Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for January, 2016

“Dark matter” and dinosaur extinction

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/06

“Everyone” knows that the collision of an asteroid with Earth damaged the environment so much that the dinosaurs died out and only much smaller creatures survived. Many also know that the impact crater, the Chicxulub crater, has been found beneath the surface near the Yucatan peninsula. Just consult Wikipedia, or Google for more sources.

Except: Google also turns up some reservations, for instance “What really killed the dinosaurs? New challenges to the impact theory” (BBC program).

Several decades ago already, paleontologist Dewey McLean (as well as some other geologists and paleontologists) had made the case that the dinosaur extinction was brought about by climate changes owing largely to the enormous volcanic activity associated with the Deccan Traps (a region in India) —
see Dewey M. McLean, “Impact winter in the global K/T extinctions: no definitive evidence”, pp. 493-503 in Global Biomass Burning: Atmospheric, Climatic, and Biospheric Implications, ed. J. S. Levine, MIT Press, 1991.
(McLean’s somewhat lonely public dissidence is mentioned in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [McFarland 2012, pp. 97-8]. I knew McLean, we worked at the same university.)

Donald Prothero is also a paleontologist. Recently he posted the following in a book review on amazon.com:
“that the impact at the end of the Cretaceous is the primary cause of the extinction of dinosaurs has been discredited in recent years. . . . the consensus has now swung to the idea that the massive Deccan eruptions in India and Pakistan were far more important to the end-Cretaceous extinctions.”

Prothero’s review is of the book by Lisa Randall, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, which postulates the presence in the Milky Way (our galaxy) of a disc of “dark matter” that somehow periodically liberates comets or asteroids that go on to cause periodic extinction events on Earth.
In his amazon.com review, Prothero also debunks the notion that extinctions follow an identifiably periodic pattern.

My own trouble with Randall’s speculation is that “dark matter” is no more than a fudge factor necessary to make Big-Bang cosmology fit the observed facts. There is no shred of direct empirical evidence that “dark matter” exists.
Things just don’t add up in Big-Bang cosmology. Actual observations of quasars and galaxies do not jibe with calculations based on the known force of gravity and on the presumption that redshifts reflect speed relative to Earth (Doppler effect).
There isn’t enough gravity. So “dark matter” was invented to yield that needed extra gravity. “Dark matter” is associated with “dark energy”, for which we have no evidence either.
All this “dark” stuff is supposed to make up more than 90% of the universe, at the same time as “dark” is the euphemism for “we know nothing about it, we just need it to make the equations balance”.

This collection of science fiction is treated respectfully by the media.

But there is a much simpler explanation for the failure of Big-Bang cosmology to fit the observed facts. There is strong evidence that redshifts of quasars do not always result purely from Doppler effects, that quasars are associated with the creation of new matter which has an inherent redshift:
— see Halton Arp, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies (Interstellar Media 1987) and Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science (Apeiron 1998); for a summary, see pp. 113-18 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine.

Which all goes to show, as many others besides me have often remarked, that “What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)”.  On all but the most non-controversial issues, TED talks and Wikipedia entries are among the sources most likely to be wrong, moreover wrong dogmatically, insistently, aggressively, uncompromisingly, as they treat every contemporary (and thereby temporary) mainstream consensus as Gospel truth.

A pervasive problem is that mainstream dogmas are taken as truth by people outside the particular field of knowledge:
Randall is a physicist, so she is not familiar with the range of views among paleontologists and geologists.
On the matter of HIV/AIDS, one finds economists like South African Nicoli Nattrass (The AIDS Conspiracy: Science fights back) and political scientists like Courtney Jung (Lactivism: How feminists and fundamentalists, hippies and yuppies, and physicians and politicians made breastfeeding big business and bad policy) getting the facts totally wrong, even citing mainstream sources incorrectly.
Many social scientists get a whole lot wrong about science, as when Steven Shapin asserted that scientists don’t value their technicians appropriately (p. 142 in Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press 2001).
No one is immune, because we cannot look at the primary evidence on every topic of interest, so we have to decide, more or les by instinct, which mainstream beliefs to accept, at least provisionally, and which to doubt enough that further digging is called for. I went wrong by accepting mainstream views about UFOs and about homosexuality,  for example, and I’m probably wrong on some other issues where I haven’t yet woken up to it. But at least I’m aware of the problem. The media, though, apparently are not aware of it, nor are the publishers who put out books like Nattrass’s or Jung’s or Randall’s.

