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March 22, 2006

Ben Domenech, Innumerate

The fisking of the Washington Post Online’s new right-wing blogger has gotten off with a bang. P.Z. Meyers has an excellent summary of clueless Ben’s views on Evolution. He is, apparently, a knuckle-dragging creationist1

Surely, you are thinking, Jacques can avoid the cheap thrill of piling on. Well … I almost did. But then the following passage struck my eye

Like any theory, new discoveries force scientists to reexamine their previous conclusions: as recently as last month, many scientists believed their dating of the Big Bang (another theory) to be dead-on - but new discoveries imply they were off by millions of years.

The Washington Post just hired a total innumerate as their representative of “Red” America.

The age of the universe is approximately 13.73 billion years. The uncertainty in this number, with the best current data (WMAP 3rd year results) is a stunningly impressive 1.2%. With WMAP 1st year results (which is what was available when clueless Ben wrote those words), the uncertainty was about twice as large.

What could Domenech have been thinking when he asserted that the scientists’ estimates of the age of the universe was “off by millions of years”? An error of “millions of years” is a hundred times smaller than the already-stated uncertainty in the age of the universe. Most cosmologists would bite off their left toe for an instant hundred-fold improvement in the accuracy of our knowledge of the cosmological parameters. But that’s what it would take for them to be only “off by millions of years”. Far from discrediting the Big Bang (“another theory”), Ben unwittingly pays it too high a compliment.

From reading the CNN story from which he got this tidbit, the only conclusion I can draw is that Domenech is confused about the difference between “millions” and “billions.” Why this doesn’t disqualify him from commenting on … well … pretty much anything of importance, in the online pages of the Washington Post, is a mystery to me.

Perhaps he was the best they could come up with (seems unlikely). Or perhaps this is yet another underhanded plot by the “liberal MSM” to discredit conservatives.

1 An image I particularly like for its graphic evocation that his critical thinking skills have not … evolved … significantly over those of his hominid ancestors.

Posted by distler at March 22, 2006 7:52 PM

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Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

Certainly Domenech appears to be another know-it-all creationist with deeply impaired intuition, but I am not convinced by your specific analysis of his misinterpretation.

I think that he inferred that the comparison between galaxy ages and the 13.7 billion year age (which was not epxlained in the article) meant that scientists are undecided about the age of the universe to first. He may have supposed that there is a “10.8 billion” camp and a “13.7 billion” camp. Or he may have supposed, slightly more intelligently, that 3 billion years just wasn’t long enough for these galaxy clusters to form, so it must be back to the drawing board for the “13.7 billion” camp. I would not expect him to realize that the 13.7 billion estimate is quite solid and unlikely to be thrown into doubt by any galaxy observations. That is a subtle point that CNN doesn’t explain at all — anything science which is not mentioned in the lay media can be ignored or discounted when it is convenient.

After that, he did casually replace “billions” by “millions”. I suspect that he does know the distinction between them, but he may not consider it very important. He is clearly a philosophical relativist — Democrats like Yglesias and Republicans like him march to mutually contradictory scientific truths — so it’s probably all the same to him if scientists are off by millions or billions. He’s also technically correct, in the sense that if scientists are off by billions, they are therefore also off by millions.

Posted by: Greg Kuperberg on March 23, 2006 12:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

It seems that he already lost his job …

Posted by: Wolfgang on March 24, 2006 1:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

But he lost his job for plagiarism and not incompetence. That’s politics for you.

Posted by: Greg Kuperberg on March 24, 2006 1:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

Wait a second — “liberal MSM”? Now there are liberal and conservative versions of the Minimal Standard Model?

(silly joke ends here)

Posted by: Blake Stacey on March 26, 2006 2:52 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

So, there’s this guy. He wins a job for purely politcal reasons, and he uses his position to spout knuckle-dragging creationist nonsense. Not even clever enough to bring out the “No Free Lunch” theorems and try to (mis)apply them, he sticks to lines which were old chestnuts long before creationism became “creation science” let alone “intelligent design”. Then, after he’s made enough people upset, a blogger notices something awry, and the spaghetti hits the fan. The guy loses his job amid wild chatter from the blogosphere.

Good story, isn’t it? It’s so good, we’re going to tell it twice.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy says that the parallels between Domenech and Deutsch are “positively eerie” (here).

Posted by: Blake Stacey on March 27, 2006 12:44 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Ben Domenech, Innumerate

Jacques was completely correct on that point. Domenech and Deutsch are not isolated cases, they’re the attack of the clones. He probably sees some of them in his physics classes.

Although if they go to the trouble of taking physics classes, there must still be hope for them.

Posted by: Greg Kuperberg on March 27, 2006 12:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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