The Problem with Pre-history

It is very common to read matter-of-fact statements about how long ago our prehistoric antecedents lived and in such and such a manner.  The date ranges are given without a hint of humility or doubt as to the limitations of our ability to know things about our prehistoric past.  Natural ‘history’ is more of the same.  Radiometric dating is only reliable if all the underlying assumptions are true.  Because we don’t know the underlying assumptions are true, it is likely many, if not most, of them are not true.  The likelihood of them all being true is remote.  But any comment about the ‘guesswork’ aspect of radiometric dating will elicit howls of indignation.  You will be called a ‘science denier.’  You will be dismissed as ignorant of the scientific integrity of the scientists practicing the ‘art’.  But they will never call it an ‘art.’  It is science.

Looking forward, as climate models do.  You must make assumptions and then force the assumptions to act as place-holders for all you can not know about the future.  And that of course is quite a bit.  The climate models have never had any skill.  They don’t work.  But we are supposed to believe in them anyway because the future they are now predicting will surely come to pass as predicted, because the models are scientific.  You are a ‘science denier’ if you observe the model failures.

It seems rather simple to me.  If you have to guess, you will sometimes guess wrong.  If each guess is in fact a layering of guesses stitched together, then the probability you are wrong is exponentially increased (depending on how many guesses depend on other guesses being right).  In casinos and on the stock floor where the guesses can be kept to a minimum: Heads, tails; red, black; price moves up or down; we have a laboratory to experiment with our guessing.  It is brutally repeatable: you can’t know the particulars about the future.  You know stocks go up and down, generalities.  You can’t know when a particular stock will go up or down.  The coin will be heads or it will be tails when it lands, but you can’t tell which.  Likewise looking backwards – you can know there will have been an approximately equal division in history of coin tosses between the binary choices, but you can’t reconstruct pre-history.  If it isn’t recorded as history, you can’t know the particulars.  Radiometric clocks are not records, and they won’t work without assumptions about uniformity.  Any evidence that is non-conforming invalidates the assumption.  When elemental C14 is repeatedly found embedded in rocks thought to be tens or hundreds of millions of years old; it invalidates radiometric dating.  When protein molecular structures are repeatedly found in dinosaur fossils it invalidates the dating methods.   They are no longer valid.

When a model fails; it is kaput.  It doesn’t work.  You need a model that works.  You shouldn’t tweek the model and declare you have fixed it.  You must build a model that works.  And even then you should be prepared to acknowledge the model will only work until it doesn’t.  Then its over. Done. Finished. Kaput.

The history of modeling is a humble one.  Models don’t ever work reliably, even when they work.  You can’t know your model assumptions are true.  You can’t know your model won’t fail; that it won’t blow up.  You should assume your model will fail – that is the safe bet.  If you assume your model will fail – what must you assume about its predictions?

None of this is likely going to give the model-makers or the model-believers pause, but if there ever was an Emperor without clothes,  our computer modeling of the past and future is there to behold: Aren’t you going to believe your own eyes?

The Addict: Dedicated to Ambrosia, wherever we may find it.

I am addicted to an idea.

I recently read an article in the journal  First Things, titled American Carnage – The New Landscape of Opioid Addiction by Christopher Caldwell.  The United States has a horrific problem with Opioids. Over fifty-thousand American souls quit breathing every year because the lethal dosage of an opioid suppresses their breathing to the point – they go to sleep forever. In 2009 drug overdose surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death. If trends continue, by 2019 annually twice as many will die from opioid overdose as from auto accidents.  A terrible carnage without trauma.  No gore, no violence, no rending of the body, just sleep.

I reproduce here a couple concluding paragraphs of Caldwell’s article:

In 1993, Francis F. Seeburger, a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, wrote a profound book on the thought processes of addicts called Addiction and Responsibility. We tend to focus on the damage addiction does. A cliché among empathetic therapists, eager to describe addiction as a standard-issue disease, is that “no one ever decides to become an addict.” But that is not exactly true, Seeburger shows. “Something like an addiction to addiction plays a role in all addiction,” he writes. “Addiction itself . . . is tempting; it has many attractive features.” In an empty world, people have a need to need. Addiction supplies it. “Addiction involves the addict. It does not present itself as some externally imposed condition. Instead, it comes toward the addict as the addict’s very self.” Addiction plays on our strengths, not just our failings. It simplifies things. It relieves us of certain responsibilities. It gives life a meaning. It is a “perversely clever copy of that transcendent peace of God.”

