This week we shall explore misconceptions about science generally, and then take a few specific cases for further examination. There are a few concepts that are essential to understand about what makes science work, and why it is the best tool that we have to understand the natural world, and to use science to improve the human condition.
There are two fundamental large scale misconceptions about science, and we shall treat them first. Then there are an almost unlimited supply of what I call false science, meaning that scientific terms and logic based on incorrect premises are used in attempts by those who actually know better to influence people. The fundamental misconceptions are sort of to be expected from folks who are not educated in science, but he false science is used by nefarious persons to influence those not versed in real science, usually for a monetary or a social goal or goals. Please let us explore.
The first misconception about science is that it can answer all questions. That is patently false, because science can answer only questions that have a real, physical basis. Science can NOT be used to penetrate questions about religion, faith, or things that can not be tested in controlled environments. To ask a scientist to prove or disprove the existence of a deity is ridiculous, because such a being is beyond scientific methodology, because such a being could arbitrarily influence the outcome of any experiment by divine intervention. Real science does not recognize divine intervention in actual experiments. The problem with that is IF (and I do not agree with this IF) there is such a thing as divine intervention, all bets are worthless. Most scientists discount that as a factor in their experiments.
The second misconception is that there is only one way to examine data and determine what it means. That is false because, assuming valid data, many different explanations can be made to interpret it. The classic example is the theory of phlogiston, thought to be the basis of fire. Some of the finest scientists of the 18th century believed in it, and defended it for decades. Some even proposed bizarre ideas about negative mass to defend the theory.
What science does do well is just this: a well defined system is subjected to changes, one at a time at best, and data are taken about the outcome of the experiment. Then another change is made, and more data taken. This goes on until a good model (also called a theory) can be made. Here is an example.
Let us consider a chemical reaction like combustion. The old phlogiston theory said that all combustible materials contained that substance, and heating them to a high enough temperature would release it, causing fire. Since the ashes had less mass than the, for example, the wood that produced them, it made sense. When Priestly prepared essentially pure oxygen, he noted that a candle would burn much more brightly and faster, so he called oxygen dephogistonated air. That still made sense with the old theory.
It was not until other scientists did other experiments that showed that if ALL of the products and starting materials were accounted for that the mass actually INCREASED. That is why the idea that phlogiston had a negative mass surfaced. IF burnt materials got heavier, it must mean that phlogiston, by leaving, allows the mass of the residual matter to increase.
It was not until Lavoisier did his carefully controlled experiments that showed that things that are burnt actually absorb oxygen from the air, thus accounting for the increase in mass. His carefully controlled set of experiments put the death nail into the heart of the phlogiston theory, and his ideas about combustion being the union of atmospheric oxygen and fuel are universally accepted now. By the way, those were conducted in the late 17th century, just before he lost his head to the guillotine. He was an aristocrat, and at the time the French masses had no truck with them.
Now we shall examine a few, current false science fallacies. Some of these might be controversial, but I have done my research. My side of each of these stories represent the consensus of real scientists.
Dinosaurs and humans lived together
This is a perennial favorite of the creation "science" folks, and is one of the largest pieces of nonsense going. These people believe that the earth is only a few millenia old and that it is necessary for dinosaurs to walk with humans. Unfortunately, science completely debunks their ideas. Radioisotope dating conclusively shows that the planet is almost four and a half billion years old, but they will have none of that. Some of their arguments are false science. One of my favorites is that the rate of radioactive decay has actually varied over the millenia to produce such large amounts of lead. Another example, not a "scientific" is that the creator (in some versions Satan, to confound us) actually contaminated those uranium samples with the lead isotope that results from the decay of uranium-238 so that it merely appears that the earth is that old.
Their goal is to "prove" that the earth is young as in the Genesis account, and they will do anything to do it. These people have no compunction about distorting facts, and none against just making things up from whole cloth. Near where I live there is the Creation Museum with animatronic dinosaurs alongside "cavemen". There is just no evidence that humans and dinosaurs EVER lived anywhere near the same time, and a very simple logical argument answers the question. There are lots of dinosaur fossils, and there are quite a few human remains. If dinosaurs and humans had lived together, at least in a few occasions there should be a mixture of the two in the same rock strata. This has never been observed.
