Monthly Archives: March 2013

Discarding the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law”

Rhett Allain at Dot Physics has proposed that we stop using the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law” because people so abysmally misunderstand them. He proposes replacing them all with the term “model”.

Take out all three of these “science” words from introductory texts. They do more harm than good. The problem is that people have firm beliefs that they mean something other than what they are supposed to mean. I don’t think we can save these words.

We do have a word to replace them. Are you ready? It’s the model – or you can call it the scientific model if you prefer.

I’m not sure if the fact that people widely misunderstand these terms is the right justification for giving up on them. Also, a “model” is a thing that is not a hypothesis (for example) so replacing key terms that are at the center of scientific activity with another term that means something else may not be the best idea.

Having said that I agree that there are problems with these terms. Also, “law” (and Rhett forgot “rule” …. a term attached to a lot of models after several initial “laws” were worked out, possibly more often in biology related fields) may well be problematic.

One problem with “model” (and there is quite a bit of writing on this term) is that it has a number of distinct meanings that are in common use in science. It can be a law-ish thing that we use to work out physics problems, it can be a complex set of supposed interactions that we use to structure a climate simulation, or it can be a mouse (as in “model organism”).

Some of the problems Rhett brings up would be partly or largely addressed if we added the other terms that in some cases he’s already mentioned in his post. A hypothesis may well be an educated guess, but a “formal hypothesis” is a thing with a null hypothesis and test conditions, and a “testable hypothesis” is formal hypothesis that is not stupid. A “scientific theory” is a real live scientific theory while a “theory” is a thing we generally don’t believe to be true (“My cousin Nate said he’d be here on time for once … in theory….”)

Underlying much of this difficulty is the way things are taught in high school. Again and again I find HS science teachers trying to get these terms across to students as though they were well fixed, simply defined, exhaustive and exclusive fully understood agreed on descriptions of how science works, applied in the same way across all scientific areas. The formal definition of “hypothesis” and the way it is often used in textbook science would require that all the historical or observational sciences are not real science, because experiments are not set up to test hypotheses. So particle physics can be real science but not astronomy.

If, instead, the terms were taught in their historical context and the nuances brought out more, perhaps at the expense of learning some fact-based material the students may not need too much anyway, they would be better understood. In fact, newer science standards and newer textbooks and other teaching materials tend to do this more and more these days.

In short, a key desire for basic education in science (the stuff we want every citizen to be exposed to) is to develop critical thinking skills. So, starting with a critical, contextualized, nuanced look at the terms would good. As rule. In theory. Well, that’s my hypothesis, anyway.

Covert Ops: Addressing Racism Long Term

I’ve been waiting for people to die before I told this story on my blog, but certain people seem to take forever to do that so I’m not waiting any more. Besides, it happened a long time ago. The story I’m telling you happened to me a long time ago (about 1990) and the thing that happened to me really amounted to someone telling me a story, which in turn happened a long time before that (about 1977).

There had been some kind of thing, a barbecue, at the home of Scotty MacNeish. If you don’t know who Scotty is, you should. He is the archaeologist who discovered and documented the origins of corn in the highlands of Mexico. He was a justifiably famous and generally respected archaeologist who, enigmatically, worked at a prep school instead of a university for much of his career. At the time of his death, in a vehicle accident while in the field in Belize, Scotty worked at Boston University, but for many years before that he was at Phillips Andover Academy. Phillips Andover is the archetypal American prep school, a pretty good imitation of the old style British prep schools, but located in the small community of Andover, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Until recently, Phillips prepared its students mostly for Yale, though a few would go to Harvard. Samuel Morse went there and later invented Morse Code and stuff. Oliver Wendell Holmes went there. Two American Presidents went there.

So, there was this barbecue at Scotty’s house, and Bruno Marino was the chef. That was the first time I had met him. We later became friends and colleagues and later on he went off to run the revamped Biosphere project. The thing about Bruno is that he was CIA. This meant that any event involving food and Bruno, you’d want to go to, because as you know those CIA guys really know how to cook.

Since we were at Scotty’s house, we were also on or very near (I was never sure) the property of the Academy. It seems we just had to walk through the gate in the backyard fence and we were amid the bricks and ivy of the venerable old institution. And at one point, Scotty and I wandered off to the museum and library, which on this summer weekend evening was closed and dark.

Scotty wanted to show me a wooden cabinet he was about to throw in the trash, along with some other items, because I had expressed an interest in it. In fact, that evening I took the item home where it still serves me nicely today. It is a small solid oak card catalog, one of many the library was getting rid of as they started the switch to other means of keeping track of their books.

At some point we wandered off to the museum. We stood in a darkened hall and talked for a while. I could see that there were exhibits around the walls, but the lighting for each exhibit was turned off so I could not see what they were. That’s when Scottie started to tell me the story.

