Nondeterministic Reasoning

Deep Knowledge, Broken Logic

I don’t remember what got me onto this book. Likely something posted on Facebook. Anyhow, I was on a long flight and got around to finishing the Kindle edition. It’s Does the Atom Have a Designer, and it’s by a knowledgeable physicist by the name of Lakhi Goenka. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. Full disclosure: I attended that place of learning, but I only obtained a B.S. in engineering. Anyhow, Goenka’s degree field is fluid dynamics, not necessarily related to the subject of the book. That said, before anybody can get a Ph.D. in physics from UT Austin they have to learn a lot of advanced stuff, and the author exhibits deep knowledge of atomic physics.

The problem with the book is not so much the science, which to my mind seems solid. What should concern the serious reader are the logical conclusions the authors draws from the science. I speak of his understanding of the science from the viewpoint of a person who took a graduate course in quantum mechanics and obtained a grade of B for my effort.

This is a short book—88 pages, including an appendix with references. I highlighted interesting passages, and I will print a few excerpts and post some comment. Start with this.

The Why Questions related to the Atom are discussed in depth using Aristotle’s four causes.  The question: “Does your kitchen table have a Designer?” does not require a scientific or a mathematical explanation.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 9). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

This is from a synopsis at the beginning, and yes, Geonka will invoke Aristotle’s four causes:

  1. Material cause: “that out of which a thing comes-to-be and which persists is said to be a cause, for example, the bronze is a cause of a statue, the silver is a cause of a bowl, and the genera of these [is also a cause].”
  2. Formal cause: “the form or paradigm, and this is the formula of the essence … and the parts that are in the formula.”
  3. Efficient cause: “the primary starting point from which change or rest originates; for example, someone who has given advice is a cause, the father [is a cause] of a child, and in general what does [is a cause] of what is done and what alters something [is a cause] of what is altered.”
  4. Final cause: “[something may be called a cause] in the sense of an end (telos), namely, what something is for; for example, health [is a cause] of walking.”

The author first gives us a lesson in some fundamental principles. The atom is the basic material entity apparent to people. All the material stuff in our lives is made from atoms, and some very basic physics determines the relationships involving the very lowest physical entities. Nobody knows why. These things just act this way. All physicists can do is to figure out how these entities interact and then explain it to others. Quite often the way the basic particles work together can provide us with ideas as to how to exploit these interactions to make science work wonders for us. For example, the so-called Bose quantum principle gave us the idea we could use the effect to build electrical switches operating on Bose statistics, and the result was solid state physics and the transistor and miniature computers and also smart phones.

There are also photons, which are Bose (named after Satyendra Nath Bose) particles. Bose-Einstein statistics is a quantum mechanical concept developed by Bose and Albert Einstein. Photons are unlike fermions, particles that exhibit Fermi statistics and named after Enrico Fermi, who developed the concept and headed up the team that produced the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction. The difference between bosons (Bose particles) and fermions is that fermions cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Fermi statistics is the principle that prevents all matter from collapsing into a single point in space. Bosons can pass through each other with ease, typically without interacting, and bosons can pass through matter.

Anyhow, the foregoing discussion is not included in the book, but I added it because it will be good to know when reading the remainder of this review.

The author quickly gets to the point of the book, that point being the existence of God.

The commonly cited objection “Then who designed the Designer?” is also addressed in the book.  The controversial and unverified Multiverse Hypothesis, often used against a Design argument, is also discussed.

And yes, your kitchen table does have a Designer.

(Note that this is an argument based on Design, and not on fine tuning.)

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 10). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

Goenka adds this last bit to assure us his is not a recap of a book titled The Privileged Planet, by creationists Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. That book has been previously reviewed. The Gonzalez-Richards book is all about fine tuning as evidence for a creator.But this book is one long argument for the existence of a creator, and Goenka is not shy on this point. He starts this way:

Even the simplest of atoms, Hydrogen and Helium, consist of numerous subatomic particles such as quarks, gluons, and leptons that interact together in complex ways.  These subatomic particles represent a fine balance of forces, have special quantum properties, interact together in complex ways, follow complex laws, and obey multiple rules of order, all to ultimately provide function.  Atoms don’t simply follow laws—they provide function.  Atoms are a fundamental system of parts (subatomic particles) that dynamically interact together to provide multiple levels of functionality.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 15). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

And gets around to this:

And while many things may be unfathomable to us in this world, including in Physics, we can at least show that our Universe does have a Designer.  This would perhaps be the case even in the unlikely event that the controversial Multiverse Hypothesis was someday experimentally validated.

