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The Use Of Uncertainty PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Tauriq Moosa   
               Chase after truth like hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat-tails. - CLARENCE DARROW

All action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance. - CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ, SPEAKING ABOUT WAR DATA

 

Certainty is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. How do we know what is “true”? Many people, too many in fact, use science as the benchmark for absolute truth. Yet what better opposition exists to science other than absolute thinking? We must carefully reflect on science itself as an arbiter of truth and falsehood, carefully outlining why it is that we do not need absolute truth to prove that something is almost certainly absolute nonsense.

Strange as it is, my medical colleagues openly state that cures for polio, smallpox and so on are not one-hundred-percent effective. That is, it is not absolutely true that taking this or that medication will have the desired effect on the patient. Yet, we don’t let uncertainty guide our investment in the medical profession; indeed, as patients, we are usually told the chances of success with surgery, treatment and so on. They are not absolutely guaranteed except in that there is absolutely no certainty. Should we let the mere admission of uncertainty prevent the medical profession from continuing? Should we never partake of life-saving surgery because there is no absolute guarantee of success? Of course not. Nearly everyone who wants the treatment partakes of it if the odds are in their favour; that is, aware that the treatment is not absolutely guaranteed.

We can’t be absolutely certain there is no god, no “memory retention” in water, no fairies, no Loch Ness monster, or psychic abilities. But our admission of uncertainty must flow both ways: Our opponents need to admit that there is uncertainty within their beliefs, too. And they need to be open to the likelihood of their claims‘ veracity. If we are open about ours, should it not be the same for them? This is where the gap of faith or belief fits in nicely: Because there is a very small likelihood of truth to the claims of, say, homeopathy, they fill in such gaps with appeals to mystery and uncertainty. Whilst science does not deal with mystery – It’s useless as a scientific appeal, but perhaps excellent as a catalyst for further research – it does deal with uncertainty. It is built into the methodology of science. Uncertainty is why Einstein could replace Newton. Uncertainty is why we cure with drugs, not prayer. Science is the powerful discipline that can send us to space and cure diseases but can’t disprove, with absolute certainty, that there are no invisible, dancing fairies on my fingertips.

The admission of doubt is the first step toward success. But this admission of doubt should be further admitted as an admission of mere human fallibility. It is built into us as a species. We are the half-blind man looking for his spectacles in the dark; the deaf composer with sonatas performed in his head. We try to impose some rationality on to the world all the while being imperfectly rational, and wonderfully fallible. An admission of being wrong is the first step toward being right.

I am reminded here of my favourite literary character, Sherlock Holmes. In The Sign of the Four, Holmes says: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Science works with the statistical likelihood of causal phenomena. If we do x, what are the chances that y will occur? When considering the claims of science as an arbiter of certainty, we must be aware that striving for certainty is actually unhelpful. Instead, we need to think of the statistical likelihood of an event or action occurring – “however improbable”. This is the best we can do as a species of imperfect and fallible beings. Being okay with uncertainty is the first step to being okay as a fallible being; thus being okay with the fact that the universe or reality doesn’t bend to our concerns, why bad things to happen to good people, and so on. If you deny your fallibility, then somehow you have access to some (source of) information beyond us mere mortals. (Hence the claims of the religious.)

Admissions of uncertainty also reign in our opponents. Since skeptics can say openly we operate with uncertainty, it means no claims are absolutely dismissed. There can be no shouts of close-mindedness because skeptics “disbelieve” homeopaths. We are operating on statistics, not on “beliefs”.

And whilst we are on belief, we should begin eradicating such terms from our discussions. Evolution, medical science and so on, do not rest on belief, but evidence and statistics. Belief should not apply to physical phenomena, which obey their own natural laws. You can believe gravity is a myth or that prayer works better than the medical cures for polio, but you will still hit the ground if you leap off a building, and children will no longer have a debilitating disease after treatment—all despite your beliefs. As Winston Churchill said, “The truth is incontrovertible: malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.” The world does not care for our imposing belief-systems, which is why beliefs are suited more for ideologies rather than physical phenomena.

