Recapping the Challenger Disaster

I’m starting a new thread for discussion of the Challenger Disaster. Because topic are tangled I have tried to quote all the relevant comments rather than move comments that may apply to both topics. New comments related to Challenger will be moved here.

Continuing the discussion from Lenski’s Long Term Evolutionary Experiment | The Skeptical Zone:

The relevant comments:

1 Like

Your accusation is false. The fault was with management, not engineering.

You’re projecting.

He didn’t say that.

That’s a very unscientific statement. I, a biochemist and geneticist, don’t believe in evolution. It’s consistent with the evidence, most of which Behe ignores and some of it he egregiously misrepresents:

He does the same for HIV and for malaria.

Here’s where the extent of your ignorance is showing, Sam. A huge part of modern evolutionary biology is non-Darwinian neutral evolution, something that Behe first acknowledged only recently to denigrate it. It’s another example of Behe’s use of the straw man fallacy.

That’s not true. There is a vast amount of evidence for both Darwinian and non-Darwinian evolution.

It’s not analogous. You don’t even understand it at the shallowest level–management ignored the problems.


@Sam may have misunderstood. What I wrote was:

“No one in engineering was saying that physics did not apply.”

but what I really meant was:

“No one in engineering was saying that physics did not apply.”

Much to NASA’s loss, I was never appointed to head the agency, so yours truly wasn’t in a position to personally green light the launch. Would I have? No way! Engineers are notoriously conservative and risk adverse; maybe it is some spell emitted by the iron pinky ring. Were it left to me, we would still be back testing Mercury rockets, so maybe that is why I never got the call.

People know that snow tires have better grip in winter, but decide to ride the summers because they do not want to drop a grand for a short cold snap. People take risks all the time, talk to any insurance actuary. The risk adverse are sidelined in their careers by alpha driven risk takers. NASA management deemed the risk acceptable. So why would anybody try to frame this as involving science denial? Well according to Sam, concerning evolutionary biologists:

They are people. With the same biases, prejudices, desires for confirmation bias, willingness to be ‘gate-keepers’ at the temple of ‘orthodoxy’. If scientist working at the premier science organization in the world, NASA, can obfuscate and deny good and even simple science when the situation suits them, what in the world would make you think you’ve ‘fenced off’ the good scientists that are above such?

TaDaaa! All those scientists - microbiologists, ecologists, paleontologists, and especially evolutionary biologists, just may be, like 100% are, engaged in a massive, and I do mean massive, conspiracy or delusion - which one depends on the duplicity of the individual scientist. Need support for this narrative? The Challenger disaster, there you are. Credit for originality.

The oh so often missed vital point is that science does not progress because scientists are saintly, without biases, prejudices, or desire for confirmation. And most certainly science does not progress because scientists are a tight knit group who love and protect each other - if that be doubted just read some of the exchanges in this forum. Science progresses because its methodology eventually - and this can take time but does not take forever - filters out the truth about nature, despite the fact we all have a little of the DSM-5 in us. It all comes back to the evidence.

1 Like

Hi Dan,
I think it was me who brought up the topic of the Challenger disaster.
I brought it up to counter what I think I saw as arrogant assertions such as, “As scientists, we rigorously test our hypotheses to ensure that we are not fooling ourselves”
Such trumpeting of scientists by scientists is itself unscientific. Or at least Richard Feynman could see such hubris for what it was. He was talking about the life of a scientist when he spoke these words, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
I brought up the issue of the Challenger disaster to point out the foolishness of scientists claiming such virtue for themselves. That ‘one of’ the worlds premier science outfits could have such a disaster because of a failure in such simple science should speak for itself. No one is immune to ‘fooling themselves’. Some here seem to have insulated themselves in such thick armor that the logic of such a simple idea escapes them.
“Logic! Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?"
Reason alone should clearly point that when some scientists disagree vehemently with others or even just one that there must be a flaw in the arrogant stance that, “As scientists, we rigorously test our hypotheses to ensure that we are not fooling ourselves”
As interesting as I find the Challenger disaster incident, I am not sure what more to say about it on this forum.
But I’m thankful for what you’ve done here to try this.
Here is a bit of trivia. So the solid rocket motors were susceptible to the cold weather because the o-rings at the joints in steel case would become stiff and were slow to respond to the case vibration. If the o-rings couldn’t respond in time to maintain a seal as the case both vibrated and the joints rotated, hot gasses would escape and erode the rocket case itself. How would you remedy that? I thought it was brilliant albeit very simple. Along with the addition of a third o-ring and a capture feature at the joints they heat traced the joint so all one had to do was turn on the heat and keep the o-ring toasty warm. I know, I know - the ‘toasty warm’ description doesn’t sound all that scientific. But I thought that was a brilliant if rather obvious solution.
What else is there to talk about re: the disaster? Anyone?

