Monday, November 22, 2010

Place Holder Title

Probably the biggest problem with The Kolob Theorem by Dr. Lynn M. Hilton is that it is impossible to fully explain in a single blog post why it is wrong. The worst part is that it is written so that it sounds semi-official and it deals with a subject that few people understand, but many people are familiar with, namely Astronomy. This creates a problem because while the author is writing about things that many people have heard about (i.e. stars, the milky way, and black holes etc.) he is making assertions or assumptions about how galaxies, stars and black holes work that most people cannot verify, let alone understand. And it is precisely these assumptions that contain the problem with The Kolob Theorem.

Dr. Hilton is in effect using a Wikipedia understanding of galaxies as the basis of The Kolob Theorem, which means he is writing about things that many people have heard about in 8th grade science class, newspaper articles, magazines and word of mouth. This means that the words he is using (i.e. stars, dust lanes, color (this is an important one), Milky Way, black hole) are words that people have heard and have a colloquial understanding of the definition the words. The problem with this is that it creates a false sense of understanding and an inflated perception of the truthfulness of what he is saying. He does this by having the minor facts correct (yes, the center of the galaxy is in the direction of Sagittarius) but the overall, and arguably more critical facts, he gets wrong, very wrong (such as interpreting the colors in pictures of the Andromeda Galaxy).

The most annoying part of this is that it makes it impossible for someone like me to explain why it is wrong. The only reason why I can read Dr. Hilton's book and immediately recognize what is wrong with it is because I have been studying physics and astronomy for many years. I already have one degree in physics and will have my second within a few months. This means that it has taken me 7+ years of college to get to the level where I can read The Kolob Theorem and immediately recognize it as factually misguided. So don't expect me to be able to explain everything, or even a small part, of what is wrong with The Kolob Theorem in a single blog post. If someone wants to understand exactly what is wrong with The Kolob Theorem, perhaps the easiest way is to get a degree in astronomy (or physics will do) and then it will be easier to understand what is wrong with the theorem, at least from a scientific standpoint.

I have reservations about saying that because my readers my think that I am expressing an elitist view of things, and that I am saying that those who have not "paid the price" should not be allowed to express their views. I sincerely think that this is not the case. I definitely value the opinion and views of experts, while at the same time acknowledging their fallibility as humans, and recognize that in some aspects we have a limited understanding, but this does not in anyway lessen or invalidate my criticism of The Kolob Theorem. What makes Dr. Hilton's book so wrong is that he gives the impression that he is giving an accurate and authoritative view of astronomy when in fact he is not. His many quotes from astronomers, such as Fred Hoyle, give the impression that the astronomy aspect of the book is "correct" and authoritative. As an example of why this is a false impression, taking Fred Hoyle's quote from page 25 of the book, the quote comes from 1955 and at the time it expressed the current understanding of how stars formed in galaxies. But our understanding of astronomy has changed since then and parts of the view as expressed in Fred Hoyle's quote no longer reflects our understanding of star formation. To someone who is not familiar with the field of astronomy, like Dr. Hilton, this important point would be missed. And even by saying this I do not mean that everything Fred Hoyle said is now considered incorrect, just parts of it, and to explain which parts would take an entire blog post.

In the end the thing that kills The Kolob Theorem, from a purely scientific standpoint, is that while Dr. Hilton mixes in a lot of correct factual information, which can easily be verified by consulting any standard undergraduate astronomy textbook, with either outdated, or flat-out incorrect ideas of galactic structure and star formation. Part of this is due to the fact that of the sources used by Dr. Hilton the most recent astronomy source was published in 1982. A lot has changed in astronomy since then. If Dr. Hilton wants some reliable books to learn about galactic dynamics and structure, I would suggest Binney and Tremaine and Binney and Merrifield (two different books) along with Carroll and Ostlie to start. That would get a basic understanding of galaxies and astronomy which would greatly alter the way he views the subject and would show why his theory suffers from so many intractable errors.

As a final note, my assessment of The Kolob Theorem only touches on the astronomical aspects of the theory and in no way addresses the religious aspect. The only errors and failings I have talked about deal with Dr. Hilton's use or understanding of astronomy and not anything dealing with religion or religious interpretation. My purpose in writing this is to point out, to put it bluntly, that his understanding of astronomy is severely lacking and that his use of so much factual astronomical information hides the gaping errors in his reasoning that obfuscate the problems to the point that only someone who has spent several years in research astronomy (and not astronomy as a hobby) could see the failings in his theory. None of the reviews I could find online were written by anyone who had any serious training in astronomy and thus could not comment on the veracity (or lack there of) of the science being presented.

PS: If anyone has any specific questions regarding the astronomy found in Dr. Hilton's book, feel free to contact me or leave a comment with your question and I will try my best to explain it. I realize that that is a rather open ended request for questions so you can also ask me list a few of the specific errors I found particularly egregious in his book. I just won't take the time unless someone actually wants to know.

PPS: To just throw out two things that are problematic; Dr. Hilton's basic concept of galactic structure as shown on page 46 is incorrect (by the way, the Milky Way is probably a barred spiral). And galactic structure is a lot more complex than Dr. Hilton puts forth. This includes: dwarf galaxies, ultra compact dwarfs, barred spirals, ellipticals, mergers, galactic cores etc.