Beliefs are undermined by uncertainty. Uncertainty, though, seems counter- intuitive. We automatically associate uncertainty with resignation based on uncertainty. Someone says he’s afraid to enter a darkened cave because he’s “uncertain of the dangers”. Yet, such uncertainty is different to the essential – yes, essential – property of uncertainty within science and skepticism. The cave- fearing person is afraid because he has no assurance that it will be safe: he is unaware of the statistical likelihood of harm. Here the term “uncertain” is defined as “unaware of the likelihood”.

This isn’t uncertainty in the way we are talking of; indeed, he is basing his decision by weighing up the likelihood of harm. The uncertainty I’m talking about is the idea that, no matter what, we still cannot be absolutely certain the cave is safe. Even if we explored every part of the cave, there is still no absolute guarantee it is safe: this is the uncertainty we should admit. Here uncertainty is defined as “the essential property of reality that we cannot be absolutely guaranteed of the consequences, events or likelihood of a particular outcome.” But this applies to everything: Whether caves or cures. Embracing this is important.

Fear and uncertainty usually go together, so perhaps we should look further into it. Dan Gardner’s book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear deals with all sorts of scare mongering gone wrong (as if there‘s any other kind!). He identifies what he calls “conscious rationalization of an unconscious judgment”; that is, when one is forced through non-rational mechanisms, such as emotional advertising, to justify a viewpoint. For example, most advertisements rest on emotion because of the powerful, knee-jerk responses from potential customers to purchase their product. Think of the music and actors portrayed in life-insurance ads; hints of coffins and the macabre are kept on the borders, but the implication screams at the viewer. This is similar to Michael Shermer’s article in Scientific American, “Smart People Believe Weird Things”. Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. This is very similar to Gardner’s claims.

Gardner's goal is to identify phenomena that we should be concerned about, due to higher statistical likelihood of harm or negative influence (such as death, disease, and suffering). What is more likely: Getting killed from shark attacks or poorly wired Christmas trees? That legalizing drugs is always a bad thing for a country or that in some instances it might help, as in Portugal? By identifying trends, i.e. statistical likelihood of an event occurring, we can more clearly devote resources to those areas that require it. For example: Considering that shark-deaths are usually less than a hundred world-wide annually, we should be more concerned about protecting ourselves from bad wiring in Christmas trees.

But in order to make such statements, we need to be clear about what we are looking for. If we are concerned about, for example, things that lead to death, we should realistically look at the highest causes of death, harm, or suffering and focus on combating them. Unfortunately, common causes of death make uninteresting news so media outlets won’t push for it. Yet, the data exists. We should constantly keep that in mind.

This is why uncertainty matters. Uncertainty demands: (1) the awareness of non-absolute thinking and (2) the reprisal of understanding the likelihood of phenomena occurring. If we realize that we are not certain, we should find out about whether, for example, mass shark-hunting is beneficial to reducing unnecessary death and suffering. To a small degree, perhaps, but not compared to the effort in being careful, buying protection, etc., when putting up Christmas lights. Here we see that uncertainty helps orientate ourselves, like a compass needle pointing north no matter the direction it faces.

Uncertainty reminds us that we cannot be certain about the outcomes, but we might have good reasons for thinking of their arriving. Counter-intuitive as it may be, we must come to grips with uncertainty. Science itself is counter- intuitive: Who would think that an elephant and a feather fall at the same speed? Who would think that the sun revolves around the earth and not the other way around? Does it seem obvious that we share an ancestor with fish? Something being counter-intuitive does not make it wrong; it only makes it harder to accept. Science is used to this.

But if we want to defend science, we cannot use it as a pillar of perfect truth and flawlessness. We should discard such terms as not only unhelpful, but also dangerous. “Absolute” implies no change in the future. And what would science be if it fossilised into catechisms of equations and mantras of laws. Science then would be swathed in robes, hooded and ignorant of anything other than its own absolutist thinking, its fingers tracing the lines from Principia Mathematica, careful never to amend or distort. Then, it would no longer be the wonderful discipline that saves lives and the best method for engaging with the world. By removing uncertainty, by purging doubt, science loses its essential features. What makes science the best way of engaging with the world is the realisation that we cannot be certain, that we operate through fallibility, but we are doing the best we can with the current, available data.

Let us admit, then, uncertainty. By admitting it in our greatest accomplishments, it becomes easier to admit it in our everyday lives and in ourselves. And that is a step toward a more rational approach to a universe that doesn’t, and will never care about us, despite our brilliant methods in understanding it.

