Best science errors at the movies

Any idiot can make a science error, but the best movie errors give something of real value.  A good science blooper has pedagogic value.  It has some superficial plausibility, and in explaining to your students why it’s wrong, they really learn something.  Here are my three favorites:

  1. Movie:  Star Trek: Generations;  Mistake:  Evil Dr. Sauron fires Li_3 missle into star, which immediately stops all fusion in the core.  Star immediately dims and starts to collapse.  Why it’s wrong:  Being an astronomer, I’m partial to star mistakes.  It’s true that thermal pressure from fusion is what holds stars up against gravitational collapse.  However, if you turn off fusion, the thermal energy in the star won’t immediately disappear.  It only loses energy as fast as it radiates it away.  The timescale on which the star would lose an appreciable fraction of its heat is the Kelvin-Helmholtz timescale:  about 10 million years for a star like the sun.  More problems with this scenario:  Even if the star started collapsing right away, it should take several minutes for light from the star to reach the planet where Sauron and Picard are fighting, so even then, they shouldn’t see it right away.  Also, Sauron’s plan of moving the Nexus by changing the star’s gravitational field is flawed.  The star being very nearly spherical, its collapsing–even to a black hole–wouldn’t change the exterior gravitational field.  Also, since the star contracts quasi-statically, it obeys the virial theorem throughout:  E = T + W = -T.  So the star actually heats while contracting, even though it’s radiating energy, because it’s sinking deeper into its gravitational potential.  This really is a science mistake that keeps on giving.
  2. Movie: Mission to Mars; Mistake:  Human body exposed to vacuum immediately freezes.  Why it’s wrong:  This was a pretty forgettable movie, but I have a soft spot for it for all of the attention-grabbing science bloopers.  (“That looks like human DNA!”)  I expect one of the writers read somewhere that “space” has a temperature of 2.7K, which is really colde, so they thought “Hey, people in space should freeze.”  First of all, the vacuum itself has no temperature.  2.7K is the temp. of the cosmic microwave background, which is irrelevant to a body inside the solar system.  Such a body will cool (or heat) until it radiates away heat at the same rate that it absorbs it from the sun.  True, in Mars orbit this would be below freezing, but once again we must ask how long it would take for a human body to reach this equilibrium state.  The answer is a long time (hours) because the only way to lose heat in space is by radiation.  Like all hot bodies, a human emits blackbody radiation (about 100W, mostly in the infrared).  The cooling won’t be what kills you, though.  One exeption:  In a vacuum, the water in your eyes and mouth would boil off quickly (boiling temp. is a function of pressure; your blood, being pressurized, won’t freeze right away), and the latent heat the water carries away would quickly cool those parts.
  3. Movie: The Day after TomorrowMistake:  Air from the stratosphere descends quickly to Earth, “doesn’t have time to heat”, and so freezes the surface of the Earth.  Why it’s wrong:  I just love this mistake.  Whoever wrote this movie should get Al Gore’s Nobel Prize.    When a gas contracts or expands faster than it can heat or cool, its not the temperature that stays constant; it’s the specific entropy.  Thus, rapidly descending gas from the stratosphere would adiabatically heat.  Although the stratosphere has a lower temperature than the troposphere, it has a higher specific entropy.  (If it didn’t, the atmosphere would be convectively unstable and would quickly adjust itself.)  So descending air from it would actually heat us rather than cool us.

The empirical two-step

I notice a pattern.  Here’s the most famous case:

British empiricism phase 1:  Locke argues that all we know is sense and mental experience and logical deductions therefrom.  But we seem to know a lot of things that we don’t “experience”:  personal identity, substantial unity, distinct essences of things, natural law.  Not to worry, says Locke.  We can derive those things logically from our experiences.  So, since senses + logic gives us all we need, why imagine we know anything else?  We shrug our shoulders, say okay, and become empiricists.

British empiricism phase 2:  “Gotcha!” says empiricism, in the persons of Berkley and Hume.  It turns out you can’t get substance, personal identity, causality, or natural law from empiricism.  Therefore….these things are illusions!

It’s all about the timing.  If Locke had come out and just stipulated that he wouldn’t believe anything other than his senses and right away followed it by saying that causality is just sloppy thinking, we would have all laughed at him, and thought to ourselves “Well, obviously we know lots of things that senses+logic doesn’t cover.”  (Let’s not get distracted, as people were at the time, by asking if nonempirical ideas are “innate”.)  It’s not like the case for empiricism was overwhelming, but we wanted to be assured that we could keep our ideas of substance and causality because of a sentimental attachment to these ideas.  To people in Locke’s time, the reality of substance, causality, etc. and our knowledge of them were manifest.  A philosophical school had to accommodate them, or it wouldn’t be at all credible.  Now, logically, when Hume came around, people should have responded the same way.  “What, I don’t have an experience of having a self?  Well, I know I do have one, so empiricism must be stupid.”  But no, because the English had already made up their minds to accept empiricism (under its false pretenses), they thought that the soul had just been disproved.

