October 17, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Science Findings Can Be Counter-Intuitive

It takes honesty and courage to report findings that don’t make sense or go against “common knowledge.”

We don’t always know what we think we know. Our personal epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) is often based on intuition, which can be mistaken. Some people assume that if you release a ball while spinning your arm in a circle, the ball will continue to go in a circle. A quick test shows that is false. Galileo demonstrated that balls of different weights land at the same time when dropped from a height, neglecting air resistance.

Scientists, like other people, are tempted to fall into the trap of assumption and conformity to expectations. Testing hypotheses by experiment is supposed to be the hallmark of science. But other human foibles—the desire to be accepted, time pressure, conflicts of interest (e.g., expectations of funding sources), interfere and can compromise that ideal. A look at a few examples of counter-intuitive conclusions will illustrate these problems.

NTU Singapore scientists report that plastic bags could be ‘eco-friendlier’ than paper and cotton bags in cities like Singapore (Nanyang Technological University). Plastic waste is a global shame. It must be curtailed! Why, then, did scientists in Singapore come to the conclusion that plastic bags are better than paper and cloth bags? They performed experiments on bags. The details require careful consideration, but basically, were surprising.

To reach their conclusions, the team carried out a life cycle analysis of five types of bags to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with their production, distribution, transportation, waste collection, treatment, and end-of-life disposal.

The research team found that the global warming potential of a single-use kraft paper bag was the highest, over 80 times that of reusable plastic bags. Single-use plastic and reusable cotton bags (reused 50 times) were calculated to have over ten times the global warming potential of reusable plastic bags (reused 50 times).

To offset the emission equivalent to equal that of the creation of one single-use plastic bag, a reusable plastic bag would need to be reused four times.

Removal of dairy cows may reduce essential nutrient supply with little effect on greenhouse gas emissions (Phys.org). Environmental activists and vegans want to reduce the impact of beef production. Cow farts make methane, we’ve heard. And the water and land use required for beef contributes significantly to global warming, we are told. Maybe not.

The results of the study suggest that the removal of dairy cattle from US agriculture would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.7 percent and lower the available supply of essential nutrients for the human population.

Professor White added, “Production of some essential nutrients, such as calcium and many vitamins, decreased under all reallocation scenarios that decreased greenhouse gas emissions, making the dairy removal scenarios suboptimal for feeding the US population.”

Before repeating such claims, one should investigate funding sources. The paper in the Journal of Dairy Science says that “Research was supported by Dairy Management Inc. (Rosemont, IL)” and asserts that “The authors have not stated any conflicts of interest.” What does that mean? Are they just keeping silent about conflicts of interest? Did the funder lean on the researchers to get a favorable result for dairy farmers? Maybe; maybe not. This points out the need to test the statements of scientists.

Illustration by J. Beverly Greene.

Thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduce tree mortality (Phys.org). Natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires are often attributed by the media to global warming. This article and paper from the USDA Forest Service argues that wildfires and droughts have always been a part of California ecology, and that prescribed burns and forest thinning are best for preventing bark beetle damage that contributes to out-of-control fires. In this, they agree with a Prager U video (YouTube). Attributing any disaster to a century-long trend is very hard to prove. One must not just take the word of a powerful consensus.

Protective effect of mandatory face masks in the public—relevant variables with likely impact on outcome were not considered (PNAS). As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, citizens are understandably confused about the benefit of face masks. CEH has not analyzed the conclusions of Günter Kampf in this Letter to PNAS. For present purposes, suffice it to say that he believes some of the scientists pushing mandatory face masks overlooked some relevant factors. There again is the problem of unknowns, and of unknown unknowns.

Ground-breaking discovery finally proves rain really can move mountains (University of Bristol). Since these researchers are moyboys, readers should take that into account. Nevertheless, in their own worldview, the results should seem surprising.

Lead author Dr Byron Adams, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at the university’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “It may seem intuitive that more rain can shape mountains by making rivers cut down into rocks faster. But scientists have also believed rain can erode a landscape quickly enough to essentially ‘suck’ the rocks out of the Earth, effectively pulling mountains up very quickly.

“Both these theories have been debated for decades because the measurements required to prove them are so painstakingly complicated. That’s what makes this discovery such an exciting breakthrough, as it strongly supports the notion that atmospheric and solid earth processes are intimately connected.

The trigger words “exciting breakthrough” should signal caution. But who would have thought that rain moves mountains?

The Bible gives a good general principle: “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). King Solomon, who could be considered an early “scientist” because of his powers of observation and analysis of natural phenomena like plants, beasts, birds, reptiles and fish (I Kings 4:33) and of geophysical cycles (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7), urged youth to gain knowledge, but to build it on the foundation of wisdom. That’s what scientists (both professional and citizen scientists) ought to be doing. Don’t trust your intuitions. Test everything, and cling to what is good.

Exercise: Listen to some assertions in the media that claim to be scientific. Identify whether they are grounded in hearsay, assumption, intuition or groupthink. Pick one and examine the scientific grounds for the assertion. Are they trustworthy? What possible sources of error can you identify?

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