Bruce's Blog

Why you should never believe anything which includes the phrase, "science tells us...."

I've become more aware of late of news articles, mainstream, NPR, all of them, using the phrase, "Science says..." or "Science tells us..." followed by a point the author wants to make. I want to tell you why you should never believe what follows that phrase. Ever.

Here's why:

Appeal to Authority One very common logical fallacy is an appeal to authority as a means of proving that what you said is correct. An example: "Einstein said that matter and energy of interconvertible, so he backs up my idea of harnessing dark energy." No, he didn't. Einstein had a mathematical equation to explain the energy produced in a nuclear reaction. Period. He never knew of your "dark energy harness" and thus is silent on the matter. Unless a scientist said exactly what you mean, he didn't say it, and your claim is then a lie. If you want to use a scientist as your authority, it has to be a real quote, in context, saying something pertinent, and you must include your citation.


Appeals to authority usually happen when the author is too weak or lazy to find out what a scientist actually said, and instead attribute the information to a nebulous and undefined group of ideas called "Science." This is an astounding body of knowledge, providing fully-tested theories on any topic an author chooses, and always in agreement with the author's ideas.

But here is where it gets really bad.

Personification of a Method Science is mute on all subjects always. "Science" can't say anything. Science is a method of finding things out, and it's never finished. Here is the short version of what scientists should do:

  1. make an observation which has no explanation using known theories
  2. postulate a possible explanation
  3. test the hypothesis formed above in a way that exposes its weaknesses
  4. go back to step one and refine your hypothesis
  5. eventually you will have enough evidence to be believed. It takes many different groups and a lot of published papers, but in time you can say, "Congratulations hypothesis, now you're a theory!"
  6. All it takes is one counter-observation to nullify the theory. They just don't last all that long before a new theory is needed.

That's science. Nowhere in that process is there a place for science to speak. Only scientists can speak, and then it should be only about what they can prove. So you can quote a scientists, but never "science." 


Scientists are Humans And there's something more here: not all scientists can use the scientific method. There are entire fields, the "soft sciences" (biology, cosmology, astrochemistry, social science, political science, economics, baseball stats, etc.), which deal with observations which can't be tested and thus can't be proven. What they are trying to do is explain a mechanism (how something happened in the past) and no mechanism is testable. One-shot events (non-repeatable and non-testable observations), remote observations which limit the amount of data needed to fully understand what was observed, complex systems poorly understood, which all prevent the testing of the hypothesis. And the soft scientists naturally get used to speaking of the untested hypothesis as though it were tested, imparting more significance to their work than it deserves under the stricter application of the scientific method. In short, some scientists talk out of the sides of their mouths. "We know that the active site of acetyl-CoA synthase contains nickel and iron atoms" is something I heard for years in my PhD work in bioinorganic chemistry. And then the crystal structure showed, pretty clearly, that copper and zinc were there as well. Oops. We should have been saying, "EPR, Mossbauer, and some good metal extraction chemistry lead us to think that only nickel and iron are in the active site," but that would have been too many words. So we simplified, and spoke with greater surety than we possessed. And you non-scientists need to know something, every scientist does this. We're only human. We all overstate, in conversation, what we think as though it were what we had proven.

The Untestable Hypothesis as Science. The "Soft Sciences" are the realm of the untestable hypothesis. Social science, political science, economics (mostly), history, paleontology, cosmic physics, all try to explain what happened, but really all they can do is make a guess which is hard to challenge, because the data is thin, and the hypothesis is utterly untestable. All arguments are those of opinion. The phrase, "All science is physics. The rest is stamp collecting," applies very much to the soft science. The hard sciences, physics, chemistry, some biology, very little geology, can be examined in detail in a lab, and experiments constructed to eliminate bad hypothesis and refine the theory. No controversy. 


P-hacking. The "p" value is a statistical variable which is supposed to represent how likely the result came from chance. A value of 0.05 (5%) is considered by many to the the value you must attain before the data you measured is a real effect. I'm happy at p=0.00, but I'm in a hard science, and I can afford the certainty. The thing about a p-value: it continually changes as you gather data. For a real effect you measure, it should get smaller as you gather more data. But what if the effect isn't real? The p-value bounces around. Gather enough data,and the value will, by chance, drop below 0.05. That's when the "scientist" stops collecting data and publishes. A "scientist" can also lower the value by simply cheating in some way that's difficult to detect, like selecting the test group and the control group to emphasize the effect being examined. Or setting data rules after examining the data to eliminate extreme data which point the wrong way.

The Press Conference. This is my surest method: any time a "scientific discovery" is trumpeted in a press conference before it has been through peer review and published, it's fake. Or it's so overblown that reality doesn't match at all. What has happened is that a university PR flunky got his grubby, depraved hands and the discovery is blown all out of proportion, and the poor scientist is dragged along and later has all kinds of cause to regret every starting the work.

The Science Reporter. I've only twice read a news report on a scientific discovery that got it right. Philip Ball wrote them both. All the rest have things wrong, things which tell me they don't understand what was going on. You can safely ignore them. "Science" isn't telling this to you, an English Major is.

Wasted Energy? Really?

There is a graphic going around, which people are trying to demonstrate how wasteful we are:


I want to talk about this a bit, and show why that "Rejected Energy" box has to be there.

On the left you see the energy contained in the fuels used to power our economy. These are measured in a unit of heat called "∆H" or Heat of Reaction. Heats of reaction is the measure of how much heat the combustion of that fuel (or how much heat is produced by the process for wind and nuclear). 

