Our modern world is one of scepticism. Trust is scarce. In the UK, politicians tell the voters not to believe experts, at least those experts that the politicians do not agree with. Of course they assume a certain level of trust in politicians. Facts are disputed, and the contradictory era of false facts has arrived. A whole industry has grown up around changing the facts, with the aim to shape people’s opinions. We distrust experts, politicians, bankers, lawyers, – and this list can readily be expanded. But on whose authority do we question authority? If we don’t trust experts, who do we rely on for our information?
An extreme example is the scepticism expressed in some circles about the reality of the moon landings. It started with an article in the New York Times from December 1969 by John Wilford, although all he did was telling that this story went around some bars in Chicago. It gained little traction. Opinion polls showed that about 5% of the US population had doubts about the lunar Apollo landings. However, this changed when Fox news reported on the story in 2001, after which as many as 20% preferred the hoax. VC made use of this with one of the news items on the April-1 Mars Bar. It is reprinted below, for your enjoyment.
But we the problem of false facts goes much further back than 1969. The (rather harmless) Flat Earth society started in the 1800’s, and it still exists. It now advertises itself as ‘free thinkers’ (that claim may have lost some of its credibility by advertising a round-the-world cruise.) The flat-earth stories have themselves an interesting history. In Greece, the view of a flat earth was replaced with that of a spherical world already in the 5th century BC. In South Asia, it took until the 5th century AD, and China remained flat until the 17th century. But you may have heard that Europe in the Middle Ages thought that the world was flat? It turns out, that is a fib. It would have been hard for such an idea to make a come-back. The story that Europe of Columbus believed in a flat earth appeared in the early 19th century: it can be traced to Washington Irvin’ biography, The Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus, published in 1829. It made for a nice story, but was a false fact.
But there is nothing new under the sun: false news has a much longer history, and seems a normal human attribute. The oldest recorded ‘false news’ is 3,000 years old, when Ramses II engraved great victories over Libya and Nubia, representing battles we now know he lost. Perhaps it was the head line in the Daily Papyrus or the Tablet Weekly?
It is important to discern which facts you should accept, and which you should treat with some healthy suspicion. When someone from Nigeria emails you with the request to give you a lot of money, letting greed get the better over common sense can become quite costly. So it is with phone calls about pension investment ‘opportunities’. And if a magazine reveals how crystals cure cancer, believing such false facts can badly damage your health.
So what is a fact and what is not? And why do we accept some facts but not others? It appears it partly depends on language. Facts need to be phrased in terms that people can relate to. Use the wrong words, and there is trouble. And it works both ways: a real fact using the wrong language may be rejected, while a false fact phrased in a language that resonates may be accepted. In a volcano blog, use the words ‘It’s going to blow!’ and the audience looses much of its critical faculties. An other example is the difference between the words ‘climate’ and ‘weather’. People know weather, but they do not experience ‘climate’ in the same way. The words ‘global warming’ convey what is happening in a way people understand. The words ‘climate change’ are vague, and meet more resistance. The importance of using the right language goes even further: research has shown that people who are bilingual are more likely to accept a fact in their first language, and more likely to deny it in the other language. Our language reflects (and determines) our way of thinking. The divisions go deep: people who speak different also think different. After all, what we call consciousness begins with putting our unconscious thoughts into words. The words and vocabulary we have mastered determine what enters our consciousness. The tower of Babel did lasting damage to the world.
The battle between facts and non-facts, fake news and real news, is sometimes fought in the territory of science. Not everything that labels itself as science is indeed science. And science is an easy target, because it uses a language all of its own, which can be incomprehensible to those outside the ivory tower of babel. Everyday language and sentences are not precise enough for science, so that it needs to create new words and even sentence structure. But before science can go into battle, we first need to know what science stands for.
You can find definitions of ‘science’ on the internet, but they never seem to get to the heart of it. Some only apply to a single area of science, or a single way of doing science. Others are phrased in the language of philosophy, rather than that of science, introducing a whole new level of confusion.
To me, science is an empirical and systematic way of understanding the world. Its goal is to obtain knowledge (after all, that is what the word means). The ‘natural sciences’ operate by creating a model which fits current knowledge. Next, the intrepid scientist determines how the model responds to a new situation, and courageously tests this in the real world. If the test fails, the model needs changing, but any proposed change has to fit existing data and has to be tested in the same way, using a prediction on something which was not used in creating the model. As the data becomes more accurate, the models become more complex, but a complete change of the model is quite rare. Applied science now takes the model and uses it to design machines (or something similar). For example, the model of quantum physics is used to design (with disputed success) quantum computers. Medical science can skip over the model building phase. It puts more emphasis on practical outcomes, and worries less about exactly how medicines achieve that outcome. (To a physicist this sounds primitive, but physics does not have to deal with life and death situations). Psychology studies how stimuli lead to responses but exactly how the process works remains vague. All this is science, and what it has in common is that it always looks for evidence.