So what do theologians mean by God?  The belief in a Creator God is well supported by the Big Bang Theory, which postulates that Space, Time and Matter all came into being temporally out of nothing right at the Big Bang.  God, who always existed outside of our Space and Time, created the Universe.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (pp. 78-79). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

He hangs his argument on the ex nihilo concept of the origin of the universe. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss deals extensively with this in his book A Universe from Nothing, previously reviewed. As I understand the concept, there was nothing. No matter. No space. No time. Then there was something. First explain how that came to be. Worse still, explain why.

To explain how, you have to stipulate conditions prior to the origin of the universe. Cosmologists make a go at that. No scientist attempts the why. Goenka wants to explain why. Or possibly he does not. His explanation is God. He ultimately gets around to making this disclaimer:

Note that while the Atom points to a Creator, it does not necessarily point to any particular religious belief (such as the belief in a Personal God).  However, it does serve to reinforce the concept of God.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 82). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

There is little doubt Goenka is a creationist. You do not have to invoke Genesis to be a creationist. The term applies to anybody who stipulates non-natural causes—especially a sentient being—behind the creation. From his background we can sleep securely believing Goenka is a creationist of the first kind—a creationist who believes all this is the work of the God of Abraham.

Taking that into account, where does Goenka’s argument take him? It does not take him to the divinity of Christ (Jesus). Winning the argument that a sentient being created the universe does not logically lead to that entity being the God of Abraham. That concept will always remain in the realm of mythology. The goal of creationists on this point is to convince others of the existence of a creator, for from that point it is easier to move the uninitiated to belief in the divinity.

I will not recap Goenka’s reasoning, but he argues the intricacy of the relationship between fundamental particles is such that no accident of nature can account for their all this. One way to look at this reasoning is to realize it is founded on thinking which arises in the universe under discussion. The argument is an attempt to take everyday observations and even deeply technical observations, and work them into a basis for explaining something that does not exist within our ability to observe. My analogy is clumsy to the extreme, but I liken this to an attempt to peel an apple using a ball peen hammer. We can explain, for example, fire, by invoking chemical and physical principles we have discovered by clever means, but we reach a point where we will be unable to make explanations which are compatible with things we observe.

The concept of a god creator is the god is an transcendental entity that exists outside time and space. Since time and space are what scientists have to work with, they are not going to make much headway explaining transcendental entities. Such things have to be imagined, or not even that. They may have to be supposed and nothing more.

Science failing to explain everything, the theologians feel free to jump in. The problem with theological explanations is that they generally boil down to speculation and nothing more. At the upper end of theological explanations are some argued philosophically. Philosophy is a powerful tool, giving us the means by which we move from observation to unforeseen conclusions. When philosophy is employed to move from supposition to conclusion it serves only to provide a smokescreen to an abuse of the intellect.

Goenka addresses the question concerning who or what created the creator:

In order to answer such questions, we first need to clarify what we mean by “God.” If God is just another one of the causes within the system of causes that science explains, then we would need to search for a cause for God as well. But if God is something fundamentally different from the created order (what theologians call “transcendent”), then our demand for a cause of God’s being is confused and misapplied.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 67). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

A popular notion, held by the unsophisticated faithful, is that the God of Abraham, having nothing better to do, decided to create the universe and people, as well. I don’t hold to this God business, so it is difficult for me to imagine the thinking of such people. I have supposed they imagine God doing the creation as a hobby, such as somebody building a model ship. When much thought is applied, this becomes a difficult sell. Logically I would not suppose a being that exists outside time and space would have much interest in hobbies or even serious construction projects. Those are human activities (beavers, as well). The argument that a sentient, transcendental entity decided to create the universe does not have a sound philosophical basis.

At a higher lever, consider that God is not a sentient entity. God could then be a set of basic principles, unknown and possibly unknowable to us. The universe is a consequence of these principles. This answers the question put by the creationists: “From whence came the intelligence (information) to construct the universe as we know it?”

This interpretation takes investigation of the origin of the universe out of the hands of the theologians, and it is not going to get much support among that crowd.

