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February 07, 2006

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I've got to say I find this story more delightful than you seem to. Obviously the Bush administration wouldn't indeed couldn't fire him for dismissing the Big Bang as just a theory, but by catching him out as having been unable to graduate from university, and lying about it, he revealed himself typical of his ilk.

Some people are no better than they deserve to be.

Why am I not surprised? Apparently the goverment does not bother to check references or degrees.... Which actually explains a lot.

This reminds me of the former FEMA Director Michael Brown. Good old Brownie was the judges and stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association through the 90's. Apparently that made him qualified to lead FEMA....

Or was it connections through Bush's Campaigns? Hmm...

Mine here.

It may not have been available when you posted, but this link shouldn't rot a week from today, if you want to swap it in.

I bet champagne corks are popping all over NASA at the news. Note that some insider leaked his résumé as well as his emails to the Times.

By the by, it might be a bit strong to assert that there is no doubt over the Big Bang. It's a young theory and a great many basic details are in dispute; new models make the news all the time. It isn't nearly as thoroughly fleshed out as the theory of evolution, say.

"Apparently the goverment does not bother to check references or degrees...."

It's not "the government"; Deutsch was, as I predicted here, on January 30th, and as was confirmed here, or if you prefer, here, a Presidential appointee.

I was ten years old when the heat-death of the universe started really depressing me. My preference for a steady-state or oscillating universe may make me unsuitable for gov't work, but it doesn't get in my way at the supermarket. Until it does, I put my fingers in my ears when the dudes measure that background radiation and study quasars.

There may be a larger point to this comment.

Aw, c,mon. I thought he did a heckuva job.

"Did he just say the sun was going to burn out in ten million years?"

"No, he said ten billion years."

"Oh! He had me worried there for a moment."

Thanks, Gary -- it wasn't up then, but I'm glad to have it now.

I get the feeling that if it had been kept out of the public eye, his lack of edjamacation would have been regarded as a feature, not a bug. Hate to have schoolin' and facts get in the way of sycophantic hackery with our appointees.

Watch for him to start running Iraqi affairs after a stint at Heritage.

Bob: "I was ten years old when the heat-death of the universe started really depressing me."

You and Woody Allen.

Hilzoy: "...it wasn't up then, but I'm glad to have it now."

Yeah, it's one of the annoying things about posting fast on a NY Times story, isn't it, that the link-generator takes an hour or so to catch on.

I also find the way Technorati takes up to several hours to link to posts, and still misses some, more annoying than I should, as well. Tools should be perfect! (So long as I don't have to put any work into contributing to that.)

Okay, I really need to go start on my DVD of the third of the set of the neo-Battlestar Galactica 2.0 that arrived from Netflix about ten hours ago, before it's sleepy out here, and then morning again. (And you should all give this tv series a chance, even if you think science fiction is crap; it's not what you think it is; just give it a chance, sez me; also Firefly, but I digress.)

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IntricateHelix: Apparently the goverment does not bother to check references or degrees....

To be fair, I don't think I've ever worked for a company or an organization that actually checked up I had the degree my resume says I have. (On the other hand, if they did, how would I know?) IME, references get checked, but - at least for jobs outside academia - degrees don't.

"To be fair, I don't think I've ever worked for a company or an organization that actually checked up I had the degree my resume says I have."

When I was hired at Avon Books as a full-timer, and not just a freelancer, Human Resources wanted to know my degree status (after I'd been working for a week or two or so, along with other paperwork), and I told them I didn't have one and that the Senior Editor who was hiring me knew that and that the Editorial Director knew that, and so did the Publisher, who worked only three doors down from me, about 20 feet away (the whole company had only 14 editors, from ED to lowliest editorial assistant, which is a common number for large paperback companies; most people outside the biz don't realize how small the staffs are, or impossibly large the workloads). HR was quite taken aback and discombobulated, but checked what I said, and possibly with the publisher, Rena Wolner, and that was that.

It never crossed my mind to try to lie or fake it.

"http://platothelapdog.blogspot.com/"

Warning: try loading that site and it will start playing loud music and all sorts of other crap.

