Executive Director's Corner

Age of the Earth

[Originally posted 6/13/2007]

An essay review in the June 2007 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith begins to address the application of guidelines for integrity in science to the question of the age of the earth. This review of RATE II (Radioactivity and the Age of The Earth, a young-earth project co-sponsored by ICR and CRS) is concerned primarily with the integrity of the reporting of the work rather than the claims themselves.

In the comprehensive RATE report, a nearly 800 page compendium, the RATE scientists repeatedly admit that the evidence is overwhelming for a massive amount of radioactive decay, about a half-billion years worth. To reconcile that with a young-earth view, they must assume that fundamental constants, such as radioactive decay constants, changed drastically several times in the past. Not only that, but the change was different for different isotopes. Those with short half-lives like C-14 and Po were not affected while those with longer half-lives like K-40, U-238, etc. changed by a factor of many millions. Stable isotopes were apparently unaffected. Even accepting this audacious assumption, the RATE project team concludes that there are unsolved problems with this approach. They state that there is no known thermodynamic process whereby all the heat generated by the accelerated decay could have been removed. They hope that future ideas may be found to resolve it but that this had not yet been done.

Though it is clearly stated that the young-earth scenario is not consistent with known scientific processes, the result of the conference is being presented at RATE conferences, dubbed "Thousands not Billions", as if RATE has confirmed the biblical message of a young earth. It is this duplicity which the ASA opposed in the article. When a detailed technical report states that no known scientific process supports the implications of a young earth, it cannot be stated with integrity that science has been shown to support that claim. With this statement, the ASA neither endorses nor opposes the young-earth creationist position but does oppose false reporting of conclusions.

Following the discussion of this thread, one could of course say much more about the integrity of the purported science in the RATE project. An age of 4.5 billion years for the earth is a clear consensus of the mainstream scientists in the field. Any alternative claims must be vetted through the rigors of scientific methodology in order to be considered seriously. Assuming arbitrary changes in radioactive decay constants falls far short of that criterion.

Nine Lives of Offbeat Ideas

[Originally posted 6/12/2007]

It's fascinating how non-mainstream ideas can be hard to eliminate. It seems they have the fabled nine lives.

One interesting example was reported in the June 2007 issue of APSNews, the newsletter of the American Physical Society. In the Back Page section, Peter Zimmerman recounts the story of a claim for a hafnium bomb. On the basis of a single article claiming that such a bomb is feasible, significant research and government programs were initiated and seemingly can't be stopped easily. All that despite rather straightforward demonstration that such a device is not consistent with known science.

Another example came on my desk two weeks ago from an advocate of the geocentricity society. This article claimed that there was no independent evidence against a geostationary, geocentric model. It claimed that all such evidence was circular reasoning, based solely on assumptions that the earth was moving. No details were provided. I wonder how they explain the coriolis effect.

It seems there will always be those, even with a science pedigree, who affirm some position in contradiction to that of mainstream science. On one hand, this is very good since skepticism, as we have said previously, is the lifeblood of science. Constant questioning helps generate creative ideas. But integrity in science means that all such skepticism must be subjected to scientific methodology as well. Ideas that do not meet those rigorous tests must be rejected.

Science is neither a democratic process nor a relativistic "whatever works for you" philosophy. There are rigorous tests that determine what is a conclusion in science and what isn't.  As Christians, our responsibility is to faithfully endorse integrity in science, not to simply fall back on skepticism whenever the results of science conflict with our preference. That doesn't mean we have to agree with mainstream science--but we must acknowledge what the scientific consensus is and ensure that any disagreement is based on sound methodology.

Removing Unconscious Bias

[Originally posted 6/10/2007]

Integrity in science means taking all necessary measures to ensure that neither conscious nor unconscious bias influences the result. This is why scientific methodology includes  techniques such as double-blind studies and independent corroboration.

A recently released report in particle physics shows how "blind analysis" was used to avoid unconscious bias. The MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab was designed to detect neutrino oscillations and confirm the anomalous results of a previous experiment at Los Alamos. The Jun 2007 issue of Physics Today reports that "to avoid unconscious bias, the group had estimated backgrounds and optimized all of its data-selection criteria without knowing how they would affect the final result. The experimenters got to "open the box" and look at what their data did...only three weeks before going public." The results failed to confirm the LANL result which had imposed rather awkward constraints on the standard model for neutrinos. But the data also revealed new puzzles that remain to be sorted out.

