16 January 2023

Falsifiability - are data really necessary?

I used data in the plural in that title because the editors in the US Geological Survey point out that "data" by definition is more than a singular thing... unless it is a "data point." 

For years I was a volunteer and answered questions sent in to the USGS via their "Ask a Geologist" portal. We received questions from elementary school kids, from teens and adults interested in their world, and from some people who were not really asking questions. Sometimes, their "questions" were not questions, but someone spouting their personal theories... One man was certain there were "encased human bodies" on his property caused by the Great Comet of 1811. When asked where he got that information, he referred me to his personal website. Of course. If it can be found on the Internet, it must be true, right? We scientists generally try to respond in a considerate manner, but at the same time we feel that, as scientists, it is always important to keep the record straight. To keep everything anchored in reality.

That particular individual went on to spout additional theories about the Earth's magnetic field - and then inadvertently made an important point that I felt I should reinforce.  This was his final sentence: "if we can do experiments, we can prove which theories are right and which are wrong." 

My reply: Your query to Ask-a-Geologist is clearly not a question, but instead a statement of your personal beliefs.   

As far as I know, a majority of physicists teaching in universities still at least pay lip-service to the idea that any theoretical conclusion must be verified by experiment.  A theory must lead to a hypothesis that can be tested - i.e., it must be a statement or idea that is falsifiable.  Falsifiable is an idea that came from the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994), and means that if tested, a theory is either false or it is correct - but it must be false-or-correct-TESTABLE in the first place. For a little more than a century after the great physicists Faraday and Maxwell published their work, this was for all practical purposes a working definition of "physics."  By the middle of the 20th century, the rather attention-grabbing success of atomic bomb development by physicists led to a golden age in physics, with branches expanding out into plasma physics, solid-state physics (where I come from), cryophysics, biophysics, geophysics, hydrophysics, optics, and other experimental sub-specialties of physics. 

However, for at least 40 years now, a whole generation of theoretical physicists (who now dominate some large university physics departments, and thus control the hiring of younger new faculty) have been attempting to reconcile General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics and the particle physics zoo's Standard Model - by invoking String Theory.  This theory comes in as many flavors as there are physicists, but they all postulate as a common denominator the existence of undetectably tiny strings - and totally untestable extra dimensions.  In an attempt to explain what is generally referred to as the (observed but poorly named) Anthropic Principle, they appeal to a belief in a totally unverifiable and untestable "multiverse": an infinite number of parallel universes, of which we belong to the one populated universe by a sort of Darwinian natural selection.  While mathematically elegant, none of these theories are even remotely grounded in testable reality.  Not only is there no experimental proof of any of this, but these theoretical physicists (if pressed) will admit that their theoretical approaches are unfalsiable.  In other words, they are no longer "doing physics", but instead are indulging in mathematical philosophy. 

This is one reason why I left physics as a profession after a Masters Degree and continued my education in geophysics instead.  If you are interested in pursuing this theory-vs-experiment issue, I would encourage you to read Peter Woit's book "Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law", and/or Lee Smolin's book "The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next", and/or Avi Loeb's book "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth."

Together these books give me peace of mind. There ARE scientists out there based in reality...


06 January 2022

...And You Will Have Knowledge – From FOUR Sources. ALL of them must be verifiable.


ABSTRACT: Eyeballs. Science. News. Revelation/Inspiration, in no particular order.

            However, note that we all must question and verify every source of knowledge. For instance, if you hear someone emphasize the word “unbiased” regarding a public-domain news source, you should become deeply suspicious: why would the purveyors feel they even need to say that? If you hear someone making a distinction between science vs. religion, it is usually prima facie evidence that the speaker doesn’t understand either. Our modern social electronic world is as full of nontruth as our world was a thousand years ago – Surprise! Well, what can we do about this? The short answer is that we should start with what we are reasonably certain of.

            There are really just four distinct sources of knowledge available to all human beings. By knowledge, in this case I mean information that is true. Just like a thousand years ago, all of them, including our own eyes, must be verified – all of them must be “truthed.” That sometimes requires looking for an underlying motivation behind something that seems… off. Seems wrong.



            The first source of information for all of us starting with infancy is our own eyes and our own ears: direct observation. This seems simple, but it is very important for two reasons: First, because we compare or scale all other sources of information against what we are certain we know. And second, because witness rules and procedures in courts of law make it clear that we cannot always rely on eyewitnesses. Or even our eyes. As Richard Pryor said, “Do you believe me – or your stinkin’ eyes?!??” We should at least think about what we saw with our eyes; quite a few innocent men have been executed because of faulty or biased eye-witness reporting. There is a compelling reason why any good scientist takes copious notes of her/his observations – our memories are the weak link here, not our eyes.

            Let’s begin by considering in detail the first source of knowledge: our own personal observation. It is very rare in science to be able to conduct direct observation, believe it or not. If it were easy, the Greeks, Maya, Chinese, and others without instrumentation would have already answered all our scientific questions. Examples include the fact that the Earth is not flat; Greeks by the 5th century BC noticed a curved shadow on the Moon during Lunar eclipses, and even reported an observation of sunlight penetrating to the bottom of a well in Southern Egypt – and noting that it didn’t do this in Greece. Eratosthenes is believed to be the first person to determine the size of the Earth – through measurement – in the 2nd century BC. A century later, Posidonius, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, calculated the circumference of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon. Greek observational science was not perfect, however: even Aristotle, revered for millennia as a brilliant scientist, thought hummingbirds did not have feet. Really.