A very important point is that science is not based on personal authority. The models and the evidence can be checked by anyone, and it doesn’t matter who does an experiment: anyone doing the experiment in exactly the same way will find the same result. Science has its heroes, but the validity of data does not depend on who did what. Science belongs to everyone. This does not mean that everything done is science. A fossil hunter and a paleontologist may find the same thing, but if the fossil hunter fails to record the relevant details of the find and its context, science can’t do much with it. That is why fossils bought on ebay have little scientific value.
But not all science is good science. You may read a paper that has an error in the interpretation. An effect may have been overlooked. And sometimes a paper has so many holes that you don’t know where to begin. Scientific publishing uses a system of peer refereeing to catch these cases, but things do slip through.
An example in volcanology is a paper claiming that explosive volcano eruptions depend on solar activity, which is sometimes mentioned on this blog. (I won’t mention the authors.) The paper claims that muons created by cosmic rays enter a magma chamber and can make it act as a bubble chamber: gas bubbles form and a run-away explosion is triggered. The study makes the spectacular claim that the solar cycle has an effect on volcanic explosions: during solar minimum, the solar wind is weaker, and as this wind keep cosmic rays out, the cosmic rays on earth increase. A careful reading of the paper reveals four main issues. The data consist of 11 eruptions of which 9 fit their expectation as occuring during a presumed solar minimum: that is too small a sample for a significant result. The muons which supposedly cause the eruption only penetrate a few meters into the ground, far too shallow to reach magma chambers. In any case, the muon flux is less than the radiation from natural radioactivity even at the surface of the earth, let alone in the ground. And finally, the muon flux only varies by a few per cent during the solar cycle, while the day-to-day variations are larger: a high flux can therefore occur at any time during the solar cycle. The data is unconvincing, the mechanism disputed (to put it mildly) and the model does not work.
Still, this is science. The paper follows the scientific method, and the results make a prediction which can be falsified. It is an example of rather poor science, but it is not pseudoscience.
Progress: the science of change
Science does not stand still. Take the flat earth as an example. There was a time, rather a long time ago, when a model of a flat earth made some sense. It fitted with the evidence of the eyes. But as more evidence came, and people traveled further, that changed. Accurate clocks showed that the times of sunset and sunrise were different in different places (the accurate clocks of course did not exist: the Greeks instead used times of solar and lunar eclipses seen around the Mediterranean). Nowadays we have a much better model, and the flat earth has been banished from the domain of science.
As an other example, the earth-centric model, where the sun moves around the earth, was proper science for a long time. It was central to Ptolemy’s Almagest which remained the reference book for astronomy for over a thousand years. The Almagest did not just survive out of scientific inertia. The model predicted where each planet would appear on the sky at what time, and how fast and it which direction it would move. The predictions were accurate, and therefore the model survived. When Copernicus proposed a model where the sun moves around the earth, it was not accepted – not because of religious concerns (as often assumed), but because the model did not predict the correct movement of the planets on the sky and the Almagest actually did a better job in fitting the data. A new model should be an improvement, not a step back! Now we know that this was because Copernicus assumed circular orbits while the Almagest used epicycles to form oval orbits: the latter is a better approximation. Tycho Brahe, a superb observer, was the first to find discrepancies between the predictions of the Almagest’ model and actual observations. The dispute was finally settled by Kepler, who showed that orbits are not circles but ellipses, and was able to for Brahe’s data. In addition, Roemer showed that Jupiter orbits the sun, not the earth (which he did by measuring the distance to Jupiter at different times in its orbit). Nowadays we can measure the speed of the earth directly and the Almagest is now science of the past. Science moves and what once belonged in its domain may no longer.
Global warming is another example. The scientific argument raged in the 1990’s when the evidence was studied in great detail. The evidence for warming became conclusive. Predictions were made, and in the following decades the data confirmed the predictions. The earth is now considerable warmer than it was even in the 1990’s. The discussion has moved on. Details of the models are still being improved, and the discussion is about how fast and how much – not if. The IPCC reports specify in great details what aspects are secure, and where further work is needed.
