Idiot Science

This is not Anti-science, as I mentioned a few weeks back. I’m going to talk about armchair science, factoid science or headline science. The kind of logical thought that makes people look like idiots. If you’re going to point out that I am a practicing armchair scientist, don’t. I know this, you know this. Let’s just acknowledge that I’m less of an idiot than the people I’m mocking here and move on.

I heard a radio DJ, while giving us the radio version of the news, say that the reason all the birds were dying was due to the shift in magnetic north. That is idiot science. His brain put two stories together, the mass bird deaths and the need for reconstruction of the Tampa Airport runway, and came up with a stupid theory. If you’re thinking it’s a plausible theory, it’s okay as long as you don’t talk about it. I’ll explain why it’s stupid later.

If you live in the Twenty-First Century with the rest of us, you get your news online. A few might still get their news from television.

Let’s talk about those folks first. I’d hope that most people have learned that headlines and blurbs are not a source of information beyond letting us know that a story exists we might want to look into further. When the list of facts given is limited by what they can fit into a twenty second spot, it’s a safe bet they leave some important details out.

Television is for entertainment. There are very few places where good science and entertainment meet. But the Discovery Channel and History Channel are good science education, right? In very few cases, yes. In most cases, no. Any channel that propagates the ideas of people like Erich von Däniken cannot be taken as a good source of factual information. It’s actually sad, because some of their documentaries are well done. But, because they have documentaries that defend things like psychics, ghost hunters and ancient astronauts, we cannot take anything on those channels as factual without doing our own research.

Mythbusters is not great science, but it is science. The usual flaw with Mythbusters is that they use too small a sample size for their statistics and they tend to too often believe that if they can’t do it, no one can. Occasionally they do use bad logic, but for the most part it’s a good show for fostering scientific thought in a fun way. The fact that they will admit that they don’t always get it right makes it better science than 99% of television.

At their best science, television shows are several levels removed from the actual research and rarely include all the pertinent data.

Online news sources tend to have a few more facts gathered. It’s a better source of information. Ditto for hard-copy newspapers and magazines. Always keep in mind you are reading the words of a writer and rarely an actual researcher. But, generally the facts are presented along with their interpretation. Identify the facts as facts and the interpretations for what they are, and these are fine sources of information. Just glance over the headlines and summaries, like many people do, and they are not fine sources of information.

Back to the birds dying and the shift in magnetic north. It is beyond extraordinarily unlikely that the two are related. I know many people read about the shift in magnetic north and think: Okay, we acknowledge that occasionally magnetic north moves.

Sorry, that’s wrong.

Magnetic north is always moving. It’s in constant motion. It moves at an inconstant rate. No matter how warmly you dress, you cannot stand for very long on the magnetic north pole, you have to move with it. Since it’s currently moving at about forty miles per year, it’s a very slow walk to keep up with it. It not like on some arbitrary day each year, it suddenly jumps 40 miles. Since the north pole has always been in motion, it’s highly unlikely birds get confused by this. Kudos to the guy for understanding that some birds can perceive magnetic north. At several thousand miles away, even if the shift was sudden, a 40 mile change is infinitesimal. Build that 40 mile change up over several years and it becomes slightly significant, as in the case of Tampa’s runway. Most migratory birds do not live long enough for it to become significant during their lifetimes.

This is just one example of idiot science.

Another one I’ve got to mention is Escape Velocity. I have to mention this because it was nationally published as a fact in today’s Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip. This one is commonly propagated. Escape Velocity is the speed an object must travel to escape the gravitational pull of, say, a planet. For Earth this speed is about 25,000 mph. Most people make the mistake of assuming that a spaceship must travel at 25,000 mph to escape orbit. That’s also not true. Any constant accelerative force will move a spaceship away from earth and eventually break free of earth’s gravity and orbit. It is possible to escape earth’s gravity while only actually moving away from the Earth at 1mph. Escape Velocity only applies directly to things like say, a cannonball shot from the earth’s surface if there were no atmosphere. It would have to be launched at 25000 mph to get away from the earth’s gravity and travel into space. Spaceships have engines and move more slowly. While some do eventually attain speeds of higher than 25000 miles per hour, their speed was not the deciding factor in escaping earth’s gravity. The fact that they were constantly applying a force against the gravity was what caused their escape from orbit. Escape Velocity certainly fits into the equation, but it is not the speed a spacecraft must travel to escape orbit. Once the thrusters turn off, if a spacecraft is still in the gravitational well of Earth and hopes to escape, it must be travelling at a speed greater or equal to escape velocity at that point. The tricky bit here is that the farther an object is from the gravity well, the lower the escape velocity. So at a few hundred miles up, escape velocity is far less than the 25000 mph it is at the surface. Once you know that last fact, it’s easy to understand that a rocket, once it’s a foot off the ground has to be travelling at slightly less speed than it did a foot ago. Add to the fact that it did not reach that one foot of altitude at 25,000 mph and you can begin to understand that the common misperception of escape velocity is flat wrong. Now you, too, are an armchair rocket scientist.

I don’t want to squash anyone’s attempts at logical scientific thought. Putting two facts together and coming up with a theory is always a good place to start. Please investigate at least a minimal amount before publishing your theories in any form.

The danger is not so much that people will think you’re an idiot if you spout random theories based on headline factoids. Sadly, the problem is that many of them won’t. Some of them will live their whole lives believing your theory to be fact. In a worst case scenario, anti-science folks will use these factoid theories to prove the fallibility of science.

I’m going to say this again. My blog is by no means a source of scientific facts. Everything is my opinions and may be based on facts, but I am human and not a devoted scientist. I make mistakes, albeit rarely. I also do not post all the pertinent facts. Reading my posts will not make you an expert in the subject matter I discuss. It will make you smarter about the subject matter, but to really learn about something, do your own research.


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