The point is that scientific methodology must always work to eliminate bias of any kind. The greatest care must be exercised when there is strong motivation to obtain a particular result. Those motivations may be confirming a particular theory, personal credit, company revenue or reputation, or religious preference. 

In the long run, science is self-correcting and any bias-induced errors or fraud will be uncovered. The cost of uncovering such errors is great and needs to be avoided, particularly in large, expensive projects such as MiniBooNE. The principle holds for all  scientific research, large and small.

Phases of Sciences

[Originally posted 6/9/2007]

When thinking about integrity in science, it can be helpful to think of the various phases through which a particular scientific field usually passes. This is rather oversimplified but nevertheless a helpful visualization.

Three phases can be considered:

Frontier. This is the early stage of a particular question or issue. This phase is usually characterized by no data, no theory, or both. Research is focused on developing the theories or devising experiments to obtain definitive data.

Controversy. In this phase, there are contradictory theories that explain the data, or contradictory/incomplete data relating to a particular theory. Research is focused on carrying out differentiating experiments to resolve the question of which theory or model is correct.

Consensus. Finally, a phase is reached where the theory and the data are accepted by the active researchers in the field. Research is no longer focused on determining the correct theory or obtaining definitive data, but on working out details, implications, and expanding into potentially new frontiers.

These three phases represent the degree of maturity of a scientific field. It is judged on the basis of those who are professional scientists actively working and publishing in that particular field. They are the ones most qualified to assess technical work in that field.

This is why it is possible to hear the words "there is no controversy" when clearly there is a major controversy, as is often the case when discussion global warming or evolution. The "controversy" phase is determined by the community of experts working in that field. When that community is in consensus, then there is no further controversy, even though there may be alternative scientific papers coming from outside the community, or even a few isolated ones from within the group. In the media or in groups outside the experts, there can still be tremendous controversy. 

The consensus opinion of the experts may be wrong. However, if the consensus is supported by a strong set of differentiating data, then the opinion is not likely to change in the future. I cannot think of any example in this stage that has changed. Virtually all examples where "science was wrong" are cases where the work was in a frontier or controversy stage.

Who is best qualified to judge the stage of a particular area of study? Those actively working in that field. Don't hesitate to ask them directly. If skepticism comes from outside that group, we must ensure that a response comes from the expert group itself.


[Originally posted 6/8/2007]

The most obvious antithesis to integrity in science is outright fraudulent work. Unfortunately, such misconduct is not unknown nor is it new. Undoubtedly it will continue to occur. 

Money and fame provide fertile ground for fraudulent behavior. Fossils have long been a target and most people have heard of the Piltdown man hoax. It is not unusual for museums to receive submissions of purported fossils that are determined to be fakes of some sort.

The intense public scrutiny of stem cell work recently triggered well-publicized fraudulent work. Even the field of molecular transistors stimulated a case of fraud a few years ago.

Though there seems to be no foolproof way to prevent fraud, science is well-positioned to detect it, sooner or later. As Ian Hutchinson articulated in his article in the June 2007 issue of PSCF, science is characterized by reproducibility and clarity. Fraudulent work is generally not reproducible by an independent, objective scientist. The fraudulent transistors claimed by Herb Schoen were not reproducible in the world's best labs. His deception was detected by the observation that the noise signals published for purportedly different transistors were identical. 

Fraud can also be perpetrated by those who believe so strongly in a particular theory or result that they truly believe the results to be correct. Instead of deliberately falsifying work, they subconsciously see only the data that supports their hypothesis. 

Virtually all cases of fraud in science of which I am aware were detected by other scientists. Science is a self-correcting and self-critiquing enterprise. Accusations of fraud from outside the scientific community may or may not be correct but usually they emanate from self-interests.

What does this mean for us as Christians in science? Integrity is a major hallmark of the Christian lifestyle. Integrity is vital to the essence and success of science. There should be much in common. Yet, far too often Christians latch onto non-reproducible results merely because of a preference for those results. This violates integrity of all types. Our calling is to live our lives as Christians in science with utmost integrity. As the wheels of scientific endeavor turn, fraudulent work will be exposed for what it is.