            Now let’s consider a second source: science. In order to “do” science, we must depend in almost all cases on indirect observation through carefully controlled experiments, and then the use of inductive and deductive reasoning. A rare exception from my personal life: I was in Northern Saudi Arabia after one of the terrible seasonal sandstorms called a Shamaal. There was so much dust in the air that initially we could not even land at the town of ‘Ar-‘Ar – the pilot could not see the ground to land! Many hours later, after waiting at a Saudi military airbase to the west in Tobuk, we returned and started our borehole logging experiments. I was leading this effort to determine if we could indirectly map the huge phosphate deposits in the region using caliper and gamma-ray logging (yes, we can: and I have published the results). Late that first afternoon, I realized that with my unprotected eyes I could see a huge sunspot cluster on the upper left quadrant of the setting Sun. I diagrammed it in my field notebook. I did this again the second day, missed the third day for some reason, but got it again the fourth day. I realized that with direct personal observation – with my own eyes – I could determine the axis of the Sun with respect to where I was standing, and its approximate rotation rate at the Sun's equator. I roughly calculated one rotation to be at least 20 days – it’s actually as little as 24.5 days at the Sun’s equator, and much slower, up to 38 days, at the poles. The axis of rotation of the Sun, looking west from 'Ar-'Ar, Saudi Arabia (about 31 degrees north latitude) is tilted to your right, and the sunspots go from upper left to lower right on the Sun's face. In my internet research, I do not see any evidence that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, or Maya were able to do this. I saw this with my own eyes and recorded it. I know it absolutely to be true.

            For the purposes of the following discussion, you do not need a science degree or even use the word “science” if you are talking about sources of verifiable information guiding you. You could say “knowledge” or “data” or “understanding” when it comes to explaining what you are reasonably certain is correct based on the reliability of the source. I carefully added that qualifier “reasonably” to that sentence – because much “information” available in the public domain is not fact-based. Someone just pulled it out of their ear and yelled loudly about it to get advertising credits. It’s a sleazy business model: to monetize anger. It has also led to the unnecessary deaths of many mentally susceptible people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

            Elsewhere I have made a separate distinction between truth, and Truth – the latter with a capital “T” – to distinguish between information that is ephemeral, and information that will not be revised in the future but is always that same information. The Sun will rise tomorrow, for instance, though you may not see it. Also, the nature or existence of God is something that should be unchanging, essentially by definition. It really should not be something that changes with temporary human fashion or culture or group opinion-swings. Fundamentally, if there is a Creator God, and He isn’t just a Transcendent God but an Imminent God who cares about His creations, then He should, by definition, be far beyond our comprehension. Similarly, the detailed evolution of the universe around us is permanently beyond our comprehension, though as scientists we get tiny, enthralling glimpses of it. We just do not have the wherewithal in the way of synapses to encompass a full understanding of either. To suppose otherwise is an incredibly arrogant assumption that implies that we are equivalent to God or the Universe.

            I will here also make a distinction here between short-term correct information (for instance, a weather report) and long-term correct information. The latter I will call Important Information. By this I mean long-term things, things that you would consider or think about if you or a loved one are/is approaching the end of life, for instance. Weather reports are an important source of useful information that we often consider as we go about our daily lives. My wife and I drove through a Sky River on November 12, 2021 – we had not checked the weather reports – and it was terrifying. The time scale is important here, however. On November 9, 2021, there were gale warnings for Port Townsend, WA, which we were visiting. The next day it was calm and sunny in Port Townsend. However, a weather report is well below the threshold of Important Information in terms of what is meaningful ten years from now – or 100 years from now. Is something important to you – or even relevant – 100 years from now? If so, then it fits in the category of Important Information.

            Let’s continue to consider science as a source of information to help guide our decisions, and improve our lives. In science we acquire data, but we must also process and interpret it – data generally don’t explain themselves to the non-specialist – and then report our findings. As scientists, we think through our research results carefully, and then decide what it means. I’ve published over 300 books, maps, and scientific papers while working as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey – and they all must go through technical review. This means that at least two other people – whom I do not choose – must read through my draft papers and vet them for consistency and correct logic. A science manager then reads through all the reviews and the revised draft to make sure that the final result is true. Do cigarettes improve your digestion after a big meal? That was the public consensus until 1965. By then however, enough data had been gathered to make a reliable interpretation that no, the cigarette company ads were incorrect at best. By 1965 science knew that any benefits beyond addiction-management were outweighed by the irreparable damage that cigarettes did to your lungs, your heart, your face, and your brain.

            But for scientific data to be reliable, you must first ascertain that you have enough of it to even make a judgement or interpretation in the first place. In science, this is called the sampling number, or “n” in an experimental investigation. A single experiment with a binary outcome (for instance just a yes or no) on a single parameter is not science. One of my uncles chain-smoked for 85 years and lived to the age of 97. That’s just a single data-point in a nicotine-benefits study. The second-hand smoke gave his mother-in-law, my grandmother, terminal lung cancer by age 88, however. These are just TWO data-points, and there are a lot of additional unseen variables.

            You need a large enough “n” to even carry out a reasonable statistical analysis of the data you acquire. A state-level cancer dataset would qualify. Which state has the lowest numbers of cancer deaths overall, for instance? Would you be surprised to learn that it is Utah (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/cancer_mortality/cancer.htm)? Then can you suggest why? This raises an even more fundamental issue, however: is something even testable or “experimentable” in the first place? The philosopher Carl Popper (1902-1994) gave to the world the concept of “falsifiability”: can something even be tested in the first place? The existence of a God, the existence of a multiverse, what preceded the Big Bang, why is the Anthropic Principle… these are not things that can be tested in the ordinary meaning of a scientific investigation. These belong in another domain sometimes called meta philosophy: sort of thinking about philosophy. They are just big ideas that make us feel warmly smug that we can think about them, but otherwise (unless there is an application) they are useless to humans and their well-being. These things constitute Important Information, but science cannot help us here.

