Everyone has pet peeves, and I’ll admit to having more than one myself. One at the top of my list is the way that “facts” have become transient and separable when arguing a point or position; to borrow from the courtroom, what used to be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” has become “what you claim to be the truth, only those bits of the truth that support your position, and anything that sounds like it could be truthful.” Or to stay within the literary realm, “factual reporting” is becoming downright Orwellian.
In particular, for the SFSN audience, it galls me when bits of science are taken completely out of context and used to “support” otherwise questionable claims–and associated science that argues against the interpretation is ignored or downplayed. I recently (within the last couple of days) came across two such instances–they are by no means isolated, but they formed the basis for this rant, so they’re the ones I’ll point out.
In one case there have been a number of alarmist articles related to the earthquake swarm that Arkansas is currently experiencing, all pointing the finger at natural gas horizontal drilling (hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”) or the injection wells used to store the waste water that the process uses (read more: Earthquakes in Arkansas May Be Man-Made, Experts Warn). The evidence? Proximity of the drilling to the earthquake epicenters (ignoring the fact that drilling takes place in many other parts of the state without any location-correlated earthquake activity) and the scientific “fact” (having occurred once in the last 50 years) that injection wells could trigger seismic activity. Injection wells are used by a wide range of industries and government, so one instance in 50 years hardly constitutes a definitive causal relationship. And oh, let’s also ignore the fact that there was a similar (but much larger in size) swarm of earthquakes in the same area (15 miles south) in 1982–long before there was any natural gas drilling in the area. While I’m not discounting the possibility the drilling activity contributes to what’s happening, the immediate jump to judgment that there is a causal relationship without any hard scientific proof is disturbing.
The second case happened as I was channel flipping and came across a program called Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on The History Channel. While investigating the Georgia Guidestones (read more: American Stonehenge: Monumental Instructions for the Post-Apocalypse) the team visits an astronomer to talk about a “theory” they’d heard during their investigation that a huge solar flare would cause the end of the world in 2012. In the lead-in to this segment Meltzer himself says, in an ominous tone of voice, “On top of that NASA recently predicted that the earth would see an increase in solar flare activity–in 2012. Tic toc, tic toc.” In the discussion with the astronomer they talk about the flares and ask “So what’s the concern, I read briefly about some kind of report by NASA there’s some worry about these?”, trying to tie it back to the earlier NASA report reference in the minds of viewers. In reality they referenced a different report about Coronal Mass Ejections (based on the answer the astronomer gave; read more: Understanding coronal mass ejections). When the astronomer told them we were heading toward a normal solar maximum in 2012/2013, the investigator looked amazed, made a noise, and said “I’ve heard that number a lot”–making it seem like 2012 was something “special”. No tie back to the first NASA report reference simply being a report that a normal solar max would likely occur in 2012/2013; no follow-up on solar cycles and the fact these maxima happen periodically; nothing about the predictions that this sunspot cycle will be one of the mildest in recent history (read more: New Solar Cycle Prediction). Just an overall impression that a solar maximum the likes of which had never been seen before was coming in 2012.
The damage the selective use of science “fact” in both these cases causes is exacerbated by the fact that science education in the US (in my opinion, anyway) has been severely watered down (a rant for another time). In other than in isolated pockets, there is a population that is increasingly credulous when they hear these arguments. People are willing to grant the patina of “supporting scientific evidence” to claims because they are unable to differentiate science from pseudo-science or science out of context. Twisting the truth is bad enough, but using bits of science incorrectly to add “credibility” to what are, at best, weak claims truly is worse. And when “bad science” is picked over “good science” to make a point that results in harm to society (e.g., the uproar over vaccinations and autism: see Study Linking Vaccines to Autism Is “Fraudulent”), that’s just plain criminal.