In order to answer such questions, we first need to clarify what we mean by “God.” If God is just another one of the causes within the system of causes that science explains, then we would need to search for a cause for God as well. But if God is something fundamentally different from the created order (what theologians call “transcendent”), then our demand for a cause of God’s being is confused and misapplied.

God is not just the explanation for the beginning of the universe, but for the existence of anything at all—whether past, present, or future.  These things are contingent; that is to say, they don’t have to exist, and so because they do exist, we are right to ask for the causes of their existence. But theologians have understood God to be a necessary being. Asking for a cause of a necessary being is like asking how much the color blue weighs — it is a category mistake.

Goenka, Lakhi. Does the Atom Have A Designer? (p. 67). eThermal, LLC. Kindle Edition.

Yes, I’m not buying much of that, and you should not either.

Quiz Question

Number 203 of a series

Here is something for those who paid attention in high school physics class. See the diagram below.

This is a metal (wood, plastic, glass) tube. The end on the left is closed, while the end on the right is open. If you blow across the open end sound waves travel back and forth within the tube. The lowest frequency at which the air column in the tube vibrates is call the fundamental frequency of the tube. In this case the fundamental frequency is 420 Hz.

The tube below is the same length as the tube above, but the left end is open. Again when you blow across the open end on the right you get the air column vibrating.

What is the fundamental frequency of the open tube? Why? Hint: wind musical instruments operate off this principle.

Post your responses in the comments section below.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 8 in a series

The photo shows creationists Walter Bradley and Ide Trotter at a workshop hosted by the Texas Education Agency, where they were assigned the task of reviewing high school biology texts for public schools.

I tend to devote this series to people being stupid about science, such as by using science and religion in the same sentence. That often comes about when people, caught up in religion, carry the contagion with them when they step across the line into fields of science—or into any other area requiring rational thought. Who does this a lot are the people at the Discovery Institute (DI), the premier organization in this country promoting Intelligent Design.

A rich resource on this kind of foolishness is the DI’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), founded by creationist Stephen C. Meyer, among others. the thinking of DI fellows and the CSC are made public on an associated site called Evolution News. More recently, I found the following posted on the Discovery Institute site:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: Why Machines Will Never Think

From remarks at the official launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence

ROBERT CROWTHER, II AUGUST 1, 2018

This is interesting on multiple levels, one of which relates to Dr. Michael Egnor, whom we have met before:

Michael Egnor is a prominent neurosurgeon and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stony Brook University. He became inoculated against evolution (the science of biological evolution) after reading  Michael Denton‘s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Egnor has aligned himself with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC), one of the leading creationist organizations in this country and likely the absolute leader in support of the Intelligent Design version of creationism. An excerpt from one of his posts on the CSC’s Evolution News blog may be characteristic:

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team.

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations.

Follow the link and read the post for complete details. Anyhow, Dr. Egnor now proposes to  boldly step outside his realm of expertise and into the quagmire that is Artificial Intelligence (AI). I took some time to read through his thinking on the matter, and you are invited to do likewise. What I found is that, while Dr. Egnor is likely correct in some of his conclusions, he is correct for the wrong reasons. An illustration from Dr. Egnor’s monograph:

What is the hallmark of human thought, and what distinguishes thoughts from material things? Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher in the 19th century, answered this question decisively. All thoughts are about something, whereas no material object is inherently “about” anything. This property of aboutness is called intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind. Every thought that I have shares the property of aboutness—I think about my vacation, or about politics, or about my family. But no material object is, in itself, “about” anything. A mountain or a rock or a pen lacks aboutness—they are just objects. Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind.

Another word for intentionality is meaning. All thoughts inherently mean something. A truly meaningless thought is an oxymoron. The meaning may be trivial or confusing, but every thought entails meaning of some sort. Every thought is about something, and that something is the meaning of the thought.

That’s what I like about philosophers. First, they fall back on what other philosophers have said—with little or no attempt at confirmation, and they talk of things being true, apparently for the sole reason that they say they are true. How about, “Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind?” Whether he realizes it or not, what Dr. Egnor has just done is to write a definition for the word mind. Please note the statement does not preclude a computer becoming a mind. What it says is that if a computer attains intentionality, then a computer can become a mind. Dr. Egnor never offers any reason a computer cannot become a mind. He says it, so it must be so.