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous thought there was something satanic about addiction. The mightiest sentence in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous is this: “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” The addict is, in his own, life-damaged way, rational. He’s too rational. He is a dedicated person—an oblate of sorts, as Seeburger puts it. He has commitments in another, nether world.

Yesterday, Larry Boshell wrote in a post, “Jesus believed a lot of erroneous stuff…”  I replied,  “But I don’t believe that about Jesus. The part about Him believing a bunch of erroneous stuff…”

If I do, the entire edifice of faith disintegrates.  I don’t go there. I must not go there. I am addicted to an idea about Jesus of Nazareth.  Larry, about now, says – “I told you so” or something like that. Because Larry has always argued that all the people are erecting decrepit edifices of faith and belief that are unhinged from reality and fact: Himself included – Larry is just self-aware.  This self-awareness lets Larry dwell in carefree fields of Ambrosia, where one assumes, he feasts with the gods.  Larry has never been real specific on what he does in Ambrosia-land.  But he doesn’t want to lose his pass, his membership card. He has found rest for his soul there.  I do observe Larry clings to his shibboleths as tenaciously as I do mine.

Here is the cornerstone idea that I am addicted to:  That the man, Jesus of Nazareth, believed he was the Messiah foretold in Jewish Scripture.   To Jesus, it was all about Him.  The scriptures, Abraham, Israel, Moses, King David, the whole world and all  its history were mere preludes to his coming.  His success was totally hinged on his faith never failing, on Him never doubting Himself.  His cry, “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani”  is prophetic verse spoken in messianic drama.  It is not doubt.  An honest reading of the scriptures, of Jesus’ sayings and teachings leads to only two possible conclusions. He was either the only begotten Son of God, the Jewish Messiah & the True King of Israel, or he was a deluded megalomaniac.

My belief in Him is bound up with Jesus of Nazareth’s belief in Himself.  I am undone if Jesus believed a lot of erroneous stuff. I am totally committed to His idea about His perfect self.

The sordid tales of addicts serving their addiction will make your ears burn.  Think of those works as offerings on the altar of their god.  The pathos of their ruin, the betrayal of all affections, the will to embrace even death in their quest, their purpose.  I think I understand.

But my tale is not sordid.  Addiction to the Jesus idea leads to goodness and life. He taught us the service we do to the ‘least of these my brethren’ is the service he desires.  I am supposed to disrobe.  To bend down and wash the feet.  He has set us an example of service. I am to forgive, even as He forgave.  I am to embrace pain and suffering.  Like Him I will forego the mingled gall.  There will be no escape from death, I will embrace that too.  But I will cling in faith to my belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Larry, what idea am I supposed to trade up to?  I can’t figure out this world; I can’t ‘define the universe’ as Justice Kennedy suggests I must.  I can see the limits of science: science is such a narrow way of looking at things – and only the things before us. Is truth limited to what we can experiment on and experience?  Is Nietzsche right?

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m addicted to the idea that I belong to God.  I am afraid to believe otherwise. I am afraid that I might will it to be so and I would be alone and undone.

the comment section

I have noticed over the years that comment sections on blogs and news sites give editors and managers and writers distress.  Website after website has acted to rein in the comments.  The comments evidently are what they are; but not in the mind of the publishers.  They are ‘published’ comments and the particular affected parties can not ignore them; theoretically they could ignore them, practically they can not.

The conversations that develop between posting commenters are hated by the writers and editors. But I observe a freewheeling comment section attracts commenters. It becomes almost like a club with regulars that must spend a good part of many days reading, posting and responding on the site.  They become website stakeholders in attitude.  The ‘real’ stakeholders are made uncomfortable. By analogy: Employers want employees to take ownership in the enterprise.  Employers don’t want employees telling them what to do.

This willybamboo blog, which virtually no one reads, is theoretically available to half the people on the planet.  But writing here is, by analogy, like cooking for one.  Why bother? We humans tend to like to eat together, sharing more than the food, sharing the meal. Writing something no one will read doesn’t excite you the way a ‘like’ or a ‘reply’ does on a ‘real’ website.

