Science can anger people even in the most obscure fields


younger-dryas-cometAs I have said many times, I’m a scientific skeptic. That is, I don’t just reject ideas simply to reject them, I actually reject or accept ideas based on the quality and quantity of evidence. I don’t pretend to know much about the Big Bang, but I know when it happened and what happened, but I leave it to experts to hash out the details. No one person can be an authority on every field of science, no matter how many initials follow their name. I’ve already mentioned how hard it is to become an expert in a scientific discipline.

If you read this blog regularly, you’d think I’m completely interested in vaccines, with a little bit here and there on GMO’s, evolution, and climate change. But my own personal interests in biology are, in no particular order, is evolution of man (about which I’ve written some), endocrinology (about which I’ve written nothing), and extinction events (about which I’ve written little here). I have co-authored a couple of articles on Wikipedia on extinction events, have read dozens of books on the major extinction events, and have attended many scientific conferences on mass extinction. I may not have an official degree in extinction geology and biology, but I have spent several thousand hours doing real research in the area.

But I’m pretty certain that the audience for this blog will find my discussion about extinction events to be a bit dull. However, I’m hoping that there is a cautionary tale about science that can be applied to some general rules I have about science.

A couple of years ago, I started editing an article on Wikipedia about the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. Without going into too many details, it was a hypothesis (named after an Alpine flower) that some sort of comet or asteroid impact struck the ice sheet covering North America, about 13,000 years ago, which lead to the death of the megafauna (mammoths, sabertooth cats, and whatever else lived in North America). It is hypothesized that the impact actually caused a temporary reversal of the retreat of the glaciers towards the end of the glacial maximum.

I actually came across ran the article when I was reviewing some information I had read about climate change from the last glacial maximum (you know, when glaciers covered much of North America). I wanted to know if a bolide impact (meteor or comet) could caused a massive change in North America. Continue reading “Science can anger people even in the most obscure fields”

Pseudoscience and logical fallacies in geology

If you ask any biologist or medical researcher about pseudoscience, they would probably talk about creationism, most of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), homeopathy, sasquatch, and a few other things not so much in the public eye.  In the physical sciences, we hear about the global warming denialists, the Theory of the Big Bang denialists, and, again, a few other things that aren’t really famous.  But in the total world of pseudoscience, it always seemed like medicine gets the bulk of it, but that just may be a matter of perspective rather than reality. Continue reading “Pseudoscience and logical fallacies in geology”

Where Wikipedia lunatics follow me here

Yesterday, out of the blue, Thomas Lee Elifritz, an engineer (not a scientist, as we discussed with regards to creationists) decided to go crazy on one of my posts (actually my second one here), with some fairly uncivil commentary (I had to block one of his posts because it made me, who has the language of a Navy petty officer, kind of uncomfortable).  He came to complain about one of my edits on Wikipedia.  Now technically, Wikipedia takes seriously any off-Wiki harassment and threats from editors.  Since this website tracks IP addresses of commenters (thank WordPress, I don’t care at all), I could contact the Cabal that controls Wikipedia with this information.  But I just don’t care that much.

His comment, “I assume you are the prick you edited out the latest Younger Dryas Impact paper from Kennett et al. from its wikipedia page. Heckava job there, bozo,” didn’t exactly make him out to be very intelligent nor respectful.  In addition, it was very cowardly of him not to bring the discussion to Wikipedia where it belonged.  I guess he prefers harassment here than civil conversation on Wikipedia.

Continue reading “Where Wikipedia lunatics follow me here”

Volcano in Germany is definitely not going to erupt soon

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the Laacher See, a caldera lake and potentially active volcano in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.  The Daily Mail, a UK tabloid, published a story stating that the volcano was ready to erupt soon.  Though there is plenty of evidence that the volcano is still active and may one day erupt, there is no evidence that it’s about to do so anytime soon. Continue reading “Volcano in Germany is definitely not going to erupt soon”

20 Million Year Old Lake Beneath Antarctica Is About to Be Uncovered–Updated

This post is an update of my previous discussion about breaching this lake.

After 20 years of drilling, Russian scientists are about to break through 4km of Antarctic ice to reach 20 million year old Lake Vostok.  Who knows what they’ll find there, but I just hope they don’t contaminate this valuable and pristine ecosystem (if anything is alive down there).  And they don’t bring back something right out of a H.P. Lovecraft novel.

From a scientific standpoint, this could be fascinating.  The water will tell us a lot about the earth’s climate 20 million years ago.  It might have life forms that are either living fossils (that is, organisms once thought extinct, but have been found).  Or it might be boring and give us nothing but water.  In science, a negative result is still a result. Continue reading “20 Million Year Old Lake Beneath Antarctica Is About to Be Uncovered–Updated”

20 Million Year Old Lake Beneath Antarctica Is About to Be Uncovered

After 20 years of drilling, Russian scientists are about to break through 4km of Antarctic ice to reach 20 million year old Lake Vostok.  Who knows what they’ll find there, but I just hope they don’t contaminate this valuable and pristine ecosystem (if anything is alive down there).  And they don’t bring back something right out of a H.P. Lovecraft novel. Continue reading “20 Million Year Old Lake Beneath Antarctica Is About to Be Uncovered”

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 4.

