February 4, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Doubts About Dates and Climate

New findings cast doubt on scientists’ ability to be certain about their consensus views.

Radiometric Dating

Paper spotlights key flaw in widely used radioisotope dating technique (North Carolina State University). Physicists just noticed a factor not included in common radiometric dating techniques: differential mass diffusion. This means that different isotopes of parent or daughter elements can diffuse out of rocks at different rates.

An oversight in a radioisotope dating technique used to date everything from meteorites to geologic samples means that scientists have likely overestimated the age of many samples, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

The problem does not apply to radiocarbon dating, but only to radioisotopes that give long ages in the millions of years, such as rubidium-strontium. The researchers also believe that corrections can be made to make published dates more accurate. But the press release reveals something suspect: scientists usually see scatter in the dates, so they tweak the data according to an arbitrary standard:

The data from radioisotope analysis tends to be somewhat scattered. So, researchers “normalize” the data by making a ratio with strontium-86, which is stable – meaning it doesn’t decay over time.

The wrinkle, however, is that ratios will change if the other isotopes are moving around. In fact, strontium-86 is more likely to diffuse out, because it’s smaller. This can lead to date inflation. Michael Irving at The New Atlas quotes one of the researchers: “If we don’t account for differential mass diffusion, we really have no idea how accurate a radioisotope date actually is.”

Climate Models

Questioning the consensus on man-caused climate change is one of the quickest ways to be labeled ‘anti-science’ in these times. So we dare not rely on any ‘global warming deniers’ here. We’ll look just at some recent news. Do the IPCC’s models take these factors into account?

Vast peatlands found in the Congo Basin (Nature). How could anything on earth escape discovery after decades of satellite imaging and monitoring? Yes this article states, “The discovery of what is potentially the world’s largest continuous tropical peat complex has great implications for global carbon stocks, land management and scientific investment in central Africa.” Peatlands are supposed to be leading reservoirs of carbon. The authors feel that any change to this area, such as reduced rainfall, could affect its ability to store carbon. But if they didn’t discover this till now, their inputs of peat into carbon models must have been off.

Holocene peatland and ice-core data constraints on the timing and magnitude of CO2 emissions from past land use (PNAS). Here’s another overlooked or miscalculated factor about human effects on climate. “Timing, extent, and impacts of preindustrial agricultural expansion are uncertain, yet crucial for understanding the role of humans in the Earth’s environmental history,” four American and European researchers say. “Our analyses of the terrestrial carbon balance reveal a large nonpeatland land carbon source after the Mid-Holocene climate optimum, not explained by land use, and we find that previously suggested links between CO2 and population and land-use history are not supported.” Listen to the sound of falling assumptions.

Role of terrestrial biosphere in counteracting climate change may have been underestimated (University of Birmingham). The earth may be more of a climate-regulating CO2 sponge than previously thought, say these scientists. “New research suggests that the capacity of the terrestrial biosphere to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) may have been underestimated in past calculations due to certain land-use changes not being fully taken into account.” They also say, “Our work shows that the terrestrial biosphere might have greater potential than previously thought to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon emissions from fossil fuels.”

Unexpected result: Ocean acidification can promote shell formation (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research). These researchers found that due to a “self-regulating biochemical magic trick,” shellfish like foraminifera can still make their shells under acidic conditions. They wonder if this could lead to more rapid warming of the planet. But if they didn’t know this, how could they know that?

New analysis supports mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows as effective climate buffers (Phys.org). “Recent research suggests that healthy, intact coastal wetland ecosystems such as mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows are particularly good at drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds to thousands of years.

Despite these discoveries and uncertainties, Big Science journals and reporters remain adamant that the science is settled. “Sea-level rise for centuries to come” warns Nature. Taking more swipes at the Trump administration, Nature also preaches, “Demand decisions based on evidence, not ideology” – including decisions on climate. And Phys.org continues the scare campaign, discussing “Finding ways to fix the climate before it is too late.” And the reporters at Live Science, who couldn’t criticize a scientific consensus if their lives depended on it, suggest we need a “fake news vaccine” to stop the spread of false information, including ‘fake news’ by deniers of climate change. “Studies of active climate scientists have found that between 82 percent and 97 percent of them agree that climate change is happening, and is human-caused,” Stephanie Pappas writes. The BBC likes this idea, too. Ten thousand Frenchmen couldn’t be wrong! Well, we just showed you a few who said they were.

Past and future climate are not subject to direct observation. Neither are radiometric dates. All we have is right now. The rest is assumption and modeling. Philosophers know that induction is a problem. Extrapolation backward or forward into unobservable regions cannot be tested; it can only be modeled, but models are simplifications of reality, weighted with assumption. We can have great confidence in science that is observable, testable, and repeatable, like sending spacecraft to outer planets. It gets fuzzier and fuzzier the farther you get from the present. You can draw your own conclusions about the reliability of scientific confidence in their views, but no one should rest their confidence on arguments from authority alone.


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