Under other circumstances I would pass off Dr. Egnor’s musing as the product of religious corruption. I cannot do this, because it happens that Dr. Egnor, in his musings, is in the company of mental giants, one being renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. It happens that Penrose is of the same mind as Dr. Egnor in this matter. Neither believes a computer can become a mind, and Penrose has written a book on the matter titled The Emperor’s New Mind. I have had a copy of the book since it came out in 1989, but I did not read through it. That’s because I quickly encountered conclusions I cannot sign off on. In the book, Penrose seems to invoke the argument from incredulity, much as Dr. Egnor does above. Martin Gardner wrote the forward, concluding:

Penrose’s achievements in mathematics and physics– and I have touched on only a small fraction– spring from a lifelong sense of wonder toward the mystery and beauty of being. His little finger tells him that the human mind is more than just a collection of tiny wires and switches. The Adam of his prologue and epilogue is partly a symbol of the dawn of consciousness in the slow evolution of sentient life. To me he is also Penrose– the child sitting in the third row, a distance back from the leaders of AI– who dares to suggest that the emperors of strong AI have no clothes. Many of Penrose’s opinions are infused with humour, but this one is no laughing matter.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 143-148). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Here is a sampling of Penrose’s own thinking, highlighted in my Kindle edition by earlier readers:

Most particularly, I argue that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be accommodated within the framework of present-day physical theory.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 153-154). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

My reasoning, as presented in this book, has two main strands to it. The first of these endeavours to show, by appealing to results of Gödel (and Turing) that mathematical thinking (and hence conscious thinking generally) is something that cannot be encapsulated within any purely computational model of thought. This is the part of my argument that my critics have most frequently taken issue with. The second strand of the reasoning is to demonstrate that there is an important gap in our physical picture of the world, at a level which ought to bridge the submicroscopic world of quantum physics to the macro-world of classical physics. My viewpoint demands that the missing physics falling within this gap, when found, will play an essential part in the physical understanding of the conscious mind. Moreover, there must be something outside purely computational action in this sought-for area of physics.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 164-170). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Penrose appears to set aside a special place for living forms, and he does not limit this thinking to the mind. I took four courses from  Wolfgang Rindler, and after I got my degree I came back to the campus to attend a 70th birthday party for him. Roger Penrose attended, as well, and he gave a talk in which he explained that living material needs to be explained in terms of  quantum physics. I  got that this was an explanation in terms of quantum  physics beyond the fact that quantum physics determines basic chemical properties of the elements, and I asked the question, “Are you resurrecting the concept of vitalism?” He assured me he was not, and I let it go at that. For the moment. The truth is, I consider Penrose’s invocation of quantum mechanics as vitalism dressed up in a lab coat.

Apparently anybody can be a philosopher, so I’m thinking about giving it a try. In future postings I will provide rational explanations for human thought, life, death, and the origin of the universe. Keep reading.

Quiz Question

One of a continuing series

This one will be trivial to most. Puzzling to some.

transmission

So, I have this special glass. See the illustration above. Disregard the colors. I put those in for interest. Color doesn’t have anything to do with the Quiz Question.

Light enters the pane of glass from the right. Only half of it emerges from the other side. Due to the index of refraction of the glass and the surrounding medium being the same, there is no surface reflection. Half of the light entering the pane is absorbed, and only half comes out the other side.

If I double the thickness of the pane, how much light comes out the other side? Post your answer in the comments section below.

Diffraction of Particles

I don’t have to get this exactly right, because I already have my diploma, and I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired.

Anyhow, this is a standard principle of physics. See the image. A (hypothetical) light wave front from a source far away is incident on a solid wall. The wave crests are for the purposes of this demonstration parallel. The waves that hit the wall are stopped or reflected, and the remaining ones keep going as before:

Diffraction-01

 

Not really. The next figure shows what’s wrong with that interpretation. Considering the light wave as an electrical and magnetic field traveling through space, then the arrow points to a place adjacent to the electrical field that is vacant. The electric field will propagate into this space.

Diffraction-02

 

See the next figure. The wave front adjacent to the edge of the wall will curve toward the available space, effectively bending the wave front.

Diffraction-03

Here’s the result of this action. If you take a metal plate and make a small hole in it and then aim a beam of light at the hole, some light will pass through the hole. If the light is monochromatic, and you place a screen to the right of the plate in the figure, then you will see that the illumination on the screen conforms to the graph in the next figure. I copied this figure from Wikipedia and did some slight editing:

Diffraction1

Well and good. Now suppose you use electrons (or protons) instead of light waves. The same thing happens. See the next figure:

Diffraction-04

These electrons (electrons are round and black) and are headed for the hole in single file, but when they emerge from the hole they spread out like shot from the muzzle of a shotgun. Why?