What bad Jim said. There is "some doubt" about the Big Bang. It's just that having "some doubt" about a well attested theory, and that theory being "an opinion" or "one half" of a debate are worlds apart.

Wait, wait, wait.

"I'm glad to hear that someone who thinks that there is some doubt about the Big Bang is no longer working for one of my government's scientific agencies."

There is some doubt about the Big Bang, at least insofar it does not offer an explanation for a lot of the more recent data. Moreover, there is still a small community of scientists that continue to argue that some variation of the quasi-steady state theory better explains existing data (although I haven't seen a convincing explanation from them on the CMB).

The Big Bang theory is just that -- a theory. And it's worth remembering that the same certainty you feel today about the Big Bang was also felt by steady state enthusiaists 100 years ago.

Yes, von, but there's a difference between someone like you understanding what a theory is, and understanding the competing models and the various pieces of evidence for and against; and someone like Deutsch wanting to use "just a theory" as a stalking horse for placing doubt about the whole process of science, and who wants to do so for explicitly religious reasons.

Phil's point is a good one. As someone who grew up on creationist science books by Bob Jones University (long story), I can say that the folks who trot out that 'just a theory' line have no respect for the process of science.

Supply-side economics is 'just a theory,' too, as is the idea that abstinence education reduces teen pregnancy and STDs. Those theories have less going for them than the Big Bang, but they would raise holy hell if the ideas were referred to as such. It's pure newspeak.

Phil's charitable interpretation notwithstanding, it's not completely clear to me that when von says "the Big Bang theory is just that -- a theory," he means anything essentially different from what ID idiots mean when they say evolution is "just a theory."

It's a very basic error of equivocation, and, given the thorough airing it's received recently in relation to the "intelligent" design controversy, it's something we should all be well past by now.

More to the point, Deutsch has gotten "opinion" and "theory" all muddied up in what passes for hit thought processes. If he cannot distinguish between the two, he's got no business making policy relating to science, or even influencing said policy.

To be fair, I don't think I've ever worked for a company or an organization that actually checked up I had the degree my resume says I have.

Anecdote: At my first job after graduating from college, I was having lunch with my boss in the cafeteria one day, and he was talking to me about my school days. I casually tossed out that I didn't have a diploma. The Heimlich maneuver wasn't well-known back then, so it was a close thing. After he recovered I hastened to explain that the university had withheld my diploma until such time as I paid my dorm damages, which I'd neglected to do until then because I needed the money for more important things like an apartment, a car, and food. A guy I knew several years after was actually investigated by management, who could not believe one could march through MIT making excellent grades and not have much in the way of knowledge stick. He was in fact the real deal (unless he'd been clumsily replaced by a foreign agent), just unpolluted by knowledge of anything useful.

All the same, I'd prefer that those influencing public science policy have some sort of education in science as a necessary condition for employment in that capacity. Then again, he was working in the PA office as an editor, and he was probably operating outside of his actual authority.

von, did you read what the lying little prat said? He isn't interested in collecting data that might illuminate the origins of the universe - something that's part of NASA's mission, as a matter of fact. He has a religious agenda - which is not part of NASA's mission.

He didn't say, "The Big Bang is a theory; so is steady-state. We at NASA look forward to collecting more data which might validate one or the other."

He said, ""It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

Does this sound like someone who should be working in the PR office of a science agency to you?

CaseyL, can you point me to the spot in von's comment where he defends Deutsch? AFAICT, he (along with several other commenters) was just reacting to hilzoy's referring to the Big Bang theory as if it were established fact.

Not that anyone cares, but I think my earlier comment was somewhat unfair. Apologies to von.

CaseyL, can you point me to the spot in von's comment where he defends Deutsch?

Well, I'm pretty sure Casey didn't assert that von was defending Deutsch. Who'd defend someone like that? Why, you'd have to be crazy!

The fact that the little pustule lied on his resume is just too, too sweet.

Yes, please nobody take my comment as implying that von is part of the anti-science brigade, or implying that he tacitly or openly supports Deutsch's attempt to add that language to NASA's site. I was trying to note the substantive difference between what von said and what Deutsch said.