[Original comments]

Cartesian: "I am not a Mormon and I have not heard about this book, but for the galaxies, it seems that it is possible to think that there are different stages in the life of a spiral galaxy and that the different types are these different stages."

EDL: "Admitting at the outset that I am neither a physicist nor an astronomer (I am a Ph.D. psychologist), I nevertheless feel compelled to share two observations that came to mind as I read your critique of Dr. Hilton's book, a book which I have found extremely thought-provoking in terms of its attempt to reconcile the scriptural and astrophysical bases for past and future changes in the earth's state and its orbit within the galaxy. My first observation is this: in graduate school, one quickly learns that there are two ways to gain scholarly recognition---(a) put forth a new theory or paradigm; or (b) disprove an existing theory or paradigm. While both (a) and (b) are essential in the ongoing scientific process, (a) usually requires much more time, effort, and persistence, comparable to that of constructing a building---shovel by shovel, board by board, brick by brick. On the other hand, (b) largely consists of pointing out flaws in the brickwork or the notion that newer materials should have been utilized, etc. Such seems to be the case in your criticism of Hilton's "building." If you truly believe you don't have sufficient blog space to provide a definitive or adequate critique---but just enough space to flash your credentials---then perhaps you should remedy this deficiency in a future blog (or series of blogs if necessary). Otherwise, you are committing a condescending, self-serving injustice: you are discouraging potential readers from discovering a paradigm which, though imperfect, provides the single most cogent attempt thus far for reconciling astrophysics with the references in ancient and modern scripture regarding past and future changes in the earth's state and orbit. 
My second observation is this: what your Hilton critique focuses on, contrasted with what it ignores, is comparable to the city slicker who walks into the Sistine Chapel and proceeds to exclaim, "Just look at these dusty, pitted floors!"---totally oblivious to the breath-taking expanse overhead. While you continue gazing at the floors, I (and many others) will continue gazing at the ceiling. 

Ed Lauritsen"

quantumleap42: "Ed thanks for your comment.

Perhaps I should clarify a few things about what I wrote. Using your building example, my criticisms of Dr. Hilton's book are not merely a cosmetic critique of the building, i.e. I am not concerned about the color or lay of the bricks, but I was expressing my concern of what I saw as a fundamental flaw to the entire argument. At the risk of over extending your analogy (something which is very dangerous) the "dusty, pitted floors" that I am commenting on is an observation of the unstable state of the foundation, which if it were to fail would obviously nullify any grandeur and beauty that the ceiling has to offer.

I would not have offered such a strong criticism if it were not for the fact that I viewed the problems with Dr. Hilton's astronomy to be singularly detrimental to his overall theory. Again I should emphasize that my criticisms are of his presentation of astronomy and have nothing to do with his explanation of our theology. The fatal error comes where he tries to support the theology using astronomy. In my opinion the religious writings of Joseph Smith can stand on their own, and I whole heartedly accept them as truth. So do not mistake any criticism of the astronomy for a criticism of the spiritual.

I strongly commend Dr. Hilton for his courage in attempting to reconcile astronomical understanding with spiritual understanding, but I also wish to point out that it is dangerous to mix true revelation with thinly supported and not well understood scientific understanding. The reason why I was so strident in my criticism was that I did not want anyone to base their testimony or even their understanding of true things (revelation) on an argument that cannot be supported by any scientific consensus. While The Kolob Theorem is certainly "thought-provoking" the danger lies in the direction the thoughts take afterwards.

Because of the great growth of our astronomical understanding I was well aware that at some point the issue of what has been revealed by Joseph Smith would have to be reconciled to what we know through science, but unless the conversation is started in the right direction it will ultimately lead to nowhere. Thus while I am glad that someone started the conversation and wrote "The Kolob Theorem" I am concerned that unless someone pointed out that there were problems with the astronomy then the conversation would continue on in the wrong direction creating problems later on. So my comments should be considered a course correction, and a warning, and not as a desire to kill the conversation."

quantumleap42: "I would also like to add that the reason why I did not try to explain everything that is wrong with the astronomy is because, as I pointed out in the post, I could only understand what was wrong after having taken 7+ years of physics and astronomy classes. That knowledge is surely not something that could be condensed down to a few blog posts, a series of posts, or even a series of blogs. If Dr. Hilton were willing I would like to help him and get him pointed in the right direction with regards to the astronomy. It is much more desirable that this discussion be directed in the correct direction than it is to be ended."

1 comment:

James Tanner said...

First you need title for your post. Second the comment by Ed Lauritsen is not an accurate assessment of an expert evaluation. If you are going to use an expert to either support a theory or oppose a theory, your use of the expert requires that you establish the competency and credentials of the expert before he gives an opinion. In Court that opinion can be that he or she (the expert) has examined the evidence and then expresses his opinion as to its reliability. There is usually no reason for the expert to support his opinion with a point by point analysis. Once the expert expresses his or her opinion the burden shifts to the party offering the evidence to either support the evidence with further testimony or present the opinion of another expert. Ed Lauritsen's objection would be called lack of foundation, in other words, he is asking for more testimony from the expert. But at this point, unless those offering the book as evidence have more to offer, more testimony from the expert (i.e. quantumleap42) may not be necessary. His offer to expand his testimony at any time is enough to support his position presently.