            The concepts of a large enough sample (that “n” number), along with falsifiability, are profoundly important. But there is another almost hidden issue: any large number of data points will always include noise: systemic noise, random noise, instrumental noise, as well as experimental design biases. There is no such thing as a perfect experimental approach, no matter what some NSF grant proposal might assert. In a simplest case example, let’s consider a single variable set, for instance adult height vs. weight. In simplest form, this can be represented as y = a + b*x. The variable “a” is how much one weighs when X (one’s height) is zero – and is just included for general completeness here. One would think that the result would be a straight (upward-tilting) line, but we’ve all seen skinny and obese individuals, so it’s more complicated than that. Data points collected can easily be scattered all over an X-Y graph. If you have sufficient data, there will be data points that are “outliers” – well off the beaten path of what we think might be reasonable results. This could be a morbidly obese individual or someone suffering from anorexia. If there are enough sample points, we can do a quick statistical analysis and determine if a suspicious point is more than, say, two standard deviations away from the average trend of the rest of the data. Some immature scientists might even just discard a data point that they don’t “like” – but this becomes “cherry picking” and is no longer science. That scientist has introduced a new variable – personal sampling bias – into the data analysis.

            We can arbitrarily decide to throw out data points on a graph that lie more than two standard deviations away from the rest of the data… but this is an arbitrary decision also. Why not one standard deviation? Or three? Depending on how we carry out one of these arbitrary data-discard exercises, a “regression” – drawing a line (generally but not necessarily straight) through the data-points on that simplest X-Y graph – could tilt the function curve upwards (increasing weight with increasing height) or downwards (decreasing weight with increasing height). In this example (see figure 1) I am only talking about a very simple, two-variable system. You can represent it on a 2D graph, on a single piece of paper.

            Another simple example from our recent trip to the Hoh Rainforest: How many seagulls show up if I throw crackers out into a parking lot in Forks, WA? This seems like an example of a simple scientific experiment. Or is it? Perhaps the final greatest problem with any scientific experiment is to isolate variablesDependent variables are the nightmare of any scientific study. Toss out too many crackers and all sorts of birds (and perhaps squirrels) will show up, for instance. Throwing out just saltine crackers only, where a Western Gull only is likely to see it, is a personal experimental design bias in the form of several assumptions that may not be justified. Are there crows or scrub jays around? How would I even know that since they generally don’t want to be seen? These are examples of hidden, or missed, or dependent variables. When there is a lot of “scatter” in experimental data it almost always means that there are additional variables or biases affecting our data – complicating things that we may not even realize are there. Gravity, or wind, perhaps in this case. Different bird types that we do not see, perhaps. Some weirdness or blind spot in our data-collection system, or our electronic recording devices, or the species of surrounding trees, even. A more accurate solution could be a 4-D (or 19-D) graph (figure 1).

            Related to this is the issue of accuracy vs. precision. If I keep shooting arrows at a target and they consistently land around a single point on the ground, well, I have precision here. If they end up consistently in the center of the target, then this is accuracy. Precision or repeatability in measurements or data-gathering does not lead to Important Information, because the results may not be correct. The trick, then, is to assess accuracy.

Figure 1. Regression analysis involves fitting a straight line (or sometimes a simple curved function) to a scatterplot of data. One or two noisy data-points can dramatically shift the result. Image from Gonick & Smith (1993), "The cartoon guide to Statistics" Collins Reference.


            All of this is a long way around saying that science is always imperfect, just like news (see figure 2). Science is a growing, organic thing, very dependent on human or data-gathering limitations, and biases. Science must be constantly tested, self-checked, and compared against older data – and technically reviewed. Those who worship science as the be-all, end-all of creation, do so at great personal risk. This actually has a name: it’s called Scientism. Another way of putting this: you think you’re smarter than the universe.

            As an example of how this imperfect scientific process might affect our very lives and health, consider the science we all saw unfolding in how to deal with the SARS-COV-19 virus in 2020-2021. The virus in its many manifestations, social contexts and variables including different spike proteins, social isolation, age, health, and the wealth of human victims is an experimental scientific nightmare. Stopping the Pandemic so far still seems so… incomplete... after nearly two years of evolving and expensive medical and governmental responses to it. Grotesquely amateur political interference made things worse, of course, but the nature of science is that there are always too many variables and internal biases to realistically take them all into account.

            In a way, the progression of data-gathering, and the evolving analyses we’ve seen during the Covid-19 Pandemic are characteristic of the very nature of good science: it is a growing, evolving thing. It is being conducted by very fallible human beings but keeps getting better. Science is approaching the Correct Answer(s), and every month the recommendations are more reliable, more useful. Masks? Different vaccines? Boosters? Lockdowns? Confronting self-serving, deliberate misinformation? These changing issues are just science happening in public view, self-correcting (ideally) and advancing in the right direction (hopefully). To make the assumption that an early interpretation of that data must never change is unrealistic – and profoundly uninformed. Science approaches truth as a final product. Except in very limited and simple systems, it never actually quite gets there. It’s far better than rabid, uninformed opinion, however. It’s like the famous Winston Churchill quote:

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”  – Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947



            Let’s next consider sources of publicly available knowledge – the hope here is that all the research has already been done for usLet’s start with, ahem, “news.” Many consider the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal to be reliable sources of information. There are some people who prefer Fox or InfoWars or MSNBC or the Daily Kos as their source of information because it complements something that they already believe to be true or correct (usually of a political nature). In logic, this is called a “confirmation bias.” In some cases, it is the akin to pouring gasoline on a dangerous fire.

            The Pew Charitable Trust finances studies on polling and biases. It has had an unbiased reputation itself for decades because it is in their mission statement to avoid bias. Ad Fontes (“to the source”) is related and does the same. They are both careful in their assessments, and deliberately apolitical. Pew ranks the NYTimes and the Associated Press as sources of reliable facts and information. It considers Fox News, and especially InfoWars and the Daily Kos, to be well outside of a green box (below) surrounding what Pew considers reliable sources of data, and far to the right or left politically. In other words, Fox, InfoWars, and the Daily Kos are not sources of reliable information according to Pew, but sources of wildly skewed opinion that is generally not fact-based. Fox TV personalities, for instance, rail against vaccines on air. Yet it is established fact that every one of them is vaccinated. There are sources on both ends of the political spectrum that Pew and Ad Fontes consider to be unreliable (figure 2).

Figure 2. Ranking of news sources according to political bias and reliability. The green box is the place to trust. The orange, and especially the red boxes, include sources to avoid if truth is important to you. Image from Ad Fontes Media, Inc. (2018).


