email - August 2012

Masquerading as Science

Philosophy masquerading as science undermines the credibility of real science.

This month’s email has to do with the contamination of science with philosophy, destroying the credibility of science. National Geographic has so little credibility with me that all I believe in that magazine are the maps (and I’m skeptical of some of them—especially when they have an obvious environmental agenda behind them).

Most of the “science” programs on TV, like Nova on the PBS (Pure BS) network, are science fantasy rather than science. The only real science program on TV today is Mythbusters! Unfortunately, even Mythbusters was mildly infected this month.

Mythbusters is “real science” because it uses carefully designed experiments to determine if myths are true or not. Despite the fact that they warn, “don’t try this at home,” other people with sufficient resources, skill (and access to high explosives ), could replicate the experiments. Sometimes the hosts are surprised at the results. In those cases, they don’t fudge the results to confirm their expectations.

A notable exception to their usual impeccable scientific approach occurred in the August 13, 2012, “Jawsome Shark Special,” in which “the team explores the top 25 shark myths of all time.” Most of those myths have to do with things that attract or repel sharks. In every case but one, they performed experiments using real sharks in a controlled environment to confirm or deny the myth.

They failed to do any experiments on “Myth 17, Ancient Relics, that sharks have existed unchanged for over 400 million years.” After showing 6 artists’ really bizarre conceptions of what ancient sharks looked like, Jamie said, “It wasn’t until about 100 million years ago that the shark shape we all know and love first evolved.” They simply repeated a myth. No experiments were done. They didn’t mention the fact that the artists’ conceptions are based on the myth of the geologic column, and some fossilized teeth. There are no skeletal remains of sharks (other than teeth) because sharks have no bones. The body shapes in the artists’ conceptions were based on nothing more than teeth!

This (almost) finally brings us to this month’s email.

In 1996, I started to write a review of a book by James Trefil titled, Sharks Have No Bones--1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science. It was full of nonsense masquerading as science. But since the book was written in 1992, it was four years old then. I didn’t want to be accused of attacking an obsolete straw man. We had more current research, from more credible sources, to publish.

But I just learned from Peter that even though the book is 20 years old, it is still being sold (under a slightly different title). Here is a shortened version of what he wrote to us,

Some time ago I was a member of a book club that sent me (among others) the book "1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science." (Science was triple underlined and the cover image was of Einstein writing on a blackboard, apparently doing the underlining.) The book's publish date is 1992, the author James Trefil. … [A] large percentage is actual science, but of course there are bits of evo-nonsense mixed in. The book is divided into seven categories, listed below:

  • Classical Biology
  • Evolution
  • Molecular Biology
  • Classical Physical Science
  • Modern Physical Science
  • Earth Science
  • Astronomy

The 1001 items are generally broad statements with a few paragraphs added for explanation. For instance:

1. Plants can reproduce sexually or asexually.

389. The prime optical instrument of astronomy is the telescope.

559. How a material responds to electrical forces depends on how its atoms are arranged.

658. The photon associated with ordinary visible light is about three feet long.

and so on.

I read through the book and marked each item that seems to me unsupportable, opinion, philosophy (not science), or which hark back to the concept that evolution is proven.

The results are as follows:

Classical Biology-- about 22 of 168 statements

Evolution-- 72 statements (I didn't even bother marking, although I did review the material. They are all what we might call hogwash)

Molecular Biology-- 6 of 126 statements

Classical Physical Science-- 19 of 192 statements

Modern Physical Science-- all 125 statements seem to be based on actual science (!)

Earth Science-- 30 of 137 statements

Astronomy-- 37 of 137 statements

The 186 or so statements marked indicate some problem (that I have) with the information presented, from the simply speculative

104. Cyanobacteria account for a good deal of the oxygen and the photosynthesis that occur on the surface of the earth. [...] It is believed that cyanobacteria were the first living things on earth and that their waste product (oxygen) was partly responsible for the great change in the earth's atmosphere two billion years ago.

to questionable

479. The longest time that anyone has ever tried to measure is the lifetime of the proton -- more than 10^33 years. [the item continues] The longest time anyone has actually measured is the lifetime of the universe -- about 16 billion years.

to absurd

753. Where did the moon come from? [...he opines] If I had to make a bet right now, I suppose I would bet on the big splash theory. I wouldn't, however, bet a whole lot.

I suppose you get the picture. The actual science is interwoven with the speculative stuff and philosophy intrudes such that the scientist seems to be "pulling a fast one" in some cases.

Best wishes,

His email included many more examples, which we deleted because of space constraints.

Having read the book, too, I can confirm that Peter is absolutely right. Although I did not personally count the number of speculative, questionable, absurd statements in the book, I don’t doubt his assertion that 186 of the 1001 statements are probably incorrect. Granted, that is less than a 20% error rate; but the 80% correct statements include fillers like, “The prime optical instrument of astronomy is the telescope.” Is this what science has come to? Unfortunately, it is.

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