The observed, repeated, phenomenon of websites freaking out over their commenters  commenting too much is also why Twitter, Facebook are so popular.  People are much better at speaking than they are listening.  The websites want the reader to ‘listen’ but what the reader really wants to do is respond to what he has heard, (even if he doesn’t listen).

Donald ‘the tweeter’ Trump has got timing.  The inauguration will be the coronation of the ‘facebook age’  where everyone can speak and where no one has to listen:  A man for our time.

This untethered autonomy we have descended into is captured in the catch-phrases: “Not my President”  and “not my congressman.”  We have forgotten; we never did have a congressman, a district has a congressman.  We don’t have a President either, the United States, fifty all together, have a president.  ‘Our representatives’ is not, ‘my representative’ in some personal sense.  F*** Donald Trump, is really F*** the President of the United States. Its really, F*** We The People.

And you can say it so four billion people can hear it – but they, like you, aren’t listening to what you are saying.

This post needs cleaning up – but why bother? No one will read it.

Dendrochronology’s Limitations

Artful Clocks: Dendrochronology’s Limitations 

A  3 September 2015 Yale University press release announced Thomas Crowther, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies had completed a landmark study where he estimated the global number of trees to be three trillion.  Tree count studies have been done before and generally the number was thought to be about 400 billion. Crowther’s study bumped the number up more than sevenfold.

Counting trees is fundamental metrics in the science of forestry. The tremendous discrepancy  between the old count of 400 billion and the new number, three trillion, begs for an explanation.  How could we be so wrong about something so doable as a census, an estimation, of the living trees on earth?  Atmospheric carbon dioxide has been news lately as causing Anthropogenic Global Warming. How could we hope to make sensible estimates about the carbon cycle using such a dramatic undercount of trees?

It is not hard to count trees.  We have lots of practice. You just have to be careful and methodical. You have to do field checking to verify your estimates from satellite imagery.  If you don’t verify, you are just guessing.  You have to be rigorous in correlating the images to appropriate field inventories.  But counting trees is an old trick. Inventorying forests is what foresters do.  It is elemental to the science of forestry. Scientifically, they have been doing it for over one-hundred years.

For those of us who want numbers we can trust, studies like Thomas Crowther’s are unnerving.  If the simplest numbers, concerning the simplest knowables are proven to be not even close.  The totals become a huge caveat about the scientific method itself.

Reproduced below are two excerpts from the 3 September 2015 Yale press release announcing the completion of Crowther’s research: But the total number of trees has plummeted by roughly 46% since the start of human civilization, the study estimates.   …The new study used a combination of approaches to reveal that there are 3.04 trillion trees — roughly 422 trees per person.

Forty-six percent is a guess, not an estimate  Why is it expressed as 46%?  The study has just demonstrated how unreliable scientific tree counts can be.  Now they ask us to believe you can estimate deforestation since the start of Civilization to an accuracy of approximately one percent?   Should we just be thankful they didn’t reduce the the rough estimate of 422 trees per person to the decimal?

Dr. John (Jack) Hoehn’s recently published commentary in Adventist Today, titled Natural Clocks starts off with tree-ring dating; dendrochronology. Dendrochronology is the art of measuring time backwards counting tree rings.

Dr. Hoehn leaves us with the impression that there is nothing very challenging about dendrochronology.  That dendrochronology is simple science. Count the rings, identify the years by shape and size of the growth rings, find similar growth rings in similar wood, even fossilized wood, and a way-back you go. It works like a clock, a natural machine measuring prehistoric time.  Dendrochronologists make the machine work.  But machine isn’t as easy to operate as Dr. Hoehn lets on.

Intra-annual rings form when trees produce two rings in one year. Missing rings occur  when autumnal moisture is lacking and the tree produces no late wood to complete the ring.  Compress one thousand one hundred rings into five inches of wood, as in the bristle-cone pine, and it becomes challenging, to say the least. Yet Dr. Hoehn  confidently gives us YBP (years before present) numbers of 4845 and 5066 for famous Bristle-cone pine trees without ever mentioning in the 1950s, in the earlier days of dendrochronology, one thousand plus-year adjustments were not unheard of in bristle-cone pine tree dating.

Creationists routinely point to the approximate age of Bristle-cone pines coinciding with an approximate biblical chronology for the flood.  Dr. Hoehn thinks  the Bristle-cones are capable of exactly refuting an exact date of 4,000 years (YBP) for the flood.  His is a peculiar, even singular, straw-man argument. There isn’t anything very threatening in dendrochronology to a young earth theory. I’m certain James Ussher himself might warn Dr. Hoehn there are problems when you try to date things too precisely using the bible.