The standard answer is that on a certain level electrons, in fact all particles and even macro objects, behave like waves. Done with that. Here’s another way to look at it.

Diffraction-05

This shows two electrons. The one on the left has not entered the hole. The other one is inside the hole. Our knowledge of the upward position and momentum of the electron on the left is given by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

 \sigma_{x}\sigma_{p} \geq \frac{\hbar}{2} ~~

 

Together we know σx and σP, only through this inequality relation. Here σx is the uncertainty of the vertical position and σP is the uncertainty of the vertical momentum. ħ is Plank’s Constant.

Now look at the electron in the hole. Here the vertical uncertainty is restricted to d, the diameter of the hole. The vertical momentum must now be increased appropriately for the Heisenberg inequality to hold. The smaller the hole, the greater the uncertainty of the vertical momentum (velocity). The uncertainty is retained when the electrons leave the hole, producing the shotgun effect.

We had a problem on electron diffraction on a physics homework, and I used this approach to work the problem. The grader, a Ph.D. student went “???,” then gave the solution his OK.

Currents Of Fear

Many years ago I posted this in the newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics. It doesn’t seem this is anywhere near the fad it was back then. Possibly people have gotten smarter or else distracted by really critical issues. From the September 1995 issue:

Currents of fear
By John Blanton

Paul Brodeur has been a writer for The New Yorker for 35 years, and has published several books on issues of environmental hazards, including Currents of Death, The Zapping of America, and Asbestos and Enzymes. His book The Great Power-Line Cover-up (Little, Brown and Company, paperback, 351 pages, $12.95) was published in 1993, and an updated edition was released earlier this year.

The story according to Brodeur begins with “The Calamity on Meadow Street.” Two hundred and fifty yards long with only nine houses, Meadow Street in Guilford, CT, has had more than its share of cancer cases since the 1970s. It didn’t take the residents long to spot the culprit, a prominent electric substation on the street. After explaining the travails of the Meadow Street residents, the author spends the remainder of the book detailing his evidence that man-made electromagnetic fields in general and power lines specifically are a cause of cancer in humans.

The unfortunate inhabitants of Meadow Street are not the only victims. Brodeur describes endangered sites as diverse as Slater Elementary School in Fresno, California, and Essex County Vocational Technical High School in West Caldwell, New Jersey, both of which are located adjacent to high voltage transmission lines. Throughout the book he seeks to show the magnitude of the risk. Using his relentless, well-crafted journalistic style, the author builds a powerful argument for the hazards of electromagnetic fields and for the cover-up he says is concealing the truth from the public. The book includes numerous interviews with residents, who recount their efforts to obtain redress from bureaucrats and elected officials. There are also quotes and interviews with scientists, who all this time have been having trouble finding a link between electromagnetic fields and human health problems.

In June the PBS television series Frontline aired a show called Currents of Fear, which dealt extensively with the subject of Paul Brodeur’s book. The show features, among others, residents of Omaha, Nebraska, who perceive a correspondence between the incidence of cancer in their neighborhood and the presence of power lines. The program’s treatment of the whole issue was so enlightening that it’s worthwhile to present here some major excerpts from the transcript. The transcript reveals the nature of the fears of people like the Omaha group and the difficulty the scientific community has in dealing with those fears.
In the Frontline video resident Dee Hendricks describes the origins of their concerns:

“. . . I knew, instantly, that this was not a normal thing going on. I wondered what it was in my neighborhood or in Omaha that could have possibly caused my son to have cancer, and driving home one night, I noticed that there were huge transmission towers that were scattered throughout the neighborhood.” (From Currents of Fear)

Others in Omaha expressed their outrage and their frustration at the lack of public concern. One was Adrian Dendinger:

“Those are people. My sister, dying of brain cancer. I’ve watched her rot in Mayo Clinic for a year. And then a head of a health department doesn’t come to the meeting? That’s baloney. We get lied to, we get ignored, we have to go get our own information, we have to make our own maps, we have to find out about substations. That is not what our elected officials are for. We’re getting screwed from both sides.” (From Currents of Fear)

The Omaha group went further. Currents of Fear featured a diagram, which I have attempted to simulate in Figure 1. The Omaha group performed a survey, and, in an effort to remove human bias, they correlated the incidence of cancer within postal ZIP codes with the presence of power lines within the zones.