            In general, we should carefully avoid basing major life decisions (like vaccination) on anything political and/or not fact-based – on sources outside the Green Box in the figure above.



            Now let’s take a significant jump and consider a fourth source of information: revelation. Another way to say this: otherwise-unexplainable information from a completely outside source, a Source we may already realize is committed to not violating our personal agency so usually doesn’t explain itself. We all know examples of people who somehow “know” something important without an obvious reason why. In one type of example, we even have a name for this: a mother’s intuition. My own mother once put my baby sister in a highchair out in the backyard of our house. She wanted Barb to get fresh air and sunlight (before UVA/UVB was understood to contribute to skin cancers). Suddenly (I remember this) she rushed out of the house. She said later that she had a “bad feeling” about the baby being out there but didn’t understand why. As she picked up the baby and started to dismantle the highchair to bring it back inside, she saw something move on the underside of the table part: a huge black widow spider. It had been within centimeters of my little sister’s legs.

            Unexplainable, outside source, un-asked-for information.

Two Different Depths

            An analysis of revelation as a source of Important Information must be done at two separate depths or scales: personal revelation, and revelation at a much larger scale: from someone we implicitly or explicitly trust. This could be a parent, a teacher, a prophet (ancient or modern). If you are paying tithing, it strongly implies a belief and acceptance in a prophet or leader of a church as a reliable source of truthful information and guidance. I personally know people who fiercely object to vaccines and masks, though they claim to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ and say that they follow its prophet. If you don’t agree with that leader on, say, vaccination or masks, and you still pay tithing and attend that Church, then you are suffering a serious rational disconnect in your life. This is the equivalent of gross hypocrisy in conversation – or even schizophrenia. What else don’t you agree with him on?

Reading Scriptures & Prayer

            Perhaps the most consistent way to receive personal revelation is by reading the scriptures, and in personal prayer. It’s unsurprising that prophets for millennia have encourage the human family to study the scriptures available to it. There is a downside to this approach, however: the revelation you want may not be the revelation you get. If you do as modern prophets have suggested – “search the scriptures” – instead of just reading them from start to finish, you may be able to improve the efficiency of the want/get convergence here. Of course, if you have not read the Standard Works through a few times already, you won’t really have any idea what to even search for, Topical Guide notwithstanding.


            There is another issue here that is perhaps the most important of all: being in tune. In short, worthiness is critical. Years ago, I worked with Venezuelan geology teams in the deep jungle of the Amazonas Territory (now Amazonas State). It was incredibly dangerous, where things like Bushmaster snakes were the least of our worries. One Venezuelan friend fell on his machete and sliced open his right radial artery. The USGS geologist that I had assigned to work with Henry said he saw a 2-meter spurt of arterial blood shooting out. He managed to stop the bleeding and together they called for an emergency medevac on their HF camp radio. There was someone listening on the frequency we used, and that someone called for a rescue helicopter. Henry Sanchez lost perhaps a third of his blood (he went into shock if he wasn’t upside down in the aircraft) but he lives in Tucson today. Another American scientist working in a different jungle camp came back to our base a week later and told me that they could listen to the rescue, but that their radio could not transmit. Gary had no idea that Henry had even survived. This is a long way of saying that you need a means to communicate that works in both directions, you need to have someone listeningboth ways, and you need to be using the right frequency.

            In the radio world there is a lot of information floating out there. You must tune into the transmission you seek. If you are not in tune with the Holy Ghost, because you are living a lifestyle dissonant with Him, then you can’t really expect that He will be terribly encouraged to even deal with you. You are not working on the same frequency. You cannot just yell “SAVE ME!” Or perhaps say, “I really like that flashy car – I need it. What? Well, no, I don’t have money – I don’t even have a job! You, God (somehow) owe it to me.” This sort of discordant thinking almost never works, the Prodigal Son being a notable (and for many of us, encouraging) exception.


            You must also consider the data reliability issue for personal revelation, just like in science, news, and even personal observation. Revelation must be testable, and this part can be frustrating because the process takes a long time to verify. Here there is yet another advantage to arriving at an advanced age. If you have received “understandings” (or whatever you wish to call them), and they are self-consistent and pan out over time, then you will have steadily increasing confidence in those understandings – revelations – if they arrive the same way. You have a growing database, so to speak. This often means in my personal experience that you are not thinking about the subject when the understanding arrives. With age, you will begin to note that the understanding or revelation does not even come into your mind in English or whatever language you tend to think in… but arrives as an instantaneous understanding. More commonly, the understanding is just a peaceful feeling in the midst of a personal disaster or general chaos. This even has a specific name: “The peace that surpasseth understanding.” I first experienced this after I had passed the written physics qualification exam at the University of Illinois, an exam to decide if you could go on to work on a PhD. That year, however (1970) there were over 1,500 graduating physics PhDs – and available jobs for just 236 of them in the United States. It’s amazing how I can still remember those specific numbers, many years later. The University of Illinois had decided to drastically cut back on their physics graduate student population: the post-atomic-bomb era was officially over: the country no longer needed hundreds of thousands of physics PhD’s. So, the Physics department that year added an oral component to the Quals, as we called them. This I failed miserably, meaning that I could not stay at the university beyond that semester. I faced a real personal disaster that also affected my wife, who had a year to go to finish her BA degree. As we stared into the sunset through the window of our little apartment, however, I had an incredible feeling of peace, of not-to-worry. This, I now realize, comes from the Atonement. Peace that mitigates suffering. That sense of peace is always remarkably devoid of details – it “…surpasseth understanding.” In other words, it usually makes no logical sense. Only four years later did I finally understood that sense of peace.

            It works. It’s very real. I’ve experienced it many times.