Right about theories; I should have phrased it differently. I stand by the general point (as who would not.)

I didn't think von was defending Deutch's anti-science/pro-ID ravings, but I wasn't sure, either. Seemed like a good idea to emphasize that reasonable scientific doubt about Big Bang wasn't was Deutch was peddling.

So many typos in so little time... I better go up to the cafeteria and get some coffee.

I know that I don't spend a lot of time here, so please feel free to ignore me. But as a scientist, I -- and, I am confident, all of my colleagues -- would be grateful if those of you commenting about press accounts like the one under discussion would try to keep a few simple ideas in mind when discussing topics like the Big Bang.

First, it would be best to refer to the Big Bang (and Evolution) as a "scientific theory" rather than a "theory." To many people who are not scientists, the word "theory" connotes something like a guess that is not even grounded sufficiently in observation to be called a "scientific hypothesis". A scientific theory is altogether something different, as we'll see in a moment.

Second, there's almost always a great reference on the web where your curiosity about scientific topics can be rewarded with only a little effort. For example, there is a remarkably complete discussion of the Big Bang at Wikipedia. As a bonus, two of the links at the top of the Big Bang page point to good discussions of the definition of the term "scientific theory," and how this differs from what a layman might mean when he or she refers to, say, Evolution as "just a theory."

You'll note, I think, that the theory of the Steady State is no longer a contender as a description of the physical universe, because it contradicts too many of the astrophysical observations that have been made during the last 80 years. Furthermore, most of the remaining problems with the current theory of the Big Bang are limited to the very, very early stages of cosmological expansion (i.e., within the smallest fraction of the first second), and will probably require a quantum theory of gravity to resolve. With that said, it is very unlikely that the theory of the Big Bang will be significantly contradicted by some future revision, because it explains the spectrum and distribution of the cosmic microwave background radiation with a high degree of accuracy, and provides a good explanation of both the relative abundances of the primordial elements and the distribution and evolution of galaxies. (Recall that the "Big Bang" was originally conceived as a hypothesis after Hubble's observations of the expansion of the universe, and that the CMBR was one of first predictions made by early attempts to develop a more complete theory.) This has led to scientists' use of the term "Big Bang" to represent not only the scientific theory itself, but also the observational confirmation of its major predictions.

I can't read the minds of the NASA members of the technical staff who resisted the constraints being placed on them by public affairs personnel, but it seems to me that their objections to Mr. Deutsch’s e-mail hinged on the use of the words "it is opinion," "intelligent design by a creator," “religious issue," and "factual information." It seems that Mr. Deutsch doesn’t understand the meaning of the term "scientific theory," and wanted the term "theory" gratuitously appended to "Big Bang" to indicate that it was analogous to a hypothesis, without any reference to the substantial body of data that confirms its predictions. In this context, the revolt was understandable, and in my opinion, meritorious.

NP: welcome to the blog, and thanks for your disquisition.

What NPCurmudgeon said. The flipside of this is that the ID body of theory on this pretty much consists of "Let there be light", with little in the way of corroborating evidence or even testable, consistent extensions to account for the physical world as we know it, so far. Not saying the Bible is worthless, just that it's not science.

And again, I think a lot could be laid to rest if everyone could get that there's a great deal of difference between "theory" and "opinion". As well as what that difference signifies.

there's a great deal of difference between "theory" and "opinion".

Well, at least in theory.

Well, at least in theory.

That's your opinion; opinions vary.

While I'm as glad as anyone to see Deutsch gone, I suspect this is a good example of the Cockroach theory (not so well established as evolution or the Big Bang, but not without empirical support either). For every one you see, there are lot more down there. How many Deutsch's do you think there are scattered throughout the government?

And does anyone have any idea how much Deutsch's job paid?

... or who's going to replace him?

Betcha it's another neo-medievalist sycophant courtier to the Court of King George; just one whose resume is a little more truthful.

"That's your opinion; opinions vary."

That's just a hypothesis; has it been falsified?

Prove me wrong, Gary.

Smilies supplied on an as-needed basis only.