Science uses the body of knowledge that exists at the time. Something that was science in the past may no longer agree with the data we currently have.
The term pseudoscience was first used in 1796, when James Andrew described alchemy as a fantastical pseudo-science. It was a most effective term which quickly caught on. The term has been used on occasion in the comments on this blog, not always justified.
What is pseudoscience, and how can you recognize it? The objective of the research is important: pseudoscience often is either about the promotion of a particular theory (whilst disregarding opposing evidence), or it has the goal to discredit a particular scientific theory or branch of science. In addition, it tries to give the impression that it is or reports science. Examples are alchemy and UFOs. Another is astrology, but its proponents can argue that they never claimed to be a science. There is a fair amount of pseudoscience involving volcanoes. Mainly one volcano, actually. Yellowstone.
There are a few general categories found in pseudoscience.
Denialism: the claim that there is a scientific controversy when there is in fact none. This is not new. In the science of history, holocaust denial dates back to the 1980’s. Tobacco companies denying a link to lung cancer, and chemical companies denying that CFCs destroy ozone, all fall in this category. These statements were supported by ‘research’ designed to promote one side. Obviously, science has real controversies, but denial tries to create a controversy in disregard of the evidence.
Scepticism: this term has been adopted by both sides and can therefore be confusing. Scepticism is an accepted part of science but it has to take account of the evidence. When it goes beyond this, and goes against the scientific consensus, it enters the realm of pseudoscience. Scientific scepticism questions assumptions behind models. Pseudoscientific scepticism questions the data.
Facts resistance: a disregard for the evidence when advocating a particular theory. A requirement for scientific papers is that opposing evidence is also presented and acknowledged. Pseudoscience does not do that: it ignores evidence that is not in its own interest.
How do you recognize pseudoscience? Here are some pointers, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
-Unrepeatable experiments: Reliance is put on experiments that cannot be repeated by others with the same outcome.
-Handpicked examples: Handpicked examples are used although they are not representative of the general category that the investigation refers to.
-Unwillingness to test: A theory is not tested although it is possible to test it.
-Disregard of refuting information: Observations or experiments that conflict with a theory are neglected.
This list can be extended but you will get the idea. To get an idea how pseudoscience can develop, the post https://www.volcanocafe.org/volcanoes-and-co2-continued/ tells how the fallacy that volcanoes produce CFCs came into the world, through a chain of hyperbole and chinese whispers.
Yellowstone is the pseudoscientist’s favourite volcano. This is the most dangerous volcano in the world, at least, according to the usual suspects. Here is an excerpt from that well-known science journal, the Daily Mail, based on an USGS report.
The eruption could kill as many as 90,000 people almost instantly and release a 10 ft (3-meter) layer of molten ash 1,000 miles (1,609km) from the park.
The ash would block off all points of entry from the ground, and the spread of ash and gases into the atmosphere would stop most air travel, just as it did when a much smaller volcano erupted in Iceland in 2010.
Sulphuric gases released from the volcano would spring into the atmosphere and mix with the planet’s water vapour.
The haze of gas that could drape the country wouldn’t just dim the sunlight — it also would cool temperatures. It adds that falling temperatures would damage our food supply, destroying crops and causing a worldwide food shortage.
The article actually acknowledges that an eruption is not considered likely, and what it reports is indeed in the source material: it just focusses on one possibility.
You can find many of these stories, and they have a few things in common: they quote selectively from USGS research; they focus on the consequences of a supereruption; and somewhere in the article they will have a disclaimer saying that it is unlikely to happen. It is possible to find worse than this on the internet, often based on such second hand stories with the disclaimer left out. Here is a bad one from the weathernetwork:
About 600,000 years ago, the last super eruption occurred at Yellowstone Volcano, located in its own national park in Wyoming, U.S.A.
The eruption was so large that it played a part in sending the world into the last ice age.
Data suggests that Yellowstone erupts every 600,000 to 700,000 years, meaning it is due for another eruption.
The volcano has an elevation of almost 3,000 metres which, to put into perspective, is about a thousand metres smaller than the city of Toyko, Japan. A super eruption from it could send rocks and ash 1600 kilometers away from its current location.
Volcanologists have come up with different theories on how large the next eruption would be, and if it even would be large enough to consider it a super eruption, which is rated as a Magnitude 4 or greater on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).
According to the USGS, a super-eruption is equal to the force of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding every second, creating the potential for widespread destruction.
At this time, however, it’s still safe to visit Yellowstone, according to the USGS, which monitors the volcano daily and posts reports online. Scientists have no detection of any kind of warnings of an eruption happening in the immediate future. If they do detect something, they believe they would be able to see the activity months, or possibly a year, in advance.