“Years ago, we had a directors meeting here, with the board of directors of the Academy. They were all former students, and all had gone off to Yale and were all pretty wealthy. Doug and I (that was Doug Byers, the famous anthropologist who also worked at Phillips Andover) had the job of schmoozing the richest and most powerful, to see if we could get more money out of them. So we took one of the directors up there,” he pointed up to the room we had just visited, where the oak cabinet had been stored, “for cognac and cigars.”

We may or may not have been sipping something out of glasses ourselves at that moment, but I’m sure we were not puffing on cigars.

“So, our visitor knew who we were, what our research was. He told us, ‘You gentlemen are anthropologists, and there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask an anthropologist.'”

I should mention that Scotty was the kind of guy who liked trouble, and I could tell by his expression that he was about to reveal something … troublesome. I had seen him go after the unprepared, the uninitiated, before. He knew then up in the room with the brandy and cigars with Byers, and I knew later as he was telling me the story, that it was going to be one of those questions that revealed a common misunderstanding about something about humans, something about evolution or human behavior or history or biology, one of those things people ask innocently about, without realizing that the question itself, the question they naively seek an answer to, reveals their own abysmal ignorance or nefarious racism or something. Indeed, I suspected as he was telling me that it was going to be about race. And it was.

“He said, and these are close to his exact words, ‘I know that Negro brains are smaller. But they seem to have the same size heads as everyone else. So, my question is…'”

At this moment, Scotty paused for effect. There were a lot of ways this could have gone, but the question was finished off, according to Scotty, this way: “‘… my question is, is the extra space filled with bone, so they have very thick skulls, or is it liquid? Or what?'”

That was a pretty stark question. Naive. Ignorant. Nefariously racist. The kind of question, though, that Doug Byers or Scotty MacNeish or me or any anthropologist would get asked a half dozen times a year back in those days, and now and then even these days. So, why was he, Scotty, telling me this story now, in 1990? This wasn’t about someone being stupid. This was about WHO was being stupid. The name at the end of this tale was going to be someone I’d know, or recognize. Someone who was older and established today, likely someone who had gone to Yale. Someone who had lived, back in the 70s or 80s, near enough to Andover Massachusetts to have been on the board of the Academy.

“What did you tell him?” I asked, wondering which of the possible stock answers they might have used, to inform the man but at the same time avoid having him dry up as a donor.

“Who the hell knows, I don’t remember. Byers gave him some mumbo jumbo. The point is, after that evening, we went to work right away on this exhibit.”

I hadn’t noticed Scotty sidling over to the wall near the base of the big central stairway, near one of the darkened exhibits. He reached up to a switch on the wall and flipped it on. The lights inside the exhibit, a diorama of sorts, sprang on and I could suddenly see a number of human brains sitting each in their own straight sided, round bowls that looked like over grown Petri dishes.

“Have a look,” Scotty said, gesturing towards the brains.

I looked. There were brains labeled “Caucasian”, “African”, “Asian”, and “Native American.” Each brain looked pretty realistic, wet, fresh, and there seemed to be fluid accumulated in each of the preternaturally large Petri dishes. All of it was fake, of course. The liquid was Lucite, and with my highly trained Biological Anthropology eye I could easily see that the brains were all molded from the same exact cast.

The text above the brains included a map and some other items but one paragraph was highlighted and foregrounded and it said, roughly, “…all humans have the same brain, the same size, with the same abilities. Race is a made up concept and is only skin deep,” or words to that effect.

“This,” Scotty resumed his story, “is ultimately how we answered the question. It didn’t matter as much to us that this guy had race all botched up, it mattered more that the students wold get it right from then on.”

He looked at me and I could see the “I’m going to cause trouble now” look setting in.

“Of course, with this particular member of the board of directors, it may have mattered more than average.”

“Who was it, Scotty?” I asked, as he expected me to ask.

“Let’s just say that among ourselves, between Doug and me, we named the exhibit after him,” Scotty said, holding his arm out, drawing my attention back to the diorama. “Behold, the George H. Bush Memorial Exhibit on Race!”

I was not even a little surprised. With this much fanfare, it had to be a president or something.

“Of course, he wasn’t President back in those days. Or even Vice President. He was still merely head of the CIA.

That would be the other CIA, of course.

Arctic Sea Ice Cracking Thing (Updated)

It is important to get this right. There is something interesting happening in the Arctic right now, and some people are pointing to it and jumping up and down and yelling about how it is a major climate change event. But it may very well not be. Or it could be. The thing that is happening is something that normally happens, but there are features of the event that are odd. We won’t know its significance until the Northern Summer, and even then we won’t be sure if this is just an unusual thing for this year or a new trend because, by definition, trends run over periods of time.