Skepticism in Science

[Originally posted 5/24/2007]

Skepticism is one of the most valuable tools in science. Continual questioning of ideas and results is a means of overturning long-held assumptions and uncovering new ideas. 

Being a skeptic is an art in itself. It doesn't mean blindly doubting everything that is asserted. It does mean to scrutinize all ideas and see if they meet the rigorous tests of scientific methodology. This is very different from the meaning of a skeptic in theology where the term refers to those who do not affirm a religious faith.

A skeptic in science will continually review the credibility of a scientific result or idea--until it is demonstrated through independent corroboration and verified data. Progress in science always builds on our current understanding. New results are seldom if ever derived in a vacuum but depend on the great wealth of understanding that has been accumulated through the ages. If we were to wait to build only on thoroughly verified ideas, science would progress too slowly. If we were to build too fast on untested ideas, the shaky foundation would soon collapse. Skepticism provides a healthy check and balance whereby we can proceed as rapidly as possible and learn of a misstep as soon as possible. 

The process of analyzing a scientific idea skeptically often reveals valuable insight. It can show us where the arguments are weak and need to be strengthened. It can offer new ideas. It can increase our confidence that what passes is accurate.

As Christians, a healthy skepticism in science is an important part of our process of integrating science and faith. We cannot blindly accept every assertion nor can we simply doubt every inconvenient truth.

Scientific Methodology

[Originally posted 5/20/2007]

If integrity is defined as adhering to a moral or ethical code, what does it mean when applied to science? Is it any different than the moral or ethical code we apply in our daily lives? Yes and no. It certainly does mean the usual definitions of honesty and all the virtues. But in science it also means more than that.

There is no rule book for scientific methodology that a graduate student needs to memorize to become a scientist. Nevertheless, one of the most critical lessons a grad student must learn is how to do science properly. Each discipline and each problem demands its own approach, making it impossible to write a single "user's manual" of how to do science. Following rigorous methods is critical to having one's results accepted by a critical, scrutinizing community of peers. The methodology therefore is developed as a means of assuring that all possible subjective biases have been removed or minimized.

In high-energy particle physics, the stakes are so high, with so many people and so much money involved, that it is not uncommon to apply secret offsets to the data before analysis. This prevents the scientists who are doing the analysis from subconsciously skewing the analysis to achieve the desired result. After the analysis, the offsets are removed and the correct answer can be obtained.

Not all disciplines require such a technique but everyone must show rigor in methodology that ensures any critic that the results are credible. The methods used in the research must be reported accurately to such an extent that not only is it clear that subjective elements have been offset but that anyone skilled in the art could reproduce the work.

Careful work is valued in all vocations. In science it is doubly important that integrity is demonstrated at every step. Any lapse in integrity leads to a loss of credibility from the rest of the community, usually devastating in a career.

Scientific Methodology

[Originally posted 5/15/2007]

Part of ASA's policy is a commitment to integrity in science. What does that mean? Is it any different than integrity in our daily lives? Yes and no. The American Heritage Dictionary has three definitions for "integrity":

   1. Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.
   2. The state of being unimpaired; soundness.
   3. The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.

The first meaning is the one that applies in this context. In some ways the word is synonynous with "honesty." In science the connotation is to fairly and conscientiously apply the normal standards of scientific methodology to the issue at hand. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on the perspective), there is no definitive rulebook that outlines scientific methodology. There is no single precise methodology to which all scientific endeavor must adhere. But there are established practices which characterize science. It is part of scientific training to learn the relevant methods for a particular discipline.

A common issue for Christians is in fields where the scientific results appear to conflict with common ideas or deductions from the Bible. It is not unusual in those cases to find skepticism about the science itself. Being a skeptic in science isn't a matter of just saying "I don't believe it" or citing technobabble that dazzles the non-expert into thinking there is serious scientific debate. Legitimate  skepticism needs to go through scientific methodology as well. It needs to be published in peer-reviewed technical literature, corroborated by independent laboratories and accepted or addressed by the relevant technical community. It's a tall order but until those hurdles are cleared, the skepticism is merely a proposed idea.

In this category during the next few weeks we'll explore a few examples of what it means to have integrity in science.