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Sustainability Matters 5: Separating Fact from Fiction

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Separating fact from fiction

In the last blog, I outlined the scientific method and how it determines physical information about the universe around us. Here is an example of how the scientific method is self correcting and over time discerns the objective truth.

Fusion is the process occurring in stars that produces a tremendous amount of energy. 

The fuel for this reaction is hydrogen, which is the most plentiful element in the universe. If we could create and harness-controlled fusion, we would have an abundance of fuel and access to a tremendous amount of energy with very low pollution rates.

This might be the holy grail of energy! 

Knowing this, you can imagine the excitement among energy geeks when scientists at Brigham Young University reported in 1989 that they had achieved cold fusion. One of these major obstacles to harnessing fusion, aside from the staggering costs, is the fact that reactions occur at millions of degrees in temperature and we have no material to contain such high temperatures.

None-the-less, these scientists claimed they had achieved fusion at a containable temperature. After ‘cold fusion’ was reported, physicists ran to their labs to try to reproduce the reaction.

No one could.  

Was this a hoax or a mistake? 

It doesn’t really matter because it could not be repeated. This is important to understand because, if it was a mistake, it was quickly uncovered.  If it was a hoax, it was not an effective one and didn’t last very long. The reason for the quick correction was the effectiveness of the scientific method at determining objective reality.

Many people from the worldwide scientific community had a big stake in the outcome of cold fusion research, if it was confirmed to be possible. With free and open communication and the inability of other independent researchers to replicate the results, it was quickly determined that they were not valid.

In another case, a letter and petition, made to look like that of the National Academy of Sciences, was circulated. It was signed by a former president of the Academy.  The letter questioned the climate science which the Kyoto Treaty was based on. It was printed to look like a publication of the National Academy of Science, a prestigious and legitimate scientific journal. After numerous calls asking if they had reversed their position on climate change, the National Academy of Science had to issue the following statement:

STATEMENT BY THE COUNCIL 

OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

REGARDING GLOBAL CHANGE PETITION

 

April 20, 1998 The Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is concerned about the confusion caused by a petition being circulated via a letter from a former president of this Academy. This petition criticizes the science underlying the Kyoto treaty on carbon dioxide emissions (the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change), and it asks scientists to recommend rejection of this treaty by the U.S. Senate. The petition was mailed with an op-ed article from The Wall Street Journal and a manuscript in a format that is nearly identical to that of scientific articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS Council would like to make it clear that this petition has nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences and that the manuscript was not published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or in any other peer-reviewed journal.

The petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy.


While the above example is extreme, there are always people with political and social agendas who use pseudo-science to advance their agenda. This is particularly of concern when the audience is not adept at determining real science from fake science.  

I’m not a doctor, but I’m paid to look like one”
The Firesign Theatre – Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.

I am spending extra time discussing the scientific method because of current events which are occurring in the US. 

Certain groups, who would stand to lose money if the theory of climate change were accepted, are calling climate change theory a hoax and accusing scientists world-wide of perpetrating this hoax.

We will look into the details of how we know climate change is occurring and how humans are responsible for the increasing rate of climate change later in this blog and we will examine the overwhelming evidence that connects human fossil fuel use with the warming of the climate!

With open communication, it would truly be impossible to perpetrate such a hoax for very long. Furthermore, with a basic understanding of the laws of matter and energy and an understanding of ecological systems, it is not hard to understand that there might be some changes to our environment caused by humans pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

This is NOT to say that there aren’t mistakes along the way, but as we’ve seen, time and human inquisitiveness, the process of constantly reviewing data, retesting experiments, sharing information and revising conclusions, will ultimately winnow out the truth.  

Distinguishing Fake Science from Real Science

We are bombarded by so much information, much of it claiming to be scientific. No one is an expert in every field, and most of us are not experts in any scientific field. How then, can a non-scientist analyze new information?  Here are 10 guidelines to consider when determining whether or not the presented scientific information is credible.

1. What is the source of the information/claim? Is the source a scientific journal? If so, is it well known and reputable? Who did the research, and what are their qualifications?  

2. Are the methods by which the conclusion was reached explained? This often involves presenting and explaining technical data.

3. What are the parameters of this research?  Are they explained? Does the information make general conclusions, or is it specific? Most research is specific with limited applications of results.

4. Does the information presented distinguish between accepted science and pseudoscience?  How does the information treat science facts and fringe ideas? Does it give the same weight to each?

5. Does the information mix facts and policy?  It is reasonable to base policy on facts, but the two should not be intertwined.  

6. What is the source of the funding?  Was the research done independently or with a bias toward the sponsor of the research?  Was the funding of the research from a source that would benefit from the results?

7. Is the information based on a press release or original sources? A press release is an interpretation and may be biased. As a result, a report based on a press release may be the equivalent of hearsay.

8. Is the information trying to sell a product or a point of view? Is the information backed by testimonials? This is a sign that someone is trying to sell something while presenting it as science.

9. Is the presented information backed by source material? This might include information about the procedures used to collect data and an analysis of how that data is used and interpreted.  

10. What is your personal bias towards the material you are analyzing? Why is it of interest? We all have the tendency to seek out information which supports our interests and biases.

Part of the confusion about science that we currently are experiencing is due to the fact that there is much research going on behind closed doors. This research, often done for profit or political gain, does not rise to the standards of science in that it is often not shared, published and reviewed.

This is not to say that private research is always bad or wrong, it just cannot be considered with the same weight as peer reviewed research where all the cards are on the table for everyone else to examine.


Science and Faith

The scientific method is an effective, valuable and limited tool to discern properties of our world that are measurable. There are whole ranges of topics which are, at least at this time and perhaps forever, immeasurable. What occurred before the big bang? What is the source of life? Is there a God? What happens after death?  

It may be with future knowledge and technology that some of these seemingly unanswerable questions might turn out to be measurable and answerable. 

For now, we must be aware that we have no means to measure and answer these questions through the process we call science.  

We learn the physical realities of the world from science, and sometimes they collide with what we have been taught by our religions. Each person must struggle with this question and decide what they believe for themselves.

Many scientists have been religious, and many scientific theories have been seen by religions as a threat. Galileo was excommunicated by the Catholic church for having the audacity to suggest that the earth goes around the sun rather than the opposite.  Now, there is no major religion which disputes the fact that the earth goes around the sun. The church has long since reinstated Galileo. Despite the revision of thought based on updated scientific information, the church and religion, in general, survive and prosper to this day.

Albert Einstein, a religious man, once said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”  He did not believe God was out to trick humans as a test of faith, but rather he believed that by determining the physical realities of the universe, humans could also better define the boundaries of the spiritual.  

In his book, Galileo and the Science Deniers Mario Livio suggests both these scientists and believers in religion shared the belief that when science and scripture collide, it means humans are interpreting scripture wrong.

Using the scientific method, humans have begun to write that operator’s manual.  We’ve begun to determine the laws by which we must play. In coming blogs we will discuss some of what we have learned from science that relates to energy and sustainability.

Storm Clouds GatherOver the Water Hole
Kubaku, South Africa

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