September 8, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Big Errors Common in Big Science

It’s in the nature of theories to be overturned by new data. So how much trust should be put in current theories?

Even the positivists like the reporters in New Scientist recognize that “There is no such thing as scientific truth, just a set of provisional truths that are subject to revision or rejection when new information comes in” (30 Aug 2020). They trust that the new data “usually gets to an answer in the end,” with the result being “scientific progress.” And yet the history of scientific revolutions shows that such “progress” sometimes entails a complete reversal in what was long thought. The scientific consensus continues to believe in weird things that have no explanation at all, like space aliens, dark matter and dark energy, or theories that run exactly opposite to the information we have, such as naturalistic origin of life and molecules-to-man evolution. Indeed, many in Big Science and Big Media will cling to politically-motivated beliefs in spite of the evidence, and will fight independent researchers who step out of line. Look at some recent samples.

Credit: Illustra Media, Living Waters

Ocean carbon uptake widely underestimated (University of Exeter). “The world’s oceans soak up more carbon than most scientific models suggest, according to new research.” Data collection was done wrong, these scientists say; samples of ocean water taken by scientists around the world to measure how much carbon the ocean soaks up failed to realize the effect of temperature on depth.

“Previous studies that have done this have, however, ignored small temperature differences between the surface of the ocean and the depth of a few metres where the measurements are made.

“Those differences are important because carbon dioxide solubility depends very strongly on temperature.

“We used satellite data to correct for these temperature differences, and when we do that it makes a big difference – we get a substantially larger flux going into the ocean.

“The difference in ocean uptake we calculate amounts to about 10 per cent of global fossil fuel emissions.”

The question now is whether the revised data will make it into climate models. Even if it does, will it make a difference? The climate consensus is so strong, probably not. The web of belief of a strong consensus can absorb anomalies and continue on, because the conclusion has been judged “settled science” no longer in need of evidence.

Large influence of dust on the Precambrian climate (Nature Communications). Plants restrict dust, but guess what; there should have been no plants in the secular view of the Precambrian earth. Did anybody think through the consequences of that? Chinese scientists say no. They say that the early Earth was a global dust bowl!

Here, our simulations using an Earth system model (CESM1.2.2) demonstrate that the global dust emission during that time might be an order of magnitude larger than that of the present day, and could have cooled the global climate by ~10 °C. Similarly, the dust deposition in the ocean, an important source of nutrition for the marine ecosystem, was also increased by a factor of ~10. Therefore, dust was a critical component of the early Earth system, and should always be considered when studying the climate and biogeochemistry of the Precambrian.

If they are right, previous estimates of dust were off by an order of magnitude – a factor of ten! Scientists weren’t even looking for dust in Precambrian strata. This “mistake” in theorizing has consequences for other theories, like Precambrian climate, which could have been cooler by 10 degrees C, or 18 degrees F.

Model of Europa. A model is not the same as reality.

A Very Young Age for True Polar Wander on Europa From Related Fracturing (Geophysical Research Letters). The assumed age of the solar system (4.5 billion years) is one of those established truths in secular science that cannot be re-examined, because Darwinian evolution depends on it. This belief implies that every lifeless body in the solar system should have settled down into routine long ago, barring rare external events like impacts from outside the system. And yet planetary scientists keep finding young things. Here is one that is “very young” according to the evidence. Notice especially the last sentence.

The large icy ocean world of Europa has a very young surface that has been highly deformed. Recent evidence for “polar wander,” or reorientation of the floating outer ice shell away from its original orientation, has been confirmed by the recognition that long fissures are part of the polar wander tectonic pattern and are among the youngest features on the planet. This means that polar wander occurred very recently and that older features are no longer in their original locations and will require a complete reassessment of Europa’s tectonic history.

How big a reassessment? A complete reassessment.

Historians of science know that researchers can become so habituated in a mindset (a paradigm) that anomalies don’t make a difference. Researchers within the guild inevitably find a way to adjust the paradigm to accommodate the anomalous information. Only when enough anomalies accumulate, and the paradigm becomes unwieldy with too many “epicycles,” may people start thinking outside the box. Younger scientists not yet indoctrinated into the paradigm attempt a completely different way of explaining the phenomena. A scientific revolution begins. The old paradigm may not go extinct until its champions die off.

This was the classic way that Thomas Kuhn accounted for scientific revolutions, but there are many nuances and differences in particular circumstances. The point is that “there is no such thing as scientific truth” with a capital T. Science is only tentative. It is a human activity, undertaken by fallible and biased people. It is incumbent upon thinking citizens to evaluate the statements emanating from Big Science and Big Media.

Recommended Reading: The Soul of Science, by Pearcey and Thaxton.


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