Then there’s this one, only slightly less famous:

Evolution, phase 1:  Darwin says that evolution by natural selection can explain the diversity of species.  It can even explain elevated human behavior like intelligence and altruism.  “Cool!” we say, and accept Darwin’s theory.

Evolution, phase 2: “Gotcha!” say the materialists.  It turns out–they say–that evolution by natural selection does not explain qualitative differences–only differences of degree.  Therefore, qualitative differences–differences of species, of kind–don’t really exist!  There’s no qualitative difference between a human and an amoeba.  Don’t like it?  Well you must be an idiot who doesn’t understand science.  Also, it turns out evolution doesn’t explain altruism, which means there’s really no such thing.  It’s just genes being selfish through kin selection.  And the aesthetic sense is really just an our evolved appreciation of habitable landscapes and healthy mates.  And religion is really just a group survival mechanism.  And…

One difference between the two:  I think Hume correctly inferred the consequences of empiricism, but I think the materialists are completely wrong about the implications of Darwin’s theory.  The above is a gross misunderstanding.  I have argued this at length elsewhere.  The rhetorical strategy, though, is the same.  It it is really true (and it isn’t) that evolution is incompatible with there being a qualitative difference between humans and amoebas, or with there being a spiritual aspect of humanity, then evolution must be wrong, because these things are manifest.  Logically, the materialists’ attacks should misfire against evolutionary biology itself, which will always be far less certain to me than the existence of my own soul or my capacity for altruism.

Recently, The Damned Old Man, presented another two-step maneuver against me.

secular culture, phase 1:  You Christians shouldn’t judge art by the morality of the characters.  That’s a dumb, philistine thing to do.  Don’t you know there’s murder and adultery in the Bible?

secular culture, phase 2:  You Christians are hypocrites!  You like dramas that include acts you regard as sins, and you even express sympathy with supposedly-sinning characters, and yet you refuse to approve such acts in real life.

As with Darwinism, I here accept the phase 1 claim but deny the phase 2 claim.  (For empiricism, I deny both.)

An important objection to the Muslim strategy

Bonifacius has made me realize a serious danger in my Christian-Muslim alliance strategy:

Now, when certain subjects are discussed, to propose reasons is to entertain the notion that a particular idea is actually a matter of reasonable debate. Sometimes the only way to really convey the sense of censure that a particular idea merits is “bullying,” shunning, etc., as you, Bonald, have noted elsewhere on this blog (see your defense of bullying). It seems, Bonald, that you have simply, and sadly, lost the visceral repugnance that men of the West should have for the Islamic alien worldview and population entering Europe. Rehashing the arguments (like the fact that Mohammedans see Sharia as having universal applicability and therefore are extremely unlikely to respect Christian autonomous areas except when forced to do so by the sword, etc.) is probably futile at this point…

Anyone with a proper love of orthodoxy should feel a corresponding abhorrence of heresy, and of false religions all the more.  It should, as Bonifacius indicates, be an automatic, visceral response, one preceding–indeed precluding–argument.  Has my horror of irreligion caused me to lose a proper horror of false religion?  Perhaps, but if so that’s only a matter of my own soul.  More importantly, though, one could argue that my strategy would expose all Christians who partake in it to this temptation.  If Muslims become our allies, won’t we be tempted to start feeling that the divinity of Christ really isn’t such a big deal after all?  (From the Muslim point of view, it would expose them to the temptation of losing their proper horror of Christian “idolatry” and “tritheism”, but I speak as a Christian.)  Yes, I think this is a real danger.  It may be–although I’m still not sure–a necessary danger; it’s certainly not as spiritually corrosive as any Christian-Liberal alliance against Islam would surely be.  Orthodox Christians have in the past admired non-Christians without spiritual harm (think of St. Thomas and Aristotle and Ibn Sina, or Dante and Virgil) but always from a safe distance in space and time.  We must be sure that my grand anti-liberal alliance doesn’t end up sneaking in liberal “tolerance” through the back door.

Catholic social teaching: new links

Thomas Storck at The Distributist Review explains why Fr. Robert Sirico is a heretic, and how grossly he misrepresents his favorite encyclical.