 

Posted in consensus, media flaws, science is not truth, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

What is scientific literacy good for?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/03

The way scientific literacy is defined and measured makes no sense — see Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method (1992/1994 and still in print, which surely says something about the validity of its arguments).
Scientific literacy is measured by what people know about things like atoms and about “the scientific method”, in effect by how well they could function within science; whereas scientific literacy should surely mean what non-scientists need to know about the role of science in society: when to believe the experts and when not to. About medicine, by analogy, we don’t need to know how drugs work, say, we just need to know where to find data about how long they have been in use and what their side effects are and whether there’s already a law suit against the manufacturer that is still actively advertising it (quite a common circumstance; see anticoagulants Pradaxa and Xarelto and anti-diabetes Invokana at the moment (2015-16).

It turns out that current measurements of scientific literacy yield results that should be highly embarrassing to the expert gurus on this topic.

For example, people who score high on “scientific literacy” do poorly on distinguishing pseudo-science from science — Chris Impey, Sanlyn Buxner, Jessie Antonellis, Elizabeth Johnson, & Courtney King, “A twenty-year survey of science literacy among college undergraduates”, Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (#4, 2011) 31-7.

When it comes to human-caused climate change, perhaps the measures of “scientific literacy” are pretty meaningful after all, because the most scientifically literate according to these tests are least likely to believe that human generation of carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change:
“Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy: Cultural values, not knowledge, shape global warming views, a study finds” (Janet Raloff, 29 May 2012)

“New study: Numerical and Science Literacy cause Climate Change Skepticism” (1 June 2012)”

“Study: Climate skeptics and proponents score highest on climate science literacy…but are the most polarized” (Anthony Watts, 23 February 2015)

As I had pointed out in the first entry on this blog (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?), most people’s views about human-caused climate change are determined by their political affiliation and not by their understanding of science or familiarity with the evidence.

 

Posted in global warming, media flaws, politics and science, scientific literacy | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Who can be trusted about science? Not the Royal Society of London or the National Academy of the United States

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/01

An earlier post (Mainstream propaganda by the BBC about denialism and global warming) described a BBC television documentary in which the President of the Royal Society of London presided over a thoroughly misleading piece of propaganda seeking to entrench mainstream dogma about human-caused climate change, HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the claimed safety of genetically modified foods and plants.

The merest smattering of knowledge of the history of science and a smidgeon of common sense ought to suffice to demonstrate that the mainstream dogma is unwarranted on all three of those issue, incidentally:

1. Human-caused climate change: There is simply no proof on offer. The dogma is based on the banality that carbon dioxide gas absorbs infrared radiation, and that global temperatures overall have been rising in the last 150 years or so at the same time as industrial development has increasingly generated carbon dioxide.
But global temperatures actually cooled from the 1940s to the 1970s while CO2 was increasing, and temperatures have remained steady since about 2000 while, again, CO2 continued to increase. QED.

2. HIV and AIDS. HIV is held responsible for an epidemic of AIDS spread chiefly through sexual intercourse.
The website of the National Institutes of Health reports the apparent transmissibility of HIV as 8 per 10,000 acts of unprotected intercourse, from male to female; transmissibility from female o male is half of that, 4 per 10,000. Any epidemic requires that each infected individual pass the infection on to more than one other person in a short space of time. Transmissibility of less than 1 per 1000 is entirely incapable of generating an epidemic.
For comparison, transmissibility of known sexually transmitted diseases is not far from 1 in 2 (for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis).