 

Tauriq is currently an M.Phil (Masters in Philosophy) Student, specialising in Applied Ethics, with a further specialisation in Biomedical Ethics, at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa. He is also a contributing editor to Secular Humanist Bulletin and has written for Free Inquiry, Skeptic Magazine, and numerous European humanist magazines: including original articles for Fritanke, in Sweden. Translations of his work have appeared in the magazine for the Polish Rationalist Association. Tauriq's more focused writings on practical ethics can be found at 3quarksdaily.com.

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Sharks and Christmas Lights
written by Donovan from New England, March 08, 2011
I really dislike comparisons such as this. What percentage of the world's Christmas celebrants will also spend more than a month sitting in a shark's reach? I am far more likely to die on the east coast of the US than anywhere else, but that does not mean Baghdad or the West Bank are safe in comparison to Strawberry Banks. I should go wandering through North Korea simply because I'm less likely to be shot there than slip and fall in my tub, since those statistics are based on my current situation.

If we're going to say beaches are safe because more people die by x than by shark attack, then those statistics must take in all variables, such as the average time spent at the beach compared to the time spent in a house with a Christmas tree. The same goes for planes and cars. Of course I'm more likely to die in a car accident. I drive a car nearly every day, I've spent thousands of hours in one, and I'll spend thousands more around thousands of other cars. I've spent perhaps around 100 hours in planes... Many Americans have never been in a plane. If cars are safer than planes, the likelihood is still greater I'll die in a car wreck. If they're equally safe, I am 10, 100, or 1000 times more likely to die in a car wreck.
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written by Fanitullen, March 08, 2011
Upon reading this:
"Who would think that the sun revolves around the earth and not the other way around?"
I immediately thought of this:
"Well, what WOULD it look like if it had looked as if the earth were rotating?" -Ludwig Wittgenstein

Anyway, interesting article
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@Tauriq Moosa
written by GusGus, March 08, 2011
The sun does not revolve around the earth. It is the other way around!
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TL;DR
written by Radwaste, March 08, 2011
Guys, this is 'way simpler than this.
MEASUREMENT always - always! - includes not only the method of measurement but an evaluation of the limits of the precision of that measurement.
STANDARDs are the ONLY EXACT values, because they are DEFINED.
Go look at any careful reference, such as Nuclides and Isotopes, by GE Nuclear Energy, or The Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. You'll see that MEASUREMENTs are carried out to many decimal points, and then the next point will be in parentheses, indicating that there is uncertainty at that level of fineness.

It - the presence of uncertainty - doesn't mean the difference between "true" and "false", as so many religious people insist, because they aren't using the same definition someone who must produce RESULTS uses. Rather, it's naked honesty: the continuous recognition of the limits of our perception, even aided by devices!
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Thanks for sharing your first draft; a lot of cutting ahead of you.
written by Caller X, March 08, 2011
My eyes glazed over as they recognized another space filled and another item added to the c.v. so I haven't yet read the whole article. "We can’t be absolutely certain there is no god, no “memory retention” in water..." maybe you can't but I can. There, I just did it again. Want to see it again? Sure. There. I am certain there is no god and no memory retention in water. Totally doable. Since you're a college graduate, have you read Wittgenstein's Ueber Sicherheit?

"Our opponents need to admit..." Dude, you're never going to win a debate by telling your opponent what he needs to admit.

"Uncertainty is why Einstein could replace Newton." I know that didn't come out of the front end of the bull. Take a physics course.

"my favourite literary character, Sherlock Holmes...says: 'How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?'" So, Sherlock, without certainty, how do you remove the impossible? Very well, then, you contradict yourself.

"...uncertainty helps orientate ourselves, like a compass needle pointing north no matter the direction it faces." What direction does a compass needle face when it points north? I say a compass needle ALWAYS points south. Except for those new monopole compasses.

"And that is a step toward a more rational approach to a universe that doesn’t, and will never care about us..." Hmmm, doesn't the word "never" imply certainty?

Another space filled. Kudos to you, Sir!



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written by Otara, March 08, 2011
Shark attack deaths are more like 5 a year worldwide, and have been as low as one.

Yes all variables need to be taken into account, but no matter how its sliced, death by shark attack isnt something your average person needs to worry about.