            Less commonly, a revelatory understanding arrives with very specific information. In another personal example, which happened on June 7, 1995, the message to me arrived at the most comically illogical time. It came in the middle of a contentious meeting between the Saudi Deputy Ministry for Mineral Resources, the US Geological Survey, and the French counterpart of the USGS in Jeddah called the Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières. Angry words were being exchanged and I was just keeping my head low to avoid being drawn into what I had earlier realized was just another example of Saudi paranoia… but which my French colleagues had yet to realize was not even a rational discussion. Suddenly, a diamond-hard, instantaneous understanding hit me. The message: “The time to leave Saudi Arabia is in October – Do not worry about this. This is in answer to your prayers for the past 18 months concerning your wife’s declining health.” When this bright and very sharp understanding arrived, I nearly fell out of my tilted-back chair.

            I walked home and unpacked that understanding, converting it to English to share with my wife. To us it made no sense initially… because our children would normally start school in August. This particular revelation arrived four months before our departure from the Magic Kingdom, as we called it. Months later we realized that the specific timing saved me from a Reduction in Force in the US Geological Survey… that took place with almost no warning in August 1995. It also meant that one son could finish his senior year in his Swiss boarding school, and not in a Virginia high school where he knew no one. He ended up totally fluent in French as a result. Five hours after that revelation arrived, I learned that the Saudi Deputy Minister had sent an order down through the chain of command: “Order Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.” From the context, I realized that the Mutawa, the Saudi religious police, had been following us to our at-that-time-illegal Church house-meetings on Fridays.

            This was actually part of a larger Kabuki Theater exercise where an Assistant Deputy Minister was trying to mess with the mind of the Deputy Minister – whose job he wanted. However, that Deputy Minister was not stupid, and had already anticipated that his deputy would trigger a mass arrest of the LDS people in Jeddah at that time. This would have meant that half our Jeddah Ward population – Filipino brothers and sisters – would have been beaten and then deported with a massive loss of an annual income. However, with five hours of warning, I was prepared. When I got the Stop Practicing Your Religion message, I immediately offered my resignation from the USGS mission to Saudi Arabia… and requested reassignment to my former job in the United States. About 40% of the USGS Geologic Division was RIF’d in August 1995, and I returned in October.

            To recap the revelatory patterns: revelation usually but not always arrives unbidden, though you may have been thinking and praying about the subject off and on for months or even years beforehand. It arrives sometimes as a profoundly peaceful feeling that makes absolutely no sense considering the circumstances. Sometimes it arrives as a sharp, clear, instantaneous Understanding that must be unpacked and converted to English in order to share it with others.

            When you find yourself suffering through one of the many Bad Times in your life, be prepared: sometimes it takes 2 – 4 years to even see the Light at the End of the Tunnel. Pain and sadness don’t turn off like a faucet with a magical prayer. I got my PhD in Geosciences with an Electrical Engineer as a thesis advisor four years after failing the physics oral qualifying exam in Illinois. It was in a different field (I became a geologist, geophysicist, hydrologist and oceanographer, with publications in astrophysics and archaeology). It opened up huge opportunities for my family – they have all lived in multiple countries on diplomatic passports and are all multi-lingual.

            Sometimes revelation arrives in response to prayers about how to fulfill an aspect of a Church calling – it usually arrives as a quiet, clear idea about what to do. When this fourth and most common revelation happens, it almost always arrives for me, at least, as a clear understanding before I can even kneel down to pray for help… and I generally smile, get down on my knees anyway, and just say thanks.

            Thus, knowledge comes to us, imperfect human beings, in at least four different ways, with many variants and complexities in each of the ways or sources. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are probably as many variants as we are each different people. Note, however, that if we don’t make a sincere effort to verify – truth out – our sources of knowledge, we run the risk of making life-changing decisions based on incorrect information, decisions that we may regret.

            If not done carefully, we could regret those decisions forever.

           Not included in this list of The Big Four are two other means that humans have used to gather knowledge: Philosophy and History. I have deliberately put these at the last for a crucial reason: neither can be rigorously tested, knowledge derived from either cannot truly be falsified. However, philosophy is crucial for a number of reasons, including teaching us as humans how to think rationally. We cannot "do" science if we cannot use rigorous logic in experimental design, inference, or deduction. History, for a different reason, also cannot be tested - our sources are always at least secondary and cannot be easily evaluated even with video or audio verification - the past is irredeemably gone, unreachable, and un-testable. Even with video and audio recordings it is an Interpreter's game. Nevertheless, history holds scientists to an honesty standard. Without the history of science we can fall into that oldest fault-think: that we are at the top of the game, that we represent the ultimate success, and that we are perfectly and finally correct. History makes it abundantly clear that science is a very human, evolving thing - never perfect, but always getting better 
Philosophy and history thus enforce humility. 
From these six, then, all human wisdom stems... 

22 February 2021

There is Always Someone Smarter – Some Lessons on Self-Comparison


The IQ Test

            As a 12-year-old living in Bakersfield California, I was sent by my Catholic mother to Garces Junior High. Unbeknownst to my parents, the administrators gave all incoming young men an IQ test. There was not room for all 80+ of us in one classroom, so it was made clear to us that the “dummies” would be sent to the “other” classroom. Those of us not included in that group were initially organized in seating according to the IQ results. There were six rows with seven desk-chairs in each. I was initially ranked #2. I didn’t know much, but thought this was sort of cool. The one guy with the same or higher score was named Kenny Larkin, and we became friends. Like me, he hated sports. Unlike him, however, I could outrun everyone else among all 80 young men – except one. This was because as a poor kid I had only a broken-down bike to get from home to school and back. The whole way home, every day, was uphill. And the bike only had a 3rd gear – so I had over-developed leg muscles.

            We were strictly segregated at Garces from the young women, who were taught by another monastic group, this one comprised of black-veiled nuns. We rarely saw any of the girls, and only at a distance. The Christian Brothers were a non-priestly monastic organization running the boys’ side of the school. My mom and stepfather were shocked to learn from me about several horrifically savage beatings* that Brother Gerald and Brother Remy inflicted on us boys. Mindful of this, and of that IQ test, my new stepfather cajoled my Mom over a year and a half into letting me attend a public high school, Bakersfield High. He knew this school also had a nascent version of AP classes called the “0.5 program.” Every class was numbered, like English 9.4 for freshman college prep, English 9.3 for kids expected to go into business or auto-mechanics, and English 9.1 for special ed. English 9.5 was the much harder class intended for the smarties in the school. I learned it was designed to encourage talent. It is the reason I ended up attending the University of California at Berkeley and, ultimately, earning a PhD. 