If one wants to have the faith that the earth was created around 7000 years ago, that is fine. Just do not try to use science to "prove" it, because it can not be done.
Global Climate Change (aka Global Warming) is false because of all of the snow
This is just a silly idea. The ignorant Sean Hannity went with this idea for a long time, and so did the drug addled Limbaugh. The fact is that climate change, called inaccurately Global Warming, is real. Here is why we have floods and snows, and it is very simple. The warmer waters near the equator send up much more water vapor into the atmosphere than when that water was cooler years ago. It is still cold at the poles, and that cold air still spins away from them. But now that cold air encounters more warm, water filled air, and the precipitation has to fall. Thus, more snow in cold places and flooding rains in less cold places.
Because the patterns change, with more water falling overall, does not mean that it falls everywhere. The western part of the United States is getting more and more dry, mostly because the water is falling in other places. Look at the devastating flooding in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys this year, and the record snowfalls of last winter. These can be attributed to greater moisture loading in the atmosphere.
Now, I will certainly allow that global atmospheric processes are much more complex that the relatively straightforward nuclear decay, because atmospheric processes are much more chaotic and interactive. I wish that the computer models were better, but the truth is that there is no single, all inclusive model that can be relied on completely. However, air and sea temperature readings are pretty simple, and they show a definite upwards trend. Warmer air means more energy in that air, and this is consistent with the weather patterns that we have seen of late. The fear is that there may be some tipping point where the changes interact with each other such that a runaway heating event occurs, but we have no model that is good enough to predict exactly where that point, if it exists, might be.
We can debate the severity of climate change and even how much of it is the results of human actions, in particular the burning of fossil fuels. But to deny that the climate is changing is just in conflict with the facts that we have.
Clean coal technology exists and is widely used
Sorry, not even close. Sure, we have some good ideas for using coal more wisely, but the concept of clean coal does not really exist. Coal, by its very nature, can NEVER be clean with respect to carbon dioxide production since it is essentially pure carbon. But, Doc, I have read that coal can be converted into the much cleaner burning methane (natural gas). Yes, it can. But to do this requires a source of large amounts of hydrogen. Where do we get most of our industrial hydrogen? We react coal with water to produce hydrogen. Remember, though, that water is H2O, and the oxygen in the water reacts with the carbon in the coal to produce carbon dioxide! So we produce carbon dioxide to make the hydrogen to convert more coal to methane!
This is a no win situation. It is possible to produce hydrogen by the electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen, but that requires large amounts of electricity. Where does most US electricity originate? It comes from burning coal. There is another problem that has to do with thermodynamics. No process is 100% efficient, and heat engines are actually fairly low. Generating electricity is a pretty inefficient process, so we lose more than we gain making hydrogen that way. Besides, even burning natural gas produces some carbon dioxide.
There is another problem with coal, and that is mercury. Every year, coal fired electrical plants inject tons and tons of mercury into the atmosphere, and this bioaccumulates in top predators, mostly aquatic. In many regions of the US people are advised not to eat bass and other predator species of fish because of mercury, and albacore tuna is another fish that we are cautioned not to eat very often, and not all if pregnant or a small child.
Take with a very large grain of salt the pieces that you read about clean coal. That is a propaganda tag line from the coal industry.
Well, you have done it again! You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this barely scientific piece. And even though Glenn Beck becomes nondelusional when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could ever hope to teach by writing this series, so keep those comments, questions, corrections, and other feedback coming. Tips and recs are also always welcome.
If you have topics in addition to the ones that I covered in this piece, please do not hesitate to bring them up in the comment section. I shall stick around here tonight as long as comments warrant, and shall be back tomorrow at about the same time to answer late ones.
Wednesday on My Little Town we shall start one of many discussions about my maternal grandmother, and Friday on Popular Culture we shall finish my coverage of The Who's seminal album, Tommy. I hope that you join with us then, both posting at 9:00 PM Eastern.