1 Like

According to the story you tell, the disaster wasn’t a failure of scientists, or even of engineers (not the same thing). It was a failure of administrators. And even if it were a failure on the part of some scientist or other, why would it be relevant as a general case, especially regarding evolutionary biologists? And why would it assert the superiority of biochemists?


Feynman is one of my heros too. One of the things that came out of his investigation was that available data did show a statistically significant association with temperature and O-ring failure. Unfortunately no one applied the correct statistical method to show the association. This might have been detected but for the bureaucratic siloing of information preventing the question from reaching the right people. Afterwards, NASA made major organizational changes to reduce the silo problem.

So yes there were scientific mistakes made, but it’s not completely fair to blame scientists/engineers for the bureaucratic problems. It’s not so much arrogance as it is a Dunning-Kruger for statistical methodology. The correct method, a Maentel-Haenszel trend test, is not commonly taught at the undergraduate level even today. It would have taken someone with the correct expertise to recognize how to test the question (someone familiar with discrete data methods).


If you understood what goes into doing scientific research you may rethink your beliefs. Massive amounts of work is put into designing experiments so that we don’t fool ourselves. Once you think you have a solid conclusion you then have to present your work and face criticism from other scientists. A scientist’s career can be greatly affected if they do fool themselves and publish bad science. When you put the work in and risk your career on that work, yes, you do get to claim that virtue. It isn’t arrogance when you earn it through hard and honest work.

Arrogance, on the other hand, is the attitude that you can cast aspersions on hundreds of thousands of scientists because of the bad actions of a few administrators in a government agency.

1 Like

Wow John. Your really getting tiring. What do you think Behe is paid for. Do you think he spends his days reading his bible.

So when a scientist who becomes a manager makes stupid decisions and disregards the science the he and a grade schooler can understand, scientists are let off the hook? Rich.
I’ve read both ‘Truth, Lies, and O-rings’ by Allan J. McDonald and James R. Hansen as well as ‘Challenger Revealed’ by Richard C. Cook, as well as much of the Rogers Commission Report and Feynman’s Appendix F and watched quite a bit of the testimony. I think that I have a pretty good layman’s handle on the events.

Really! You like to quibble don’t you. Did that phrasing of it suit you better.

Pedantic much? So really, no scientist is ever at fault at all ever, since the buck stops at the top in any organization (read: management). Your parsing of these words is frivolous.

1 Like

From what I can see, Behe is paid to teach at Lehigh University. I have not seen Behe publish any original scientific work for a while now. “Actual science” means creating new data using scientific methodologies.

Compare this to Lenski. He has actual experiments with real organisms in a real lab. Where has Behe ever done anything close to that? Where has Behe done anything close the computational biology that @swamidass is working on?

[@moderator note: switched the broken pubmed link for google scholar]

Presumably just teaching, definitely not research. Are you unfamiliar with the concept of academic tenure?

Here’s what Behe’s colleagues think of him:

No, he writes books and blog posts targeting laypeople like you. He also fools himself, most likely, because he doesn’t do any science any more.

Sam, you made the preposterous claim that Behe has performed a “biochemical analysis” of evolution. Let’s look at Behe’s vs. my productivity in biochemistry and related fields, shall we?

You haven’t shown the slightest aptitude in distinguishing between science and technology, or between scientists, engineers, and managers.

But you don’t have a clue about evolutionary biology, so you have no basis for claiming that it is analogous to the Challenger disaster.

No, it still conflates technology and engineering with science. You also are missing the difference between “premier” and “premiere,” so your phrasing makes no sense.

Nope. You’re engaging in a predictable straw-man fallacy. I’m saying there’s absolutely no analogy to be had there.

