June 26, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Markers Can Mislead

In historical sciences, observable phenomena are often used as indicators of past phenomena.  Some recent examples show how these can mislead researchers.

Ice cores:  A press release from University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoed on NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, has climate scientists scrambling.  For decades, they have used Greenland ice cores as proxies for historical climate change, particularly the ratios of oxygen isotopes in bubbles in the ice.  Now, research has shown that these ratios are misleading and can exaggerate temperatures.  The press release is concerned with one particular period scientists have labeled the Younger Dryas, alleged to be 13,000 years ago, when the temperature supposedly plummeted, according to the old interpretation of oxygen ratios in Greenland ice.  Trouble is, that indicator is at odds with other indicators.

We don’t believe the ice cores can be interpreted purely as a signal of temperature,” says Anders Carlson, a University of Wisconsin–Madison geosciences professor. “You have to consider where the precipitation that formed the ice came from.”

So, will a simple correction bring the data into conformance with theory?  “It’s a fresh reminder from an ancient ice core that climate science is full of nuance,” Carlson said.  “Abrupt climate changes have happened, but they come with complex shifts in the way climate inputs like moisture moved around.  You can’t take one difference and interpret it solely as changes in temperature, and that’s what we’re seeing here in the Greenland ice cores.”

Gravitational lenses:  A press release from JPL today has cosmologists worried.  They found an arc of light where it shouldn’t be.  According to theory, arcs are the light of distant galaxies distorted by intervening matter.  “The giant arc is the stretched shape of a more distant galaxy whose light is distorted by the monster cluster’s powerful gravity, an effect called gravitational lensing,” the article explained.  “The trouble is, the arc shouldn’t exist.”  This sent one observer of the Hubble image into a psychological crisis:

“When I first saw it, I kept staring at it, thinking it would go away,” said study leader Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, whose team includes researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “According to a statistical analysis, arcs should be extremely rare at that distance. At that early epoch, the expectation is that there are not enough galaxies behind the cluster bright enough to be seen, even if they were ‘lensed,’ or distorted by the cluster. The other problem is that galaxy clusters become less massive the further back in time you go. So it’s more difficult to find a cluster with enough mass to be a good lens for gravitationally bending the light from a distant galaxy.”

The lensing galaxy is extremely distant and massive, containing an estimated mass of 10 trillion suns – but the galaxy behind it, whose light is distorted, is so close to the time of the big bang, it shouldn’t exist.  “The chance of finding such a gigantic cluster so early in the universe was less than one percent in the small area we surveyed,” one JPL team member said. “It shares an evolutionary path with some of the most massive clusters we see today, including the Coma cluster and the recently discovered El Gordo cluster.”  It’s unlikely this giant cluster is unique.

There are several lessons here, and one of them is not the triumphal march of scientific progress.

First, consider that all the papers written up to these discoveries are now wrong.  Are they going to be corrected?  Unlikely.  The errors will continue to be cited, perpetuating falsehoods.  The IPCC will use Greenland ice cores as proof positive of climate fluctuations in the unobservable past.  The fictional Younger Dryas and Older Dryas periods will continue to be spoken of in textbooks.  As we have seen with the Haeckel embryos and other undying frauds, myths are as hard to exterminate as ants in the kitchen.

Second, these revelations reveal knowns turning into unknowns, and a couple of unknown unknowns become known unknowns.  But if one does not know the extent of the unknown unknowns, or the unknowable unknowns (see Evolution News & Views), there is no confidence that future revelations will not undermine today’s knowns further, showing scientific regress rather than progress.  Philosophically, it is impossible in any system whose boundaries are unconstrained to account for it from within.  As with Godel’s Theorem, you can’t prove arithmetic with arithmetic, or geometry with geometry.  Higher-order information is needed.

Third, flexible theories contradict scientific progress.  If gravitational lensing theory is correct, the observation described above has just cast serious doubt on evolutionary cosmology.  The most massive galaxies should not exist so close to the big bang.  Since the observation can’t be tweaked, the evolutionary story will have to give.  But even if the standard model gets rescued somehow by alterations of theory, it goes to show that theories are plastic.  That will have to be said of the rescued theory, and possibly other theories considered well-established today.

It was cute of Carlson to sugar-coat the ice-core problem with a euphemism: “This goes to show that climate science is full of nuance” (i.e., subtle distinctions).  Phonetically speaking, we can translate “nuance” to mean that what they knew once they don’t know now.


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  • rockyway says:

    “The lensing galaxy is extremely distant and massive, containing an estimated mass of 10 trillion suns…”

    – There’s no way for human beings to imagine how big the universe is. This is as impossible as it would be for an ant to imagine a trip to Mars.

    I think there are theological implications to the fact the universe is incomprehensibly large. I consider it a strong reason to affirm the incomprehensibility of God. (i.e. that God is so much greater than we are that we cannot fully comprehend Him.)This in turn means that we must rely on special revelation for true knowledge about God.

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