While we won’t be around to see the next eruption, the next one is scheduled to take place in the near future, geologically-speaking. It’s forecasted to happen sometime in the next 1000 to 10,000 years.
It is very hard to find anything in this that is factually correct!
Here is another example. A paper in 2014 reported that helium degassing in Yellowstone was much larger than expected. They interpreted this as helium that has collected below the ancient craton over 2 billion years, until the Yellowstone hot spot melted through the crust 2 million years ago, and the helium found an escape. So far, this is very interesting as it shows how stable this craton has been. But this is what one random website made of it: What has scientists very concerned is that Yellowstone has suddenly begun emitting massive amounts of Helium-4. Helium-4 seems to be the predictor of activity, as proved with other volcanos. Apart from the typo, the site takes two observed but unrelated facts, leaves out confusing information such as the 2 million years that the helium has been leaking out, and builds up to the conclusion that an eruption is coming. This is pseudoscience in a action.
I should point out that in my experience, science journalists go to great length to get the story correct. They always ask about all the provisos of the research. They are normally scientifically trained and know what ‘uncertainty’ means.
What is the reality of Yellowstone? It has had three enormous eruptions in the past few million years, and a repeat would be bad news, although how bad is under discussion. There is a large magma reservoir at depth, and the geysers show that water is circulating through zones heated by the magma. On the other hand, for a supervolcano it is remarkable quiet. It hasn’t had a major eruption for half a million year, and no eruption at all for 70,000 years. At this rate, it may actually be one of the safest places in the US! The geysers are in fact a sign of the stability of Yellowstone. It may never erupt again, and if it does, it may be a small eruption. The chance of a VEI-8 event somewhere on earth is larger than that of any eruption at Yellowstone.
VC is a popular science blog. It tries to provide a forum to look at volcanoes (and a few other topics, on occasion) through the eyes (and language) of science, and makes scientific results accessible. After all, science is meant to be shared. It always amazes me when scientists publish papers in journals that restrict access. What is the point of doing research, but to publish your findings where no one can read them? But that is beside the point. The second goal of VC is to close the loop, by giving the public a chance to comment and in that way contribute to the progress of science. Centuries ago science was done by people in their spare time. (If you work at a university, it may feel like that is still the case.) We belong to that tradition.
Curiosity is an essential part of science. So is lack of knowledge! Science aims to learn, and you can’t learn of you know everything already – or think you do. Asking questions is fine – especially on this blog. The discussions they generate qualify as science. In most cases, at least.
Science is not everything. There are many aspects of our lives which it does not cover. It doesn’t know about right and wrong, it doesn’t do friendship and humanity, and it only knows love as a chemical. There is more to us than science. But that is beyond the topic of this post.
Albert, January 2019
Here is the promised April-1 story:
Apollo 11 moon landing site found on Mars
NASA admits deception
Reprinted from http://news.marsbar.space/: see that site for more Mars news stories.
During the exploration of Mars, the Musk team has found a complete Apollo-11 landing module, surrounded by the various items used by the astronauts during the moonwalk movies. Even the famous footstep is still there.
When NASA was pressed about this discovery, the spokesperson admitted that the Apollo-11 landing had indeed been faked, and in reality had been staged on Mars. She said this was due to problems with the landing rockets. On Mars, they had been able to use the tested parachutes.
She said it had worked very well, but the strength of the wind on Mars had come as a surprise. ‘It became impossible to keep the flag still’, she said.
1 April 2018
Origin of a myth
A pseudoscience story of volcanic proportions, reprinted from https://www.volcanocafe.org/volcanoes-and-co2-continued/
Some have claimed that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans do. Ian Plimer famously stated “Over the past 250 years, humans have added just one part of CO2 in 10,000 to the atmosphere. One volcanic cough can do this in a day.” A politician, Mike Huckabee, said “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.“ He can be forgiven for not trying the pronounce the name Eyjafjallajökull. But what is the scientific truth?
It turns out, they were a little off in their numbers. Mike Huckabee claimed that Eyjafjallajökull produced as much CO2 as humanity in 100 years. The correct number is 30 minutes. Huckabee was therefore wrong by a factor of 1.7 million, a sad indictment of the level of numeracy required for government. Ian Plimer stated that one volcanic cough equalled 250 years of human CO2 emissions. He doesn’t define what a ‘cough’ is, but presumably it is less than one Eyjafjallajökull in which case he was wrong by a factor of at least 4 million, and possibly much more. ‘Astronomical’ doesn’t begin to describe it. Such extreme arithmetic errors can be career-defining for a politician but would be career-ending for an engineer. We can safely discount their numbers as silly.
So where did these outrageously wrong numbers come from? Both people wouldn’t have done the calculations themselves: they quoted from somewhere else. It turns out, there were several steps on their path from science to silliness.
The story began with a paper by David Johnson, published just after he died in the St Helens eruption. The paper discussed the chlorine emission from Augustine volcano, Alaska, 1976 and argued that of the 525 million kg of chlorine it produced (it erupted 0.19 km3 DRE), roughly 100 million kg could have reached the stratosphere in the form of HCl: such a stratospheric contribution would be equivalent to a quarter of the 1975 world industrial production of chlorine in fluorocarbons. Read that sentence twice to see what he actually said, and remember that at this time, fluorocarbons were just about to become a major concern because of the destruction of the ozone layer. Johnson argued that explosive eruptions could inject enough chlorine into the stratosphere to be a significant factor.
He also wrote that if the Bishop Tuff of Long Valley Caldera emitted the same fraction of chlorine, its stratospheric contribution would account for 570 times the 1975 world industrial production of chlorine in fluorocarbons. This number represented a 100 km3 eruption 700,000 years ago. In hindsight, the paper was correct about the total amount of chlorine, but overestimated how much of it entered the stratosphere. The explosions also eject water, and HCl dissolves into this water and rains out before it gets to the stratosphere. But that is a different story.
Dixie Lee Ray, in 1990, wrote that Augustine volcano put out 570 times the total world production of chlorine and fluorocarbon compounds in the year 1975. He quoted Johnson but mixed up the two volcanoes and ended up overstating the Johnson number by a factor of 2000. These things happen. He also used the number for the stratosphere as if it were for the entire atmosphere.
The next year, Pinatubo exploded and the discussions re-ignited. This was at a time when industries were trying to avoid restrictions on CFC production. In their defence, Rush Limbaugh stated in 1992: “Mount Pinatubo has put 570 times the amount of chlorine into the atmosphere in one eruption than all of man-made chlorofluorocarbons in one year”, again mixing up volcanoes, and also confusing the atmosphere and the stratosphere. (In fact, measurements did not show any significant increase of stratospheric chlorine after the eruption.) In Limbaugh’s book of 1993, he amended the statement to: “Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth more than a thousand times the amount of ozone-depleting chemical in one eruption than all the fluorocarbons manufactured by wicked, diabolical, and insensitive corporations in history.” He changed a single year (1975) to all of history, and increased ‘570’ to ‘more than a thousand’. Note that he wrote in the context of a polemic defence of the chemical industry, and note his use of hyperbole.
After this, the story took on a life of its own. In 2006, Christopher Monckton said “In a good year for eruptions, Erebus can put out as much CFCs as Man used to.” This is another change of volcano, and again there is confusion with Long Valley, but in addition HCl has now become CFCs, something volcanoes do not produce. This confusion was clearly based on using Limbaugh as his primary source, as Limbaugh hadn’t specified which ozone-depleting chemical was meant – Monckton substituted the only one he knew about.
Remember the mentions of fluorocarbons? Jude Wanski, in 2004, wrote “The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 dumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all that has been released since the industrial revolution”. Long Valley has now morphed into St Helens, HCl has become ‘greenhouse gases’, and the stratosphere is again equated with the atmosphere. The greenhouse confusion came about because Monckton had changed HCl to CFCs, and these do act as powerful greenhouse gases.
And this led directly to Ian Plimer, who changed ‘greenhouse gases’ to ‘CO2’ (unaware there were others), and elsewhere in his book writes that Mt. Pinatubo released “very large quantities of chlorofluorocarbons”. He gives a reference to a 1992 paper, but this paper contradicts his writings and he cannot have read it. His information clearly came from Wanski. Mike Huckabee used Plimer as source, but substituted Eyjafjallajökull for Pinatubo (which through several previous substitutions was actually Long Valley) , CO2 for HCl, and 100 years for one year. (An interesting aside is that Eyjafjallajökull and Augustine had about the same eruption volume in DRE, so replacing one with the other could have been defended, had it been that simple.)
This strange story shows how important it is to go back to the original source, preferably peer reviewed. Authorative, reliable sources are needed for factual information. Pseudoscience picks any data that seems to support its objective, fails to check its accuracy, and ignores any opposing evidence. This is pseudoscience in action.