The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Urban Legends About Science

There are a number of what are essentially urban legends that circulate in the general public about science. Most of them seem to have either originated, or at least gained currency, amongst one sub-culture, but then spread from there into the broader population. In each case, there are some obvious hooks in each story that make then appealing. However, in each case, these hooks also serve as the red flags that someone who is scientifically literate would pick up on and be able to detect nonsense pretty quickly.

For example, over the weekend, I ended up talking to a fellow about radiocarbon dating. He made the statement that "the problem with radiocarbon dating is that they took some snail shells from a snail they found in a garden, and carbon dated them, and the date came out to like 30,000 years old." I pointed out that this was not true. And when asked, the fellow who made the statement admitted that he didn't know who "they" were (and therefore whether or not they would have a reason to lie), why they were dating recent snail shells to begin with, or even when this was done. The "ancient radiocarbon date from a recent shell/bone" is an urban legend that originated among Young Earth Creationists for the purposes of trying to refute the overwhelming evidence that Young Earth Creationism is complete and utter bullshit. The story, though is completely false. Hell, it's worth noting that even the professional know-nothings at the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) refute this, which should tell you something.

I want to stress that the person who made this statement is by no means stupid. My previous interactions with him indicate that he is relatively bright. However, as so many of us do, he bought into a nonsense story because it had features that fit his basic worldview.

This particular story is common among Young Earth Creationists, for obvious reasons, and as far as I can tell it was created by someone in that camp. It's also a flat-out lie, but what are you gonna' do? The utility of the story amongst creationists is obvious - it's a justification for denying radiocarbon dates (and as I've described before, the dismissal of radiocarbon in no way actually solves the chronological problems faced by the Young Earth crowd). However, it also has another element to it. If the story of the shell (or in some versions bone, or in particularly ignorant versions, a rock) with a bad date is correct then that implies that either scientists are a bunch of incompetent half-wits too out of touch with reality to actually bother testing and evaluating their methods, or that they are part of a sinister cabal out to misinform the public. As a result, even people who are not creationists will sometimes buy this story because of a poor impression of scientists (or intellectuals in general). In fact, radiocarbon has been thoroughly tested, and is constantly being prodded at and modified by scientists, and we make our results readily available, so if we were trying to be part of some shadowy cabal, then we have been doing a damn poor job of it. However, there are rather strong anti-intellectual currents in many societies, including our own, and if intellectuals of any stripe can be found to be either incompetent or just plain evil, then that suits many people's pre-chosen beliefs, whether there's any truth to it or not.

Another story common amongst creationists concerns not radiocarbon dating, but NASA. As the story goes, NASA was attempting to calculate the orbits of some planets, but kept coming up with wrong numbers. In confusion as to what to do, they called in one of their consultants who, through his superior knowledge of the Bible, told them to calculate the orbits assuming that they were missing a day (from the story in Joshua 10:13, where the sun stood still for a day). Once they followed his advice, the calculations came out correctly, and therefore proved the truth of the Bible.

There are numerous problems with this story (Snopes has a good write up here). The first is that it first began circulating in the 1930s, therefore predating NASA, with earlier versions simply referring to a set of dubious calculations from a 1936 book, or else referring to a more generic set of scientists working out planetary orbits, rather than scientists at NASA. During the 1970s, a man named Harold Hill, who had been the president of the Curtis Engine Company, claimed to have been the consultant, even though his actual work with NASA was limited to technicians under his employ servicing generators, not predicting orbits (in other words, he lied). But the story has been reprinted in numerous church bulletins, the occasional newspaper, and forwarded to millions of email inboxes, reality be damned.

Right out of the gate, though, one is confronted with two basic questions: 1) If NASA scientists were so incompetent that they could miss something that would screw up their orbit calculations that badly, then how would they have known? If you can't account for a missing day's worth of movement, then you aren't going to have the necessary information to check to see if you are failing to account for a day's movement. Some versions of the story say that a computer caught the error, but then who programmed the computer? Right, the people making the error, who would have programmed that into the computer's software. 2) The data that NASA uses to calculate orbits comes from information gathered over the last few centuries by astronomers. So, even if there had been a day over two thousand years ago when the solar system stopped moving, it wouldn't actually have any effect on orbit calculations derived from data gathered over the last several centuries.

The appeal of the story for some believers (thankfully, many believers see it for the nonsense that it is) is obvious - evidence of the existence of god! For others, it again seems to boil down again to anti-intllectualism: there is appeal in seeing intellectuals get their come-uppance at the hands of a salt-of-the-Earth kinda' guy. The narrative of "basic common sense* vs. book learnin'" again comes into play. But even the briefest of reflection reveals the story to be complete and utter bullshit.

Another story that I have heard doesn't have a religious component, but tends to come up when people talk about government waste. As the story goes, a researcher received funds from the National Science Foundation to study the question of why polar bears don't eat penguins. At the end of a several-year-long research program, it was discovered that penguins live in the southern hemisphere, and polar bears in the northern hemisphere, and that's why the penguins are not devoured by the bears.

Depending on how the story is told, either the researcher was an opportunist looking to get money and therefore coming up with an easily answered question so that they can spend the money on other things**, or the researcher was so specialized/incompetent that they didn't bother to look up basic facts about the geographic distribution of the two animals.

Again, though, knowing a little bit can save you time. In order to get funding through the National Science Foundation, you must compete with many other funding applicants, and you must have the funding approved by a committee that includes experts in the relevant fields. In the application paperwork, you must also state not only the research question that you wish to address, but why that question is worthy of funding, and you have to do all of this in a way that demonstrates sufficient understanding of the subject matter to be able to show to a panel of people knowledgeable on the subject that you actually know what you are talking about.

It's quite a stretch to imagine that the question "why don't polar bears eat penguins?" got through this process. Even if a researcher were foolish enough to attempt it, their application would have been rejected by the funding committee (who would likely keep copies in their offices for use as dartboards, or as humorous toilet reading).

But, again, the notion that the government spends so wastefully that even something as absurd as this would be funded is a belief strongly held by many people***, and so a story that appeals to that belief is going to gain traction. And there is once more a strain of anti-intellectualism at work here. Either researchers are so cynical/wasteful that they are willing to apply for funding of an absurd project so that they can blow the money elsewhere, or they are so incompetent that they can't be bothered to look at some basic facts before applying for funding to study a rather vague and poorly defined question.

There are two common threads between all three of these urban legends. The first is the anti-intellectual attitude, which I think I've done to death here. Another, though, is a basic one of scientific illiteracy. Nobody would buy any of these stories if they knew what types of basic scientific questions to ask (such as, why would a change in planetary movement centuries before astronomers began making our modern astronomical record have an effect on NASA's calculations?) or basic questions about the process of science (why would the question "why don't polar bears eat penguins?" even get brought up when anyone who was eligible for funding would know where the two animals lived?).

In case you are laughing at anyone who would believe these stories, though, consider whether or not you might be buying into some of the same types of urban legends. I won't get into them in detail here (though they may be the subject of a later blog post), but while the particular legends described here betray a mistrust of intellectuals, there are others that are common among the college-educated and may not be anti-intellectual so much as specifically anti-science (although the people spouting them often think of them as "anti-corporate" or "anti-establishment" instead). But those are a story for another day.

*It is odd when the Bible is considered to be the "basic common sense" approach, considering that, if you actually bother to read it, the Bible is about as weird and out-there as possible.

**One assumes it's beer and polar bear porn.

***Because, let's face it, the government does often spend poorly, though often for reasons of politics.

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