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”

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”

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.