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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Journalistic Scientific Malpractice

You have to feel sorry for science teachers nowdays. At the same time that we have an explosion of scientific information and access to that information (see, for example, ScienceDaily), teachers of science must contend with absurd but nearly universal scientific misreporting. This misreporting violates the basic principles of scientific method and probably contributes to a widespread distrust of science by the general public. It also obscures the fascinations of genuine science; in this social climate, it's hard to get younger people's minds engaged in the glorious puzzle of science.

Instead, science is transformed into a boring sermon preached to an apathetic audience, in which the conclusion is always known and the details of the research are subliminally perceived as an unimportant flourish. Instead of a disciplined attempt to comprehend the unknown, science is displayed to the public as an endeavor similar to a romance novel, in which the setting, names of the characters and details of the drama may vary, but the certainty is that the hero will end up at the feet of the heroine.

Is it possible that the new rise of primitivist thought patterns in our culture is related to this pattern? Many of our students who attend major universities seem to be graduating with a fixed inability to assess scientific information and a stunningly irrational set of beliefs about even our physical world. We are generating people who are deeply scientifically illiterate.

Here's one example: BBC's report on the study finding an increased rate of male homosexuals with older maternal brothers. The headline is that the womb environment "makes men gay", and the article leads off with this paragraph:
A man's sexual orientation may be determined by conditions in the womb, according to a study.
It concludes with this quote:
Andy Forrest, a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall, said: "Increasingly, credible evidence appears to indicate that being gay is genetically determined rather than being a so-called lifestyle choice.

"It adds further weight to the argument that lesbian and gay people should be treated equally in society and not discriminated against for something that's just as inherent as skin colour."
Actually, the findings of this study suggest that homosexuality is not genetic but related to prenatal development, and the speculation of one researcher is that male homosexuality is antigenically produced. Concluding the article with the above quote is highly misleading to say the least.
Another article covering the same study includes the following information:
Bogaert said the increase can be detected with one older brother and becomes stronger with three or four or more.

But, he added, this needs to be looked at in context of the overall rate of homosexuality in men, which he suggested is about 3 percent. With several older brothers the rate may increase from 3 percent to 5 percent, he said, but that still means 95 percent of men with several older brothers are heterosexual.
Providing some context does change the picture, doesn't it? The idea that maternal antigens produced to earlier male births create male babies with homosexual orientations is harder to support if overall most male homosexuals are born as the first or second male child. Given the smaller family sizes in the west, this might well be true based on the comment above. (I'm not pointing this out from a personal objection to the findings, because I do believe that most men expressing homosexuality as adults show that signs of that trait as very young children. My belief is based on personal and reported observations only, and is not scientifically based. See Dr. Melissa Clouthier for some excellent points about the study.)

Here's another example of the jaded and misrepresentative reporting of science. Anyone who reads papers even casually knows that anthrogenic (man-produced) global warming is proven by melting glaciers. But is this true? Science Daily is particularly good because it contains links to other related studies when it reports one study. Let's look at this article from June 27, 2006, which covers in abstract the findings of ice-core studies done on tropical glaciers:
Their conclusions mark a massive climate shift to a cooler regime that occurred just over 5,000 years ago, and a more recent reversal to a much warmer world within the last 50 years.
“We have a record going back 2,000 years and when you plot it out, you can see the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) and the Little Ice Age (LIA),” Thompson said. During the MWP, 700 to 1000 years ago, the climate warmed in some parts of the world. The MWP was followed by the LIA, a sudden onset of colder temperatures marked by advancing glaciers in Europe and North America.
Now let's look at some of the linked abstracts. Pacific NA glaciers:
Reyes had earlier noted the first millennium AD glacier advance at the glacier he was studying for his master's thesis, which jumped out because it was not thought that glaciers in the region were expanding at that time. After pouring over old data and early results of new research, the team found that many other glaciers had advanced during that period. "If only one or two glaciers are advancing at any particular time it is not really significant," said Reyes. "But when many glaciers across a wide region are advancing with some degree of synchronicity, there is likely something going on with regional climate that causes the glaciers to advance."

Reyes was surprised that the regional nature of this first millennium AD glacier advance remained unrecognized for so long. He suspects some of the earlier reports that hinted at the existence of an advance stayed under the radar because they did not fit into the established chronology of past glacier activity.
Glacial studies continue to show massive, sudden changes in global climate:
An analysis of an ancient Antarctic ice core indicates an abrupt climate warming occurred there about 12,500 years ago, an event previously thought to have primarily influenced climate in the Northern Hemisphere.
"The ice cores from opposite ends of the earth can be accurately cross-dated using the large, rapid climate changes in the methane concentrations from the atmosphere that accompanied the warming," White said.

The evidence from the greenhouse gas bubbles indicates temperatures from the end of the Younger Dryas Period to the beginning of the Holocene some 12,500 years ago rose about 20 degrees Fahrenheit in a 50-year period in Antarctica, much of it in several major leaps lasting less than a decade.
From all this we can derive the following conclusions:
So let's consider the ice caps on Mars:
These new observations indicate that the south polar residual cap is not permanent. It is disappearing, a little bit more each southern spring and summer season. At the present rate, a layer 3 m thick can be completely eroded away in a few tens of martian years. Since each layer is equivalent to about 1% of the mass of the present atmosphere (which is 95% carbon dioxide), if sufficient carbon dioxide is buried in the south polar cap, the mass of the atmosphere could double in a few hundred to a thousand Mars years. That could lead to profound changes in the environment. For example, it would change how much and where wind erosion would occur, and where and for how long liquid water could survive at or near the surface.

It also means that Mars may have been very different in the recent past (perhaps only a few thousands of years ago). On today's Mars, the ice is eroding, but in the past that material had to have been deposited. The martian climate was probably colder, and there was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For some reason, large amounts of carbon dioxide froze at the south pole---one might say that there was a "Martian Ice Age"---and this freezing occurred on a time scale similar to that of the most recent Ice Age on Earth.
It's scientifically insane not to be studying the ice caps on Mars. Of course, it is politically incorrect to fund the space program because we should be paying attention to events on earth, right?

"temperatures from the end of the Younger Dryas Period to the beginning of the Holocene some 12,500 years ago rose about 20 degrees Fahrenheit in a 50-year period in Antarctica, much of it in several major leaps lasting less than a decade."

That was Mother Earth, writing in pain, anticipating George W Bush's future environmental crimes.

Stop laughing- A Wiccan High Priestess, who was an Egyptian princess in a previous life, told me that was so.

SC&A, funny! But unfortunately you've captured the spirit of our age.

Gaia is a bitch!!!!!

The Wiccan High Priestess was a minister in the Episcopalian Church of the USA, right? I think I have run into her....
One of the biggest problems we have is the co-opting of science for political purposes. Science begins to be seen as a political tool as a result.

Unfortunately, scientists are frequently complicit in this, sometimes for political reasons of their own, and sometimes in a quest to obtain additional funding.

Do not ever cross a Wiccan High Priestess.
I was talking to a physicist recently, and he commented that he saw politically correct science as a far worse threat to our society than religious fundamentalism.
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