But the units on the right, the "Energy Services" and "Rejected Energy" boxes, they are measured differently. The "energy Services" box is measured as Gibbs Free Energy, ∆G, but the "Rejected Energy" is measured as Entropy, ∆S.

∆G: Gibbs Free Energy, the maximum amount of work which a process, like burning coal, can produce.

∆H: Heat of Reaction, the total amount of heat generated by a process, like burning coal, when no work is done.

∆S: Entropy, the amount of disorder created by the process. Turning a cold solid coal into a hot gas increases disorder.

All the heat energy of the fuels on the left need to be converted to a form of work. Lighting a bulb, or running a motor, or driving a car, all require work to be done. Heat, ∆H, does not do work. It can only warn things up. Here is the conversion:

∆G = ∆H - T∆S

This is Gibbs Law. What this means is, the maximum amount of work when can be done is found by finding the heat (left side of graph) and subtract the amount of disorder created multiplied by the temperature.

The "Rejected Energy" box is the entropy box, the ∆S box. Most is entropy, but some entropy is created in a way which does no good, so it is energy truly lost. Like delivering electricity heats the wires a bit. Or your car dumps a lot of heat through the radiator and brakes.

The "Energy Services" box is the ∆G box. Useful energy doing work.

Here is what that graph really means: if the ∆S box didn't exist, the ∆G box wouldn't either. All you would have is one huge ∆H box, and heat is all you could enjoy. No electricity, no transportation, no manufacturing.

That graph looks exactly as it should, and trying to change it would pretty much send us back to the stone age.

What is Your Real Risk Level?

I hear and read this all the time: "I read what pesticides can do to you. I'll only eat organic." It doesn't have to be pesticides. It could be the plastic of your drinking cup, or your chicken, or anything at all, really. Anything found "too risky for me."

I'm challenging that way of thinking. I'll do it using an example. Let's say I engage in two behaviors, one is high risk and one is low risk. I become obese, risking heart disease, and I'll drive a car. The high risk activity, in my age group (see for details) kills 184 people out of every 100,000 people, and the low-risk activity kills only 43. So does driving a car make me any more liable to die than the heart disease did already? The answer is no, it doesn't. Here's why: the two are not tied to each other; a small risk does not make the bigger risk bigger. They are not tied to each other in any way. In any given day I might have a heart attack, or I might get in a car crash, but I'll never do both at the same time. I can't die of a heart-attack-caused car crash, I can only die of a heart attack; the subsequent car crash is just where by body lands. Because they aren't tied, any risk smaller than my greatest risk doesn't matter any more; it doesn't add to the greater risk to make it even bigger, it's smaller and the larger risk already covers it. The only risk that matters is the single greatest risk. 

It's hard math to get your mind around, I know. I'll make it even clearer, if I can. Compare a car crash and drinking lead-laced water from Flint Michigan. The risk of lead in your system is very low. So if I drink leaded water, I'll still likely die in a car crash.

So all I need to know is, what is my greatest risk? Any risk lower than that isn't a risk to me any more; the big risk is the one most likely to get me.

Do pesticides to bad things? Maybe, but until they become my greatest risk, it doesn't matter; that's not what's going to kill me.

This sort of risk assessment has a significant bonus: if you only worry about lowering the one big risk, you don't have to fret over all the small risks anymore. And that will create a more relaxed view of the world, and that by itself will lower your big risk.

So without further ado, here is how you will die. This comes from the link above.

Age Risk Rate/100,000
1-14 Accident 5
15-24 Accident 23
25-34 Accident 38
35-44 Accident 38
45-54 Cancer 106
55-64 Cancer 288
65-74 Heart disease 1092
75-84 Cancer 1139
85+ Heart disease 4014

That's all you need to worry about. Lower that rate in your life and you will live longer. Everything else is less likely.

And enjoy life!

Why I Want Global Warming

Global Warming. 

A cause of some consternation for almost everyone. Except me, maybe.

You see, I'll all for it.

I grew up and live in a semi-arid region, where the only plants that grow naturally are few and work hard for anything they produce which is never enough to sustain even one person per square mile. So the lack of plant life around me as I grew up is a big influence on how I see what the future might be.

I want plants to grow. Everywhere. All the time.

Right now, they don't. They only grow in certain places. Places that are wet. Riverbanks. Coastlines. Irrigated land. 

Ever look at a vegetation map? Notice the vast yellow expanses where nothing is growing? That's a problem. A big problem.


It didn't used to be that way. There was a time when plants grew on the surface in sufficient abundance that it was difficult to find dirt. Plants grew on top of plants. It is called the caboniferous period, and existed about 360 - 300 million years ago. That's when the coal beds were deposited. The plants grew in such abundance that the dead plants were buried before they could decay back into carbon dioxide and water, and became coal. There is a lot of coal below ground, and it all used to be plants.

Here's what I want: to recreate, as best we can, the climate of the carboniferous period:

  • Average global temperature: 68 °F. Currently: 56 °F
  • Oxygen in the atmosphere: 35%. Currently 21%
  • Carbon dioxide levels: 1200 ppm. Currently 410 ppm

Carbon dioxide is the key. We need to put it into the atmosphere, which will let global warming heat the oceans, so water will evaporate and also warm the atmosphere (water is a very good greenhouse gas). Then the plants will grow, and oxygen levels will shoot up. The air will be warmer, so we will be wearing less. And that means we need to lose weight, but that will be easy will an abundance of oxygen to help us work out.

As I see it, global warming is a total win for mankind.


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