False Alarms and Red Faces in Scientific Claims
Here are three false alarms reported in the science
news. The real alarm should be over unreported ones.
Mysterious ‘alien beacon’ was false alarm (Nature). In 2019, the news media in unison proclaimed the possibility of an alien signal coming from nearby star Proxima Centauri. The SETI enthusiasts at Breakthrough Listen, funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, handed out media catnip that had the intended effect: publicity for their project. It turns out, though, that the aliens were us.
“It is human-made radio interference from some technology, probably on the surface of the Earth,” says Sofia Sheikh, an astronomer at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and a co-author of both papers.
But the disturbance, detected by Breakthrough Listen — an ambitious and privately funded US$100-million effort in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) — looked intriguing enough at first that it sent astronomers on a nearly year-long quest to understand its origins.
The SETI team is now justifying the mistake by calling it good “practice” for a real detection. But was that practice for themselves, or for the media? For more details about the falsification of the signal, see New Scientist.
‘Raptor-like’ dinosaur discovered in Australian mine, actually uncovered as a timid vegetarian (Taylor & Francis Newsroom). This false alarm was made 50 years ago on the basis of footprints in Australia. The footprints were first found in a coal mine, upside down on the ceiling, presumably formed when grasslands on which the beast tromped turned to coal. Digging into the coal mind revealed the footprints above.
“For years it’s been believed that these tracks were made by a massive theropod predator that was part of the dinosaur family Eubrontes, with legs over two metres tall,” Dr Romilio said.
“This idea caused a sensation decades ago because no other meat-eating dinosaur in the world approached that size during the Triassic period.”
The reclassification from raptor-like theropod to “timid vegetarian” will not likely make the cut with movie producers. They prefer red in tooth and claw, not green in smiling lips.
A revised action spectrum for vitamin D synthesis by suberythemal UV radiation exposure in humans in vivo (PNAS). What kind of science could be any more accessible than one’s own skin? A team of scientists found out that accepted truth about the amount of vitamin D generated by sunlight on the skin is incorrect. It will need a systematic correction.
Solar UV radiation (UVR) causes sunburn but initiates the first step of vitamin D synthesis, which is the formation of previtamin D3 (pre-D3) in skin. The gold standard for assessing vitamin D is serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 [25(OH)D3]. Public health advice for optimal solar exposure requires UVR wavelength-dependence (action spectrum) data on risks and benefits. An action spectrum for pre-D3 in human ex vivo skin was established over 30 y ago, but its validity has been questioned. We tested this action spectrum in healthy volunteers using serum 25(OH)D3 as the endpoint. Our analysis shows that the pre-D3 action spectrum can be improved with a systematic correction. This will result in better risk–benefit calculations for public health advice on solar exposure.
Scientists Prone to Dogmatic Error
In The Scientist, Ahmed Alkhateeb sent a rebuke to scientists. “Scientists Must Combat Scientific Dogmatism,” he said. “Correcting misinformation and providing reliable data are collective responsibilities of the research community.” A callout quote adds a caution to the public, “It is as unscientific to blindly trust scientists as it is to dismiss them.”
We hope Ahmed was looking in the mirror when he wrote. Some of his own statements sound dogmatic, like when he lambastes conservatives and accepts the consensus on climate change. Nevertheless, a fair number of his points are sound, like when he says, “The scientific method, which is built on a solid foundation of skepticism, is anti-authoritarian by nature and has no figureheads.”
Here’s another question raised by these three goofs reported above. What other false alarms are people believing right now? How many false beliefs in science will never be revealed? These are not anti-science questions to ask. They are exactly in line with what Ahmed says we need: “a solid foundation of skepticism.” That goes for public consumers of science as well as the producers.