Figure 1. Power lines and ZIP codes

Figure 1 is not the real Omaha diagram, but it will illustrate the point. First, grant either that population densities for the different zones are the same, or else that some compensation is made if they are not. Zones 75044, 75202, 75221, 75234, and 75403 have power lines, and they have a higher average incidence of cancer than 75019, 75066, and 75080, which have no power lines. I will get back to this figure later. The residents considered that this qualified as scientific evidence that cancers were correlated with the presence of power lines.

As mentioned, the scientists were not so quick to pick up on this idea. First of all, there seemed to be no physical basis for a connection. William R. Bennett, Jr., a Ph.D. physicist at Yale University stated on the program:

“The thing that struck me as most puzzling about it is that the fields these people were dealing with are absolutely minuscule. They’re talking about fields of two or three milligauss, fields that are 1/200th or so of the earth’s magnetic fields.” (From Currents of Fear)

Further, the American Physical Society (APS) [see Note] earlier this year released a statement that “purported health effects of power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated, and the cost of mitigation and litigation `is incommensurate with the risk, if any.’” See the sidebar for a full statement from the APS.

Brodeur’s book mentions many instances of fields much higher than this, but still only a fraction of the earth’s magnetic field. Brodeur is not ignorant of this fact, and he has a response:

“There is absolutely no reasonable biological comparison between the earth’s magnetic field, in which we evolved as human beings and which, as some people think is responsible, at least partially, for the way our brains and central nervous systems develop, and the power frequency fields, which have only been with us, really, in a meaningful way for 50, 60, 70 years.” (From Currents of Fear)

Who is right? Obviously Brodeur has not supplied a physical link, and the best physicists in the world have not been able to, either. However, good science tells us that even when a cause-effect relationship is not visible, the presence of a strong statistical correlation hints at some physical connection. Thus, the protesters present their epidemiological studies.

In his book Brodeur cites the results of a recent Swedish study. Epidemiologists there investigated the incidence of cancer among 436,503 people who had lived for at least one year within 1000 feet of Sweden’s high-voltage transmission lines. The results were reported in 1992, and they were astounding. Children exposed to more than one milligauss experienced twice the risk of developing leukemia as children exposed to less than one milligauss. Exposure to more than two milligauss showed three times the risk, and those exposed to more than three milligauss had nearly four times the risk. Results for adults showed correlations for acute myeloid leukemia and chronic myeloid leukemia, but these were judged to be not statistically significant. A study of industrial exposure produced similar findings. In this case correlations with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and brain tumors were demonstrated.

If ever there was a smoking gun, this appeared to be one. However, as Frontline pointed out, something seemed to be wrong with the Swedish statistics. To scientists this seemed to be a case of “the multiple comparisons fallacy.” Quoting John Moulder, Medical College of Wisconsin:

“The problem is, when you do as they did, hundreds and hundreds of comparisons, something in the neighborhood of 800 different comparisons, by the standard way we do statistics, we would expect 5 percent of those to be statistically elevated and 5 percent to be statistically decreased. And now you have a problem. If you find, by one measure of exposure, that leukemia is up in a group of kids, is that real, or is that the result of just random noise in the system?” (From Currents of Fear)

Moulder again:

“It is not scientifically reasonable to do all the measurements, but then only pick out the ones that give you the answer you want for publication. If I dredge through their original report, I can find situations which, looked at in isolation, without looking at the rest of the report, that if that was the only data I gave you, I could claim that that proved that power lines protected children against childhood leukemia.” (From Currents of Fear)

Having said this, I ask you to go back and look at Figure 1. This is what is known in the jargon as a “cancer cluster.” What we have here is a small sample taken in isolation. It is possible that a quirk in the statistics produced the result the Omaha group was looking for. Closer inspection reveals more than was originally stated. Look at ZIP code 75066. Even though the power line runs right along its border, residents there seem not to have been effected. Zone 75234 has one case, but that one is not located very close to the power lines within its boundaries. It is clear that shifting the ZIP code boundaries a few blocks in certain directions would have radically altered the results of the survey.

This is not to say that the Omaha group used invalid methods. Naturally, using the actual proximity to the power lines, as the Swedish study did, would have resulted in a more accurate survey, but something like the ZIP code basis can be made to work, provided the sample is large enough.