* My best friend in elementary and junior high was Marcus Espitia, whose father was Mexican and whose mother was African American. We had defended each other against bullies in Saint Joseph elementary school for years, and started Garces together. One day in seventh grade Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in front of the class, declining Latin nouns out loud from a book he held. Brother Gerald was a huge man – 240 lbs./110 kg. My friend Marcus had lifted the lid of his desk above where his books were kept, blocking Brother Gerald’s view. From there he was shooting spitballs at the guy sitting across the aisle from him. I watched as Brother Gerald slipped down into that aisle without changing his monotonous repetition. Suddenly he leaned hard on the top of Marcus’ desk, trapping his head inside the desk, cutting off his air. I can still vividly recall Marcus’ arms and legs thrashing around, his head locked in the desk as he tried to free it. Then – still intoning the Latin – Brother Gerald lifted the lid with the hand holding the book, and with his open right hand hit Marcus in the side of the face so hard it physically lifted him out of his seat. Marcus hit the adjacent wall, then slid to the ground, stunned. Still droning on, Brother Gerald proceeded to pick up each book in the desk and throw it – as hard as he could – at Marcus’s face. One. Two. Three. Four. Marcus finally got up off the floor and ran to the door to escape… with books bouncing off him several times before he reached it and exited. Brother Gerald then strolled back to the front of the class and continued reading out the Latin declinations to us – without any vocal interruption through this entire process.

            We all just sat there, frozen in our seats.

            Through much of the rest of my life, however, I wondered about what this IQ partitioning did to all of those boys mentally? Especially, what did it do to those left in the “dummies” class?


“Old 160”

            Fast forward a decade and a half. I had a PhD and was traveling for work with the US Geological Survey. I’d just finished a training course in science management in Monterey, CA, and on my way home to my family in Virginia I stopped in Long Beach to see my sister. Barb had arranged for a float plane to pick me up and take me to Santa Catalina Island off the coast. She was on a 32-ft sailboat with her boyfriend, surnamed Rogers. My mother had warned me that “Rog” was a successful attorney and proud of the fact that his IQ was tested at 160. He boasted of this frequently enough that Mom referred to him as “Old 160.” The amphibious plane landed in Catalina Harbor and Barb met me at the dock. She took me and my suitcase to an inflatable Zodiac and drove me out to the sailboat. For the next two days we motored around the island while Barb and Rog dived for “bugs” – illegally harvested lobsters. My job was to stand at the side of the boat to receive the grab-bag as they would bring one up every so often. We raised sails only for the traverse back to Santa Barbara at the end of the trip. Rog seemed to be probing me – and watching me closely – the entire time; I sensed a weird vibe but didn’t know what to do about it except answer his questions. I later gathered two things from Barb: (1) She and Rog had already decided to part company as a couple, and (2) Rog had somehow gotten the impression that I was super smart. A PhD does seem to fool some people. He also understood that I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ – and he had difficulty reconciling these things. Finally, as we were docking back in Santa Barbara, Rog looked over to me and said this: “Jeff, I admire you. In 30 years, I will be a lonely alcoholic, surviving until I die on this very boat – if I’m lucky. You, on the other hand, will be happy and surrounded by grandchildren.”

            The lesson here seems obvious to me, as it was to Rog.


3-D Chess

            My first three years in the US Geological Survey were spent in the Denver field office. I was part of three geophysics branches of the USGS, all centered in rented office space on Colfax Avenue. I was the last young PhD hired in a huge hiring spurt that lasted from 1971 to 1975. One of those other newly minted PhDs I will call Gary. Gary was super smart, and made sure that everyone knew it. After three years in Denver, I was invited to move to the USGS National Center in northern Virginia, to become a deputy science office chief. This apparently led several of my former colleagues to feel jealous. (I was naïve enough that I didn’t learn this until later.) Once, while I was back in Denver for a technical meeting, Gary invited me over to his house for dinner, and I accepted. As soon as dinner was over, he pulled out an interesting game – a 3-D form of chess. Gary’s wife immediately started to complain to him about mistreating his guest (this must have happened before). The game had multiple vertical levels and different pieces than traditional chess, with different movement rules – which he quickly explained to me, the novice. One could move a piece horizontally, vertically, and on diagonals. “Let’s play,” said Gary. His wife again told him that this was inappropriate, but Gary insisted. After about 30 minutes, I said “I think that’s checkmate.” Gary stared at the boards for almost 20 seconds. Then he stared at me, without saying a word. I felt increasingly uncomfortable, and suggested that I should leave because I had an early technical meeting the next morning. Gary, wordlessly but still staring at me, just walked me to the door. I was never invited to dinner there again. I learned later that he and his wife divorced soon after.

            But here’s the thing: I’m not smart enough to beat anyone at chess. My high-school best friend once beat me at chess 24 games in a row. However, this time I had help in the form of inspiration, guidance that I listened to and followed. After no contact for ~20 years I learned that Gary had retired because he had developed Parkinson’s Disease. I called to express my concern and sympathy, and we talked for a long while. Our earlier friendship was renewed with just that call. Gary was a humbler person, and I hope I was also.


“This Man is GUILELESS!

