December 17, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Debunker Busters

Often in science reports, new findings debunk previously held beliefs.  But then, a thoughtful reader might ask, didn’t the previously held belief debunk a belief prior to that?  Sometimes it gets difficult to believe the current belief has any credibility, when the debunkers turn on each other.

  1. A dilemma about dilemmas:  Psychologists and philosophers have used moral dilemmas to probe the principles of individuals and groups.  Now, however, Science Daily says that the results may be biased by the way the questions are posed.  A new study indicated, “Small changes in wording can affect judgments in ways that have nothing to do with differences in moral principles.  Psychologists that analyze judgment and decision making in consumer behavior are aware of this fact.  We applied these same methods to this scenario to illustrate that subjects’ responses could not possibly be attributed to any known moral principles.”
  2. Educational folly:  Are you a visual learner or a verbal learner?  For some three decades, it has been popular among educators to believe that students vary in their learning styles.  The idea is appealing: teachers need to tailor their pedagogy to the student.  “The long-standing popularity of the learning styles movement has in turn created a thriving commercial market amongst researchers, educators, and the general public,” reported Science Daily.  “But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?” the article asked.  “Unfortunately, the answer is no, according to a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.”
        The team investigating the movement found “those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.”  There are certain criteria in research design to guard against erroneous correlations and conclusions.  “The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design.”  There was also little support to show that students did better with learning-style-based education.
        Undoubtedly many of the “71 different models of learning styles that have been proposed over the years” were developed with good intentions, but is it possible that “the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources”?
  3. What are you seeing?  In the retina, rods are rods and cones are cones, and never the twain shall meet.  Not so, reported a new study reported in PNAS.1  “Direct rod input to cone BCs [bipolar cells] and direct cone input to rod BCs challenge the traditional view of mammalian BC circuitry,” the title reads.  “This is grounds for revising the mammalian rod/cone bipolar cell dogma.”  Earlier eye researchers must have been dogmatic without scientific grounds for it.  The team’s findings open up the possibility that the retina performs complex crosstalk analysis between rod neurons and cone neurons to enhance vision.  “They provide clear physiological evidence for functional tertiary rod/cone pathways as well as grounds for revising the rod/cone bipolar-cell dogma in the mammalian retina.”
  4. Mammoth discovery:  Woolly mammoths were alive not that long ago, reported Live Science.  Based on ancient DNA in Alaskan permafrost soil samples, a team estimates that they survived till 7,600 years ago – nearly half the old 12,000-year figure for the date of their extinction. 
  5. Oil without dinosaurs:  Science Daily wrote last month, “Scientists in Washington, D.C. are reporting laboratory evidence supporting the possibility that some of Earth’s oil and natural gas may have formed in a way much different than the traditional process described in science textbooks” – that is, the familiar tale that “Prehistoric plants died and changed into oil and gas while sandwiched between layers of rock in the hot, high-pressure environment deep below Earth’s surface.”  The debunking in this Nov. 6 article actually “un-debunks” an old idea from the 19th century that methane and other hydrocarbons might be produced abiotically, without fossil fuels.

If long-held beliefs such as these are being overturned, after being held as “scientific truth” for decades or centuries, how do we know that today’s current dogmas are invulnerable to turnarounds?  A future discovery might even debunk the debunkers in these stories – some of whom debunked earlier debunkers.  To paraphrase an old hamburger commercial, where’s the bunk?


1.  Pang, Gao et al, “Direct rod input to cone BCs [bipolar cells] and direct cone input to rod BCs challenge the traditional view of mammalian BC circuitry,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 14, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907178107.

OK, these are interesting anomalies, but we know that science produces truth, that man is causing the earth to heat up, and that evolution is a fact.  Got it?  A FACT.  Facts do not change.  Facts are real.  Faith is not.  Science generates knowledge by a scientific method that filters out bias.  Peer review ensures that bad science is weeded out.  Science has no room for dogma!  If a strongly-held belief is challenged by science, then out it must go!  (Like evolution?)  Don’t try to get logical with me!  Evolution is a fact!  Got it?  A FACT.
Time to revisit the 10/28/2009 entry.

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Categories: Education, Human Body, Mammals

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