Yes, von, but there's a difference between someone like you understanding what a theory is, and understanding the competing models and the various pieces of evidence for and against; and someone like Deutsch wanting to use "just a theory" as a stalking horse for placing doubt about the whole process of science, and who wants to do so for explicitly religious reasons.

Phil, I refuse to let the meanings of words be changed because there is some portion of the population who fails to understand them. The Big Bang is a theory. The fact that this particular twit doesn't particularly understand what that means is not my concern.

Thanks for the clarification, Hilzoy. I agree with your general point, but I didn't want to swing too far to the other end of the spectrum, which conflates scientific theories with facts.

"And does anyone have any idea how much Deutsch's job paid?"

I'm not clear what his category was. Possibly Senior Executive Service, possibly not. Possibly civil service, possibly not.

I don't see an opening for either "press" or "public" here, but I'd guess somewhere in the $32k-$62K range, as a first guess, which might be all wrong.

Going to the US Office of Personnel Management general site shows some press relations jobs running at ~$35K. Here is an Army Public Relations spec job at $62,291.00. Here's one for Homeland Security at the $66,150.00+

Etc. As a body sent over by White House recommendation, I'd guess Deutsch would be on the upper end, not the lower end, of that scale, but I could easily be wrong, and maybe he was down in the ~$32-35K range, not the $62-$65k range.

Just guessing.

"Prove me wrong, Gary."

Sorry, it's an article of my religious faith. God revealed it to me in a vision. Prove me wrong.

Certain marks on an equally as-needed basis only.

Ugh. Lying on his resume and trying to reframe a scientific theory as the Big Bang Opinion. Good riddance.

It seems to me that "let there be light" is a good short description of the Big Bang. :-)

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.

-- Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut

Hmm, Deutsch is an idiot (though I shudder to remember some of the idiotic things I said at 24 and I'm sure I'll shudder to remember some of the things I've said this year). His understanding of scientific theories is sorely lacking. It would help if a lot of people understood that many scientific theories are as close to capital "T" truth as humans can get.

But, it would also help if those who understood that about theories also realized that some theories are better proven than others. A currently valid scientific theory explains more phenomena than its competitors. Depending on the field of study, that can be either a lot, or not so much.

From someone who is obviously not an expert in all of these fields I would tentatively rank the following in descending orer of explanatory power:

1. Electromagnetic Theory: (or whatever the formal name is) Explains huge amounts in its very broad area, the problem areas are are very far on the margins. Rigorously testable. Pretty close to capital "T" truth in its area. As reliable as a nuclear clock.

2. Theory of Gravity: Explains huge amounts in its very broad area. Mechanism not as well defined as Electromagnetic Theory. Problem areas still very much at the margins. Rigorously testable. Pretty close to capital "T" truth.

3. Big Bang Theory: Explains huge amounts in it very broad area. Mechanism speculative and very much in the past so not rigorously testable. Within an arm's reach of capital "T" truth (not bad for something about the whole universe talked about billions of years after the fact). Certainly more reliable than even Toyota cars--and lots of people rely on Toyota cars every day.

4. Modern Theory of Chemistry: Explains a lot. Rigorously Testable. Has a few gaps that can be important, but very comprehensive anyway. It is within a step of capital "T" truth. What a coincidence, Toyota cars are based on it.

4. Evolutionary Theory on the differentiation of species: Explains a broad area. Rigorously testable in many of its aspects and across many fields that might seem unrelated on first glance. Mechanism very well understood. Within a stone's throw of capital "T" truth. At least as reliable as the Toyota.

5. Evolutionary Theory for Origins of Life:
Explains lots of things but has some noticeable gaps. Not rigorously testable. Mechanism not well understood. Can see capital "T" truth from where it is standing, but there may be some fuzziness caused by myopia. At least as reliable as a Ford, but not quite so nice as a Toyota. Tends to race around like a Jaguar, but also spends more time in the shop than you might like.

6. Theory (theories?) of Behavioural Psychology: Explains a lot but gets some key things noticeably wrong when tested. It has definitely heard of capital "T" truth but I'm not sure it can see it without binoculars. More like a Yugo than a Toyota. It runs ok most of the time, but when it has a problem it tends to explode.

