January 8, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Bad Math Gets a Pass When It’s Naturalistic

Now we know our place in the universe,” gloated Ohio State University astronomer Scott Gaudi, who told the science press that 15% of solar systems in the universe are like ours.  “Solar systems like our own are not rare, but we’re not in the majority, either.”  His calculation was based on how many relatively earthlike systems?  Just one.  And how earthlike was it?  It was a system with two gas giants around it that were not too close to the star.  That’s all.  But what did he compare that one to?  Based on his own models, he expected to find six.  One out of six is 16.7%, close enough to 15% for a low enough sample, though the error bars were not mentioned.
    So out of a sample space of quadrillions of possible planet systems in the universe, this was the basis for Gaudi saying that we “now know” something – not just how many stars might have two gas giants, nor just how many stars might possibly allow an earth-orbit planet to avoid destruction, nor just the remote outside possibility that an earthlike planet might actually exist in the inner orbit clear of massive planets, nor just whether such a planet, if it exists, might be habitable, nor whether if that planet is habitable it would have sentient beings, – but something much grander: “our place in the universe.”
    None of the science press, like PhysOrg, Science Daily, or Space.com, had any problem with Gaudi’s reasoning.  They seemed to think it was kind of cool.  In fact, Andrea Thompson at Space.com joined the bandwagon and headlined, “Plenty of Solar Systems Like Ours Expected.”
    Gaudi hedged his comments with the proviso, “While it is true that this initial determination is based on just one solar system and our final number could change a lot, this study shows that we can begin to make this measurement with the experiments we are doing today.”  Nevertheless, he was prepared to present his calculation to the American Astronomical Society.
    For some reason, this was not criticized on the Bad Astronomy blog, although a few of the readers at Space.com had problems with it: “A sample size of 1 to determine probability numbers of the universe?” one wrote.  “I think Gaudi is announcing his results much too early, and by doing this only takes away credibility from his study.”  Another opined, “It is way to [sic] early to be making these kinds of statements.  We have too little data to even speculate.  It is this kind of junk science that gets the scientific community into trouble.”

Maybe this story explains why their project is named MicroFUN.  Since this kind of FUN statistical analysis is now an accepted scientific practice, it seems reasonable for the next Republican presidential candidate to claim victory in the next election when she gets her first vote.

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