1 Like

Ok. So I am pretty clear on your opinion.
Also pretty clear on the opinion of another poster here who claims,

So I have at least you two guys making a similar claim. On the other hand I have Feynman warning scientists and everyone else,

I will take Feynman’s suggestion much more seriously since it aligns with my experience from life.

Lack of heat tracing played a role in the recent grid troubles in Texas. In northern Canada, plants have heat trace everywhere. You know it will be needed.

Engineering is often guided by event probabilities, such as a one in a hundred year weather or seismic event, depending on the severity of consequence. I suspect that is being reevaluated in the Lone Star State.

My MS thesis involved describing the probability of extreme rainfall in Wyoming, intended to be used for risk planning; evaluating dam safety and storm runoff. The biggest problem was that it doesn’t rain much in Wyoming. :wink:


What is arrogant about my following Feynman’s advice?

Your hero Behe rejects it, under oath:
Q. You stated in this book that on the subject of molecular evolution the advocates of the natural mechanism, the Darwinian mechanism, must publish or perish, correct?

A. I’m hanging up on the word natural mechanism. Where does that occur? I don’t see that.

Q. The Darwinian mechanism?

A. Okay, Darwinian mechanism. Okay, yes, that’s correct.

Q. You conclude the chapter called “Publish or Perish” by saying, “In effect, the theory of Darwinian molecular evolution has not published, and so it should perish,” right?

A. That’s correct, yes.

Q. And then all these hard working scientists publish article after article over years and years, chapters and books, full books, addressing the question of how the vertebrate immune system evolved, but none of them are satisfactory to you for an answer to that question?

A. Well, see, that again is an example of confusing the different meanings of evolution. As we have seen before, evolution means a number of things, such as change over time, common descent, gradualism and so on. And when I say Darwinian evolution, that is focusing exactly on the mechanism of natural selection. And none of these articles address that.

Q. Again at the same time you don’t publish any peer reviewed articles advocating for the alternative, intelligent design?

A. I have published a book, or – I have published a book discussing my ideas.

Q. That’s Darwin’s Black Box, correct?

A. That’s the one, yes.

Q. And you also propose tests such as the one we saw in “Reply to My Critics” about how those Darwinians can test your proposition?

A. Yes.

Q. But you don’t do those tests?

A. Well, I think someone who thought an idea was incorrect such as intelligent design would be motivated to try to falsify that, and certainly there have been several people who have tried to do exactly that, and I myself would prefer to spend time in what I would consider to be more fruitful endeavors.

Q. Professor Behe, isn’t it the case that scientists often propose hypotheses, and then set out to test them themselves rather than trusting the people who don’t agree with their hypothesis?

A. That’s true, but hypothesis of design is tested in a way that is different from a Darwinian hypotheses. The test has to be specific to the hypothesis itself, and as I have argued, an inductive hypothesis is argued or is supported by induction, by example after example of things we see that fit this induction.

Which one of us is more arrogant, Sam? Which one of us is following Feynman’s advice?

I’m trumpeting the scientific method, while Behe explicitly rejects it when questioned under oath.

Please explain. I test my own hypotheses, Behe can’t be bothered and says it’s up to others to test his.

Which one of us is fooling himself? Which one of us is more arrogant?


By testing our hypotheses, we are taking Feynman’s suggestion much more seriously than you or Behe do.

That warning is burned into the brains of every scientist starting on the first day of their career. What Feynman is describing is what scientists do. Scientists work their butts off being careful not to fool themselves. Feynman is not saying that scientists fool themselves all the time and are not careful in what they do.


Well, there is something of use. I used the wrong spelling of the word. In every instance of the word here it should read, Premier as in best.
Thanks for noting that.

I think that is a great idea. His advice is exemplary.

For instance, you should seriously consider that, in judging the work of Michael Behe as holding even a shred of scientific merit, you are only fooling the person you can most easily fool: Yourself.


And you still think you are above being able to fool yourself?

None of us do. That’s why I test my hypotheses. Do you really not understand the process of hypothesis testing, Sam? That I am trying to disprove my hypothesis in the most rigorous way?

So, how did you determine that Behe and you are not fooling yourselves? How did you test the hypothesis that Behe is right, and every evolutionary biologist is wrong?

Did you do so with actual evidence, or did you just decide that you wish that Behe was right on the basis of his rhetoric?

Please lay out the process you used to reach your conclusion, following Feynman’s advice.