The Big Bang is a theory. The fact that this particular twit doesn't particularly understand what that means is not my concern.

It's your concern when the twit in question is a) a political appointee b) collecting his paycheck from part of your paycheck while he c) tries to undermine the mission of the very agency he's been placed at. I'd say that in that case he needs to be disabused of his ignorance toot sweet; and if he can, in his official position, seek cover for "just a theory" by saying, "See? Even they say it's a theory!" then there's a problem.

None of this would be an issue if we had better science education in this country. Instead we water in down and spend time fighting off morons just like this Deutsch fellow.

Theory (non-scientific, that is): An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

That anyone who wishes to discount evolution or the big bang or what have you says "its just a theory" irks me to no end. Scientifically speaking, a threory is: a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; "theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses"

To name something a theory in the world of science is to place upon it the highest level of respect possible.

To name something a theory in the world of science is to place upon it the highest level of respect possible.

It is unfortunate that the technical world speaks in jargon that shares many common words with the non-technical world. All of us need to take pains to at least occasionally remind the non-technical that the way we use the word is not necessarily the same way that they do.

An episode that helps me personally keep in mind the danger that I am being misunderstood occurred long ago in a crowded cafeteria during a lunchtime conversation involving process management in an early version of UNIX. "Orphan" processes, the various difficulties in "killing orphans", and whether it was better to provide an orphan with a parent before killing it so "the parent can clean up the mess" figured prominantly in the discussion. The little gray-haired lady at the next table stood up abruptly, announced that "You people are all sick!" and stomped off in a huff.

Sebastian,

If you'll forgive the conceit, I'd like to suggest that you take a look a the Wikipedia page on Physics. (I'm a professional physicist, and I would prefer to leave the items on your list related to chemistry and biology to people more knowledgeable than me.)

I would argue that any of the central theories of physics listed on that page are equally well demonstrated, with a few subtle caveats that probably won't be obvious even to the enthusiastic amateur. For example, Classical Mechanics and Electromagnetism are not consistent, in the sense that their predictions do not agree where they overlap. They were reconciled by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which was then used to make new predictions that were subsequently confirmed by experiment. Similarly, Quantum Mechanics (specifically, Quantum Field Theory) and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity are not consistent, in the same sense: where they overlap (e.g., Black Holes), they don't agree. A new scientific theory (perhaps String Theory, perhaps something else) will be needed to reconcile the two.

The Big Bang is not really a central scientific theory of physics, in the sense that it represents an attempt to apply other central theories (Electromagnetism, Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and Relativity) to the problem of the origin and evolution of the universe. As you note, it may not be "rigorously testable," in the sense that the "ancient light" created billions of years ago and detected by astronomers today has been subjected to a number of physical processes that must also be measured and tested. But you are right that it has been remarkably successful at describing the observations that I mentioned in my comment above. Nevertheless, I would be reluctant to claim with great confidence that the Big Bang was a more reliable (or more established) scientific theory than all of those central to the fields of Chemistry or Biology.

Bachelor of Arts in journalism, Class of 2003.

The scariest part of this story is that had he not lied on his application about his degree, my best guess is he'd still have his job. Competence is of no consequence to this administration.

Cheney was on The News Hour last night and when asked point blank if the Administration was competent had to resort to a list policy changes he felt were good choices, unable to point to any instances of where they had run a program as good managers.

"The Big Bang is a theory. The fact that this particular twit doesn't particularly understand what that means is not my concern."

Von, who appointed him? Which specific federal authority?

Hint: it wasn't NASA.

One could ask how and why a public affairs officer (which seems to be a more grandiose job description than "writer and editor" from the Times article) was able to dictate policy, change the content of science papers, etc, but I think the answer to that isn't going to have nearly the requisite appeal.

Slart, I've done a find on "dictate policy" and "content of science papers" and I don't turn up those phrases being previously used in this thread. What and who are you responding to?

It's really useful to quote what one is replying to. It's useful for your readers, at any rate. Maybe you were just musing aloud on some other topic. I dunno. Care to help here?

