January 12, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Debunk Scientists

What do you know?  We look to science to tell us about reality, but how confident can we be when they keep changing the tune?

  1. Undermining cosmology:  Science Daily tells us today that “Cosmology Standard Candle Not So Standard After All.”  Results from the Spitzer Space Telescope show that Cepheid variables shrink as they age, “making them not quite as standard as once thought.”  One co-author of the paper in Astrophysical Journal warned, “Everything crumbles in cosmology studies if you don’t start up with the most precise measurements of Cepheids possible.”  He is confident that “This discovery will allow us to better understand these stars, and use them as ever more precise distance indicators.”  But isn’t that what they told us last time?
  2. Through a glass distortedly:  Another thing undermining cosmology is the distorting effect of gravitational lenses.  PhysOrg reported that lensing can bias counts of distant objects 10 to 30 times.  “Future surveys will need to be designed to account for a significant gravitational lensing bias in high-redshift galaxy samples.”  Unfortunately, the Hubble Telescope can’t do the job, “because at Hubble’s resolution one literally can no longer see the forest for the trees at these extreme distances.”  We’ll have to wait for the James Webb Space Telescope, “if it gets finished as designed,” to tackle this problem that is of “crucial importance to the optimal design of surveys for the first galaxies.”  See also Space.com, “Cosmic Lenses May Spoil Count of Ancient Galaxies.”
  3. Through the looking glass:  Meanwhile, be sure to calibrate your telescope carefully.  Science Daily reported, “Telescope Calibration May Help Explain Mystery of Universe’s Expansion,” suggesting it hasn’t been done yet.  When dealing with one-of-a-kind ultimate things, though, what does one calibrate it to?  John Woodward, who is working on calibrating the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, doesn’t seem so sure: “because this is one of the first-ever such calibrations of a telescope, it is unclear just how much effect the team’s work will have, and part of their future work will be determining how much they have reduced the uncertainties in Pan-STARRS’s performance.”  Before he can measure the distortion of known uncertainties like gravitational lensing, maybe he needs to worry about the unknown uncertainties.
  4. Define asteroid:  We all know what asteroids are, right?  But did they exist before William Herschel invented the word?  While pondering that, Space.com argues that it was Herschel’s colleague Stephen Weston who invented the term.  OK, then, once humans agree on the term, all is settled, right?  Space.com told about a space rock undergoing an identity crisis.  Astronomers can’t decide if it is a comet or an asteroid.  It’s in the main asteroid belt, but has a tail (see picture on National Geographic).  Now they’re suggesting a new class of solar system objects: “main belt comets” – unless, that is, it turns out they’re seeing debris from a collision of two asteroids.
        NG indicated that some scientists are excited to find main belt comets because it brings special delivery trucks closer to earth for their implausible saga: “If you try to hit the Earth from the Kuiper belt, that’s a hell of a long shot,” David Jewitt [UCLA] said.  “But if you try to hit Earth from the asteroid belt, which is ten times closer, it’s much easier, because Earth is a bigger and closer target.”  Do any of you remember being told on the Discovery Channel that delivery of earth’s water via comets was a hell of a long shot?
  5. Genes aren’t everything:  Size up this statement from PhysOrg: “We’ve been taught that DNA is everything, but you could equally well say packaging is everything.”  Results of a massive survey called ENCODE (ENCyclopedia of DNA Elements), “to develop an encyclopedia of the epigenome, that is, of all of the many factors that can change the expression of the genes without changing the genes,” emphasizes the roles chromatin and chromosome packaging have on the resulting organism.  Codes are everywhere, including the code of silence: “Zen-like, she [Sarah C. R. Elgin, Washington University] concludes that silence may be as important as expression.  ‘It’s like sculpture – what you see depends not on what you add, but on what you take away.”
  6. Good cholesterol not so good:  We’ve been told that HDL is the “good cholesterol” that promotes heart health.  Not so fast, reported Live Science: “ Not All ‘Good’ Cholesterol is Good at Unclogging Arteries.”  According to new research at the U of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, “heart disease risk may be better assessed by measuring HDL’s ability to remove artery-clogging plaque, rather than the HDL levels themselves.”  In fact, there may be another substance that determines HDL’s ability to remove plaque.  Unfortunately for us all, “The test is too labor-intensive as it is to be used clinically, [Dr. Daniel J.] Rader said.”
  7. Human-caused climate error:  Scientists have tracked penguins as indicators of climate change.  Now they are finding out that the act of banding penguins both harms the birds and invalidates the measurements.  Banded penguins have 44% fewer chicks, not so much because of climate change, but due to the damage to their lifestyle.  “Banding may have skewed the data,” PhysOrg said, “but climate change is still harming and will harm penguins,” hedging its bets about validity of global warming.
        Live Science, though, said, “Because the approach diminishes survival and reproduction, Le Maho warned that climate change studies relying on banded birds are biased and produce questionable results.”  OK, so let’s just band something else.  Whoops: “[Rory] Wilson [Swansea University] said that the repercussions of banding would ‘absolutely’ carry over to other penguin species, and possibly even seals and sea turtles.”  Did we ever know what climate tune the band was playing?  If not, what should be the response to scientists like William Nordhaus telling politicians that “carbon taxes are the best approach to achieve significant emissions reductions”? (PhysOrg).

Steven Shapin is at it again, upsetting our notions of scientific truth (see 11/02/2010).  We want to believe scientists are impartial, unbiased seekers of truth, but in Science last week,1 Shapin [Harvard] reviewed a book exploring commercial influences on science, asking, “Commerce at the Helm?”  He pointed to scholars who believe that due to commercial interference, and the desire to please funding sources, “scientific integrity is being disastrously undermined.”  Here are his concluding remarks:

Despite pervasive myths of an ivory tower past, universities have always served their social masters and have always molded their internal cultures to those of the powers surrounding and sustaining them.  They have never done so completely, but neither have they ever been as contemplatively disengaged as legend implies.  Our whole society has become shot through with econometric sensibilities and corporate patterns of organization.  Why ever should we expect universities to be much different?  It’s a good question, meriting a considered and informed answer.  We’ve heard from the humanists and the social scientists; it’s time to hear a lot more from the natural scientists and engineers.  If the inhabitants of the modern research university cannot collectively agree that they want to push back, then the further alignment of research and teaching with econometric sensibilities is likely to be the future.

1.  Steven Shapin, “History of Science: Commerce at the Helm?”, Science, 7 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6013 p. 33, DOI: 10.1126/science.1198434.

If scientists keep changing their stories about things easily accessible to the senses in real time, how much can we expect confidence in their pronouncements about the unobservable past?

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