            In 2002 I received two phone calls at my office in the USGS National Center. By this time, I had returned from two mission chief assignments in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Both calls were from colleagues to notify me that the position for chief scientist for volcano hazards had opened up. “You should apply for this,” both told me. I talked with Louise, who was working on Capitol Hill at the time, and whose work-week-with-commute was 63 hours (we counted them). “By all means,” she said. It would require relocating to the Pacific Northwest, but we had visited Washington State during our obligatory, State-Department-required Home Leave from Saudi Arabia years earlier – and we both loved it. I applied… and then forgot about it. Two months later the selecting official suddenly called, said he was in Reston, and wanted to interview me. What I thought would be a 15-minute conversation lasted more than two hours. He said that quite a few people had applied, and the list had been whittled down to just three short-list applicants. A week later I got a call telling me that I was selected. I called Louise. “By all means,” she answered. There followed a horrific six weeks, where I had to wind down four separate research projects, pack up an office and a laboratory, prepare and sell our house in Virginia, find a house in Washington, and move with one of our sons and several birds across the continent… while the DC Shooter was still at large. (He was caught, just 7 miles from our daughter’s house, when we were passing through Indiana.)

            There were two other applicants for that job, however. One was selected later for another management position in Denver. The other had been the chief of a science team in the National Center, but had left that position under mysterious circumstances. He was later selected to be the volcano program coordinator. One of my senior scientists, who knew him well, remarked that this new program coordinator was the smartest man he (Carl) had ever encountered. At the time the USGS was experimenting with a misbegotten thing called “matrix management.” In this system I had line authority over about 120 scientists and support staff – but the program coordinator held the purse-strings, and had a say in how the financial allocations were spent. The Golden Rule is “Him what got the gold, rules.” Initially we worked together equably enough, but he apparently decided that I didn’t have enough smarts for the chief scientist job. He decided this because I would not follow Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as my guiding management philosophy. I’m not joking here – that really was the issue.

            So… why had I been selected over him for the chief scientist position? He began to try to manage behind my back, confusing the heck out of everyone in my office. I confronted him several times, and he would back off with some excuse like “I’m just trying to help you!” I tried hard to think the best of him, and went out of my way to be open with all my information. At one program council meeting I passed something to him privately. He stared at me, then turning to the rest of the people present said in a loud voice and with a nasty smile, “This man is guileless!” He did not mean it as a compliment. As I thought about this, however, I concluded that I would not want to be any other kind of man. Machiavellian game-playing at other people’s expense is not something I would ever want for my legacy. To do nasty things – like force people into directed reassignment moves to drive them out of the USGS just to make a point – was something he recommended. “If they don’t fear you, they won’t obey you,” he told me several times. I’m not making this up.

            Eventually I talked with my own senior executive supervisor, as this was causing increasingly serious confusion among my staff. They were getting orders from the program coordinator to stop whatever they were doing, and do a task for him… without bothering to notify either me or my subordinate scientists-in-charge. I was surprised to learn that my senior executive manager knew all sorts of interesting things about this program coordinator – like, why he had been forced out of that chief scientist job earlier. Eventually, with the intervention of several senior executive managers, rules governing and limiting the program coordinator’s behavior were written and signed – to his transparent chagrin. Interestingly, and only surprising because it took so long, a few years later the USGS abandoned matrix management as “unworkable.”

            The program coordinator by this time found himself “glass-ceilinged” – he had been forced out as a chief scientist by misbehavior once before, and now was being spanked by senior executives again. He was fearful of rotating back to a scientist position, certain that people he had abused before would want to get even with him. (He was right – I got quite an earful after he left.) The man left the USGS for a dean position at a small distant university. On the last day we were together, he sat across from me at the conference table in my office to discuss some funding issue. As he was preparing to leave, I mentioned to him that I was resigning my chief scientist position and returning to research; I didn’t say why. We both knew that my job was a rotational management position, and that I had done my five years of 55-84-hour weeks; Louise had repeatedly suggested to me that I might want to consider getting a life for a change. He stared at me for a full half-minute, trying to fathom what I meant by this – what was the strategic move I was pulling here? Finally, as someone who had coveted my position for five years, and thinking I was somehow "gaming" him, he ground out, “Why are you telling me this?” I responded, “Professional courtesy, I suppose.” He stared at me icily for another very long time, then without another word put his notepad in his briefcase and walked out. I never saw him again.

            This man was extremely intelligent. But he based his personal management style, the way he dealt with other human beings, on all the wrong principles. I won the years-long management fight with him, but not because I was smarter than he was. Many people had ferociously negative opinions of him as a manager and as a human being. I just happened to be the last one in a long line of people he had tried (and often succeeded) to hurt.


Where is this Going?

            Several times during my initial years with the USGS, Louise’s brother told her I must be secretly working for the CIA, because, he said, a job requiring me to travel all over Saudi Arabia, Europe, the Far East, Australia, and South America – was the perfect cover for a spy. When other people have asked me if I’m a spy, I’ve just said no. Because I’ve never been one.

            There is some reasonable basis for this thought, however. Once in Saudi Arabia a non-descript man walked into my office, flashed his US Consulate badge at me, and asked if he could ask me some questions. “Sure,” I said.

            “We have heard rumors that there was a gun-battle in Hail, in the central Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues and I cannot find meaningful information about this, but we are aware that you travel all over the country for your work. Have you heard anything?” In fact, I had – two of my staff who came from Hail told me that the ‘Amir’s office there was abandoned and covered with bullet holes. He took notes and thanked me – and did not leave a business card.

            Something like this happened to me when I first got to Venezuela. The ambassador at the time told me that a person on his staff wanted to talk to me. Again, a very nondescript individual came into the ambassador’s office. He said that he understood that I would be traveling all over Venezuela in my job as USGS mission chief, leading the mapping project for the jungle-covered, roadless southern half of the country. He reminded me that there are "alcabalas" – Guardia Nacional checkpoints – on all roads between major cities in Venezuela. As diplomats, they did not have paperwork that would get them through those checkpoints. One had to have a reason to pass through them, especially a non-Venezuelan. “Yes, this is correct,” I replied. “Would you please take photos of roads and bridges and checkpoints in your travels, and share them with us?” he asked. I stared at him. Sure, I thought – poison the trust that our host agency, the C.V.G., had for the US Geological Survey? Huh. No, I said. And, BTW, I never saw that man again. He was not a bad man, of course – just trying to do a job.

