Scientific Referencing Perpetuates Myths
Most scientific papers contain numerous references. Rather than enhancing scholarship, careless referencing can sometimes advance zombie science.
Some theories deserve a quiet death. Unfortunately, they are kept on life support by the common practice of referencing in journal papers. Dead ideas re-emerge as zombies, parading around as if they never really died.
A typical paper contains dozens—sometimes hundreds—of references. It’s doubtful any one author or co-author takes the time to read them all. Perhaps that boring task gets delegated to grad students or contributing authors. Is it possible, too, under the pressure of publish-or-perish deadlines, that scientists pad the references to impress editors? It can work like name-dropping, giving the appearance of reputation without the reality.
Even if a scientist can claim to have read every reference in the paper, did he or she keep up on all the work published since? The sheer volume of journals and papers spewing forth daily makes it humanly impossible to be up to speed on every detail “corroborated” by a reference. The author can be trusting a broken reed that will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.
Case in point: “The Great Oxidation Event” (GOE), sometimes also called the “Great Oxygenation Event.” Scientists give names to theories for convenience, but used too often, they breathe life into dead words so theory-laden as to be forever subjective. The GOE is attractive as a way for marking the ‘evolution of photosynthesis’ and preparing Darwin’s way for the Cambrian Explosion—provided one believes in Darwinian evolution and billions of years. Nobody was present hundreds of millions of years ago, of course, when this GOE supposedly happened. Evidence for it is indirect, based on the interpretation of isotopes in rocks, which depend on other theories about dates, evolution, and geophysics. Convenient a vessel as it is, the GOE has run aground on the rocks of contrary evidence as to timing and extent. As we reported several times over the years, some scientists doubt that it ever happened. The only place the GOE may exist is in dead theories of old journal papers.
Let’s see how one paper resurrects the GOE zombie. In Nature, Zerkl et al. put it in their headline: “Onset of the aerobic nitrogen cycle during the Great Oxidation Event.” The first sentence reads,
The rise of oxygen on the early Earth (about 2.4 billion years ago)1…
We pause to check that reference. It points to a paper from 2004 by Bekker et al. in Nature, “Dating the rise of atmospheric nitrogen.” Those authors confidently over-interpreted some rocks in South Africa as markers of the GOE. Much of the trouble with the GOE, however, came subsequent to 2004.
- 10/18/2006: citing two 2006 papers in Nature, CEH noted serious misgivings about whether the GOE (1) occurred much earlier than thought (long before the ‘evolution of photosynthesis’), (2) whether oxygen fluctuated from time to time, and (3) even whether the GOE occurred at all.
- 11/04/2008: Science magazine asked, “Great Oxidation Event Dethroned?” Re-interpretation of rocks led some researchers, citing “results [that] defy all expectations” to posit that oxygen arrived on earth much earlier than expected from a hypothetical GOE.
- 9/29/2013: A paper in Nature worried about the implications of finding oxygen a billion years earlier than expected, including the necessity of accounting for the origin of photosynthesis that early as well (if the two are to be associated as cause and effect).
But now in 2017, we find scientists once again tying their theory of the ‘aerobic nitrogen cycle’ to a dubious concept, the GOE, that may be a myth, relying on a 2004 paper. It not only foments zombie science, but builds a zombie house of cards, unable to bear the empirical weight expected of it. Yet Science Daily, like a co-conspirator, blindly reproduces a press release from Syracuse University (one co-author’s turf), “Breathing New Life into the Great Oxidation Event.” It’s treated as a living reality.
To be sure, the authors did refer to more recent papers about the GOE, notably, one in Science by Luo et al. from 2016. But that paper admits this: “One underlying problem is that there has been no consensus about the definition of GOE despite the term having been used in the literature for decades.” Can anyone really trust their re-definition of the GOE now, based as it is on sulfur levels in pyrite minerals from three drill cores in South Africa? It’s supposed to have been a global event. Wouldn’t basic requirements of empirical adequacy call for a broader sample?
Another look at that paper shows it relies on old references from the early 2000’s and even the 1990s and before. We begin to envision a pyramid of zombies leaning on broken reeds on top of other zombies leaning on broken reeds, standing on a three rolling drill cores in South Africa. Welcome to scientific progress.
Another paper, this one in PNAS, treats the Great Oxygenation Event as a given, but dates it 100 million years earlier (2.42 billion years ago) than Luo’s team which had “precisely constrained” the GOE at 2.33 billion years ago. It’s a little hard to lean on this reed, though, when they say, “The exact timing of and relationships among these events are debated because of poor age constraints and contradictory stratigraphic correlations.” Entering their zombie on the racetrack, they present dates of rocks from the same region of South Africa. We see their first reference resurrecting a 2002 paper—a zombie raised back to useful service. They also refer to another scientific legend, the ‘Snowball Earth’ scenario, a hypothesis vulnerable to similar zombie-science criticisms (see 9/02/2013, “Snowball Earth: Manufacturing a Narrative”).
Now solve this conundrum: New Scientist says that “Earth’s atmosphere may have been leaking oxygen onto the moon for billions of years.” That oxygen supposedly came from plants, not from the solar wind. An Osaka University scientist for Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter commented, “The ecosphere is stabilised by the moon and plants do photosynthesis to make oxygen, then that oxygen is transported to the moon.” Space.com explains why they think the oxygen ions found on the moon came from the Earth. Presumably the moyboy oxygen was being produced by algae, since multicellular plants did not ‘evolve’ till much later in the Darwinian scheme of things.
Speaking of Darwin, CEH repeatedly runs across scientific papers where Reference #1 is to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Like we always say, secular evolutionary science, with all its appurtenant geophysical framework requirements, is to be understood as job security for storytellers.