Voodoo Science

Well down in a tortuous thread, a commenter asks why a new and different explanation for surface warming of our planet is not being considered in our ongoing global discussion of climate change.

I won’t begin to try to detail the explanation, but at the risk of being unfairly pejorative in my description of it, I’ll simply say that the only place it seems to show up is on a Geocities page and in the frankly marginal journal Energy and Environment. (By “marginal,” I mean that E&E is not a scientific journal at all, is not peer reviewed by scientists, and is, by the editor’s admission, a vehicle for her political agenda.)

In my work as a science journalist I am frequently confronted with ideas of this sort. They involve a bright individual who approaches me with an insight that suggests that the conventional scientific understanding of some question – gravity is the most common – is completely wrong. Sometimes it’s the scientist him or herself that approaches me, and sometimes an enthusiastic supporter.

It is possible that these new ideas will turn out to be useful. But invariably, upon scrutiny by a scientist with expertise in the field (remember I am not that person), they turn out to have missed or misunderstood something fundamental.

It is my way to try to be polite. As a journalist, I have an obligation to listen to as many people with as many different ideas as I can. But there has to be a cutoff point, or I’d waste a lot of time on this stuff. Here’s my simple way of triaging: has this new idea gained any traction in the scientific community? If it hasn’t, then I’m not going to waste much time on it.

Four years ago, at an American Physical Society meeting, I listened to a talk by Los Alamos physicist Emil Mottola offering a radically different explanation for how black holes work. After the talk, one of the physicists in the audience followed him into the hall excitedly and said, in essence, “I think you’re completely wrong, but this is really interesting!” And a cheerfully spirited exchange ensued. If the statistical proporties governing radical new scientific ideas are to be believed, the odds clearly favor Mottola being wrong. But at least he’s out there gaining some small amount of traction among the folks working on the question.

Life is short, and there are far more than enough useful challenges to the scientific orthodoxy that do gain enough traction to be interesting to spend time on those that don’t.


  1. Actually, I just said it contributed to global warming. I gave the examples as a thought experiment with which one can draw a logical parallel, assuming one takes the time to follow it. I never said it was an “alternate explanation” – but it’s included in the big picture. The tortuous (understatement there) argument was whether greenhouse gases cause all the current warming or whether other mechanisms contribute. If one is an interdisciplinarian, one can see that there is no magic bullet when it comes to climate. Some people refuse to believe anything other than greenhouse gases are involved in warming Earth – they’re shackled to their own step on the Tower of Babel, and anything (generally dogma) they can’t understand from their restricted vantage point is heresy to them, because it’s their religion and they *believe* – they get downright nasty about it.

    Well, when it comes to climate change, I’m an agnostic. That’s the way science is supposed to be, right?

  2. Oops – I put “generally dogma” in the wrong place. When specialists don’t consider things outside their field and really don’t understand the issues, they revert to using dogma (or insults).

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