandiloquent garrulity. It’s the book’s apparent attitude toward “…Dragon Pterodactyles flitting in the hot air with Vampire Wing….” (January 28, 2018)

Today’s “creation science” popped up in the 1960s. A remarkable number of folks take it seriously. I don’t. More accurately, I think it’s a tribute to human imagination. And an embarrassment to Christians who accept the reality we all share. (March 31, 2017)

Wanting allegedly-scientific support for cherished notions isn’t limited to religious folks.

Cephalic Index: Science and Biases

Cephalic index is what you get by multiplying a head’s width by 100 and dividing by the head’s length.

I see it as a number we can use to sort critters into categories.

It fell out of favor in the 1960s. Partly, I think, because scientists had found data and analysis methods that were more useful. Cephalic index getting hijacked by ethnic chauvinists didn’t help its reputation.

By itself, cephalic index is harmless. It’s a simple analysis of data. Trouble started when someone noticed that Europeans generally have longer heads than most other folks.

Mixing that observation with 19th and early 20th century Western biases did science and European-based cultures no favors. My opinion. (March 10, 2017)

Boston Brahmins and Euro-Americans generally don’t have a monopoly on letting self-esteem slide into favoritism and narrow-mindedness. Feeling more comfortable around ‘folks like me’ isn’t a problem.

Forgetting that we’re all made “in the image of God,” with a share of humanity’s transcendent dignity — that’s a problem. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 357, 1700, 19291933)


Echo Chambers

“I’ve got standards, you’re biased, he’s crazy. Or stupid. Maybe both.”

Feeling that anyone who disagrees with me is stupid or crazy is easy. But I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is trying to isolate myself from folks who don’t think and act like me.

“Consciously or unconsciously, the strategy of true believers is to isolate themselves from skeptics.”
“Voodoo Science,” p. 122; Robert L. Park (2000) via wikiquote)

Earning a paycheck as a beet chopper, radio DJ, copywriter, and whatever else came along kept me from getting too comfortable anywhere. My eclectic job history introduced me to folks with backgrounds and views that weren’t much like mine.

Some were very smart folks who didn’t agree with me on faith, social norms, or politics. That helped me learn to be careful about what I believe. Careful, not timid.

I’ve seldom if ever lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by like-minded upholders of decency, grooviness, or whatever.

Dictionary.com says “echo chamber” is an Americanism dating from the mid-1930s. Back then it meant a room for recording echoes or hollow sound effects.

Today it means a closed community, folks who don’t mingle with outsiders any more than they must. By itself, I don’t see that as a problem. Some, not all, religious orders are closed communities: Trappists, for example.

I think trouble can start when members of a closed community forget that there are outsiders. Or think that folks outside the community are “outsiders:” city slickers, country bumpkins, social justice warriors, Repugnicans, or worse.

Assumptions like that might encourage noticing outsiders only to confirm that they’re stupid, crazy, or just plain bad.

Echo chambers as a term for closed communities may be new. Closed systems and a desire to conform isn’t. Peer pressure and misdirected ambition are ancient issues.

“You shall not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When testifying in a lawsuit, you shall not follow the crowd in perverting justice.”
(Exodus 23:2)

“If rulers listen to lying words,
their servants all become wicked.”
(Proverbs 29:12)

“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
(Romans 12:2)

The Establishment, Then and Now

America has changed since my youth.

So has “the establishment,” a term that probably popped up in the 1950s or 60s. According to Philip Maughan anyway, and that’s an etymological rabbit hole I’ll leave for another time.

Mid-1950s to early-1960s America was no more monolithic than today’s.

Some folks in top government, business and academic circles were anything but hidebound conservatives. But I suspect McCarthyism succeeded partly because ‘everybody knew’ that “right” politics were always right. And that deviation from the “right” politics was anti-American.

That and other debacles helped convince many Americans, including me, that we needed change. Which is what we got, starting in the 1960s.

Focusing on some of my preferences and attitudes, I could believe that what this country needs is more Sixties-era ideals. And that any deviation from lockstep conformity to the principles of individual liberty and social activism will doom the environment. Or inclusiveness. Or, perhaps worst of all, seem “intolerant.”

“Individual liberty” being defined as freedom to agree with me and avoid doing anything I find annoying or unsettling.

I don’t want that, partly because I remember what happened when conservatives were running the show. “Free to agree with me” wasn’t freedom then. It isn’t now.

Cherry picking other attitudes, I could believe that we must return to the Golden Age before 1967, 1954, 1848 or some other arbitrary date.

That’s not possible.

We can’t return to yesteryear, except in memory. Time doesn’t work that way.

We’ve never had a Golden Age. Nobody has.

Even if I could drag us back to days of yore, I wouldn’t. Not if I had any sense. The America of my youth wasn’t all bad, but reforms were overdue. Some were long overdue.

What we called ‘the establishment’ then had good reason to fear many — maybe most — reforms. They’d become accustomed to the perks and privileges of the status quo.

We’ve got a new ‘establishment,’ with different preferences and slogans — and pretty much the same old perks and privileges.

Details are different. But I see the same old distaste for dissent and desire for control. And aversion to change.

But distasteful or not, change is happening. I think that’s a good thing, provided that we learn from past mistakes.

And take at least an occasional stroll outside our convivial echo chambers.

It’s a big world. Paying attention makes sense:


1 Exoplanets and, maybe, their moons:

2 Studying Kepler-1625:

3 Finding new worlds:

4 Big planets, new categories:

5 Learning how stars and planets begin:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
This entry was posted in discursive detours, science news and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!