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written by lytrigian, March 08, 2011
The sun does not revolve around the earth. It is the other way around!

Furthermore, an elephant and a feather don't fall at the same speed anywhere on the earth's surface. Even if there was a vacuum chamber large enough so that you could suspend a (hopefully dead and freeze-dried) elephant in order to conduct this experiment, I'm pretty sure this has never actually been done, and ALMOST certainly never will be.

It's not very important, but I personally despise back-formations like "orientate". We go from "orient" to "orientation" and back again; "orientate" is a stop along the way that we never need to make. It's not wrong, just ugly to me, not unlike "different to".

You seem to be arguing (at length, indeed, ad tedium) a point that doesn't need to be made, at least not to anyone here. I would hope that no one who claims the label of "skeptic" thinks of science as some absolutist system of Platonic truths. The only claim that seems to be taken seriously (in general; there are weirdos everywhere) is that it's the best we can do when it comes to finding out how things really work -- or, to put it more broadly, modeling nature in such a way that we can reproduce or predict phenomena given the necessary conditions. So your penultimate paragraph seems especially pointless.
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@ Caller X
written by drg85, March 08, 2011
"Uncertainty is why Einstein could replace Newton." I know that didn't come out of the front end of the bull. Take a physics course.

I actually think there's some merit to this comparison. Newtonian mechanics is exceptionally accurate in our human experience; for sub-luminal speeds and medium sized macroscopic objects it's all you need. We can compute and predict most mechanics with it at our human scale. But of course, this all breaks down on the sub-atomic scale OR at speeds approaching the speed of light and all sorts of staggering things take place. The relativistic mechanics of Einstein do indeed correct the classical Newtonian forms but I think the author's point is had we been 'certain' in absolute terms that Newton's forms were perfect and certain for all cases then the deeper truth that Einstein showed wouldn't have emerged. Science by its nature is self-correcting and theories are constantly refined, which of course wouldn't happen if we treated every new discovery as certain in the unchanging sense of the word.

I think the author uses uncertainty in this context to mean 'constantly refining' as opposed to certainty being blind convinction something is true. And as science is willing to throw away a cherished theory when the evidence contradicts it, this shouldn't ever happen.. except of course in Maths, where proof IS certain smilies/smiley.gif
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@drg85
written by lytrigian, March 08, 2011
What you say here is beside the point. Einstein didn't "replace" Newton in any sense of the word.
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@lytrigian and Caller X
written by FledgelingSkeptic, March 08, 2011
@ lytrigian: You say you hope that no skeptic considers science to be an absolute. The problem is that, as someone who talks to people who are new or just learning about skepticism, I see this all the time. Not everyone DOES understand that science is not an absolute. As a matter of fact I've met people who think that it is and complain when scientists come back later with an adjusted or new theory. This is a pretty common complaint.

@Caller X: Again you're complaining about "filler" articles. I haven't seen any submissions from you that I know of. If you're not happy with the content, do something about it. Send me a good skeptically-themed article at blog@Randi.org
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written by Caller X, March 08, 2011
"Uncertainty is why Einstein could replace Newton." I know that didn't come out of the front end of the bull. Take a physics course.

I actually think there's some merit to this comparison. Newtonian mechanics is exceptionally accurate [what do you mean by this] in our human experience; for sub-luminal speeds [remember this] and medium sized macroscopic objects it's all you need. We can compute and predict most mechanics with it at our human scale. But of course, this all breaks down on the sub-atomic scale [you are just an RCH away from saying "quantum mechanics" which is the first refuge of people who don't know what they're talking about] OR at speeds approaching the speed of light [still sub-luminal, no?] and all sorts of staggering things take place. The relativistic mechanics of Einstein do indeed correct the classical Newtonian forms but I think the author's point is had we been 'certain' in absolute terms that Newton's forms were perfect and certain for all cases then the deeper truth that Einstein showed wouldn't have emerged. Science by its nature is self-correcting and theories are constantly refined, which of course wouldn't happen if we treated every new discovery as certain in the unchanging sense of the word.

I think the author uses uncertainty in this context to mean 'constantly refining' as opposed to certainty being blind convinction something is true. And as science is willing to throw away a cherished theory when the evidence contradicts it, this shouldn't ever happen.. except of course in Maths, where proof IS certain


What is your position on the Epps Convergence?

@Caller X: Again you're complaining about "filler" articles. I haven't seen any submissions from you that I know of. If you're not happy with the content, do something about it. Send me a good skeptically-themed article at blog@Randi.org


I think it would be redundant to submit an article about filler articles. But I'm glad to see that you are now soliciting "good" articles.

Here's an article: Can you know something that isn't true? Discuss.


Shortest


article


ever.


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written by MadScientist, March 08, 2011
It depends on what you mean by 'belief'. When mentioned in the context of religion, it usually means 'belief without evidence' and in many cases it implies 'belief contrary to evidence' whereas in science the word implies 'belief due to evidence'. Many religious people like to use this imprecise language to imply that religious beliefs have the same validity as scientific beliefs.
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@lytrigian
written by drg85, March 09, 2011
Actually, trying not to be a pedant here but Einstein replaced Newton twice - Einsteinien mechanics is the more predictive improvement of Newtonian mechanics, which factors in relativistic factors. This was special relativity. With general relativity, which describes gravity as a consequence of curved space-time in the presence of mass, he effectively improved Newton's law of gravitation and could explain phenomena that evaded description with the older theory.

This is the epitome of science - of course, Einstein's laws reduce in both cases in classical mechanics for many human phenomena. But Newton's laws breakdown at high speeds etc, so Einstein's relativistic versions are the gold standard, the now general form. Perhaps these too will be refined. But yes, Einstein certainly did replace Newton. That's scientific progress.

Also @ FledglingSkeptic - you're absolutely right, and anyone who teaches science will back you up. Many people see the constant developments in science as proof 'science doesn't know what it's talking about' and it can be frustrating. I encountered this when I was teaching on the side during my undergraduate degree in physics. I found the confusion usually stemmed from those individuals being unaware how the self correcting nature of science actually works & how we go on best evidence. Once I'd explained this, they usually saw the point. I saw a similar pattern from certain students (usually of a devout religious background) when I was finishing my PhD - and this could be dealt with my engaging with rather than sniffing at.

Yes, some people do see science as 'wrong' because it isn't absolute and constantly changes with new evidence. But the best way to change their mind is to explain to them why this is its greatest strength.
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written by vino, March 09, 2011
I agree. Uncertainty and skepticism is good. 'Nuff said.
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written by lytrigian, March 09, 2011
@drg85: Why do you start off "trying not to be a pedant" and then spout off a bunch of pedantic freshman physics crap?

Einstein did not replace Newton. As you say, Einsteinian mechanics reduce to Newtonian in most phenomena on a human scale, and a great many that are not. We therefore still use Newtonian mechanics.

For instance, when orbital analysts are calculating the parameters for the orbit needed to place a probe into so that it ends up on Mars, do they start with Einstein's equations and then let terms drop out when they are seen to be insignificant? No, that would be a stupid waste of time, and make some calculations so complex as to be almost unworkable. They already know those terms will be insignificant. So they start out with Newton. Newton still works, and that's all we ask of a theory.

In fact, Newton's "Laws" (within, yes, the domain where they are good approximations as delimited by Einstein on one end and quantum mechanics on the other) have been so thoroughly tested for so long that they're as certain as anything we know, and more certain than most.

@FledglingSkeptic: If you know people like that then I have to believe you, but I'm not certain they're even heading in the right direction.
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written by SeavyCarr, March 09, 2011
"We can’t be absolutely certain there is no god, no “memory retention” in water, no fairies, no Loch Ness monster, or psychic abilities."

I am absolutely certain that Randi still has his million dollars.

Wasn't the whole point of the challenge that Randi put his money where his mouth is and gave people the opportunity to prove the existence of forces that he (and many of us here) do not "believe in"? I'm quite happy with the Universe working on the four known forces but if anyone wants me to accept a fifth or more, then I'm going to want the facts, the experiments, the science, the maths, the proof. Give me these and I still won't "believe in" another force, I'll just accept it as real and invest in some revised physics textbooks.
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@lytrigian
written by FledgelingSkeptic, March 09, 2011
I know exactly what you mean. There is a great deal of public ignorance out there. The conversation I mentioned above actually happened yesterday. Our realtor was the one complaining about how science is always changing and I had to explain to her why that was the case. She's an intelligent woman, but scientifically ignorant in many respects.
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@lytrigian
written by drg85, March 09, 2011
Pedantic freshman physics crap? Oh dear. A little dismissive no? Anyway, we're getting off point. But incidentally, there are relativistic corrections in orbital mechanics - indeed, if I recall correctly to even get accurate GPS signals you need to use Einstein's Lorentz transforms rather than the pure classical form but this is utterly getting off point.

In any case, the author may be preaching to the choir but people genuinely do some science as fickle and incorrectly see this as a weakness. We have two choices; we can dismiss them as ignorant / hold them in contempt or we can engage with them & clear up these misconceptions and help inform. The former option results in skeptics becoming a smaller & more elitist group, ultimately achieving nothing. The latter option means we can help people understand & make more informed choices. I really think the latter option is what we should be aiming at.

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written by Quidam, March 09, 2011
The sun does not revolve around the earth. It is the other way around!

To be another pedant, neither is correct. The Sun and Earth both revolve around their common center of mass (barycentre).

Given that the sun is a lot more massive than the Earth, (2E30 Kg vs 6E24 Kg)the center of mass is a lot closer to the Sun than the Earth - about 449 km from the center of the sun and well inside the Sun's radius.
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written by lytrigian, March 09, 2011
Pedantic freshman physics crap? Oh dear. A little dismissive no? Anyway, we're getting off point. But incidentally, there are relativistic corrections in orbital mechanics - indeed, if I recall correctly to even get accurate GPS signals you need to use Einstein's Lorentz transforms rather than the pure classical form but this is utterly getting off point.

No. A lot dismissive. Please do me the favor of assuming I know what I'm talking about. This does relate to what I do for a living. I'm not an expert on orbital mechanics, but many of my co-workers are, and conversations with them are very educational. Not that any of this actually relates. If I were to ask one of them if he needed to take relativity into account, he would just chuckle and shake his head.

First, they're not mainly Einstein's Lorentz transforms. They're Lorentz' Lorentz transforms. That's why they're called that. The versions derived by Einstein are sometimes called the Lorentz-Einstein transforms, but Einstein didn't invent them.

Second, in the case of GPS we do have to make corrections based on both special relativity, which involves the Lorentz transforms, and general relativity, which does not. We need them for the extreme precision required for timing a radio signal from low earth orbit. Even the smallest error over that distance becomes large when you multiply by c. General and special relativity are therefore used to estimate the corrections needed to each satellite's onboard atomic clock. We do not actually need them for C&C.

We don't even really need it for C&C of probes to Mercury, which is the main nearby context where general relativistic effects are measurable, since even then they're still very very small.

And yes. Exactly. The author is preaching at stultifying length to the choir here. Being comfortable with uncertainty, with the lack of absolutes, is pretty basic to a skeptical mindset. At the same time, he did not frame his message in such a way that it's likely to be well-received by the people who really need it.
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@Lytrigian
written by drg85, March 09, 2011
"Please do me the favor of assuming I know what I'm talking about. This does relate to what I do for a living."

An appeal to authority ? That's a little ironic on a Skeptic blog - In any case, I don't actually see what point you're arguing here - we're in agreement and it's gone far too off topic on what was a pedantic side note to begin with. In any case the astronomy research team with whom I work at my university have informed me that they do indeed often have to factor in relativity.. I did a quick google search and found a few articles to that effect..

http://www.mendeley.com/research/firstorder-special-relativistic-corrections-keplers-orbits/
http://www.theeternaluniverse.com/2010/12/effects-of-special-relativity-on.html

There were plenty more when I searched through astrophysics journals but I think this argument is pointless. It just seems a little strange you're so dismissive when there's good evidence you shouldn't be.

Incidentally, this also relates to my own field, the work I do for a living. May I ask if you're trying to be insulting or does it just read badly ? I'll assume good faith as I'm aware how easy it is to come off wrong in online discourse. Anyway, let's get back to the issue on hand. The finer points of SR and GR don't really need to be discussed here anymore. smilies/smiley.gif
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@Lytrigian
written by drg85, March 09, 2011
Please do me the favor of assuming I know what I'm talking about.