Figure 2 shows the result of adding “noise” to some underlying signal. Here the signal might correspond to the actual effects of an environmental factor on health. The noise represents the fact that some people will get the disease even in the absence of the environmental factor, and some people do not get the disease, even in the presence of the environmental factor. In this computer simulation, I made the noise 20 times as large as the underlying signal. The graph shows what one would see if 100 samples are taken. With this “signal to noise” ratio, it is still not possible to see the underlying signal. The signal is just swamped by the random noise.

Figure 2. Noisy data with 100 sample points.

In Figure 3, 10,000 samples have been taken, and now the underlying signal becomes apparent. The effect the Omaha group saw was not this but was the result of finding a pattern within a random sample. If they had been able to duplicate their survey in several thousand additional, independent trials, the pattern they saw would have persisted only if there were a real correlation between presence of the power lines and the disease.


Figure 2. Noisy data with 10,000 sample points

The Frontline program further discussed some recent scientific tests that were conducted under controlled conditions in an attempt to find and measure any link between electromagnetic fields and health. Although the studies used laboratory animals, it is hard to see how the results would be different with people. Here is a summary of some results mentioned on the show:
In a test of whether power line magnetic fields caused fetal abnormalities, no effects were found.
In a study involving 12 litters from three generations of animals bred under magnetic fields, no effect on the reproductive cycle was found.
In two studies using cancer-prone mice, no evidence was found that magnetic fields stimulated lymphoma production.
In a study at the Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Washington State of whether magnetic fields could influence a specific cancer gene, the researchers were unable to replicate the results of an earlier New York study that had produced positive results, even after going to the New York laboratory and using their facilities.
A study to determine if electromagnetic fields affect melatonin levels in humans found no effect.
A study involving pregnant women and electric blankets was negative.
The results of a test involving laboratory rats living their entire life span in electromagnetic fields will be available next year.
It is not likely that these arguments will persuade those affected that their fears are groundless. Quoting John Moulder:

. . . [P]eople are less afraid of risks they think they control, and they’re less afraid of risks that they understand, so the things that people are most afraid of is things they can’t control and don’t understand, and certainly power lines fall right in that category.” (From Currents of Fear)

And still many people have a lack of understanding and a lack of trust in science. They do not see science as something in their everyday lives. Tell one of the Omaha mothers that science cannot explain why her child has cancer, but you are sure it is not because of the power lines. There are places where reason does not intrude.

Author Paul Brodeur is a different matter. Here is a guy who has been around the block a few times, so it is hard for him to claim naiveté.

In the Frontline program he expresses disdain for the physicists who assert there is no link between power line electromagnetic fields and health, and throughout his book points out that these scientists and others are tied to the electric power industry. He reminds us that he is the journalist who first alerted the American public to the dangers of asbestos, and he has now made power lines and electromagnetic fields a crusade of his:

It’s pervasive. You literally have millions of unsuspecting men, women and children exposed to power frequency magnetic fields that have already been associated in dozens upon dozens of studies conducted and published in the peer-reviewed medical literature, levels that are associated with the development of cancer. Never before has there been this much epidemiological evidence of the carcinogenicity of any agent, and that evidence subsequently declared to be invalid, and that agent subsequently declared to be benign.” (From Currents of Fear)

The link between electromagnetic fields and health is a new issue, and it is just beginning to be studied seriously. Early on the proponents of this conjecture were motivated by the cancer cluster studies, and they have received recent encouragement by the Swedish survey and some others. All the while, scientific tests of the EMF-cancer link continue to report negative results.

Interested readers can obtain a complete transcript of the Frontline program for $5 from Journal Graphics, Inc., 1535 Grant Street, Denver, CO 80203-1843. Ask for Frontline Show #1319. A copy of the video can be obtained from PBS Video, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314. The July 1995 issue of Physics Today has a follow-up on their previous discussion:

For an analysis of electromagnetic fields in the environment, see William R. Bennett Jr’s Physics Today article Cancer and Power Lines (April 1994, page 23) and letters in response (January 1995, page 13, and March 1995, page 124). A background report by [California Polytechnic State University physics professor David] Hafemeister, as well as the complete text of APS’s statement, can be found through the APS home page on the World Wide Web, http//aps.org/.