The Protestant Gerry Neal gives an appreciative introduction, explaining that “social justice” has come to mean something much different from what the Church originally meant.

Alte quotes the pope.  Apparently, the number of fundamental social principles is up to four now.  As I’ve said before, I think the basics actually proceed from one principle, but it’s a principle we dare not name.

Should Muslims lead European conservatism?

I think this discussion deserves its own post.

In a previous entry, I threw this out:

I’m more convinced than ever that a traditionalist movement in Europe will have to be Muslim-led.  We, the remnant of Christendom, would still have much to contribute to and much to gain from such a movement.  Imagine a movement promoting local self-government for religious communities, which would, yet, mean Sharia in Muslim parts, but also no sodomy indoctrination in Christian parts.  We can lament the fact that Muslims would be more palatable leaders and spokesmen for such a movement for the general public, but we must acknowledge it.

Two of my wisest readers disagreed.  (I should probably say four.  While Alan Roebuck and Bruce Charlton haven’t said anything about this proposal, I’m pretty sure I know what they think of it.)  Marcio Silva writes

This is a point where we disagree, by a large margin. I would like to, respectfully, address two aspects of your proposal. The first, is the question on exactly how is your proposal of joining the false (in this case, Islam) with what is true (in this case, Christianity) differs from Frank Meier’s fusionism or Tu Weiming’s “modern confucionism”? Will Muslims “tolerate” what they think to be false on Christianity and will Christian “tolerate” what they think to be false on Islam? A “Muslim-led traditionalist movement in Europe” if successful, would turn Europe in a Muslim-led society would it not? If so, I think it is fair to examine how well are the “Christian parts” of other Muslim-led societies going. How are Christians in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran? How well are Christians doing even in Kosovo? You say the Christians have “much to contribute” to this Muslim-led movement. Historically, apart from being a source for slaves, janissaries and, “raw material” to “organic fertilizer”, how exactly Christians “contribute” to Islam and “gain” from it?
The second aspect that I would like to address is the Muslim behavior in Europe. How exactly this crime-prone, violence-prone, gang-rape prone minority (the data on Muslim crime on Kafirs is abundant, as any reader of VFR, GoV or JihadWatch knows), today on a non-leadership position will, once turned in the majority or achieving leadership, behave in a proper and civilized manner? By the way, would you describe Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Pakistan as “conservative” place where you – as a Catholic – would like to live in? Allowing a troublesome ethnic-religious group to take the leadership of a country never ends well. Ask the whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

JMsmith writes

I have to agree with Marcio Silva, that Bonald is wrong in his fourth point. The word tradition denotes a form of knowledge, but without a qualifier indicates no particular content. Traditional knowledge is knowledge received on authority from the past, usually on the assumption that the people or person who originated the tradition enjoyed some sort of epistemic advantage. This is why modernity opposes all tradition. It stipulates that the present always has epistemic advantage over the past. Because modernity opposes tradition as a form of knowledge, it lumps all traditions together, regardless of content. We traditionalists are not, however, committed to tradition as a form of knowledge, but rather to the received content of our own particular tradition. So, coming to the point, European Muslims will not create a Traditional society, they will produce an Islamic society. If I had to choose between Islam and Hedonistic Nihilism, I think I’d choose Hedonistic Nihilism.

One big issue is how Christianity and Islam relate.  Is any alliance between the two as intellectually incoherent as Frank Meier’s fusionism or Tu Weiming’s Enlightenment-friendly Confuciansim?  I don’t think so; I would say that Christianity and Islam are rivals but not opposites.  Libertarianism and social conservatism, and Confucianism and the Enlightenment are movements in opposite directions.  There’s no coherent way one can push both at the same time.  One can advance Christianity and Islam at the same time.  Their morals and ours are mostly compatible (far more so than are Christian and liberal morals), and in a broad sense, Christians and Muslims would like to push Europe in the same direction (less public blasphemy, less pornography, less usury).  The particularities of our own traditions can be pursued at the local level, since Christians and Muslims usually live in different places, so a robust localism can serve us both.  What’s more, this is the means of coexistence endorsed by both our traditions.  Muhammad himself said that Christians should be unmolested in our own enclaves, while we Christians are obliged to promote subsidiarity when possible.  Both Christians and Muslims accommodated religious minorities through ghetto arrangements in the Middle Ages; it’s the sensible thing to do.  The liberals, by contrast, think they have a right to indoctrinate other people’s children.