3. All the conceivable possible dangers of genetically modified organisms and their products cannot possibly be known or measured. No matter how much data accumulates, the unknown unknown may at any time deliver a black swan to confound all the scientific predictions and assurances. Half a century ago Alvin Weinberg pointed that out with respect to the safety of nuclear reactors. “Science” of course declared them safe, in other words Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Fukushima could not possibly have occurred. For what Wikipedia is worth, it lists 99 significant accidents in all.

But back to the Royal Society and human-caused climate change.

Andrew Montford has described in full detail how the Royal Society of London has been a proselytizer of human-caused climate change since at least 1989, under three successive Presidents and contrary to the Society’s proper role, which is to stick to science and leave politics and policy to others; see Nullius in Verba: On the Word of No One — The Royal Society and Climate Change.

The Royal Society pamphlet, A SHORT GUIDE TO climate science,  poses 20 questions and gives a one-paragraph pot-boiler answer to each, for example

“1. Is the climate warming?
Yes. Earth’s average surface air temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F) since 1900, with much of this increase taking place since the mid-1970s. A wide range of other observations such as sea-level rise, reduced Arctic sea ice extent and increased ocean heat content provide
incontrovertible evidence of a warming Earth.”

These one-paragraph mind-bites are expanded in Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts, and Choices (NatAcadPress2012-14673), published jointly by the Royal Society of London and the National Academy of science of the United States. The questions are the same but worded differently, for example the first is not “Is the climate warming?” but “How do we know that Earth has warmed?”.
That small change has a rhetorical significance that is far from small: the question is no longer treated as open, it is declared to have been settled.

All those answers are misleading in some way, however, and they have been thoroughly debunked in THE SMALL PRINT: What the Royal Society Left Out.

In response to question 1 and its answer, for example:
“A fuller picture: This is hardly an important question. The Earth’s surface is always warming or cooling, or on some occasions barely changing. What is important is that the change referred to is small and imperfectly measured. It should also be stressed that the Royal Society guide does not mention the role of the time window they are using for comparison. The climate has cooled since the mid-Holocene climatic optimum 8,000 years ago, and the warming of the past few decades is relatively small in comparison.
Surface temperatures have increased on average by about 0.8°C since 1900. There was a rise of around 0.5°C at the start of the twentieth century, followed by a small fall from 1940 to 1970. From then until the late 1990s temperatures rose by around 0.5°C. Differences of a tenth of a degree are insignificant. The temperature is virtually unchanged from that at the beginning of the century. The two periods of increase are indistinguishable, although the earlier increase cannot be attributed to increased carbon dioxide.
The relation of other observations such as sea-level rise, Arctic sea ice extent and ocean heat content all depend on more factors than global mean temperature, and are hardly incontrovertible evidence of warming. That said, the possible acceleration of ocean heat content accumulation and sea level rise are close to the limits of our ability to detect and the values involved cannot be reconciled to each other. Depending on the time scale, other observational datasets are still more equivocal: global sea ice levels declined for several decades but are now above their long-term mean.”

In any case, on an even longer time-scale, that global temperatures are increasing is not in dispute, given that we are only about 15,000 years after a major Ice Age and it will likely be warming for about another 80,000-100,000 years or so before it cools again toward the next major Ice Age — there have been 7 or 8 such major Ice Ages in the last million years or so.

Only a couple of years after the Royal Society and National Academy had published Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts, and Choices, the same two bodies published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes (NatAcadPress2014-18730), which goes even further in declaring settled as fact that human generation of carbon dioxide has been primarily responsible for global warming. This last pamphlet is replete with rhetorical trickery, sins of omission and of commission, and is clearly propaganda, nothing like a cool scientific assessment of the evidence. My detailed critique of it has just been published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration: NAS-RS Review.

That the Royal Society and the National Academy are actively pushing to entrench as settled belief that human activities are producing climate change is evident from the way in which their publications have become increasingly one-sided, emphatic, and regrettably dishonest.

 

Posted in global warming, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »