October 25, 1996

Scientific Fads

...an acorn fell from an oak tree and hit her on the head.

"Help! Help! The sky is falling!" shrieked the little bird.

Her cries were heard by Henny Penney.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"The sky is falling!" cried Chicken Little. "A piece of it hit me on the head."

Henny Penney was horrified. "Call the police!" she cried. "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

from Chicken Little

Every true advance of science was led by a handful of scientists, over the opposition of the majority of their fellow scientists. So, when someone cites the fact that a majority of scientists believe such and such, I yawn. What the majority of scientists believe is indicative of absolutely nothing. What is important in science is whether something is true or not, not what the majority of scientists believe.

Not too long after the popularization of genetics, some scientists concluded, based on a single set of data on IQs and reproductive patterns, that mankind was going to get more stupid in future generations. To prevent this potential disaster of a more stupid human race, they and their science groupies proposed schemes to regulate the breeding of people. The eugenics movement died a natural death because it was based on facts that weren't really facts at all. Further evidence showed that IQ scores actually increased. I don't for a moment believe that it means that kids are getting smarter; but it is evident that the thesis of the eugenicists, that mankind was getting more stupid, was so much hogwash. Further investigation showed that while people with low IQs had more children, fewer people with low IQs had children at all, while almost all people with high IQs married and had children.

When I went to school, it was a scientific fact that man had 48 chromosomes. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, in only a year after I left school, all of mankind lost two chromosomes. People now have 46 chromosomes.

In the time of Copernicus, virtually every astronomer, astrologer and scientist was sure that the sun went around the earth. Old Copernicus would have lost in the scientist's poll for sure.

Now the two big scientific fads are the greenhouse effect with its corollary of a people-caused global warming, and the big bang theory of the origin of the universe. The big bang theory was the subject of a past column.

As to global warming, it existed in the past and may happen again in the future -with or without man's help. There is fairly good evidence that it was and is a reality. According to Paul E. Lehr, the meteorologist who authored my favorite weather book, and his co-author R. Will Burnett, "Through geologic history the normal climate of the earth was so warm that subtropical weather reached to 60 degrees north and south and there was a total absence of polar ice." Since we now believe that land masses can move and that the earth's axis also changes its position, we have to take that statement with some salt. Of course, taking it with salt might also make the polar ice melt. Since no one recorded what happened back then, we can only make educated guesses, which will probably change when more evidence is forthcoming.

One big problem is that big science costs big money. Whenever money is needed, the acquisition of that money becomes politics, not science. A scientist doesn't get the money that he needs to do his research by opposing the very people who have to approve his research grant. As a consequence, if a scientist doesn't believe in the popular theory, he will keep his mouth shut; hence the appearance of a scientific consensus on global warming and the big bang.

Evidence is accumulating that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an important factor in global warming. Yet, one reliable bit of evidence to the contrary would be enough to shatter the theory. I would guess, based on what I have read, that there is much merit to the idea, but not being a climatologist, my opinion isn't worth a hellofalot. If I were a climatologist, the same would probably apply, since hard evidence is scarce.

A second problem is that the evidence is being gathered by people who already believe in a man-caused greenhouse effect. That makes many of their observations and conclusions suspect. Scientists, like other people, tend to see what they want to see. If someone tried to disprove it and failed, I would find it more credible.

We know so little about what drives climactic changes, that any conclusions have to be tentative. I suspect that if Canada became sub-tropical, the next fad would be about the threat of global cooling.

The question is not whether we will have global warming or cooling or nothing; the important question is what will the consequences be? The variables, on a global scale, are so many and varied, that no one really knows. It is foolish to talk about the THREAT of global warming until we have some idea about what is threatened.

The adversary system is not a very good way to solve a scientific problem. Those who militantly believe that global warming is a threat are opposed by those who militantly deny that it is a threat. It becomes a political or religious issue rather than a scientific one.

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the more greenery and the less air and water pollution, the nicer the world will be to live in, for everyone and everything. Things that disturb the atmosphere, such as CFCs, shouldn't be released into it. CFCs and the ozone layer may be very important or of little consequence; but until we know for sure which it is, we aught to be very cautious. Better living alone should be enough to encourage people to keep the world clean and green.

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