This is my continuing multi-part discussion about how pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, strawman arguments, and other rhetoric to make its case, rather than real science.  Just click on the links to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The other day I engaged in a discussion with a well-meaning pharmacist who claimed that vitamin C could treat colds and prevent other diseases like  “cancer” (I always get annoyed  by people who lump all cancers together, when there are over 200 different cancers, all of which have different histologies, genetics, and causes).  Of course, there are a number of well-controlled clinical trials that show that vitamin C has no effect on the common cold and has no effect on cancers so far studied (see this, this, this and this).

During our discussion, she said “science should be neutral,” with the implication that I wasn’t neutral.  I happen to agree, science should be neutral and it should balanced.  But science should be based upon the scientific method not rhetoric and not using science-y words, at which the writers of Star Trek were well-versed.

So, when I say that I am (or any evidence-based real scientist), “scientifically neutral”, that means I’m willing to weigh the evidence and publications on real scientific issues.  I am not a geologist nor a paleontologist, but I was studying biochemistry when the earliest theories on what caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago, where all the dinosaurs (well, not all, since technically modern birds are surviving dinosaurs from a cladistic point of view) and some 75% of all extant genera died out or were killed.  In 1980, Luis Alvarez, a brilliant theoretical physicist whose career was extraordinary, along with his son, Walter Alvarez (a geologist), and Frank Asaro, published an article that describe a sedimentary layer across the world that included a rare element, iridium, usually found in extraterrestrial objects like meteors and comets.  The layer fell right at the geological boundary layer that defines the extinction event, so they proposed that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge comet or asteroid.

Today, this accepted as a scientific theory with tons of confirming evidence (although some scientists aren’t fully convinced, though they still propose some natural event).  But at the time, it was ridiculed, and scientific meetings were quite energetic in discussions.  The point is that the impact theory displaced the prevailing scientific theory of the extinction event (well, there were several).  One theory replaced another not by rhetoric or appeals to antiquity (that one theory was around forever) or anything else.  In fact, one scientific hypothesis was replaced by another and eventually developed into a solid theory.

We should be neutral in science, reviewing the evidence, then coming to conclusions.  The Alvarez father-son team provided that, and eventually there was overwhelming evidence with the finding and dating of the Chicxulub impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Using scientific neutrality, vitamin C doesn’t work, not because I have an opinion, but because there is no science supporting its efficacy.  There are some articles that support its use in preventing or treating colds, or megadoses for curing cancer, but those articles are in low-impact (meaning obscure) journals or with poorly designed, or non-blinded trials.  My friendly neighborhood pharmacist was stating that I should be neutral between real science and well, nothing at all.  That’s not balance, that’s a close-mindedness to science and the scientific method.  That’s using opinion as the balance to scientific knowledge.  The only thing that should balance scientific knowledge is more scientific knowledge.

Don’t fall for the trap that you should be “open-minded” or neutral to anti-science or pseudoscience.  Open-mindedness and neutrality are expectations that you will balance real scientific evidence, not treat the rhetoric as if it has equal weight to scientific method.

Huge volcano threatens Europe!!! Maybe not.

Although my interests center on medicine and biology, I have more than a professional hobbyist interest in geology, specifically vulcanism, the study of volcanoes (and not Spock).  So I peruse news stories about volcanic eruptions when they appear.  This week, a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a story entitled, Is a super-volcano just 390 miles from London about to erupt?  I suspect that the Daily Mail is one of Britain’s sensationalist newspapers, and this article would confirm it.

But let’s go over some of it’s points.  Yes, the Laacher See volcano did erupt about 12,900 years ago, and it was a rather large eruption, on the size of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.  Obviously, I was somewhat surprised that such a recent and large volcanic event happened in Europe.  If it did happen today, Europe would be devastated for years.  That eruption was massive, and one can find deep layers of ash throughout Central Europe up through to the North Sea.  It had a profound effect on weather patterns of the era, with effects happening within a few weeks.

The article uses as its evidence that the volcano erupts every 12,000 years, so it’s overdue (I suppose) for an eruption, and that there are some CO2 outgassing in the lake (which formed when the magma chamber collapsed after the most recent eruption).  If that’s their “evidence” for a future eruption, then we need to redefine what constitutes evidence.  In fact, as they say in the financial industry, past performance is not a guarantee of future results.  Furthermore, I could find no published, peer-reviewed support for a prediction of a new eruption.  In other words, the Daily Mail invented this prediction.

As for the CO2 bubbles in the lake, yes that happens in water over a magma chamber, but it is, by itself, not an indicator of impending doom.  However, the CO2 can be dangerous, of course, but that’s a biological issue not a prediction-of-eruption issue.

This is what bothers me about these kind of articles.  The internet, being the rather instant communication method that it is, transfers this information from one side of the planet to another.  Soon, I’ll be reading about it in what are supposed to be reasonable websites that monitor the world environmental issues.

Science journalism has a responsibility to actually provide accurate information.  Too many times I read articles published in news sites (probably higher quality than the Daily Mail) that wildly misinterpret medical or scientific articles.  I spend so much time debunking the overstating of what is said that if I could get paid for it, I’d have quite a career set up.  Wikipedia is notorious for this kind of sensationalism.

I can only hope that all the skeptics out there have an effect on this type of bad science journalism.  And London, you’re safe for now, though with the Olympics coming up, I may change my mind.