Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Science?

Science is sexy.
As fans of this blog know, and I thank both of you from the bottom of my heart for sticking around with this, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to improbable claims for probable events. It’s not that I think I know everything, far from it, but I am willing to admit that just because I don’t know something doesn’t mean I have to fill in the blanks with stuff that would get the average Sci-Fi writer laughed out of business were they to present it as a plot. Think of Battlefield Earth writ large. Something so devoid of logic that it defies you to contradict it. But what does bug me, and it turns out that I’m not alone, is when someone says the scientific equivalent of “The man be holding me down.” Actual science has presented some hilariously bizarre ideas. Some, oddly enough, have turned out to be true. For example, did you know that you can use radio waves to break salt water into its component elements? Or, to put it a more useful way, you could make salt water safe to drink. Among many other things.

Well, Steven Newton from Huffington Post took a trip to a real science convention to see how the truth was being kept from the masses. He found two things; (1) it wasn’t, and (2) the masses are clinically insane.

Here are some recent headlines:

“Darwin Challenged, Research Censored”
“Global Warming Study Censored by EPA”
“Darwin Censors Strike Again”

You might get the impression from such headlines that scientists are engaged in systematic suppression of dissent, ruthlessly silencing all those who fail to toe the party line on evolution and climate. One governor went so far as to compare those who reject the science of climate change to Galileo, suggesting such doubters are scientific martyrs.

While some fantasize that all scientists work together in a secretive Marxist cabal dedicated to ruining the economy with carbon caps and foisting godless materialism onto impressionable youngsters, the truth is quite different.

One place to see the tolerance and openness of the scientific community is at conferences. As it happens, I’ve just returned from one such meeting, the 2011 meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA), one of the biggest get-togethers for earth scientists in the country.

GSA has a history of openness that might surprise those who imagine scientists as censors. As I detailed in an article for Earth magazine, in 2009 and 2010, the GSA allowed well-known young-earth creationists to run field trips and give presentations at GSA conferences. I have argued that because the young-earth creationists’ presentations followed the guidelines for presentations, used normal techniques, and employed the standard geologic timeline, the GSA made the right decision in allowing them.

This year’s conference again hosted a few more cryptic creationist posters, but these actually seemed tame compared to a few of the other presentations.

One odd GSA talk reinterpreted a fossil assemblage as the discarded meals of a giant “Triassic Kraken.” In a titanic clash of science and sensationalism, this crafty cephalopod was conjectured to be the “most intelligent invertebrate ever” — so talented, in fact, that it sculpted “the earliest known self-portrait” using the bones of its prey. Uh huh.

No word if this kraken was also able to predict the outcomes of World Cup games. One astute commentator, noting that there was “not a shred of actual evidence to back up the claims,” suggested the talk should have been titled the “Squid that Ate Common Sense.” Far from censoring even outlandish ideas, here the GSA here let a very wild idea see the light of day.

Not to be outdone, another GSA presentation posited “Plausible explanations for two major events in earth history.” To the skeptic’s ear, when the word “plausible” needs to be included, this is a warning sign that what is described may not, in fact, be so plausible. And this poster presentation did not disappoint. It described previously unrecognized impacts of “two large asteroids,” which apparently caused the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Pangaea into different continents. These impact-driven land masses were hurled across the globe in “minutes rather than millennia.” India, for example, slammed against Asia “with greatest initial velocity” to create the Himalayas. The evidence for all this was supposedly “readily observable via Google Maps.” Uh huh.

What do these presentations tell us? For one thing, the idea that the scientific community ruthlessly enforces conformity is wrong. The claim that scientists are censors holds about as much weight as the idea that the thrashing of the tentacles of a giant squid is responsible for plate tectonics. (Hey, there’s a thought for the next GSA conference…)

While purveyors of pseudoscience and deniers of well-established science alike complain bitterly about alleged exclusion and censorship of their ideas, the truth is that if they submitted their ideas for the scrutiny of the people attending a relevant scientific conference, or for the review of an appropriate scientific journal, they would likely get a fair hearing.

Consider this: Do you think arsenic is part of the DNA of Mono Lake bacteria? A paper positing this was published last year in Science — and quickly debunked. Do you think you can create cold fusion using simple lab equipment? That claim was seriously considered — and quickly shown to be false.

These ideas have something in common: They were not censored. Despite the accusations of scientists colluding in a conspiracy to silence dissent, the reality is very different.

One strength of science is its process for considering even outlandish proposals, giving them a fair and skeptical hearing, and discarding those ideas which simply do not have the evidence. Even after rejection, the door remains open for new evidence to change initial conclusions; perhaps a yet-undiscovered fossil will reveal a kraken in the act of composing a self-portrait.

So the next time you hear someone claiming their ideas about evolution or climate change are being censored by scientists, tell them that if they truly have evidence, they should submit it and let other scientists critique it. Science is not a spectator sport; get in the game or go home.

I know a man who, and he honestly believes this, has invented a perpetual motion machine. When it is noted that there is no such thing as frictionless matter he simply shrugs. That’s reality’s problem, not his.

But, as to the article above, it is one example, of many, of scientists doing their level best to give everyone a fair hearing. As I have noted before, though, they do expect you to have something resembling evidence to back up your claim. They are funny that way.

And, to be fair, some very solid ideas have emerged from the fringes. String theory started there.

Here’s how science works, for those of you who are new to this.

First, you have a hunch. Just an idea, nothing more.

Second, you have a hypothesis, this is your hunch backed up by enough data to make it interesting.

Third you have a theory. This is a hypothesis that now has enough facts to verify it that scientists can use it as a template for further research. That does not mean that it is writ in stone. Evolution, for example, is a theory. It allows for science to learn more while providing a framework for others to work from.

If, after a long time and tons of research the theory no longer needs to change, it becomes a fact.

Where bad science happens is when people mistake a hunch for a fact. Something that happens every day, sadly enough.

But now that you know you can prevent bad science from happening to you.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5_Xsx2mgnc&w=480&h=360]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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