When cross-dating is done right you still have to contend with up to 5% of the rings not matching. Cross-dating fossilized wood is problematic to say the least.  Cross-dating is the vital part of dendrochronology, but it is fraught with errors and guessing.  You can make your research worse than useless if you mess up the cross-dating and it is so easy to do.

None of this is to say dendrochronology is not science.  It is excellent science. As proxies go tree rings are something of a gold standard when it comes to way-back machines.  Dendrochronology works.  …sort of. But the further back you try to measure the more problematical your measurements become, the more prone to error.  Confidence about what we ‘know’ grows less and less robust.  When it comes to metrics, assumptions rule the past.  And when you are assuming, you are not knowing. Assumptions make dendrochronology as much an art as it is a science.

Scientists observe exponentially more in wood than they observe in ice cores.   The verifiable correlations to climate and pollen at the top of an ice sheet are speculative assumptions deeper down.  Too many unknown variables make the deep ice a mystery, not a clock.

Assumptions control the glaciologists’ metrics, and those assumptions consistently impose evolutionary time on their observations.  They see what they expect to see; evolutionary time. Glaciologists cross-dating ice cores is much like astronomers mapping Mar’s canals.  For decades observatories passed back and forth canal maps of the planet Mars.  Everyone saw them, everyone mapped them,  no one disputed the existence of the observed canals.   Then spacecraft observations proved the canals didn’t exist.   I ask the reader to ‘imagine’ what we don’t know about ice cores.

When we assume something is true we behave as if we know something is true.  There is nothing wrong with that. Human beings probably can’t live otherwise.  But humility about how much is being assumed is key to ever truly knowing anything.  Dr. Hoehn’s Natural Clocks are really imaginary clocks. Artful constructs drawn out of man’s imagination.  Confirmation bias is most likely interpreting our observations.  Too often when we know a thing to be true, we always see evidence of that truth no matter where we look.  Dr. Hoehn knows people who look at evidence and see confirmation of their bible-based belief in a young earth are biased by their belief.   Does he know his ‘imaginary’ clocks are also vehicles for confirmation bias for those who ‘know’ the earth is old?


Confirmation Bias


I know about confirmation bias.  I was lost in the mountains in new Hampshire once.  I didn’t realize it. I knew where I was. I had no doubt where I was. Without going into tedious detail I was looking at things and not seeing what was there because I knew where I was so I couldn’t be seeing those things.  It literally made me dizzy when I discovered where I actually was.  My head was spinning.

I immediately recognized the religious application to my lesson in getting lost.  If you ‘know’ something is true you will make all the evidence conform to your bias.  You will be “seeing but you will not see.”  It’s not my mind playing tricks on me.  It was my mind creating a reality out of belief.  Essentially belief made my mind impregnable to the evidence that contradicted my beliefs.

Cu-Lam: Barrier Protection for Wood against Termites

Laboratory Termite Starvation Test:   Confined termites died of starvation before they would penetrate the copper foil barrier.  A suitable wood cellulose food source was available on the other side of the barrier. University of Hawaii, 2009

UH original photo termite test CuLam

13 August 2009

Bill and Ben,

As I indicated to Bill, the 4-week termite test with Copper Care Barrier Wrap has been completed. We tested both intact and seamed laminate, and laminate where the surface had been abraded by intensive scuffing on rough concrete. The abrasions mimicked the sort of minor damage one might expect to occur during a rough installation, but were not deep enough to expose the interior copper layer.

I’ll send a full report early next week. However, in the meantime, I have attached a photo of the disks that we tested at the conclusion of the 4-week termite exposure. In no cases did termites penetrate the intact laminate, the seams, or the abraded laminate. As we have seen with other plastics, if the surface is rough enough for them to grasp it with their mandibles (jaws), they will tear away and consume the plastic; and quite a bit of the abraded laminate surface was further damaged by the termites. However, they were completely stopped by the interior copper layer. Thus, so long as the copper film is intact, the laminate appears to be an effective termite barrier.

Best regards,


J. Kenneth Grace  –   Professor & Chair  

 Dept. of Plant & Environmental – Protection Sciences (PEPS)                    

University of Hawaii at Manoa