Sorting out Science from Junk Science

Is it really science?

By Roberta C. Barbalace

[Aug. 3, 2006]

The conflict between science-based theories and firmly held beliefs dates back to the earliest precursors of the scientific method. Around 140 A.D., Claudius Ptolemy wrote his theory on the motion of the planets(13). Lacking a clearly defined scientific method, Ptolemy likely started with the beliefs of the time that were based upon various religious scriptures (e.g. Joshua 10:13), and set out to find information that would substantiate that the Earth was stationary and the rest of the "heavens" revolved around it. Since the Ptolemaic theory was in keeping with the scriptures, the Church accepted it as absolute, and anyone who did not believe in the Ptolemaic theory was punished, often with house arrest(1). In the 1500s Nicholas Copernicus published a book in which he stated, "The sun is sitting in one place and the earth is going round the sun." However, he never disclosed that he was the author of the book for fear of retaliation. His fears were well founded because after his death, scholars who spoke in favor of his theory were sentenced to be burnt to death. The Ptolemaic theory was accepted as fact for about 1000 years when Galileo, with the benefit of a telescope, was able to disprove the long existing "theory."

No doubt, the scientific method was developed in response to false theories derived from reasoning that involved searching for evidence to support a desired conclusion and excluding any information that didn't fit the preconceived theory. The scientific method has its roots in the 1700s (and perhaps even earlier), and defines all valid scientific research today(2, 14).

Probably every generation has had to deal with some form of pseudo-science that has been accepted as fact based upon non-scientifically obtained information. One need only look at the "wisdom" of the 1940s warning that if one goes swimming within an hour of eating (even just wading), one will get a stomach cramp and drown. While common sense would dictate that swimming long distances or far from shore after a huge meal is not a wise thing to do, the belief that someone who swam within an hour after eating would almost assuredly knot up into a ball and sink to the bottom has simply never been verified (4,5). The practice of waiting an hour after eating before going into the water has all but vanished.

The development of the Internet has amplified the problem of pseudo-science, because anybody can publish anything, truth of fiction that will in turn become available to people throughout the world. While the average individual in the developed world is savvy about surfing the Internet, a much smaller percent of these individuals know how to determine if a publication contains correct information. After all, some of the writers out there can flaunt the title PhD after their names. Some may have dubious credentials, and others have skewed research results resulting from a conflict of interest or personal passion that interferes with the ability to conduct unbiased research.

Many websites are sponsored by organizations or individuals that might have hidden agendas. "The Greening Earth Society" (GES), for example, sounds like an organization that might be sponsored by a tree-hugging environmental group. In fact, it is sponsored by the Western Fuels Association, a multi-million dollar cooperative of western state coal-dependent utilities with interests that include discrediting climate change science and preventing the promulgation of regulations that might be to the best interest of coal-related industries(11). Another such organization is the "Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)(10, 12). " This organization is heavily funded by Exxon, and their major emphasis at the moment seems to be convincing the world that excessive CO2 is actually good for the environment. On the other hand, Green Peace often goes in the opposite direction trying to prove that any new innovation that is for profit must be bad for the environment and inspired by greed. If you think that these websites have minimal effect on what the average American believes, think again. I attended a forum for environmentally conscious businesses recently, in which a gentleman stood up and explained that it would be environmentally catastrophic if we did away with all of the coal-fired power plants because the plants wouldn't have the CO2 needed to photosynthesize.

The Greening Earth Society cites Pieter Tans and co-authors of the NOAA report on increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Greening Earth Society concluded that CO2 actually make plants grow better and faster, and thus, an increase in CO2 is actually beneficial to the environment. They point out specific examples of pastures in New Zealand, forests in Africa and crop fields around the world that have shown positive results as an effect of increased CO2 levels. Pieter Tans strongly disagrees with how Palmer has interpreted the study's findings(6,7). According to Tans "The magnitude of error in the study is great enough to make nothing certain," and "Not all of the causes for the results of the study are known(7)." Palmer also uses bits and pieces of information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study that seems to bend information in the direction of his beliefs, ignoring important information that were contrary to what he was trying to prove.

To the non-scientist, the "implied facts" are believable and impressive. That is exactly what the Greening Earth Society and the Competitive Enterprise Institute would have you believe. But think about it for a moment. Plants had little problem photosynthesizing before the power plants came along. In addition, an increase in CO2 poses a serious risk to human health. CO2 is necessary for plants to photosynthesize, but an increase in CO2 can have an affect on animals. Atmospheric oxygen concentration is reduced in proportion to the increase in CO2(9). An increase in CO2 tends to lead to an increase in pollen content of the air which increases problems with allergies(8). Most importantly, CO2 increase is almost always linked to an increase in other impurities that Greening Earth Society never mentions(7).

Aside from the effects of increased CO2 levels on animals, evidence linking increased CO2 levels to global warming is mounting, and it appears that global warming is already occurring. GES would have you belief that there is a big scientific debate over the reality of global warming and the harmful effects of CO2. In reality, the debate is scientists vs. the Greening Earth Society(7).

It takes time to vet an article for accuracy. It requires that one scrutinizes the information presented in the article against the knowledge one already has acquired on the subject. The article must be well written and contain current information. Look for footnotes, bibliographies, etc., and check them out for authenticity. The article must include quality references. It is not enough to look for impressive journal names and recognized scientists. References must be checked to verify that the author has presented the information from the publication honestly and appropriately. The reference may refer to information presented in the introduction and fail to include the fact that the research presented in the paper disagrees with the information presented in the introduction or literature search.

When evaluating a website, there are several questions you should ask. Who does the website represent, and where does the funding come from? Check out the members / officers of the organization and their interest in the subject. Are articles unbiased, or do they have personal or professional interests to protect? The website should be well balanced, presenting the facts rather than taking only one side of an issue. Take time to enter the name of the sponsoring organization or other website information as well as the author of the article into the search engine and see how many other websites refer to the website or authors. See what other websites have to say about the website, author or articles.

Study the author's credentials. Is the writer qualified by education or professional experience to be an authority on the subject matter? It is not sufficient for a writer to have a degree following his/her name. Check to see if the degree was awarded from a well-respected institution of higher learning, or if the positions an individual has held indicate that the individual is knowledgeable in the discipline being written about. Check for other significant articles by the same author on a similar topic. Check to see if the writer is cited positively by other writers.

This may sound like a lot of work, and it may be, at first, but the longer you use this technique, the better you will become at sorting out quality research from junk science. The results of such investigative work will be quality research on your part that will be respected by other researchers.

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