An appeal to authority on a Skeptics blog ? A little Ironic no ? smilies/smiley.gif In any case, this is getting pedantic and kind of insulting. While it is entirely not relevant this also relates to the area I work in and I could equally ask you to extend the same courtesy to me, or any other posters. Perhaps it wasn't your intention to come off as insulting but I must point out that is how it reads. But I'll assume good faith!

But I did ask the astronomy and astrophysics team who work in my university (on the reasonable assumption they'd know better than myself) and they said they did indeed have to factor in SR and GR in certain cases. Here's just some discussions of that

http://www.mendeley.com/research/firstorder-special-relativistic-corrections-keplers-orbits/
http://www.theeternaluniverse.com/2010/12/effects-of-special-relativity-on.html

There's lot more in the Astrophysics journal results but it seems strange you're so dismissive.

In any case, we're utterly off point. I for one vouch to drop the subject now so we can return to discussing the article!! All in favour smilies/smiley.gif ?
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written by Caller X, March 09, 2011
written by SeavyCarr, March 09, 2011
I am absolutely certain that Randi still has his million dollars. Wasn't the whole point of the challenge that Randi put his money where his mouth is...


I'm reasonably certain that a substantial portion of that sum didn't come from Mr. Randi. I could be wrong of course. I look forward to someone proving it.

lytragian wrote:
And yes. Exactly. The author is preaching at stultifying length to the choir here.


That is exactly the mission of and the problem with this site. It's just a big circle jerk. When was Mr. Randi's last magazine article or video interview that was not on this website? Anyone can send out a press release.

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@drg85
written by lytrigian, March 09, 2011
You seem determined to come up with some context in which you're right.

Mention of my own background was intended mostly to head off any more asinine Remedial Physics lectures, not solely to support my own points, of which it does a rather poor job. (Not that I appealed to authority on my own account.) You consulted the astronomy department and learn they use GR and LR in their research. (No less an "appeal to authority" than anything I said, but who cares?) Of course they do, but that's nowhere near the kind of thing I was talking about. You claim some background here yourself, so I have to assume you're being deliberately obtuse. You also come up with papers on relativity wrt the precession of the orbit of Mercury. I know about that. I mentioned it myself. Perhaps you missed it.

It's not easy to find information via Google on how relativity relates to orbital mechanics -- because it mostly doesn't -- so I don't have a handy link to give you. Best I can do in short order is a mention of it here: http://www.physicspost.com/phy...D=9819.htm. Since you're at a university, I suggest you hit the library and examine textbooks on orbital mechanics. You will likely search them in vain for a detailed treatment on how to take relativity into account when launching rockets. Yet, somehow, we were able to put men on the moon.

I will be the first to admit that my math is over 25 years stale here, so I'd have difficulty following a truly technical discussion these days. Following the broad outlines isn't too hard though, and I can tell when relativity is being brought in. It pretty much isn't. Nor do I read (or even have access to) current papers. It's possible there are interesting theoretical treatments of the subject. If that's true, it has had no impact on how any working orbital analyst I know does his job.

I brought this up originally as a "high-tech" example of where Newtonian mechanics are used and relativistic effects too insignificant to take into account. There are many, many others. Ballistics, for instance, or any other practical application of kinematics. Newton is far from replaced within, as I said before, the domain where other theories introduce no significant terms.

Incidentally, yes, I am trying to be insulting. As it's a response to you being inadvertently insulting (although you don't seem to have noticed, and the inadvertence is assumed on my part) it may not be very fair of me, but I don't really care.
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@lytrigian
written by drg85, March 09, 2011
Well then frankly I don't wish to discuss the matter further with you. Not that I care to engage further but you're simply constructing a strawman argument - every time a point is made, you put words in my mouth. You've now changed to rocketry / geosync when I was quite clearly discussing celestial bodies & have been since it was first mentioned. Even if you were correct, which I don't think you are, that never gives you the right to insult someone in civilised discourse.

There is a way of putting your point forward without belittling people. It is also foolhardy to assume that you are more informed than your fellow discussionist. There's no need to reply - this thread is dead & I'd prefer not to continue in a discussion that lacks even basic respect.
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...
written by Caller X, March 11, 2011
Didn't you write this just a couple posts above?

In any case, we're utterly off point. I for one vouch to drop the subject now so we can return to discussing the article!!


In my experience this usually means "look for my next post on this topic" and so it did. Imagine my surprise.
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