Every year as you know a certain amount of Arctic Sea ice melts away, and part of that melting process involves the ice breaking into separate chunks and floating around in a big gyre. If you live on or visit a lake in the frozen regions of North America, during the spring, you’ve probably observed the phenomenon. Well, this happens Big Time in the Arctic.

Ice is still forming in some regions of the Arctic, and may continue to form and thicken for some time to come, though the average effect at the moment is melting (see below). But for some reason a large region of ice has started to break up and float around loose, earlier than expected.

One possible outcome of this would be the more rapid melting of ice in that region once extensive melting starts, because broken up ice melts faster than continuous solid ice. Another possible outcome is that it all refreezes in place and has very little effect on what happens in the coming Northern Summer.

From the Arctic Sea Ice Blog:

It is normal for the ice to crack and for leads to occur. However, this is very extensive cracking and there are some very big leads, and all of it seems to come earlier than expected. Given last year’s melting mayhem and the low amount of multi-year ice, it makes one wonder whether this early cracking will have any effect in the melting season to come…. Maybe this will have zero influence. We don’t know. That’s why we watch.

So, how is the march of melt going in the Arctic, independently of this breaking up event? Here is a graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is quickly becoming a very important source of critical information, showing the current state of Arctic Ice in relation to expectations:

The blue line is the current state of arctic ice.  It is at the low end of the late 20th century 30 year average, and very close to last year's track.
The blue line is the current state of arctic ice. It is at the low end of the late 20th century 30 year average, and very close to last year’s track.

Robert Scribbler, in a recent blog post, is predicting rapid and extensive melting. He cites as important factors “…cracking, rapid ice movement, thin ice, warmer than average air temps, and negative Arctic Oscillation…” and describes each of these factors.


Sitting here in late March in a Minnesota covered with a thick blanket of snow and above-freezing daily temperatures happing over the coming week for the first time in months (still no overnight thaws) it is hard to imagine the Arctic as being warm, but if you think about it a bit it makes sense. The Arctic, the Subarctic and the northern Temperate region are simply sharing their air masses in a different way than they usually do. It is a bit like someone drilled a big hole in the bottom of the freezer, connecting it to the refrigerator below. Down here in the fridge (Minnesota) the milk is freezing, but up there in the freezer, the ice is wet and sloppy.

I wonder how long it will be before cruise ships start to regularly ply the Arctic Sea for recreational purposes?

Swedish soldiers discover bones of a giant

‘In 1645, the twenty-seventh year of the Thirty Years War, Swedish armies inflicted a devastating blow to the Imperial forces in Bohemia and swept into Austria with the aim of capturing of Vienna. The Imperial capitol, was not prepared to give up easily. The Swedes soon found themselves digging in for a long seige, negotiating with allies for support, and building fortifications around the occupied countryside. Upriver from Vienna, in the Krems district, while digging trenches, a group of Swedish soldiers discovered the bones of a giant….

Discover the teeth of giants. And say Happy Blogoversary to John.

Senate Vote on Keystone Imminent

This just in from Jason at


The moment is here: about an hour ago, some of big oil’s best paid Senators filed an amendment supporting construction of Keystone XL to the Senate’s budget bill.

Our goal today is to keep the Senate from forcing Obama to approve the pipeline. The oil industry is using all their money and might to push Keystone, but we’ve stopped them before, and we can do it again.

Many of us called our Senators once already this week to stop the pipeline, and it made an impact on big oil’s vote count. One of the people that big oil needs to support this bill is Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota — and since this vote will come down to the wire, they’re doubling down with pressure.

The vote could come in a matter of hours — can you call Sen. Klobuchar before the vote to tell her to stop the pipeline?

Here’s the number to use:

Sen. Klobuchar – (202) 224-3244
Then, click here to report what you heard and share this news:

And here’s a suggestion for what to say when you call today:

“Hi, I’m calling to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline amendment that was just introduced to the budget. The science is settled: this pipeline is a climate disaster, and I insist that the Senator oppose this or any other attempt to force construction of the pipeline.”

In a close fights like this, calls from passionate constituents play a key role in helping Senators decide which way they will vote. Calls now will stiffen the spines of Senators who may be weakening, and get others off the fence.

This pipeline is a climate disaster, which is the reason that hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken action to stop it. If you’re a part of that number, you already know the stakes. It’s time for our supposed leaders to get serious about climate change and stop the pipeline.

Thanks for calling — I’ll have an update after the vote,


The Climate Hockey Stick is Wrong!

This is a hockey stick:


This is the Grim Reaper’s Scythe:


This is global temperature over the last 10,000 years projected into the immediate future using good scientific estimates:


You decide. Should the Hockey Stick be replaced with the Grim Reaper’s Scythe?

More information on the climate change graphic HERE.

See more climate change graphics HERE.

If you are not sure what any of this is about, you can read about the Hockey Stick thing here.