'Public affairs' is governmentese for 'press office'. The head of the PA office of every government department is a political appointee. Usually their experience is in journalism or p.r. It is rare for the PA appointee to have much specific expertise in the field of the government agency for which they shill.

One answer to Slarti's question is that this issue only comes up in agencies where principals in the agency are accustomed to publish their own findings and to speak directly to the press. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, e.g. (is it still called that? has it been merged into something else?), none of the bureaucrats communicated directly with the media; everything went through the P.A. office.

At an agency full of scientists, the situation is quite the opposite. There, my guess is, there's an ongoing struggle by the political appointee P.A. officer and staff to get everything funnelled through the P.A. office, and that the struggle is never completely won.

Now, a smart White House would fill the position with someone with enough expertise to be able to catch the scientist flies with honey, but this one's spectacularly arrogant and ignorant. And prone to valuing political loyalty over any kind of expertise.

"At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, e.g. (is it still called that?...."

Yes.

"...has it been merged into something else?)...."

No.

Sebastian, nice characterization of scientific theories.

On another point, why didn't Deutsch get a background check? You'd think sometimes he'd need to be briefed using material that would be sensitive (given, ummm, NASA uses pointy things that look an awful lot like missiles). Seeing as his career could be ended by anyone who knew he didn't have a degree, he certainly would have been subject to blackmail, and a security risk.

It's your concern when the twit in question ... c) tries to undermine the mission of the very agency he's been placed at.

Had you not noticed that this is conservative SOP? They've been pulling that particular trick at least since James Watt (Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, believed the Apocalypse was due any time now so why bother saving trees and species). See also Michael Powell. I'm sure somebody here can come up with a full list, but I don't have the time or interest to do the research just now.

It's a scuzzy trick, very dishonest. The executive branch is supposed to carry out the commands of the legislature. If a President can't in good conscience do that until such time as he can persuade Congress to change the law, the honorable solution is to resign, not to install a saboteur in charge of the agencies he thinks Congress should not have set up.

I run a recruitment company and count among my clients several government/public sector organisations. The idea of not doing a thorough background check on a candidate astounds me, especially at an organisation like NASA where presumably there are security/intellectual property issues. If I'm working on a graduate placement then an official transcript of the claimed degree and grades is essential, and if the applicant is offered the role then I would have to do at least two references; if it is a more experienced candidate then two in-depth professional references are typically required as a minimum. Sometimes I'm asked to do police and credit references (I have had banks among my clients), and another of my clients does a security check that takes six weeks to complete. So posters have been right to view this lack of checking with a sense of surprise/horror.

As part of his great Cosmology Tutorial site, Ned Wright has an interesting page on the problems with the various modern alternatives to the Big Bang. He managed to convince me that the modern quasi-steady-state advocates are barking up the wrong tree, for several reasons. (It also sounds as if, to get it to reproduce the data even as well as it does, they've had to tweak it until it's almost a Big Bang theory anyway, or perhaps I should say Big Bounce). The evidence that the universe is expanding from an early, very dense, very hot state is really extraordinarily solid, though there's room for difference on the details.

Even if there were more to it, this has nothing to do with Deutsch's silliness, as others have said above.

Bob, if you're depressed about a non-cyclic universe, you may like to consider the speculation of some cosmologists (Sean Carroll of Preposterous Universe and Jennifer Chen wrote a paper about it, if I recall correctly) that baby universes spawn from random fluctuations in the cold, dark end-state of other universes. Not a serial cycle, but something more like reproduction through budding.

Alan Guth even did some work on how somebody might make it happen intentionally...

I see I neglected to point out Deutsch's speaking up today. I suppose most have already seen it, but if you haven't, get out your tiniest violin.

I see I neglected to point out Deutsch's speaking up today. I suppose most have already seen it, but if you haven't, get out your tiniest violin.

predictable.

Also, predictable are the idealogues supporting Deutsch or using it to bash Bush critics.

Speaking of Farber links, I hope it's not too much of an assumption to think that Gary is in fact well aware of NGA's former secret identity, and that most people are probably familiar with it.

If not, enjoy. Although I cannot bring myself to believe...

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