            A year later, after we had seen several deaths up-close in both Puerto Ordaz and the jungle, as well as having had a number of close calls, a USGS colleague in the USGS National Center sent down several programable “Fly-Away” HF radio transceivers. I had no idea at that time how to use them. I asked around in the embassy in Caracas, where I picked the units up (Venezuelan postal service being so corrupt) and was told to go to the offices of the “Political Section.” However, it was made clear to me that I should go the Political Section offices on the sixth floor, not the fifth floor (which is behind a gold-leaf-lettered, fancy glass door). The Economics Section that I was vetted to (I was a formal State Department employee with Ambassador-grade of FS-12 during the three years I was there) was on the fourth floor, and the Commerce Section was in the third. I took the elevator to the sixth floor, and when it opened, I found myself facing only a blank wall with a steel door in it. The door handle had a cipher lock. A man came out, said he understood I needed some help with a radio, and took me downstairs to the secluded little park on the embassy grounds. After looking around carefully, he showed me how to set up an HF antenna, and how to program a frequency into the 25-kg radio. He then gave me a small, torn piece of paper, with a 10-meter-band frequency penciled in on it, and told me to call him at that frequency when I got home. I flew home to Puerto Ordaz, 700 km away, and set up the radio on my apartment terrace. I called the frequency he had given me, and he answered. “Okay, it works. Please lose that piece of paper now. Good luck in the jungle.” And then he hung up. I never learned his name. He took a personal risk to help another human being who was at serious risk working in the jungle.

            So, OK, I’m not CIA, as I’ll tell anyone. However, I do not tell anyone (except Louise) what my IQ is. I got that number from a high school counselor’s folder with my name on it as she discussed potential scholarships with me. I’ve given lectures at annual MENSA meetings, but no, I am not a member of MENSA. And here’s the thing: that IQ number is not important. My wealth is not important. Comparing yourself to another person – read those stories above – leads to nothing good. There is always someone smarter than you, someone wealthier than you. Just try to do good things for other people; compete with yourself if that floats your boat. If you live your life right, you will do just fine when you are forced to go toe-to-toe against the guys who think they are smarter, or better, or tougher.

            You don’t need to buy into their problem.

            And 100 years from now, it won’t matter anyway.

06 November 2020

A Long and Happy Marriage


            In 1995, I crossed the dangerous Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for a third time. On this expedition Gene Shoemaker, the father of astrogeology and only human buried on the Moon*, joined the Third Zahid Expedition (https://www.empty-quarter.com). Together we spent five days and six nights at the Wabar meteorite impact site, mapping it geologically and magnetically. We even collected thermoluminescence samples to definitively age-date the impact. We published several scientific papers (including the November 1998 issue of Scientific American) showing that a 3,500-ton iron-nickel asteroid hit the sand at 7 to 10 kilometers per second. In milliseconds it delivered a kinetic energy blast equivalent to a Hiroshima atom bomb.


            So… What does this have to do with marriage?


            On the way back, both of us exhausted from the 17-hour drive and the high temperatures, Gene and I were standing beside our Hummer vehicle in the late afternoon sun while the engineers refilled the tanks for the final run back into Riyadh. We had talked hypervelocity impact physics and geology for days – what really happens when a 3,500-ton iron body detonates on impact? After six days, however, we had run out of technical things to talk about. While staring into the eastern desert Gene parenthetically mentioned that he and his wife Carolyn had been married for 46 years – and that they were both surprised that “it just keeps getting better and better – we are just happier and happier together than ever before in our marriage.”

            This struck me for several reasons. For one, Louise and I had been married 27 years by that point, and we had gone through some very hard times. Huh, I thought: there’s hope for us yet. Another thing I had noticed by then – and Gene confirmed it for me from his experience – was that couples who had been married many decades all seemed to be happy. As a general rule, when one died, the other was not long in following. Could these two things be related? Could this all be part of a Larger Plan?

            When I was first married, I slowly began to notice an interesting thing about Louise. Without ever saying anything about it, she was always doing something small and thoughtful for me. The better portion of food. Making the bed. Insisting I had the better pillow. Doing the dishes if I didn’t get to it quick enough. There were so many small things that I began to notice. After about a year (I’m slow in a number of ways) I mentioned this to her. She seemed surprised and had to think for a bit before she responded. “I love you,” she said.

            A lot of the problems we had in the later, middle part of our marriage could be attributed to a relatively simple thing. I had decided, after we had nearly run out of cash several times, and once were afraid to even take a very sick baby to a doctor, that my primary responsibility was to provide. I was the husband – I needed to make sure I earned enough to support my growing little family. I developed a habit of working routine 55-hour weeks. I travelled extensively for field work – weeks at a time. I had become wedded to something else – my work. My duty.

            I said I am slow at some things. It took me years to come to a very simple decision: Louise came first. My work, my personal and professional goals, even the kids were secondary to anything that I might do that would make Louise happy. It became the core of my existence.

            This morning I waited in the van to drive her to an appointment. She got in, and as we started driving, she said “You are always so kind to me.” Huh? “What did I do?” I asked. “You opened the door for me so with all these things in my hands it was easier for me to get in. And now you’re driving me to an appointment.”

            Well, duhh.

            It’s become so ingrained for each of us, that neither of us takes any thought other than to do kind and considerate things – small acts – whenever the opportunity presents itself.

            And Gene was right: we are so much happier, after 52 years together now, than we were even when first married. We worry about our kids and grandkids together. We share interesting news stories. We prefer to walk together, even though we have different paces. We ask the other first if it’s OK to spend money on something. It doesn’t matter if the other says “Of course – you don’t have to ask!” Kindness and thoughtfulness for the other always comes first.

            It is my prayer – my expectation in fact – that when one of us passes to the Other Side, the other won’t have to wait around, lonely, for very long.  




* January 6, 1998, NASA release: Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker

There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.

Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.

Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare's enduring love story, "Romeo and Juliet":


            And, when he shall die,

            Take him and cut him out in little stars,

            And he will make the face of heaven so fine

            That all the world will be in love with night,

            And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.

"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."

The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.

"This is so important to us," Carolyn Shoemaker said. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings. We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."