Further, the August/September issue of APS News carries two letters critical of the APS stance and the involvement of James Randi on the side of the APS. Robert Park of the University of Maryland has responded to these criticisms in the same issue. I will try to get permission to reprint these letters in a future issue of The Skeptic.

Note: John Blanton is a member of the American Physical Society — Editor

Following is the APS sidebar referenced in the main article:

From the APS
APS COUNCIL ADOPTS STATEMENT ON EMFS AND PUBLIC HEALTH

The APS Council approved a statement in April declaring that purported health effects of power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated, and the cost of mitigation and litigation “is incommensurate with the risk, if any.” This is the strongest position on the issue taken by a major scientific society. Since electromagnetic fields (EMFs) were first linked to cancer in 1979, epidemiological evidence has grown ever fainter and proposed mechanisms more speculative. The Council action was a result of several years of discussion and monitoring of the issue by the APS Panel on Public Affairs, and was endorsed by the leaders of the APS Division of Biological Physics. Complete text of the statement follows:
“Physicists are frequently asked to comment on the potential dangers of cancer from electromagnetic fields that emanate from common power lines and electrical appliances. While recognizing that the connection between power line fields and cancer is an area of continuing study by research workers in many disciplines in the United States and abroad, we believe that it is possible to make several observations based on the scientific evidence at this time. We also believe that, in the interest of making the best use of the finite resources available for environmental research and mitigation, it is important for professional organizations to comment on this issue.

The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. This literature includes epidemiological studies, research on biological systems, and analyses of theoretical interaction mechanisms. No plausible biophysical mechanisms for the systematic initiation or promotion of cancer by these power line fields have been identified. Furthermore, the preponderance of the epidemiological and biophysical/biological research findings have failed to substantiate those studies which have reported specific adverse health effects from exposure to such fields. While it is impossible to prove that no deleterious health effects occur from exposure to any environmental factor, it is necessary to demonstrate a consistent, significant, and causal relationship before one can conclude that such effects do occur. From this standpoint, the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated.

These unsubstantiated claims, however, have generated fears of power lines in some communities, leading to expensive mitigation efforts and, in some cases, to lengthy and divisive court proceedings. The costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power line/cancer connection have risen into the billions of dollars and threaten to go much higher. The diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis is disturbing to us. More serious environmental problems are neglected for lack of funding and public attention, and the burden of cost placed on the American public is incommensurate with the risk, if any.”

For further information contact the APS Washington Office, 529 14th St. NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20045; phone: (202) 662-8700; email: opa@aps.org.

See the item from the APS:

Trio Takes Aim Against Spread of Pseudo-Science

Quantum Mechanics and EPR

Readers surely have figured this out by now. I don’t write all this stuff. I mostly glean highlights from the news and pass them on with a little bit of comment. Here is today’s item:

Nobel for quantum “parlor trick” that could make super computers

(Reuters) – A French and an American scientist won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for finding ways to measure quantum particles without destroying them, which could make it possible to build a new kind of computer far more powerful than any seen before.

Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland, both 68, found ways to manipulate the very smallest particles of matter and light to observe strange behavior that previously could only be imagined in equations and thought experiments.

Wineland once described his own work as a “parlor trick” that performed the seemingly magical feat of putting an object in two places at once. Other scientists praised the achievements as bringing to life the wildest dreams of science fiction.

Albert Einstein and Danish Physicist Neils Bohr used to have a back and forth on this, like over 70 years ago. Einstein insisted that particles defined by the same quantum state were inherently linked by some internal factor that each possessed. Bohr maintained that there was no hidden variable that defined the state of the “entwined” particles. Einstein, along with Boris Podolski and Nathan Rosen proposed a thought experiment that would resolve the issue. What resulted was the so-called EPR Paradox.

Back when I was a college student I did a term paper on the EPR Paradox, pulling from an article that appeared in Scientific American and from other sources. I also explained that new-agers put forward the claim that the principles of quantum mechanics are behind psychic phenomena and other paradigms of the paranormal. I posted the gist of my paper on the Internet about twenty years ago, and Scot I. Chase and others made significant contributions to the posting. To this day, after twenty years, if you Google John Blanton and Einstein you will come up with some references to the original. Like this one.

German physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment that involved a cat that was simultaneously alive and dead, and the resulting concept has become called the Schrödinger’s cat paradox. There is even a book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, by John Gribbin. Read up and get back to me if you are interested.