Let’s also not loose sight of the contemporary reality.  A Muslim-dominated conservative Europe may not be the ideal, but at this point I think it’s by far the most viable alternative to a completely Leftist Europe.  Christianity is toxic in the public mind.  Europeans think we’re all a bunch of bigots and mass-murderers.  And let’s not forget that half of those European Christians are Roman Catholics, who in the public mind are all child molesters.  No one would ever vote for us.  On the other hand, Islam, as they’ve been told ad nausium, is the religion of peace.  Also, while the genetic differences between us and Turks or Arabs is small, they are regarded as non-white for some reason, which automatically gives them higher status in the European mind.  Finally, they are a more formidable force because of their self-confidence.  They really know that they’re right, and they don’t care what the New York Times says.  Christians conservatives, on the other hand, are use to defeat.  We’ve known nothing else for two centuries.  We’ve come to expect it.  We go into every fight demoralized, worried more about how to avoid social ostracism for what we know will turn out to be an unpopular cause than about how to make it a popular cause.  The Muslims are psychologically better equipped to fight than we are.

Most importantly, between Islam and hedonistic nihilism, I’d choose Islam hands down.


All right, on further thought and discussion with my readers, I think I need to “upgrade” Breivik from “pseudoconservative” to “anti-cosmopolitan” (see my taxonomy on the meaning of these terms).  One thing I don’t buy is this idea that he had a fake persona in his facebook page and blog posts, while the manifesto reveals his real thoughts.  After all, if he was worried about exposure, why post on anti-Islamic weblogs at all?  If he wanted to throw people off, why not pose as an outright liberal rather than a moderate conservative?  Besides, the contradictions in his thought can be found in the manifesto itself, as we’ve all noticed.  The guy is not very good as a systematic thinker.  We must try to discern his underlying core motivation.  I think his ultimate priority is to preserve Western culture for its own sake, rather than for the sake of freedom or Christianity or something like that.  Hence my labeling him as an anti-cosmopolitan, even though he doesn’t seem to have articulated a general defense of particularist loyalty.

P.S. I expect this will be my last post on this dreadful topic.

More thoughts on the Breivik fallout

  1. I’m starting to think that David and Reggie are right:  the Leftist establishment will be smart enough to know that the real extreme Right is less of a threat than the mainstream, anti-Islam Right.  The latter is more likely to attract terrorists than the former.  Also, the Left will know better than to waste the political capital they’ve just been handed attacking marginal figures like me.
  2. Larry Auster has announced that he doesn’t fear an investigation of the Right-blogosphere by the authorities.  He thinks it will quickly remove any suspicion that we’re promoting violence.  I suppose it is unlikely that the police will be coming around to take us to jail.  (I’m still a bit worried about rkirk, though.  He’s in the center of the storm.)  However, there are other and better ways to retaliate against us, should the establishment wanted to do so.  One possibility is that the press could take a more direct responsibility for punishing ideological nonconformists, just by picking several of us individually and whipping up lots of bad publicity, say by doing a hit piece on a different blogger each day.  For example, it wouldn’t be too hard for the press to discover my identity, tar me as a “homophobe”, and get me fired from my job, and indeed make me unemployable.  I guarantee that my university would not endure protests and bad publicity for my sake.  Of course, you may say that untenured faculty are in a peculiarly vulnerable position, but that’s not true.  If you work for any medium to large-sized corporation, they no doubt have an extensive diversity bureaucracy that will spring into action once the media targets you.  While they claim not to police the beliefs of their employees, they can always say your non-PC beliefs were creating a “hostile atmosphere” in which gays and Muslims can’t flourish.  But you never mentioned these beliefs at work, you say?  Doesn’t matter:  the media has made sure that all your coworkers know what you think.  Now your very presence creates a hostile atmosphere.  And losing your job is only the beginning!  Media finger pointing can be a trigger for ACT UP,  Antifa, the Black Panthers, or other militant groups to vandalize your property and physically intimidate you and your family.  Freedom of speech is still on the books, but your life has been made a living hell.  Actually, I think this is basically how things work in Europe already.
  3. Again, I don’t think the American far-Right is in danger.  The Left has bigger fish to fry.
  4. I’m more convinced than ever that a traditionalist movement in Europe will have to be Muslim-led.  We, the remnant of Christendom, would still have much to contribute to and much to gain from such a movement.  Imagine a movement promoting local self-government for religious communities, which would, yet, mean Sharia in Muslim parts, but also no sodomy indoctrination in Christian parts.  We can lament the fact that Muslims would be more palatable leaders and spokesmen for such a movement for the general public, but we must acknowledge it.